Interview with Charis Cotter, author of The Painting,
Elizabeth Rayner, Elementary Teacher-Librarian, and students from Brentwood Elementary School (SD63)
A great many of us had the opportunity to read “The Painting”, but as you can see there are quite a few of us. For those of us who haven’t had the chance to yet, can you tell us a little bit about your book?
My book is set partly in Toronto and partly in Newfoundland. And it’s about two girls: Annie who lives in Toronto, and Claire who lives in a lighthouse in Newfoundland. What happens is that one night, Annie’s mother’s in a car accident and she’s in the hospital and she’s in a coma, which is like she’s asleep and she’s not waking up. She is very very sick. Annie’s at home with her dad and she’s very worried about her mother. She’s looking at a painting on her wall, and this is a painting that she found in the attic which is a painting of a lighthouse in Newfoundland.
As she’s looking at the painting, all of a sudden, she finds that the painting seems to be coming to life, and things are moving, and birds are flying. She can smell the ocean, and the next thing she knows she is walking into the painting and she finds herself on a road by the ocean in Newfoundland at night. There’s a moon, and she’s hearing someone call her name; calling, “Annie! Annie!” It’s coming from the lighthouse, so she goes into the lighthouse, and up the stairs, and in a room she finds a girl there, named Claire. When Claire first sees her, she’s really scared, but they start to talk.
What happens in the book is that Annie goes back and forth from Newfoundland and her house in Toronto, and she gets there through paintings. They are all paintings by a woman named Maisie King, and Maisie is Claire’s mother, and Maisie and Claire live at the lighthouse. There’s a mystery, because you don’t really know what’s going on, and there’s ghosts, and Annie’s worried about her mother. That’s a little bit about the setting of the book.
What inspired you to write “The Painting”?
I was born in Toronto, and I lived in Toronto for a lot of my life, but a few years ago, I bought a place, a little cottage, in Newfoundland. I loved Newfoundland so much I wanted to live there, but I had to keep coming back to Toronto in the winter time. I would go back and forth between Toronto and Newfoundland, and I always wished I could stay in Newfoundland. Annie can go to Newfoundland just by walking through a painting, whereas I have to go on an airplane and save up my money. That was partly what inspired me: wanting to be able to magically go from one place to another.
But I think I was also inspired by just the idea of girls and their mothers, and how sometimes girls fight with their mothers. I know I fought with my mother, and my daughter fought with me. Sometimes there’s misunderstandings, but underneath it all, you know your mother really loves you. So it’s about mothers and daughters and how they grow apart and how they come together.
Some of our kids were wondering if you were Annie or Claire in the story, would you make different choices than those characters, or would you make the same choices?
That’s a very good question. You know, when you’re writing, I’m sure you know if you’ve ever written a story with characters in it, you’re often writing about yourself in a way. I put a bit of myself in my characters, and I kind of feel that I probably would have made the same choices. Except, I think Claire and her mother really had a hard time, and I hope I would not be quite as stubborn as both of them were. I don’t know. When you’re writing, you try to write yourself into your characters in a way, so it’s hard to imagine them behaving any differently.
Why do you like to write scary stories?
It’s too bad we’re so far away, because I have a workshop that I do with kids which is teaching them how to write a ghost story. I use Newfoundland ghost stories to show them how you can build tension. But we’re too far away for that!
But first of all, I really like scaring little kids! Just for fun. Not scaring them too badly, but I love telling stories. I’m a storyteller, and I love being in a room with a crowd of kids like you and reading a story and getting you all on the edge of your seats. That’s fun!
I also really like the idea that there’s some spooky things in the world. Not everything is black and white. When you’re littler, you sometimes believe in magic. It’s hard to keep believing in magic sometimes, but I still believe in ghosts. I think that’s why like I writing spooky stories.
How do you build suspense in your stories?
I think it’s a matter of imagining yourself into the situation and going very slowly. I looked up the world; I think suspense came from a Latin word that means staircase. When you’re building suspense, you’re kind of going up stairs really slowly. The first stair, you’re telling a story that’s just a little bit scary. The second stair, you get a little more scary. You just feed out the information a little at a time. As you slowly climb the stairs, things are getting scarier and scarier, until you get to the very top where there’s the scariest thing.
So it’s a matter of going slowly. Often repeating things makes them scarier and making the audience wait. If I said, “Oh my goodness, I saw a ghost last night! It was so scary, and it came into my room! It was awful!” THat’s not as scary as, “Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night. I heard a noise, then I heard footsteps outside my door. Then, I heard my door slowly opening.” If I tell the story like that, I’m making you wait for the scary part. The longer you have to wait, the more scared you’re going to be. THat’s one of the tricks I use to build suspense.
Did you always want to be a writer? Is it your full-time job?
I think I always wanted to be a writer. When I was about your age, maybe grade four or five, I loved reading books, and I loved going into the world of the book. I think I kind of dreamed that maybe one day I could write books, and then it would be even better than reading them. I could live in them full time. I also wanted to be an actor for a while, and I studied acting, and went to acting school. It turned out that I wanted to be a writer more, and I’ve been writing part-time for a while because it’s hard to make all of your living from writing. Now in the last few years, I have been more or less writing full time. I have been trying to get a book to come out every one or two years. THere’s two other novels that I’ve written. One is called “The Swallow: A Ghost Story”. The next one that just came out last year is called “The Ghost Road”. That one is set in Newfoundland, and “The Swallow” is set in Toronto. I’ve written another book called “The Dollhouse” which is about a haunted dollhouse, but I haven’t got that one published yet so that’ll be a couple of years. I’m always working on a book, so I’m writing pretty much full time I’d say.
What does a “writing day’ look like for you?
I get up and I live by the ocean, so I like to get up and go for a walk after breakfast by the ocean. It clears the cobwebs out of my head and wakes me up. Then I go back and I’m usually writing by 9:30 or 10 and write for a couple of hours. Then I have lunch, and write for another hour or two in the afternoon. Then I do other things like housework, or other kinds of business stuff. Three or four hours a day of writing is about as much as I can get in. As you know, whenever you’ve written stories it takes a lot of brain power and concentration. I can’t really get up in the morning and work all day until it’s time to go to bed. That’s too hard.
How long does it take for you to write a book?
It depends on the book. My very first book it took seven years from the day I thought of the idea to when it appeared on the bookstore shelf. That’s because I was doing other work, and I was learning how to write a novel. I had to keep writing it again and again, different drafts. I’d say now it takes a year, to a year and a half. Now that I’m getting a little more used to doing it and I know a bit more what I’m doing.
We’ve been talking a lot about growth mindset, and how making mistakes is an important part of learning. I know writers often get rejections. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about how long it took to get your first book published? How did you stay inspired to keep writing?
I started writing a very long time ago, and I probably wrote three books that didn’t get published. That was over a period of ten or fifteen years, and I was busy doing other things. My other job was working in a publishing company as an editor, so I knew people in publishing. My very first book wasn’t a novel, it was a book about history in Toronto. I got that published through people that I worked with.
I ended up writing non-fiction, one was called “Kids Who Rule”, about kids who were kings or queens while they were still children. I wrote three books that were biographies about unusual children. It involved a lot of research, and it wasn’t my favourite thing to do.
I decided to stop writing non-fiction, and then it took me five years to change into writing novels and to find a publisher. I did get rejected. It’s really hard, because you have to keep telling yourself that you’re good, but you don’t really know you’re good unless someone else wants to publish your book! So you really have to develop a belief in yourself, and tell yourself every time you get rejected, “Okay, well that makes me sad and unhappy, and I’m disappointed. But what can I do next?” You always have to keep moving on, and say, “Okay that’s too bad, what but what can I do next?” You have to really be determined. And persistent. It means trying again and again and never giving up. That’s really important for writers. There’s an awful lot of people writing books out there who don’t get published, and if you’re going to stick at it, you got to do your best to write as well as you can and make a really good book. Keep at it, keep persisting.
What advice can you give us who are wanting to become writers?
What I usually say is, the most important thing to do is to read a lot of books. It gives you ideas, it introduces you to new words, and once you’re living a lot in your head, in the land of books, that will make you a good writer. The more you read, the better you’ll be.
I also tell kids, it’s really important to develop your imaginations. Some of the workshops I do, I go and do imagination games with kids. That’s something you’re born with, but you need to keep using it to make it work better. I tell kids they should daydream; just sit around, looking out the window, and making up stories in your head. If you see a tree outside and say, “I wonder what it would be like to build a treehouse in that tree, and what would it look like? What would I do in it?” That kind of daydreaming, making up stories in your head, is really important if you want to be a writer. If someone tells you to stop daydreaming, tell them, “I’m just getting ready to be a writer, actually!”
What is your favourite book that you have made?
Have you ever asked your mother which is her favourite child? Who she loves best? Would she say she loves you almost the same? My books are sort of like my children. Usually the one I love the best is the one that I’m working on right now, and right now I’m working on “The Dollhouse” so I love that one the best. My other books, I really love them all when I’m working on them, and afterwards I kind of leave them alone for awhile.
Do you ever get bored of writing?
Sometimes it’s so hard, and sometimes I get stuck and I don’t know what to write. Sometimes it’s just really hard work. That’s when I get frustrated, but I don’t get bored. I’m always making up stories and living with the characters in my stories. They’re always having adventures, and there’s ghosts and scary things happening. It’s never boring!
How long have you been writing?
I’ve probably been writing since I was in grade four, or even younger when we first started writing things to school! When I was grown up, I wrote a few books that didn’t get published. I was always writing for many many years. In 2004 was when I first got published, so you can say I’ve been a professional writer for fifteen years.
What is your favourite book that you haven’t written?
This is hard! It’s always hard, because I’m always finding a new one. I really love the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, that was my favourite book for a long time, and it’s three books in one. I really love a book called “A Hundred Years of Solitude” by Marquez. Children’s books that I love are the Narnia books. I still love to read them now, and they were my favourite when I was your age. Probably, the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader” was my favourite.
How do you get your ideas for new books?
Remember what I told you about daydreaming? I do a lot of daydreaming, and honestly, I get a lot of ideas when I’m out for walks. When I’m walking along, my mind gets freed up. And that thing I told you about looking out the window at a tree, and thinking I could build a treehouse there, that would make me start thinking, “What kind of person would live in a treehouse? What kind of books would happen in a treehouse?” I’m always thinking of ideas, and I’m always imagining things a little differently than they are in the real world.
What made you want to be a writer?
What I said before about liking reading so much, I just loved living in my imagination and I loved imagining things were different. When I’m writing a book, sometimes it’s really hard especially when I’m get the middle of the book and I can’t figure out what’s going to happen next, but most of the time I’m just sitting back, and I’m thinking, “Where am I going to go today? I’m going to go to this old house where there’s a haunted dollhouse, and I’m going to see what’s going to happen with these characters.” I have so much fun imagining myself into this land of the books, that I think that’s why I wanted to become a writer.
It’s very satisfying to create something, and to make something, that other people enjoy. One of the things I really enjoy doing is going into schools and meeting kids and today, on Skype, meeting you guys. I tell people that inside I’m ten years old, and I haven’t really grown up properly. That’s where I’ve stayed: ten. When I write about kids I can stay that age in my head, and think about things that kids think about instead of what grown-ups think about. It’s really more fun to be a kid!