Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Carolyn Beck

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Carolyn Beck

In Carolyn Beck's That Squeak (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), best friends Joe and Jay loved to ride their bikes together. But after a tragic accident takes Jay from Joe, all that remains of Joe's friend is his beloved bike, which Joe is determined to tune up in memory of his friend. When a new boy offers to help Joe, Joe learns that first impressions, gossip and suspicion are unreliable sources and that friends can come into our lives in all different ways.

We speak with Carolyn today about That Squeak and she tells us about her experiences writing about loss and friendship, how the text of That Squeak came together with illustrator François Thisdale's artwork and her own favourite books about friendship.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, That Squeak.

Carolyn Beck:

That Squeak is a story about friendship, lost and found.

Joe and Jay used to be best friends. They loved to pedal down back roads together, exploring the countryside, talking to cows, skipping stones and laughing at “that squeak” in Jay’s bicycle seat.

But six months ago Joe lost his friend in an accident at school. Somehow Jay’s bike got left behind, rusted and forgotten. Joe wants to take it home and polish it up just the way he thinks Jay would like. When Carlos, the new kid in class, offers to help, Joe quickly figures out that Carlos is just a sneaky, conniving bicycle thief. Things change when he explains why he could not possibly steal anyone’s bike. That is when he and Joe discover that they have more to share than they ever imagined.


What was your approach to writing a character who has experienced the kind of loss Joe experiences?


My approach was a little unorthodox in that Joe, as the narrator, is not speaking to us, the readers, but to his friend, Jay (who died in an accident six months ago). We hear what he chooses to say to his dead friend, what he needs Jay to know about the bike he left behind. But we are not inside his head. I was aiming to be honest and true, but not overwhelmingly emotional.

I used symbolism, as well, to indirectly convey the characters’ emotional journey. Things store memories and emotions for us. The bicycle is a symbol of the lost relationship and all those wonderful days spent together wandering the back roads. So is the squeak that persists in its seat. The power of these two symbols solidifies as the new friendship parallels the one lost.


Joe and Carlos don't hit it off immediately. What did you want to communicate to readers with the evolution of their friendship?


Each one of us perceives the world through the filters of what we have “learned”. Gossip, overheard conversations, direct teachings, the media in all its forms, how we have been treated, how we have seen other people treated, all sorts of personal experiences contribute to how we view our lives and see other people.

In the case of Joe and Carlos, Joe succumbs to the gossip he has heard and assumes that anyone living out of a car must be a thief. Carlos chooses to ignore Joe’s prejudice at first, not realizing that his silence cements the false assumptions in Joe’s head. Carlos feels it is easier to swallow down the indignity than to try to change a made up mind. Eventually the injustice of it all leads him to blurt out a shocking truth that smashes Joe’s misconceptions and lays bare the boys’ unique connection.


Did you interact with illustrator François Thisdale during the project? What was the process for combining his images with your words?


First of all, as an aside, I have to say, SHOUT, that I LOVE François’s art.

As a rule the publisher maintains artistic control over the production of a picture book. The process starts with the finalization of the text through editorial review. Then the author’s job is done. The text is then sent to the artist who develops the pictures in collaboration with art direction.

It is not unusual for the author to first glimpse the illustrations at the galley stage of the process. I was exceptionally lucky with my first two books, The Waiting Dog and Buttercup’s Lovely Day, because the publishers just happened to select my sister, Andrea, as the artist. I got to see the pictures as they developed. All I had to do was drop in for tea. I did not have this “inside scoop” with the books that followed. François was kind enough to send me snippets every once in a while as he progressed with the illustrations of That Squeak.

But in answer to your question, we did not really collaborate. He interpreted my words, I saw snatches of his art, but neither of us commented directly regarding the other’s work, except to say, “Oooh! Aaah!” Until the end, of course, when it all came together.


What are some of your own favourite books about friendship?


Frog and Toad have to be my all-time favourite friends. Arnold Lobel’s brilliantly simple stories about them set the bar very high. And who can beat Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne) as a steadfast, sometimes misdirected friend? I also like The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) and Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White). Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson) deals with similar themes — escape and loss — that I am tackling in That Squeak.


What are you working on now?


I always have several projects on the go. I don’t like to divulge too much as the act of talking about them often dissipates their energy. It has something to do with exposing them to the elements before they are fully formed. I will say, though, that among the characters gestating are a junkyard dog, a green alien, a young witch, an orphaned dachshund, a supercilious cat and a boy named Michael Mixup. That’s this week.

Carolyn Beck is the author of an eclectic mix of picture books. From the postman-devouring dog in The Waiting Dog to the zenfully happy cow in Buttercup’s Lovely Day to the ardent nosepicker in Richard Was a Picker to the misbehaving pooches in Wellington’s Rainy Day and Dog Breath, each of her characters have something distinctly unique to say. Her latest books are One Hungry Heron, a swampy counting book, and That Squeak, a story of discovery. Carolyn lives in Toronto.

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