Can Write: Meet Jonathan Auxier
by Margriet Ruurs
A non-fiction picture book about World War I; a story about friendship; a biography of a Canadian artist; an information book about writing and illustrating AND a fantasy mystery novel. These were the 2015 shortlisted books for the TD Canada Book Award. What a difficult job it must have been to select a winner among such vastly different topics and genres!
The winner, in the end, was the fantasy novel: The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. I was curious about the book and immediately checked it out of my public library. Once I started reading, I couldn't put down this deliciously scary tale. And after I finished reading, I asked the author some questions.
Margriet: Congratulations on winning the TD Canada Book Award! I couldn't put down my copy of The Night Gardener. How valuable do you feel awards are for children's books?
Jonathan: It was a tremendous honour and still puts a smile on my face every time I think of it. Awards like that are an incredibly powerful way to raise awareness about a book in the general reading population. So many of my favourite books in recent years I first picked up because they won a book award. I'm delighted to think that even more readers will find The Night Gardener now!
Margriet: You are a Canadian, right? But now you live in Pittsburg. How did that happen?
Jonathan: I grew up in BC, but I came down to Pittsburgh to study playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University. I was only supposed to be here for two years, but then I met a local girl. She was smart and pretty and smelled nice so I decided to stick around and marry her.
Margriet: You are a writer but I also saw fabulous art on your blog. Do you do your own illustrations? Have you considered picture books or graphic novels?
Jonathan: I actually started out wanting to be an illustrator. My mother is a painter, and so I grew up thinking of myself as an artist. At some point, however, I realized my technical skill was not where it needed to be in order to tell the stories I wanted to tell, so I switched from drawing to writing. I still draw every day and I also did illustrations for my first book, Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, as well as my newest book, Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard (out in April 2016).
Margriet: What inspires your stories, sparks your ideas?
Jonathan: I mentioned I draw every day, and that's because almost all of my ideas start as pictures. In the case of my newest book, I started with a sketch of a girl mending stacks of half-burned books. I wanted to know who that girl was and where she had found those books. So I wrote Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard.
Margriet: What does an "average" day look like for you? Do you write each day?
Jonathan: I write every morning for four hours and then read and draw and do chores in the afternoon. I also occasionally teach Children's Literature in an MFA program.
Margriet: How does teaching affect your writing? Jonathan: I teach literature more often than craft, so the classes are generally an opportunity for me to spend a lot of time examining how good stories work. It's also a great way to force myself to read books on my "shame shelf " (to-be-read books that have been sitting there for a while).
Margriet: Are there children to whom you tell your tales before writing them down?
Jonathan: I have a few younger readers who give me feedback on early drafts, but I still primarily write books for myself. I do not "tell" the story to anyone before I've written it. I find that if I talk about an unwritten story too much, I lose the desire to actually write it.
Margriet: As a kid, were you an avid reader? What did you read?
Jonathan: I was a strong reader, and I came from a serious reading family. For several years, however, all I would read were comics. There's nothing wrong with comics, but there can be too much of a good thing! It wasn't until undergrad that I started taking reading seriously. By that time I had a lot of catching up to do! I spent every summer working through a massive list of classic books that most of my peers had already read in high school.
Margriet: What advice do you have for educators and parents?
Jonathan: Reading aloud is important! But so is modelling reading behaviour. It's one thing to lecture a kid about the importance of reading (the way one might lecture about the importance of eating vegetables), but that's nothing compared to living a life where that same kid sees you choosing to read in your own spare time. I guess it boils down to "walking the talk."
Margriet: What is next? Are you working on a sequel? A whole new fantastical tale?
Jonathan: As I mentioned, I have a BRAND NEW BOOK coming out in April called Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard. It's the story of a 12 year old bookmender who discovers an ancient, mysterious book that contains the secret to preserving all magic in the world. Margriet: I'm sure that will be another read that I, and many other readers, will not be able to put down!