My Interview With Alice Kuipers

Alice Kuipers is a writer on a mission, not only to bring her own stories to life but to empower young writers to do the same with theirs. On May 1, she'll be launching an online writing course for kids and her latest offering, "Polly Diamond and the Magic Book", due for release this weekend, centres around a girl whose passion for writing lists, stories, and musings can only be matched by a magical notebook that writes right back before bringing the ideas to life. Go, power of creative manifestation, go! Yep, Ms. Kuipers' whole mandate absolutely delights me as a mama, writer, and Brownie leader. And here's the kicker, local readers: this internationally recognized, multi-award-winning author with a pile of praises that could populate my whole article chooses to live in beautiful Saskatoon with her partner, Life of Pi novelist Yann Martel. Which means our kiddos get to celebrate her book launch at a free tea party this Sunday, April 22nd, 2:30 at McNally Robinson. Are we lucky or what?

I had the chance to interview Ms. Kuipers. Her story, her process, her ability to be a writer and a mother of FOUR YOUNG KIDS (if you also work from home, you're going to relate hard)... I asked her what I wanted to know and she didn't disappoint. Do yourself a favour and read on.

Polly Diamond Book Cover by Alice Kuipers.jpg

Me: I read "Polly Diamond and the Magic Book" with my daughter who both enjoys the language of Fancy Nancy and is just getting into 'chapters' and I must gush that we both loved your book. Was the idea of personifying a book something you'd had in your mind for a while and only recently fleshed out or was it an idea-to-paper sort of experience? Do you find your writing process for each book to be similar?

A.K.: I'm so happy you and your daughter enjoyed Polly Diamond. The idea of the book writing back came during the writing process. I began the first draft of Polly Diamond and the Magic Book when I was pregnant with my daughter (who is now nearly seven!!!) and although in the first draft Polly had buckets of energy, her magic book never responded. It was at least three drafts in that I realized the book itself needed to bring energy to the page. Once that happened, it became hard to stop thinking of ideas for Polly and Spell!

As for my writing process, it's always chaotic. I have four small children--ages two to eight. The way I seem to write my books now is that a lot happens when I'm not at my desk. I think about the ideas for the stories while I'm doing the school drop off or making supper; I figure out my characters when I'm doing laundry etc. Then when I have a window of time, I am able to sit down and write, or edit, with the clarity I need. Sometimes. My writing process involves lots of mis-steps--more editing than writing, I would say, and that's been the same for every book I've published and all the many books that haven't been published, too! 

Polly Diamond Book Sample 1.jpg

When writing for children, do you find your interior voice changes? I'm especially curious if it's your own, younger voice that guides you or if it's that of each character.

This is going to make me sound weird, maybe, but my characters are loud and clear in my head. Violet and Victor (from my picture books) started arguing when I was heading to bed one night--it was as if I overheard them. The idea of a book that made everything come true came just as I'd been thinking about a character called Polly Diamond, in a book I was thinking about called Polly Diamond Writes to the Moon. Nothing quite worked about that book--Polly was in the wrong story, she wasn't quite herself, but then, suddenly she came to life when I gave her a book to write in that made anything possible. Suddenly, Polly made herself inimitably clear to me. Then it felt easy, well, not easy, but possible to write a book about her because I could hear her.

Alice Kuipers for Sneakers and Lipstick Saskatoon.jpg

Not only is "Polly" a character who's imaginative and prolific but you're also poised to launch a free online course to help budding young writers up their game. Clearly, getting children excited about writing is a passion for you. Who lit that torch for you early on? And can you tell me about the moment or process in which you realized that writing could be more than a hobby?

I love talking about writing, and I find it especially fun when I'm in a classroom of kids. Seeing the stories they write, hearing what excites them as storytellers, ignites me. I have always, always loved to read--both my parents like to read, especially my mom, and I have vivid memories of seeing her reading a book, or of her reading books to me. I think that most writers I know and admire start to write because of the books they have read, they want to try to make their own words come to life on the page. I wrote for years and years before I got published. For me, it wasn't a hobby, it was the thing I did that I didn't get paid for. So I had to do other jobs to earn money. But writing felt like the work that thrilled me--the other jobs were interesting (I ran a bookstore, I taught Pilates) but it was always so that I could write. My partner is a writer. When we met, I was writing as much as possible. He lived and worked as a writer, and that seemed at the time magical. It still does. I never take for granted that anyone is going to want to read my next book--it is a precarious industry, the writing world. For now, I'm very happy to be able to live and work as a writer, but should that change, I can't imagine a future where I don't long to keep writing words on the page.

Are your own kids storytellers and, in a possibly related question, what spurred the idea of an online writing course for kids?

My own kids are young, but they love to make up stories. My favourite story from one of my children starts with "Once, there was a once. And behind that once was another once." I love hearing their ideas and helping them make little books. And I wanted to share my thoughts and ideas about writing with any kid who wanted to to that with me. 

I have been working with Children's Book Insider (CBI) to make courses for adults interested in writing for kids for a number of years. I'm their instructor for their Chapter Book Blueprint and for their Middle Grade and YA Blueprint. I have wanted to have a course available for a long time for young children--one that consisted of videos and PDFs for them to explore in their own time, either in their classroom or with a parent, or on their own. I love sharing my ideas about writing, but with my own family, it's hard to be able to go to all the schools that I would like to. CBI was excited when I asked them if we could do make this course for young writers together--and so now we have a course (which launches on May 1st) so that any kid who wants to be a Super-Star writer can try it. Here is the link.

Alice Kuipers for Sneakers and Lipstick 1.jpg

Reading often inspires interaction but in my experience, writing itself is an intensely antisocial activity; I write when my children are asleep (like right now) and am bothered by anything (like a text from someone wondering when I'm going to come up with two glasses of wine). But somehow, you and your husband are both writers in one house. With four kids. I don't get it. Explain, please! How do you both make the space to create?  

I am wearing headphones right now! It tunes out the chaos a little bit. But not much. My kids have two friends over so there are six kids in the house. I juggle, like everyone I know, work, childcare, family time, and regularly drop balls. What I am good at doing, I think, is I'm good at being distracted but not distracted enough to pull me totally out of what I'm doing. If one of my children comes in screaming, I deal with it, and then just pick up and carry on the next sentence. This is probably why I have to do so much editing! My sentences don't always even follow on! But I tell myself that I'm able to keep working in the chaos and I sort of do. 

I also use these daily planners that I found online; I fill them out in the morning with a coffee and at least one kid clambering on me. I probably get through three out of ten things that I put on my planner, but it helps me remember what on earth I was doing before I lost my train of thought. 

You're right that writing is antisocial. My partner finds it much harder to deal with the chaos and to keep focused. He has a studio in the backyard with a lockable door. I just hide in cafes all over Saskatoon if I really need to tune out the kids. Headphones on, internet off, phone off, bum in the seat. Coffee.

Can't argue with coffee. Thanks to Alice Kuipers for her words and I'll hope to see you and your minions this Sunday at this Sunday's tea party launch for "Polly Diamond and the Magic Book"