Guest Post: Deborah Kerbel, Author of Feathered


Book Birthdays are the perfect way to celebrate spring. And today is Deborah Kerbel’s special book birthday, as we celebrate her sixth (SIXTH!) novel, Feathered.

When Deborah told me about her new novel, I was intrigued. First , it is historical fiction, set in 1980. (And, yes, it is weird to think that something during my lifetime is historical fiction, but there it is.)  Second, her main character Finch, is obsessed with Little House on the Prairie.  I’m thrilled that she agreed to come on the blog to chat about writing this novel, all things 1980s, and her character’s obsession with the TV show. So, Happy Book Birthday, Deborah!

About Deborah: Deborah Kerbel was born in London, England, but moved to Canada before she was old enough to cultivate a posh accent or a love of marmalade. She grew up in Toronto, Ontario, with her parents, sister, brother and a beagle named Snoopy. A finalist for the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Award, Deborah is the author of six novels for young adult and middle grade readers. She lives in Thornhill, Ontario, with her husband, two children, and a schnoodle named Alfredo.

About the book:  For eleven-year-old Finch, there couldn’t be a better time to fly away from her life. But when a girl named Pinky moves in next door, a girl from India who also doesn’t seem to fit in, Finch feels a flicker of hope that her life might just be turning around. And when something terrible happens and it seems Finch may be the only one who can help her new friend, she comes to understand that flying is not the answer. Sometimes right where you are is the best place to be.


Auld Lang Syne-O-Rama

“In my best dreams, I am Laura. I call my parents Ma and Pa, wear a sunbonnet wherever I go, skip happily through flower-filled fields, and put Nellie Oleson in her place whenever she’s nasty.” –Feathered Author Photo

I didn’t actually set out to write a novel about a lonely Gen X pre-teen with the weight of the world on her shoulders and a Little House on the Prairie obsession. It kind of just happened.

It was spring of 2013 when I sat down with a fresh bag of licorice, opened a blank page on my computer and started writing a new story. Inspired by a news item I’d recently read, I imagined a scene about an eleven year-old girl named Finch who, after pulling a feather out of her neck several years before, believes she’s destined to fly.

The manuscript would eventually turn out to be my sixth novel for young readers. But the writing process for this one was different than any of my previous books. Writing Feathered was one of those mythical unicorn-esque experiences every writer dreams about. You know, the one where sparkly characters come to life on the page and basically write their own story while you sit back and watch in silent awe? Yeah. That. Finch’s voice in my head was so strong and clear, it was almost like I was channeling a spirit from a Victorian séance. All I had to do was listen. And type like a maniac to keep up.

By the end of that first scene, I knew from the tone of Finch’s voice and her expressions that she was speaking to me from the past. But when? On a whim, I picked a random date — August, 1980. And with that decision, Finch’s fictional world instantly rose up around her. Fortunately for me, it was a world I knew pretty well. Born in the early 70’s, I was nine years old in 1980 and right on the cusp of those oh-so formative middle-school years. Faster than you can say Joanie Loves Chachi, a bazillion childhood memories were suddenly beating down the door to my manuscript, begging to be let in. It didn’t take long before the 1980’s reunion party was in full swing. The story is sprinkled with references to Frisbees, Kool-Aid, and Love’s Baby Soft perfume. Finch’s mom drives a Dodge Dart. Her older brother has a Sony Walkman, a Star Wars sheet set, and a Rubik’s Cube. Terry Fox is also a pivotal figure in the story. But by far, the most persistent 80’s memory was Little House on the Prairie. The TV show, not the books. (I hadn’t yet read the books in 1980. But really, what daughter of the 70’s and 80’s wasn’t addicted to the show? It was retro before retro was even a thing.)

Backcover Laura: The Life of Laura Ingalls WilderAs any Little House fan will tell you, there was something irresistibly alluring about the simple, hard-working Ingalls family and their lopsided log cabin surrounded by rolling hills (which looking back, had no business passing for a prairie). Something so romantic about those pioneer stories set in the mysterious days of Auld Lang Syne. I remember running home to watch reruns every day after school, sneaking my big sister’s copy of Laura (the Donald Zochert biography with the whoa-there-farmer-boy! steamy looks between Laura and Almanzo on the back cover that made me certain I was reading something forbidden), and stuffing apples down the front of my Snoopy t-shirt, curious to see if it would turn out better for me than it did for Laura.

It didn’t.

No matter. There were other Little House dreams to be realized. I begged my mother to bake homemade bread. I wanted to do my homework on a slate. I dreamed of climbing a ladder into my tiny, cramped loft bedroom. And having a baby sister named Grace. And milking a cow. And falling asleep to the sound of a fiddle.


When I had a daughter of my own, one of the first things on my agenda was to haul her up on the covered bandwagon. (She’s ten years old now and we’ve read the Little House series together several times. When she craved more, we moved on to the Rose Years series. Her childhood – like mine and Finch’s – has been happily haunted by the spirit of Laura Ingalls, although her Little House fantasies were all her own: walking barefoot in a field of grass, churning butter, and sewing a quilt. Check, check, and …. sorry honey, this ma doesn’t sew.)

So is it any wonder that Feathered’s fictional 1980’s world would reference Little House on the Prairie once…twice…okay fine, twenty-six times? Stubborn as a little French, er…mule, Laura kept popping up in Finch’s story until it finally dawned on me – the character living in my head had a character of her own living in hers. Finch, Laura, and I were like a trio of Russian dolls, each one nesting snugly into the other. So it was probably inevitable that Ma became the standard against which Finch held her depressed, grieving mom up to. And that the Ingalls’ simple, pioneer lifestyle became the dreamscape alternate reality to Finch’s plethora of middle-school problems. And those mean girls in Finch’s class? You guessed it. All of them Jordache-Jeans wearing disciples of snippy Nellie Oleson.

With Finch chattering in my ear, and Laura chattering in hers, I had the first draft of Feathered written in three weeks. Like I said before, totally unicorn-esque! Inevitably, however, the revision process took about as long as an elephant gestation. As revisions are wont to do.

Fast forward three years on your VCR, kids. This spring, Feathered was finally published.

Laura Ingalls Wilder with Almanzo's Governor of Orleans.

Laura Ingalls Wilder with Almanzo’s Governor of Orleans.

And – hold on to your Morgans – it’s being categorized as ‘historical fiction’. The same genre as Little House on the Prairie. Which means the 1980’s are officially the new days of Auld Lang Syne.

What’chu talkin about, Willis?

For those of us who can still belt out the lyrics to the Love Boat theme song, it’s hard to wrap our heads around the fact that those days are now just a page right out of history. But perhaps now a new generation of readers will read Feathered and feel the irresistible allure of a simpler time, before iPhones, Snapchat, and Kardashians took over the earth. It would be nice. But somehow, clogs, tube tops, and feathered hair don’t seem quite as mysterious and romantic as calico dresses, sunbonnets, and flying braids. At least not to me.

Deborah's sister's copy of Anne of Green Gables.

Deborah’s sister’s copy of Anne of Green Gables.

My daughter and I finished the last book in the Rose Years series this week. With a family trip to Prince Edward Island planned for this coming summer, we’ve decided to move on to Anne of Green Gables for our next read. Luckily for me, I still have my big sister’s copy from the ‘80s. Borrowed with permission this time.


Posted in Anne of Green Gables, Authors, Blogging, Book Reviews, Children's Literature, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Talented Friends, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Only Six Weeks Late: Mel’s List of 9 2016 Goals

How is it the end of February?

I had such plans to write some kind of philosophical forward-looking blog post about my goals for 2016 and now it is practically the end of winter so it seems quite silly to write them now. But I’ve always been one to thwart convention in some way, so why not. Besides there’s too much pressure on January 1st to get it all done. February 24th is certainly much better date, don’t you think? And, besides,  Spring is less than a month away and it’s near the  Full Moon, so an auspicious time to put it out there.  And, as 2016 adds up to the number, 9, I’ll put out there “My List of 9.”

As well, sometimes when we don’t make plans very wonderful and amazing things happen, such as my two pieces going up on Cinefilles about Breakthrough Entertainment’s L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables movie that aired on YTV last week. The first was my day on the set and the other discussed the new movie and its place within the long line of Anne of Green Gables adaptations. It was also the first time (except when I worked in publishing) when one of my pieces appeared on the home page! This was thrilling, scary and amazing…and scary.

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 11.57.06 AM

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 6.09.13 PM

Working with Cinefilles was wonderful, as was learning more about the mysterious world of TV. This completely took me out of my comfort zone. So I guess this leads to the first goal of 2016…

  1. Continue to be open to new opportunities that take me out of my comfort zone. 

You know from my other blog posts how overachievy I can be. You know that this is also a mask for being a workaholic. I love projects and having things to do and life is so full of these many interests and projects and I have a plethora of ideas that can feel overwhelming if I’m not doing them all right now. You will recall my first meme.

(Mel's first meme.)

(Mel’s first meme.)

Still works, doesn’t it?

But there are things I miss, such as a guilt free day of reading anything I want because I’m drawn to it. Or, perhaps playing the piano, who is pretty mad at me because I haven’t touched it in a few months.

There is also the idea of just taking a few hours off and seeing all friends and family. This is one of those things people who work from home often discuss, the idea of it being really challenging to take the day off. I’m finding the only way I can do this is get out of town, otherwise there seems to be no way. Also, being a college teacher means that one grades and plans. Love my time and the work I’m doing with these students, but this does add onto the list of work from home things.

So right now I’m reading, on recommendation of Melissa Mantovani @YABookShelf, who gushed over Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan’s The Royal We. It is exactly what I needed, but not on any reading list, at least when I picked it up. Thank you , Toronto Public Library for always being on call when I need you.

I have also been saying, “yes” a lot more to seeing friends and family. This means that one afternoon I found myself at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Toronto Public Library with a friend who I had not seen in a couple of years, but whom I follow through social media. We both went to another friend’s book launch and then decided to spend the afternoon together. It was marvellous.


2. Say, “yes” more because I never know what will happen–or where it might lead.

3.  Create more time to read books and play music. 

4. Spend time with people who inspire and bring happiness and joy to my life.

But there is my ambition and those things which I want to happen this year. These things are move about divine timing and are essentially out of my control, so all I can do is focus on what I can control, or at least how I respond to the things I can’t.

5. Be brave enough to send Oy! (the other novel) out into the world to find an agent or home who will believe in it as much as I do.

I have given myself a deadline to finish the revisions on this manuscript and then the scary agent seeking moment will begin. I have procrastinated on this because of the fear, but no more…so I guess…

6. Say, “No” to fear more.

A few months ago I joined a listserv because it was popular within one of the communities I’m involved in, but within a few weeks I noticed that the vibe of this listserv was cranky and, frankly, mean. I watched this for a few more weeks and it made me wonder if it was good for me because I stared wondering if people wouldn’t like the work I did and it spiralled into some real negative places. I’m a sensitive person and while I’ve learned to avoid negativity wherever possible, having this show up in my inbox was becoming problematic. So I left the group.

7. Say “No” to things and people that drag me down and do not benefit my highest good. 

I’m also in the process of writing the Author’s Note for Maud. It has been slow going in some respects and I stumbled upon a few things, as one does, and fixing it. But, I think it has also been slow because this means that I’m almost at the end and if I’m almost at the end then the project I’ve been working on for over four years will be closer to publication. And *breathes* if I’m closer to publication then people will actually be reading it and then *breathes* it will be out there…in the world…without me to protect it any longer.

8. Be comfortable with letting go and allowing that which needs to be…be.

And that also means being comfortable in my own personal power. It means that while it has been lovely carrying the badge of imposter syndrome, it is time to take it off, put it in drawer, thank it and say, “Good bye.”



9.Embrace my inner genius and step into my personal power understanding that this isn’t ego, but a willingness to engage with what I know. And, if I don’t know something, that is what the library, other experts, and geniuses are there for. 

Here we go…It is time to let it go.

Posted in Anne of Green Gables, Blogging, Inspiration, L.M. Montgomery, Music, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

An Interview with Nicole Winters, Author of The Jock and the Fat Chick

The Jock and the Fat Chick 190KbI met Nicole Winters through a local Toronto writers group that supports Canadian authors and illustrators, Torkidlit. We get together once a month, talk shop, and celebrate our successes. Nicole was one of the first people I connected with. Genuine, kind and driven, she is a writer who is interested in telling stories for kids and teens who may not be the best readers, perhaps even called “reluctant,” as she was. She will bravely write in different genres for different age groups. As you’ll see from her bio below, her first YA novel, TT Full Throttle is about “cool dudes on motorcycles,” and the one we are discussing today concerns “hot guys and romance.”

She is impressive and so deeply invested in her stories, that she will travel, join clubs, and engage in conversation with those she is writing about so she can be authentic.

Her new YA ebook, The Jock and the Fat Chick, is really wonderful. Told in the point of view of Kevin, a high school jock with an eating disorder, Nicole expertly navigates the “jock culture,” while also providing the reader with a nuanced approach to romance. She takes the romance genre and turns it around, exploring our traditional notions of gender, body image, and conformity.


No one ever said high school was easy. In this hilarious and heartwarming debut, one high school senior has to ask himself how much he’s willing to give up in order to fit in.

Kevin seems to have it all: he’s popular, good looking, and on his way to scoring a college hockey scholarship. However, he’s keeping two big secrets. The first is that he failed an assignment and is now forced to take the most embarrassing course ever–domestic tech. The second is that he is falling for his domestic tech classmate, Claire.

As far as Kevin is concerned, Claire does have it all: she’s funny, smart, beautiful, and confident. But she’s off-limits. Because Kevin knows what happens when someone in his group dares to date a girl who isn’t a cheerleader, and there’s no way he is going to put himself—or Claire—through that.

But steering clear of the girl of his dreams is a lot harder than Kevin thought…especially when a cooking project they are paired together for provides the perfect opportunity for things to heat up between them outside the classroom….

Nicole Winters YA Author low rez 118KB

Nicole loves books, bikes, horror films and globe hopping. She’s currently at work on her third YA novel called THE CONJURER.

Cool dudes and motorcycles: TT FULL THROTTLE 

Hot guys and romance: THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK

Connect with Nicole via Twitter, her blog, her Facebook or


Melanie: I’m sure you get this question a lot, but usually when one is crafting a romance about a “jock” and a “fat chick,” the main narrator is a girl. When did you know it was going to be Kevin’s story?

Nicole: I knew it was going to be Kevin’s story, before I realized I’d be writing a romance. I had talked to a friend who never had real food growing up. He said that cooking in his household consisted of two steps: a can opener and a microwave. I thought, what if I had a teen boy whose mom made meals like that? Then, what if the teenager thought he could do better, when in reality he’s doing much worse? Initial thoughts veered towards him having an eating disorder, but I didn’t want to go there. I wanted Kevin to be naïve about food and cooking, not obsessed with his next meal. To him, what he was eating was simply fuel. The story turned into a romance by chance. At the time I was thinking about Kevin, I had been reading a couple of YA stories with plus sized girl heroes who all seemed to be depressed, bullied or abused. It left me feeling depressed, so I’m like, how can I pair Kevin with a girl who happens to be plus sized and confident, funny, knows who she is and where she’s going? The story came together from there.

Melanie: You had once mentioned that in some ways this novel is an anti-sex story. Why do you think so?

Nicole: I think I was being a little cheeky with that. What I mean is that in some ways this novel is a mature and realistic view of the potential emotional consequences of having sex. Teenagers are trying to figure out who they are and who they’d like to become. They struggle with dependence and independence, community and self, and connection and disconnection. It’s an intense time, emotions are raw and ever-changing based on past experiences, new information and outside factors like social media and advertising. In the story, Kevin’s thrown into multiple situations that are so big, at times not even he knows how to process what he’s thinking or feeling let alone be able to express what he wants or even make good decisions. I think readers can relate. They don’t want to make mistakes anymore than we do as adults. In one scene, Kevin gives into peer pressure and sleeps with Missy and they end up dating. Readers know this is wrong on many levels. Having sex has emotional consequences and if you’re not ready for that, don’t do it. Kevin didn’t love Missy and I think it’s a terrible thing to be intimate with someone who really likes you, but whom you just don’t really like back; it’s just using someone.

Melanie: One of the things I struggle with as a writer is putting words I don’t necessarily believe into my characters’ mouths because that is what is their world view. How did you resolve this, particularly with the “jock culture?”

Nicole: Scenes where the guys rip on girls weren’t easy to write. You’ll notice it’s always tied in with peer pressure. I grew up in a less politically correct era, and you don’t have to go too far back in Hollywood cinema to find cringe-worthy situations in films that were once thought as okay (e.g. Sixteen Candles). I just channeled that.


Melanie: When the novel begins, Kevin has some terrible eating habits, even might be considered a disorder. What were some of the things that surprised you when investigating this and how did it influence Kevin’s character?

Nicole: Protein bars have been around since the 60s, but there was a heavy resurgence in the late 90s early 2000s and I bought into the craze. I’d read fitness magazines that spouted the benefits of carrying a handy post-workout protein meal or an in between meal snack. I was eating 2-3 of these things a day, some of which really were like chomping particle board. I reached the point where I got sick of the artificial flavours and thinking about how I missed the taste of real food. I took what I experienced with protein bars and channeled it into Kevin’s experience.

Melanie: You play a lot with our notions of gender, sexuality and body image—particularly with the character of Claire, who is the one that seems more emotionally distant. How did you explore these complex issues without falling into stereotypes and becoming too didactic?

Nicole: I never treated the idea of role reversal as a conscious plan when plotting out the story. Their personalities emerged on their own and I discovered a lot of contrasts e.g. Kevin’s pretty naïve and semi-sheltered and Claire’s worldly and experienced. Similarities emerged too like how they always enjoyed laughing and cracking jokes and they both move with a lot of physical energy. From there, I just let the characters lead me as I discovered their truth when I put them under stress. I didn’t consciously set out to make points or not make points, I just let them shine through.

Melanie: Something that I noticed that I thought you could speak to. The, forgive me, chemistry between Kevin and Claire is “hot.” You really show how much Claire owns her body and this is one of the reasons why Kevin adores her.

Nicole: I grew up reading teen magazines that spouted headlines on how to look fabulous (make-up, clothes, body, exercise, etc.), or how to get the guy. One day, I’d came across a ‘revolutionary’ article that had surveyed guys on what they thought was sexy about girls. Confidence, kindness and humour were part of the top traits. There was no mention of skinny thighs, toned tummies and perfect lashes. I remembered thinking, huh, so if that’s what guys really find sexy, why am I reading these magazines? I stopped after that. So when I was thinking about a positive plus sized character, I recalled the article and ensured she embodied these characteristics guys find hot in girls.

Melanie: Sex scenes, kissing scenes even, are one of those big questions for writers. What are some of the tips you picked up while revising these scenes while also keeping it in Kevin’s perspective?

Nicole: I asked a couple of my male friends to tell me about their first kiss experience which led me to thinking about things like physical dynamics. Girls usually tilt their head upwards, sometimes rising on tiptoe, whereas guys stretch their necks downwards and depending on how tall they are (Kevin was tall), they’d hunch over. We also discussed what Kevin might be experiencing his first time with a girl he really likes and how that’d differ being with a girl he isn’t in love with.

Melanie: Did you try any of the recipes you use in the book?

Nicole: I’ve tried a lot of the same foods in this book, from the protein bars to the curry rice. The only thing I didn’t have was the watermelon gel shot, or any gel shots for that matter. I’m happy to leave that to the imagination.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Children's Literature, Inspiration, Talented Friends, Teen lit, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Interview with Ingrid Sundberg, Author of All We Left Behind

Everything is circular. My first post of 2015 was the exclusive Canadian cover reveal of Ingrid Sundberg’s YA novel, All We Left Behind, and here we are at the end of the year with an interview celebrating the book’s release earlier this month.

Since its release, Ingrid’s novel has been featured on a number of “Best of” lists, and with her #shareyoursecrets  campaign, raised awareness on the importance for people to share their stories. This is because Ingrid’s gorgeous novel explores how keeping these important things buried, can impact everything and that by telling one person, can be the difference of living or drowning.

ALLWELEFTBEHINDAbout All We Left Behind:

ALL WE LEFT BEHIND is an evocative and tantalizing debut novel told in alternating first-person narration. For teen couple Marion and Kurt, every kiss unravels memories they would both rather forget. Marion is haunted by childhood sexual assault, while Kurt can’t save his sister from meth and escape the guilt surrounding the death of his mother. The reader watches the couple struggle to trust one another and discover what it means to be vulnerable. Explosive together and hollow apart, Marion and Kurt may be totally wrong for each other – or more right than they ever thought possible.

About Ingrid:

Ingrid Sundberg is passionate about stories that look into the shadows of our vulnerability. Ingrid Sundberg_Author Photo2_Square
She believes reading is a safe place to explore the depths of humanity, what we desire, and the secrets we hide. Ingrid holds an MFA in writing for children from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University. All We Left Behind is her first novel. Find her online at:

Twitter: ǀ @ingridsundberg

Instagram: ǀ @isundberg


Mel: Kurt and Marion both wrestle with some deep scars. How do you find your way into these dark places without completely losing perspective? Did you lose perspective? What were some of the questions that emerged for you?

Ingrid: It took me years to really tap into the true heart of this novel. It’s been through so many different forms. It used to be a screenplay, as well as a completely different novel. I think I finally found my way into those dark places when I stopped trying to “say something” or “plot a novel” or worry about what other people thought. Instead I focused on my characters. I asked them to be brave and tell me what happened to them. It was a very round about process. I had to write scene after scene of back story to finally find out the truth. Then I had to figure out how to piece it all into an actual book. It was a big mess of scenes. But that’s also how memory works, we don’t remember what happened to us linearly. One story leads to another, and then another causes us to revise the first story we told, and so on.

Ingrid has been making these "gifs" with quotes from the book.

Ingrid has been making these “gifs” with quotes from the book.


Mel: The relationship between Marion and Lilith is quite complex, infused with many questions around truth and sexuality. Perhaps you can speak to this a bit.

Ingrid: I agree that Marion and Lilith’s relationship is complex. It’s one of those friendships that started when they were both young kids, and they’ve grown up together. But suddenly they’re getting older and they’re starting to realize how different they are from one another. And yet there’s this intimacy of time between them.

Friendship dynamics are fascinating to me. Sometimes friends think they know what’s good for each other, for example Lilith thinks she knows what’s good for Marion, but really she has no clue. We often get trapped in our own experience. If something worked for us, we expect it to work for other people, and that’s seldom the case.

Mel: The novel is also infused with poetry. How did the nuances and images emerge and connect for you? Were there some that you eventually felt too heavy handed?

Ingrid: I’m a big fan of letting things grow organically, so the metaphors and motifs created themselves. I also have a tendency to avoid telling the reader what’s going on. Because of that I rely heavily on metaphor and objective correlative to communicate emotion. When an image really resonated with me, I’d try to see if I could thread it through the rest of the novel.


I think the lines that denote if something is heavy handed or not is completely up to the reader. I had readers say something was overused, and others say they wanted more. I just had to go with my own gut, and listen to my editor. Honestly, so much of it is about taste. Some people like subtlety, others like directness. I usually go for subtlety, but was often encouraged by my editor to be more on-the-nose.

Mel: Kurt and Marion have a physical connection and say very little to one another at first. So much is said in the rhythm of our body language and you convey this so well. What were some of the ways you developed this early part of the relationship?

Ingrid: This was part of the magic of this book for me. I was so enthralled by these two kids who would NOT talk to each other. So much was happening internally, and neither felt comfortable voicing their vulnerabilities and fears.

I had to spend a lot of time exploring the world sensually through their skin. I’d ask them what they felt: saw, smelled, touched, tasted. Then I’d try to translate that into emotion through metaphor and word choice. There’s a dreamlike quality to the way they interact, and I kept trying to focus on the feeling, the emotional beats, rather than the plot or what happens in a scene. Their relationship really lives in the negative space – which is empty, it’s air, it’s what’s not said. So I had to get creative in how I describes something that had no shape or color or sound.

Mel: You have a very active blog, providing insights on a number of topics, such as writing life, agents, and creativity. Many creative people have the question around balancing it all. How do you do it?

Ingrid: I’m glad I’ve given you all the illusion that I’ve got it figured out! I feel like I’m always struggling to keep a balance. I think my best advice is keep showing up. Attempt to be consistent. I try to blog once a week. The more I do it, the more inertia I create. Same thing with writing. I’m always more productive when I show up every day and write. Does that mean you have to write every day – no. But for me, when I do, things start feeling more balanced. I think it’s about creating consistent habits and not waiting for when you feel like doing something. Lately I’ve been shooting for: write one hour a day, blog once a week. Minimum. I like rules and deadlines. They help me stay on track.


Mel: What are some of the ways you relax?

Ingrid: I love to read romance novels. The steamier the better. They’re fun and I’m a romantic at heart. I also like to design artwork on my computer. I do silly things like create a book cover for a project I’m working on, or make a pretty “to do list template.”


Thanks so much for Ingrid Sundberg for doing this Q&A and to Simon and Schuster Canada.

Posted in Authors, Book Reviews, Inspiration, Talented Friends, VCFA, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#Research: Anne & Gilbert The Musical in Ottawa

In which a road trip brings the opportunity to follow up with one of my favourite people, meet “Gilbert Blythe”–well online anyway–and connect with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Copyright, Rachel McMillan

Copyright, Rachel McMillan

Those of you who have followed this blog are quite familiar with my *clears throat* interest  fascination  obsession  “theoretical interest” in all things related to the popularity of the perfect man archetype and what makes the relationship between certain fictional couples so popular with fans, and then how the Anne & Gilbert: The Musical fits into this.

In 2014, actors Ellen Denny and Patrick Cook visited the blog in what would become one of my most popular posts in the Embodying Character series.

Today, I have a unique opportunity to not only follow up with Ellen, but also talk with the new actor playing Gilbert Blythe, Alex Furber (see above).

Because (of course) we were conducting #research, (as one does) at the beginning of December, fellow L.M. Montgomery scholars and dear friends, Rachel McMillan and Laura Robinson, joined me on a road trip to Ottawa, Ontario (via Toronto to Kingston), to see Anne & Gilbert: The Musical at the National Arts Centre, now playing until December 23.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: Mel, haven’t you seen this like 8 times?

And I would say (blushing): Yes. Yes, I have, but it is #research.

And you would say: Yeah, right.

And I would say (not sounding at all defensive): Yes, yes it is because this show is evolving from when I first saw it in 2008, with every staging and cast providing a different interpretation of the relationships and characters, which is my main fascination…as is that it is one of the rare opportunities we see things from Gilbert Blythe’s perspective.

Plus, Ellen Denny as Anne Shirley is simply delightful, as is Alex Furber’s adorable portrayal of Gilbert.


Ellen Denny and Alex Furber, courtesy of the National Arts Centre

Plus, there was a talk with one of the show’s producers, Campbell Webster and the lyricist, Nancy White, before the show.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 3.15.34 PM





As well, the exploration of female friendships is also very interesting, with many duets between women–more than most shows I see.We also had a very responsive audience that first weekend, who laughed in all of the right places and gave the cast a standing ovation.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 3.15.14 PM





Afterwards, it became clear that I had more questions and because Ellen is made of awesome, she agreed to answer some about what it is like to return to playing Anne. And then Alex Furber thanked me on Twitter for coming–and well, now we are here.

You can read the previous interview with Ellen, here.

Ellen Denny

Ellen Denny

Some stuff about Ellen Denny: What an honour to portray national treasure Anne Shirley here at the NAC! Ellen has previously performed the role for two summers at The Guild in Charlottetown, PEI. Other credits include Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/Mirvish Productions); Great Expectations, Sweeney Todd (Neptune Theatre); A Christmas Carol (Theatre New Brunswick); The Penelopiad (Citadel Theatre); Funny Money, Peter Pan, The Three Munschketeers (Festival Antigonish). Training: Dalhousie University (Music and Theatre) and the Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre Program.


Mel: In our last conversation we spoke a lot about creating and embodying Anne, and gaining insights into the process of creating character. I appreciate this opportunity to continue it today. One of the things you mentioned that we didn’t get a chance to pick up on last time was how part of your studying of Anne’s character was looking at how other characters see her. What were some of the particular moments of insight for you? Perhaps with this show?

Ellen: Anne is a perfectionist, so she doesn’t spend a lot of time giving herself credit for the world of good she does to those around her. I love the moments in the show where you are reminded of her generosity, particularly in giving up her very prestigious (and hard-won) scholarship to university in order to stay at Green Gables and help Marilla.

Ellen Denny and Alison Woolridge as Anne and Marilla, courtesy of National Arts Centre

Ellen Denny and Alison Woolridge as Anne and Marilla, courtesy of National Arts Centre



The way our Marilla here in Ottawa (Alison Woolridge) delivers these lines, it has really driven home for me the magnitude of the sacrifice that Anne makes out of her love for Marilla.

Mel: That’s so fascinating that another performer could show something new. I think it is similar to when we see different versions of the same story being played out. I also really enjoyed Woolridge’s interpretation of Marilla.


It has been a year or so since you have played Anne. Was it easy to find your way back into her character? Was it like coming home, did it “refill the well?” Do you find that you are playing her any differently?

Ellen: Its a unique experience to return to a role, and yes it all came flooding back! A lot has happened for me personally in the past year so I think that inevitably changes what I bring to the role, specifically a deeper emotional connection to some of the material. For the most part though, the changes are subtle, because this show and role is already so established in my body.

Mel: It reminds me of when I return to write about a character. There are subtle changes, because I am different, perhaps knowing him or her better…

Being in multiple productions with (like in this case) many new faces, including a new Gilbert, was there anything new you learned about the show and Anne and Gilbert’s relationship? How does Alex’s interpretation of Gilbert help you see Anne differently? Are there similarities?

Ellen: I have enjoyed working with Alex because we both already know the show so well, that we are comfortable to just play with these characters onstage each night. His Gilbert is earnest and sweet which acts as a foil to really heighten Anne’s fiery qualities. I’ve often thought about the similarities between Anne and Gilbert being what makes them a good match, but in Alex’s portrayal, Gil almost becomes the yin to Anne’s yang. He takes her temper flare ups in stride, knowing that her unbridled passion is what makes her so special.

Ellen Denny and Alex Furber, courtesy of National Arts Centre

Ellen Denny and Alex Furber, courtesy of National Arts Centre

Mel: Yes, that is what I observed about this performance as well. And so it will be interesting to see what Alex has to say now about playing Gilbert….

Introducing, Alex Furber: Alex is thrilled to be a part of Anne & Gilbert with this wonderful cast. Theatre credits include Anne & Gilbert (The Guild); Red (Sudbury Theatre Centre); Cliff in Cabaret (Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre); The Lion in Winter, The Rainmaker (Watermark Theatre); Romeo and Juliet (Theatre New Brunswick); The Taming of the Shrew (Theatre By The Bay); Romeo and Juliet (Resurgence Theatre); and Albert Narracott in Mirvish’s acclaimed production of War Horse. Film/TV credits include Reign (CW), Murdoch Mysteries (Shaftesbury), Mayday (Discovery), Flashpoint (CTV). Alex graduated from the National Theatre School of Canada. @alexfurber

Mel: As a writer, I’m always looking for interesting ways to get into character and one the things I’m curious about is how actors do this, so my first question is: How do you begin to approach a character and then how did this particular approach apply to your creation of Gilbert Blythe your own? Are there certain mannerisms? A particular physicality?

Alex Furber, courtesy of National Arts Centre

Alex Furber, courtesy of National Arts Centre

Alex: When I start to build a character first I need to really know the story is that’s being told and the defining characteristics the writer has given the character. Then map out how the character changes from the start to finish, and what his biggest need is. I think from there I can start to figure the essence of there person I’m playing. I think for Gilbert a big part of his essence is “Love” and “Confidence”.  So I know when playing the character my mannerism’s and physicality will be informed by that.

Mel: Yes! Exactly! The idea of a character’s biggest needs, a character’s essence. This is what the writer hopes to convey to the reader…once we understand it ourselves. I have argued in the past that one of the things that Gilbert must go through to win Anne is that confidence. This is my perception, but there are many others. Indeed, readers of Montgomery’s work (or those who have seen the Sullivan miniseries) have about Gilbert Blythe—a kind of ‘perfect boyfriend.’ How do you feel being connected to this ideal? Do you think who plays a character influences our perceptions of them? Has this influenced how you’ve responded to the show?

Alex: I think actor’s performances can be as iconic as the character’s themselves. In the play they talk a lot about Anne’s “ideal” man. It’s a lot of fun to play Gilbert who so earnestly fights for Anne’s hand, but I do think certain performances influence the way we think of characters because the actor can bring a new side a character the audience already knows so well.

Ellen and Alex in Ottawa, courtesy of National Arts Centre

On the streets of Ottawa where they handed out tea and I was like, it’s like they know me or something because it was David’s Tea… Courtesy of National Arts Centre

Mel: There is definitely something to be said about that. It is why I am excited to know how you think about Gilbert.

Like Ellen, you’ve played opposite another Anne (Kate Slater), as well as being in the production in Charlottetown this past summer (which my friend and I saw in August). How did working with Ellen change or enhance your understanding of Gilbert and his relationship with Anne?

Alex: In rehearsing and performing with Ellen on this production I discovered, and we played with, the true lifelong friendship that Anne and Gilbert have. They’ve know each other for so long, have so much history and are so comfortable with each other, but both have such deep feelings for each other that are struggling to be expressed. I think that ease and sense of play that they have with each other really made understand more Gilbert’s struggle of not wanting to lose this amazing friendship but need to express his love.

Mel: You’ve played a character from a novel before, (Albert in the Mirvish’s production of Warhorse in 2012, which I also saw in Toronto a few years ago—yes, I see A LOT of theatre.) Do you read your source material in help to prepare for the role? How does working with an adapted work differ from other types of theatre you’ve done?


Alex Furber in War Horse

Alex: I think source material and research is really important, it makes all the images you need to play the part clearer. I love reading different adaptations of shows, because they can be so divergent. It is always nice to be in a show that’s a fresh take on a well known story.

Mel: Actually, me too. It is why I enjoy watching various versions of the same story–or various people playing it. #research


Thanks again to Ellen and Alex for coming on the blog today and to the NAC for facilitating this. Like all things Montgomery, it did rejuvenate me as I head into more revisions.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 5.04.52 PM

I must also, seeing theatre in a city not your own is an awesome experience and you should all try it. Even seeing the same show in different cities, because you get the flavour of the place you’re visiting, and (at least with this show) a particularly Canadian experience.  Perhaps this weekend?


Posted in Anne of Green Gables, Embodying Character Series, Inspiration, L.M. Montgomery, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating L.M. Montgomery’s 141st Birthday

but-gg_lucymaud.ashxToday is L.M. Montgomery’s 141st Birthday and it is time to party like its 1874 because it feels like everyone is pulling out their best table linens and china to commemorate the event.

After years of hard work from fans and academics of trying to prove and validate Montgomery’s connection and influence to literature and culture, one could certainly argue that she is part of a zeitgeist. Yes, I’m using my fifty cent words today. Zeitgeist.

There’s the new Anne of Green Gables movie releasing hopefully (if the posters are to be believed) this holiday. (I got to visit the set and will be writing about my experience at Cinefilles.)

Montgomery has been discussed recently by Margaret Atwood, Felicia Day, and Mindy Kaling. Featured in memoirs about reading and life by Samantha Ellis, Erin Blakemore, Nancy McCab and–as a good friend of mine pointed out Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham.  Even Lisa Simpson is a fan.



It is thrilling to see that Montgomery’s name trending onScreen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.31.24 AM Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 3.19.00 PMFacebook and Twitter,








because of Google’s Doodle today, featuring three scenes from the Anne books.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.10.57 AM


Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 9.30.23 AM



Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 4.01.32 PM

And November is an amazing month for literary birthdays. Montgomery is in good company with one of her favourite author, Louisa May Alcott. This is a picture of Montgomery’s copy of her much loved, well worn copy of Little Women that I took when visiting theL.M. Montgomery Research Centre at the University of Guelph’s archives. Notice that it is so well read that I could only see a photocopy!!!



Today is also Mark Twain’s birthday, who loved Anne so much he (or his assistant) wrote Montgomery a letter. I got to see it when I was last at the archives.

Mark Twain Letter to Montgomery

So Happy Birthday, Maud! Perhaps there is a special place where writers congregate together and perhaps  you and Mr. Twain are sipping tea when you see Ms. Alcott walk by and you (nervously) ask her to sit down and the three of you pass away a pleasant afternoon, talking about writing.


Posted in Anne of Green Gables, Authors, Children's Literature, Inspiration, L.M. Montgomery, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Q&A with Trina St. Jean, Author of Blank

blank_finalcoverI am pretty pleased to introduce you to Trina St. Jean, a new Canadian YA writer . Interestingly story, I met Trina when I lived in Montreal through a mutual friend in the early part of the 2000s and she was talking about attending this mythical school where one could study children’s literature and work with writers like, Tim Wynne-Jones. It was only a few years later that I made the connection that it was the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When I discovered that Trina’s new YA novel, Blank —about a teen who wakes up with amnesia– was being published this year I knew that she had to come on the blog to talk about the process of writing it, and to bring an element of the past back. It is always interesting to me when people from the past return and we find more connections than every before.

About Blank:

All Jessica knows is what she’s been told: she’s fifteen, and thanks to a run-in with a bison bull she is stuck with a brain injury. The rest of her life is a blank her brain no longer fills in. The doctors send her to home to piece together her shattered life, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t be the old Jessie everyone misses so much. When a new friend comes along with an alternative to staying in her old life, Jessica must face the reality of what it means to truly leave her past behind.

me_graffitiAbout Trina:

Trina St. Jean grew up in a small town in northern Alberta, Canada, but left in pursuit of degrees in psychology and education. During a decade out east, she picked up a husband with a cute accent and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She now lives in Calgary, where she teaches ESL and tries to stay out of trouble with her husband and two daughters. Blank is her first novel. You can pay Trina a visit at or like Author Trina St. Jean on Facebook.


Mel: You mention in your authors note that writing Blank was a way for you to answer some questions you had around memory. Did you find the answers you were looking for? Or, did it just lead to more questions?

Trina: The biggest question I had around memory was whether there is something inside of us, a sense of who we are as a person, that will remain even if we don’t remember significant parts of our past. Would we, for example, still be able to feel love for the people we’ve always loved even if many or most of the happy moments we have shared are erased from our memory? Will our personality still shine through, even if we have lost the same sense of self we had before the memory loss? And though I didn’t find a clear answer, what I did find was a sense of hope. Hope that yes, there can be something deeper, a feeling about a person and a sense of who we are, that remains even if the memories are gone.

In some of the real cases of amnesia I read about through my research, people talked about still trusting and feeling affection for people they didn’t remember. Like Terry Evanshen, an ex-CFL football player, who had a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury with severe memory loss. He didn’t remember his wife or family at all but they stuck together through the whole rehabilitation process and he knew she was on his side. Even if he couldn’t remember the years they had spent together, that feeling of trust was there.

In the end, I suppose I may have created the answer I wanted: I wanted Jessica to feel love again, to connect with her family in a deep way. Family is really important to me, and I needed her to “come back home” emotionally.

Mel: Jessica wakes up with no memory of her life or the events that led to her accident, did you know what her life was like before the accident when you started writing the novel, or was that something that developed as Jessica did?

Trina: I did have a vague sense of her life before the accident – that she was a farm girl with a warm, supporting family, that she was a good kid, that she loved her brother – but a lot the details about her life slowly revealed themselves as I wrote the book. I felt like I was discovering who the old Jessica was alongside the new, post-accident Jessica, in real time. And like the new Jessica, I didn’t ever get all the full answers. This was a deliberate choice, as I felt like if I knew everything about the girl before the accident, I couldn’t have really seen things through the character’s eyes. In the same way, even though I did a lot of research about brain injury and amnesia, I didn’t want to actually interview a person who had gone through this because I was afraid that person would influence who Jessica is in my mind. I wanted to be “blank” too while writing.

Mel: You play a lot with this interesting idea on who Jessica believes she is supposed to be and who she actually is or was. Perhaps you can talk about this a bit.

Trina: I think this idea relates to something many of us go through at times in our lives – especially teens. It’s this feeling of trying to fulfill other people’s expectations, trying to be “nice” or “smart” or “athletic”, or whatever we think people want us to be. And when we don’t feel like we’re living up to these ideals, we feel like we are disappointing our family or friends.  Jessica is going through this struggle on a much larger scale because, having lost large portions of her past, she has a sense of distance from her old life that allows her to see what kind of person she was from an outside perspective.

Mel: How did Tarin’s story inform Jessica for you?

Trina: Tarin was, now that I think of it, a representation of the kind of person Jessica wanted to be after she went home from the hospital: Tarin was rebellious, didn’t care what other people thought, had a dark edginess to her. When Jessica was feeling angry and disconnected, Tarin seemed to be more like her than anyone else in her old life. But as Jessica gets to know her better, she sees below that tough exterior, and what she sees makes her sad.

Tarin is not as tough as she appears; she’s hurting but not really doing much to improve her situation. Realizing that she is not entirely like Tarin, I think, brings Jessica closer to understanding the girl she was before the accident and reveals, at least a little, what her true personality is.

Mel: From Jessica’s confused sense, we get quite an understanding of Jessica’s family. What questions emerged for you while you were crafting their dynamics and how to represent that?

Trina: In earlier drafts of the book, Jessica’s mom was a very over-powering, sometimes angry character. As I did rewrites, though, she seemed over-the-top to me, and the tension she created wasn’t what the heart of the novel was. So the relationship evolved into something more like a typical teen/mother dynamic. The relationship she has with her brother was always there, from the very first drafts. It was therapeutic for Jessica to feel some kind of connection with one family member, so showing her affection for Stephen was important in that it allowed her some relief from her scary situation.

I recently read an article about a teen in England who had amnesia after brain surgery and claims many of her memories came back after she hugged her little brother. Although I don’t know if the medical world would vouch that this is plausible, it reminded me of Jessica and Stephen. How a feeling of love could maybe, sometimes, bring about some healing.

Mel: What were some of the most interesting things you had learned about brain injuries that didn’t make it into Jessica’s story?

Trina: Brain injury is a huge issue. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many people’s lives have been changed in the blink of an eye by some kind of unfortunate accident – a sports injury, car accident, slip on the ice, a fall off a ladder. The most interesting thing I learned was how even the seemingly mild brain injuries can have devastating effects on the sufferer, and that the symptoms might not be visible to the rest of us.

A high profile example of that is the tragic story of Liam Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson. She had a fall on a beginner’s slope on a ski hill in Quebec, but was walking and talking afterwards, insisting she was fine. A few days later, she passed away. And there millions of people across the world dealing with the symptoms of brain injury every day: memory loss, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, headaches, etc. Learning about their struggles made me wish I could pay homage to them in same way. In the end, I hope Jessica’s story is respectful of what they go through.

Posted in Authors, Blogging, Book Reviews, Talented Friends, Teen lit, Writing, Writing Life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment