Faces of Ottawa presents an interview with Ottawa-area author and teacher, Caroline Pignat.
I received a really nice e-mail from Caroline after I had completed the interview with Karleen Bradford. She had participated in one of Karleen’s writing workshops and discovered our website through a link from Karleen. Caroline mentioned that she would be interested in doing an interview in the future for Faces of Ottawa. She wasn’t sure I would want to interview another author so soon, but I was excited to have the opportunity and was really glad that she volunteered!
Caroline was raised in Ottawa and attended Ottawa University in the 90’s. She now lives with her husband and two kids in Kanata and teaches grade 12 Writers Craft at All Saints High School.
She is the award winning author of four young adult novels including: EGGHEAD, GREENER GRASS, WILD GEESE, and TIMBER WOLF.
Getting to Know Caroline Pignat
EGGHEAD and GREENER GRASS are two very different types of books: one more applicable to today, the other historical fiction. Which type of book was more difficult for you to write and why?
Caroline Pignat: I think the challenges of writing in either genre are very similar: strong voice, believable characters, and a convincing setting.
For the EGGHEAD characters, I got into their voices through remembering what mattered to me as a teenager. I reread my diaries and talked about life back in the day with my husband — who I met in grade 8 and who really helped me develop the voice of Devan. EGGHEAD was more difficult, but that may be because it was my first attempt at writing a novel. I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. Where does it start and finish? Whose voice is it in? That kind of thing.
The historical fiction started with researching the time and place. The more amazing facts I learned, the easier it became to imagine what it would have been like to live during the Irish famine. Historical fiction takes a lot longer to research but is a lot quicker to write because I’ve been thinking about the characters and their problems every time I visit a museum or read a source. It’s been simmering a long time by the time I sit down to write it.
Your first novel, EGGHEAD became a bullying awareness resource by Kids Help Phone and Barbara Coloroso. Did this take you by surprise?
Caroline Pignat: Actually, I’d used Coloroso’s work as a way to develop the different characters. Her book, THE BULLY, THE BULLIED AND THE BYSTANDER, helped me to define the drives and fears of those major characters. I sent her the book after it was published and mentioned that she’d been a key source of inspiration. It was a great honour to have both her and Kids Help Phone consider it worthy of recommending.
The book EGGHEAD is also seeing widespread use in school as a novel study. Is the feedback inspiring ideas for a sequel?
Caroline Pignat: Yes. I may do a sequel or similar book but one that focuses on Cyberbullying. Because I started with my memories of junior high, there was no cyberbullying. Since it seems to be the most prevalent form of bullying these days (texting, Facebook groups, e-mails, etc.) I think I’d like to tackle that in a book someday.
Tell me about doing skype author visits!!
Caroline Pignat: It’s the coolest thing to sit in your living room and chat with hundreds of students in another country! I love doing school visits, but because I teach mornings, I’m limited to how far I can travel. Skype means that I can show them my powerpoint and answer their questions and chit chat with them about their stories as well. I’m surprised more schools aren’t doing them — lots of authors are available for visits this way.
Congratulations on winning the 2009 Governor General’s Award for your book GREENER GRASS. Tell us about the process that a book goes through to be named for a Governor General’s award. Did you ever imagine that your book would be picked for this award? In what way did winning this award make it easier or harder to write the next book?
Caroline Pignat: I’m not sure of the numbers of entries, but I do know that the publishers across Canada submit the books, so I imagine there were many, many submissions. The judges, I believe, are previous winners and they read and rate all the entries. After a few rounds, it is narrowed down to the top 5 and voted upon again. The winner is announced in Montreal and there is a ceremony at Rideau Hall with the Governor General.
I never dreamt that I’d even be shortlisted for this award. I couldn’t believe it when they called and said I’d made the top five. It was my second novel — I was still thrilled just to see it on the shelves at Chapters, so you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I heard I’d not only been nominated, but won.
Great question about writing the next book. I don’t think there would have been a “next book” if I had to sit down and start fresh just after winning such a prestigious award. Fortunately, I’d almost finished WILD GEESE by that point.
The Writing Process
A quote from a magazine article about you reads: “I love learning new things. Which is just as well, since I have a lot to learn. There’s the book in my head, and then there’s the book I have written, and they are very far apart. The more that I work at the craft, I’m finding the closer they’re becoming. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach that level of writing where those two books are one and the same. I hope I do. You should see some of the crazy stuff going on in my head.” Why do (or did) you feel that the books were very far apart? Are you talking about the level of editing that goes into publishing a novel?
Caroline Pignat: I think our imaginations experience things way beyond what our words can express. It feels that way for me, anyway, and a lot of my writing students find the same thing.
Editing isn’t as labour-intensive for me as I thought it might have been. I do have to revise parts that need tweaking, but I revise a lot as I write the manuscript. Before I write the next chapter, I go back and “groom” the previous one until I think it’s as close to my imagined experience as I can get it.
“Every time I come up with a story idea, I go to Chapters and then I see somebody else has done it. It’s almost becoming a joke with my husband whose advice is, “Don’t go to Chapters anymore.'” What sort of advice would you give to other writers who feel the same way?
Caroline Pignat: True, everything has already been done. But not by you. Only you can write the book you are meant to write. Only you have your voice — made of your perspective, experiences, humour and history. My advice would be to write the story you want to tell.
What is the importance of keeping journals? Writing letters? How has that helped you in your writing career?
Caroline Pignat: Journalling and letter writing has really helped me write what I mean. It taught me to go deep and be introspective but also to be concise and detailed. In retelling funny stories from school to my Granny, I was developing my narrative voice and pacing. Who knew? Dreaming about writing, reading about writing, even reading great writers are all helpful — but only writing itself can teach us what works and what doesn’t.
What sort of legacies / teachings do you hope your students take away from classes / workshops with you?
Caroline Pignat: I hope my students leave with a strong sense of their voice and the belief that they have stories worth telling. The inner critic silences so many fantastic writers — he’s a bully.
In your opinion–what are some of the key elements necessary for writing a good story?
Caroline Pignat: I love character driven stories — I need to care about the main character and his/her problem. The character also needs to be complex and conflicted. The book “Writing the Breakout Novel” by Donald Maass was a great resource for me when I was developing Kit (GREENER GRASS) The questions he asks challenged me to take the character places I never would have thought possible. One example was to list three things that are most important to the main character and the next activity was to take those things away. That there is a great recipe for engaging fiction!
Your connection with education allows you to be constantly immersed in teenage life. I’m sure most teenagers can be brutal critics! Have you ever taught your novels in high school? When you have discussions with students about your books, does it help you to discuss your books with the very audience that you are aiming for? Did you find it interesting to hear what they had to say about your books? Did they laugh in the right places?
Caroline Pignat: Teens are very honest. I love that. And it terrifies me. For the most part, I’ve had great feedback from them. For example teen readers were the ones who asked why Shane (the bully) doesn’t have a voice in the novel. Great question. He should have. I wrote from the friend of the bully, the friend of the victim, and even the victim’s poems — but I neglected to write in the bully’s voice. So (quick thinking) I made them write a scene in his voice. Ha!
I taught grade 7 and 8 for two years and we studied Egghead in grade 7. It was fascinating to hear such immediate interaction and feedback as they read. They related to the characters much more deeply than I had thought they would. It wasn’t just a made up story — this was something they related to. I think having the multiple points of view gives everyone a “way in” to the story. It matters to them. They didn’t always laugh when I thought they would, mind you my own kids don’t either. I guess I’m not as funny as I think I am.
Do you have any funny teaching or writing-related experiences that you’d like to share?
Caroline Pignat: I was at a Red Maple Awards event — this is an Ontario wide reading initiative where the kids vote for their favourite book. Egghead won that year’s Honour Book Award. Anyways, at this event they all came dressed as their favourite characters. It was so amazing to see kids dressed as Katie, Devan, Will and Shane — people that only existed in my imaginations. I can only guess how cool it must be for JK Rowling when she’s drinking butterbeer at Hogwarts in Universal Studios!
I love this quote from your website: ” I took classes, attended workshops and read a ton of books on the business and the craft, but mostly I read great writers and analysed how they did it. What made their book work? What did I love most about their characters and style? Every book I read was a short course on writing. Even the duds. They showed me what not to do.” Do you find that you have to turn off your “inner author” when you want to read for pleasure? I’ve read that kids eventually have to make the distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for academic learning. Do writers have to make the same distinction?
Caroline Pignat: I can’t really turn it off — but a great book draws me in and makes me forget to analyze. I have to go back afterwards and dissect how that all happened, but I love it when a book makes me forget!
Writers are readers! How do you encourage your high school students to make time for reading?
Caroline Pignat: The kids that love reading will do it, regardless. The ones that hate it, barely read more than the assigned novels in English class (or should I say “read the Coles Notes for the assigned novel”.) I tell them they will love reading if they keep searching for *that* book — the one they can’t put down. We don’t all like the same kinds of food, why would we all want to read the same kinds of books?
The Ottawa Connection
Your series of books: GREENER GRASS, WILD GEESE, and TIMBER WOLF gave you a great opportunity to do some in-depth research. How did learning more about Ireland, Bytown (Ottawa) and Upper Canada Village connect you to your surroundings and your heritage?
Caroline Pignat: It’s fascinating to learn the history of a place, particularly one I’ve lived in for over 30 years. Actually, I started out researching the Rideau Canal — I knew that a lot of Irish were key players in building it. However when I started researching the famine (1845-50) I realized the dates didn’t match up. I may still write the Canal book someday. Around the time of my story, Mother Elisabeth Bruyere and her Sisters of Charity were establishing hospitals and orphanages in Bytown. That summer of 1847, they were responsible for helping the 3000+ Irish immigrants that landed on the town’s shore, many of whom brought the typhus that became an epidemic. I read her letters and did a lot of research in the archives of the Motherhouse and the City of Ottawa. That town of 1847 became as vivid and real to me as the one I walk through when I’m downtown today. I love to picture those people (both fictional and historical) walking through the Byward Market, down Sussex, or along the locks.
You divided your growing-up years between Ottawa and Ireland and attended high school and university in Ottawa. You have seen the city grow and change. What are some of the things that you love about Ottawa? What are some of the things you miss about Ottawa when you are in Ireland?
Caroline Pignat: Though I live in the suburbs — I love being close enough to drive downtown. I loved going to Ottawa University, right in the heart of the city. My husband and I often take the kids to “play tourist” in our hometown and we visit the Parliament Buildings, see the changing of the guards, walk around the Market area, take a boat ride or a skate along the canal. The canal has always had great memories for me. To learn it’s history made it even more meaningful.
The years I lived in Ireland, I missed the seasons of Ottawa. Winterlude. The Tulip Festival, music festivals. Canada Day downtown. The Ex.
In what ways has the city helped you as a writer?
Caroline Pignat: The city has inspired me. Being able to walk the streets and imagine the history made it come alive for me. The museums and historians were incredible — they went above and beyond my expectations to help me get as many details as I could about that time in this place. The Archivist for Mother Bruyere, actually walked me around the area pointing out what would have been here during that time.
The writing communities in Ottawa (CAA, CANSCAIP, SCBWI) and the writers I have met through them have been a wonderful support and inspiration as well.
I come across interesting facts about Ottawa in doing research for my website. What are some interesting things that you learned in your research about Ottawa that you never knew before?
Caroline Pignat: Mother Bruyere’s role in the development of Bytown, the dual lives of Upper and Lower Bytown, the rough and rowdy nature of early Bytown (like something from an old western!), the original purpose of the canal, the dedication and courage these early Bytowners showed in the face of great challenges.
Ottawa has always had a vibrant multicultural community. Where can people go in Ottawa to experience some Irish culture?
Caroline Pignat: St. Brigid’s Centre for the Arts (www.saintbrigidscentre.com) is the home of the National Irish Canadian Cultural Centre and hosts some wonderful events. Another place to visit is the “Irish Village” in the Byward Market. It’s a collection of five Irish pubs that have great food and entertainment. I’ve done a few of my book launches there. (www.heartandcrown.ca)
If you were playing “tourist” in your own city, what are three places that you would recommend visitors see to experience the essence of Ottawa?
Caroline Pignat: Parliament Buildings. The Byward Market. Museum of Nature.