Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan, completing his first novel when he was still in his teens. Now he is the author of eighteen acclaimed novels in a variety of genres, including science fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction, and graphic novels. His book The Hunchback Assignments won the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, and Dust won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Children’s Literature.
Q&A with Arthur Slade
We had a chance to ask Arthur some questions about being a writer. He shares some of his favourite books when he was a kid, and he has great advice for kids who are interested in writing!
Where do you find the inspiration for your books?
The wonderful thing about writing and imagination is that inspiration is everywhere. It can come from someone saying a phrase that sticks in your head and becomes the start of a novel. Or it could be an experience that you’ve had that can be translated into a scene in a short story. There are even times when a family story becomes inspiration (my WW1 novel Megiddo’s Shadow is inspired by my grandfather’s story of being a mounted soldier in Egypt). Often my inspiration comes from asking myself a question: What if this happened? I have a series of books (The Hunchback Assignments) about a shape-changing secret agent who is a hunchback. The idea for that whole series really came from asking myself, “what if the Hunchback of Notre Dame became a detective?” And then I ran that scenario through my mind and tried to picture what sorts of adventures he would have. It’s the same process for Dragon Assassin. With that book I asked myself, “what if there was an assassin riding a dragon?” It sounds almost silly, right? But it also sounds fun and adventurous. I mean, dragons are frightening and tough. But what if there was an assassin on top of that dragon (literally)? The answer to that first question became the Dragon Assassin series.
What were your favourite books when you were a kid? As a young reader, did you see yourself in the books you read?
I was a crazy reader. By that I mean I read anything I could get my hands on, especially fantasy, horror and science fiction. So the first book I remember reading on my own is The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. It’s a fun fantasy novel about an assistant pig keeper who becomes a hero. And that led me into The Hobbit, which my Grade 4 teacher read to us. It was amazing to me that you could visit different worlds and see those worlds through the eyes of such interesting characters. I went on to read science fiction books like Dune by Frank Herbert, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and anything by Stephen King. I would read any book that promised to take me to another world or leave me with a case of frightening chills! I often identified with the characters. I mean who wouldn’t want to be like Bilbo and have big hairy feet? Err, I mean go on a great adventure even though he was a quiet little hobbit. Sometimes I like characters who aren’t like me—Conan the Barbarian is a fine example. Big and strong and able to take on any sort of physical challenge. But the characters I enjoyed the most were the ones who were not quite perfect. Like Bilbo, or Taran from The Book of Three. They were ordinary characters who did something extra-ordinary.
What’s the most surprising thing you have learned when creating your books?
I think the most surprising thing I’ve discovered is that imagination is endless. It’s as big as the universe. I never get tired of creating new things and trying to tell a story with those new things. Or looking at old stories or fairytales and attempting to make them more modern. There are so many interesting things that can happen in a story that it’s always exciting to find a new twist or a new character.
What is a challenge you have faced as a writer?
I think the biggest challenge is trying to find the best way to tell the story. Should it be right inside the character’s head, as if they are telling the story? How will that affect the story? Or should it be as if we are riding around on their shoulder and seeing everything that happens to them, but only guessing at what their thoughts are. Their first thought might be, “why is someone riding around on my shoulder?” : ) I think once you have an idea then putting that idea into the type of story people will be able to follow can be hard. And sometimes I get it wrong. I’ve written a whole novel in third person, and only after 2 or 3 drafts and a letter from my editor did I realize it should really be in first person—that we had to see exactly what is going on in the character’s head. So I went through the whole book and changed it to first person. It was a lot of work, but it made the story better. And that’s my job…to make the story better.
What advice do you have for kids who are interested in writing?
Oh! I have so much advice. But I think the biggest thing for any writer to remember is that sometimes it’s best to just dive right into the story. You can spend too much time researching and never write it. You can try to figure out which point of view works and never start the story. But the most important thing to do is to start. If you were at the starting line for the 100-metre dash, would you sit and think about what foot to use the moment the starting gun fired? No! You’d run. So it’s good to run ahead as fast as you can in the story. Sometimes I’ll even set a timer on my iPhone and say, “keep writing and don’t stop no matter what for the next ten minutes—even if the house is on fire.” You’ll be amazed how much you can write in that short time. Even if everything you write down that day doesn’t seem to be working, you’ll still have started. So what if you make a mistake? The best thing about writing, for me, is rewriting. It’s the rewriting that turns a story into something that people will read again and again and, hopefully, again.