The Canadian Teacher – Meet Larry Verstraete Interview

Recently fellow author Margriet Ruurs interviewed me for the Can Write column of the Canadian Teacher magazine.  Each issue of the magazine features a different Canadian children’s book author or illustrator, and the questions posed delve into the stories behind their creations. 

Margriet’s full interview is posted below.  For more interviews of authors and illustrators, check the Canadian Teacher website.  You can find more about Margriet Ruurs and her books at margrietruurs.com

Can Write – Meet Larry Verstraete

Books about dinosaurs, innovations and technologies. Titles like At The Edge and Life and Death. Who is Canadian author Larry Verstraete and how does he write such interesting, award-winning books?

Margriet: Your topics and titles really appeal to kids. They are listed in the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books. As a kid, did you love reading? And writing?

Larry: Books were among my best friends when I was growing up—novels, short stories, bios, non-fiction (science and history, especially). My brother and I had shared custody of stacks of comic books. We both enjoyed the sarcastic humour of MAD magazine. As for writing, I don’t recall willingly lifting a pen to draft a story on my own. The only writing I did was for school assignments, and those were returned with generous amounts of red ink. A career as a writer was not on my radar back then.

Margriet: You had a career as a teacher. How did writing become a new career?

Larry: Call it a fluke. After a long teaching day, I stopped for a haircut on the way home. The place was busy and while I waited for my turn, I thumbed through a magazine. One page stood out—an ad for a correspondence writing course titled “We’re looking for people to write books for children.”

To this day, I don’t know why I was so intrigued by the ad. Perhaps because I had been such an enthusiastic reader my whole life. Perhaps because I taught children and had two young kids of my own. Perhaps because I love the bond between readers who share books and wanted to create something that would have the same results.

I suspect it was all of these. I decided to give it a go, and, as they say, the rest is history. While I worked on course assignments, I discovered a story about a freak accident that led to a breakthrough in science. I wrote the story for the course but was so hooked on the topic that I continued to research and write other stories like it as I worked through the rest of the assignments. By the end of the course, I had a collection of stories around that theme.

The manuscript eventually found a home with Scholastic Canada and was published as The Serendipity Effect. By then I was bitten by the writing bug, and 30 years later I am still at it.

Margriet: Do you have a preference for writing fiction or non- fiction?

Larry: When it comes to non-fiction, I see myself as a storyteller and not so much as a writer of facts. Telling a true story comes with constraints, but I know the outcome before I start and the events that lead up to it, so, in a sense, I have an outline before I start. With fiction, creation is in my hands which is refreshing but also daunting because there are so many possibilities in play.

I enjoy both. Fiction is a nice break from non-fiction and vice versa.

Margriet: How does your writing process work?

Larry: I pull ideas from many places. I keep a “futures box.” When I find an article, clipping or something that piques my interest, I cut it out or download, print it, and throw it in the box. Every few months, I rummage through the collection. By then, I’ve forgotten what’s in there so it’s a bit like opening a gift. I’m always amazed at how many ideas surface.

Some of the best ideas for new books come while I am writing something else. For instance, while I was writing Case Files: 40 Murders and Mysteries Solved by Science, I thought I would include a story about the Hindenburg and use it as an example of how science revealed how and why the fire started. I never used the story in Case Files, but when I read about Werner Franz, the cabin boy aboard the Hindenburg, and his narrow escape, I knew right away that I wanted to tell his story. Eventually, I did. Surviving the Hindenburg is the result.

For non-fiction, once I have an idea, I dive into research. I try to find everything that is connected to the topic. If I can’t come up with a fresh take on the subject, I move on to something else. If the subject looks viable, I write a few pages to develop the voice and approach I’d like to use. From there, I create a proposal complete with an outline and a few samples.

Margriet: Hindenburg! Dinosaurs! Survival stories! Death defying escapes! Is your “real” life as exciting as your books?

Larry: Not at all. Like most people, I’ve had a few cliff-hanging moments of my own, but nothing the calibre of the subjects I research and write about. As a kid, I was fascinated by stories of heroes and true adventure, so I am probably fulfilling some inner quest for excitement by writing about others who live on the edge.

Margriet: How did you first get published?

Larry: When I wrote The Serendipity Effect, my first book, I did not have a clue how to find a publisher. I sent the entire manuscript to a publisher only to wait six months to have it returned with a note saying “thanks, but no thanks.” After that, I changed my approach. Instead of shipping off the entire manuscript, I now develop a proposal, add a few sample chapters, and send it off to several publishers at the same time. One was Scholastic Canada. Lucky for me, they were interested.
I’ve been published by other publishers since then. It helps to have a list of published books to back up your credentials, but that’s only one of the factors involved. For non-fiction, you are trying to sell an idea or concept. You need to prove to publishers that you have something original and current to offer. Whether or not you’ve been published before doesn’t matter if you don’t have something intriguing to bring to the bargaining table. For fiction, regardless of your previous works, you still need to prove that the story you’ve written is good enough for publication.

Having an established relationship with an editor or publishing house helps, though. In a sense, you are a known quantity to them. I’ve had a couple of projects drop into my lap because someone in a publishing house thought I would be a match for an in-house project.

Margriet: What do you do during school visits?

Larry: One of my goals when visiting classrooms is to leave students as excited about writing and reading as I am. I share my backstory and bring props, gadgets, posters, illustrations and other gear to make my session as interactive as possible. I tell stories, read passages, and use media to take students behind the scenes of writing and publishing so they can see how ideas eventually become the books they read.

Margriet: What are you working on now?

Larry: My last novel (Coop the Great) was a fictional story about a dachshund who is on a quest to find meaning in his life. The dog tells the story, and his voice was so fresh and vivid to me, that I had trouble leaving it behind. At this point, I am chipping away at a middle-grade novel that is very different from Coop, and I am happy to say that the pieces are beginning to come together.

 

THIN AIR is Alive and Well

Last week, I was one of many authors involved in the school side of THIN AIR, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.  For two days, I barreled down Winnipeg roads and dipped into schools like Oak Bluff Community School, John de Graff and John Pritchard to visit students from K to Grade 6.  On the third day, I stood stage center at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People to face a crowd of enthusiastic middle graders from Munroe Junior High and Oakenwald School.

For me, it was three days of shared moments. At each stop, we talked about books – mine mostly, but sometimes others. We talked about stories and why we love them.  We talked about reading books and what it takes to write them. I read passages from my books, and students asked questions. Many questions. 

Much of my time with middle years students centered around Coop the Great. Several teachers or librarians were in the middle of reading the book to their classes, and one school had embarked on a Coop the Great novel study. Because Coop the Great is one of the nominated titles on the Sundog list for this years’ MYRCA (Manitoba Young Readers Choice Awards), it was also a way to introduce students to the program and get them started.

I was blown away by the students’ enthusiasm and interest.  They seem to enjoy reading Coop the Great as much as I enjoyed writing it.  Everywhere, they had questions.  Where did you get the idea for the book?  Did you ever have a dog like Coop?  How long did it take you to write Coop? Are you going to write another Coop book? Will Coop be made into a movie? (I wish).

A number of questions explored delicate themes that run through the book. Why did you include Lucinda (the cat) and why is she so mean? (bullying).  Why did you make Rick (the father) the unlikeable character he is? (abuse). Why did you include the 9-11 story of Salty and Omar? (I steered around answering that one because the reason only becomes apparent later in the book).

At the end of my THIN AIR experience, I had a much broader appreciation of what the school side of the festival brings to readers and writers.  Charlene Diehl, the director of THIN AIR, expressed it better than I ever could in the message she wrote for the program guide.

What happens at THIN AIR?  The writers we gathered this year will read to us, think with us, provoke us to examine our assumptions, and make us laugh (or cry) in moments of shared humanity.

Thanks for inviting me to THIN AIR, Charlene.  Thanks Chelsey Young, Admin Coordinator, for taking care of the fine details.  Thanks teachers and librarians who stirred up student interest.  Finally, thanks to all the youngsters who came armed with insights, curiosity and enthusiasm. You are the reason I continue to write.

With students from Oakenwald School after the stage event at MTYP

 

 

MYRCA’s Big Reveal

The crowd waits
Monday, May 6, 2019 – 7 pm   McNally Robinson’s Booksellers, Winnipeg

Teachers, librarians, parents and kids fill the atrium. I am there, too. We are all waiting for the same thing. The big MYRCA reveal. What books have been selected for the 2020 Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award reading list?

Prizes line the table, all ready for the many draws

MYRCA was established by the Manitoba School Library Association in 1990 to mark the International Year of Literacy. For the past 29 years, students across the province in grades 4 to 9 have been offered a slate of short-listed Canadian novels to read, discuss and assess. In early April, students who have read a minimum of 3 titles vote for their favourite. Votes are collected, tabulated, and when the dust settles a MYRCA winner and two Honor Book winners are announced.

Sundogs on display

As it stands now, MYRCA offers two lists of nominated titles: MYRCA Sundogs for grades 4-6. MYRCA Northern Reflections for grades 7-9. But back to McNally Robinsons. The moment. The big reveal. The Sundogs first. Lucky me, Coop the Great is a nominated title. I’ve known for a while, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy. It’s a relief to have it public now.

Nancy Chappell-Pollack & Colleen Nelson introduce their book,Pulse Point, a Northern Reflections nominee
Heather Smith talks about Ebb & Flow, her nominated novel in the Northern Reflections category
Its my turn to introduce Coop the Great

There are 10 books on the Sundogs shortlist and another 10 on the Northern Reflections list. Congratulations to all the nominees. I’m thrilled to be in such great company. Even more thrilled that kids across the province will be reading about Coop.

It was an exciting evening for all who attended. The teachers, librarians and devoted others who head the MYRCA program made it special. Thanks to all who attended or contributed time and resources to launch another MYRCA year.  Let the reading begin! 

More information about MYRCA can be found on the MYRCA website

MYRCA 2020 Sundogs
MYRCA 2020 Northern Reflections

The Write Stuff Festivals

Along with other local writers, I was lucky enough to participate in a couple of writing festivals this week. It takes a lot of drive and initiative to organize school-wide events like this and in both cases, they ran without a hitch. At least, that was my limited perspective as one of the drop-in presenters.  

The sessions offered were as varied as the writers and the genres they represented  The festival at St. George ran almost a month, with authors of youth material visiting students from K to Grade 8.  Daniel McIntyre’s The Write Stuff Conference ran over the course of a single busy day. From journalists, to scriptwriters, to film makers, to authors of non-fiction and fiction, The Write Stuff offered a buffet of writing approaches and talent for Grade 11 students who attended.  

Hats off to Lisa Ferguson at St.George School and Benjamin Paul at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate, master teachers and organizers, who extended the invitations and ensured students were pumped and ready for us. Thanks everyone. I had a grand time.

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