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Magnetic North, by Jeff Norton

How an author's memories influenced the final book in his YA fantasy series.


Jeff Norton has just concluded his MetaWars quartet (YA fantasy) and here, he talks about how his hero's adventures in London finally ran their course: Canada exerted a strong pull, and Jeff's own memories of growing up in this country made his way into the adventure.


An author’s raw materials are memories and observations. These inputs, synthesized by the magic of imagination and the discipline of sitting at the desk, produce fiction.

Before becoming a writer, I’d always wondered how much fiction was pulled from fact. Do authors simply dress up their autobiographies as either more glamorous or more dysfunctional (depending on the genre) and force their inner lives onto the page?

For me, I found the experience of creating characters, building their worlds, and telling their stories to be a largely out-of-body experience. I projected elements of myself into the lives of fictional strangers until they became their own people with their own voices, outlooks, hopes, and fears. The characters took on lives of their own; like teenagers growing up and leaving home to explore the world on their own.

The MetaWars novels chart the global adventures of a reluctant teenage hero named Jonah Delacroix. He grows up in a futuristic London (well, mostly online), but his mother is originally from Montreal. And at the end of his journey, the magnetic north pulls him onto Canadian soil in the final book, The Freedom Frontier. Why did I have Jonah return to Canada? Unconsciously, I realized that I’d overlaid his adventures with one of my own from my youth.

When I was ten years old, the promoters of Expo '86 set up an exhibit at Toronto’s CNE. It was massive, gleaming table filled with tiny models of Vancouver’s buildings and the strange and wonderful assortment of attractions around False Creek. I decided right then and there that I needed to go.

At first my parents discounted the idea; not least because we didn’t have the money to mount such an expedition. But I became obsessed. As August turned to September, and I entered middle school, I took every job I could get. I snagged a newspaper route, caddied at bridge tournaments, and took odd jobs in the neighbourhood all to earn enough to fly to Vancouver experience the life-sized wonder I’d seen in model form.

The winter of ’86 in Burlington was a brutal one, but as I trudged through snow banks to deliver the papers, got attacked by dogs, and worked weekends carrying decks of cards to chain-smoking bridge pairs, I saved all my pennies. And they added up.

Come spring, I was off to Vancouver and walked through the gates of Expo '86, taking in one of Canada’s proudest moments, experiencing culture from around the world in one place.  Afterwards, my sister (who also worked to earn her way) and my mother (ditto) took a Via Rail train through the Rocky Mountains. That three-day pilgrimage, gasping at the enormity of nature, has never left me.

So years later, when my bruised and battered character Jonah nearly makes it around the world, he finds himself in western Canada. And drawing on imprinted memories of my journey, I reversed the direction and I gave him a harrowing rail journey through the mountains.

My train journey was awe inspiring and memorable, but actually quite uneventful. The most interesting thing that happened was that a group of tourists from Japan took a lot of photo of “real Canadian children.” 

But since I write fiction, and not travel memoirs, I force Jonah to zip-line onto that train from a doomed single-engine Cesna, send assassins to kill him on board, and ultimately derail the train upon reaching Vancouver. 

That’s why writing fiction is so much fun. We writers can draw on a memory, morph it and explode it, to give the reader something spectacular that’s still based, however thinly, on the ultimate raw material: truth.


Jeff Norton is the author of the MetaWars saga (Hachette UK Canada) and Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie (Penguin Canada). He’s also an executive producer of Trucktown on Treehouse TV. He lives in London, UK, with his wife and two young sons. He’s on the web at and tweets as @thejeffnorton.

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