CAROL MATAS DISCUSSES THE WRITING PROCESS
A Must Read for Aspiring Young Authors and Their Teachers
Click arrow to watch Carol talk about her writing career in this 2020 video
MY STORY - MY JOURNEY AS AN AUTHOR
I always loved to read!
When I was young I never dreamed of becoming a writer, but I always knew I was a reader. It was absolutely my favorite thing to do. Naturally it all began with my parents reading to me, which they did a lot. But it wasn't long before I was reading on my own. I remember the best part of my day would be coming home for lunch from school, hurrying to my room after eating, and lying down on my bed to read my book. I had many favorite books when I was young, but the first ones I remember were the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. Dorothy, a girl only a little older than me was the heroine. She was always brave, had a charming sense of humor, and always thought about justice — she always helped those in need. Her adventures took her to places that simply delighted me. How did the author think of such things? For example one of my favorite books in the series was Ozma of Oz. Dorothy finds herself in the land of the Wheelers after being tossed into the ocean during a terrible storm. She is hungry. She spies some trees and goes to investigate.
....One was quite full of square paper boxes, which grew in clusters on all the limbs, and upon the biggest and ripest boxes the word "lunch" could be read, in neat raised letters….
The leaves of the trees were all paper napkins….
Dorothy sits down to eat.
....Inside she found, nicely wrapped in white papers, a ham sandwich, a piece of sponge-cake, a pickle, a slice of new cheese and an apple. Each thing had a separate stem, and so had to be picked off the side of the box….
Each book was full of such gems. One of my other favorite books was The Secret Garden. And in grade five, I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that had been written. In grade ten I remember the principal coming into our geography class to scold us for not paying attention. He noticed that I had a paperback hidden behind my geography book. He strode over, grabbed the book, and said, "This is what I mean! Reading novels when you should be studying geography!" But then he noticed that the book was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, a classic. "Well," he huffed, turning red, "you still shouldn't be reading books in class but if you have to you could read something like this." My problem was once I started a book I couldn't put it down, no matter what.
How I started to write
Around that time I was bitten by the theatre bug, and I began to take acting classes. It wasn't long before I decided I wanted to be an actor. I still loved reading though, and when I went away to university I took a degree in English, spending all my extra time acting in university productions. I loved it, but I also loved studying Shakespeare and reading all those great authors. When I graduated I moved to London England for two years to follow my dream and to go to acting school. I then moved to Toronto and began working as a professional actor. I was pretty good, I think, and I got quite a lot of work, but still, as with all actors I did have times when I was out of work. I hung around with a group of actors who happened to be writing in their spare time.
They used to share their stories. I remember one day hearing a story, a fantasy, and thinking it was delightful. I thought I'd like to try to do that. So I went home and sat down at my kitchen table with a sheet of paper. But what to write? I looked at the flowered teapot sitting in front of me. I thought, what if the teapot were magic? What if there were a brother and sister, home alone, fighting? What if they tumbled into the kitchen, knocked against the teapot, and shrank! I stared at the table, which was beside the window, filled with plants. What if they ended up on the plant table and met the various plants, and what if the plants had personalities, which matched their names such as Professor Ivy, the scary Spider Plant, etc.
I read this story to my friends a few days later. They liked it! I had so much fun writing it that I decided to write another. This too was a fantasy. The first story I wrote was five pages long. The second was ten. The third was twenty. They kept getting longer and longer. For a couple years I did this strictly as a hobby, never even considering publication.
It wasn't until I had to take a break from acting because I was pregnant with my first child that I decided to try writing my first full-length book. That was the summer of 1977. This book was also a fantasy. It was the story of a rich boy and a poor boy who decided to switch places, a little like The Prince and the Pauper, by Mark Twain. I loved writing it.
How I came to write stories for children
I must say that during all those years I didn't think of myself as writing for children. I was writing stories that happened to have young people as the lead characters.
When I finished this book, for the first time I thought of showing it to someone. I sent it to the National Film Board of Canada, hoping they would make it into a movie. They didn't, but the letter I got was full of encouragement. It said I should continue to write, that I obviously had talent, and that Canada needed more good writers for children. Was that what I was doing? I didn't even realize I was writing for children. I thought I was writing fantasy for all ages.
I began to think about this business of writing for children. The next book would be specifically for young people. I got my inspiration one day glancing out a window in our apartment in Montreal. My husband, daughter and I had moved there in 78. A huge black moving van was parked on the residential street. Well, that wasn't unusual. However, when it was still there the next day I began to wonder. What was it still doing there? A moving van never stays longer than it takes to load. Whom did it belong to? By the third day my imagination began to run wild. It was ominous looking, wasn't it? Perhaps there were bad people hiding in it. Kidnappers! They were waiting for unsuspecting children to walk by them, spiriting them off into the van. But why? I had been reading a lot recently about nuclear war and the danger we were in on this planet. It occurred to me — what if the kidnappers were from the future? They would need children because a nuclear war had killed all the children and the human race was in danger of dying out. So children were being stolen from our present into the future, by people (deformed from radiation sickness) using a time machine. A twelve-year-old girl, Rebecca, (the name of my little girl) from Winnipeg, (living in the same house I grew up in), would be the main character. Looking out the window early one morning she sees a boy from her class being kidnapped. She runs to tell her parents, but they think she's been dreaming. The police agree. And apparently his father doesn't care and thinks he's just run away, again. Rebecca never liked this boy but she knows what she saw and she feels she must do something. So she follows another child who she sees being pulled into a van — and she ends up in the future.
I was very fortunate to be able to ask a close friend of my husband's to read the manuscript for me. His name is George Szanto. He was a professor of communications at McGill University. He began to tutor me. He critiqued that manuscript over and over and I did draft after draft. Really, George trained me in the way I write today. I still write a first draft quickly but then do numerous drafts afterwards. I began to send out the manuscript, but it was rejected time after time. Then I got the idea for my second book. My husband and I had gone to a movie, Apocalypse Now, based on the Joseph Conrad book Heart of Darkness. In it a man who thinks he is sane is really quite insane. It made me think of all the dictators of the world — men who surely didn't think of themselves as crazy but men who were crazy. At the same time I had been reading a lot about genetic engineering and had just seen a long special on it on TV. So I decided to write about a dictator who controlled the world through genetic engineering. This book became The D.N.A. Dimension.
I feel I should include here something about my career paths. Before I became pregnant I had always intended to return to the stage. However, after Rebecca was born something odd happened. Every time I tried to go back to work she got sick. It was as if she had different plans for me, and it was not to be an actor.
My first Science Fiction books
Eventually I gave up trying to find acting work and stayed home to take care of her. But I still needed some intellectual stimulation. So, I turned to my writing. It was during this time that I wrote my first two science fiction books, the ones I have just described. I would get a neighbor who was a high school student to come over every day at 3:30pm. She would stay until 5:30, either taking Rebecca to the park or staying right there in the apartment. I was always aware of how little time I had, and I'd sit down and write like crazy. I didn't think about my story during the day — I seemed to have the ability to concentrate on Rebecca and then, when it was time to write I'd tune into the story. (I can't do that anymore — now when I'm writing I think about the story all the time.) I sometimes wonder if that's part of the reason my writing style is so fast-paced — I only had those two hours a day.
I began to send manuscripts out to publishers and received one rejection after another. In fact I believe The Fusion Factor, my book about a kidnapped child, must have gotten at least twenty rejections. When Rebecca was a little older, I began to think about returning to acting. However, just then I submitted the short story to a Canadian publisher and it was accepted. Now I felt I was a writer. Actually the story was never published but being accepted at that moment made a huge difference to me and was probably the turning point in my career.
Then came the idea for my third science fiction book, Zanu. The lead character was still Rebecca and this time she would go into a future run by big business. As I wrote I continued to send out my other books. I'd joined CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers). The newsletter always included a marketing section. I'd noticed that Gage Publishing was looking for manuscripts so I sent them The D.N.A. Dimension and The Fusion Factor. And, miracle of miracles, I received a letter in the mail saying that The DNA Dimension had been accepted for publication. They also agreed to publish the other Rebecca books at a later date. Naturally, I was thrilled.
It was at this time that we moved from Montreal to Winnipeg. I lost my mentor, George Szanto, but was excited about moving to the city where my family still lived. In the fall of 1982 just after we had moved, my first book was published. I had been using the name Carol Matas Brask, but when we moved to Winnipeg, the city I had grown up in, I thought people would remember my maiden name, Matas, so I dropped the Brask, and stuck with Matas. I suppose having your first book published is the greatest thrill imaginable. Although I continued to do some acting for a number of years, writing became my profession.
My husband had gotten a job at the University of Winnipeg teaching theatre. I'd quickly met his colleagues and other professors who had offices on the same floor. One of them was a professor of children's literature, Perry Nodelman. I asked if he would mind reading one of my books — I had started on a new Rebecca title about time travel. He graciously agreed and provided me with a fantastic critique.
I learn about the Danish resistance
It is impossible to tell your life story in a straight line. Now it's time for me to backtrack to Montreal. In Montreal my husband worked at the Jewish community center running the theatre that was part of the center. At one point an exhibit about the Holocaust came through. He began to tell me stories of what had happened to his father when Germany invaded Denmark in 1942. My husband is from Denmark, and his mother and father were just twelve years old when Denmark was invaded. They had never told me anything about the war and neither had my husband until the exhibits jogged his memory. Then he began to tell the most amazing stories. My father-in-law had started out with small pranks against the Germans, such as filling the gas tanks of their trucks with sugar so they couldn't run. If caught, these small pranks could have got them killed. By the time he was fifteen years old my father-in-law was a full-fledged member of the resistance. In fact, one of the stories my husband told me concerned the time that my father-in-law was the most frightened. His mother had been making his bed one morning when she felt something lumpy under the mattress. She picked up the mattress only to find two handguns and a machine gun. Apparently she almost killed him. He was certainly more afraid of her than he was of the Germans. The funny thing was, his father was also in the resistance, but he did not know about his father and his father did not know about him. Every night after dinner they would listen to the BBC radio broadcasts. Birthday greetings and other messages would be code for the resistance groups telling them where to meet. He would make an excuse, saying for instance he was going to a friend's house to do homework, and he would leave. His father would do the same — except he would have a different excuse. It was important that neither of them knew about the other in case one of them got caught. All resistance cells were kept small in case someone was captured — should this happen they would be tortured and inevitably they would give away the other members of their cell. Therefore the fewer people in a cell the better. The rule once captured was to try to hold out under torture for twenty-four hours and then tell everything. If your cell were small enough it would be quickly noticed that you were missing. The others would then have time to go into hiding, or as they called it, to go underground.
As my husband told the stories about his father and grandfather during the war I decided that I would like to write a book about a boy in the Danish resistance. Although I was still working on my science fiction books I began to read and think about Denmark in World War II. That was when a friend gave my husband a book called Rescue In Denmark. It was about the rescue of the Danish Jews. This was a story I had never heard before. It described how the Danish people had managed to rescue almost all of their Jewish population from the Nazis during the Second World War. I was shocked. How was it that I had never heard this story before? After all, I am Jewish, I went to Hebrew school, I went to university, and I thought I was educated. I had been taught about the Holocaust and about the six million who had been murdered. And yet nobody had taught me about this country that had managed to save its entire Jewish population. How could this be? I knew I had to write about it.
My science fiction books were all on different topics (in The D.N.A. Dimension, the idea of a ruler who thinks he is sane and doing everything for the best, who is really insane; or in Me, Myself and I, the question of whether a Utopia is possible; and in Zanu, deception and illusion — Rebecca when she first arrives in that world likes all the wrong people and wrong things because they appear beautiful and orderly, and only later discovers who the truly "good" people are), but they all had one theme in common: one person can make a difference. In each book Rebecca discovers that even her smallest actions have an effect on the future. When I read about the rescue in Denmark I felt I would still be writing on the same theme — except in this case one entire country made a difference. But never forget that one country was made up of individuals making individual choices. So when I finished my final book in the science fiction series, Me, Myself and I, I decided to write the book about Denmark, called Lisa. It never occurred to me that I was now writing historical fiction. I simply wanted to tell a good story, an important story that happened to be set in the past.
Just after The D.N.A. Dimension was published in 1982 I was given some bad news. Although Gage had agreed to publish The Fusion Factor and Zanu, their publishing program called the Jean-Pac, so titled because the covers all had a denim look and the books were meant to fit in the back pocket of your jeans, was discontinued. Gage informed me that they would not, after all, publish the next two books. I tried to find a publisher for years, but had no luck. I received one rejection notice after another. I was beginning to think that I should give up all together when something very strange happened. My cousin had gone to see a psychic whom he thought was very good. I decided to go. The psychic gave me a reading and I can't remember much of what he said now. But I do remember one thing. As is often the case, he asked me if I had any questions. I explained that I was a writer and that I was unable to find a publisher. I asked him if my books would ever be published.
"Yes," he answered, "and within the year. They will be published by a publisher in Saskatoon."
Well, that was certainly specific, but I didn't know any publishers in Saskatoon. I didn't even know if Saskatoon had publishers. About a week later I got a phone call from the awards officer at the Manitoba Arts Council. I had submitted my two books as background for a small writing grant — perhaps to start work on Lisa, I can't remember.
"Carol," she said, "one of the members on a different jury is a publisher from Saskatoon. I thought your books might be perfect for her. Can I show them to her?"
I screamed. I blurted out the whole thing about the psychic. I suppose she thought I was a little crazy. She gave the manuscripts to Carolyn Heath at Fifth House Press in Saskatoon. And not long afterwards Carolyn offered me a contract for all three books, two to come out in 1986, the final one to come out in 1987. I have been to many psychics since then but never once have I received a reading as specific or as accurate as that one!
Meeting with veterans of the Danish resistance—Lisa's War
I began to research Lisa and did most of the research for that book in Winnipeg. The first thing I did was go to the Danish Club with my husband for a war memorial.
Resistance fighters stood and one by one told their stories. It was a gold mine for an author. I introduced myself to many of them afterwards and made appointments for interviews. Many of the incidents in Lisa and Jesper are based on stories I was told in these interviews, including the last scene of Lisa.
I had so much material after a while that I simply couldn't write the book. I remember one day we were over at a good friend's apartment — Amatzia Huni, who was an Israeli living in Winnipeg with his wife, Etti. Amatzia had been a filmmaker in Israel. He suggested that I write from a first person perspective in order to narrow the material down — after all, that way I only had to include what my character experiences first hand.
I tried it and I wrote that book in three weeks. It simply poured out of me, often surprising me along the way. For instance I had not planned for Lisa to throw up on the German soldiers in the streetcar. But I had established that she had a "funny" stomach, so when put under stress, throwing up simply appeared. As in my previous books I didn't begin with an outline. Basically, I had a rough idea of how it would begin and how it would end. Then when I wrote the first draft I would create the rest. Lisa's theme, of course, was that one person could make a difference.
I ran into an interesting problem when I began to send the book out. It was taken almost immediately by one of the best publishers in Canada at that time, Lester and Orpen Dennys. Louise Dennys called me one day to say that one of the top writers in Canada had agreed to edit Lisa but only if I did a major rewrite. "No child will read a book like this," apparently was the writer's comment. What was wrong? Well, I had no texture in the book, no details of how things looked, or smelled, or tasted. Also, I didn't describe my character's thinking, I simply had dialogue and action to describe the character.
Looking back on it now I think that my early theatre training has had a huge influence on all of my writing. I write with what is known as "subtext" in the theatre. In other words, the character may say one thing but is thinking another. Unlike many authors, though, I do not describe the character's thoughts. The readers must deduce their thoughts by their words and by their actions. For instance when Lisa kills a German soldier she doesn't think about it — but she does throw up, showing how horrible the act of killing is for her. And she wouldn't have had time to think about the act — that wouldn't be realistic. (Some adult readers are upset by this, but children never are.)
So I had to decide — do I listen to one of the top writers in Canada and change my style? Perry urged me not to. He was convinced the book worked very well as is and he encouraged me to stick to my guns and not to allow it to be changed in any major way. I told Louise and she acquiesced. In fact it took three more editors before she could find someone who basically agreed to simply copy edit the manuscript and leave it mostly intact.
When it was published it came out to only fair reviews in Canada. And for all the reasons this editor had mentioned. However it was then bought my Macmillan in the United States and one day I was told that the New York Times would be running a review. When I read it I remember literally jumping up and down. I had never hoped to be reviewed by the Times — but to get a rave review! The reviewer compared Lisa's War (Lisa) to Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and said Lisa's War was a far superior book. (Of course as I write this Lisa's War is out of print in the United Stated and Number the Stars is a Newbery Award Book which will never go out of print.)
Canadians, as is always the way here, are impressed by a Canadian who "makes it" in the United States. Everyone in Canada seemed to forget that it had received lukewarm reviews here and when Jesper came out all the reviews referred to Lisa as my "brilliant" book, etc., which apparently it had become, in retrospect. Jesper (called Code Name Kris, or Kris's War in the United States) received rave notices from almost all the Canadian papers and did well in the United States as well.
Jesper — Code Name Kris — Kris's War
Jesper is about belief. The lead character, Jesper, has a best friend, Frederik, who becomes a Nazi. The two characters interweave throughout the story, and we see that Frederik believes in what he is doing just as Jesper does. Is one better than the other then? Jesper wonders this, the book asks this, but it, I think says, yes, there is a big difference. Frederik and the Nazis, after all, kill in order to control others. Jesper kills in order to be free.
After writing these two books I became interested in writing other historicals. I had written about my husband's family and I began to think about writing about my own family. My grandfather had escaped from the Russian army then traveled across land to England. There he saw my grandmother at a theatre but had no way to meet her. The next night he went on a blind date — and it was she. They immigrated to Winnipeg at the turn of the century. My mother's parents emigrated from Romania, also at the turn of the century.
One night I went to a local synagogue to hear a speech my Chaim Potok. At the end of the talk someone asked him a question about the Kapos in the concentration camps in World War II. Mr. Potok answered that that had not been the only time Jews had treated Jews badly. He cited the era of Tsar Nicolas II when the tsar tried to forcibly convert Jews by conscripting them into the army — especially very young Jews. Because the quotas for the army were so hard to fill, often there weren't enough Jews in any one village to comply. A practice was begun by local communities — they hired a kidnapper to kidnap Jewish boys so the quotas would be met, otherwise the leaders of the community would have been taken.
As soon as I heard him talk about this I knew I had to write about it. True, it was earlier Russian history then I had imagined writing about, but the moral conundrum and ethical questions it raised were immediately evident to me. I still believe that Sworn Enemies is one of my best books, although it is now out of print in the United States. It was difficult to research in that it was the first book where I couldn't interview people and I had to find all my material from books. One day I counted how many books I had on the floor around my desk — fifty!
In Sworn Enemies, I asked the question "Is it possible to live a moral life in an immoral universe?" The two lead characters Aaron and Zev are both religious, Aaron a scholar, Zev a poor boy who has little capacity to learn. When Zev is asked to be a kidnapper by the leaders of the community he sees nothing wrong because he views everything in stark realities — including his religion, which cannot be questioned. Is he the "good" one because he will never stray from his faith? Or is Aaron who questions everything? For me it is Aaron who does not have the answers who is the hero of the book, not the fanatic Zev.
It was while I was finishing Sworn Enemies, working with my editor Beverly Horowitz at Bantam Doubleday Dell who was, by the way, a terrific editor, that my agent (at the time), Amy Berkower, called to ask if I'd be interested in writing a book for a new Holocaust Centre to open in Washington, D.C. called the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Apparently the museum had approached Beverly and asked her to recommend an author — she recommended me. Some problems then ensued, and for some reason the museum and Bantam could not come to an understanding. The project was moved to Scholastic who had just bought Lisa's War and Code Name Kris for paperback publication. They seemed happy to have me remain on the project.
And then began the most difficult project of my writing career. It was March when Amy called, March of 1992. The museum was due to open in the spring of 1993. They needed the book in three months and I had already committed to a long speaking tour in April. They flew me to Washington where I met those in charge. I assumed they would give me all kinds of material but in fact they simply told me this: We are having an exhibit called Daniel's Story. We want a book to complement the exhibit so children who have been through it can go to the bookstore and read about what it might have been like for a real boy. Our character is an everyboy. Yours must be an individual story. We want you to use the same name, Daniel; he must live in Germany, be sent to the Lodz Ghetto, Auschwitz, then Buchenwald. He must live. The rest is up to you. (Since the publication there is constant confusion about my book — is it based on the exhibit or is the exhibit based on my book? Americans almost universally assume the former, Canadians the latter. Neither is true. They are two completely separate entities, but complementary) I was then sent home.
Unlike my other historicals I had no time to organize interviews so I did all my research from books and videos. There is really an amazing amount of material on video — for instance there was film shot of the Lodz Ghetto so I was able to see exactly what it looked like then. I read history books and I also read as many memoirs and diaries as I could — many of which were found after the war, the writer not having survived. I cried every day.
Although I had written two books set in World War II, they were not Holocaust books in the strict sense. One was about the rescue of the Jews, the other about the resistance. I had never considered writing about the Holocaust — I'd felt it was a topic only to be tackled by those who had been through it. But when the museum asked I never considered saying no. It was a great responsibility, but I felt that with them behind me I could tackle it. I had no idea how it would change my life. More about that a little later.
I had to change my usual way of writing, which was to research first, spend time thinking, and then write. In this case I began to write as I was still researching — continuing to read at night while I wrote during the day. I felt that I was on the right track when one day I wrote a scene (the one where Daniel is close to death from typhus and his mother heals him in a dream) and that night after writing it I read almost the same story in a book called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust.
Finally by the end of July I had written three drafts (as usual Perry Nodelman had read at least one draft and given me a critique, something he does before I ever send it off to the publisher) and sent it off.
And then out of the blue I received a twenty-page fax (in small type) from the museum's resident scholar, listing all the "mistakes" in the book. I was truly beside myself. Luckily my oldest dearest friend, Morri Mostow, was in town and she calmed me down so I was able to tackle this fax. The first thing I did was call the museum and go over every note explaining where I had gotten the material. It turned out that their scholar didn't like the historian I was using — Martin Gilbert — saying his was secondary source work while the museum worked strictly from primary sources. (Only years later was I told that many historians disagree with the museum's historian and prefer Gilbert).
Then there were specific disagreements. For instance the museum was uncomfortable with a scene I had written when Daniel's aunt is attacked for being a Jew on the streets of Frankfurt. This attack happened before Kristalnacht, which according to my research was accurate. However they wanted my readers to think of Kristalnacht (the night of the broken glass when the brown shirts attacked Jewish shops and broke their windows, burned, looted, and beat up Jews) as the beginning of the violence. I loved the scene and didn't want to lose it, and besides I knew that my research was correct. Perry came up with the compromise. He suggested making the scene a bad nightmare Daniel has before Kristalnacht actually happened. The museum was happy with that.
Another note here: because I was dealing with the museum, Scholastic, and Daniel Weiss, the packager who had put the deal together, they had decided I should only have one contact — my editor at Daniel Weiss, so I didn't have three different people telling me what to do. This was resolutely stuck to except for the one conversation about the fax. It was for the best, but sometimes it would have helped if I could have fought things out directly with the museum.
Another problem the museum had was the scene where Daniel dressed up in a Hitler Youth uniform. They felt it was immoral for a Jewish boy to do such a thing, but I had read about exactly this happening in one of the memoirs and I thought it worked. I wouldn't back down on that, but I did put in a scene where Daniel himself decides to put it away, not wanting to wear the uniform of such brutality, even if it meant less freedom for himself.
Another fight didn't end so happily. They insisted I take out all references to the Jewish Police in the ghetto. I felt they were being revisionist, not wanting me to discuss the fact that Jews worked with the Nazis either to gain privileges for themselves and their families, or because they felt they could enforce the rules in a more humane way than the Nazis. I rewrote those scenes over and over, but each time they came back with a "no", take it all out. On this they refused to budge. I did finally take out most of my references. It wasn't until the museum opened and I was able to speak to Susan Morgenstern at the museum directly (remember this had all gone through my editor) that she told me that the reason they didn't want the police included was not because they were trying to deny it happened but because they felt the Jewish Police were as bad as the Nazis — not something I could have dealt with in such a short book. I still disagree with that decision but it was the only thing (and we are talking about a few paragraphs) that I really never felt comfortable with.
Finally all the big and small changes were made and the book was done. Scholastic was so pleased they decided to do a limited run in hardcover. When the reviews came out, unfortunately, they reviewed the book as if it were no more than a novelization of the exhibit. Scholastic's publicity department was partly to blame because they basically said that was what the book was in all their press releases. It was only years later when I met the Scholastic publicity head in person that I was able to convince him of his mistake (I had tried, my agent had tried, but they just didn't seem to understand!) It didn't matter though. The book had been review proof. It is now on the curriculum of many school districts (including all of Illinois, I believe) and continues to sell strongly all over North America, far exceeding the small expectation of a book to be sold in the museum book store.
I mentioned earlier that this book changed my life. Let me go into that in more detail. When I was a child I learned about the Holocaust, became so distraught and upset at the cruelty, that it was probably the beginning of my loss of faith. After all, if there was a God, how could God permit such cruelty? From then on I basically tried to avoid the topic, doing no reading on it, avoiding anything about it because it was too upsetting. When asked if I would write this book I can't really say why I agreed so quickly — it never felt like a decision. I simply would never have said no to such an offer. But once into the material I had to confront all the cruelty I had been avoiding all my life. It was then that I became so depressed I decided that the world, the human race, didn't deserve to exist as we were capable of too much evil. But in the middle of this terrible depression I suddenly realized something else. Who was I to make such a judgment? Wasn't it similar to the judgment the Nazis had made about the Jews — the Jews didn't deserve to exist? I had to accept that the world is. And as is, it is populated with human beings, each one of whom is capable of good or evil. I would have to accept that.
The key scene of Daniel's Story is when Erika expresses this view to Daniel and Rosa. And then she tells them that they do have choices — the choice to choose love or hate. And I believe that to be true. No matter what, we can always choose — even during the Holocaust those whose free choice had been completely taken away, those who were brutally murdered, could chose whether to die in love or hate. And so many had love in their hearts (not for their enemies, that is not the Jewish way) but for their families. The Nazis could not destroy that.
I suppose that was the beginning of my return to some kind of faith and to a belief in God — not an old man looking down on us God, but God as Creator, as One. I now read a lot of Jewish Spirituality, Rabbi David Cooper, Lawrence Kushner, and in a slightly different vein, the Dali Lama! So strange that writing about the worst of human kind could return my faith.
How I write
At this point in this essay I'd like to stop going over each and every book and write a little about my writing process in general. I have developed a particular way of working. First comes the idea — a story and along with the story an issue, ethical or moral, that I want to explore. I start to think about it, live with it. Characters begin to form in my mind. If it is an historical, I begin my research and reading and do my interviews. When I really settle down to work it probably takes three months to do most of my intensive research. I then write the first draft which takes perhaps three of four weeks. I give it to Perry to read. He reads it, we meet, he gives me his thoughts — often a very detailed critique. I rewrite the book, which takes another three or four weeks. Then I send if off to the publisher.
Over the years I've had a number of different publishers because I write so many different kinds of books — I've never been able to find one publisher who wanted to publish all my different books. One wants my historicals, one prefers fantasies, and another likes the contemporary fiction. The closest I have ever come to a publisher who is open to all sorts of different books is my present Canadian publisher, Scholastic Canada. They are definitely the most flexible of any publisher I've dealt with — something I credit almost completely to my editor there, Diane Kerner.
At any rate my editor, or as is often the case, my editors — one in the United States, one in Canada, will give me their critiques. They can consist of many small things, or as in the case of In My Enemy's House, the addition of three more chapters! David Gale, my editor at Simon and Schuster, felt The Garden started too slowly, so chapter three became chapter one, to start the story off with more punch. Some editors make fewer suggestions, some make very detailed suggestions. The only editor I had a really hard time working with was the editor of Jesper, in Canada. She had previously only worked on nonfiction books and she demanded changes, almost sentence by sentence. To make matters worse, if she didn't like what I'd written, she would rewrite it herself! It is one thing to say to an author, "This doesn't work, change it." But when you discover half your manuscript rewritten, it is a nightmare. I was young then (as a writer) and I acquiesced far too much, although I also fought her over practically everything. Now I would simply send back the manuscript and demand a different editor. In fact, there are some sentences in that book that are not mine at all — or I don't feel they are mine, she interfered so much. Other than that experience my editors have been wonderful to work with — Beverly Horowitz, who edited Sworn Enemies and The Burning Time; Barbara Berson, who edited The Race, The Freak and Telling; David Gale, who edited After The War, The Garden, Greater Than Angels, In My Enemy's House, the entire "Mind" series, and continues as my editor at the time of this writing; Diane Kerner who published all of the same books as David and had her editorial input as well as editing Cloning Miranda and The Lost Locket; and Peter Atwood who edited Of Two Minds. Since I have published 25 books at this time, there are more editors I have worked with, but these are the pivotal ones.
So, I finish the third draft and send it back to my editor. There is always a fourth draft. This is mostly little things — details that are not clear, sentences not working, etc. For instance I rewrote the scene in The Garden when Ruth shoots the Arab soldiers at least ten times before David felt it was clear enough. Finally, it is time for the copy edit. This is the part I like the least. Grammar, small inconsistencies…. I had one copy editor (they are different for each book) who was a comma maniac. She put commas in every single sentence I'd written. I couldn't simply take them out without considering each one. A week later and with the biggest headache of my life, the manuscript was practically back to the way it looked before she'd done the copy edit. Commas are very important. I like to leave them out at times, to give the feeling of real thought, to keep a certain rhythm.
Finally, there is the last draft or the galleys, or page proofs. This is the way the book will look when it goes into print, so it is important to try to catch any typos. Actually, I'm not very good at that — most writers aren't. We are too familiar with the material. That is why the publisher hires a totally separate person to copy edit — someone who's never seen the manuscript before and will see the little mistakes.
During this time there is work on the title and the cover. I'm not very good at titles and often my titles have been thought up by my editor, or a friend — sometimes Perry. Usually the title I like, the publisher hates, thinking it won't sell the book. Covers are another issue. The publisher is supposed to send you a rough draft of the cover and is supposed to consult you. I find that often I don't see it until it is a finished copy and too late to make any changes. I have a couple favorite covers and a couple I hate. Most are O.K. In My Enemy's House is a favorite. The Burning Time, and The Race, my least favorite. I also loved Of Two Minds, the Simon and Schuster version.
This entire process usually takes two years from the beginning to the end when the book comes out. Because of the way I work, however, I don't only produce one book every two years. Usually I produce two books every year. This is because I like to work — and while a manuscript may be sitting with my editors, for instance, I can be working on a draft of another title.
My collaboration with Perry Nodelman — the Minds books
I'd like to talk a little, here, about my collaboration with Perry Nodelman. We have written four books together to date. It all started when I gave him a first draft of a fantasy I'd written. As usual he gave me his critique, I went away, did some rewriting, came back and he re-read it. He told me I hadn't done anything he'd suggested — which mainly was to expand the male character, Coren. I told him I couldn't, and if he thought it was so easy then he should do it himself! He said fine, he would! And so began our collaboration. He did draft two. I did a third one. He did a fourth. We went on like that for years until we felt it was good enough to send out to publishers. A local publisher, Bain and Cox, was starting a new fiction line and decided to take it. One winter day, at thirty-five degrees below zero, Perry, Peter Atwood, the publisher and the editor of Bain and Cox, and I met at the University of Winnipeg for an editorial session. A tire on my car had burst from the cold just as I arrived for the meeting and so we were stuck there for hours waiting for the CAA repair truck. We sat in Perry's office as Peter put his finger on what wasn't working — and then Perry and I started brain storming. By the time the afternoon was over we'd completely restructured the novel. Perry up until then had been writing the character of Coren, I'd been doing Lenora. After that we stopped taking a character each but continued to alternate drafts, never actually writing together. After each draft we would discuss what needed to be done next and whoever's turn it was would go and do the work.
In fact we've worked that way ever since. We brainstorm the outline, then I do the first draft, he does the second etc. It's a lot of fun working together because you don't have half the pressure of working alone — well, in fact, you have half. If you get stuck there's always someone to call. And I always enjoy our brainstorming sessions, which usually take place on the phone.
As well as my collaboration with Perry I've also collaborated with my husband, Per Brask. He has been a huge support to me throughout my writing career. When I write a first draft, I read whatever I've written that day to him, every night. He doesn't criticize much, he just tells me that he wants to know what happens next, and that really helps me keep up my momentum. We decided to adapt my book Lisa for the theatre. He is a professor of theatre and teaches play writing. He is also a playwright. I think he did more of the writing in this case than I did, but both our names are on the play. It had very successful runs across Canada and may be done soon in Israel. We also adapted Jesper together, and on my own I did an adaptation of Sworn Enemies, called The Escape, that was produced in Winnipeg.
The Primrose Path
My book The Primrose Path is the title I'd like to end this article on. I consider it one my best books. It is not, however, one of my best-sellers, for the reason that it has quietly been taken off the shelves (or never put there) by most Jewish libraries and it could never find an American publisher. It is about an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who molests children. Publishers were afraid to publish it, afraid they would be accused of being anti-Semitic. As for me, I got a lot of advice — most of it to change the rabbi to a priest! Jews didn't want anyone thinking they could be or do bad. But what does that say? Doesn't it say that we Jews are better than everyone else, not having both good and bad? Doesn't it say to any Jewish children who may have been abused — keep quiet, it doesn't happen to Jews? The other thing that really upset me about this was the adult assumption that child should be "kept" innocent. The first problem with that is that they are not innocent. They have encountered the school bully, a mean friend, even a cruel parent. The second thing is that this so-called innocence is really ignorance and ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge is power. And children must be empowered. When I look back at most of my books the central character is not the one who has the answers. She is the one who asks the questions. But she must also make decisions, decisions that will matter to her and to those around her. And pretending the world is different than it is, is no help to young people. They need help dealing with reality. They also deserve to have fun and enjoy themselves.
At this point in time I have twenty-five books published, with my twenty-sixth on the way. I have just finished a second draft of my book on the Civil War and am waiting, anxiously, to hear from my editors. I hope to continue doing what I'm doing as long as I can — because I love it. There's really no other reason. And as long as I have a story to tell, and a question to ask I hope I'll continue to write books that young people like to read.
Which brings me to my last point. Since writing my first word my goal has always been to tell a good story, and like my hero, L. Frank Baum, delight my readers. Many of my books are considered controversial because I deal with topics I think young people are concerned about, even if they are things adults don't like to deal with. I know I write about heavy topics. But more important is the fact that I write so that whoever is reading won't want to put the book down — they'll want to read after lights out, or after they've been called for dinner. And when they are finished they'll be a little sorry, because they had fun. Few people these days seem to talk about the pleasure of reading, but that is the main reason I write. Even when choosing a topic, I always choose one that hasn't been done before, thinking what fun it'll be for the reader to read on a topic they've never encountered before.
So happy reading.
This article was published in Something About the Author, volume 112, by the Gale Group in 2000. All rights reserved.
While Carol was writing Far, the third in her Freak series (the trilogy has been compiled into a single volume, Tales of a Reluctant Psychic), she began a blog and live chats with a number of schools. Many of her blog entries are in response to specific student questions and offer a candid, inciteful and fascinating look at the creative process of writing a novel and the various stages an author is involved in before a book is finally published. Click here to read all her blog posts.