Eighteen isn’t too young to run your life into the ground, but it’s not too old to fix it, either. The desire for change drives Willa Kirk from St. John’s, Newfoundland back to her hometown of Smiths Falls, Ontario, away from her mistakes and the place where her sister died. She’s looking for a place to settle and rebuild, but Jem Harper just wants to get out of town, back to the life he knew before cancer. By letting the tragedies in their lives define them, they are both dying a little more every day. Welcome to the wake.
In this companion novella to Wake, Frank invites the Kirk family home to Smiths Falls for Thanksgiving weekend. Holidays are always a trial for the family that lost their daughter and sister, but Frank is hopeful that this Thanksgiving will be the exception. He has some happy news to share. If only he wasn’t so reluctant to talk about it.
Today, I’m chatting with Abria Mattina, who is a published author, editor, respected blogger, book reviewer and book designer. She loves to mentor writers and I’ve learned a lot from her.
Jess: When did you decide to be a writer? How did you get your start?
I don’t think it’s something I consciously decided. Born gay, born straight, born an artist… you get it. Smart money was on me ending up in some creative field, and I tried them all as a kid – visual art, dance, gymnastics, piano. I knew I liked to write as a kid, but I didn’t have my first don’t-eat-don’t-sleep-just-write episode until I was fifteen. I have had many more joyous episodes since, and I’m lucky enough to have a partner who understands them.
For a long time I resisted the thought of writing as a career, though. I thought the only way to make any money at it was to be a journalist, and I hated the thought of writing assignments. I felt that if I was going to write, I was going to do it for myself and write what I wanted.
Jess: What’s the one thing you’d tell an aspiring author?
Being an author is very different from being a writer. Nobody tells you that, but it’s true. When you’re a writer you write for pleasure, and there’s no pressure because any success or failure is still hypothetical. Once you’re an author, all that changes. You have to perform for your audience. You have to be engaged, consistent, and you have to keep churning out material. Whatever you publish next will be compared to what you published last. There’s a whole new world of pressure waiting and the end of your journey as “just a writer.”
I like to blog about my mistakes in publishing, especially when it comes to marketing, because that’s information that I wish I had known beforehand. Maybe someone else will benefit from knowledge of my mistakes.
Jess: You’re very accomplished. How do you balance the many facets of your life and career?
Honestly, I don’t. The thing about juggling so many things is that you can only hold so many balls at a time. Something always has to be up in the air while other things are firmly in your grasp. Learning to let go, to accept that I don’t always have to be on top of everything, is how I manage. When my writing life is going well, I find I don’t blog as much. When I experience writing slumps, I tend to blog more or try out new hobbies. It’s okay to fluctuate because it keeps the mind active and engaged.
Jess: We’re both Canadian. What do you consider the challenges of being an artist in Canada?
Although my books are set in Canada, I can never see myself writing “Canadian Fiction” for two reasons: the market is much smaller and Canadian fiction has a reputation for being grim. There’s an emerging publisher in Toronto whose mandate is to publish “non-depressing Canadian fiction.” It’s a little sad that they had to say that openly in their mission statement. The vibrant, wonderful things about Canada never seem to make it into supposedly “great” works of Canadian fiction.
As for the practicalities of being a Canadian author, there are hoops to jump through, from ITIN acquisition to working with foreign agencies to making sure your work is protected and your pay deposited. I have an ITIN, and I would recommend that any Canadian author get one before working with an American publisher or retailer (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.). It makes payouts so much easier.
Jess: Do you self-edit, or do you have pre-readers? Your published works are pristine. If you tell me nobody looks at your drafts, I’m going to scream.
I have beta readers and I hired a professional copy editor for Love Among Pigeons. Never underestimate the value of the ARC, too. I had a few early reviewers email me before the book launched to share any last typos they spotted.
Jess: How much time do you spend on research?
This is difficult to quantify because research is always an ongoing process. I don’t spend six months doing nothing but research and then write. Most often, I research a subject that interests me until I feel that I know enough to write about it competently. After that, I keep going back to my sources in order to get the details and nuances right. I particularly like journal-style blogs for this reason, so I can read the perspective of someone who has firsthand knowledge of my topic. If I can talk to someone directly, even better.
The tricky bit about research is resisting the urge to insert little factoids into the text simply because you know them. Sometimes I see this in the books I read, and it kills me every time. There is a limit to what the reader needs to know to enjoy the story, and it’s the author’s job to keep a handle on that.
Jess: I adore ‘Wake’. It’s one of my go-to reads. What inspired you to write it?
The first scene that came to me was the scene where Jem and Willa are taking a walk through her neighbourhood, just chatting like normal teenagers – talking about death and serious illness. Once I started, it was one of those stories that just kept coming. I went with it and enjoyed the ride, because there are few occasions in a writer’s career when a story comes so easily.
Jess: ‘Love Among Pigeons’, the companion novella, distills complex elements into a strong, meaningful story. I tend to write epic-length tales. How different was it, going from writing a novel to writing a novella? What were your biggest challenges in each?
If I’d tried to write them back-to-back, it would have been much harder. After producing that mammoth, Wake, I worked really hard to cut down the length of my projects. The longest draft of anything else I’ve done since was 70k words. Length wasn’t a problem with Love Among Pigeons, especially after I decided to frame it in the setting of Thanksgiving weekend. Because it centers around a holiday, it has a natural three-day trajectory.
About six months after I published Wake, I started playing around with the idea of a prequel because people had requested it. I couldn’t make anything work, and at the time I chalked it up to my state of mind (my mother was undergoing chemo and radiation), so I shelved the project for a while. A few of those scenes ended up in Love Among Pigeons, and it was nice not to have to reinvent the wheel. I’d been thinking about the story far longer than I’d been writing it. I didn’t feel like a challenge to write. The hardest part was finding the time to write.
As for Wake, the biggest challenge was editing a work of that scope. It still makes me shudder.
Keith Quintanilla, Deviantart
Jess: Your books deal with some tough, controversial subjects with compassion and tact. You don’t shy away from difficult moral questions. How have your experiences shaped you?
I think being fundamentally obnoxious helps. The thing about taking on difficult, controversial subjects is that you’re always going to offend somebody. There were so many things about Wake that offended people – that Willa didn’t handle Jem with kid gloves, the way Tessa died, the way Frank deals with problems, and so on. It happened. I could have gotten my panties in a twist about it, but on the contrary, I was glad. Books that challenge us, piss us off, and make us think, are books that we remember. They’re books that we pass on to friends just so we have someone to talk to about our opinions.
I didn’t feel like I compromised on anything with Wake, even when I knew I was handling a scene or situation in a way that wasn’t conventional or even politically correct. That’s why I could stand by it.
I’ve always been a pretty opinionated person, especially about issues with lots of gray area, but what drew me to writing about disability and illness in particular is my adolescent experience with severe scoliosis. I wore a spinal brace for 23 hours per day, every day, from the age of twelve until the age of eighteen. You can imagine how cool I looked, walking around school in that. The experience toughened me mentally and physically. There were stares, questions, and plenty of pain. By the end I had convinced myself that none of it bothered me, but when offered a chance to wear the adult Spinecor brace, I burst into tears at the thought of putting on a brace ever again. I had a lot of negativity and self-consciousness stored up, just waiting to be channeled into Wake.
Jess: One of the things I love most about these books is their clean, direct style. Who has influenced you?
I don’t know if I can pin it down to a definite source, because I read so much and always have. I suppose it boils down to the way I perceive tone and topic. I prefer florid language in the historical fiction I read, and spare language in contemporary fiction. I think sci-fi should be very detailed, but fantasy novels don’t have to be. I wrote in a style that reflects my tastes within the genre.
Jess: Your characters’ banter is so engaging. Willa, in particular, has a snarky sense of humour that cuts through bull and causes other characters to re-evaluate their behaviour. Where did you get the inspiration for her character?
Willa is the person I would have been at seventeen if I’d had the guts to say what I was thinking every minute of every day. Willa feels that she has very little to lose, so she doesn’t care about offending people or being ostracised. She’s brash, but also clever and insightful, and that’s how she gets away with voicing unpleasant truths – sometimes.
Jem’s behaviour is a little closer to my actual teenage experience. He’s always putting his foot in his mouth and then wasting time by agonizing over it.
Jess: You’re a synaesthete. I know someone who sees music in shapes and colours. What kind of synesthesia do you have and how do you think it influences your work?
I read in color, perceive sounds as colors, shapes, and tactile stimuli, and I perceive inanimate objects as having genders or personalities. Often tastes have colors, but that one isn’t universal for me. I don’t know that it really influences my work that much, but it definitely gives me a better-than-average memory.
Jess: How do stories germinate for you?
They either start with a color or a character. With Wake that color was turquoise and it had a sound similar to the bridge of I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake. With one of my other projects, it was the color of the protagonist’s name. I rarely outline because I like having the freedom to let the characters surprise me. I find the story doesn’t grow organically when I outline, because I’m too focused on fulfilling a checklist of plot points.
Jess: If there’s one thing readers could take away from your books, what would it be?
I think the value of my books lies in the way people use them to explain difficult situations or emotions to others. Over the past two years I’ve received emails from cancer patients and survivors who recognized themselves in the characters. Some of them couldn’t even finish the book because it cut too close to the bone for them. What these emails generally have in common is that the people writing them have used Wake to guide their friends and family into conversations about their feelings or experiences. The characters become stand-ins for their real-life problems, and it becomes easier to talk about it.
Jess: What’s the one thing you wish an interviewer would ask?
Abria: I guess, What’s the weirdest comment on your work that you’ve ever heard?
The answer would be: “I expected them to just stop arguing and start making out.” The person who said this was talking about the argument in the middle of Wake. That scene is loaded with tension, and in a typical romance book it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the protagonists let the passion of the argument turn into sexual passion. But I absolutely hate that. It’s such a cop-out, every time. If you’re going to start a fight between characters, finish the fight! It’s more believable, more satisfying for the reader, and better for you as a writer.
Jess: What do you think you might be doing 10 years from now?
Pursuing world domination from a bunker in Greenland.
But seriously, being able to write full time someday would be sweet.
NOTE TO READERS: Wake is one of my favourite novels. I’m guest-blogging today at http://www.firstpagetothelast.com/ . Please visit to read my review.
You may visit Abria on her websites, http://www.abriamattina.com , http://www.shallwrite.com/ , and follow her on Twitter @AbriaMattina. Thanks for spending time with us today!