And now for something a little different. Up to now, my #WritersOnWrting series has been interviews with people who are in my circle. Today, I bring you an interview with a-friend-of-a-friend. Ladies and Gentlemen, Maggie De Vries.
1. I am….. a writer of books for young people, a teacher in UBC’s Creative Writing Department, a student in Martha Beck’s Life Coach Training Program, a wife, aunt, sister, daughter and friend, and a lover of cats and rivers and books.
2. Author of…. ten books including five picture books, two juvenile novels, two teen novels and one memoir. I’ve also written pieces for two anthologies and been published in Chatelaine and Readers Digest. My memoir tells the story of my sister, one of Vancouver’s missing women, and includes some of her writing as well as my own. It’s called Missing Sarah. My tenth book is coming out on March 25: it’s a novel for teens and adults called Rabbit Ears, and it is fiction, but rooted deeply in Sarah’s childhood and youth. And I have recently started a somewhat eclectic blog, called A Dim Capacity (for Wings). The title comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson.
3. The first thing I ever wrote…. for fun was a poem about my cat. I was seven years old, and I remember it well. Here’s the poem:
My cat’s washcloth is pink.
She washes her feet first.
What is her washcloth?
“I know,” said the cat. “I know.
When I recite it for children, they look at me in astonishment. I imagine them thinking, that’s a poem?
4. I knew I wanted to be a writer when…. I was very small, and I wrote all through elementary school, culminating, when I was in Grade Six, in a book with chapters called Annie Andrews. After that, the dream got pushed aside for a long time. I didn’t think it could come true for me. That meant that my first book didn’t get published until I was almost thirty, and my second, not until I was forty.
5. My first writing success was….. that first book. It’s called Once Upon a Golden Apple. I co-wrote it with my aunt, Jean Little; (See #6) it was illustrated by Phoebe Gilman and published by Penguin. That book is still in print after more than twenty years, and I believe that it has sold more than 100,000 copies!! It came about through a story a woman told my aunt and me at the literary scholar Northrop Frye’s wedding reception, which just goes to show that children’s stories can arise anytime anywhere. You just have to pay attention!
6. Who were your influences? My aunt is the Canadian children’s author Jean Little, and her first book, Mine for Keeps, was published the year after I was born (and it’s still in print). She’s been legally blind all her life, she has written more than fifty books, she turned 82 in January and yesterday she sent me a new manuscript to read. I lived with her and my grandmother in Guelph, Ontario, for my first year of university and for two years later on in my twenties. During that later stint, Aunt Jean and I wrote Once Upon a Golden Apple together, we team-taught children’s literature at the University of Guelph, and I traveled with her as her assistant all over Canada and the United States and to England. I still learn from her today.
The hundreds and hundreds of books I read as a child and a teen also influenced me, of course, more than I could ever measure. I read indiscriminately, but certain books grew tattered through rereading. For example, I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. More recently, I have loved Katherine Paterson’s books and Peter Dickinson’s and Kenneth Oppel’s and Morris Gleitzman’s and Sarah Ellis’s. For adults, one of my favourite authors is Barbara Kingsolver. I find Anne Lamott inspiring. I can’t say how these authors have influenced me, but I can say that I love their work.
7. Describe your writing process.
I have an office, and I do work there sometimes, but I’m writing the answers to these questions tucked up in bed with a cup of tea at my side and a view of the Fraser River out my window. I’ll often have Misha and Sophie, our two cats, curled up with (or on) me as I work. I also enjoy writing in coffee shops or libraries, places where I am surrounded by activity, but it has nothing to do with me. I mostly write on a computer, though it can feel good to write longhand once in a while. That’s how I write in my journal. And I’m a big list-maker. Even though I have a smartphone, those lists end up scattered all over on scraps of paper. Writing is not a daily practice for me, though I wish it were. My life has many parts, and I find that teaching pushes writing aside. I also find that I have to work at the discipline of writing. It’s hard for me to get myself started when I’m working on a book, hard to get myself back to the computer, and easy for me to become distracted. When I can get myself to do it, I like to write in the morning when I’m fresh.
8. What does success as a writer look like to you? Do you think you are successful?
Success as a writer looks different for each writer. For some, it means fame and fortune. For others, it is entirely private, or only for family and friends. For some it is rooted more in the act of sharing the writing, of talking about it with readers. For others, the act of writing itself is profoundly transformative.
Like many writers, for years after I had been published, I balked at calling myself a writer. Only when I had several books to my name, did I start to use the word. Now, writing is at the heart of my life, even though it’s hard, even though I sometimes think, in Dorothy Parker’s words, that “I hate writing, but love having written.” I have created a life that revolves around writing: I write; I teach creative writing; I give workshops to writers; I speak about writing. I might wish for more of this and less of that sometimes, (or vice versa), and I might quake and quail as my new book hits the shelves, but, yes. I think I am successful.
9. What does the future look like? What are you working on?
I am going back to a time-travel novel set up the coast in Desolation Sound. I wrote it years ago, and it is flawed, but I want to see if I can salvage part of it. Rabbit Ears (the book that’s coming out right now) is deeply personal and deals with tough subjects like addiction and sexual abuse. I would like to spend some time on a story that springs more from my travels and my imagination.
After that, I plan to head north to further my research on the string of towns along the railway between Jasper and Prince George. I would like to set one (or maybe several) books in that landscape, a century ago, when the railway was coming through.
I also have a snippet of an idea for a graphic novel.
In addition to writing, I’ll be teaching at UBC, and maybe creating a small practice as a Creativity Coach once I complete my training.
Lots to look forward to!
10. Which famous writer would you like to write your biography?
Anne Lamott springs to mind. She understands and respects the messiness of life!