My One Hundred Adventures (Random House/Schwartz & Wade) is the latest novel from award-winning writer Polly Horvath (The Canning Season; Everything on a Waffle). The British Columbia-based author has been writing since she was eight, but with a new agent, a new editor, a new publisher, plus a book tour, she seems poised on the brink of some adventures of her own. Horvath spoke with Bookshelf about her new book, the connection between choreography and writing, and what she enjoys most--and least--about book tours.
Jane, the narrator of My One Hundred Adventures, is 12 and newly restless with her ordinary life, saying, “I want something I know not what, which is what adventures are about.” Do you think this desire for change and adventure is an inescapable part of being 12?
I don’t know if it’s inescapable, or even if it’s true for everyone. I remember being 12 and just wanting to go off on a pirate ship or something. I really was itchy to expand my inner horizons as much as anything. So I remember very clearly that feeling at that age, but I’m not sure everyone goes through that.
Speaking of change, until now your books were published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. My One Hundred Adventures is the first to be published by Random House’s Schwartz & Wade imprint. That must have been a big change. How did it happen?
Well, it was a business decision, really. I got an agent, for really the first time, Amy Berkower. So she put the book out there and we looked at the options and what people had to offer, and Random House bid more for it. I enjoyed being with Farrar, Straus & Giroux those years and I’m equally enjoying being with Random House. They’ve got a fabulous team and Anne Schwartz is an incredible editor, so it’s been wonderful as well.
What was it like to work with an agent after not having one for so many years?
I’d been quite happy leading a really low-key life, writing a book every two years and staying home with my family. And I didn’t really want to be on the road a lot. So I did things very quietly. And then at the time that I got Amy, my kids were going off to college, and I was able to get out and about a bit more and just decided I would promote on a different scale.
Your mother, Betty Ferguson, wrote picture books. Is that something that started you down the path to writing?
I don’t know that it started me writing but it made me much more aware of the business of writing. I wrote a book when I was eight and I remember knowing already that you had to have things spelled properly and that it had to be typed up and you had to send it with a self-addressed stamped envelope. So I was sending things out a lot earlier, and knowing the business.
I did have an agent for a while when I was in my teens. I didn’t publish anything but it gave me a huge amount of experience writing and sending out manuscripts. So that part was really helpful.
I read that you were first published at age 29. So you had a lot of practice!
Yes, that’s right. There was a long period. I sort of gave up by the time I was 18 and went off to the Canadian College of Dance. I was still writing but I wasn’t sending things out any more. The idea was that I would study with the Royal Academy and become a ballet teacher, which is what I did to support myself. And I could write on the side without worrying about it being a business. So I wasn’t writing as much or sending things out at all during those years.
When I was 23 I sent An Occasional Cow to FSG and I was revising on spec for seven years with an editor there, which is something I just don’t have the patience to do any more and I’m sure she wouldn’t either, so there was a long haul between 23 and 30 with this one manuscript. And after that it was a lot easier.
Do you feel like there’s a connection between dance and writing, or are they separate activities for you?
Well, there’s a connection between choreographing--I did a lot of choreography with small dance companies. I think that both music and dance are really much purer than having to use words. It’s the same sort of impulse, but I think you can actually say things more clearly with dance and music than you can with words.
The nice thing about writing, though, is that you can do it alone, which you can’t do when you’re choreographing. When you’re writing it’s just you and the computer, so you can really put things together exactly the way you want to.
Yes, you don’t have to worry about finding rehearsal space.
Yes, all that stuff. You can sit with a pen and a pad of paper somewhere and write a whole book, if that’s how you want to work.
Is that how you work?
No! I love having the computer, where you can just edit out things so quickly and easily. I worked with a pad and a pencil, and with a manual typewriter, and an electric typewriter. The computer is just so heavenly.
That makes me wonder: do you plot your books out ahead of time or discover things as you go along.
I’m more of a Gore Vidal, headlights through the fog, you can only see as far as the headlights go but you can make the whole trip that way, type of writer.
Generally, when I think I’m going to write about something, I end up writing something else completely. I just noodle around until the book really starts to come. And I throw out maybe three or four manuscripts before I start to work on one where it just takes off by itself. Because your subconscious is a much better writer, I think, than the conscious mind. You often find when you’re done with a book that you don’t really know until a year later what that book was really about. And then you can see all the pieces that were woven into it, and you realize that your mind just picked all these various elements without the conscious mind knowing what the subconscious was doing. So it’s better to just get out of your own way.
How long have you lived on Vancouver Island?
I’ve been here for 18 years.
You’ve written that moving there gave you a whole new frame of reference and inspired a different sort of storytelling. Can you say more about that?
Well, I’d never really lived somewhere like this. When we moved into our house there were cougar tracks in the yard and I was running into bears when I took the dogs for walks. I liked it, but there was this sort of element of danger.
It’s less wild [now] than when we moved here. When we moved here it really was a real wilderness area. And just absolutely, stunningly beautiful. And I think that living in that kind of proximity to whales and seals and eagles and bears and cougars gave me a different sense of the excitement of danger lurking, you know. It allowed me to play a little bit more with the dark side as opposed to, you know, the nice Midwestern picket fence upbringing I’d had.
Your books have received so much recognition (the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, the White Raven from the International Youth Library, and the Young Adult Canadian Book of the Year, among others). What’s the most gratifying part of that for you?
Being able to write for a living. Being able to write without having to do something else like teach or find another way to support myself. It’s just a huge luxury to me, to have whole days [to write in]. I never take that for granted. Because I’m probably never going to be a popular writer in the sense of selling millions of books, getting critical attention and awards has just boosted the books enough that I can write fulltime, which has been wonderful.
Are your past successes ever intimidating for you, when you start on the next story?
No. Every book is hard. You’re starting with nothing every time. It doesn’t matter what. I mean, once the books are written and out there, they are completely dead to me. It’s as though someone else had written them.
It’s like the quote where Charlton Heston said to Lawrence Olivier “I’ve finally learned to ignore the bad reviews,” and Olivier said, “Fine, now learn to ignore the good ones.” I think that that’s pretty much what you have to do. I mean, I’m interested in the book that I’m working on at the time and that’s sort of where the excitement and the energy is, and I really don’t think at all about what came before.
So when you’re working on a book, are you working on it solely, or are ideas for a new book popping up at the same time?
I usually have other ideas sneaking in. There was a time when I tried working on four different books at once, because I would have different books popping up like that. I think it was Annie Dillard who said that you should take everything and put it into the one book that you’re working on at the time and I really think that’s true.
And you also have to allow yourself to fail at that one book too. You have to do what you can, and take chances with it, and allow it to be terrible. I mean [allow for] the possibility for it to be terrible.
To be brave with it.
Yeah. You really do. Because I think if you think too much about whether it’s going to be good or not, or whether people are going to like it or not, or if you sit on your own shoulder watching yourself write, then you’re really in trouble.
In the book, Jane’s mother is a poet--she’s even won a Pulitzer Prize--but she dislikes reading her work in public. Is that something you share?
I’m really terrified of public speaking. I can certainly get up and do it, but I am terrified to the point of sweats and shaking. So for years I just said no. Now I do it more often. You are told that it gets easier the more you do it, which is absolute nonsense. It doesn’t.
For her part, Jane doesn’t like hearing or reading her mother’s working, saying, “I don’t want to know her private thoughts. I mean her very private thoughts.” Is that something that comes from your own experience with your own mother’s books, your children, both?
Yes, I always found reading my mother’s writing to be vaguely creepy. You think of your mother as one thing and then you find out that she has all these things going on in her head that you’re not aware of. My kids have read my books and for the most part I think they like them. I don’t think they’ve read all of them, though. People often ask you how your kids like your books and really, my feeling was that it wouldn’t bother me if they never read any of them. Because you’re close to the people in your family in a particular way and the writing is something else altogether. I completely understand people keeping it separate.
You’re going on tour next month to promote My One Hundred Adventures. What part of that are you looking forward to the most?
I love going into cities. I love the moment when you’re coming in from the airport and you see the city as a whole. I think there’s just a wonderful freedom in walking alone through a city and just taking it in, taking the street life in. And I have a really weird thing about hotels. I really like hotels. I get the kind of excitement from it that I used to when I was a little kid and you’d get to go out to dinner at a restaurant.
The idea that somebody is putting this whole trip together and I don’t have to do anything but show up is kind of fun. The actual reading of my work is probably the part I least look forward to.
I’d like to find out more about what happens to Jane and her family after they move to Saskatchewan, but you don’t seem to write sequels. Is that so?
Well, never say never. We’ll see!