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Dianne Linden
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Dianne Linden In what could be a capsule autobiography, Dianne Linden says, “There`s been nothing in my life that’s been normal. I have to always do things the hard way. It wasn’t quite the normal route.”

And the not-normal began with her birth on February 18, 1940, at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. While Dianne had two siblings, they were both significantly older. “One brother is 10 years older than me, and the other, seven. I’m very much the youngest, and growing up was like being an only child, only possibly worse. I was the only girl. The stories go that when my dad came to visit my mother in the hospital, he said to her, ‘Well, Vi, you’re finally going to have a doll to dress up.’ One of my brothers recently observed, ‘You should have seen the way mother dressed Dianne up. They treated her like a little queen.’ I turned out to disappoint because I challenged my dad. I was a thinker, and I really wasn’t supposed to be. I was supposed to marry an insurance salesman and teach Sunday school in the Methodist church and stay home. It was a battle forever not to be the ‘little doll’ in the family.”

When Dianne was nine, the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. “I think my dad was disillusioned with Kansas City. He was convinced my older brother would get in trouble with the law if we stayed there. But he’d grown up poor on a farm and didn’t have good memories of the country either. He wanted to get away and go into business for himself. The choices boiled down to Eugene, Oregon, or Boulder, Colorado, because he wanted to be somewhere all of his kids could go to university in a university town. That’s why he picked Boulder.”

Asked what books she recalled from her childhood, Dianne says, “As a young person, the first book that I remember being really moved by was A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner. Whenever Christopher Robin went away and didn’t come into the Hundred Acre Wood, I was just bawling. My mother would ask, ‘What’s the matter, Dianne?’ ‘Christopher Robin has gone away.’ It just totally killed me. I also liked Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows which I had to try a couple of times because it was a bit British and stuffy the first time. I resisted Heidi which my mother continually tried to get me to read, along with other sorts of saccharine things.”

Recalling her youthful career aspirations, Dianne says, “In junior high, I did a research paper on being a hair stylist. And at one point, I wanted to be a nurse, although I couldn’t do the shots. Even practicing giving hypos to an orange made me queasy.  In both cases, my dad hit the roof because I was supposed to go to college. I would be the first woman on either side of my family that had ever done so. But, in going there, I wasn’t supposed to change in any way or alter any of the old beliefs. I certainly didn’t want to be a teacher. That would have been very low on my list of things to be. Boulder was an artsy little place then, and, along with a lot of friends that I was close to, I had elevated notions of what I would be -- maybe a model or an airline stewardess, although I was too tall. Something beautiful, anyway. And stimulating. I’d spend my time discussing important things with friends. We definitely wouldn’t cook or be poor. Getting married and having reality thrust in my face was a very hard adjustment for me.”

Marriage meant Dianne's following her husband first around the United States, but she did complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from the University of Colorado. Her husband’s studies then took them to the Frankfurt area of Germany. “While I was there, I did substitute teach a bit and work as a children’s librarian in the international school where we were, but basically I stayed home. That was probably not a very good thing for me, but my daughter was small. You have to remember that, in those days, women just didn’t fly around and have jobs like they do now. You always felt a little guilty if you weren’t at home, and I had pretty strong messages that my place was there, in the home, and so that’s mostly where I was.”

At one point, Dianne’s husband had to choose between taking a job at a college in the German Alps or pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Albert in Edmonton, and “after a lot of soul-searching, we came to Canada in 1968.” It was while they were in Edmonton that “we went our separate ways. When I resubmitted my teaching credentials to Alberta Education, I only had to take one course in methods to be re-certified because I already had five years of university.”

“I taught in the Edmonton public school system for a very long time. I started teaching at Caraway School, then a private school before it was brought into the public school system. It was kind of based on Sommerhill and the English Infant School system. After that, I went to Edmonton’s south side and taught at Steinhauer School. Then I went ‘downtown’ and became a consultant, first in Elementary Fine Arts and then in Elementary Science.”

Although the subject areas of fine arts and science don’t seem to be roles that could be filled by the same person, Dianne says, “I have always been very strongly a generalist, and I loved doing the science stuff with elementary kids. I loved the fact that we had no idea where these experiments would go, which is exactly what all the other teachers hated about them. When Edmonton Public Schools decided that there was no longer a need for an elementary drama consultant, which was what I was doing, I wanted to continue working with the people that I liked. This science consultant job was available, and, while some of my friends asked, ‘What? Why on earth would they put you in science?’ and shook their heads, I knew that people in Consulting Services were looking for someone who could integrate language arts into that subject. I truly believed that we could marry communication with science.”

“I guess others did as well because that’s what I was hired to do. It was not at all inappropriate for me. But it was a real challenge. Right away in in-services, there would be men who would ask, ‘What is the specific gravity of that solution?’ or ‘What’s the sub-phyla of that critter?’ and I’d have to answer, ‘I don’t know.’ I felt like my authority was constantly being tested because the person whose job I took was a great consultant and a whiz with an M.S. in biology. It was definitely a change.”

“After the consulting positions, I went out to the junior high which figures largely in my first book, Peacekeepers. It was a brand new school, and I was like a curriculum coordinator, but it was an administrative position. This was probably the experience that made me want to leave teaching because it was a ‘scorcher.’ Junior high was very much a life-altering experience. This one in particular was a tough school. Over half of our students had repeated a grade. I had kids in grade five at Steinhauer who could do more academically than kids I had in grade eight in this junior high.”

“Actually I think junior highs a bit of a wasteland because, basically, you drop kids who are still pretty young into a lecture model. Our school was supposed to be different. We were supposed to be a core program so that, at grade seven, a student’s core teacher taught everything. I don’t know that I agree with that all the way through grade nine, but, for grade sevens in particular, it had a lot of advantages. Still there was a lot of teacher burnout. I literally watched teachers fry, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“After four years in junior high, I thought, ‘Maybe I could go back and teach in elementary where I know I had a good reputation,’ but, as Thomas Wolfe said, ‘You can`t go home again.’ What if you go back to something you remembered you were good at and you stink now. I didn’t want to go out that way. I thought, ‘It’s better to leave completely. Let’s not worry about the money.’ That’s been my slogan many times in my life. It’s why I’m not taking a lot of ocean cruises now that I’m in my golden years.”

“I retired when I was 56 and went back to the University of Alberta to get my M. Ed. in Curriculum. I taught at Concordia University College of Alberta as a sessional, and I also worked with student teachers. In order to finish Peacekeepers, I quit teaching altogether, and, because I didn’t get a full pension from teaching, I took my CPP when I was 62.”

“When I started teaching at Concordia. I taught a literature and literacy course. It was my experience with that course that led me to writing Peacekeepers. The students were doing research into an author, and they were coming into class and talking about books. I found myself thinking, ‘Ye gods! Can’t we find books that have some substance in them?’ Literature doesn’t have to be didactic, but I do think a story is a good teaching medium. As an integrator, I always tried to have a novel that reflected what we were doing in other subjects. There were times when I couldn’t find anything, and I used to write short stories so I’d have a reference point to read to my students. I listened to the books my college students reviewed in class, and I kept thinking, ‘I wonder if I couldn’t do that?’ Peacekeepers is my answer to that question. It definitely comes out of a teaching place.”

“I’ve been a closet writer all my life. I wrote my first novel when I was 15. Called ‘Too Late for Tears,’ it was about thirty pages long, and I wrote it in the summer. I once took it into a junior high school where I was trying to demonstrate that you really shouldn’t write about things you don`t understand. Remember that I grew up in Boulder, CO, and my ‘novel’ was about a black boy in Harlem who was a horn player. His older brother was a felon, and they end up in jail together, but they don’t know that they’re related. I still remember how it began. ‘It was getting dark out there. Real dark. Sammy didn’t know what to do.’ I read the first bit to these kids, trying to demonstrate that I couldn’t possibly know anything about the world I was describing and their response was, ‘I think that sounds really good. Would you read some more?’”

“Since I had always written, I thought, ‘Why don’t I just give a novel a try? Let’s see if I can do it.’ The whole story started from an experience a friend of mine had. She had gone into a fine arts school to play Emily Carr, and the kids didn’t know that she was coming. She was all dressed up and had her paints and everything. The kids were coming up and talking to her, and one little girl said, ‘Emily, my grandmother just died. Did you see her when you were up in heaven?’ I got an emotional response hearing that story.”

“When I was trying to create a family for the book, I asked myself, ‘What are some of the reasons parents don’t live together? One could be separation. Are there any other possibilities?’ I was playing around with having a dad being a peacekeeper, and then I asked myself, ‘Could a mother be a peacekeeper?’ I didn’t even really know the answer, but then I was at the theatre where I saw the mother of a little girl (she`s not a little girl any more) that I had had in my class for six years. The mother said, ‘Leanne is back from Bosnia.’ I asked, ‘What was Leanne doing in Bosnia?’ because Leanne, who was by then Master Corporal Leanne Karoles, was once a very shy little girl who played horse at recess. Well, from her mother, I learned that Leanne was a peacekeeper there, and it was like ‘Ding!’ I had just been thinking about this possibility, and then I ran into reality.”

“And so I thought, ‘OK Dianne, will you actually take the bait and do this, or will you find 152 excuses why you can’t? And, if you do go the excuse route, I don`t want to ever hear from you about writing a novel again.’ Leanne and I talked a lot about her peacekeeping experiences. All of the e-mails from the mother in Peacekeepers are true experiences that Leanne had, with two exceptions. There was never anyone killed in a land mine incident while she was there. The little boy called Edin in the book was based on a child Leanne described. She said, ‘Whenever we went out in the white UN van, this little boy would always follow us, and we didn’t know who he was.’ He appealed to me as a character because the wistful little child whose story you don’t know is a very appealing character in fiction. I was asked to change the name of the military base from Black Bear, the real name of the Canadian base in Bosnia, to something else, and so I used Gray Wolf. While the military was using dogs in Bosnia for mine sniffing, they were not using them right where the book is set. That whole landmine thing became a big theme especially in the second book.”

“Before I sent the manuscript off, I had several people read it, including Glen Huser and Mary Woodbury, people that are in the writing circle here in Edmonton. Glen said ‘Great, send it off.’ I really didn’t think it was ready to go. I was anxious for more feedback. The book was actually quite different then. The main characters' names were all based on the American Civil Rrights Movement. The girl's name was Fannie, after Fannie Lou Hamer, a voting rights activist and civil rights leader. The little boy, I think, was Martin.”Of Things Not Seen

“I sent the manuscript off to Groundwood. Glen had written them, and so they were expecting it, but they didn`t like it. Basically they didn’t like Nell’s voice. I think they thought she was a bit of a wise-ass. Glen`s advice was - and this is what most writers tell you, ‘When you get your manuscript back, just fire it off. Don`t even look at it.’ Of course, I take all criticism directly to my heart, which isn’t good if you’re a writer. I thought, ‘OK, they didn’t like the beginning. They didn’t like the Emily Carr incident.’ I took out some of the convoluted things at the beginning. I tried to simplify it. I toned down the girl, and I gave the characters names with Canadian historical significance. Then, on the recommendation of Mary Woodbury, I sent it off to Coteau in Regina.”

“Coteau kept it about seven months before they said, '’Yes, we’ll publish it.’ So, my getting published wasn`t a terrible experience. I only had to submit the manuscript twice. I had very little to do in the way of rewrites on it. Personally, I wish that it had been edited more because I am a great rewriter. I like rewriting. I like revising. I`m not insulted when somebody doesn’t like my work as it is. In fact, I’m disappointed. I think Peacekeepers could have  been a stronger, more hard-hitting book, but I don’t know. You need somebody else to look at it. You need the laser vision of an editor to say, ‘Don’t do this. Do more of that.’ Between the time I sent it out and Coteau accepted Peacekeepers, I made some changes that I wasn’t allowed to keep. I think Coteau thought that the book was getting too dark, too frightening in some places, and so I had to tone down some of that.”

“With Peacekeepers, I had another interesting experience regarding the creative process. Fitzhenry & Whiteside was putting out a kit on bullying, and Peacekeepers was one of the books that was picked to go in it. However, there were a few comments in the book that I didn’t honestly see as offensive. However, Fitzhenry & Whiteside were concerned that, ‘if we put this in and it later gets censored in libraries, then we won`t be able to use the book in the kit.’”

“Here's one example. Right at the very beginning of the book, Shane asks Nell, ‘Is that mouse hair?’ He’s trying to get on her nerves, of course. In the original manuscript, Shane tries to get Nell’s attention by saying, ‘Hey. Lesbo-dyke.’ That’s authentic language I heard in school all the time. Nell turns around and pretends that he’s introducing himself. She says, ‘Oh, so that’s your name. Aren’t you lucky to be one of those persons who has three names like Johan Sebastian Bach or Camilla Parker-Bowles? I’m envious. Maybe some day you’ll get to marry the King of England.’ I had to take that out because the language might be offensive. There were other things like that I had to change, and the results, to me, weren’t quite as authentic as they could have been or as real regarding how I thought kids would talk. That’s always a problem when we write in first person for a young adult audience. How can you have language be authentic when you have to purge it until it`s really sanitized? I do understand the problem, but it strains credibility at times.”

“After Peacekeepers, I had an Alberta Foundation of the Arts grant to do historical research on a novel to be set in Lac la Biche at the time of the Frog Lake Massacre. I have a friend who is related to George McDougall, and she has a wonderful family story I really wanted to do something with. Because of the grant I had to do that research as soon as I finished Peacekeepers. The research took me a long time due to my tendency to be thorough, and in the process I found that I’m not a very good historical writer. I found being tied to the facts very limiting. Because the McDougall family is such an icon around Edmonton, I felt if I departed a little bit from what we know for certain about the Victoria settlement where I planned to set the book, the historians would sharpen their axes and have a little Dianne Linden barbecue. So that book didn’t get past the research stage.”

“After that, I tried to write a sequel to Peacekeepers, but I found that, without the tension that kind of squeezed that story out, it was just another teenage voice. It was not distinctive, and I didn’t like it. We already know that, ,at the end of Peacekeepers, Nell has basically solved this problem with her mother and that she perhaps has a stronger sense of who she is. That’s about all you can ask for kids to get from an experience like Nell’s. I didn’t know where else to go with her story that didn’t begin to sound like a soap opera. I truly don’t know why I can’t finish some drafts, but, if I catch myself sighing and thinking, ‘But who cares?’ I let them go and send them to the growing pile in my study. That’s what happened to the sequel to Peacekeepers.”

“I honestly can’t tell you why I decided to go back and think about Nell’s brother Mike. I wrote Peacekeepers still very much in the world of teaching, thinking, ‘What could I do with this book in the classroom?’ which is probably why it’s been relatively successful with teachers. There are lots of teaching points that they can talk about, and, if they don’t want to talk about the war in Bosnia, they certainly can look at what’s happening in Nell’s life. Lots of kids have written and told me they’ve experienced what she goes through themselves. By the time I started on Shimmerdogs, I’d been out of the classroom for a while. I’d have these little author discussions with Glen, and once he said to me, ‘I don’t consider the audience when I’m writing. I consider what I’m writing.’ So I thought, ‘Great. I’m just going to write the story that I want to write.’ By then I was thinking more about art than practicality. That’s definitely where I am now. You can try to write to be popular or sell a lot of books. Some people can even do both naturally. I just want to follow the story that intrigues me.”

Shimmerdogs is more ‘writerly’ than Peacekeepers because now I’m just writing to tell the story. I hooked on to this little voice and the sense of the delicacy some children have at a certain age. Of course, I’ve got two young grandchildren I drew on while I was writing. My granddaughter, in particular, asks very difficult and very deep philosophical questions about why things happen. Many kids do. Often we’re too busy to answer them. Or sometimes they don’t like the answers we give. Then they make up answers that do satisfy them. Mike Hopkins, the narrator of Shimmerdogs, is very much like that.” Of Things Not Seen


“In writing Shimmerdogs, I had certain constraints that I inherited from the first novel. I’ve noticed that I’m a much better as a writer when I have constraints. Otherwise, I tend to think so laterally that I the storyline gets away from me. What I inherited from Peacekeepers was a dog named Merit who died, and an old man named Mr. Lapinski who lived across the street from Mike’s uncle. Both are insignificant in the first book. It’s interesting that I drew Lapinski’s name from the phone book and learned later that the name is Polish when it ends in an i, and Ukrainian when it ends in y. The Polish I’ve been told were quite mystical, and some of the stories I heard about water springing up out of rocks where some miracle had taken place became important in the way the story grew.”

An author's writing a sequel that, in fact, is actually also a prequel to the first book is, in Dianne's words, ‘Not a smart move in terms of marketing. If you`re going to nest two books together, the second book should probably be what happens now. But, because I’d decided to write what I wanted to write, not fit in a niche, that’s what I did. One of my biggest beefs about the whole area of kids writing now is this whole thing of writing for a niche. Everyone agreed in reading this manuscript that the publisher would not have any idea what to do with it, and that’s exactly what happened when I offered it to Coteau. The response to it was not good -- too much about dogs, too spiritual. As well, Shimmerdogs is narrated by a six or seven-year-old, but not at a six or seven-year-old reading level, another reason why it wasn’t going to be a marketable book. So it was probably not smart to do a prequel, but that is how the story wanted to be told.”

“I was in shock and very depressed after I got the Shimmerdogs manuscript back from Coteau. I probably wouldn’t have sent it out again, but my daughter asked me, ‘Are you just going to add this to the collection in your file drawer? Aren’t you running out of room in there?” I realized she had a point. And since it was either buying another filing cabinet or sending it off to another publisher, I chose the latter. This time I picked Thistledown Press in Saskatoon on Marty Chan’s recommendation. After another long wait, I heard back from them. ‘You can never have too much dog in a kid’s book,’ they said, and we had a publishing project together.” 

“I loved the editing process for Shimmerdogs. Rod McIntyre was my editor, and all our correspondence was done by email. Right away he told me ‘Can the first 40 pages of your book.’ He also said to get rid of one of the characters because she was too telling and too saccharine.’ I wrote back and said that I didn’t really think she was saccharine. I thought she was the only normal person in the book. I had some stuff about saints in the first draft as well. He told me to get rid of that, and he questioned the way I was talking about miracles. Since Rod had studied to be a priest, I figured that I’d better step away from the whole area and get into my own made-up stuff where I could be the expert. I did find in my research (although I lost the reference and could never find it again) that some aboriginal people believe that dogs were present at the time of the creation. They were God’s helpers in the process so to speak. That gave me inspiration. I rewrote the beginning of the book and also rewrote the ending three different times until Rod liked it. He really made me work for which I bless him because he made it a much stronger book.”

Shimmerdogs was a finalist for the 2008 Governor-Generals' Literary Award for Children’s Literature (English text). “When they phoned me to tell me I was on the short list, I thought they were telling me that I was on the long list. I was flabbergasted, although personally, I love this book. I am never tired of reading from it. To begin with, I love the structure of Shimmerdogs, and, if I don`t like the structure a book, if I can’t get the structure, I can’t move beyond that. But I also know it’s a very ‘small’ book. A very quiet, little book. It isn’t a bang-bang kind of thing. It doesn’t deal with big historical issues or anything like that. That’s why I was amazed that it was short listed, particularly when I look at the books it was up against. I certainly didn’t expect anything like that because I had so much trouble getting it published, and then I couldn’t get anybody to review it.”

In describing her writing process, Dianne says, “Every book is different. I have discipline to burn so that isn’t a problem for me. Peacekeepers and Shimmerdogs are both novels of voice, and I have found it much easier to write that way, in first person. When you get the voice, it carries you and almost shows you where the story needs to go. I didn’t plan either book ahead. I didn’t use outlines. I really have the feeling that I need to surrender myself to the narrative flow and let it go where it wants to which means that, in terms of my process, it’s intuitive and organic. By nature, I’m somewhere between a random and a concrete abstract thinker. Definitely not sequential. I have discovered that the random process of writing makes me somewhat uncomfortable at times. When I don’t know the story at all or where it will go, it makes me anxious. It’s probably why I like rewrites better because now I know what’s there and I can work with it. I’d even go so far as to say that there are things about writing that are somewhat frightening to me, just the unmapped quality of the experience and the sense that I’m going somewhere unknown. That’s why I like constraints. If I know I have to have a dog in the story for continuity, and I know I have to have an old man and he has to be Polish, that eliminates a lot of possibilities. If I have too many possibilities, I can fritter away my time forever. It wouldn’t be that I wouldn’t be working hard. It’s just that I wouldn’t get an overview of where I was going.”

“Sometimes I do have to escape from writing and do something very concrete to balance it all out. I’m a fibre artist. That doesn’t mean I work with bran cereal, by the way, as someone once asked. So if I’m hung up, I sew something or knit or work with collage. It’s really helps me to get grounded.”

“Originally, I started out writing poetry although I was told by people who know these things that I wasn’t really writing poetry. I was writing monologues. I also wrote short stories. They’re very difficult to write I think, harder than novels in some ways. And I wrote personal essays, humorous essays or light essays. Novels certainly weren’t my way into writing. They came much later. My essays have been anthologized in Canada and England. I had a short story performed on the CBC’s Alberta Anthology and another published in the University of Calgary’s Dandelion Magazine. That story came out at the same time as a short story by W P. Kinsella, and I was very flattered.”

“I didn’t finish a lot of the short stories because I found that I could work on them forever. I always seem to write ahead of my understanding. That’s the problem for me. I could be writing for a long time before I think, ‘Oh, now I know what I want to say.’ At the time I was writing the short stories, I was teaching, and so I didn’t tend to get one to the place very often where I considered it finished. I actually wrote a play that was work-shopped at the University of Alberta. I’ve dabbled with a lot of forms of writing, and then I turned my back on them and started writing for kids. That’s the place where I’ve had the most success.”

“Having said that, I’m currently working on a novel for adults. And I’m having a lot of fun with it. It’s set in the mountains around Boulder, CO, where I grew up, so it’s sort of a paean to the landscape of my childhood. Those mountains are still very close to my heart. I may not be mountain born, even though I used that as the name for a communications company I had briefly. But I am certainly mountain fed. I am loving being able to use the place names I grew up with, like Lick Skillet Road. Left Hand Canyon. The Arapahoe Glacier. The Flatirons. The characters in the story are two women approximately my age who knew each other in high school, although not well. They meet again in Boulder and discover they have more in common than they thought. It’s part mystery. part Thelma and Louise adventure without the car disappearing into the Grand Canyon. And like Shimmerdogs, there’s a bit of overlap between what’s believable and what’s out there. This time, though, I am doing some charting, otherwise I get lost in the mystery myself. The first half of the book is pretty tight, and I’m well on my way with the second. I’m going back to Boulder in the fall to fine tune some of the local references. I find there are gaps in my memory of certain places, and I do want people who live in the area, should they ever read it, to feel like I’ve done justice to their home.” “Whether anyone will get to read this manuscript is another question. I don’t imagine Canadian publishers will be too interested, given the setting. I may have to look for an agent. Or I may self-publish first and then send those copies out to see if there are any takers. The world of the book is changing. It’s hard to say where any writers’ work may end up at this point. That’s definitely a challenge.”

“There is one manuscript in my filing cabinet I haven’t mentioned. Early in 2009, I spent a month in Canmore working on a YA novel involving a young man named Quinn Updown. I’ve made three separate starts of at least 10 000 words each to his story. That’s quite a lot for a self-confessed undogged person. I’ve rewritten. I’ve shifted characters and events. I’ve changed points of view and setting. Each time, I get part of the way in and stop. It’s not the character that’s got me flummoxed. And it’s not his voice. I like both very much. But through Quinn I’m trying to look at what it’s like for a young man of fifteen or sixteen to have bi-polar disorder. Maybe it’s too close to the experiences of my own son for me to deal with. Too painful. I just can’t seem to sneak up on it. It’s certainly something I haven’t been able to write about before, although I do think it’s important that young people come to understand mental illness better. Not to romanticize it, but to get a sense of what it’s like. However, Quinn’s story has to be written in such a way that people will want to read it. It can’t be too heavy. And when you have a character whose sense of reality is not totally reliable, how are you going to tell that story? I haven’t put the novel completely away. I still feel its presence in my study now and then. And I keep waiting for enough distance from the feelings it brings up in me to pick it up again. In the meantime, my head and heart are full of the mountains. It feels good. Not at all rocky.”

Books by Dianne Linden:
. Coteau Books, 2003. Grades 5-9.
Shimmerdogs. Thistledown, 2008. Grades 4-7.

This article is based on an interview conducted in Edmonton, October 15, 2009 and revised August, 2010.

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