Feature Story Sunday, January 24, 2016
'Books For Kids Who Don't Read'
Eric Wilson has taken kids on adventures in the pages of his novels for
Eric Wilson relaxes at Decades Coffee Club on Wellington after giving a presentation to kids at Bernard Elementary School.
How many times in life does one get to chat with the author of 24 books? So, naturally I was thrilled to be able to sit down for a couple of hours with esteemed Canadian writer Eric Wilson. The following is part of our discussion that day.
Contact Eric Wilson via e-mail here.
Q. You were a journalist, where and when was that?
he first time I was a journalist, I was at UBC and worked for the student newspaper there. Then I got into the Canadian Press. The first thing I ever had published, I was 13 (1954). I was in Kitimat. I went down to the editor of the Kitimat Northern Sentinel Newspaper and said "I'd like to write for you."
The guy was sort of flabbergasted that some 13-year -old would come in and say that. So he said "Okay, well what can you cover?" I said "Pony League baseball games, because I play in the pony league, so I can report on it." So he paid me, I think it was a dollar a column inch, or something like that. So there I was, 13 and earning a living a writer.
I did a lot of journalism over the years and then I became a teacher because that was my real love, and I started teaching I was working with kids who didn't like school. I asked to work with emotionally disturbed teenagers. This was in White Rock, and I really loved those kids. They had such a hard life, but they responded to love and caring. That's all I could offer them.
Q. How old were the kids?
They were 13-14 and were in what was called an "Alternative Program". Actually, they call it the "Occupational Program" at the time and the kids in the school all called them "ockies". You know, it's like that everywhere. Everyone's been bullied. There isn't anyone who hasn't been bullied. It's how you deal with it. That's what I tried to talk to the kids about and help them get through whatever issue they were dealing with. Of course they didn't have any interest in reading, and I've always loved reading, because to me, reading, if nothing else is a wonderful escape from life and you can learn so much from reading. I wanted to get these kids into it and got different books and nothing worked. So, I always had an interest in writing and thought I'd write a story for them.
I actually wrote a story about a kid who lived in Kamloops—which I picked out of a hat—and runs away and ends up living in the streets of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. I thought well, I didn't know anything about it, so I'll go down and find out.
Q. What year did you base the story in?
It would be in the 60s. So, I went into the Downtown Eastside and I got a hotel room in a flophouse and spent about a week or so down there. If you can imagine, I learned so much and incorporated it into the story of this boy that runs away from home. I called the story Fat Boy Speeding. I wrote about him being on speed.
Q. How old is he? Why would you write a story about doing drugs?
About 14 or so. The purpose in writing it was because some the kids in my class had run away and so I tried to show them the reality and where do you go. You don't end up in a condo in West Vancouver, you end up down at Hastings and Main.
It had a great impact on the kids. They were there mesmerized there, in fact, I would read it aloud and if they missed a day of school, when they came back, they would take the manuscript to the lobby and read it themselves so they cold get caught up.
Q. Back then, when you wrote Murder on the Canadian you didn't have internet and computers.
No, nothing. I wrote it on a typewriter. I sent the manuscript off to a publisher in the east with an accompanying letter saying "this is a book for kids who don't read." They wrote back and said "why would we publish a book for kids that don't read?"
Maybe I should have explained myself a bit better but said this book will get them reading. The book was turned down by more than one publisher. It was never published, but it didn't stop me. I just kept writing and writing and to that end, I wrote five books in five years before I finally got one accepted. (Late 60s, early 70s).
Then, in 1976, I finally one published which was Murder on the Canadian and it was an immediate success.
Q. Once you get a book published, do you find it's easier to get the next book published?
It was, yes. That first book was uphill all the way. Up until then, things were fairly easy for me in life. Whatever I set out to do I was able to do. So here I thought I would just be a published author. I'll write this book, I'll get it published. (laugh). That was my error, but it didn't stop me and it was a good thing it didn't because I learned a lot about myself and I try to convey that when I talk to kids in schools. I talk to them about the fact that it took me five years to get published and I didn't give up.
Q. So, you're whole writing career has been devoted to kids?
Essentially, I have yes. I tried different other things. I wrote a novel actually about Princess Dianna, but I couldn't get a publisher for it, no one. So I ended up publishing it as an e-book. It's been quite successful as an e-book. Then I wrote one about Justin Bieber in a story called Santa Bieber and it's a story that takes place on Christmas Eve in Vancouver and Justin Bieber coming to do a concert and he meets a boy by chance named Marco. The story is about this kid named Marco. And Marco's in really tough circumstances at home, a single mother, and they've been not getting along, and so the kid feels pretty sorry for himself and he meets Justin Bieber after the concert is over and Justin Bieber says "Well listen, I've got a friend who is on the streets in the Downtown Eastside and he's a pavement artist and he's a First Nations guy, why don't you go down and meet him?
So, Justin Bieber takes Marco into the Downtown Eastside on Christmas Eve and it's an eye-opener for this boy. Here's this boy feeling sorry for himself and gets a look around at what it can really be like. He ends up at the end of the story going home to his mom and putting his arms around her and saying "I love you, mom" and that's how the story ends.
Again, I couldn't get a publisher for that one because the publishers said "we don't know what's going to happen with Justin Bieber. We don't want to publish a book and he may go sideways." I put it out as an e-book and as soon as I did of course he went sideways.
Meaning that he began to get into trouble. He certainly has straightened himself up again. I tried different challenges. Another thing that I did was write a play based on Murder on the Canadian.
Q. I wonder why I never saw your books as a kid? I read the Hardy Boys and my all-time favourite were the Junior Classics, you remember them? But I loved the Hardy Boys.
A. Me too. The series is about either Tom Austen or his sister Liz Austen. Some of the books are about her, some are about him, some together, but it is a series.
Q. Do these characters grow older in your books?
No, I keep them pretty well the same, like the Hardy Boys.
Q. So you've always been up against books like the Hardy Boys.
This is a Canadian series up against a North American series like the Hardy Boys, and Goosebumps, and then of course along comes Harry Potter, and these all have big publicity machines behind them and you hear about them. My books have never had big publicity. It's all been word-of-mouth. All of the books remain in print. Murder on the Canadian as you know is 40 years in print now.
Q. So they're self-propelled you could say, and in different languages?
Yes, Spanish and Japanese. All those languages, they keep going. There's just word of mouth. There's never been big promotion behind them.
Q. You're not worried about having the big publishing machine behind your books?
It is what it is. There's no sense beating your head against the wall. You accept this is what your life is and I continue to visit schools to this day like today at Bernard Elementary.
Q. So at Bernard Elementary today, you had all those kids in the gym, how did you keep their attention?
I give out autographed postcards. I take about 45 postcards that I tell the kids at the start that I've autographed these cards, these are prizes and when a person correctly answers a question, and everyone wants one. The only way you get a prize is by listening and once they get listening, they get involved.
Q. You have an overhead slide show, how long is the entire presentation?
The presentation is about 45 minutes and then there's the PowerPoint. So for 45 minutes, they're listening only.
Q. Was there any indication, the kids are going to read your books now?
They're already reading them. The teachers over there have read them to them. The librarians tell me afterwards that there are no books left in the library now because teachers have already been reading to their classes in advance of my visit. One teacher told me he had read to them, he's from the Kootenays himself, and I wrote a book called the Kootenay kidnappers, and he loved it. It had to do with hitchhiking. Hopefully a boy or girl who reads the story first of all wouldn't even hitchhike. You don't see kids out there hitchhike anymore.
Q. Do you think any of your street-type books have any affect on wayward kids?
I'll never know, but something I do know is that one of my books is about sexual abuse of children. It's called The St. Andrews Werewolf and the story takes place in St. Andrews New Brunswick. Almost all of my books are issue-based in some kind of way. The biggest issue I try to protect kids against is people who power trip on them. Who say you have to do this because I'm an adult and you're a child and you have to do what I tell you.
I try to argue in my stories that you don't have to do what someone tells you simply because they're an adult.
So I wrote this book and a few years later, my wife and I were in New Brunswick as it turns out and we went out with some teachers for dinner, and one teacher came over and said 'you know, I read your book The St. Andrews Werewolf and she said shortly after that one of the girls in my class went to the driver of her school bus and told him what had been happening to her. She said 'Because you wrote that book, it helped this girl.' So that's an example of how a book actually did work. Hopefully, it's helped other people and protect the kids from people like child-killer Clifford Olsen.
It is teaching. You don't know what effect you're having but you do it.
Q. Where did you teach?
All kind of places in BC. Nelson, Powell River, Campbell River, White Rock. What I would do for a long time was I would write for a year, teach for a year, save up all my money from teaching and then use that money to pay for a year of writing. I kept doing that for a long time until i was able to try to support myself with my writing.
Q. If you're going to write, you have to know about what it is you're writing about. There's the research such as when you embedded yourself into the Downtown Eastside. Does it take a long time to write a book?
About a year. There was another time I was writing The Inuvik Mountie Adventure dealing with domestic violence and I went up to Nunavik with a group of students who were invited up there on an exchange. I talked the teachers into letting me go with them. We went up to what is called Joe Haven and we were there for a couple of weeks or so and I just went around with the teenagers to see what they were experiencing and writing it all down. How many people are ever going to get to Nunavik? But if they read the Inuvik Mountie Adventure it's like going up there because I went for them.
You know what it was like when you were reading the Hardy Boys, kids are able to bring 100 per cent of their focus into a story and what fires the imagination is that all you have to do as a writer is give them material to work with. They're not distracted by anything. They're right in there totally. So when they read The Inuvik Mountie Adventure, they are totally going to Nunavik and experiencing everything up there.
It takes a village to raise a child. The people in the story talk about their attitude toward violence. They're totally against violence. They don't believe in violence, maybe because they have to coexist in a very small community. So I'm able to share theses philosophies with kids in these stories and they learn about our country and about all these issues. I'm just part of the village. I'm a story-teller.
Q. Do you find most of your books being read in Kindle or hard copy?
I'd say hard copy. But I don't know. I've been told by the publisher that about 80 per cent of my sales are to schools. Because schools use them to get kids reading and to learn about our country. Also, about 10-15 per cent are public libraries. If the kids can't get them at the school then they get them at the public libraries. They don't go to book stores and get them, even though you can get them in book stores.
Q. Have you got any new projects going on?
My wife and I are doing a U-Venture. A comedy song routine to take into the seniors centre—seniors entertaining seniors. We're going to do about a 1-hour show with joking. My wife's very funny. I'll be the straight man and she'll do the humour and then we're going to have singing. It's just giving people who are seniors a chance to enjoy themselves and be entertained by other seniors. We'll do old favourites that everyone can sing along with, maybe getting a karaoke machine and projecting the words up on the wall.
Q. When are you going to start this?
We've been invited to an organization in Victoria called The Silver Threads so we're going to start in March.
Q. Can you sing?
Well, I can't very well, but then three-quarters of the people in the audience can't sing either. So they can hear me in my off-key voice thinking 'well, if he can do it, I can do it.'
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