…And then there are some guests that take a blog interview to the next level.
Normally, I send out nine tough-ish questions by email, and my interviewee replies back after each question. For collaborations, each partner will take the questions and answer them in isolation; I then compile the answers. In the case of The Puzzle Box interview, Eileen Bell took point and compiled the answers for me. (And consideration that was a collaboration with four people, boy, did I appreciate Eileen’s help!)
So that’s all I’d expected from Paula and Dawn, considering how busy they are on any given day: they would answer the questions on their own, and then they would send me back their answers, either separately or in two attachments on one email.
Instead, what I got back was a conversation.
And in the end, isn’t that what makes a good collaboration?
9DW: The three of us have been involved in the Muskoka Novel Marathon to a greater or lesser extent over the last five years at least (both of you having been very involved at various times across various years). I know my reasons for wanting to help raise funds for literacy, and we all know it’s a worthy cause. But what is it that really drives the two of you to support YMCA Literacy Programs in Muskoka?
Paula: Being an avid reader and writer, I’ve benefited so much from books and stories, it’s hard to imagine what life would be like without books as a central part of it. I want others to know the joy of curling up with a good book. And adult literacy is a huge, yet often hidden, issue. It leads to unemployment, underemployment and all kinds of other issues.
Dawn: I started as a writer at the MNM because I wanted to connect with other writers in a town that I was new to. I quickly learned how much the YMCA’s literacy programs are needed in our region. In an area with relatively high unemployment, poor literacy skills can resign someone to an endless cycle of unemployment and social assistance. Plus, low literacy and illiteracy come with heavy stigmas. All of the money we raise helps to bring those issues to light in the most positive way possible: by creating success stories.
9DW: There are lots of other ways we can raise awareness and raise funds for literacy. But why do you think having a 72-hr writer’s marathon is such a big hit?
Paula: When else do people have that kind of time to devote purely to writing? Something extraordinary happens when you can focus like that and do nothing but write, eat and sleep (that third one is optional, as you well know, Pat!) for three full days. The people who are involved have created an incredible, warm community. They support each other emotionally and practically, not only during the marathon, but throughout the year.
Dawn: It’s really hard to explain what happens in that room. An amazing energy is created when you put that many creative people together, even when they’re all working on separate projects. They arrive (mostly) strangers and, after 72 hours of laughing, crying, cursing and commiserating, emerge as friends.
9DW: Let’s say there are people out there who want to help erase illiteracy, but have neither the cash to donate nor feel up to writing a 72-hr marathon. How can they help support causes like MNM?
Paula: Local literacy programs are always looking for volunteer tutors. Fundraising events like the MNM only exist because of volunteers who put time and energy into making them happen. You could always volunteer to help out, in a big or small way.
Dawn: And by spreading the word that adult literacy is a very real issue that impacts more than just the individual. It affects families and communities, too. A highly literate adult population is essential for a thriving economy. One of the first steps to fixing the problem is acknowledging that it’s there–because it’s often hidden away–and removing the stigma attached to it.
9DW: You two suddenly had an epiphany last year: collaborate not only a novel for kids, but on a series of them. How have things been going since then?
Paula: Wonderfully! Working together keeps our inspiration and motivation high, and we’re both having so much more fun with this project than we’ve ever had before. We’re close to finishing Book 1 and will soon be looking for an agent. I think if you’re going to collaborate, you have to find the right partner. We have similar writing styles, similar interests, and we trust each other, both professionally and personally. That’s crucial.
Dawn: What Paula said!
9DW: There are a lot of different ways people collaborate in a writing partnership. Tell me a little about yours.
Dawn: First we did lots of brainstorming and talking and planning, agreeing on the setting and characters and plots. For each book, one of us writes the very rough draft (more like a detailed outline), and from that point forward we both contribute equally. We save the document on Dropbox and touch base with each other each day about what we have accomplished.
Paula: It’s so fun to put a comment like, “This needs more description” and then come back and find the description added. And it’s even more fun to find completely unprompted and unexpected details and changes that make the story richer and deeper. It’s like having a writing fairy.
Dawn: Or like opening presents on Christmas morning! It makes the story so much better to have two brains thinking about it from our own unique perspectives.
9DW: If you hit a hitch in the story, how do you two work it out?
Paula: So far we haven’t hit a hitch, if you mean a disagreement between us. If we do, how do you think we should work it out, Dawn?
Dawn: Over a cup of tea? We really haven’t had any issues (we’re very civilized that way), but I think if one ever did arise we would address it the same way we do everything else: with a long walk and a long talk.
Paula: If you mean a plot problem or whatever, that’s one of the beautiful things about collaborating: instead of banging your own head against a wall, you get to talk it through with someone else whose different point of view often opens up new possibilities.
Dawn: And does it ever. I find I’m often inspired by what Paula has written and it can make me look at a scene or chapter in a whole new light.
9DW: Tell me about the main character(s). What traits or mannerisms have made you really fall in love with these characters?
Dawn: That’s a hard one to answer because the main character changes from book to book, with the supporting characters and setting remaining the same. It’s been a really fun way to approach it. All of the main characters have issues that they’re working through (don’t we all) and that alone makes them lovable. As for the supporting cast, they are a quirky bunch who are lovable for their uniqueness. And the setting…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out. That’s where the magic is!
Paula: Yes! Absolutely. We fell in love with the place, which is really a character of its own, and each of the human characters grows on us as they form a relationship with it.
9DW: How has working together on a project like this affected your views toward writing as a whole?
Paula: It’s a great reminder that writing really is and can be fun. And I always knew it took a village to create a book, but this highlights just how not-solitary it can be.
Dawn: Yes, so often we embark on writing projects behind closed doors or in our own minds. If they see the light of day, it’s in small snippets that don’t ever really give someone else a true idea of what the book will be like until it’s finished. With a collaboration like this, the sharing and discussing and deciding as a pair is so much more fun than doing it on my own.
9DW: Who do you hope will stand in as your beta-readers? And what do you hope will be the impact you have on young readers?
Paula: We have a terrific writers’ circle we rely on for feedback, plus a couple of professional writers and editors who have already offered to take a look when our book is ready. I’ve also been reading excerpts to the grade 4-6 kids whose writers’ workshop I run at the Muskoka Montessori School, and their comments have been invaluable.
As for the impact on young readers, I just want them to fall in love with the setting and the idea behind the series. I hope it will make them pay more attention to the objects around them and appreciate the magic that’s everywhere in the world.
Dawn: And understand that they have the ability to make changes in their own lives, even if they sometimes feel powerless or confused. Everything they need is within them if they just trust themselves.
If you want to know more about the literacy programs that we support – and why we do it – please visit http://www.muskokanovelmarathon.com/. Our writers want to make the world better for those who have simply been left behind. It’s not about belonging to one political creed or another, nor about analyzing education systems, nor about blaming socioeconomics or government policies. It’s about identifying a problem (literacy and numeracy difficulties), foreseeing the personal benefit from fixing the problem (new readers with increased incomes and more free time to read!), and then pitching in to effect change. The reward for our efforts: knuckling down, writing a book, and walking away with new family members you would otherwise never have met.
We’ll return to this topic again in June and July, as we get close to MNM 2014.
PPS: Notice we don’t have any links to books for Dawn or Paula? Notice there aren’t any questions about editing, publication, representation or marketing? You know why? Because writing is more than publishing. Storytelling is more than getting your name in print.
I specifically asked Dawn and Paula for this interview, because when last I talked to them in person, their eyes lit up when they spoke about their writing project. Months later, they’re still going strong – and so is their delight.
It’s because they found the combination that sparked in them a renewed joy for creation.
I’ve been looking forward to this interview so much, because too many writers on my FB contacts list have fallen out of love with the whole publishing industry, and because we could all benefit by watching writers writing for the love of writing.
What makes you fall back in love with writing for the sake of writing? Tell me in the comments.
And watch these two. They’re gonna do just fine.