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Joan Weir
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Joan Weir

"Growing up, I always wanted to write," says Joan Weir. "When I was a child, I used to write things and read them to my dog who loved them and that encouraged me. My father, who was Bishop of Calgary and later the Archbishop of Rupertsland, had a marvelous library. All the years I was growing up, I read constantly. As soon as I finished one book, my father, a Rhodes Scholar and himself a great reader, would always bring me three or four more books to read."

Born April 21, 1928, in Calgary, AB, Joan resided there until grade 10 when the family moved to Winnipeg, MB. "I went to the University of Manitoba, graduated with an Hons. BA in 1948 and worked in Winnipeg before marrying in 1955 and leaving. I took a double major in English and history, but it was mainly English. Sinclair Ross was teaching there when I was a student. I remember all my history professors, including Ken Sutton and Bill Morton who was marvelous. I still use Bill Morton's writings for my research. As far as I'm concerned, he's a typical Canadian historian because he's very low key, but he really knows his stuff and doesn't try to push his own ideas. He just gives you the facts and the historical background."

"Because I loved to read, I knew I wanted eventually to be a writer myself, but I realized it would require a long learning period before I was ready. So, after university, I first went to work in the advertising department at Eaton's and was in charge of all their promotional programing for young people. We did the weekly 'Good Deed Club' broadcasts and all the Santa Claus programming which was great fun. That was my introduction to writing for radio, and from there I moved on to write a number of radio plays for CBC. Because my heart was really in writing novels, I decided to plunge on. At first I thought I would write for adults, but after several novels were rejected by publishers, I realized what I really wanted to do was write for young people. I've never done picture books, only books for 9 to 16-year-olds. That is the age group I really enjoy writing for." Maybe Tomorrow

"However, I've done a lot of nonfiction history and biography for adult. My most recent adult history is Catalysts and Watchdogs, a history of the effects that the coming of the missionaries of all denominations had on the development of British Columbia just before the province joined Confederation in 1871. I spent many years researching material for that book, all from primary sources: journals, diaries, minutes of meetings and personal things that people remembered. My two historical novels, Brideship and Maybe Tomorrow, both came from my research for Catalysts and Watchdogs. I kept coming across mentions of these young orphan brides. Secret at Westwind

"The new historical novel I'm working on now is growing out of the historical research I've been doing about the period just prior to the First World War. It centers around the orchard development at Walhachin, BC, started in 1908, where a hundred Englishmen were told this desert area was a Garden of Eden where they could plant fruit trees. In fact, my historical novels all grow from the research I have done for my histories first. That provides the background - sometimes relationships - and often some of the conflict. Then I bring the stories to life and involve the reader by introducing and developing my characters."

"Another of my adult histories is Backdoor to the Klondike, published by Boston Mills Press in 1988. It is the story of the all-Canadian route north from Edmonton to the Klondike, something which no one had written about before. Most people are familiar with the route up the west coast to Skagway which Pierre Berton had written about, but the all-Canadian route was a truly horrendous experience. In 1986, I wrote Canada's Gold Rush Church, the story of the gold rush up into the Barkerville area and the establishment of a little church there. I also wrote a history of the early Caledonian settlers in western Canada. My other adult non-fiction book is Sherman, a biography of my father and a collection of his sermons. Published in 1976, it tells the story of the early days of the Anglican Church and my father's role and includes excerpts from sermons to go through the church year." Career Girl

"In 1955, I married a doctor, and we moved east while he did post-grad studies for surgery. After we started having children, I stopped work and stayed home, and that's when I started writing full time, first more radio plays and scripts and then novels. The first novel I had published was Exile at the Rocking Seven, published by Macmillan in 1977. That same year, Career Girl came out, published by Tree Frog Press. My third novel, So I'm Different was published in 1981 by Douglas & McIntyre. It was followed by a mystery, Secret at Westwind, published by Scholastic in 1984, and then by Storm Rider, published by Scholastic in 1988 and subsequently reprinted several times. Also in 1988, the first two of my series of 'Mystery Club' books' were published by Grolier: Ski Lodge Mystery and Balloon Race Mystery. A third in the series, Mystery at Lighthouse Rock, was published in 1991. Each book is a series of short mysteries with the solutions at the back. They have been really popular with grade 3 to 5 readers for they are short, exciting and fun."

"Say Yes and Secret Ballot, both published in 1991, were something a little different. Doing them was like making a sailboat in your kitchen where you can only make the mast so high because you've got to get it out of the door. I wrote those at the request of the publisher who wanted 'prequels' to bring the characters of the Northwood TV series to life before the TV series was going to hit. They wanted me to do a third one, but I pleaded that I was too busy. The trouble with writing that type of book is that you've got no artistic freedom. You're dealing with characters that somebody else has devised, and, because you've got to bring them to where the series is going to start, you can't really alter them in any way. I found writing them to be more like a homework assignment."

"For two years, 1991 and 1992, I wrote for a weekly TV sit-com, Fifteen, that was broadcast in the States on the Nickelodeon network. It was also broadcast in Ontario but not the rest of Canada. Writing for television is great fun, but it isn't writing because you're writing in committee. If there are 26 episodes, all 26 are filmed during one specific period because it's too expensive to bring people back in. Also, actors get tied up and can't come back because they're doing a stage show somewhere. And because the episodes have to be filmed at once, most TV shows have a number of writers, perhaps four. Each writer gets five or six scripts out of the total 26. However, since the shows are all going to be filmed at once, they all have to be written and ready at the same time, which means you can't make any changes to any of the characters in the scripts you are writing in case someone else wants them 'unchanged' in the six scripts they are doing. To make any changes, you've got to phone all the other writers and say, 'Would it be all right if I did such and such with so and so?' And they'll probably say, 'No! Because I'm going to do....'"

"On the other hand, when you're writing a book, you're sitting down at your computer, and you're inside your own space. You can let your characters come to life and do what is right for them - do what they want to do - do what you feel they will want to do. And suddenly the whole thing comes to life, and your story is saying much more than you expected it to be saying when you first started. One of the most fascinating things about writing is that the characters really do become real people. It's almost as if you know them, and you find yourself talking to them."

Well before other Canadian writers for juveniles, Joan regularly included First Nations characters in her books. She explains, "I think it's very important that they're a part of our literature. They form such a big part of our culture, particularly in the West. For so long, I've had the feeling they felt they were being treated as second class citizens. Now, I think they're beginning to feel some self-pride. I've had First Nations students in my Creative Writing classes at University College of the Caribou, and they've changed over the years. They're much more self-assured now and have a much stronger inner sense of worth. I'll be very interested to see what the reaction is to Maybe Tomorrow. There haven't been any reviews yet, and, if the first reviewer hits me for touching prejudice, it's probably going to condemn the book to the back shelves. However, I think prejudice is something which kids have got to recognize. Just as with So I'm Different, the whole issue was that it was all right to be different. That same idea is in Maybe Tomorrow." The Witcher

"For a long time, 'they' didn't want 'us,' meaning non-First Nations people, to deal with their issues at all. They wanted to write about them themselves. It isn't a question of appropriating voice. As Timothy Findley said, 'We don't appropriate voices; we listen to them.' I think that's true, and we have to when we're writing. We can't ignore First Nations people because that looks as if we think they don't even exist. We have to bring them in, but I just hope that they don't feel I'm trying to 'speak' for them because I'm attempting to be objective about this so that everybody is seeing the situation from all different sides. As well, my central character is a white girl."

While most of Joan's books are with Stoddart, she also has a new mystery series with Polestar. Originally, Joan had used an agent to place her books. "I was terrified to get rid of my agent because I thought, 'Nobody will ever look at my stuff again if I don't go through an agent.'" However, Joan discovered that having an intermediary between herself and a publisher actually hindered her writing. "I need to be able to talk to an editor, hear what they don't say, sense what they're just hinting at so that I know the direction. I can ask, 'Can you explain a little bit more of what you mean?' or 'Exactly what are you saying here?' As soon as I start doing that, I can sell books, but I can't do it through an agent. Polestar snapped up The Witcher and immediately said, 'We want another one,' and so I did The Principal's Kid which was short-listed for the Silver Birch and the CNIB Talking Book of the Year Awards. The book was set in Powell River, BC, and that community had a special literacy day and flew me up. I talked to the kids in all the schools and they were fascinated because of its setting." Principal's Kid

As to why Joan selected Powell River for her setting, Joan comments, "I knew what I wanted to do with the mystery, but I didn't know where. Because the kids aren't old enough to drive, the book either has to be set in a city, which isn't much fun, or they have to be dependent upon something else, like horses, for getting around. I thought it would be more fun to set it in the country, and, if they're using horses, you've got to (a) have a place where it's possible that they can take their horses and (b) I wanted some place completely different. I thought this whole octopus bit and the fishing up in the Powell River area was something that most kids don't know much about and they don't know about prawn traps. The third one, Mysterious Visitor, is going to be set in the triangle just south of Penticton because that little triangle of land happens to be the area in which 30% of all Canadian endangered species are located. It's also the fastest growing area in Canada because it has beautiful countryside and a wonderful climate, but I'm concerned because people are putting up fences, breaking up the irrigation path for the wildlife, and diverting creeks and rivers. Consequently, I thought I'd set the book there so that I could say something about the environment and the fact we have to be conscious of what we're doing before we build on all this property that really should reserved for the wildlife."

When Polestar asked for a third mystery, the editor said, "Give me a title that I can put in the catalogue." Because of her fascination with crop circles, Joan responded off the top of her head with "'Let's call it 'The Space Visitor.' Afterwards, we decided that sounded too 'science-fiction,' and so we have changed it to The Mysterious Visitor. But the crop circle is still a big part of the story, and I think readers will suspect that the girl may indeed be a 'space visitor.'"

"So far, there are three Lion and Bobbi mysteries: The Witcher, Principal's Kid and The Mysterious Visitor. In each case, Lion, 12, and his sister, Bobbi, 14, are involved in solving a scary mystery. And in each case, Lion's horse, Raj, plays a major role in the climax. All three mysteries happen the same summer. I don't want to advance a year for that would mean that Bobbi and Lion are a year older each time, and readers want them to stay the same. That is the fun thing about a series. Readers want the same characters that they already know, and they want the character relationships to be the same, only they want the familiar characters to be in a new exciting situation. And because of the relationship between Lion and his horse, Raj, is a major part of the characterization, readers want Raj to be involved in every adventure. Sometimes it can be tricky finding new ways to do this! Also, there has to be growth and development of all the characters, or the story isn't satisfying. Consequently the relationship between Lion and Bobbi and the relationship between Lion and Raj grow in each book."

In beginning a book, Joan says, "Usually when I start, I feel very strongly that, when the whole thing is over, I want to have made some sort of comment that is worth making. For instance, in Brideship, I wanted very much to get across the idea for modern kids that, no matter where you find yourself, life's an adventure and you've got to seize the moment and take it and go with and make something out of it. With Maybe Tomorrow, I wanted to talk about the issue of prejudice. Therefore, I start with that, and from there I go to character, but I have to know 'why' I'm writing the book before I start. I don't know the ending. I think the ending has to grow out of what happens as your characters suddenly take on a life of their own which is greater than you thought when you started. It's out of their growth that the ending grows, and very often the ending isn't what you thought, even in a sort of vague way, that it was going to be at all. It surprised me very much what happened to Lizzie in Brideship. Lizzie becomes almost the strongest character in the book, something I didn't intend at all when I started. I thought she was going to be very much a secondary character. So many readers, when they talk about Brideship, say, 'Oh, I really liked Lizzie.' Now that I've done Maybe Tomorrow, I've had people ask, 'Why didn't you fill in more details about Lizzie. You've jumped to Jane, Lizzie's daughter, but we wanted to hear about Lizzie.' I don't know if people are going to make the connection between Brideship and Maybe Tomorrow but Jane in Maybe is the daughter of Lizzie in Brideship."

"In the actual historical story of those girls who came over on the Tynmouth, one girl did die, and I felt committed to put that in because I felt so badly about that poor little orphan, Elizabeth Buchanan, who was buried at sea. Sarah's cousin, Maud, in Brideship is patterned on Elizabeth. I didn't dare use Elizabeth's name because this is fiction, and I didn't want to get involved in 'this is true and this isn't true,' for Elizabeth didn't have a cousin with her or someone back in England to marry, as my Maud character does. The Anglican Church organized and sent over three boatloads of girls from orphanages, but the first trip is the only one that there was any sort of information about at all.. The conditions were absolutely like I've described them in the book. I've got an artist's sketch of the ship which was drawn from pictures on file in the museum. It was a tiny little craft that had over 300 people on it. The girls really were housed down below in the hold compartment with only these little tiny portholes." Brideship

"The book's cover was interesting because often publishers don't give authors any input at all on covers. Kathryn Cole was wonderful because she sent me sketches of what they wanted to do with the cover which was a picture of Lizzie and Sarah dolled up in Mrs. Worthing's clothes, with parasols and fancy hats, smiling and tripping around the ship's deck. When Kathryn asked, 'What do you think of it?' I replied, 'We'll, it's a very pretty picture, but I'm afraid that it sets the wrong tone for the book. When you look at it, you'll think it was a happy journey, and it wasn't.'" Kathryn then asked Joan for her cover ideas. "'I would like a picture of Sarah below decks in the storage compartment in which they're living, looking out that one little porthole. And, if possible I'd like her holding her doll.' Even though that detail makes Sarah look younger than she is, that doll was the only thing that she owned. I was delighted because the artist did exactly what I wanted. The cover sets the tone, and it was not a happy trip. But, if you'd have had the title Brideship and these girls on the original cover dancing around, you would have thought it was like a Love Boat."

"Stoddart also sent me the artist's sketch for Maybe Tomorrow which looked almost like the final cover, but not quite: the uniforms and the house were all wrong. The school ran from 1887 until 1919, and it went through all these metamorphoses. The picture on the internet that was used as a model must have been a late one around 1917 because the school was completely wrong. I sent them all the right things, and they changed it. If they'd gone ahead without telling me about it, it would have been awful because anyone who was an historian would have said, 'That wasn't 1887.'"

"When I'm working, I write every day. Because my husband can't see very well, he can't drive any more, but he likes to get out and hike. We take our two big dogs out first thing in the morning, and I try to be back at my desk by 10. I work from 10 til 4 every single day, and then most evenings I get another shift in from 7:30 until 10. I find that I write by rewriting. It grows, and it shapes. Then I go back and shape it a different way. I spend a lot of time writing, and I spend a lot of time researching. When I'm researching, I research full days from 9 til 6 in archives or in libraries. Until September of 2000, I'd been teaching creative writing at UCC, but now I'm officially retired. I loved the teaching, the students and the classwork, but I''m enjoying the freedom of not having to do my writing around class teaching, seeing students and around times that are set. Now I can write when I want to which is my most productive time. At one point, I was teaching three classes per term: one in creative writing, one another English course, and the third perhaps an English poetry course. During those terms, I would write like mad after I came home from teaching and in the evenings. It's great not having any set time commitments now."

"The creative writing course numbers were limited to 20, but I'd always end up taking a couple of extras because we'd always have 40-45 really keen people wanting to get in. It was great fun to do a little bit of teaching because it stimulates your own thinking. When you're writing full time, you spend your time inside yourself, your head, and you think that your ideas are right. When you go into the classroom, you find that a lot of people don't think your ideas are right. For research, I usually go down to Vancouver or I go east. I do a lot of research in the provincial archives and in the historical archives in small communities. For instance, for Maybe Tomorrow, I found the most marvelous little archive right in Yale and hardly anybody goes there." Ski Lodge Mystery

"I love doing research because the most amazing things happen. You go in looking for A, and, all of a sudden, you find M and think, 'This is much more interesting than A,' and so you spend the whole day researching M. While that isn't actually what you came to find, eventually M will come back and you'll find it useful somewhere else. I really thought that I was going to write fiction for adults but it isn't my field. I know a lot of people who write for young people who have tried to write for adults and who haven't succeeded. I do think it takes a different kind of mind set. You'd be amazed at the number of people who come to you when you write for young people and say, I really liked your book. When are you going to write something for adults" as if to say, 'Then you'll really be a writer.'" Balloon Race Mystery

Joan has written in a variety of genres. "The thing I love doing best is writing historical fiction. But I like to read mysteries, and I think kids do too, and that is part of my motivation for writing them. Mysteries are like a crossword puzzle, and you have to write them backwards. All the time you're writing, you've got to be setting the bona fide clues because you have to play fair with the reader; however, you've got to cover them in such a way that they aren't necessarily seen as clues at the time. At the same time, you've got to lay all the false leads, and then you've got to know where you're going yourself. You have to think almost in terms of knowing the end before you write the beginning, and that, of course, is something you don't do when you're doing ordinary fiction. It's quite the reverse. So, it's a different kind of writing, a kind of writing where it's in the back of your mind all the time. I always carry paper and pencil in my back pocket because all of a sudden I'll think, 'No, that can't happen because this has got to happen.' I've got to keep making all these little notes to myself. When I do the final editing, I plot it all through, and so I follow one little line and then the next thing and make sure it all balances."

"Writing a mystery is demanding, but, at the same time, you can have fun with the characters, their development and with the character relationships. The 'Mystery Club' stories were very tight little stories that each took two or three minutes to read. My new mystery series with Polestar is much more fun. These mysteries have complicated plots dealing with issues that we're all concerned about. There is lots of interesting background detail, lots of character development and lots of humour." Mystery at Lighthouse Rock

As to what's next, Joan says, "After I do some final editing on Mysterious Visitor, I want to see what I want to do with this next historical novel. Unless I get excited about something, I can't write it, and, because I'm excited about this, I feel something's going to come out of it. However, what I've got now is absolutely nebulous, without shape, but I think it's going to centre. The characters are beginning to emerge. It's like a fog. They're beginning to come forward enough that I can really see them. However, things can change. I've had instances where my central character has changed sex. I had one book where I began with a male character, decided he was wimpy and would make a much better female character, but then I didn't write the book at all. There are lots of unfinished products sitting in a filing cabinet, stories that are potentially great stories, but you know whether they work or not. If they don't work, then the only thing to do is to put them away and perhaps come back to them later."

"The nice thing about Canadian publishers is that many of them, if they didn't like a manuscript, will tell you why. They give you advice. Sometimes this advice is very hard to accept when it first comes back. You think, 'Oh, they didn't read it carefully or don't understand it.' Then you think, 'But if they didn't read it carefully or don't understand it, neither will the average reader. Therefore, they know what they're talking about. I will act on their advice, rewrite the story, and send it someplace else or back to them if they've given me enough encouragement.' You realize that publishers do know the market and that they really are good sounding board. That's the reason I don't encourage students to go into self-publishing. You need somebody else to tell you about your writing, and it's not good enough to give it your best friend or your spouse. I never give anything to my husband to read. If he criticizes it, I won't speak to him for a week, and, if he doesn't but just says, 'Well this is lovely,' I say, 'Don't patronize me,' and I won't speak to him for a week either. You need an editor to say, 'This doesn't work' and you've got to look at it honestly and say, 'Well, if it didn't work for him, perhaps it won't work for the reader. Now, why doesn't it work?' And act on that."

Describing her writing process, Joan remarks, "I can't sit down and say, 'I think I will write a book. What will I write?' In the back of my mind, I have to have something that's needling at me all the time, saying, 'Write me! Write me!' Then I say to myself, 'I've got to write that book' because I really want to get those ideas out. The research for me is a stage at which I think I know what I'm going to do, but I've to find out for sure. It may be that, when I finish doing the research, I'll take it a completely different direction from where I thought I was going to take it. I work on one book at a time, and I have to immerse myself in it every single day. The only way I can write is for my subconscious to take over so that, when I'm doing something else, perhaps when I'm in the shower or getting dinner ready, suddenly something clicks and 'that's what I've got to do with so and so.' I immediately get a piece of paper and write it down because, if I don't, I forget. Even in the middle of the night, if I wake up with an idea, I've got to get up and write it down. If I don't, by morning I've forgotten."

"My subconscious is a big part of my writing. The ideas have been fed in there, and, all of a sudden, they shape in a way that I hadn't connected before. But, if I don't work at the same book, if I switch back from one to another, that doesn't happen, and if I don't work every day, that doesn't happen. I don't know how people write when they write one day a week because I'll have lost it. I'm not the same person Friday of next week as I was Friday of last week. If you write every day, your mind is working even when you're not writing. I rework as I go. For instance, if I'm changing the direction in which I'm taking a character, I have to get that right. If I decide 'this isn't right here,' I've got to back and change it in other places so that the character's growth comes through consistently."

"I started with a typewriter and fought against switching to the computer until I suddenly realized, 'This is ridiculous.' But the only way I can edit is by hand. Every single day, I print out everything I've written in hard copy. Then I sit down in my chair, look at it, think, 'this is garbage,' and go back and write it again. I can't judge the writing when I look at it on the screen because it looks like a billboard , and I think, 'Oh, that's great.' However, when I sit with it in my hand, I can see 'That's no good. It doesn't work. This doesn't flow.' As a result, I go through reams of paper. When I'm on the road, I just write, but the trouble is that I can't read my handwriting. And the more I write, the worse my handwriting gets. When I get home, I know what I wrote was brilliant, but I can't read it. Sixteen is spelled Ouch

"The transition to book writing was easier for me because I'd been writing for radio. You've got to do your homework and get your feet wet somewhere, and you've got to do a lot of writing before it begins to work." In reflecting on her years as a writer, Joan says, "I think I now have the confidence to write what I feel is important even if I think it's a questionable thing. I don't think I would have had the courage to write Maybe Tomorrow 10 years ago. Now I do, and, if I get in hot water, then I do, and if the critics don't like it, well I can't do anything about that. You can't write to please the critics anyway. You have to write what you feel. Too much of you, your time and all of your energy goes into it, and it's not worth doing if you're not doing something you feel you really want to do. I have to feel 'this matters to me,' and what I write matters to me very, very much. I get so wrapped up in it, and I'm happier writing than doing anything else. It's the historical fiction or the young adult novels, like Sixteen is Spelled O-U-C-H, that really make me feel inside that I'm saying something that is perhaps worth saying. If the readers get it, I'll feel it's worth getting out there. I'm making some sort of comment that is perhaps going to be worthwhile for a young readers to read. With mysteries, I'm really writing to entertain, to give them a few hours of fun. If we can get them reading, they then will go in the direction they want to read. It does matter what they read if they once get started reading. I think mysteries do get kids started reading."

According to Joan, she never anticipated having such a full career. "It's been tremendous, and the last three or four years have been absolutely wonderful. It took a long, long time to get to the point where anybody even knew I was writing. I've always done a fair amount of travelling around doing readings in schools, but now when I walk down the street some young person will come up to me and say, 'Oh, I just read your book!' Well, that never happened to me before, and it really is lovely."

Books by Joan Weir

  • Balloon Race Mystery. (Mystery Club #2). Grolier, 1988. Grades 3-6.
  • The Brideship. Stoddart, 1998. Grades 6-9.
  • Career Girl. Tree Frog Press, 1977. Grades 3-7.
  • Exile at the Rocking Seven. Macmillan,1977. Grades 4-6.
  • Maybe Tomorrow. Stoddart, 2000. Grades 5-9.
  • The Mysterious Visitor. Polestar, 2001. Grades 4-8.
  • Mystery at Lighthouse Rock. (Mystery Club #3). Grolier, 1991. Grades 3-6.
  • The Principal's Kid. Polestar, 2000. Grades 4-8.
  • Say Yes. Greey de Pencier, 1991. Grades 4-7.
  • Secret at Westwind. Scholastic, 1981. Grades 4-7.
  • Secret Ballot. Greey de Pencier, 1991. Grades 4-7.
  • Sixteen is Spelled O-U-C-H. Stoddart, 1991. Grades 5-9.
  • Ski Lodge Mystery. (Mystery Club #1). Grolier, 1988. Grades 3-6.
  • So, I'm Different. Douglas & McIntyre, 1981. Grades 4-7.
  • Storm Rider. Scholastic, 1987. Grades 4-7.
  • The Witcher. Polestar, 1998. Grades 4-8.

    This article is based on an interview conducted in Winnipeg, MB, on November 5, 2000.

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