This is writer Charis Cotter. She writes middle-grade ghost stories. Her newest book, The Ghost Road, is in the world and blowing us over like a ghost sneezed on us! She’ll be in Toronto at Type Books (2887 Dundas St. W) this Saturday, October 27, 2018 at 7pm for her first ever Ontario book launch!
Charis is a very good friend of mine. There are many reasons I love her, not the least of which is how incredible and inspiring her writing life is. I’ve asked her some questions about her writing life, her home and her new book. Settle in. Have a read. Then please show your support by buying her new book. Or, if you’re in Toronto, please join us at her book launch.
VS: I’d like to start with you describing where you live and write. I’m fascinated by this – and I’m not sure if many people know how your dedication to your craft and your community have helped you ‘arrive’ at this house….
CC: I live at the end of a road beside the Atlantic Ocean in Conception Bay North, Newfoundland. I bought my house here eleven years ago, but I fell in love with the Newfoundland landscape a very long time ago. My study looks out over water and headlands. I see the sun coming up every morning and the moon rise at night. I live by myself in the place that inspires me most, where there is space to think and dream and plot and imagine. Sometimes it’s too isolated (winter!) and I go back to Ontario for a month or so to visit family and get a hit of the big city.
VS: Now that we can see where you live, can you please share your daily writing routine. Discipline is a writer’s best friend, and you are one of the most disciplined writers ever!
CC: On a perfect writing day, I get up and meditate and do a little yoga, then after breakfast I go for a walk to the lighthouse. I find my walks really feed my writing – I seem to get the best ideas while walking. There seems to be a direct connection between my legs and my imagination. The walk seems to lead me right into the writing. I come home and start work around 9:30 or so and work till 12 or 12:30, when I stop for lunch. After lunch I’ll do some more work, and maybe a little housework, then at some point I have a half-hour nap. I guess you could call it a power nap to make it sound socially acceptable, but I still regard it as a guilty pleasure! Then I get up, have tea and a snack and work for a couple more hours till dinner. I don’t work after dinner. Usually my most creative time is in the morning, for writing, and the afternoon is for more left-brain kind of things: research, figuring out timelines and family trees, editing my work, etc. I’m driven by deadlines: mostly self-imposed. I’m a creature of habit: I like doing the same thing day after day, and my routines provide a framework for my writing. There are days when I skip my walk or my yoga (or both) but I try to keep to my schedule because it makes me happy.
VS: Let’s talk about the ghosts. They are always major players in your live storytelling and in your books. When did you become a conduit for ghost stories? How does live storytelling inform your written work?
CC: I always liked just the idea of ghosts. The idea that there is something unexplained beyond the everyday world. And I grew up behind a cemetery, which certainly fed my imagination. It was the Necropolis in Toronto, and it did seem like “the city of the dead” to me – it was as if I was surrounded by the dead, who were very peaceful and sleepy and benign. Until it got dark. !! Later, my daughter, Zoe, was a ghost freak as a child—she saw ghosts everywhere and I had to try and help her when she felt haunted by them. Coming to Newfoundland put me smack in the middle of a very haunted island – with ghostly traditions going back generations. Life here seems to be more directly connected to the past, perhaps because it’s an island and until lately has had a very homogeneous population. So the ghosts are still around! I trained as an actor, so it was a natural transition to use those performance skills when I was presenting my books at schools, so I started telling ghost stories. I collected quite a few stories myself, and heard many from students, and I got involved in a couple of ArtsSmarts projects where I published collections of of Newfoundland ghost stories collected and written by students.
I think the ghost storytelling helps me with building suspense in my work. Because when I’m on my feet telling a story, I can really see what holds the audience’s attention, and I’ve learned how to build the suspense to give them the most intense freak-out possible. There’s nothing like making 125 kids all jump and gasp, and sometimes even scream, at the same time! And that does translate into my writing on some level. Also I just love being with kids and now that Zoe’s grown up, visiting schools is my one direct connection with my writing audience.
VS: You’re an award winner. What is the first writing award you ever won (grade school awards count!)? Can you comment on the award system in the literary world? Is it important? Does it change you as a writer?
CC: I won a big fat dictionary in Grade 8 for having the highest marks in English, which included writing. But my first real writing award was the Heritage Toronto Award of Excellence for my very first book, Toronto Between the Wars: Life in the City 1919–1939. There were some well-known authors up for it and it gave me such a boost to win it, like one of those huge cranes lifted me up and swept me up high into the sky. It gave me confidence and I felt validated and recognized and for a while my cloak of invisibility wasn’t working any more! However, I did notice that I got very little press for that award, and I’ve noticed that since with awards. Sometimes the media just doesn’t care about writing awards if they don’t have a big dollar sign attached to them, and it’s a shame, because I think the award system is a very important way to give writers more respect for their work, and make them more widely known. Writing is a solitary art, and awards bring the writers out into the open. My first award did change me as a writer, and so have the other awards I’ve won since then. Each one is a pat on the back, a form of acceptance, a recognition. And since writers suffer as much as anyone else from imposter syndrome, insecurity, self-doubt and all the other demons that niggle away at our psyches, getting an award can be like surfacing from deep water and getting a big breath of fresh air. That said, lots of writers whose work deserve awards don’t get them, and it’s very competitive and can be heartbreaking too. But for me they’re like those gold stars I used to get on my work sometimes in public school… they bring a little glow. Or a big glow!
VS: Do you read scary books? As a reader – who are some of your favourite go-tos when you need inspiration for your writing? Maybe they’re not writers who write about ghosts at all?!
CC: I have to confess I don’t have a very high tolerance for scary books or movies! I prefer to be the one scaring other people! I get spooked too easily. I tend to read for entertainment and distraction, not inspiration. But when I read a really good writer I have a sense of awe and wonder and wish I could do that too! I read Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight recently and it was so beautifully written that it left me breathless. My favourite writers tend to be mystery writers; Laurie R. King, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling!), Sue Grafton, Elizabeth George. I also love the passion and exuberance of Spanish writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabelle Allende, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. They also like to bend reality, like me. My favourite ghost movie is The Others. Yikes. that’s all I can say. Yikes!
VS: Can you share a bit about how writing retreats/workshops have affected/informed your writing. Where have you been to attend these? Where would love to go to write?
CC: I had an amazing writing residency in Seaside, Florida a few years ago. I went in February, and it was warm enough to walk on the beach every day, so I got my hit of ocean air. I can’t walk to the lighthouse in the winter in Newfoundland! Most of the time it’s too wild. In Seaside, I had my own little cottage and there were five other artists, and the hosts had us to dinner a couple of times a week. It was good to mix with other artists and it was just so wonderful to be in such a beautiful place and have nothing to do but write every day. Since then I’ve been looking for another residency that will take me to a warmer climate in the winter. I’d love to be out in nature in a little cabin and be able to work and have other artists to socialize with. I’ve got the ideal setting for my own ongoing writing retreat in Newfoundland, but I’m lacking the other artists. And the walks in winter! I’d love to go to Italy, France and the west coast of North America for residencies.
I’ve never done workshops, really. I’ve mostly taught myself, although I did take the Humber College Correspondence course for two years running and that was really useful. Working with another writer or editor on my work has always taught me the most, aside from just struggling through on my own and finding out what works. I’ve also been an editor in my day job for more than twenty years, so that helped a lot too, with attention to always trying to make the writing better, especially in the details.
VS: Tell us about your newest book – The Ghost Road. When did you get the idea to tell that story? What came first – a line, an image, a character?
CC: The Ghost Road came first! There’s an old track in the meadows behind my house that’s nearly invisible… no one has used it for more than fifty years. There are also old roads along the coast in Newfoundland that aren’t used by cars, and sometimes they are hard to find when they get lost in marshes or woods grow over them. I started calling that lost track behind my house the “Ghost Road” when I first saw it and knew I wanted to write a book with a ghost road in it. Then the book went on from there, and twins came into it, and my Irish heritage, and thinking about what families pass on from generation to generation… the burdens we carry for our ancestors. I had fun with the ghosts and the witch and the visions and the storm. It was a lot of fun to write.
VS: If one of your books was optioned for a feature film (should I say ‘when’?), tell us the main characters and who your dream cast would be.
CC: I think The Swallow would make a wonderful spooky movie that would play with your head and give you lots of chills and thrills. Since this is a fantasy, I’m going to place my film in an alternate reality as to the casting. I think my daughter Zoe would have been a perfect Rose/Door Jumper when she was younger, and she is an actor, so she would be my Rose and I have to say I would be Polly. We’re fantasizing here, right? So Zoe and I can each be twelve years old at the same time! The outside scenes would be filmed on Hillcrest Park and the Necropolis Cemetery in Cabbagetown, Toronto, where the book is set, and where I grew up.
VS: What does the harshest creative critic voice in your head say? What does the most supportive creative voice say? How do you deal with the creative voices in your head?
CC: This is a difficult question. There has always been what seems to me to be an epic battle inside my head between the forces of good and evil. The evil voices tell me I can’t write and I’m second-rate while the good voices tell me I can do it. With my first book, I remember sitting at my computer every day and the demons would swoop in and set up a chorus of “you can’t do it, you can’t do it.” I kept going despite them, and with every book I experience something similar, although thankfully it has grown much less intense. After a while I have to accept the empiric evidence that my books are enjoyed and appreciated, but the demons still have their little dance around the fire whenever the going gets tough.
VS: You recently got an agent. Many writers do their best to get an agent early on in their career…you are deep in yours (career) – and it’s extremely successful – what motivated you to get an agent now – and how is it affecting your writing life?
CC: Sometimes I wish I had had an agent earlier in my career, but since I had publishers for my books, I felt I could go it alone for a while. Everyone told me you don’t really need an agent in Canada until you want to go international, and I accepted that. But I’ve been trying to earn my living by writing the last couple of years, and trying to publish a book every year or two, and it’s been a hard go, so I’m looking for a bigger audience for my books, and enough money to support my writing full time. I also really want a movie deal … all my books have great potential for the screen. It’s such a competitive market, I really feel I need a professional selling my books for me.
In terms of how it affects my writing, having an agent has sharpened my focus. I’m taking the deadlines even more seriously. It’s also given me more confidence in the future. It’s very hard to see ahead in this kind of career, and it takes so much faith in myself and my work. Having someone else in my corner really helps.
VS: How important is having an editor in your writing process? Do you have the same one? How long have you had her/him?
CC: I totally depend on my editor. I’ve had the same one now for my three novels, Sam Swenson at Tundra Books, and she is excellent. In each book, she’s looked at the first draft and given me really good suggestions that help me make it the book it needs to be. Then she does a line edit and we go through the whole thing line by line. We don’t always agree, but I trust her insight and her expertise. It’s another example of having someone there with me who completely supports my work and wants to help me with it. A good editor is crucial, especially one with a sense of humour!
VS: When you think about your readers, what do you think about? What is your goal in terms of what they take away from your books?
CC: I think of my daughter Zoe, what she was like when she was ten, and I think of all the kids I meet at schools. They are so enthusiastic and open… I just love kids that age. I hope that I’m reaching them on a deep level, that I’m reflecting some of their experience back to them, making them feel that they aren’t alone, and that their feelings and reactions to the world around them are important. I’m also wanting to give them a thrilling, mysterious experience, and I want them to be caught up in the world of the book and leave it reluctantly, the way I do when I finish a good book. I also want to encourage them to use their imaginations to make their inner lives bigger and richer.
VS: Can you tell us what new story you’re working on now?
CC: I’m working on a story about a dollhouse. My heroine has trouble figuring out what’s real and what is her imagination. It starts with a train accident. Then the girl goes to live in a spooky old house with a locked room in the attic. There’s a cranky old lady who is confined to her bedroom with a broken leg and a haunted dollhouse that holds the key to everything. I’m having so much fun with this next book!
Thank you Vanessa for this opportunity! I really enjoy reading your blog and I appreciate your insights and ongoing reporting on all the crazy joy and pain of the writing life. Keep it up my friend!
October 26: The Ghost Road reading and signing at Indigo Books, 55 Bloor St. W., Toronto, 7 p.m.
October 27: The Ghost Road Book Launch, Type Books, 2887 Dundas St. W., Toronto, 7 p.m. NOTE: THIS VENUE HAS CHANGED FROM QUEEN STREET LOCATION!
October 22–November 9: Ghost Tour of Ontario Schools and Libraries
November 10: The Ghost Road reading and book signing with Furby House Books at Port Hope Public Library, 31 Queen St., Port Hope, 2 p.m.
“The Ghost Road was chosen as the cover for the August, 2018 edition of Booklist Magazine, which is published by the American Library Association and distributed to librarians across the United States.”
Thank you, Charis! And congratulations on the publication of another stellar story!
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