A couple of years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a CANSCAIP meeting to speak about the MFA program I was taking at VCFA. At this point I had only met Sarah Ellis briefly during residency, so it was a little nervous-making to have her in the audience. When someone asked me why I had chosen VCFA, I took a deep breath, smiled, pointed directly into the audience and said, “that author” and then probably blushed and giggled.
It was really a dream realized when I got to work with Sarah during my final semester and since then I’m so grateful that I can consider her an integral part of my creative community. Sarah is a writer with much wisdom whose humour and vast vocabulary, makes me want to walk beside her on her daily jaunts with a dictionary and pad of paper in hand, jotting down notes.
Sarah has joined me today to talk about her new book, Outside In, which has already garnered a star review from Kirkus.
Lynn feels pretty settled in her life–and that is the way she likes it. After being carted around so much by her mother when she was little, she’s happy to have a secure home with her mother’s boyfriend, Clive, and her best friends,”the Diode” and her choir. Even her typically flighty mother, Shakti, seems to have found security. But, when Shakti has an affair and Clive leaves, things begin to slowly unravel until Lynn must readjust her own perceptions about family to find her centre. Lynn also meets Blossom, a smart and creative girl whose family, The Underlanders, lives secretly off the grid in a bunker beneath the city’s reservoir. The girls’ friendship shifts the dynamics in Lynn’s relationship with the Diode and her mother. When a chance sighting forces Lynn to tell her mother the truth, she might inadvertently put the Underlanders at risk.
With wit and deep insight, Ellis explores themes of friendship, loyalty and the consequences of one’s actions. Whereas at first Lynn is the victim of her mother’s actions, it is her own behaviour that she must eventually confront. In a world where we are constantly being plugged in and public, Ellis examines the balance between what is public and private, without providing an easy answer.
Sarah is the author of sixteen books for young readers. She was won the Governor General’s Award, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award, the Mr. Christie’s Book Award, The Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize and the Vicky Metcalf Award. Her books have been translated into French, Spanish, Danish, Chinese and Japanese. In 2013 Sarah was nominated for the prestigious Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. She is a masthead reviewer for the Horn Book Magazine and writes a book review column for Quill and Quire. Sarah also teaches in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Vancouver. Do follow her travels on Twitter @SarahEllisWordz.
Mel : What were some of the questions that you had hoped to explore when writing this novel, and what came up while you were writing that surprised you?
Sarah: My two big questions were: What would it be like if we, as a society, weren’t so busy? What would it be like if we weren’t so afraid? To explore these questions I invented a family that has ample time and a wealth of competencies. What surprised me was that once I had the basic Underlander idea it wasn’t that hard to make their world work. And it was exhilarating.
Mel: The Underlanders have certainly figured out ways to manage off the grid. How did the structure of their society evolve and how did it impact the crafting of your characters?
Sarah: The tiny impetus for the idea of the Underlanders happened years ago. It was a conversation with a young mother. They had just bought their first home and she told me that the first thing she was going to do was replace the back fence with a taller one to prevent the possibility of somebody reaching over to steal her children. Then I just started to notice how anxious we are, how distrustful, how closed-in. Ironically, to create a child character who felt at home in the world, strong and confident, sure of her usefulness, I ended up with Blossom, who lives in secret. I also ended up with a family in which no member is a blood relative of any other. It was as though to create these characters I had to step away from the usual social institutions.
Mel: This is more of an observation, than a question. There are multiple layers happening in this novel. On one hand there is the layers of Lynn’s relationship with her friends at school, her mother, and Blossom and her family. On the other, there is the world of adults that might feel as foreign as that of the Underlanders. It is interesting to me that some of the things that directly impacted Lynn were resolved, while other matters were left open. Can you speak to this a little bit?
Sarah: I struggled with this one. Lynn’s mother is a flake. I tried to get her to step up to the plate and grow up. But she wouldn’t. It did not feel authentic to me to resolve this relationship neatly. Lynn, however, can grow up and one aspect of this, and she has to go through this earlier than most people, is accepting that with her mother — wysiwyg. Like many children in this situation Lynn takes what she can get from her mother and finds substitute parents to see her through. Blossom’s father Fossick is going to become an important person in her life.
Mel: When was the moment when writing this novel when it felt like it was all coming together?
Sarah: When I finally admitted that this was Lynn’s story! I tried a dual narrative but I just kept pulling towards Lynn’s voice and point of view. When I gave in, the whole think jelled.
Mel: Often, you take pictures of some of the things you see on your daily walks. What was the strangest and most curious?
Sarah: My favourite so far was a beat-up copy of Poet’s Market lying on the boulevard in the rain. Awwwww. There’s a sad story.
Bonus Question, Mel: The Underlanders enjoyed eating a variety of items that may not traditionally go together. What was the most interesting combination of foods you’ve eaten?
Sarah: Peanut butter on iceberg lettuce is good, two kinds of crunch.
Sounds delicious. I know what I’ll be having for lunch today.