An hour-long conversation with Arthur Slade, bestselling author of twenty-two novels for young readers, including Dust (which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for children’s literature), and The Hunchback Assignments (winner of the TD Canada Canadian Children’s Literature Award), focusing on his new young adult fantasy novel Crimson.
Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.
Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.
He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.
Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.
Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”
One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.
The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”
As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.
Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?
Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.
Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.
Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.
Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”
Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”
The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.
“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”
So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.
Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”
Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”
After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”
Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.
The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”
Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”
The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”
Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”
Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”
One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”
Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”
“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”
Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”
He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.” He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.
Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”
Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”
He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”
Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.
Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)
“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”
He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”
They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.
Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”
He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”
Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”
Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”
Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.
Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.