Idea evolution

I’ve written so little about When the Worst Happens, and I so love the book. Today, I correct this issue. Here’s the Darwinian story of how my survival book came to be.

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Step 1
I have lunch with Colleen MacMillan of Annick Press. She’s a tangential thinker, possibly even more tangential than me, so our lunch conversations tend to bounce around like boomerangs. But at some point, Colleen mentions that she’s been researching and thinking about polar exploration and a phenomenon called “polar madness.” Basically, when people are stuck for months on end without light, friendship, or vegetables, some of them lose it. But Colleen wonders why only some lose it, while others stay sane.

Step 2
I go home and start sniffing out ice-bound survival stories. They tend to be somewhat similar — ice, cold, hunger — so I expand the topic to include stories of survival from an assortment of extreme environments, including the depths of a mine and the centre of the Amazon. I write a proposal in which the stories are organized by geographical location, with sidebars to explore the psychological aspects of survival.

Step 3
Enter editor Alison Kooistra. Alison is certainly creative, but rather the opposite of tangential. She is the most organized person I have ever worked with. When she reads my proposal, she starts to wonder what a book would look like if organized by psychological survival strategy instead of geography. Then she suggests choosing four main stories and telling them in chunks. Readers will be able to flip through the book to read the stories linearly, or read cover-to-cover and find out bits at a time, along with survival techniques and supporting tales.

Alison doesn’t just suggest this. She sends me a spreadsheet.

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That’s right. A spreadsheet. I told you she’s organized. I don’t even know how to create a spreadsheet.

Step 4
I love Alison’s ideas. They remind me of my elementary school Choose Your Own Adventure obsession. Not all my previous ideas work with the new format, so I do some more research, I brainstorm with Alison, and I write a first draft. I attempt to juggle everything into place, and of course am unsuccessful, so Alison re-logics things.

And then we’re done. My daughter chose to read the book straight through, without hopping ahead to different parts of the stories. But I’m excited to see what other readers do. It’s kind of a choose-your-own-survivor book.

Now, let’s hope the project beats its way out of the proverbial Amazon and onto many bookshelves!

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The poisonous side of biodiversity

I’m excited to announce that 50 Poisonous Questions is part of a new exhibit at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. If you haven’t been to this newish UBC museum yet, it’s time. The place is spectacular… and not just because there’s a blue whale skeleton hanging in the atrium.

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The museum has worked all sorts of CWILL BC books into exhibits about backyard biodiversity. But, if you’re not feeling bookish, you can do what I do when I visit: spend an hour (or three) opening drawer after drawer of strange and unusual specimens.

Happy hunting!

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Uncertainty looming…

To school, or not to school? As the labour dispute drags on, everyone’s wondering whether or not kids will be going to class in September.

I’m a bit torn on the issue. As you may know, I’m a little paranoid about earthquakes. I figure every week my kids are out of school is five less days they can be crushed by falling debris. So there’s that.

We’ve also achieved a good rhythm in our summer. Monkey Girl entertains Monkey Boy for an hour in the morning while I do a smidgeon of work, then we do something fun together. And whenever I’m just about to lose all semblance of patience, they go to day camp.

On the other hand, in the two years since I achieved the promised land of both kids in school full time, I rediscovered a few things about myself. I can happily spend long hours alone. I like to eat cucumber sandwiches for lunch. I love CBC Radio. Since no one else in the family shares these loves, I’ve endured a ten-week silence, sandwich, and CBC drought.

Oh, yes, there’s also the issue of my children receiving an education. So far this summer, my daughter has learned to sew and my son has learned to do handstands. Think they can spin those skills into future career paths?

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The wacky factor

I was in the middle of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam last week when I went to see the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the art gallery. Now, I know that Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland are rather different. You would never mistake the work of one for that of the other. But I couldn’t help but notice a few similarities.

They are both students of the Canadian identity.

The are both experts at digging into the scary parts of our present and taking those parts just one step further. Not a hundred steps further, into Isaac Asimov territory, but one step — which is a much more chilling thing.

They were both recognized early in their careers for their mix of insight and general wackiness. And, thus encouraged, both have continued to grow more cutting and more quirky.

If you combine these three things, what do they say about us, the Canadian readership/audience that has given these two such iconic status? Obviously, we value smarts. We’re willing to gaze (okay, at least glance) into the dark side. But we also have a well-honed appreciation for the wacky.

Would you agree?

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Getting our culture on

We’ve been going culture crazy around here. In true Kyi style, of course, which means we’ve included an opening-day trip to Guardians of the Galaxy.

But let’s pretend I didn’t admit that, and move on to the high-brow events…

The kids and I went on a backstage tour of the Orpheum, my longtime favourite place, hosted by The BC Entertainment Hall of Fame.


It was fabulous. We tromped above the dome to see the cables, snuck below the seats to see the old-fashioned air conditioning system, and explored everything in between. We learned about the inside jokes painted on the ceiling, the cost-saving architectural plans of the owner (a small entrance on expensive Granville Street, then stairs to lead audiences across the alley to the main hall on less-expensive Seymour), and the crazy media stunts of the first manager. We even got to touch the 1920s silent-movie organ and hear the buttons for damsel-in-distress sound effects — train engine and whistle, of course. The tour was only open to kids over twelve, but the monkeys used their angelic faces and were allowed to tag along. Both of them loved the dome best of all.

Monkey Girl and I then headed out to see Love’s Labour’s Lost, as performed by Carousel Theatre’s Teen Shakespeare Program. The production was outside on Granville Island, so it was like getting a miniature, free version of Bard on the Beach.

I explained to Monkey Girl the trick about Shakespeare plays — pretend you understand what’s happening for the first ten minutes, and then gradually you’ll discover that you do understand. It seemed to work. She even knew there was trouble coming the moment the messenger was handed two identical envelopes. “Mommy, he’s going to switch the love letters!”

Finally, Min and I and our friends Steve and Rebecca snuck away from all of our kids and headed to the Vancouver Art Gallery for a look inside Douglas Coupland’s twisted brain. As certified Gen-Xers, we found plenty to marvel at and exclaim over. And we spent a fair amount of time wondering exactly what Douglas Coupland’s garage looked like. That man has collected a LOT of stuff.


I have plenty more thoughts on the exhibit, to come in a later post. In the meantime, if you’d like to see Rebecca’s gum, it’s a white piece just about the goatee on Douglas’s left side.

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Making memories

Memory is intertwined with emotion. That’s one of the things I learned while writing 50 Body Questions. The parts of your brain responsible for forming long-term memories are literally tangled with the parts of your brain used for intense feelings. Thus, you forget the 1500 delicious but predictable lasagna dinners of your childhood, while remembering the one time your cousin grossed out the whole kids’ picnic table by swearing the chunks of meat between the noodles were actually cooked ants and you all spent the rest of the evening wanting to throw up on the lawn.

Sorry… where was I?

Memories. Specifically, holiday memories. Here are a few from my childhood: my sister catching a huge fish on her tiny rod, right from the beach; losing our dog from the bed of the truck and speeding back down the logging road until we found him, his legs churning and his tongue lolling as he desperately chased after us; riding the pirate ship at the PNE; calling the ambulance when my grandpa fainted; getting heck from my aunt for making mud pies in the driveway; hatching a plan with my Auntie Toni to sneak up on my uncle, jump on him, tie him up with skipping ropes, and tickle him into submission (code word: soap).

All of which are memories tied to emotions.

Min and I were discussing this because we try so darned hard to make our kids’ summers perfect. Idyllic, even. So who the heck knows what they’ll remember? Sometimes when Monkey Boy says his prayers at night, he skips over five things about the day which I personally thought were amazing, and instead says thank you for the pipe cleaners we bought.

What if we’ve driven them all the way to Oregon and back, and they’ll retain none of it?!?

Min has suggested that before every new experience, we throw them off a small cliff, just to brand the moment in their minds.

I’m thinking I’ll just tell them there are ants in the lasagna.

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In summary…

I’ve been reading (and loving) MaddAddam.

I’ve been a huge Margaret Atwood fan ever since high school, when my friend Suzanne lent me her big sister’s copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. If Margaret Atwood ever turned up at my door and said, “Tanya, I’ve decided we need to run away and start a commune together, before civilization disintegrates around us,” well… Min might be cooking his own dinners that week.


This particular trilogy is a winning combination of twisted and incisive. But my favourite thing about the third book, MaddAddam, is not even the story. It’s the summaries, in the opening pages, of the first two books in the series.

As a writer, no matter what your status or calibre, you create synopses of your books. You write them for grant applications or project pitches. You write them for media interviews. You even write them for yourself, when you forget where the heck your story’s supposed to be going.

Most of us work very hard to make our synopses perfect. We want them highly intelligent, imbued with subtle humour. We want our characters to seem real and our plots irresistible.

But apparently if you’re Margaret Atwood, you’re allowed to write synopses that sound like big servings of cray cray. Let me give you a small example, from the summary for Oryx and Crake:

The Crakers mate seasonally, when parts of them turn blue. Crake tried to rid them of symbolic thinking and music, but they have an eerie singing style all their own and have developed a religion, with Crake as their creator, Oryx as mistress of the animals, and Snowman as their reluctant prophet. It is he who has led them out of the high-tech Paradice dome where they were made to their present home beside the ocean.

Now, can you IMAGINE if I submitted a synopsis like this? The publisher would send me a prescription for antipsychotics instead of a cheque.

But that’s because I am not Margaret Atwood.

If you haven’t yet done so, you should go out immediately and buy all three titles. They’re hilariously brilliant. You will never smile so often while reading about the end of the world.

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On the road to anywhere

I’m hightailing it out of town next May, as part of TD Canadian Children’s Book Week.

To where, you ask? I have no idea! They announced the roster of touring writers, illustrators, and storytellers yesterday, but they haven’t yet decided who is going where. All I know is I’ll be travelling to a province outside my own, and may be required to go by plane, train, bus, automobile, or other means. (Really. I think there was a form saying that…)

Needless to say, I’m very excited by all this. Is it too early to pack?

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Before I spend the rest of this post complaining, let me just say that my family is wonderful, and I am blessed to have them.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way…

I am an introvert trapped in a family of extroverts. Yesterday, I tried to explain that I could use a little downtime, which they interpreted to mean, “please leave the kitchen while I cook dinner for all of you.” Which wasn’t really what I meant at all. What I meant was, “please leave the house and find other extroverts to play with for oh, six hours or so, while I finish reading MaddAddam and file my nails and stare off into space, because those are my basic requirements in life.”

There was a time, when Monkey Boy was a baby and waking every 90 minutes (on good nights), when I would look ahead for the next period of uninterrupted sleep. As in: on Tuesday, Min has the afternoon off. It’s only five days away. Maybe I can sleep then.

It’s that time of the summer. I’ve started scanning, a bit desperately, for silence. The monkeys have a playdate one afternoon this week. Only a few days away. Plus there’s always September.

Except when there’s not

I’m going to read this Carrie Snyder post over and over again, to remind myself there are other women in the world who share my relationship with summer. And I’m going to read it with one child attempting to make cookies for the first time by herself and the other child attempting to spider down the hall without touching the floor (really) and I’m going to imagine all of this happening in some other dimension which doesn’t involve me. Because what’s a writing life for, if one can’t use a little imagination?

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Powers of observation

Just before we went to Oregon, the monkeys and I spent some time at Science World, where they’re featuring the science of sport.

At one station, Monkey Boy and I watched a screen, trying to act as judges for gymnastics and diving moves. The screen showed us two figures doing complicated dives, and ask us to rank them. The dives looked exactly the same. But then the computer slowed down the motion, and showed us what trained diving judges saw — a bent ankle here, a curved leg there. Judges have trained themselves to see specific traits.

On our vacation last week, we took a full-day jet-boat ride up the Rogue River. Not only was the scenery amazing, our driver also had super-spidey senses for wildlife. We saw eagles, osprey, vultures, river otters, deer, seals… This guy had obviously trained some specific powers of observation.



Then, in the middle of the ride, as we drifted through dark blue water reflecting the evergreens above, Monkey Boy turned to me and said, “Mommy, the water looks just like Minecraft.”

Ah, yes. We are finely attuned beings in this family.

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