I must admit, since there are currently just a handful of men in our torkidlit group, I always look forward to interviewing one of them. Not that I don’t look forward to interviewing the women, I do. But interviewing the guys, well, is kind of like a novelty, you know, since there aren’t very many of them. And since some of them, I’ve discovered, have pretty interesting lives hidden just beneath the surface of their writerly exteriors.
Take Joel Sutherland for example. First of all, in writerly-exterior terms, he’s both a horror AND children’s non-fiction writer. Understanding how those two writer-selves co-exist in one brain is beyond me. And then second of all, in just-beneath-the-surface-of-writerly-exterior terms, he’s … well … just read on. You’ll see.
Meet Joel Sutherland
Please introduce yourself.
Perhaps my Twitter bio says it best (or, at least, most succinctly): “Author and librarian. Proud husband, father and dog owner.” Nice and short, but I’m a writer and I like to write — I’ll leave the shortening to my editor. I currently live east of Oshawa in a town called Courtice, but when I travel abroad I simply say “Toronto”. It’s much simpler. I’ve worked as an Information Assistant at the Ajax Public Library for the past six years and am nearing the completion of a Masters of Library and Information Studies degree.
But that’s all a little dry. Here are the answers to the truly burning questions: green, seven, pizza, walking the dog, Back to the Future and The Lord of the Rings (it’s a tie), fresh-cut grass and woodsmoke (also a tie), my family, and bubble wrap. Definitely bubble wrap.
Tell us about your book.
It’s a creative writing book called Be a Writing Superstar.
Wait, let me back up. “Creative writing book” sounds far too formal for what it really is. It’s more a collection of fun games, cool crafts and silly interviews, all designed to improve children’s literacy skills. Parents are always coming into the library looking for books to make their kids to enjoy reading and writing more than they currently do, and this book will definitely fill that desire. It’s been written with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour (and a touch of potty humour, too) and should appeal to both kids who cringe when their teachers hand out writing assignments and JK students who dream of being the next J.K. Rowling.
Plus, it’s beautifully illustrated by the mega-talented Patricia Storms, who matched the lighthearted tone of the book perfectly. I couldn’t be happier with the way the book turned out, and I hope it reaches as wide an audience as possible — the world needs more writers!
Can you tell us about the journey to publication for your current book?
Well, as you know, it can be extremely difficult to get that first big book deal, and Be a Writing Superstar took a somewhat unusual path to publication. I used to write short, silly interviews with popular Canadian authors and illustrators for my library’s newsletter, and the answers I was getting from the interviewees were so incredibly funny (not to mention insightful) that I began to think it would be fun to collect them in a book for a wider audience to enjoy. After attending a presentation by The Dewey Divas and Dudes (a group who inform public and school librarians about various publishers’ upcoming releases) I emailed the rep from Scholastic Canada and told her about my idea. She passed it on to the publishing director and I heard back a little later that they enjoyed the interviews but felt they wouldn’t really make an ideal children’s book on their own.
But the door was open…
I’d like to be able to say that through a supreme stroke of insight and creative genius, I thought of how to pair the interviews with another idea to make a more well-rounded book, but I have to give credit where credit is due. My wife, Colleen, was the first one to think that they would work well in a book on creative writing, and I had been running creative writing workshops for children for the past few years. I whipped up a proposal, sent it in and the rest is history.
The lesson to take away from this experience is that there’s more than one path to publication. Never give up regardless of how many rejections you receive and look for opportunities in unusual places. Also, don’t be afraid to alter your project to suit different publishers if they’re interested enough to give constructive feedback.
What advice would you give your pre-pub’d self?
Read in as many genres as possible, write in every spare second you have, and listen to your wife.
You’ve said that you have both a day job and a family. How do you make time for your writing?
As previously mentioned, I work full time in a public library and have a very supportive wife — we also had our first child, a beautiful baby boy named Charles (Charlie to his friends), seven months ago, so life is great but definitely busy. It can be a challenge to find time for writing and that’s one of the reasons I’d tell my pre-pub’d self to write every spare second I have. Lately I’ve been writing in a notebook or on my netbook during coffee and meal breaks at work. You’ve really got to have a passion for writing, especially if you can’t afford to do it full time and need to squeeze it into the spare seconds you can find here and there throughout the day.
Had you written anything before your first published work? What was it? Did you try to get it published?
Be a Writing Superstar is actually my first published children’s work, but my first published work was a horror novel called Frozen Blood. It’s a throwback to the mass market supernatural horror novels of the 80s and is set in a haunted Ottawa mansion during a terrible hailstorm. I threw in a lot of elements I enjoy to read in books and it was a lot of fun to write, and the response from readers was very positive. It was even nominated for the Bram Stoker Award (horror writing’s highest honour) for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, which was a wonderful experience.
I’ve also had quite a few short stories published in anthologies and magazines over the years. Most recently I have a humourous Christmas horror story in Blood Lite II: Overbite (Simon & Schuster, October 2010), which was edited by Kevin J. Anderson and also includes stories by Kelley Armstrong, L.A. Banks and Heather Graham, and I’ve sold a ghost story to Cemetery Dance Magazine, to appear sometime next year.
Have you ever taken any formal writing classes/courses? What were they?
The best writing classes I ever took were Writing for Children I and II through George Brown College. Red Deer Press Children’s Editor Peter Carver runs the course and trusts the students to lead much of the discussion after volunteers read sections of their writing assignments aloud to the group. Two of my favourite aspects of the class is that it is held in Toronto bookstore Mabel’s Fables after closing hours (how fun to get to stay in the store after it’s been locked up!) and Peter supplies tea and cookies during the break. It was an incredibly rewarding class and many of the students keep coming back, something I did for a few years myself. Ken Setterington, formerly of the Toronto Public Library, recommended the class to me and Be a Writing Superstar has a nice little thank you to both Ken and Peter — I doubt I’d be where I am today if not for their generous assistance and mentoring over the years. If you live in the GTA and want to improve your children’s writing, I’d seriously recommend enrolling in the class!
Do you have any other interests? What are they?
I’m a big reality TV fan. I can’t help but watch shows like Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race and wonder how well I’d do in those situations. I also can’t help but be jealous of our neighbours to the south who are allowed to apply for those shows, while Canadians have to settle for sitting at home watching the Americans have all the fun.
While watching an episode of Wipeout this past summer I saw an ad for an upcoming Canadian version of the hit show which was open to applications for a short period of time. I immediately logged on to the website, found the application form and began brainstorming my answers which I submitted (along with a video application) shortly thereafter. So, too, did 45,000 other Canadians, but I was fortunate enough to get an interview with the producers. About a month later I got a call telling me I had been selected as one of the 260 contestants for the first season of Wipeout Canada! If I hadn’t been in the library when they called, I would have screamed at the top of my lungs (they tend to frown upon that sort of thing in libraries). My chance to run the course will come later this month and I’m starting to wonder what I’ve gotten myself into… (Interviewer’s aside: I do believe that as you read this, Joel is en route to Argentina, where he will discover exactly what he’s gotten himself into. Go Joel!)
Can you share a favorite quote with us?
There are so many, but one of my favourites is included in Be a Writing Superstar: “I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book.” Groucho Marx said that. Never mind the fact that he not only had a successful film career but also hosted two television shows, nor that I’m a sucker for TV myself. It’s still a great quote!
Thanks so much for sharing a bit of yourself with us, Joel! And congrats for being chosen for Wipeout Canada! We’ll definitely be cheering for you. Good luck!