Photo - Carl Matas

Interview with Carol Matas, Geoffrey Bilson Award winner

by Noreen Kruzich Violetta  

Carol Matas has authored over thirty books for children, and, coming from a theater background, has also written plays. She is a former winner of the Geoffrey Bilson Award for historical fiction for young readers for her book Lisa, also adapted into a play. The author has many other notable award nominations as well.

Her most recent titles include: Dear Canada: Footsteps in the Snow, The Diary of Isobel Scott (Scholastic); Sparks Fly Upwards (Clarion); and Rosie, the first of a new trilogy set in 1909, NY, and due out summer 2003 (Aladdin, Simon and Schuster).

 
 
 
SCBWI: How did your career in writing begin?

CM: I never planned to be a writer at all. The whole thing kind of crept up on me.

I started off in the theatre. I studied English in University only because they didn't offer theatre and spent most of my time acting in plays. After graduating with a degree in English (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way,) I went off to England to study acting.

I returned to Canada after two years and began to act, mostly in Toronto. I hung out with a group of actors who were into writing plays, stories, everything. They used to share their writing on afternoons when we were all free. One day one of them read a short story, a fantasy about a raindrop. And I was inspired. I hurried back to my apartment. I thought I could do that! I sat down at my kitchen table, gazed at the flowered teapot, looked at the plants on the table by the window, and suddenly I had an idea! What if a sister and brother had been left home alone? What if they were fighting? What if they crashed into the kitchen table and into the teapot? What if the teapot were magic? What if they both shrank and ended up on the plant table and had adventures with the spider plant, Professor Ivy, the Wandering Jew etc? And that was my first story. I read it to my crowd, they liked it.

I wrote another. Read it to them. Again they liked it. I did that for about three years, writing while I acted. And then another change.

I'd gone back to Winnipeg, my hometown, to act in a play, and I met my future husband. In no time we were married and my daughter Rebecca was on the way. I fully intended to go back to acting after she was born, but Rebecca had other plans for me. Every time I tried to leave the house to go to work she'd get sick. It became impossible for me to stick with my acting jobs. But I still had my writing. In fact while pregnant I'd written my first full-length novel-- a fantasy about two young boys.

At this point I didn't know I was writing for children. I was simply writing stories in which children played the main parts. Why? I wish I could tell you.

We were living in Montreal at the time and I got an idea for a science fiction book and this one I knew I wanted to direct toward children. That book eventually ended up being It's UpTo Us and was about a twelve-year-old Winnipeg girl who ended up travelling in time. I wrote four books in that series about Rebecca and was beginning to realize that this was my new career.

SCBWI: Why are you drawn to writing historical fiction?

CM:I stumbled upon writing historical fiction. My husband was Danish originally and he began to tell me stories of his parents' experiences in World War II. His father, only twelve when Germany occupied Denmark, was in the resistance at the age of thirteen. I wanted to write this story. At the same time a friend gave us a book about the rescue of the Danish Jews from the Nazis. Although I am Jewish, went to Hebrew School after school and had learned about the Holocaust, I'd never before heard this story. And what an inspiring story! My previous science fiction all had one theme in common--one person can make a difference. Here was an entire country that had made a difference. I knew I had to write the story but at the time I wasn't thinking historical fiction. It was just a good story. Still, it led me to think about stories from the past and then I did begin to write more historical fiction, which took me into an entirely new direction.

SCBWI: What are the key elements to writing historical fiction for you?

CM: The key elements to writing historical fiction, for me, are the same as writing any kind of fiction. To me the most important thing in my writing is the story. I want to tell a good story that just happens to be set in a different time and place. But this story also has to have relevance for the children of today. For me there is no point in writing about anything unless there are lessons to be learned and insights to be gained from delving into that time and place. Often, the intense life-and-death struggles that I describe in my historical fiction make a perfect backdrop for the serious questions I wish to raise with my readers. And these two things, story and theme, always make up the core of my writing.

SCBWI: What has been the highlight of your career?

CM: The ongoing e-mail and letters, which I receive from my readers. It's wonderful when a child writes and tells you that you have affected their life in some small way, for the good. I often get e-mails from children who have read one book numerous times--highest count so far is eight, or e-mails from children who didn't read at all before they read one of my books and are now reading like maniacs. To be able to play a part in the pleasure a book can bring and the ways books can expand our horizons is a wonderful opportunity. And I guess that is almost always my goal in writing--to open the world, expand horizons, get people to think, so that we can all help make the world a better place. In Hebrew it is called, Tikkun Olam, which loosely means to fix the world.

SCBWI: Tell us about your newest novel in the Dear Canada series, and how you came to write it.

CM: My newest novel, for the Dear Canada series, is called Footsteps in the Snow, The Diary of Isobel Scott. It is the second historical book that I have set in Manitoba, the first one being, Rebecca. I had been interested in writing a book about the fur trade in Canada and when approached to write a Dear Canada story, I decide to tell the tale of the Red River settlers. Little did I know what a challenge it would turn out to be. Halfway through the project I realized I had basically taken on the history of Canada--the fur trade wars were terribly complicated, with a myriad of characters, intrigue, politics, well, you name it, this story had it. And although historical accuracy in all my books is extremely important to me, because these books were going into the schools, there was an extra emphasis by the editors on the exactness of every little detail. The diary form too, was very challenging, as I feel it tends to distance the reader--so I tried very hard to make this story interesting and exciting so that the reader would feel involved. One would think that with all this amazing material to work with that would be an easy task--but no matter what the history, it is still up to the author to create a character that readers care about and to put the story together in a way that will be gripping and entertaining and interesting. I'm not sure I succeeded in all of this, but it is certainly what I wanted to accomplish.

SCBWI: What are you working on now?

CM: I actually have a number of books to write over the next couple years. One of them is a Holocaust book, set in Seattle, 1942. It is extremely experimental in form and very challenging, but I do not want to repeat myself, so I am challenging myself to tell stories in different ways, ways that I also hope will challenge my readers. Three others are historicals set in the US. And I am planning to write more in both The Freak series and the Miranda series.

SCBWI: How do you approach the process of writing a novel?

CM: First of all I'd like to say that every novel is different, so in a way there's no one approach, as every book seems to have its own beginning and middle or birth process. Still, I'd say the most important thing about writing a book is what happens before you pick up your pen, (or sit down at your computer--I do both, writing the first draft longhand, doing revisions on my Mac). Thinking about the story, the characters, the themes, all of this must happen for me before I begin to write. If it is an historical this happens simultaneously with my research. My research begins with my reading as much as I can on the topic. If it is a WW2 book and there are still people alive who experienced what I am going to be writing about, naturally a huge part of my research is interviews with these people. These interviews often change preconceived ideas that I had before I started the project and often change the entire complexion of the book. Characters that I had in my head one way will turn out completely differently after I have talked to people. And finally if there is any visual information such as film or video I try to taking in as much of that is possible as well.

Once I finally sit down to write I work very quickly completing a first draft in a few weeks. I then give my manuscript to my friend and co-writer Perry Nodelman who critiques it for me. With his insights in mind I go back and do a second draft, which is often as extensive as my first. I then send the book to the publisher who also will want changes, and then I do my third draft. The third draft is also often a very extensive draft. In the case of In My Enemy's House adding three chapters, or in the case of The War Within changing the entire manuscript from third person to first person. After such an extensive draft there are inevitably more changes to make and I then go into a fourth draft. Then there are many other little changes and countless small revisions until it finally goes to galleys.

SCBWI: Do you belong to a critique group? Who reads your manuscript?

CM: I read my manuscript to my husband, Per Brask, as I write it, so each evening before we go to bed I will read him a new chapter. Each night he says something like, "I need to know what happens next," which gives me a little extra impetus to keep going. Perry critiques my manuscripts, but he also lets me call him when I am stuck so I can talk it through. He often has really good suggestions as well for how to solve the problems. If everyone had a Perry in their lives writing would be so much easier. Sometimes my daughter, Rebecca, will also read a manuscript if I'm having a particularly hard time with it, but usually she waits and reads it when it's finished.

SCBWI: Do you have any advice to beginning writers?

CM: Don't give up. I've had enough rejection slips to paper a room and I still continue to have books rejected. It is simply part of the business. But if you believe your book is good enough to be out there, or perhaps I should say if you believe in what you're saying, then you simply have to also believe that someone out there will believe in it too. And in that sense I think it's just a matter of being lucky and finding the right editor at the right time. After all, there are many people that don't like my writing and if they were the ones to decide whether I would be published I wouldn't be! But I've been fortunate that there are also people out there who do like my writing and I've been very lucky to find them.

Find out more about Carol and her work by visiting her website, www.carolmatas.com.

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