There is a whole world of smart, well-written and compelling young adult fantasy writing beyond the realm of Twilight, and one of the genre’s best writers lives right here in Waterloo Region: the talented Erin Bow.
Her latest book, Sorrow’s Knot, was released last month and is already topping lists, including the Publisher’s Weekly Book of the Week. Her first YA novel, Plain Kate (was awesome) and won the Canadian Children’s Literature Award. Erin is also an award-winning poet and science writer, and all-round storytelling whiz.
In the midst of her Sorrow’s Knot promotional tour, Erin took some time to answer some questions.
What is the best thing about writing?
It`s those days when it goes well, when you make something from nothing and it’s effortless and electric and amazing. There are not so many of these, but they make it all worth it. I would match that feeling against any other joy in my life, and I have some good ones.
The second best thing is hearing from readers, especially young readers. They warm my heart.
Your book, Sorrow’s Knot, has just been published [super congratulations!] so I imagine that you are busy on the promotion trail. This part is so different from the solitary process of writing. How does this kind of thing suit you?
I find the whole idea that authors should do publicity a bit odd. I mean, our core skill is sitting quietly and talking to fictional people. I’m not sure what about that makes people think we might be good at cocktail parties.
As for me personally, I am good at cocktail parties —good at speeches and interviews and essays and all the rest of it. I’m grateful to get to do publicity, because I believe in my book. I want people to read it. I work hard to get it in front of people and I get excited when I get a new chance to do that. I always have fun, in the moment.
And yet … where some people might be energized by that, I find it exhausts me and makes me feel stickily self-conscious. I’m looking forward to getting my quiet time with the fictional people back. Not getting time to write pushes me badly off balance.
What creative project are you working on at the moment?
I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy for young readers. The first book is tentatively called Children of Peace. Do you know that kings in the middle ages used to exchange their sons as hostages to peace treaties? It’s that, except it’s set 500 years in the future and it has crazy robots in it. Not to mention a narrator named Greta Gustafsen Stuart, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy. I adore these books, and I can’t wait to find a publishing home for them and set them loose on the world.
I’m also putting together a book of poetry — if published, it would be my third. It is finally starting to take shape.
What inspires your creativity?
My office. Three years ago, after a long period of unproductive despairing funk, I rented an office. Apart from choosing a husband, it’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made. I have a desk from Goodwill and an old Killim rug, a little couch off the curb and a stained glass lamp from a junk shop. There’s a spot for all the stuff that has meaning to the writer in me, like the painting that was on the cover of my first book of poetry and the bundle of grass from the hill by the monastery where I wrote it.
I am so happy there, and with Pavlovian conditioning involving coffee, soundtracks, and scheduling, I have trained my strange little muse to meet me there on a semi-regular basis.
Possibly the best bit is how absurd the place is: I sublease it from a pole-dancing fitness studio, which is an awesome thing for a children’s writer. It is painted bordello red with black trim.
How do you like to work?
My process … hmmm. I usually start a book with a character (or two) and a bit of what I call “original equipment” — something a bit more than a premise, and a bit less than a plot. For Plain Kate, for instance, the original equipment was: “There’s an orphan girl named Katerina Svetlana, called Plain Kate. She’s going to be forced to sell her shadow, which will gain her a talking cat.” For Sorrow’s Knot, it was the question: “In a world where knots give people the power over life and death, what would it mean for someone to have too much of that power?” I had that, and the main character, Otter — the daughter of such a too-powerful figure, and someone struggling with too much power herself.
Plain Kate was an easier book to write than most, because the original equipment also gave me the plot of the opening act. Mostly this does not happen, and I just have to follow my characters and their baggage around until something interesting happens. Then I throw everything out and start again to get to the interesting part straightaway.
Then I write to the middle of the book, where I get stuck. I stay stuck for a few weeks or a few months, despair, and consider getting a job in a bank like a normal human. Then I have a breakthrough moment and stay up all night writing a five-page treatment of the second half of the book and the ending, which allows me to start writing again.
That treatment, by the way, always turns out to be wrong.
This has happened to me three novels in a row, now. And as the physicists note: once is nothing, twice is interesting and three times is a law of nature. So I guess that’s officially my process.
When you publish a book, is it hard to let it go as it still feels such a big part of you or are you ready to let it go into the universe and take on a life of its own?
It IS hard to let a book go for the last time. When I finish one I usually have a terrible post-partum crash, and mourn the fact that I don’t get to go back into that world in the same way, ever again. I usually move rapidly from euphoria to crushing self-doubt to weepiness and the urge to binge on Netflix. Then I write something new.
But that’s finishing a book. After that there is still something like four rounds of copy editing and proofreading, which takes most of a year. By the time the book actually hits the shelves, I’m nothing but thrilled to see it finally reach readers.
What writer would you give your right arm to meet?
What do you read for fun?
I read a lot, and pretty widely — poetry, non-fiction (mostly histories, science, and histories of science) and literary fiction. But I am most swept up in fantasy and science fiction for young readers. I write it because I like to read it.
What is something that gives you great pleasure?
Cooking for other people. Especially grown-up people who won’t look at my white bean cassoulet and ask (as my precocious three-year-old once did) “Mom, what were you thinking?” I like to throw casual dinner parties for fabulous people.
What do you typically have for breakfast?
In the winter, I like oatmeal. I take raw oats, dampen them and microwave them for about 2 minutes, so that they are still quite crunchy. Then I pour almond milk over them and add chopped nuts and dried fruit.
Tell me a moment in your life you’d like to have back?
I’m not sure if this means a moment I’d like to change or a moment I’d like to repeat … in either case, I guess, I miss my late sister dearly. I wish I could have our last conversation back.
Chicago! This tells you how poorly travelled I am. I want to be the kind of person who can answer “Marrakesh!” But I do like Chicago. I like the architecture and the museums and the music and the food and the big American broad-shouldered vibe of the place.
What kind of music do you play when you are sad?
Van Morrison. Loud.
You wish you had more time to…
Slow down. If I had more time I would do the things I do now — writing, kids, day job, cooking, running, reading — but they would rub up against each other less. Ideally a lot less. I would curl onto my husband’s shoulder more and we would do not much together.
Tell me three things you can’t live without (but not people).
Books, squishy feather pillows, and a really good chef’s knife.
Are you a coffee or tea person?
Coffee! My writing office is upstairs from Matter of Taste in downtown Kitchener — they pull the best espresso shots in the city!
The thing you most wish for Waterloo Region?
I wish the spirit of the arts in the community were more visible. I feel, for instance, as if there’s a lot of literary fun going on — readings and events and festivals — but you have to be inside the literary circle already to know about them. There’s great live music — I am a blues fan, myself — but again, most times you’d never know it. I feel as if it’s hard to stumble across the arts in KW, that they are not really part of the vibe on the street. I wish that could change. I don’t know how to make it change, and I don’t mean to critique the many many people who are working to make the arts more visible. I just — wish.
What can we do to follow your progress?
P.S. What is your favourite topic of conversation?
Oh, anything that my conversational partner is also passionate about. Cooking, books, and fangirlish science fiction obsessions are popular choices. Science and history and politics. But the best conversation I had this week involved Fritz Haber, an early 20th-century chemist who learned how to condense gases from the air. His ammonia process was important for nitrogen fertilizer. If we got rid of nitrogen fertilizers tomorrow half the world — literally half the world, billions of people — would starve. His chlorine processes gave us chlorine gas, which he personally deployed during World War One. He got a Nobel Prize and faced war crimes accusations in the same year.
I guess I like to tell stories, and I like to talk to people who can tell me stories. It doesn’t really matter what the stories are about.
*Photo credit: Jay Parsons