In your novel, The Kingdom of Strange, a 14-year-girl writes in her journal and corresponds via email with another teenager for a writing project. What came first, the character's personality, her name, or the basic premise?
The premise came first. The name came next because it fitted so well with the theme of flawed communication between people. In Pyramus and Thisbe, the characters speak to each other through a tiny hole in a wall. In my book, the characters communicate via email... which turns out to be a more limiting and less effective method of communication than Thisbe imagines!
Did you ever have a pen pal as a kid or teenager?
Yes, many of them! I used to collect them, actually. Sometimes I had already met my correspondents and stayed in touch by letter but I also had a few that I'd never met, in Eastern Europe, for example. I still have quite a few old letters - but not all of them, sadly.
Email has, of course, greatly changed the ways (and frequency) of correspondence. Do you like to write and post real letters?
Are you a spy? How did you know?! I love to write letters and still correspond regularly with family and friends all over the world. I love getting and sending parcels, too. I send all sorts of things by mail.. the contents of my parcels aren't as peculiar as they used to be but we did get a box of cows recently...
I hope those were decorative cows, made of porcelain or something like that! Like Thisbe, you keep a diary. Do you refer to it when writing fiction, or do you try to keep your real-life experiences wholly separate from your stories?
I referred to my diary of the time (2003) when I was writing "The Kingdom of Strange." Being my first novel, I had a lot to learn, so I wrote a lot of material in it about the challenges I faced - staying motivated, finding inspiration, recognising when ideas were good ones and when I should trash them, working with characters and dialogue. Of course, none of this writing was wasted. Most of it ended up in the novel, as Thisbe's own reflections on her writing.
Do you look back at your high school or middle school diaries (if you have/had them) when writing stories with characters that age?
I don't have all of my diaries from when I was growing up, so I don't refer back to my own experiences... but I used to spend a lot of time online with young adults through my work (2002-2005), and later through mentoring young adult readers and writers (2005 - 2007). They did a great job as test readers and really helped me keep things real!
What prompted you to immigrate to Canada from England? Have you revisited your hometown as an adult?
I came to Canada in 1997 to work on my PhD in Education. I finished it in 2001 and worked in education for several years before turning my attention to writing and illustrating. I have returned to my hometown as an adult but only once. Our family moved to a different city when I was in my mid-twenties and I rarely went back to St. Albans after that. The city will always have a storybook quality to it, in my memory - it's an ancient city that was once a Roman settlement. The abbey is 1000 years old.
At your website, you speak of a love for fountain pens. Do you write longhand on paper, or do you prefer to type your stories?
I still do a lot of work by hand. It will always be my favourite way to write. I think more clearly when I have a pen in my hand. I find it easier to daydream and let my thoughts wander freely into interesting places. Once I'm past the first drafts, I move to the computer, of course - it's much faster to edit that way!
I prefer to write first drafts on paper as well. You also write nonfiction and short stories. Do you work as a freelance journalist, or do you work regularly for certain publications?
At the moment most of my nonfiction work is for CBC Radio. It's not always for the same show, which keeps things interesting (The Sunday Edition, Tapestry, Living Out Loud)! I've also published articles in local papers and publications in the US and England.
Do you have another novel in the works, or perhaps a short story?
I have a new book out next month (Best Friends Forever: A World War II Scrapbook - Beverly Patt wrote this marvellous novel and I supplied the illustrations) and I'm also working on a new picture book for younger readers. I have plenty of material for a sequel to The Kingdom of Strange as well, but I don't have a lot of time to work on it these days. Our son is three.
Enjoy the toddler years! What are your ten all-time favorite books?
That's a tough question! It's so hard to come up with a sensible list. Here are some titles to be going on with... May I come back to you with more? I'm afraid to put Shakespeare down because I haven't read his plays in a long time.... but I am happy to tell you that they had a huge impact on me when I was a teenager. Not terribly fashionable, I know.
1. Tom's Midnight Garden - Philippa Pearce
2. Charlotte Sometimes - Penelope Farmer
3. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe - Penelope Lively
4. The Children of Green Knowe - Lucy M. Boston
5. Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins
6. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
1. Anything at all by Jane Austen. Anything at all. And of course the amazing biography by Claire Tomalin. So inspiring.
2. Microserfs - Douglas Coupland. Strangely touching, funny and sweet. The ending makes me cry every time.
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
4. The Poisonwood Bible, Animal Dreams, Prodigal Summer - Barbara Kingsolver. She is my favourite contemporary author, I think.
5. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess - Leonard Shlain
Visit Shula's website.