I am excited to present this interview for you to meet Jan L. Coates who is an accomplished author here in Nova Scotia. I met Jan at one of her book signings, and discovered right away that she is a lovely person – calm, pleasant and humble. Please refer to my October 22’11 post for my review of her novel, A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk.
In place of trying to give you a compilation of information, I’m going to let Jan tell you herself. She has shared such wonderful background details with great tips woven into this interview, that for any of you aspiring writers there is loads of encouragement. Now, get comfy. Enjoy the interview, it’s long, and – oh so good. 🙂
Jan, welcome to my blog, I’m delighted to be doing this interview with you. To begin, please tell us a little about yourself.
Hi, Lynn. Thanks for inviting me to be part of your blog! I live in Wolfville now, but I grew up in Truro, NS, as Janet Mingo. My mother owned a bookstore and my father owned (and my brother continues to own) a music store, so I guess you could say I was immersed in “the arts” from the get-go. I have a clear memory of getting my first library card at the age of five – you had to be able to print your own name, and I’ve loved books since then. Reading has always been one of life’s great pleasures for me. I have two young adult children, Liam and Shannon, who are both university students, and my husband, Don, is in his last year of teaching at Horton High School. And, of course, I have a new puppy – her name is Charlie.
Oh, puppies are so much fun! When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? Who or what inspired you?
I’ve always been interested in writing, and wrote the angst-type poetry common among adolescents while I was in high school. It wasn’t until I began reading picture books to my own kids in the 1990s that I began thinking about trying to write for children for publication. In particular, a picture book named Jeremiah Learns to Read (Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Laura Fernandez & Rick Jacobson) which continues, in my mind, to be a perfect picture book, inspired me to write my first picture book manuscript, in 2000. It was called “Sam’s Magic Cape”, and it placed second in the Atlantic Writing Competition that year. I’ve since received over 50 rejection letters for that story, in various forms. I may dig it up someday again and have another go at it, because I still like it!
I hope you do try that story again, it may be waiting for its time. As a writer do you do much reading? Who/what were and are your favourite authors or books?
I read constantly, and I always tell students it’s the most important tool readily available to all writers. My favorite adult author is John Irving (Owen Meany, Cider House Rules) – I can only dream of being such a storyteller! I read about 10 young adult/middle grade books a month these days; I’m drawn to books by authors like Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), and most recently I’m reading David Almond’s books (Kit’s Wilderness; Skellig). I also admire Cynthia Rylant’s work (Missing May).
Have you ever felt like giving up? When did you finally believe in yourself so you can say “I am a writer”?
Even after Rainbows in the Dark was published in 2005, I didn’t feel like a real “writer”. I don’t think it was until I attended my first writing retreat/workshop with Peter Carver and Kathy Stinson, and five other children’s writers, in 2007 that I actually started thinking of myself as a writer. I can honestly say that since 2000, I’ve never thought of abandoning writing, despite the frustration in trying to get published. It’s just what I do.
I’ve heard positive things about Rainbows in the Dark. Do you have a motto or Bible verse or quote that you try to live by and that helps to keep you going?
Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did. (Newt Gingrich)
Oh, I love that quote! (note to self: stick quote up everywhere I need it) What do you remember about your very first time to be published, how did that come about?
My first published article appeared on the back page of Canadian Living Magazine in 2000 or 2001. It was a personal essay about watching my daughter skate at 6:00 am. I think she’s finally forgiven me for writing such a sentimental article! She and I were co-winners of an essay contest in the Chronicle Herald that same year.
Wonderful! What have you had published thus far? Of those, what do/did you most enjoy writing?
Rainbows in the Dark (picture book, Second Story Press, 2005)
A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk (YA novel, Red Deer Press, 2010)
The Quebec Book (ESL Comprehension Workbook, Editions de L’Envolee, 2011)
Stop Complaining, Chicken Little (illustrated chapter book for Korean ESL learners, JLS Storybook Project, 2011)
Pinocchio Learns a Lesson (JLS, 2011)
The Witch’s Fingers (JLS, 2011)
Turning Trash to Treasure (JLS, 2011)
Sarah Snow, Star of the Show (JLS, 2011)
Uncle Bobby and the Pirates (JLS, 2011)
If Dogs Could Talk (JLS, 2011)
The Cheesy Man Giant (JLS, 2010)
The Queen and Mr. Cunningham (JLS, 2010)
The Impossible Dive (JLS, 2010)
I guess I could say writing A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk has been the most rewarding as I wrote it specifically to help Jacob Deng, my inspiration for the book, and his foundation, Wadeng Wings of Hope (www.wadeng.org), through which he’s raising funds to build a school in his village in South Sudan.
It was also the most challenging, by far, as I had to do so much research and try to imagine life as a young Sudanese boy struggling to survive, as a victim of war. The book covers seven years, and that, in itself, was an organizational challenge. I couldn’t have written the book without the mentorship of Gary Blackwood, who taught me everything I know about writing a novel in the five months we worked together.
Wow! You are a prolific writer! What process do you go through when writing and perfecting a book or article?
I’m afraid I’m not very organized in my writing process. Generally, I get an idea, a vague sort of notion, and think about it for several days or weeks before I start writing. I do some preliminary research into the topic, if necessary, and try to get to know my protagonist as a real person before I start writing his/her story. I don’t have an outline worked out, and I often don’t know exactly how the story will end. I find the story seems to evolve once I start working on it. I was talking to my mentor, Gary Blackwood, yesterday, and he suggested I try working up an outline before starting a long project – he always has the story completely worked out before he starts writing, and it certainly seems to work well for him!
What method do you use to keep track of your writing ideas?
I do have a writing journal, but it’s often not on hand when I need to write something down, so I just scribble an idea on any available scrap of paper, and hope I can find it when I need it! I often cut articles (even obituaries!) out of the newspaper when I read something that interests me, and keep them in a scrapbook. There are so many things happening that truly are “stranger than fiction”.
What inspired you to write A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk?
I met Jacob Deng in 2007, when I was asked to write an article about him for the Acadia Alumni Bulletin. We spent two hours together over coffee, and it was a very emotional meeting. In particular, I was moved by his continued longing for his mother, even at the age of 26, despite not having seen her for almost 20 years. I decided as I was walking home that day that I was going to try to write his story, although I never dreamed it would evolve into a 70,000-word novel, which by the way, is fiction inspired by Jacob’s true story (“Faction” as I describe it to students).
I can see that first meeting was life changing, perhaps for you both. How long did it take you to write A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk? What research did you do? And I’m sure most people are very curious .. so I have to ask .. how did you come up with that title?
I first met Jacob in April, 2007, and the book was published in September, 2010, so I guess that’s about 3 and 1/2 years. Of course, I didn’t work on it full-time, but consistently during that time. I read every book I could find about South Sudan and the Dinka people, as well as countless websites, watched YouTube videos and movies, and talked with Jacob, sometimes recording our conversations so I could listen to his voice as I worked on the book. I was mentored on the project by Gary L. Blackwood, a transplanted US author, now living in Tatamagouche, and he was insistent I come up with an intriguing title. In fact, I went through over a dozen titles before we settled on this one. Jacob is described as having hare-like tendencies throughout the book, and the war is described as having elephantine characteristics; a significant African folktale about the Hare and the Elephant is also included in the book. Young readers can be very astute at figuring out that the elephant is the war.
(FYI, readers: Tatamagouche is a small village in Nova Scotia.)
The title is an excellent choice, unique and attention grabbing. Did you find this a difficult book to write? If so, how did you stick with it and why?
I can honestly say I’ve never worked so hard on anything in my life, mainly because the subject was so foreign to me, and I had to do so much research. It was difficult emotionally in the early stages, as I had to think of my characters as real children suffering through unimaginable horrors. I’m a very determined person, and once I start something, I’m going to finish it. I knew from the beginning that this book could help Wadeng Wings of Hope, and I hope that is proving true. As well, it seemed the book was meant to be, from my first meeting with Jacob, to the heart attack I had in the fall of 2007 which gave me time to start writing, to the mentorship with Gary, to my connection with Peter Carver, who offered me a contract for the book.
Wow! I’m glad you recovered from the heart attack, that’s a hard way to get time for writing! How did you go about finding a publisher? an editor? and do you have an agent?
I had attended two retreat/workshops at Peter Carver’s summer place in Port Joli, and he knew about this story before I submitted it to him. In fact, the first time I met him, he critiqued several of my picture book manuscripts, then suggested I try writing something longer, to which I responded that I didn’t think I had enough words inside me! He called me in September, 2009, immediately upon finishing the manuscript for HARE, and said he loved it. Music to a writer’s ears! He then told the publisher (Richard Dionne of Red Deer Press) that he wanted to do the book, and I signed the contract. I have to add that I have hundreds and hundreds of rejection letters for earlier, mostly picture book, manuscripts. It really has to be the right story crossing the right editor’s desk on the right day! I do not have an agent, and there are very few agents in Canada who handle children’s material.
You have it set up that you share part of the proceeds of your book’s sales, a compassionate thing to do. Please tell us about that.
I’m donating 50% of my royalties to Wadeng Wings of Hope. The publisher has allowed Jacob to buy the books at the author’s rate, and then sell them himself, so Wadeng profits in that way as well.Red Deer Press also gives 40% of online sales from their site to Wadeng, all of which contributes to Jacob’s dream of building a school.
A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk has been receiving much deserved attention. Tell us what honours this book has received thus far.
Quite honestly, I’ve been surprised at the attention this book has received. I did know, before writing it, that no one else had written a novel for young readers about the Lost Boys of Sudan, although well-known US author, Linda Sue Park, also published a Lost Boys novel in the fall of 2010. Honors for Hare include:
Finalist, Governor General’s Literary Awards, 2011
Finalist, Atlantic Book Awards, 2011
2011 United States Board on Books for Young People (USBBY) Honor List for Outstanding International Books
SYRCA Snow Willow Nominee, 2011 (Sask. Young Readers Choice Awards)
2011 Independent Publishers Silver Medal, children’s multicultural fiction category
2011 Skipping Stones Multicultural Magazine Honor List
Starred Kirkus Review
2011 Woozles Battle of the Books Title, both elementary and high school
That is amazing and so exciting! Besides being a writer, you also have a job to go to, so how do you find time to write when you are busy with life?
I’m doing daily substitute teaching now, which is perfect as I can fit it in around my writing life. My kids are both in university, and my husband’s still teaching, so most days it’s just me and my new puppy, Charlie, in the house. When I’m not playing fetch, I’m at my laptop, oblivious to the dust bunnies piling up around me!
What other interests do you have for a change from writing?
I can be a little obsessive about writing, and I find I have to go to our cottage sometimes and leave my laptop behind. I go to the gym several times a week and play badminton, and I love shopping at Frenchy’s, looking at antiques, going for walks and playing with Charlie. I also love to go for drives and one of my hobbies is browsing real-estate, just for interest. I’m a bit of a Kijiji fanatic at the moment…
How do you consistently write? Do you have writing goals .. daily? weekly? monthly? long range?
When I’m in the middle of a revision, I find it easy to sit down and write for several hours in a row because I have a deadline to meet. When I’m writing, without a contract, it’s a little harder to get motivated, although when I get on a roll, hours can pass when I don’t even look at the clock. When I met with Gary yesterday, he told me he has a goal of a chapter a week, but he also always has at least two books under contract at any given time. I don’t have goals like that, but I am a compulsive editor, and almost every time I sit down at my laptop, I have to go back and re-read everything I’ve written to that point before I start the next chapter. My long-range goal is to find a publisher for the next book, I suppose!
Do you have another project in the works? Can you give our readers any hints about that?
I am working on a middle-grade novel, set in Nova Scotia in the 1960s, so it’s a little more familiar territory for me. I’m having fun mining my memories (and those of my sister, friends, husband). I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half now, and it’s still not ready to submit.
I guess at this particular time, being an author is more than I thought it would be. I’m an introvert by nature, and I’ve learned that authors need to get out and meet their readers as often as possible, which I do through the Writers’ Federation’s wonderful Writers in the Schools (WITS) program. Over the past year, I’ve been on TV, been interviewed by various reporters, and had to read in front of close to 200 people at the launch of HARE, so I’m getting a little more comfortable with that visible part of being a writer.
I would never have dreamed that my first novel would be a finalist for the GG, that’s for sure! In a perfect world, I would win the GG, get to go to Rideau Hall with Jacob, and donate half the $25,000 prize to Wadeng.
My best advice would be to read everything you can in the genre in which you’re interested in writing – I’m constantly amazed by how much I can learn from studying how great authors put words and stories together. And, of course, write – every day, if you can. Also, read your work out loud – it’s surprising how easy it is to pick up weaknesses that way. If it doesn’t sound right, it probably isn’t.
I have dozens of manuscripts on file that have never found, and probably will never find, a home with a publisher, but I know that in writing each of them, I’ve learned something about the craft. Kathy Stinson (who has a few dozen books in print) told me recently that every book she’s written is harder than the one before it. It seems the more you know, the harder it is to apply all that knowledge to your writing. And, I think, you demand more of yourself as you gain experience. I continue to struggle with structure and conflict.
It’s rare for an author to get rich off their books, especially in Canada, but I have to say there’s nothing like receiving the first copy of a book with your name on it in the mail! Even better is having a reader tell you they’ve read and enjoyed your book, even been moved to tears, which is, after all, why we’re in this crazy game!
Thank you, Jan, for this delightful interview and great advice. I‘m happy for you and I certainly hope your amazing novel wins the Governor General’s Literary award. I wish you much continued success!
Thank you so much for your continued interest in my work, Lynn!
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Jan Coates as much as I did. Be sure to visit Jacob’s website www.wadeng.org and I urge you to buy Jan’s book to help Jacob’s dream come true. But … one of you will WIN a copy here of A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk! The publisher, Red Deer Press, is generously giving a copy to one person who leaves a comment on this post. Check them out at: http://www.reddeerpress.com/
** Please be sure to click the comments button ABOVE this post so that your entry gets included. In your comment tell us what you most enjoyed in the interview, enter only once, please. At 9:00 pm (8:00 EST) on November 12 my husband will draw one name from the basket, and I will contact that person via email. So be sure to check your emails November 12 or 13! You could be the one to receive a copy of A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk!
Thanks for reading, and … Creative Musings! 🙂
You can find A Hare in the Elephant’s Trunk listed on my BUY THE BOOK! page.