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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

A Conversation with Kyo Maclear, WOTS Toronto

An interview with author of the acclaimed picture book Virginia Wolf.

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The Word On The Street is coming up, and we're partnering with WOTS Toronto to bring you author interviews, contests, and lots of snaps on the day!

When: Sunday, September 23, 2012—11:00 a.m.
Where: Queens Park Circle
, Toronto, ON M5R 2E8

As part of 49th Shelf's #Fest2Fest, Julie  Wilson is speaking with authors across the country (and abroad) who are appearing at literary festivals to promote their latest books. And I've been lucky enough to get in on a bit of the action!

Book Cover Virginia Wolf

Kyo Maclear will appear at Word on the Street Toronto 2012 at the Children's Reading Tent at 3:20 PM - 3:40 PM and at Great Books Marquee at 4:30 PM - 5:00 PM

KC: You have a background in art and art-writing. Do you write your picture books with images in mind? And do you work closely with your illustrator to ensure that her vision stays true to yours?

KM: I do write visual notes while I’m drafting a story. This is important to me because I often rely on the images to fill in details that I have withheld in the written narrative. Some of my notes are very simple: “the bicycle should be too small,” “show examples of French food here,” etc. Others are more thematic. For example, with Virginia Wolf, I suggested that the beginning be rendered in “muted, monochromatic tones,” followed by “an explosion of colour when Vanessa begins to paint Bloomsberry.”

I like to think my initial notes help get things rolling but ultimately it’s the genius of the illustrator to advance and enrich the story as he or she sees fit. I’ve been so lucky to work with such brilliant collaborators! With each book I’ve written, illustrations have played a vital narrative (as opposed to merely decorative) role. One of my great joys has been catching glimpses of this work as it unfolds through mood boards and preliminary sketches.

KC: The stories in your picture books have layers upon layers of subtext. What other authors have inspired you to write for children in the way that you do?

KM: I am drawn to stories that trust in the intelligence of children. I like subtext. I like resonance and lingering aftereffects. I love Shaun Tan, Norton Juster, William Steig and Maurice Sendak. In different ways they have all given us entrancing books full of humour, passion and complexity.

I find it very exciting that picture books are beginning to be recognized as a cultural form to be enjoyed by people of all ages.  All the writers I’ve mentioned have paved the way.

KC: Would your latest picture book Virginia Wolf have worked if it was about a little girl called, just say, Penelope Wolf? Did the story begin for you with the literary allusion? Why was the allusion important?

KM: Penelope Wolf would absolutely work. It would work as a bad day, animal transformation story. I know it would work because for many young readers, without prior biographical information of Virginia Woolf, Virginia might as well be Penelope—i.e. as far as they’re concerned, she is just a little girl having a rotten time. It pleases me to know that the story can work at that level and still be rewarding.

For adults and older readers, however, I believe the allusion is one of the satisfying things about the book. It adds a layer of depth and poignancy to an otherwise simple tale of sadness and sisterly love. Readers can infuse it with their own knowledge and experiences. (With allusive books, the more you put in, the more you get out.)

I chose this particular literary allusion for the simple reason that Virginia Woolf means a lot to me. Her writing has accompanied me during my own bouts of wolfishness. Her essay "On Being Ill" remains one of the most beautiful and true pieces I have ever read on the subject of depression.

Last but not least, I chose to write about Virginia and Vanessa because I am interested in playing with the picture biography form. I have two picture books coming out next year that are also “loosely based” on real-life people. In each instance, I have tried to convey something about the spirit of the person’s life and contribution rather than adhere to any straightforward facts or chronology.

Book Cover Spork

KC: Are your stories for adults and those for children born in similar ways? Creatively speaking, do they come from the same place?

KM: Good question! Most of my ideas come to me in the in-between moments of my day—when I’m showering or cooking or walking home from the gym. My tiny notebooks allow me to jot things down quickly. With my novels, various images and threads eventually converge, a character steps forward and coyly asks: “What if such-and-such were to happen to me?” And off I go.  

With the children’s books, the initial process is often very fast and intimate. A story will occasionally arise almost fully formed. At least two stories have started as chapbooks, which I made as gifts for my children and our friends.

But everything needs refinement and, creatively speaking, I find the children’s writing can be as challenging as my work for adults. Novels are huge puffy things when set beside the sparer form of the picture book but I think of it as a challenge to make the simple things feel true.

KC: How do your literary festival experiences differ when you're presenting as a children's author instead of an adult author? Which do you find the most challenging?

KM: I really don’t have a lot of festival experience. I may have a clearer answer later this Fall. (After I attend several festivals while wearing both hats.) What I will say is that it is VERY FUN and SOMEWHAT UNNERVING visiting with a large group of children. I have fielded all sorts of unexpected questions—from “What part of your story do you wish you could change right now?” to “Do you personally know Robert Munsch?”

KC: Do you have a favourite literary festival memory, as either a presenter or audience member?

KM: My favourite memory is seeing Tim O’Brien at IFOA. I went with my father, who had once interviewed O’Brien for his Vietnam War television series. My father and I are both huge fans of O’Brien’s novel, The Things They Carried. (Has anyone written more powerfully about the Vietnam War’s impact on the American soldiers who fought there?) But returning to your earlier question, O’Brien, to my mind, is a master of spare, allusive writing. He was also the first person to really make me understand—and feel—the difference between "story-truth" (the truth of fiction) and "happening-truth" (the truth of fact or occurrence), and how the former can be sometimes truer than the latter.

About Virginia Wolf: Vanessa's sister, Virginia, is in a "wolfish" mood — growling, howling and acting very strange. It's a funk so fierce, the whole household feels topsy-turvy. Vanessa tries everything she can think of to cheer her up, but nothing seems to work. Then Virginia tells Vanessa about an imaginary, perfect place called Bloomsberry. Armed with an idea, Vanessa begins to paint Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, transforming them into a beautiful garden complete with a ladder and swing "so that what was down could climb up." Before long, Virginia, too, has picked up a brush and undergoes a surprising transformation of her own. Loosely based on the relationship between author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell, Virginia Wolf is an uplifting story for readers of all ages.

Author Photo Kyo Maclear

About Kyo Maclear: Kyo Maclear is a novelist and children’s author. She has two new books out now: a novel, Stray Love (HarperCollins Canada) and Virginia Wolf (Kids Can Press.)

Visit Kyo Maclear's website:

More about Word On the Street: Toronto

As always, WOTS will celebrate readers and literacy by hosting authors and speakers in a variety of venues.

The Nothing But The Truth Tent features authors talking about literary non-fiction. The Great Books Marquee features the buzz spring and fall titles. The Penguin Pavilion showcases some of their upcoming and favourite releases, as does Random House at the Remarkable Reads Tent. And there's always a huge crowd for the Scotiabank Giller Prize Bestsellers Stage and the  Toronto Book Awards Tent where you'll hear newly-nominated authors read from their works.

The Humber School Of Writers hosts a day of writing working shops at the Workshop Marquee.

Young adults will enjoy This is Not The Shakespeare Stage, a new venue featuring sessions with Canadian young adult authors and artists, while KidStreet is back, as always, along with the Children’s Activity Tent featuring activities, crafts, entertainment, and appearances from some of your favourite children's authors and illustrators! Same goes for the Children’s Reading Tent and the TVOKids Stage! Family fun!

Finally, be sure to stop by The Toronto Start Tent and Open Book's Vibrant Voices of Ontario Tent, which celebrates Canadian fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Visit The Word On The Street website for all venues, locations, and schedules.
Visit WOTS on Facebook and Twitter (#wotsTO).

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