CM magazine canadian review of materials

Pam Withers
Profile by Dave Jenkinson.

Pam Withers "An accidental novelist" is how Pam Withers describes herself, and it was actually enforced unemployment that led to her becoming a writer of adventure stories for adolescents.
    Pam was born July 31, 1956, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the second of six children, but she was nearly born in Alaska. "My dad was an Episcopal minister, and when he and my mother were married, they went above the Arctic Circle in Alaska. I just missed being born there. I grew up in North and South Dakota, where my father was in charge of chapels on native reserves, mostly Sioux."
    "Growing up with five siblings was like being in a permanent summer camp, with factions ever changing so that you were never sure who was on whose side. It was a very lively family. Reading was very much a part of my life as a child as my parents put a lot of emphasis on reading. My mother read lots of books to us when we were young. I remember my grandmother buying me every single book in the 'Wizard of Oz' series, but she bought them only one at a time because I had to finish one before I received the next. Books were promoted as treasures to us. When we went on family vacations, my father would read to us in cabins by kerosene lantern."
    "I was actually a chubby, shy child for a lot of my childhood, and reading was my passion. I wasn't particularly athletic. I didn't get into sports until I was 18, when I discovered whitewater kayaking. I accelerated from there at a ridiculous rate, doing weight training and running and racing and all the things that go with hanging out with a fast, athletic crowd. The school kids I talk to now are always amazed when I tell them I was a fat, shy kid."
    "Because my father was so interested in working with youth, I was always made to believe that being a teen was a special time, which, of course, it's not. It's a terribly confusing, horrendously peer-oriented, ego-smashing time, but he and my mother were always there for us. I think he was just a great dad, especially for those years."
    "From as young as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. I can recall when I was about seven announcing to my grandmother that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. She said, 'That's nice, dear. What are you going to do to earn a living?' When I finished college, I was very happy to report back to her that I was earning a living as a journalist."
    "Between high school and college, I took six months off to work in England. That experience was great for accelerating maturity -- I sowed my oats at discotheques and such -- and then buckling down to a journalism career. Journalism is what I had chosen to pursue when I was 16. My father influenced that career decision. As I said, I had always wanted to be a fiction writer, but when I was 16, my father suggested, 'Why don't you try journalism?' So I became the editor of my high school paper, and I've never looked back."
    After Pam's sojourn in England, she attended Beloit College in Wisconsin. "I chose a small liberal arts college. Not only was I very happy there, but attending Beloit had a huge influence on me. I immediately threw myself into the college newspaper office, and I studied everything I thought would pertain to a journalism career. I majored in creative writing and government, which I thought would be a good academic duo for the career I wanted. As a typically idealistic, naïve nineteen-year-old, I was nothing if not specific about what I wanted, which was to be bureau chief of the Moscow bureau for the Christian Science Monitor, which I thought was the best internationalist paper. I even studied Russian."
    "It was also while I was at Beloit that I got into kayaking through the outdoor club, and my previous passion, journalism, came together with my new one, kayaking. As one of my assignments in a creative writing class, we were required to write a magazine query. Everyone else was writing queries for the Atlantic Monthly or Harpers, and I wrote one for a little California whitewater-kayaking magazine called Down River. Unlike the other students, I actually sent in my query after it was graded, and got the assignment and began writing for that magazine about kayaking."
    "Before I graduated, I was offered a job with Down River (which changed its name to River World) as associate editor. So straight out of college, I moved to California sight unseen, and after a year there, I went on to being associate editor of Adventure Travel Magazine in Seattle. When Adventure Travel moved to New York City, I went with it. I then returned to Seattle where I worked first for the Seattle Times and then for the Seattle Post Intelligencer as a copy editor and a feature writer, but I was also freelancing for magazines."
    "During this same period, I was also spending almost every waking, non-working moment whitewater kayak racing or training. After a couple of years of that, I realized I couldn’t achieve a higher ranking without doing what all the top-ranked women were doing: living off their parents and training full-time. At 21, I was too old and too embarked on my career to go there. I decided there should be more to life than that."
    "I met my husband, Steve, at a kayak race while I was working in Seattle for the newspapers. We were assigned the same judging station, and, for the first half of the race, we were judging the kayakers that went by, but by the second half of the race, we were judging each other, and the kayakers just kept going by. A year later we were engaged. When we met, Steve was in Vancouver, where he had just become a chemistry professor at the University of British Columbia, and I was trying to get a permanent position with the Seattle Times. We started seeing each other every weekend. Then the Times changed my shifts so that I had to work weekends and cope with split days off." Pam grins. "That forced us to get married; he imported me to Canada."
    "My current day-job involves editing up to a dozen books a year and writing magazine articles, but I'm gradually cutting back on both the editing and nonfiction writing as I do more fiction writing and speaking."
    "My goal is to write several novels a year. My first six novels took me two months each to write, so when I dare to cut back on my other work, I think I could achieve that."
    "From the time I edited my high school paper until the age of 40, journalism was always my number one interest. I was never one of those journalists who thought fiction was a 'higher' calling. In fact, I used to feel sorry for fiction writers because most seemed to struggle to earn a living, whereas I had no such problem as a journalist. I really had no aspirations to be a fiction writer, and I rarely even read fiction until I wrote Raging River. I’m a voracious reader of nonfiction, but not fiction until very recently. Also, before I wrote Raging River, the only fiction I’d written since the age of 16 was for college assignments." Pam Withers
    "Then I found myself unemployed for a year in my early forties. We were living in Oxford, England, while my husband was on sabbatical. Jeremy, my son, who was 10 years old at the time, was in school, so I had from nine until three every day with nothing to do. To keep myself out of trouble, I thought I'd write a novel. I went to the library and checked out five books on how to write a novel, as well as five teen novels. I read them all back to back, and then I sat down and wrote Raging River with no outline and with no idea where the book was going to go except that there was going to be a waterfall in the middle and they'd all wash out at the end, more or less. That is not how I recommend writing a book. I have since learned to outline."
    "The books on how to write a novel told me that all novels have to have tension, and one way to achieve tension is to have two characters who are very different. So, I made Jake poor and Peter rich, and I made Jake a worrywart and Peter a happy-go-lucky ADD kid. Those differences have served me very well for keeping tension throughout the series. As I like tell the kids I talk to in school presentations, 'Don't let anyone tell you that you can't learn to write a book by reading a book about writing a book, because it worked for me!’"
    "I wrote most of Raging River in an Oxford ice hockey rink while my son was at practice. He claimed that I never saw any of his goals, but I told him I always lifted my head right before one of his goals."
    "I knew my novel would be about kayaking because that was my passion. Then I had to ask myself, 'Who would read a book on kayaking?' From experience, I knew that kayakers tend to be males in their teens or early twenties, so that determined for me that I’d be writing from a male point of view. And my gut feeling was that teens were a larger market than twenty-somethings."
    Among the teen novels that Pam picked up at the library were some by Willard Price. "He is by far the biggest influence on my writing. He's an adventure novelist for preteens, well known in the UK but unknown here. He set his series of more than a dozen books all over the world."
    "Even though Price was writing about adventure, he was a master at seamlessly sneaking in lessons on animal behavior and nature, and that's very much what I do. In my series, I like to take two completely unrelated topics, such as firefighting and mountain biking, and tangle them together. So Adrenalin Ride appears to be about mountain biking, but I've slipped in all sorts of lessons on wilderness survival and firefighting."
    "In my fourth book, which is on skateboarding, the skate park manager is studying to become a psychologist while running a skate park, and he hires rehab patients who are recovering from traumatic brain injury to maintain the park. Throughout the book, the traumatic brain injury patients, or the TBI's as they are called, have a role integral to the plot. It amuses me to think that kids will pick up that book for the skateboarding action, but by the time they’re finished, they’ll know more about TBI’s than most adults do. I get a real kick out of twisting unrelated subjects together like that. I see myself as educating kids in sneaky little bursts while appealing to their interest in extreme sports action. At the same time, I think kids will reject you fast if they sense that your main aim is to educate or moralize through your book. My main aim is to entertain them, but if I’m skilled and subtle enough, I think I can teach them new things at the same time."
    "My son Jeremy and I read Price's books together. When Jeremy outgrew them and I suggested that he put them in a garage sale, he said, 'Mom, I'm saving them for my son.' He was eleven years old at the time! I think that says a lot about the quality of that series, and how they’d hooked my son on reading. Although Willard Price has been a strong influence on my series, I’m also a big fan of Farley Mowat, Gary Paulsen, Will Hobbs and Robin Hanbury Tenison."
    "I started trying to find a publisher for Raging River before I came back to Canada. It took a year and about 21 rejections before I got an agent, Leona Trainer. Then it took three years for nine publishers to reject the manuscript before a tenth, Whitecap Books, accepted it. In between, a publisher actually accepted it verbally, assigned me an editor and edited it, then rejected it before sending out the contract! That means I had the highly unusual and interesting experience of working with two editors on the same book!"
    "I naively pitched Raging River as the first book in a series of books on extreme sports, and Whitecap called my bluff and required me to outline the next five books before they would accept Raging River. That was a very daunting assignment. I needed someone to brainstorm with. Mark McLennan was a friend of a friend who runs wilderness adventure programs for teens. He has done all of the sports that I haven't done, so the two of us spent several hours one day brainstorming just enough to help me plot out all the outlines. I’ve been working from those outlines ever since."
    "Whitecap has told me that the series will probably stop after six books, but because publishers can change their minds, I’ve been half-jokingly taking votes from school kids on what further books in the series would be about. They say parachuting and motocross racing! Of course, even if the series stops after the sixth, I’ll use those ideas for future YA books that don’t involve Jake and Peter, the series’ characters."
    "I’ve found that the biggest challenge in writing a series is that you have to continually plumb the relationship between the same two characters for new sources of tension. When I got to the fifth book in the series, which is on surfing, I was struggling for a new angle. So I had them both fall for the same surfer girl."
    "Another challenge to writing a series is that readers don’t necessarily read the books in the order in which they were written. My readers tend to start with the book that features the sport that most interests them. As a child, I read lots of series (Nancy Drew, etc.), and I always hated it when a book in a series referred to characters or events that happened in previous books I hadn’t read yet, making me feel left out. So I’ve kept that to a bare minimum, offering just enough reference to the boys’ previous adventures to make readers aware that this is a series. For example, at the end of the skateboarding book, Peter says to Jake, 'Our next sport has to be outdoors. We've been inside too much.' Readers then know the next book is going to be an outdoor sport."
    Writing a chronological series also demands that authors choose whether or not their characters will age. Pam's decision? "The boys magically remain 15 throughout the series. When people ask me why, sometimes I say, 'If the Hardy Boys could stay the same age, then Jake and Peter can stay the same age.' Other times, I joke, ‘Because I don’t want them to be able to drive. They can do extreme sports, but they can’t drive.’"
    "By the third book, I gave up pretending that all the adventures in the series might have happened within a one-year period. Readers just have to indulge me on the fact that the boys don’t age." Pam Withers
    The titles in the "Take it to the Xtreme" series have various sources. "I came up with Raging River, and Whitecap kept it. My name for Peak Survival was originally Peak Peril, but the publisher changed it. I ran a contest on my website for naming Adrenalin Ride, and Calvin Bueckert, a boy in Pinawa, Manitoba, won three books and three extreme sports videos for naming it. The skateboard book I named Stunt Boys, but Whitecap insisted on Skater Stuntboys. At the moment, the fifth book is called Surf Zone, (the boys surf and dive near Tofino in BC's Clayoquot Sound), but the title could change before its fall 2005 publication. In the end, the title is always the publisher's call, and publishers should know marketing better than authors, so I don’t mind if they change it. They’ve been nice enough to ask me if I'm OK with title changes. In fact, Whitecap has been just great to work with from the get-go, and they deserve a lot of credit for taking a chance on an unpublished author."
    "Whitecap lets me see the covers before they make a final decision. I objected to the first snowboard cover they proposed because it showed dated equipment, and nobody identifies dated sports equipment faster than teenage boys. In fact, when Whitecap sends me potential covers, I always get the opinion of my son and his friends before I reply."
    "I settled on having boy characters because there are far more boys than girls involved in extreme sports. But girls like reading the books too. After writing Raging River, I think that I (being one of those few girls who like so-called extreme sports) had a twinge of guilt for not having a girl character in the book, so I created one for Peak Survival. But my editor made me rewrite the book heavily because Fiona figured in it too prominently. She told me, 'Jake and Peter are your main characters all the way through the series. Fiona is a one book character. She is not allowed to be as prominent as the boys.' Well, I’d never written a series before, so how would I have known that? So I got out my sanding block, metaphorically speaking, and sanded Fiona down. I erased her from a number of scenes and made her less prominent overall. The book read better in the end, but the rewriting was torturous work. After that rewrite, I felt a bit gun-shy about inserting a strong female character into the next book, so Juanita, the Hispanic girl in Adrenalin Ride, is nothing like Fiona. Nor is the girl in the skateboarding book, Jake’s younger sister, as strong as Fiona. But I have stuck with my pattern of having a go-for-it-girl in each of the books. Hopefully that appeals to my female readership and encourages more girls to be adventurous."
    Adrenalin Ride didn’t require heavy rewriting like Peak Survival, but after I turned it in, Whitecap asked me to add 10,000 words. Obviously, you can't add that many words to a book without rejigging the plot, and I likened the exercise to adding a second storey on a house whose foundations weren’t meant for that weight load. I ended up adding a chapter that had Jake and Peter revisiting the bad guys, instead of coming across them only once, and I added quite a bit at the end."
    "One theme that all my books have in common is that kids have the inner resources to get out of sticky situations themselves without an adult's help. I have a reputation for getting rid of adults very early on in my books, and I have fun doing that. I do that because I think kids need to feel more capable and confident of their resourcefulness. Too many kids are mollycoddled and overprotected these days. They’re stunted in their ability to learn what inner resources they have." Pam Withers
    "It's always a challenge to get rid of the adults in my books in a natural as opposed to contrived manner. When I wrote Adrenalin Ride, it took me awhile to decide how to make Ron disappear. The skateboard book doesn’t follow that theme. In fact, the skatepark manager – a former X-games champ who is studying to be a psychologist – is based on my father (minus the dreadlocks and skateboard). He knows just how to handle teen boys and their tensions."
    While all the books are set in British Columbia, Pam acknowledges, "That wasn't my original plan; it was my publisher's preference. I decided I was OK with it. Because I was just getting established as a fiction writer and because Whitecap is a BC publisher, they encouraged me to keep all the books in BC."
    Although the books are set in British Columbia, not all the place names used are actually real places. "A number of readers have told me that they’ve tried to find the Cattibone River in an atlas," Pam says with a smile, referring to the fictional river near Prince George where Raging River takes place. "The Cattibone is a compilation of all the rivers I have paddled over a 25-year period, and that's quite a few. But it's mainly based on the Babine and the Colorado Rivers. I've received some criticism about using fictitious places, but in the end, it's just a whole lot easier to write a novel around a fictitious place. Anyway, if Gary Paulsen can write a novel that takes place ‘in Canada,’ and never reveal where in Canada, then I can create fictitious corners of British Columbia!"
    "In Peak Survival, which is set near Pemberton, I named the abandoned mine after a creek that flows off a nearby mountain. That’s my ‘in joke’ with readers in Pemberton, my way of perhaps coaxing their indulgence for messing with their local geography."
    "I regard Peak Survival as my fastest paced book, and it's probably my darkest book. In fact, my editor made me lighten it up because she felt it was too dark. I originally had a chapter where Fiona was snowblind, and my editor said, 'Even in a 'Take it to the Xtreme' series book, not this much can happen to the characters on one journey.' So when I was also asked to reduce Fiona’s presence, that part came out. But she has blue eyes precisely because I intended her to become snowblind. People with blue eyes are more susceptible to snowblindness."
    "Peak Survival was a deliberately fast paced, tense novel, and I might have overdone it, but it is my favorite of the first three. My real favorite of the first five, however, is the skateboarding book, No. 4. It was the first time I felt comfortable writing a novel. I felt like my training wheels were finally off. Raging River was easy to write because I had no idea what I was doing, and Peak Survival was the most difficult, because I had to do so much rewriting and because I figured out that I didn’t know what I was doing. I was relatively happy with Adrenalin Ride, but the skateboarding book came together like none of the others. It is much more complex and, I hope, more interesting than the others. And it required almost no rewriting." Pam Withers
    "Because I’m not a skateboarder, I worked with a skateboard instructor on Skater Stuntboys. He helped me plot it, and he choreographed all the action scenes. I had a ton of fun working with him. He had me crawling around underneath skateboard parks so that I would know how they were constructed. Since Jake constructs them, I had to know how to construct them. He also answered my questions on how a person could sabotage one. The skateboard book is more of a mystery than adventure book. Adrenalin Ride and my fifth book, the surfing book, are also quasi-mystery books."
    A number of secondary characters in Raging River reappear in the later books, but Pam says the only constants throughout the series are Jake, Peter, Sam and Nancy, the latter two being managers of the adventure company for which Jake works. "Nancy's always in there. I've half-admitted to some people that Nancy is my alter ego. Like her, I've been a whitewater raft guide. I raft guided when I lived in California. I’d work Monday to Friday on the kayak magazine in San Francisco, then drive to the Sierras on the weekend with my kayak on my carracks. I’d raft-guide morning till evening Saturday and Sunday, but the minute we were off duty, the other raft guides and I would grab our kayaks and paddle the same river before sunset. We had that kind of energy in those days!"
    "When I wrote the original version of Raging River, I killed off Ron the raft guide when he went over the waterfall. I had no intention of bringing him back. But in between writing that scene and finishing the last chapter of the book, I was having lunch with a friend who was a nurse. I told her about Ron’s plunge over the waterfall and asked her, 'Is it possible that Ron could have lived? No pressure, but your answer will determine what happens in my last chapter.’ She laughed and explained that if he got no water in his lungs, he could have lived. So I had him saunter into the last chapter and explain how he’d survived the falls. If readers find his implied death at the falls believable, it’s because when I wrote it, I really was killing him off!"
    Pam says her inclusion of Moses, a First Nations character in Raging River and Peak Survival, came from her own background growing up on and around native reserves. "I have very rich memories of spending time on reserves. I can remember 20 women sitting around a quilt frame, all talking in Dakotah while sewing. I certainly think there is a lack of First Nations characters in novels. I had three First Nations writers vet my character Moses before I submitted the manuscript."
    Pam says that the two months she takes to write a book is divided more or less evenly between research and writing. This includes book and Internet research, and interviewing experts. "Making cold calls to set up an interview comes completely naturally to me as a journalist. That part is probably easier to me than the actual writing. I do a tremendous amount of research for every book. With Peak Survival, I started by reading helicopter accident reports in helicopter journals and interviewing a helicopter pilot to find out what a helicopter crash would look like, sound like and smell like. I also watched videos and read books on avalanches to determine the different types and what triggers them. As it turns out, one potential trigger is a helicopter crashing on a mountain. I also talked to someone who had been buried alive by an avalanche and to people who had fallen down crevasses. I typically ask interviewees to describe their experiences through the five senses: ‘What were you hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling, smelling?’ I learned that from one of the books I read on how to write novels."
    "In Peak Survival, there’s less than a page of dialogue in which Moses refers to the history of First Nations children being forced into residential schools. That’s a piece of history I think most kids today know nothing about. I read several books on the topic before writing those few paragraphs, and I had a First Nations expert read over those paragraphs before I finalized them. Accuracy is important to me. By the way, I grew up a few blocks away from one of those residential schools. I also spent a month and a half tracking down a translator to convert one sentence near the end of Peak Survival into Yinka Dene. That may sound ridiculous, but authenticity is very, very important to me, and I’m proud that my persistence finally paid off. (Ironically, one of the delays in finding that translator resulted from the fact that my contact was dealing with her nephew’s injuries from a snowboarding accident!)"
    "When I started writing fiction, I knew how to write, because I was a journalist. I knew the discipline of sitting down and writing, I knew how to play with words, and I was comfortable with rejection. What I didn't know was plot and dialogue. In journalism, if you make up plot and dialogue, you get fired! It took me a couple of novels to get comfortable with these aspects of fiction writing, which is why there’s far less dialogue in Raging River than in the subsequent books."
    "One way I build my skill at writing teen dialogue is by ‘spying’ on my son and his friends as I drive them all over the province for their mountain-biking activities. I actually keep a notebook beside me. They probably think I'm recording the car’s oil level or something, when I’m really using my shorthand to jot down their jargon and expressions. The other day, one of them said, 'Let's make like eggs and scramble.' And I thought, 'Aha! That's going into the surf book,' and it did."
    "When I'm in the thick of it, I probably write five to six hours a day, with breaks (to walk, swim laps at the local pool or kayak). I write while Jeremy is at school. I’ll also write during the evenings and on weekends if he’s out. I just write, write, write. Sometimes I have to ice my wrists after writing too many hours in a day. These days, I mostly write on my computer, but a couple of years ago I suffered a back injury that forced me off the computer for almost one and a half years. That's when I started writing my books in shorthand (which I learned for journalism), then walking over to my computer and reading them into my computer’s voice recognition program. The program then translates it to typed words on the screen, but not perfectly. (One time I dictated ‘tearful eyes’ and it typed ‘cheerful pies,’ which shows that it can sometimes improve your writing!) It’s actually faster to type (I type 90 words a minute), but the word recognition program was all that kept me writing during my injury, and I still use it when back pain acts up."
    When Pam writes about the dangers associated with extreme sports, she writes from personal experience. "I have had a couple of near misses, as has almost anyone involved for many years at a high level in risk sports. On the Sacramento River in California, once while upside down and unable to roll, I ejected from my whitewater kayak, only to be recycled in a whirlpool (kayakers call them ‘holes’). The currents cycled me around and around underwater, not allowing me to get to the surface to breathe. I could see the light above me, but couldn’t get there. Whitewater kayakers call holes like this ‘keepers,’ and keepers often kill kayakers. I’ve lost a couple of friends in keepers. But this one let me go before I ran out of breath."
    "Another time, on the Capilano River in Vancouver, I flipped over in a rapid, and an underwater rock decided to rearrange my face. My kayak helmet protected the essential parts of my head, but the rock gave me a bump on my forehead, two black eyes and a broken nose. For a week after that, I wore dark glasses and heavy makeup, which my son thought was amusing. While my nose was mending, I wouldn’t allow my husband to kiss me. Of course, many women pay a lot of money for ‘nose jobs,’ while I got mine for free. Seriously, though, that’s the only injury I’ve suffered in thirty years of whitewater paddling."
    "Kayaking is a scary, wet, dangerous sport. I remember how, the first time I ejected from my boat in a river and had to be rescued, I came to the surface gulping and said to my instructor, 'I almost drowned.' He replied calmly, with a bit of a smile, 'No, you didn't,' and he got me back in the kayak and off we went. I still keep in touch with him, and he was delighted when I sent him a copy of Raging River. He was obviously a long-lasting influence on my life. He taught me to shrug off fright and just keep going. If you can control that initial fear, eventually your skills catch up to what you’re trying to accomplish."
    Pam recounts many personal-experience adventure stories during school presentations to schoolchildren. She considers herself lucky to have been involved with Toastmasters (a nonprofit public speaking club) for five years before Raging River was published. "The very month my first book appeared, I was sent to the Winnipeg Writers Conference in 2003. I was so thankful that I had public speaking experience because you're really just thrown into the deep end when you get a book published. You're expected to be able to speak about being an author. A lot of authors are totally unprepared for that experience. Thanks to my years with Toastmasters, I’m not only comfortable with public speaking, but I truly love it, maybe even more than writing. In fact, I consider the school speaking circuit to be the most rewarding part of getting published. I speak to upwards of 15,000 kids a year, all over North America. I love the fact that when I speak in, say, Virginia, the kids are learning about Canada. I like to picture my readers all over North America using their atlases to look up Chilliwack, British Columbia, where Jake lives."
    "The number of days I spend on the road varies. Now that my son is 16, I find I can get away more often. Steve, my husband, travels a ludicrous amount for his work, so I piggyback on his free air mileage and his trips. Sometimes I joke that I have to travel with him to spend time with him. So, ever more frequently, we make arrangements for Jeremy and I speak in cities where Steve’s conferences take him. In another two years, we’ll be empty-nesters and doing that even more." Pam Withers
    "I've now written my first book that's not in the 'Take it to the Xtreme' series. It's for 'Orca Currents,' a new series for reluctant middle school readers. Called Camp Wild, the book will be out in the spring of 2005. It's about a 14-year-old boy who knows he's too old to be sent to summer camp, but he figures he's just the right age to plot his escape from one -- in a canoe down a wild river. I'm now working on an outline for a second 'Orca Currents' about a scuba diver girl."
    Writing the hi-lo books for Orca presented Pam with yet new challenges. "Orca required a more detailed outline than Whitecap. That was interesting because I don’t usually outline in much depth, or stick to my outlines. But it made me organize myself, and it worked."
    "The biggest challenge for me with the hi-lo books is that they have to be written in short, choppy sentences, and I can't write that way. So I wrote as I normally do and then went back and chopped every sentence into two that I could. After a second session of chopping, I submitted it. When it came back edited, I noticed they’d found even more sentences to chop into two! I had a lot of fun with Camp Wild because I wasn't constrained by my series’ established Jake and Peter personalities. I could go wherever I wanted. I was in my Dennis Foon stage, influenced by his book Skud, which piles in lots of humor and attitude."
    "My major goal is simply to continue improving as a writer with each and every novel. As I said, I feel like I shed my training wheels only on my fourth novel, and I think there’s still lots of steepness on my learning curve. Something else that really drives me is the notion that I might be persuading boys to read, and to write. I’d like to see more boys become authors for teens. I really encourage them when I do my school talks. If I influence just one boy to become an author for teens, I will be very happy."
    "If there's a lack of sports novels for kids, there's a really easy explanation: 86% of authors for teenagers and children are female. Surely that means a bias is creeping in. That's why I think we need more guys to write YA. Not to say that all guys are going to write about sports, or that women can’t do so competently, but I still suspect that the uneven numbers leads to a bias, one perhaps compounded by the fact that females make up 75% of elementary school teachers and 80% of librarians. So you’ve got mostly women both writing and choosing what school kids read. I can’t help wondering if there’s a link between that and the fact that boys read less."
    "I think publishers could address that by making more of an effort to seek out male authors and bring them along. I like to think that when I give talks to school kids, some of the male teachers listening will think, ‘Hey, maybe I should try that.’ I’ve had both male and female teachers come up to me after my talks and ask about breaking into YA publishing, and I enjoy encouraging them."
    "I feel very, very fortunate in having Carolyn Bateman as my editor for the ‘Take It To The Xtreme’ series. She has become my mentor. She took me on as a very raw, new author who didn't even read, let alone write, fiction, and she really hot-housed me. She's become my coach, and I think the world of her. I jokingly call her Jake and Peter's stepmother."
    "I originally wrote Raging River entirely from Jake's point of view, and Carolyn's feedback was, 'Peter is too shallow. He's meant to be shallow, but he's too shallow. One way you could give him more depth is by putting some of the chapters in his point of view.' It was hard work to go back and do that, but I’ve stayed with that approach throughout the series, and I think it has contributed very positively. That was Carolyn's brilliance."
    "My son Jeremy, now 16, ‘edits’ my books before I submit them. He goes through the manuscript with what he calls a 'chick detector' to make sure that Jake and Peter never sound like girls. If they talk about their feelings too much, he will suggest that I rework that paragraph. He also identifies ‘lame’ dialogue. I really appreciate his feedback. He's a very sharp editor, and I'm lucky to have him, although he gets a bit bossy sometimes. At home, he is required to do half an hour of chores daily after school. Sometimes he gets to read my books as his chore time. He has writing talent himself, I think, but applies it to song lyrics."
    So what are Pam’s future goals? "At some point, I should aspire to grow old gracefully," she jokes, referring to her recent courses in scuba diving and rock climbing to help her with her plots. (She completed her scuba diving certification despite an attack of vertigo on Dive No. 2 and a panic attack 40 feet under on Dive No. 10.) "But the other day I was out kayaking on the Fraser River, chasing tugboat waves as a little workout, and thinking, 'I'm really too old to be chasing tugboat waves in November.' But that's still what floats my boat."
    Asked how growing up as the daughter of a minister has influenced her, she said, "One of my father's passions was working with teenagers -- forming and running youth groups. I see that interest reflected in my own life. I spent six years running Paddling Punks, a whitewater kayak club and summer camp for teenagers, for no pay. It was my way of giving back to the sport that has given me so much pleasure, and because I enjoy working with teens. While I never set out to write for young people, now that I find myself in that niche, I feel completely comfortable in it, perhaps because of my father's influence and my time spent running the Paddling Punks."
    "I'm just totally and utterly hooked on fiction now, and I can't imagine doing anything else -- at least, when I can afford to do it fulltime. I've completely immersed myself in this new, accidental career. I'd love to see one of my books made into a movie, but I know it’s a long shot, especially since outdoor movies are the most expensive to make. My goal is to put out several novels a year, and I have no interest at this point in veering away from the YA adventure genre. My well of adventure-plot ideas isn’t going to run dry anytime soon. My biggest passion is writing about adventure, especially as I start to get too old to stay adventurous myself!"

Books by Pam Withers

  • Adrenalin Ride. Walrus Books, 2004. (Take it to the Xtreme). Grades 5-12.
  • Camp Wild. Orca Books, 2005. (Orca Currents). Grades 5-8.
  • Peak Survival. Walrus Books, 2004. (Take it to the Xtreme). Grades 5-12.
  • Raging River. Walrus Books, 2003. (Take it to the Xtreme). Grades 5-12.
  • Skater Stuntboys. Walrus Books, 2005. (Take It To the Xtreme.) Grades 5-12.

This article is based on an interview conducted in Winnipeg, MB, on December 17, 2004.

Visit Pam's website at

current issue | authors | titles | media | profiles | en français
back issues | cmarchive | about CM | CM home

Copyright © Dave Jenkinson and the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364