Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Leah Bobet

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Leah Bobet

Leah Bobet is the author of Above (Scholastic Canada), a hotly anticipated young adult novel set in an unrecognizable Toronto, where most people have been driven into an underground world known as Safe. Leah has published short fiction in numerous magazines and anthologies; Above is her first novel. You can visit her online at her website.

Leah talks to Open Book about relating to her characters, building Safe and bottomless pots of tea.

Be sure to check it out: Above launches today, Thursday, March 22 at Hotel Ocho in Toronto. Click here for event details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Above.

Leah Bobet:

Above is about Matthew, who grew up underground in a place called Safe, where people too odd or sick or broken for the world Above — the modern-day streets of Toronto — have carved out a society of their own; and Ariel, a girl with bee’s wings, who is pretty odd and sick and broken herself.

But one night there’s a coup, and only Matthew, Ariel, and a few friends make it out to Above. Matthew has to figure out just exactly what went on there, and how he might take back his home, and starts realizing that not everything he was told about Safe, or Above, or the people he grew up with was maybe, precisely, true. And on top of that there’s Ariel, who’s got her own trouble up Above, and needs him more than ever before.

So in short? It’s a young adult book about love, disability and subtle war crimes.


Was there one character living in Safe to whom you particularly related?


I know it’s the diplomatic response to say you love all your children equally, but I related to all of them. I had to; Above involves a lot of conflicting character motives, and to make that work as well as possible, I had to deliberately go back in the middle drafts and put active attention into every single person’s needs and resentments and wants; their whole idea of the situation. It built a certain empathy for every character.

They’re all very flawed people. Most of them are trying very hard, too. And it’s hard, at least for me, to not relate to that.


Canadian readers will be excited to see the Toronto skyline on your book jacket. Tell us about the process of transforming Toronto into the fantastic world of Above.


Building Safe, and building some of the more important locations Above, was pretty time-consuming: I spent a lot of time going through urban explorers’ photographs of storm drains and subway tunnels, and looking at soil types, and just figuring where you might feasibly put an underground hideout if you actually wanted to breathe decent oxygen while living in it. And then I cheated outrageously. I also did a lot of research on the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital … and then cheated outrageously.

The rest, though, is the streets and corners I go through every day. It’s a construct, puzzle-pieced, of a five-years-ago west end that lurks around my head.

Making that was, a bit, learning the trick of squinting: all I had to do was take a character who’d never slept aboveground before, never been in Toronto, and show the things in front of me through his fairly contextless eyes. Cities are full of secrets. This city’s full of secrets, though it’s only starting to get credit for that in fiction. So it meant looking through the corner of your eye, and acknowledging, really, all those things we relegate to the background every day: letting all the oddities and secrets of downtown Toronto just rise to the surface.


Tell us what your ideal writing space would be like.


Green, and full of spring-afternoon sunlight and light-coloured wood, and populated by other people who were very intent on doing their work and only chatted about it maybe once an hour, but were still happy to keep you company. And it would come with a bottomless pot of very good tea. And some blackberries.

Nobody would mind if I only wore my pajamas to work there. Pajamas would be encouraged. Mandatory.


Were there any books you read prior to or during the writing of Above that you found inspiring?


Above owes a lot to a few books. The big ones were Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride, which is a book of personal essays about identity politics and the author’s own intersectionality, and how people fall through the cracks of the assumptions that come with a social identity; and Cherie Dimaline’s Red Rooms, a linked collection of short stories about First Nations characters living in urban environments, not on reserve, and what that life is like as opposed to the picture we all have in our heads. I was reading about the history of medicine at the time, too, and the construction of medical authority in the eighteenth century, which was basically a giant PR war waged against barbers and midwives.

This was all coursework in the last year or so of my degree. Hopping between departments the way I did isn’t great for your degree requirements, but it gives you lots of interesting information to draw connections between, when you’re minded to start connecting.


What are you working on now?


An odd little book about a girl and her farm which only describes as the post-apocalyptic, post-epic fantasy, Sinclair Ross literary dustbowl novel. It’s the story about what happens when you’ve defeated the wicked epic fantasy god; what happens after: how you keep the farm together and deal with the fallout.

That, and a book of poetry.

Leah Bobet's short fiction and poetry have appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. She received a 2008 emerging writers' development grant from the Toronto Arts Council. She lives in Toronto, Ontario and you can visit her online at her website or follow her on Twitter @leahbobet.

For more information about Above please visit the Scholastic Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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