Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Monica Kulling

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On Writing, with Monica Kulling

Monica Kulling's new book, All Aboard! Elijah McCoy's Steam Engine (Tundra Books), teaches young readers the story of Elijah McCoy and how he revolutionized the steam engine. Monica talks to Open Book about writing biographies for children, what Canadian writers inspire her and what her research process is like.

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine.

Monica Kulling:

All Aboard! is the story of Elijah McCoy, the inventor of a lubricating system that revolutionized the steam engine and made train travel safer and more efficient. Elijah was born in Colchester, Ontario in 1844 and educated in Scotland. Upon settling near Detroit, he hoped to work as a mechanical engineer, but racism put an end to that dream. Instead, Elijah wound up shovelling coal on a train. Fortunately for us, Elijah McCoy was the type of person who demonstrated the adage, "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade."


OBT:

What got you started writing biographies for children?

MK:

In the early 1990s, I was writing adaptations of classic books for Random House's Step Into Classics series. I'd already published Little Women and Les Misérables (these were so much fun to write!) when I received a request from a different editor. She was looking for someone to write a biography about Amelia Earhart and asked if I'd be interested. I hadn't written much non-fiction up to that point, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Writing Vanished! The Mysterious Disappearance of Amelia Earhart was a great learning experience for me and from there I went on to write other biographies for Random House.


OBT:

Which Canadian writers do you admire and why?

MK:

Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel is an enormously moving and pivotal book for me. I was young when I first read it, but I identified completely with Hagar Shipley. I found her viewpoint terrifying, but in a way that enlarged my experience. I now see just how powerful that portrait was -- it still haunts me. This is the strength of Laurence's writing; it makes you feel uncomfortable when you're reading about someone for whom life isn't kind and makes you, the reader, exercise compassion when viewing the character. I've recently read Laurence Hill's The Book of Negroes. I'm impressed by Hill's ability to manage the scope and tragic details of this history. Carol Shield's The Stone Diaries was also a work that impressed me with its historical truth. I also admire Joan Clark's An Audience of Chairs, which, like Laurence's Stone Angel, humanizes a woman many would find off-putting -- and Joan writes for children as well! When it comes to writers for children, there are so many fine writers working in Canada today it's hard for me to name only one or two, but I'm intrigued by Irene N. Watts -- in particular, her latest book, No Moon, set during the Titanic disaster. As you can see, I like my fiction to be flavoured with a dash of history.


OBT:

How do you decide which biographies to write?

MK:

For the most part, I like to write about creative people, or individuals who exhibit strength and courage in extreme situations such as, poverty, prejudice, slavery, disaster, or the foolhardiness flying a plane around the world during WWII. The character has to "colour outside the lines" for me to find him or her enthralling enough to carry me through the months of research and writing. If I can see the child in the adult, that person holds interest for me and will carry a story.


OBT:

What is your writing/research process like?

MK:

I do a lot of reading and notetaking and imagining. I read everything available about the person and their time period. I also do extensive online research. Sometimes I think I've over researched a subject, but not a bit of information is wasted; if not used in the actual writing, the information informs the narrative as back story.


OBT:

What are you reading right now?

MK:

Carson McCullers: A Life, by Josyane Savigneau.


OBT:

What is your next project?

MK:

I'm currently at work on a biography of Francis Scott Key, specifically his writing of the poem the "Star-Spangled Banner" during a decisive battle in the War of 1812. My US publisher, Random House, brought the project to me and thought that I, a Canadian, might bring a fresh perspective to this bit of history. The book will be released in 2012 to coincide with America's bicentennial.

I'm also writing a novel for young readers, which brings with it a whole set of new challenges.


Monica Kulling was born in Vancouver, British Columbia. She received a BA in creative writing from the University of Victoria. Monica Kulling has published twenty-six fiction and nonfiction books for children, including picture books, poetry, and biographies. She is best known for introducing biography to children just learning to read and has written about Harriet Tubman, Houdini, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Amelia Earhart among others. Monica Kulling lives in Toronto, Canada.

For more information, please visit Monica Kulling’s website.

For more information about All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine. please visit the Tundra website.

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

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