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Interview with Alison Baird
Here is our complete interview with Alison Baird. A slightly abridged version appears in Challenging Destiny Number 16.
interview by James Schellenberg & David M. SwitzerCD: You published some poems when you were 12. Have you known since then that you wanted to be an author?
AB: Before then. I always wanted to be a writer. When I was a little girl my brothers and I used to play these games I guess you would call role-playing games -- we didn't know the term back then, we wouldn't have known what role playing was, but it was just make believe. It was always some kind of fantasy or space-type adventure and we played characters. And at the end of every game -- we always enjoyed them a lot -- I would say, "I'm going to do this as a book someday." I just loved reading, and at the back of my mind I always thought someday I'd be telling my own stories.
CD: Do you have any favourite authors or books that you'd like to tell us about?
AB: There are so many. I was a voracious reader. I read all the classics -- The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, the Narnia books were a big favourite, The Hobbit, and I worked my way up to the adult SF and fantasy. I started reading Arthur C. Clarke when I was 12 because my brothers were all into SF. Having read The Hobbit I went straight into The Lord of the Rings and that got me into other fantasy titles. But it's really hard to pick a favourite because there are so many fabulous ones.
CD: Do you think any of those authors are influences on your writing?
AB: Absolutely. I've noticed that quite a few reviewers mention C. S. Lewis when they're looking for a comparison. I think that's really interesting because he was a big influence on my writing, partly because I came to his books when I was so young. I'm really flattered by the comparison, but I also find it interesting that they can pick out the influence, the similarities.
CD: When you're writing for younger readers, what do you have in mind in terms of vocabulary and concepts that would be OK for those readers?
AB: I don't think that much about it. I find that the story starts with an idea, and I don't really worry too much about what age level it's for. I get into writing the story and I just use whatever language seems appropriate to that type of story. When I did The Dragon's Egg I found the language was coming through very simple, and that suited the kind of story I was telling. When I got into The Hidden World I was getting into more elaborate vocabulary and Celtic and Gaelic phrases. I just let the story tell itself and then afterwards I look at it and I think, "Who would this be appropriate for?"
CD: When you have a book that you think might be good for younger readers, do you test that with that age group?
AB: No, unfortunately I don't have any children and I don't know anyone who has children in the right age bracket. So what I try to do is go back to my own childhood and remember what really turned me on about the books I enjoyed at that age. I think that's why my books have a slightly old-fashioned flavour to them. The books that I really enjoyed were the classics. I loved Charles Kingsley's The Waterbabies -- which I would never inflict on any modern child, but I loved it. I didn't mind all of the Victorian-style language -- I just loved the story. I tend to go for story first.
CD: Have you had any of your children's books tested with a reading comprehension score?
AB: I'm not aware that that's been done. I find that usually the publisher will determine what age group they think it's right for. For Dragon's Egg they decided eight to twelve, whereas I know for a fact that there are four-year-olds who have had it read to them and really enjoyed it. I've heard of some adults reading it who actually got things out of it that the children didn't get. So I prefer to think of what we call children's books as ageless books, because I find that they're the one genre of book that everybody reads regardless of age. It's just whether you happen to be interested in this particular type of story -- if you like magic, if you like fantasy you'll find that the adults love the young adult fantasy and the young adults love the adult fantasy. There's a great crossover with the ages there, and not a lot of people seem to be aware of that. They still very rigidly define adult fantasy or young adult, and I don't see it that way.
CD: Then you're quite happy to be writing different types of books?
AB: Absolutely. When I wrote White as the Waves, I consider that an adult novel. But when I sold it to Tuckamore I suggested to them that they try marketing it to high-school age because that's when they start to get into environmentalism and the save the whales movement and all this sort of thing. And so that's how that ended up being a young adult title. But when I wrote it I was actually thinking of it as being for people my age. And it probably is read by some people in the adult age bracket. To me it's simply a matter of marketing, it doesn't have any bearing on who actually reads it.
CD: How do you like writing short stories compared to novels?
AB: I'm not very good at short stories. I find them really difficult, because you have to compress so much into such a short space. I found when I was with a small writer's group I would bring in these short stories and they'd say, "OK, where's the next chapter?" I'd say, "It's not a chapter, it's a short story. I don't want to write any more." And they'd say, "No, I'm sorry, it doesn't feel complete in itself, we're left expecting more." So I'd go off and write the book. This is why I haven't sold a lot of short fiction, and I'll probably be focusing more on book-length projects from now on.
CD: Would you ever write SF as opposed to fantasy?
AB: I have sort of written SF. I wrote one story that was sold to On Spec which I considered SF and then all my friends said, "No no, that's fantasy." It's very hard to define the genres sometimes. I wrote a short story for children for an anthology that a friend was preparing. It's supposed to be for grade-school children to help them with science -- it's called Wonder Zone -- and I wrote a short SF story for that. But normally I tend to gravitate towards fantasy, because I'm more at home in a world where you can make up the rules and you don't have to feel as though you need to be a graduate of some physics program or other to understand it.
CD: For The Dragon's Egg, did you have any input into the illustrations?
AB: No, that was a lucky accident. Usually you're stuck with whomever the publisher decides is going to be your illustrator or the cover artist, and I've heard horror stories about people who were really unhappy with their cover art. Frances Tyrrell is actually a really good friend of mine, and I knew that she was an illustrator before I got around to publishing books of my own. I always thought it would be wonderful to do something with her because she understood what I was writing and I loved her art. But you can't just go to the publisher and say, "This is going to be my illustrator." It's up to them. It just happened that their book designer was aware of Frances and really liked her work and approached her about doing the illustrations. So it worked out but it was just a fluke.
CD: We thought the art really suited the character in the story.
AB: It did. She read the manuscript when it was still in rough draft form and she really liked it. There was that understanding of the story, which I don't think any other artist would have had.
CD: How did you get the idea for writing from the point of view of the whale in White as the Waves?
AB: That came from Moby Dick itself. It wasn't a question of reading Melville and thinking, "Well, I think I'll update this to modern sensibilities and make it an ecology fable." I just found as I was reading it that there were places here and there where he tantalizingly suggested that the whale had a point of view. And he would use words like "suffering" and you could almost get into the whale's consciousness. But then he would stop short and bring you back to the human characters. I felt that there was a second story, but it was buried in the narrative and it was a matter of pulling it out and making a complete story in its own right.
CD: Do you think there's anything different about breaking into the publishing world for kids as opposed to adults?
AB: I think they're both very competitive. The market as a rule is very competitive nowadays. I'm often approached by young people who want to be writers and I tell them all you can do is hang in there and keep submitting work and hope that you get lucky. Because there is an amount of luck involved. It's a matter of coming across an editor who understands what you're doing and appreciates your work, and that's as much accident as anything else.
CD: Can you tell us about The Stone of the Stars?
AB: Everybody has one project they started in high school and they work away at it on the side. They sell other stuff, but they've always got this wonderful story they've always been working on and would love to sell. I seriously shopped it around for about 10 years, didn't get anywhere, tried it at various publishers. There aren't many Canadian publishers who take adult fantasy so I tried mostly British and American publishers. Then I signed on with an agent and he sold it to the first person he sent it to. And I had had agents before, and they hadn't been able to sell it. It's a matter of timing, and getting an editor who happens to like what you're doing. So I'm really thrilled -- I'm really excited about this one.
I would describe this as fantasy with all the stops pulled out. This has everything -- it's got dragons, witches, fairies, sorcery, lost cities, a lost princess, prophecies, magic jewels. I don't think I missed a single fantasy motif. If I did, let me know and I'll put it in. But it's slightly different in that the setting is extraterrestrial. It's on another planet, it's not our Earth at all. They do move to other worlds, which is kind of fun. There's a slight blurring of the genres there, but it is actually fantasy rather than SF. I'm also hoping again that young people will read it. I think a lot of the adult SF and fantasy is read by young readers and they get a lot out of it, and they form probably a large part of the market. I do think that readers who are possibly as young as 13 or 14 could read this book. I think it's going to be out next year.
It was supposed to be one book, and then it grew. I was absolutely determined it was going to be one book -- I could put it on the coffee table and it would be the book, complete in itself. And then it occurred to me one day that maybe they don't let you write books with 72 chapters. So I realized it was going to be two books and then when I started writing the second book I knew I had too much story even for two so it turned into a trilogy. But I did decide it was going to stop at three. There will be three books, but no more.
CD: For The Hidden World and The Wolves of Woden, how did you do the research for the Newfoundland settings, both present day and World War II?
AB: That was fun because I actually have family in Newfoundland still. It's my mother's side of the family. So I went out there and I visited with them. The older generation remembers the war years. My uncle drove me all over St. John's, showing me the 1940s-era buildings that were still standing and the places where buildings had once stood that he remembered. And he told me about the rationing and the air raid practises -- they never actually were bombed but they were expecting to be. And blackout regulations and so on. It was very different from the rest of Canada -- they had to have a lot more precautions because they were out there in the Atlantic and they were a British colony at that point. So when Britain went to war they were automatically at war. I also took day tours and went down to the bird colony at St. Mary's and just tried to get a feel for the place. I was really very flattered -- I went to a small SF convention in St. John's afterwards and a young man came up to me and said, "I thought for sure this book was written by a Newfoundlander." That's the highest compliment a Newfoundlander can pay.
There's a fictionalized village called Mary's Bay which is based on a real town called Bay Bulls. I just made it a little bit smaller. But it has the same geography and the same feel to it. I put in a little of the barrens and various places that I had visited that really impressed me as having dramatic landscapes that were crying out to be written about. I don't think there are enough stories set in Canada of this kind. I found when I was growing up there was Farley Mowat and L. M. Montgomery, but there wasn't a lot in the fantasy genre that had a Canadian setting. I felt it would be nice to give Canadian children and teenagers stories that would bring magic into their own familiar environments.
CD: Would you try to write a story in a real setting without going there yourself?
AB: No, I prefer to see a place. It isn't a matter of knowing where everything is and what it looks like -- there's a feel to a place that you only get when you've actually been there. Of course, with The Stone of the Stars, because it's on another planet, I had to make that up. I found that I could base places in this imaginary fantasy on real places I had been to. So I would take for instance a little bit of the geography surrounding Quebec City or places in Newfoundland or even places in Ontario that I'd been to. There's a sequence in the mountains which is based on a trip I made driving through the Rockies. So I was able to get some sense of reality, I hope, into my descriptions and make them seem that much more real.
CD: Wolves of Woden is split pretty evenly between the real world settings and the fantastical. How do you get that to fit together?
AB: I wrote The Hidden World first, and the publisher suggested at the time that they would like to have a follow-up book. I had mentioned in The Hidden World that the grandmother had been to Annwn before and I just meant the grandmother to be a vague, shadowy presence in the back of the story and I never really intended to flesh her out that much. But my editor suggested that she'd like to have the grandmother's story and as soon as she brought up that suggestion I thought, "Well, wouldn't it be interesting because about the time the grandmother would be Maeve's age World War II would be on." I immediately had this idea of a book that had two intertwining narratives, each with a war in it -- there'd be a war in our world and a war in their world. So I was hoping that the two halves would complement each other and prop each other up, in a sense, because they had this one unifying theme. I wanted the characters in both worlds to be just as real and hopefully just as compelling, so when the heroine is in one world the reader would be worried about the characters in the other world and what was happening to them. That was the intention.
CD: For both The Hidden World and Wolves of Woden, you've got a pronunciation guide for Old Irish.
AB: I was asked to put that in. I didn't have a clue how to pronounce those words -- I just enjoyed writing them. There's a Centre for Celtic Studies at the University of Toronto, and I hired a student to go over the words and give me phonetic pronunciations. Because I agree with the publisher that the children who read the book would want to be able to pronounce them -- they'd be sounding them out to themselves as they read.
CD: Did you work from Old Irish or Welsh tales while you were writing it?
AB: Yes. I didn't set out to write a Celtic fantasy per se, what I wanted to do was to write a fantasy set in Newfoundland. Because as I said I've always wanted to set my stories in Canada, and bring the magic into Canada. Instead of setting the story in Wales or in Scotland or some other land where perhaps the mythology would work. I wanted to bring that sense of magic home to our own landscape. Newfoundland has an incredible landscape -- it's just crying out to have stories written about it. I decided that I would write a story set in Newfoundland that would be about magic and that was all I knew -- that was my basic premise. The more I thought about it the more I knew I needed some sort of angle. I couldn't seem to get the story started. I was reading a book of Newfoundland folklore, and I came across a section on fairies and I hadn't realized that because most of Newfoundland settlers were Irish they brought the Irish fairy traditions over with them when they immigrated. So in the small Newfoundland outports there'd be stories of the sort that would be told in Ireland about the fairies abducting people, and coming across fairies dancing in the woods, and the spells they would cast on people. Then right away I knew that I had my premise. So I had to go research Celtic mythology and folklore to give it the right feel. I also put in a little of the indigenous folklore with the Beothuk people. So I don't think of it as a Celtic fantasy, but rather as a mythology for Newfoundland.
CD: We've got a column on time travel in this issue. Do you have a favourite time travel story or novel?
AB: It's something of a cliché and it's been overdone, but there are two fabulous children's books that are based on time travel. I can't choose between them, it's got to be both. One of them is The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit, and if you haven't read it it's a treat. The children go back to Ancient Babylon, Ancient Egypt, Atlantis -- she writes about Atlantis as if it were a real place, and she bases her descriptions on the descriptions in Plato. It's a fabulous adventure.
There's another marvellous one, called A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. It isn't just a question of using the time travel as a device for catapulting someone from the modern age into the previous time period and giving a little history lesson. Which is why I usually don't like time travel books very much -- they end up just being history lessons. What makes A Traveller in Time stand out is that there's a strong emotional connection between the character who goes back in time and the family from the previous era whom she encounters during the time of Mary Stuart. That emotional pull of the girl towards these people from this previous time and her emotions when she goes to the houses she's visited and finds them in ruins in her own day and age is so compelling. I love that book.
I just thought of another one -- Tom's Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. It has a core of friendship and emotion and yearning that makes it such strong compelling reading. It's a modern classic. When people discuss their favourite books of the modern age, Tom's Midnight Garden is usually there. It's not just the usual time travel story. It's a beautiful book.
CD: What do you like about going to conventions?
AB: For one thing, I make wonderful friends at conventions. I really enjoy the people that I meet. I find most of all with SF conventions I really enjoy the discussions. The wonderful thing about being at university was that you'd sit down at lunch in a cafeteria and people would be discussing philosophy and religion and history and archaeology and all these fascinating things that they'd been learning about in classes -- and discussing them intelligently. When I left university I really missed those amazing conversations. You get back out into the real world and people are talking about the sale at Wal-Mart and how their kids are driving them crazy and how hard it is to get a good plumber. So unless you join a book group or something you really miss out on that. This is what I get from the SF conventions -- because people read about alternate history and they read about extrapolations of the future and they read about medieval societies because they want to write convincing fantasy worlds, they have a very good knowledge of all these things. And they can discuss them intelligently -- not just in panels but even just sitting around in the hotel lobby. So once again you can immerse yourself in all this fabulous conversation and learn from other people. For most people, they think of SF conventions as places where people wear Spock ears -- and they do, but that's not all it's about. There's an intellectual depth to them as well, it's there for you if you can look for it.
CD: It seems that your main character is often a girl who's not popular and feels different from her family. Is that a conscious choice?
AB: Yes, they're all so alienated. It's partly personal experience, because I was a bit of a loner in school and I find it very difficult to identify with characters who are popular. I also find that it's more interesting to have a character who has some kind of conflict or trouble going on in their life -- this gives you something to build the story on. If your character's perfectly happy and is Little Miss Popularity and everything's going fine you don't really have anywhere to go with the story. You need that restlessness, that discontent and yearning to make a character interesting. And I think that all people, even the popular ones, identify with it a little bit. Because most people have felt like that at some point in their life and can connect with the character in that way.
CD: We noticed that especially with The Dragon's Egg the character is trying to find herself or her confidence.
AB: Even her name, Ai Lien, suggests alien, alienation. I wasn't being clever with that -- I really just like the name. That was going back to my grade school experiences, and how difficult it can be. I also needed a reason for this person to want a little imaginary friend. It seemed to be best to have a lonely child, and then she would be able to seek solace in the companion of this little dragon friend. When he leaves, she'd be forced to integrate and find friends who are like herself, human friends.
CD: Have you received any particularly interesting letters from readers?
AB: I really enjoy the letters I get for The Dragon's Egg. They're usually from younger children, and younger children tend to be less inhibited about what they say. They're very endearing. They'll do marvellous artwork, they'll draw in crayon all over the letters, and it's very disarming the way they'll begin some of their letters. I have one that begins, "Dear Alison Baird, How are you? I am fine." And it goes on to tell you that their cat had kittens last Wednesday, and they give you all these details about their lives. They're just adorable -- I keep every one of them, I just treasure those letters.
CD: Is there anything you'd like to see happen in the world of fantasy publishing that isn't happening?
AB: I don't read a lot of the adult fantasy any more because I found it was getting very formulaic. Most of the modern adult fantasy I've read seems to me much more like historical fiction. There's a term for the kind of historical fiction that consists mostly of these blood and thunder battles and the hero's always proving his prowess on the battlefield and in the bedroom. They call them bodice rippers. A lot of the fantasies that I pick up these days are bodice rippers. They throw in a wizard and a spell or two, but that's what they are. I just don't enjoy them. I like fantasy that has a sense of wonder, and a sense of enchantment. This is what J. R. R. Tolkien called "fairy," the feeling of otherworldliness that you get when you read a really good fantasy. It's very hard to pin down and define exactly but it's either there in a book or it isn't. I find with most of the modern fantasy it isn't. They're really good at giving you the details of what a medieval society would be like, and they've obviously researched medieval warfare and they know the right kinds of arrows that people use but there's no sense of magic. I found that the fantasies I read as a child were just full of that kind of enchantment. And it's not just that I read them when I was a child because I first read The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald when I was 26 and I was enspelled by that book. I could not get it out of my mind afterwards, and it became one of my all-time favourites.
CD: So you're writing books to fill the gap then?
AB: There's an old story about Tolkien and C. S. Lewis -- when they got together at the pub they'd say, "You know, nobody's writing the sort of books that we like to read. I think we shall have to write some ourselves." That's what I'm doing -- I'm writing the sort of book that I loved to read when I was younger and I enjoy reading now. I still love a really good children's book, if it's beautifully written. I find that particularly a title like Tom's Midnight Garden, an adult could read that and get so much out of it. There are a few writing now who are very good. I do like Diana Wynne Jones, I love the wild originality in her books.
For the most part when I read for pleasure nowadays I read biographies. I like reading true stories about people's lives and all their trials and tribulations, how they survived them.
CD: What part of being a writer do you like best?
AB: I like it when I get a really neat idea -- there's that eureka moment. When I was sitting in the library reading the Newfoundland folklore book and I read about the fairies and I thought, "Aha! Finally I know what I'm writing this book about."
It was the same with The Dragon's Egg. I was reading a book about dragons of the world and there's a section in there about the dragons of Asia. I had always known about Chinese dragons, but I hadn't realized how different they are from Western dragons -- they don't breathe fire, they don't eat people, they're wise, and they have magic powers. I was blown away with the Asian dragon lore and how imaginative it was and how old it was. That was what got me feeling, "Somebody should write about this for children." Because children would love to learn about this -- and just think what a wonderful friend a Chinese dragon would be. They can control the weather -- so if it's raining and the kid wants the rain to stop, it can stop it. They can change their shape so they can fit into your pocket, they can be anything. What a wonderful imaginary friend. A lot of children could have so much fun with that, and be inspired in their games. So that was the inspiration for that.
With White as the Waves, rereading one of my all-time favourite books, Moby Dick, and suddenly thinking, "There's another story here." I can't describe the excitement and the thrill of it when you suddenly realize you've got an idea that could work. Then you have to sit down and write it and you're sitting there with this blank paper and your pen, trying to find excuses for other things to do. It's really intimidating to start writing a book. But having the idea is fun.
CD: What do you think of the Lord of the Rings movies?
AB: I think they're magnificent adaptations. Of course, when you've read and loved the books, you always find yourself thinking, "Well, that didn't happen that way." But I find if you can let go of that and enjoy them as films they're great fun. They really do stand on their own as good movies and that's why they succeeded. I read a lot of reviews written by people who have never read Tolkien and loved the movies. That's the sign of a really good filmmaker.
CD: Is there anything in particular you would have done differently?
AB: I don't think so. They're very difficult books to film, especially The Two Towers. When you think about it structurally, it's a nightmare for a filmmaker. What you've got are three separate storylines, each ending in a separate climax. I don't know how I would have done that. I thought he did a really good job.
CD: Can you tell us about Witches of Willomere?
AB: A friend of mine said that she saw a poster of the cover of that book on a delivery truck. I thought, "Wow, that's an interesting way to advertise a book."
This is the only work of commissioned fiction that I've ever done. I was approached by Cynthia Good, who's the publisher at Penguin Canada, about doing a book about witches for the teenage girl market, because this is a very popular topic just now. And I thought about it -- I'm not a very quick or methodical writer, I'm very slow and it takes me a while to get going on any project so I wasn't sure that I could do it. But I was quite fascinated by the fact that it was about witches, because I have actually taken courses at university that reflected on feminist spirituality and the goddess movement and so on -- which is what modern Wicca, for the most part, is about. I felt it would be interesting to bring in some of the themes that I had learned about in the courses -- the spiritual yearnings of woman for some kind of female deity or spirituality that spoke to the experience of woman. Rather than doing Sabrina the Teenage Witch all over again.
The story is about a young teenage girl who's a loner and doesn't get along with anyone at her high school and she needs a friend -- she ends up having a familiar, which is the companion of the witch. What intrigued me about witchcraft when I researched it is that it's so similar to the shamanistic tradition. The witch has the familiar which could be a cat or some other kind of animal, and the shaman has a spirit guide which is usually some kind of wild animal. So I thought I would link the two together, and create a story in which witches were actually shamans and the familiars are actually noncorporeal entities who inhabit the bodies of animals. So it's almost more like SF than fantasy. This young contemporary girl discovers this familiar. There will be a series, this is book one. I'm contracted to do two more -- I don't know if there will be more after that. It's about her developing as a person as she comes to know her spirit guide and to be guided by him in her life. And, of course, there's danger and adventure. It's really more about growing as a person.
Last modified: March 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 by Alison Baird