The Book that Almost Wasn’t (and which is now, apparently, very popular with New York Public Library librarians…)

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Whenever I do a presentation, someone inevitably asks where my ideas come from. It’s a hard question to answer because my ideas come from everywhere, all the time. Getting ideas isn’t much of a problem as pretty much anything anyone says or does, or things I see on my travels (or in my back yard or my dreams or …), snippets from the news, or a passing comment on Facebook or a cool image on Instagram or… well, you get the idea… the sources of inspiration are everywhere. The problem is always turning the idea into some sort of narrative, and that’s true whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

In the case of Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, the idea resulted from a question I always ask when I’m giving a talk about books in the Orca Footprints Series.

What do we need to thrive on this planet?
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Kids have no problem answering the question, “What do we need to thrive on this planet?”. Food. Clean water. No pollution. Shelter. Those are the answers that come up right at the top of the list. Several times, though, students offered the answer trees. Which, to be honest, was not on my initial list of things essential to human survival. I only had to think about that suggestion for a few minutes before I realized just how right the kids were. Trees are actually a fascinating subject and, yes, trees are essential to our survival on the planet.

Did you know baobab flowers bloom at night and are pollinated by bats?

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Note: This is NOT a baobab tree.

 

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The more I read about trees (including The Wild Trees by Richard Preston which is just excellent and proves that if you are a good enough writer you can make any subject heart-stopping…) the more I realized that trees would be the perfect subject for another Orca Footprints book. I pitched the idea to my editor and, I have to say, the response was lukewarm.

I persisted and started doing research. And writing. And pestering (very politely) my editor. And thinking about what trees have meant to me over the years (each Orca Footprints title incorporates some personal connection the author has with the subject). Before I knew it, I had a manuscript. The editor started warming up to the subject. The designer started laying it out. We all found photographs of glorious trees making people happy. And, before long, Deep Roots was born.

Well wouldn’t you know it, that book has struck a chord! It has been nominated for a Silver Birch non-fiction award and, just yesterday, it showed up on the New York Public Library list of the 100 best books for children in 2016!! (Here’s a link to the full list.) The Korean rights have been sold and the book seems to be finding an audience for itself!

Trees? You think anyone would care about trees?

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Peeling bark on a madrona tree (aka an arbutus tree) on Sidney Spit, just off Vancouver Island. I LOVE these trees. They are just gorgeous! 

You may wonder what other suggestions from the students I’ve taken to heart. One of the things that was on the list of human ‘must haves’ (according to my informal student polls) was love. It took a little head scratching to figure out how an abstract concept like love could possibly work as a Footprints title, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the kids were right. Alone, we are small and vulnerable: people need each other. The working title of the manuscript I just submitted this week? Love and Belonging: Family, Friends, and Communities Working Together to Create a Better World. I suspect the title will be shortened before the book comes out, but it turns out the manuscript was really interesting to write.

It’s all about love. heart-love-romance-valentine

At this point (we’ve had no editing rounds yet) it includes material as diverse as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, prison nurseries, the UN Charter, the Human Genome Project, what it means to have a BFF and the Los Angeles Police Department’s take on gangs. And trarantulas and the people who adore them. The book is not scheduled for publication until 2018, so we’ll all have to wait and see how it does, but the success of Deep Roots gives me hope that listening to my readers is perhaps the best place of all to look for inspiration.

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Myths of the Sea

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And the newest of the new books has arrived! This was a cool project with Pearson in London. There are three pieces included this volume – a short short story called Sean and the Sea Maiden, a re-telling of part of the Odysseus story, and a non-fiction piece about real life sea monsters. My contribution was the Scylla and Charybdis story from Odysseus – lots of terrible sailor-eating by nasty monsters. It’s a classic ‘between a rock and a hard place’ story and was lots of fun to write.

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This is a bit odd, but the only place I can find with a link to the book along with a cover image and a bit of a write-up is this Dutch website. I haven’t actually seen the book in the flesh myself – the package arrived in Victoria the other day and I’m currently back in the mountains so I can’t provide any additional information about the illustrator or who wrote which of the other two pieces (Malachy Doyle and Holly Bennett are listed but I’m not sure who did what…). More information to come when I have the book in my hands!

Meanwhile, back to work on the Footprints title Today’s research included reading about Little Women for Little Women in Afghanistan and scientists in Antarctica. The chances of me ever getting bored in this life are slim to none!

 

 

 

The Best of Times… and, not so much

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Well today’s reading (as I’m finishing up the first draft of my new book in the Orca Footprints series about love, families, communities, and global cooperation) has been, as they say, the best of times and the worst of times. I was working on a couple of sections about some innovative intergenerational programs and found myself thinking that people, if given half a chance, can be very nice to one another. In one initiative (the Humanitas retirement home in the Netherlands), college students unable to find accommodation live rent-free in a nursing home for seniors. In exchange for their housing, they agree to be ‘good neighbours’ for at least 30 hours per week. There’s a great video here about the project. 

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Various places, including the Kipling Centre in Toronto, integrate space for a preschool in the same building as a nursing home. Several times a week young children and seniors come together to dance, do crafts, and spend time getting to know each other. The kids learn to accept their grey-haired, slower moving friends at the same time the elderly residents enjoy the lively company of their young dance partners. (If you are wondering about the risks of sniffles and coughs being passed along to frail residents, apparently plenty of hand sanitizer before and after visits goes a long way to keeping everyone healthy).

Reading about those initiatives made my heart swell just as much as the next set of stories made me want to weep and long not to be part of the human race.

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Writing about people finding common ground and coming together led to writing about what happens when membership in a group becomes about excluding those who don’t belong. Any conversation about the ways in which ethnicity, race and religion bring people together and allow powerful bonds to form leads naturally (sadly) to the observation that violence and hatred often result from the us vs them mentality stemming from that same sense of belonging that can be so powerfully positive. The genocide in Rwanda, ongoing persecution of Muslims in Burma, Syrian refugees unable to scrape together enough money for paper and bus fare so their children can go to school – there are so many examples of how how badly we treat each other it is hard to decide which would be the ‘best’ examples to include in the book. I don’t want to include any of them, really. I want the children who read this book to think about all the wonderful ways we come together, help each other reach across the divides. Having to write about the dark underbelly of belonging and acknowledge there are times when we lose sight of the fact that we have far more in common than that which divides us is just sad.

I don’t want to watch the videos of the struggling refugee families. I want to focus on the delightful exchanges between the senior and junior residents of that nursing home in the Netherlands (apparently, you are never too old to learn how to play beer pong). But to understand and fully appreciate the grace, dignity and beauty of our better moments as people, we need also to see how dangerous it can be to love our own communities (whether they are based on race, ethnicity, orientation, politics, religion or otherwise) to the exclusion of all others.

A Shout Out to My Agent! Thanks, Amy!

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For years I didn’t have an agent. Then I had one for a while and we didn’t really click. So then I didn’t have an agent again. After a few more years, I decided to try again and have been with Transatlantic Agency ever since (though, as people have retired and moved on I’ve been with three different agents within the agency since I signed up). Amy Tompkins is my agent at the moment and one of my favourite people on the planet. I am generally terrible about keeping up with my correspondence, but I tell you, when Amy drops me a line, all else stops until I’ve looked at (and dealt with) her email.

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This might look like a crazy person’s idea of fun, but it’s also very serious work. I may be hanging off the side of a mountain, but I’m also doing research… Because when you make your living writing, at some level, you are always doing research. 

Recently, Amy let me know that an educational publisher was offering some freelance work. Although the timelines were tight, I threw my hat in the ring and snagged a project about rock-climbing.

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That’s me doing a bit of climbing at Lake Louise this summer.

What is perhaps coolest about this particular project is not just that it landed in my lap because of Amy’s excellent efforts, but that this project is an example of how important it is to follow your passions and write about the things you love best. I don’t write much about climbing on this blog (it’s supposed to be more about my writing world), but if you are curious about my climbing/travelling/sailing exploits, have a look at my other blog (www.darkcreekfarm.com). The fact that I’m going to spend a good chunk of time holed up reading about climbing and the mountains makes me pretty happy!

 

From the ‘Weird Things I Discover’ Department…

In the course of doing research for a new book I dug up this factoid:

The American Tarantula Society has enough members to warrant an annual conference and publication of a magazine!

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That would be a Gooty tarantula (Image by Soren Rafn, from the Wiki Commons). Lovely colour on that hairy creature, don’t you think?

I’m not actually writing a book about arachnids, though that might be quite cool… This research is for my latest Footprints title with Orca Book Publishers. The series looks at all the things we need to thrive on this planet and this book in particular looks at the many ways we forge bonds with others. By creating communities large and small, we look after one another when we are young and vulnerable or ill or old or displaced, we share responsibilities for education and health care and, sometimes, we get together because we share an interest or passion. Like, say, you love tarantulas and want to spend time with your peeps – you might want to join the American Tarantula Society so you can enjoy chatting about all things spidery…

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I quite like spiders, but if I glanced down and saw one of these on my arm, I suspect I might make a shriek-scream-wail-like noise… And that would probably get me banned from the annual conference of the American Tarantula Society. (Photo from the Wiki commons Joao P. Burini)

Research for this book has led me down some interesting side roads – from the Burning Man festival to prison nurseries to ecovillages to office Halloween parties. Stay tuned… I’m just finishing up the first draft so there will be many changes and additions between now and publication in 2018, but wow – what a cool project!