Thank you, Successstory.com for the great interview!
- Early Childhood Aspirations
I knew I wanted to be a writer ever since I read my first book, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, at age nine. That might seem to be an unusual choice as a first book, and age nine is pretty late to be learning to read, but I had learning challenges. It wasn’t until I was an adult and an author that I had a name for my learning problem – dyslexia.
While in the early grades, my teachers just thought that I was slow. They gave me very simple books, thinking that would help, but there’s no story in See Spot Run. I could guess what the words were and never really learned to sound out and decode like other kids my age. I was a great faker though and I went all the way to grade 4 before anyone realized I couldn’t read. They made me repeat grade 4, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Why? Because I was forced to start over and learn to read in earnest. I chose Oliver Twist because I thought it would be less embarrassing to carry around a big book for months on end as I taught myself to read. But what really surprised me was that unlike See Spot Run and other super-simple books, Oliver Twist proved to be so entertaining that I had an incentive to decode the words so I could find out what happened next.
That’s when I decided that when I grew up, I would write books too. I wanted to write complex stories but I’d leave out all the chunks of description that people tend to skip over, so instead of being big fat books like Oliver Twist, I write short novels like Making Bombs for Hitler.
The other great thing about failing grade 4 was that it taught me that there are worse things than failing – like never trying in the first place. I have no problem making a huge fool of myself. I try all sorts of things and I’m really bad at a lot of them, but this non-fear of failure means that I’ve learned how to be good at some things too.
- Parents’ role in shaping your future.
The year that I had to repeat grade 4 was also the year that my parents split up. This was in 1964. People did not get divorced in 1964. And I went to a Catholic school. Pretty disastrous, with parents telling their kids to avoid me because I was “the product of a broken home.”
But Mom was fabulous. She had an unjustified belief in my innate brilliance and she gave me the confidence to realize that short term failures were the path to long term success. She told me it was better to bloom when I was ready rather than to be a hot house flower.
And although Dad didn’t live with us, my older sister and I would see him every weekend. He encouraged me to look beyond traditional careers and to carve the path that was right for me. I don’t know of any other father in the 60s who encouraged his daughters towards untraditional careers with the same zest as my dad did.
- Taste of your “First Success”. When and What was it? Reminiscent the feelings of that “Special Moment”.
I prepared for a very long time to become an author. I completed a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature to help me with that. Then I worked for four years as the first female industrial sales rep in Canada ( I sold hand tools, grinding wheels, materials handling equipment etc to factories and machine shops ). All this time I was saving money to go back to school to do my Master’s degree in Library Science. Not to be a librarian, but to learn how to do research so that I could to proper historical research and be able to write well-documented historical fiction.
For a full year I had sent out my first novel manuscript to publishers in Canada and the US. I received more than 100 rejections. Then one day I had the inspiration to write a very short story based on a historical incident that happened to my own grandfather when he immigrated to Canada in 1913. I sent that manuscript to a handful of Canadian publishers, thinking it would also be rejected, but within two weeks I had THREE publishers interested in that manuscript.
It ended up being published as a picture book called Silver Threads, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, who is best known for illustrating Robert Munsch books. That was in 1996. The book was re-published in 2004 and is still in print to this day.
When the first phone call came in, asking for the rights to the manuscript, I was at a total loss for words. The second request was also by phone, and by this time it was like being inside a dream. The third came by mail, and by this time I realized I had to get an agent to sort it all out for me.
When Silver Threads came out, I was interviewed on TV and radio and for newspapers and magazines and it was scary but also a dream come true.
- “The First Big Success” that you will cherish all through your life.
I write stories about little bits of history that no one else knows about. The passion for me is to honour these heroes whose stories have not been told. One of those books was Making Bombs for Hitler, about a Ukrainian child captured by the Nazis during WWII and forced to work in a munitions plant because of her small and nimble fingers. These people were known as Ostarbeiters (eastern workers) and millions died in WWII, yet who knows about them?
When Making Bombs came out, I hoped that it would be well received but nothing prepared me for just how popular it has been. Here in Ontario Canada, it won the Silver Birch award for fiction, which is a readers’ choice award – the kids themselves choose the winner. It also won the Manitoba Young Readers’ Choice award. That book was recently released in Australia and NZ and the feedback is just as strong. It will be published in the US in 2017 and I am very excited about that.
But the moment I will cherish is when I was sitting on the stage at Harbourfront in Toronto with the 9 other nominees and my name was announced as the winner. There were throngs of kids in the audience and they screamed and shouted. This is the closest an author ever gets to being a rock star.
- All time Idol – Who? Why?
Jean Little, who is one of Canada’s finest authors and she’s never let anything stand in her way, not even the fact that she’s blind. Her books are so visual and real and she does such a spectacular job of seeing the world from a child’s eyes.
- Success to you means…
Being able to write the stories I’m passionate about, and having this as my career.
- Words of Wisdom…
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do it. If you want to do it badly enough, you’ll figure out a way. Often all it takes is failing a few dozen times and then you’ll be perfect at it.
- Looking Back…
Since 1996 I’ve had 19 books published and all of them broke new ground in some way or another and to me it’s interesting how many of them intertwine on their own without me consciously doing it. As an example, my first Ukrainian historical novel was Hope’s War, and it came out in 2001. To write it I had to read a lot about the history of Ukraine and World War II. That research then was the seed for my WWII trilogy, Stolen Child, Making Bombs for Hitler, Underground Soldier.
Similarly, that big fat unpublished novel that I got 100 rejections for – I pulled it out of a bottom drawer, and used it as inspiration for my Armenian Genocide trilogy, The Hunger, Nobody’s Child and Daughter of War, and also my two chapter books about Armenian orphans who came to Canada in 1923 – Aram’s Choice and Call Me Aram.
My first book, Silver Threads, was set during the Canadian internment operations of enemy aliens in WWI. My own Ukrainian-born grandfather was unjustly interned at that time. The research for that book helped me write the Dear Canada diary novel, Prisoners in the Promised Land, about a 12 year old girl interned in Spirit Lake Quebec.
Several threads of research all culminated for Dance of the Banished, which is set partly during the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, but also in Canada during the internment operations.
I’ve also written two books about a Vietnamese Operation Babylift orphan (Last Airlift and One Step at a Time) and have a new book out in 2016 called Adrift At Sea about a 6 year old Vietnamese boy who escapes with his family as a boat person.
- All writers usually write about their own experience incognito. Your novels?
My characters all struggle because of racism and war. I have led a fortunate life compared to the people that I write about. While I’m in the midst of writing I do feel every moment of their pain. I think readers do the same – by reading my books they realize how lucky they are. The characters themselves are drawn from people I know, and of course I can’t help but have my own blood in there as well.