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July 19, 2018
As always, The Word On The Street is coming up this September. But the fall can’t get here soon enough! So we sat down with Kenneth Oppel, author of Inkling, who will be joining us at the festival this year!
WOTS: Tell us a bit about your process. How did you start writing? Do you have any favourite stories about when you were just starting out?
Kenneth Oppel: My writing started as a very self-guided entertainment when I was in grade school. I wrote stories about my favourite things: Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and video games. Basically I was writing fan fiction before it was even called fan fiction. I copied the styles of my favourite writers, mostly Roald Dahl, but later also writers like Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, and Gary Trudeau, who does the Doonesbury comic strip. I had all sorts of literary models before I found my own voice. But copying is a great way to hone your skills and discover where your true talents lie.
WOTS: When writing this book, did you know that you would be working with an illustrator? How does your writing change when incorporating visual elements, like the typography and the illustrations, into the story?
KO: I mostly write novels, so I always write a book assuming there will be no illustrations. It’s part of my job as a writer to help the reader imagine the physical and sensory world of the story. There tends to be a lot of action in my stories, so clear choreography is essential! But Inkling was such a particularly visual story that I did wonder, more and more, whether it would be even better with illustrations! It turns out I was right. As a kid I adored stories with pictures and would pore over them – so I’m delighted Sydney agreed to provide such magical pictures for my book.
WOTS: What are your favourite places to write? Any quirky must-haves when it comes to sitting down and building out a story?
KO: I’ve written at home for so long it feels natural. Apart from a few part time jobs early on, I’ve never actually been an employee. I don’t own a suit. I’ve usually been lucky enough to have a room of my own with a table, chair, and window – and door. And that’s really all I need. I do enjoy sometimes writing in a café – in a public place, you feel like you’ve really got to produce something, or else you look like a poser. My favourite place to write though is on the train. I find something amazingly invigorating about it – it’s the motion and all that scenery whizzing past but also the excitement of a journey (even one to Ottawa!), and the sense of being taken out of your daily routine. You’re not really anywhere, so you can write anything! A change can be very inspiring.
WOTS: What would you say to a writer who’s just starting out? What one thing do you think it’s crucial to know?
KO: Make sure there’s nothing you’d rather be doing, because writing can be a long apprenticeship, and fame and fortune are uncertain at best. Apart from that, the only mistake you can make is not writing. By which I mean, give yourself permission to write absolute rubbish in the early drafts. As you write subsequent sentences and pages and drafts, it will get better, I promise!
WOTS: Ethan struggles with art while his father is a famous comic artist. Have you ever been pressured to follow in a parent’s footsteps? How does having a talented parent raise expectations for their children?
KO: Luckily I was never pressured to follow in anyone’s footsteps. My father was a lawyer and I never had any interest in that as a profession. My mother was a painter, so I had an example of someone pursuing their art, though my interests from pretty early on, were literary. I think it’s really important for parents to aid and abet their kids’ interests as much as possible, but the interest should come from the kids. Parents shouldn’t force their kids to do stuff because they think it’s good for them, or they did it as kids themselves. And I think early encouragement is huge, and I was very fortunate to get it from my parents and teachers.
WOTS: Sarah, Ethan’s sister, has Down’s Syndrome. Why was it important to you to write a character with Down’s Syndrome into the story? In what ways does her storyline enrich the experience for the reader?
KO: My youngest daughter has Down’s Syndrome, and she’s just a very charming and interesting kid, and I’m always eager to steal good material from my children’s lives. I’ve used stuff from my older two, and will continue to do so until they stop being interesting, or they sue me for libel and defamation. Writing about Sarah also gave me some insight into what it might be like to be a kid who had a younger sibling with special needs. I’m always most pleased with my writing when I feel like it captures the essence of life in all its richness and variety, its joys and challenges. So for me, writing a story that includes a character with special needs, is just another way to shape and enhance the story and reveal things about my characters.