Monday, September 21, 2009

Interview with Donna St. Cyr

Today the Slushbusters welcome Donna St. Cyr, author of the middle grade novel The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate. We’ll be posting a review of Donna’s book later this week. Meanwhile, for more information and a synopsis, visit Donna’s website.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? In what ways were the people in your life supportive of that?

I think the seed for writing was planted by my English teacher when I was a junior in high school. She often commented on my essays and stories, encouraging me to write more. That seed remained dormant for many years while I pursued life – marriage, children, and career. During those years I often thought about writing, but that was all I did. When I turned 40 I realized that if that dream was to become a reality I’d have to take some action. So, I took a writing course to help hone my craft and began the journey.

I didn’t tell anyone but my husband what I was doing until I actually sold something to a magazine. He was supportive from the beginning, often taking the children away so I could concentrate when I had a particular deadline. When I did sell my first magazine article, I was so excited I showed it to everyone at school. I was a school librarian at the time. My friends there were and continue to be a great support to me in my efforts.

A supportive group of friends is so important. What books from your childhood have you read and reread? Have you seen them differently sharing them with children or reading them as an adult?

The two series of books I’ve read multiple times are the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Their worlds are real to me and every time I enter them, I see something new. I believe classic literature is like that for anyone. It speaks to the child at one level and again to the adult at another – or many other – levels. In the case of these particular series, there is a Christian spirituality that underlies the fantasy worlds which is quite subtle (more so for Tolkien than Lewis) but it is there, waiting to be discovered when the reader is ready to see it. When I share them with children, I simply share the wonderful stories.

The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate involves a lot of silliness and absurdity that is apparent to the reader, but not always to the characters. Was it hard to figure out a way to preserve that and keep the story believable?

Funny you should ask that. The cheese story does require a great suspension of belief and it is goofy and absurd in quite a few places. The story kind of wrote itself once I got started. I don’t know that I intended to write a humorous story but it came out that way, partly because of the outrageous situations in which the characters found themselves. It’s been my experience working with children, especially with boys, that many of them love stories that run at a quick pace and are filled with adventure. For those particular readers craving action adventure stories, suspension of belief is usually a secondary concern. So, I don’t think I consciously stopped during the story to ask myself “Is this believable?” Rather, I asked myself whether my scenarios worked well in the incredibly unbelievable world I created. After all, there couldn’t possibly be a shadow world consisting of people made of cheese (and evil villains from various mythological traditions) hiding at the edge of your consciousness, could there?

I don’t know, there might be! I could be interested in visiting a shadow world where there’s a lot of good cheese. As you worked on your book, did you ever get feedback from children? If so, was it helpful?

My chief number one advisor was my youngest son. He read everything I wrote and gave me a great deal of feedback. He let me know when he thought something wasn’t working, gave me good advice on my character development, and was my first reviewer of the finished product. At the time he was squarely in the middle of my target audience age, a voracious reader, and a big fantasy fan, so I was happy to take his opinions. Now he wants some of the royalties!

What parts of your process do you work on alone and for what parts do you rely on the help of others, the community of writers? Can you talk a bit about the balance between the solitary writer's life and the social interaction that keeps us energized?

I develop my storylines and write the first drafts alone. After that, I run everything through my critique group. We line edit first drafts, then move on to editing the big picture – which is much more difficult. I could not have made the story a saleable product without their help. I cannot say enough about having your own “committee” to help you iron out the kinks in your manuscript.

The larger writing community is also incredibly important for support. From early support issues like “Where should I send this manuscript?” to later issues on marketing and promotion, reaching out to writers across the internet has been very helpful. There are not many children’s writers close to where I live, so I am grateful for the opportunity to share ideas with others across the country. The Class of 2k9 marketing group has been INVALUABLE. I would not have survived this launch process without them.

I will say, however, that the writer has to stand guard of his or her writing time because the social interaction with other writers develops a life of its own – and if you are a person with limited time to devote to the writing process, it is very easy to spend that time talking about writing to your friends rather than actually producing new work.

You've written shorter pieces in both fiction and nonfiction. The Secrets of the Cheese Syndicate is middle grade fantasy. Is there another genre you would you like to attempt?

Yes. I’m working on a historical fiction novel. It is a topic dear to me because I come from French Acadian ancestry. It is a story that follows a young Acadian girl from the Grand Derangement – or Great Expulsion – of the Acadians from Nova Scotia in 1755 to her eventual settlement in Louisiana some ten years later. It is a difficult story to tell – as there is very little that is positive in this particular piece of history – and it is difficult to write because I feel compelled to be as accurate as possible (and written records are pretty scant).

Of all the possible readers in the world, who would you most want to hear had read your book and loved it?

Any child, really. If one child reads my book and loves it, then it will have been a success. As far as adult readers go, my major professor from my graduate program in Library Science. She was an expert in children’s literature and taught me to love it. If she gave me the stamp of approval, I would be most gratified.

I imagine the goal of many authors is to write the book that is some child’s favorite. Is there any interview question you've been hoping someone would ask you, but no one has? What is it, and what is the answer?

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Answer: A veterinarian – I guess plans change.

I guess they do! Thanks for taking the time to visit with us.


Amy Tate said...

Thank you for this great post. I really needed to hear the part about limiting our networking time to have more writing time. Sounds like a great book and I look forward to picking up a copy. My son is also an adventure seeker. He's ten and if the story drags, there goes the book.

Tess said...

I am so excited to read this book, it has been on my TBR list and will move up to the top after this great interview. I love the part about the suspension of belief...I have a tendency to be to literal and am really trying to be more magical or creative in my stories.

Great advice, thanks.

Davin Malasarn said...

Nice interview! I think it's great that your son was your advisor. That seems so wise! I also loved the Chronicles of Narnia.