I was thrilled on Monday, January 28, when the American Library Association announced its annual youth media awards (such as the well-known Caldecott and Newbery) and I learned that a book written by my cousin, Beverley Brenna, The White Bicycle, had been named a Michael L. Printz Honor Book. I immediately emailed her to suggest an interview, and this interview took place that evening. I’m delighted to share it with you all today.
Beverley Brenna lives on an acreage near Saskatoon with husband Dwayne and their sons. When she’s not writing, she’s teaching courses on Canadian children’s literature, and literacy teaching and learning, at the University of Saskatchewan. She welcomes invitations to speak at conferences, when her university teaching schedule allows, and a current preferred topic is How Books Can Change the World–One Reader at a Time!
And now to the interview – I hope you won’t get too confused between the Beth and the Bev in this interview. Imagine what it was like when we lived in the same house! We’d hear the phone being answered, “Do you wish to speak to Beverley or Elizabeth?” because the names sound so similar.
Beth: Bev, congratulations on The White Bicycle being named a Printz Honor Book. I was so excited the morning the announcement was made – I can’t imagine how excited you must have been. More about that shortly. First, could you tell us a bit about The White Bicycle?
Bev: This is the third stand-alone novel in a young adult trilogy about a teen named Taylor Jane who sees the world through the unique perspective of Asperger’s Syndrome. In each of the three books, Taylor seeks independence and adulthood, but through different means.
In Wild Orchid, the first in the series, she hoped that having a boyfriend would earn her passage into the adult world. In the second book, Waiting for No One, she thinks about how post-secondary education, and entering the world of work, will help her find her place.
In The White Bicycle, she realizes that independence is something she and her family must work on together. Reading existential work by Jean Paul Sartre helps her formulate a new world view, as does setting out into the south of France for an unpredictable summer.
Beth: It’s the last in the trilogy about Taylor Jane Simon – a fact which is quite bittersweet for your readers who have grown to love and care about Taylor. How does it feel for you to be at the end of this trilogy?
Bev: When I set out to write about this character, I hadn’t planned on three books, but after I finished the first one, and what I knew about Taylor Jane percolated for a bit, I wanted to see what happened next. Thus the second book was conceived, and then the same thing happened to create the third.
I think by having Taylor go back into her childhood in this third novel, through flashbacks, to piece her life together and search for self-understanding, I’ve satisfied my curiosity about her as a whole person and I feel that my work with her is finally done! I’m happy with the decision to continue her story to this place where she seems ready for a happy future–no regrets.
Beth: How do you manage to get so “under the skin” and “inside the head” of Taylor – she seems so real. A question akin to that is how do you manage to portray a person with Asperger’s in such a convincing manner?
Bev: For me, I approach characterization rather like an acting exercise, trying to see the world through another person’s perspective while at the same time retaining many of my own thoughts and motivations. Because of this, I think Taylor is quite a bit like me, as are all my characters, really.
Beth: The flashbacks to her childhood reveal so much. What made you decide to use this device to explore how and why Taylor got to be who she is?
Bev: I did initially think about this third book as possibly a prequel to the others, going back and reliving Taylor’s childhood from a present perspective, rather than a past perspective.
To be honest, when I began to do this, her early memories were so raw that I felt a book set in her childhood days would be just too difficult to read and to write. By using flashbacks, I thought I could convey the traumatic events that littered Taylor’s past, when she was very much misunderstood, while still operating from a hopeful stance that she was now–at age nineteen– in control of her destiny and could take ownership of the things she needed to do in order to be successful
Beth: As I read The White Bicycle, I was particularly impressed with some of Taylor’s insights. For instance, on page 2, “In life it is your dreams that take you forward, and your dreams that make you human.” And on page 129, “I wonder if sometimes life is like that, with places you just have to get through in order to be anywhere at all.” These are thoughtful, profound, and true. Are such bursts of clear insight typical of young people with Asperger’s?
Bev: I think any person has a profile of both gifts and challenges. Taylor in particular has the gift of self-awareness, and she has struggled to add an understanding of alternative perspectives to her own as part of her maturing process. Perhaps because she is so terrified at not being able to live independently, she has considered deeply what it is that makes up humanity, and how she herself might strive to carve out a happy and productive place for herself.
Taylor’s reading has helped her consider identity in a profound way. In Wild Orchid, she speaks of books she’s read, and one that has made an impression on her is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Interestingly, this was never a book that caught my interest as a teenager, but it does speak to Taylor. She begins reading existential plays, and talks about The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter–a drama written in the tradition of Theatre of the Absurd. In the next book Waiting for No One, Taylor continues her existential reading, and fastens on Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot.
From my own reading of these plays, I have the sense that maybe Theatre of the Absurd has language patterns borrowed from people with autism. There are a great many silences in Pinter’s work, and the conversations that people have are not typical ones.
For whatever reason, Taylor finds that the plays speak to her, and through her reading and rereading, she thinks about the kind of person she wants to be–and doesn’t want to be. She does not want to be like the character of Stanley, in Pinter’s The Birthday Party. Stanley has unusual fears, as Taylor does, but his fears cause him to stay in his room. Taylor is adamant that she won’t end up like Stanley–and this is what causes her to seek medication for obsessions that could potentially prevent her from being in the work force.
In The White Bicycle, again it is her reading–this time a little book she discovers by Jean Paul Sartre– that helps her identify the type of relationships she wants with the world.
Beth: Many of my blog readers are writers as well, both published and aspiring. I know they’re wondering about your writing process, as am I. You have a full time job as a university professor, you have a family, you have outside interests – how do you carve out time for writing? Do you belong to a writer’s group? How do you get feedback on your works in progress?
Bev: I tend to write a great deal in a short period of time, trying to get the full story drafted while my memory holds onto the whole picture. Then I put the manuscript away for a while. When I take it out, it is invariably bad, and I have to spend a lot of time rewriting it–sometimes completely and from a different perspective altogether.
I always try to get it right the first time, but somehow I never do. If anyone has a magic method where writing doesn’t involve periods of self loathing (“How could I have written something as bad as that!”) and anxiety (“Now I’ve spent a lot of time on this already and it’s still bad–if I throw it all away I’ve wasted all that time. But if I keep it, it’s going to take me a lot more time to make it right! AARGH!”), please let me know!
My sons, when they are home, are always good about my work. They’re older now and sneak in and try to get their backs scratched when I’m picking away at revisions. When one son wanders in, I can usually keep the work going, especially when I’m doing minor edits and thinking. When two sons wander in, I can sometimes keep working, just doing some of the planning (and scratching). But when three sons ambush me, that’s when the work stops, for sure.
My husband’s great, as well–and I like to share puzzles with him about the writing because just in talking about things, sometimes the snags unravel. When all else fails, and I have a knot that can’t be worked out of a manuscript, I try exercising, and sometimes–bang–in the middle of an aerobics class, a solution comes to me. Now that is magic! I wish I could market that!
I do have a writers’ group, involving two other women. We write very different things, for the most part, and are good sounding boards for each other. When we get too busy to read each other’s work, we still have lunches now and then, for moral support and encouragement. I think every writer needs to feel that kind of support because it’s a lonely job sometimes, with lots of self doubt.
In terms of feedback, my editor at Red Deer Press is tremendous. Peter Carver has been supportive of the character of Taylor Jane from the beginning, as well as another character–Billy, a boy with FASD–in my book The Moon Children–and has been super helpful with all of my work. His approach is direct yet subtle–telling me his honest opinion when things don’t work, but also asking questions, pushing me to take the work forward in my own way.
I’ve had great support in the past from the Canada Council and the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. These organizations do a great deal to support aspiring artists, and they have been instrumental in helping me finance time away from other activities, and explore new settings, in order to produce my work. I have to say that the Wild Orchid trilogy would not have been written without their help.
Much of what inspires me to write is the same force that I think inspires other people to create with whatever art form they’re interested in. I’m not fortunate in drawing or painting or music (sorry, just stick people and an auto-harp!) but with words I think I can perhaps shape something interesting.
I love seeing people well versed in their craft, producing it to the best of their abilities, and rejoicing in the energy this kind of production provides them in return, as well as to others around them. I go to Elton John concerts, for example, and am so inspired by the joy he has in his music–I come out of there absolutely revitalized and wanting to keep writing!
Beth: I know you’ve recently returned from a conference of the Council for Exceptional Children: Division of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, where you spoke about writing about characters with disabilities. Could you tell us something about that experience?
Bev: I’m lucky in that my academic research feeds into my artistic work. As a person who is currently studying children’s literature containing characters with disabilities, the patterns and trends I’ve noticed have helped me think about what I want to include in my own writing.
For example, one of the trends I noted in a recent study about Canadian novels for young people is that characters with disabilities rarely travel. That’s why I made a point of moving Taylor around in the context of her books. She goes to Waskesiu, a national park close to home, in the first book. She visits her father in Cody, Wyoming in the second book. Then, in the third book, she takes a work opportunity in the south of France. This work opportunity turns out to be not all that she had anticipated, and there’s a plot twist in there involving Taylor and her mother that I won’t give away in case any readers of this blog have yet to read the book.
I feel really lucky to be invited to speak at conferences because they’re great places to make connections with people I can learn from.
Beth: What is key for you in crafting believable characters who happen to have disabilities?
Bev: I really strive for multi-faceted characters whose disability is one characteristic but not representative of the whole person, just as people in real lives navigate disabilities along with other aspects of themselves.
I’ve heard this advice again and again from other writers about writing in general: create rich characters, warts and all, not stereotypes. My editor, wonderful Peter Carver, has been very good about reminding me to take good care of my secondary characters, making sure I’m giving them enough shape.
Beth: What doors (like the CEC, for example) have been opened to you because of your writing – particularly the Taylor trilogy?
Bev: Meeting young readers has been a definite plus. I love going to author readings and talking to kids who’ve read my work and like things about it and hate things about it. I also like hearing about the writing and reading they are interested in doing. I think this kind of engagement with youth makes me a better writer, and I know it makes me a better teacher.
I also love the serendipitous connections that happen whenever people mingle through common interests. I met an artist, Taylor Crowe, at a convention last year. He was the keynote speaker, presenting on his own experiences as a person with autism. When he showed us his art work, I was struck by his skill, and through the support of my publisher, Red Deer Press, and a small publications grant from the University of Saskatchewan, we were able to invite him to produce the beautiful acrylic wash that appears on the cover of The White Bicycle.
Beth: I have to ask – how did it feel when you found out that your book had been named a Printz Honor book?
Bev: Really thrilled, for sure. The man this award was named for–Michael L. Printz–was a wonderful librarian who supported young adults in their reading and, as a consequence, in their lives. It’s an honour to have his name on my book as an Honor book, that’s for sure.
Beth: What is the best part of this honor for you?
Bev: I hope that as a Canadian, I can motivate others to read and write Canadian work. That’s the legacy many other authors bestowed on me as a young writer, and I think it’s a really important task–to help colour a landscape where other artists can envision themselves.
Beth: All of us eager readers of Bev Brenna books want to know, what’s next?
Bev: I’m at work right now on a book of poems involving a restaurant that cooks bugs for people to eat. This has been a long term project, and I’m happy that Tradewind Books has taken the challenging of illustrating and producing this collection for 2014. Then we’ll see. Perhaps more historical fiction, as I didn’t really apply myself to learning any history as a young person and I’m really interested in knowing more historical details now.
Beth: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Bev: I’ve had great supports that I’m tremendously grateful for in my writing life. My storytelling mother, who was still quoting her own poetry just before she died at age 95, has been an evocative model of the importance of language. My father, who loved books and kept a little personal library of his own–was a powerful model for me, as well. I’m really grateful for the support of family and friends, as well as grateful for the liberal arts education I had as an undergraduate student at the University of Saskatchewan.
Previous courses taken in Drama and English as well as Education strongly underpin my work in The White Bicycle as well as provide a foundation for the entire series of books. For the development of my fictional character, Taylor Jane, I united themes from Pinter and Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd, existential thought, and supportive educational practices for students with autism as well as applied fundamental aspects of children’s literature that emerged from my training. I believe that we need to take care that our universities continue to celebrate the importance of the arts and humanities in foundational learning.
Thanks for these great questions–they really challenged me to think hard about my process and my finished work! Great choices, Beth! All the best to you!
Beth: All the best to you, as well, Bev. Thanks so much for participating in this interview, and congratulations once again.
If you’d like to learn more about Bev, check out her website at http://www.beverleybrenna.com