Where did you get your inspiration for The Blue Umbrella?
I live at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill, a couple of blocks down, is the real Porter’s Store. A few years ago I awoke in the middle of the night to a flash of insight. I recalled that when I was a little boy, many years ago and many miles away, I also lived at the top of a hill and at the bottom was an old store. How interesting! With this strange convergence of my present and past lives, the whole geography of a children’s fantasy novel flowed into my mind. I could set the story right in my own neighborhood! But it would really be the neighborhood of my childhood, which is the deepest source of all writerly inspiration.
There was also a third old store, Foster’s, which I knew as a young man living in a small prairie town. Old Mr. Foster was always talking about the weather and he even made up little poems about it. In winter he might say:
Snow, snow, the lovely snow,
You step on a bit and down you go.
Or on a rainy day he’d say:
Sun, sun, the beautiful sun,
It never shines, the son-of-a-gun!
Listening to Mr. Foster recite his silly poems, one day my imagination got to wondering what might really be going on in that store …
Which character is most like you?
There is quite a bit of me in Zac Sparks—in two ways. Firstly, as a little boy I was very active and excitable and I got into a fair amount of trouble. I used to climb on top of the piano and shout, “Jump, Mommy, jump!” and from wherever she was in the house my mother would have to come running to catch me. And I once pushed the neighborhood bully off a high stone wall into a big tub of water! I picture Zac, under normal circumstances, as being like that.
This story, however, does not take place under normal circumstances. Zac’s mother has died and he’s been plunged into a dark situation, so for most of the book he struggles with grief, shock, fear, and confusion. This changes him. While he still has “sparks” of mischief and excitability, on the whole his behavior is much subdued, his natural character repressed. Interestingly I think this side of him reflects, to some extent, my adult self. Life has a lot of hard experiences that can knock you sideways. At some level aren’t adults trying to get back to the fully alive children they once were?
So yes, I identify with Zac. But to say which character is most like me, I have to admit it’s Ches. I like Ches a lot—so much that I decided to write book two in the series from Ches’s point of view. Talk about repressed! Due to his background he has so many problems. But precisely because of that, he has a great journey to make from darkness to light.
Who is your favorite character?
Chelsea! I love her because she is the one who has most retained her childlikeness. Through her connection with Eldy, she has resisted all pressure to conform to the evil that has Five Corners in its grip. Book three in the series will be from Chelsea’s point of view and I can hardly wait to write it!
This story seems to be an allegory. Did you start out intending to write an allegory or did it just happen?
For years I’d written nonfiction books with a message, and I was tired of that. I had nothing more to tell anyone; instead I just wanted to tell a good story. I had just turned fifty and I realized that fiction is what I’d really wanted to write all along. Somehow I’d gotten away from that, and it was time to return to my original dream.
So with The Blue Umbrella I set out with no message in mind, no allegory, just a story. As I went along, I myself was very surprised at the spiritual depth that developed. But I don’t think this makes my book an allegory, so much as a work of literature with an allegorical dimension. An allegory tends to feel wooden because there is a clear one-to-one correspondence between all the elements of the story and some other reality. An allegory is so linked to what it represents that it cannot really stand on its own, whereas a good literary story, while it always points beyond itself, is fully alive in its own right.
Did you know how The Blue Umbrella would turn out? Were you surprised by any of the plot twists or characters?
At the outset I had a vague idea of the ending, which turned out to be completely different! Other than that, all I had were a few key scenes, places I wanted to get to. And I emphasize the word places. Books begin in different ways—sometimes with a character, sometimes with a bit of plot or setting. The Blue Umbrella is very much a novel of setting. From the beginning what was most vivid in my mind was the place: Porter’s General Store at the five corners. Especially vivid was the all-important second story of Porter’s. I’ve never actually been there (in the real store, I mean), but I did have a chance to visit the upper story of another old building down the street, while it was being renovated. This was a former service station that was being turned into, of all things, a chocolate factory! When the owner took me upstairs, I saw this huge room that looked like a dance hall, with a beautiful hardwood floor and no pillars, illuminated in the most extraordinary way by late-afternoon light. The building had one-hundred-foot beams, which meant (obviously) they were cut from trees at least a hundred feet tall. You don’t see that anymore. My visit to that upper room was the inspiration for the Weatherworks.
Because I began my book with a setting, and not much else, the plot and characters came as a complete surprise as I wrote. I kept trying to make an outline but this didn’t seem to work for me. In fact I discovered that I didn’t really know how to tell a story, how to keep a plot moving over the long haul of a novel. Finding myself in the midst of a very steep learning curve, eventually I took a course that turned out to be exactly what I needed. The course was called Story, taught by Robert McKee—really a screenwriting course but wonderful for novelists, too. I can’t recommend it highly enough. (McKee also has a book by the same title.)
What is your favorite type of weather and why?
I love thunder and lightning and wind. It goes back to my childhood when (just like Zac) I used to stay up with my mother late at night to watch storms. As it happens, the place where I live now (on the West Coast) doesn’t have much electrical activity, but we do get a lot of rain. There’s nothing I like better than an all-day rain. It’s great writing weather! When the sun shines, it feels like a person should be outside enjoying it. But I’d rather have a good excuse to stay indoors and read and write.
When did you decide to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eleven years old. In grade 7 I had a great teacher who taught a form of creative writing that she called Intensive Writing. It was really a sneaky way of getting us to write poetry. From the moment I discovered that I could simply look at something (such as a spider spinning a web; I think that was my first topic) and write about it—and not just about it but my feelings about it—from that point I never looked back. I grew up in a family where deep feelings were repressed, never talked about, and so the idea that I could explore my feelings in writing was revolutionary to me. It seemed totally radical, and still does. Writing is a way of bringing one’s inner life out into the open, and so bridging the two, and this is the most world-changing act a person can do. We all have these secret lives that we ourselves, often, are hardly aware of. To transform secrets into words and share them with others is truth.
In my pursuit of writing as a career, I made many mistakes. I’ve made even more in living my life. But somehow one thing I got right, both in writing and in life, was that, if I was going to be a writer, it meant not focusing on anything else. It meant not having any other career. It meant believing firmly enough in my artistic vision that, as long as I followed it faithfully, everything would work out. And it has. During my twenties I did a lot of odd jobs to support my writing—everything from library work to farming to garbage collecting. But for the last twenty-five years I’ve done nothing but write full time. And I love it!
Are you a disciplined writer or do you just write when you feel like it?
Yes! I write every day, five days a week, and usually I feel like it. I wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh boy, I get to write today!”
Having said that, I normally don’t start until about 3:00 p.m., and then I write for three or four hours. Any longer and I soon get burned out. I start late in the day because, if I started any earlier, I would just keep going and become a workaholic. That’s how much I love writing. So for me, the only way to have a life is to have it during the first part of the day. I also need time for planning, thinking, reading, handling the business end of writing, and just staring out the window or listening to music. Writing requires a lot of “nothing” time for mulling and daydreaming. Without that, creativity doesn’t happen.
If I occasionally come to my writing desk and don’t feel like writing, I just do it anyway, like being on a hike and putting one foot in front of another even if I’m worn out. It’s like priming a pump: Pour in a few words, crank the handle a few times, and soon the stream is flowing. If I don’t know where to start, I start where I want to. I try to identify one phrase or sentence or image that I find really intriguing, even if it’s just a fragment and doesn’t seem to be what I should be doing. Writing is fundamentally about writing what I want, not what I should. Otherwise it stops being fun.
What is your favorite novel?
My favorite books these days are children’s books. I began reading them ten years ago, in preparation for writing my own, and it was a great revelation to read these stories as an adult. Children’s literature allows an author to be idealistic in a way that modern adult literature does not. There are happy endings, heroic characters, a clear battle between good and evil, and portals leading to other worlds—all things that reflect, I believe, the deepest truths of life.
I love The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and some other classics. But right now I believe we’re in a new golden age of children’s literature, and I’m very excited about some books that have appeared more recently. For example, there’s Harry Potter (of course!), Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, and many others.
My favorite novel of all time is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—full of page after page of pure, gorgeous, totally absorbing storytelling. Stevenson’s Treasure Island is like that too; you get so deeply lost in the story you don’t even notice you’re turning pages. Another of my favorites is Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—partly because I recall so vividly reading it as a boy, probably right around the time I began thinking of being a writer. I have a photograph of myself reading this book, which I think was the one that first opened my eyes to the imaginative possibilities of other worlds.
What is the main thing you hope readers remember from this story?
Weather: how it looks and feels, and how it suggests something much more than meets the eye. I want readers to remember Zac in his room at the Aunties’ house, listening to the wind as it moves tree branches against his windowpane like someone tapping to be let in.
Have you ever wondered why weather is the number one topic of conversation? It seems like the smallest sort of small talk, but I think weather is really a very BIG topic. This is obvious in our own time, when the world is heading for climate disaster and everyone’s talking about it. But even just normal chitchat about weather is, I believe, far more significant than it appears. I think it’s a safe way for people to acknowledge something very important. We all have a deep yearning to discuss the big questions in life (such as “Why are we here?” and “What’s it all about?”), but often we cannot talk freely because there are so many different beliefs and it just gets really awkward. Weather, however, is something right in our faces that both deeply affects us and that we can all agree on. It’s perfectly obvious if it’s raining or snowing or the sun is shining, and it’s also perfectly obvious that such magnificent phenomena reflect a greater reality. Weather is the ultimate metaphor.