By Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
Kathy Stinson is best known for her iconic picture book, Red Is Best (illustrations by Robin Baird Lewis, Annick Press) which recently celebrated its thirtieth year in print. And while she’s written many picture books, Kathy has tackled a range of topics in her vast array of books for older children. Her award-winning short story collection, 101 Ways to Dance (Second Story Press) explores teen sexuality while her Our Canadian Girl Marie-Claire novels are historicals set in 1885 Montreal.
In her recent young adult novel, What Happened to Ivy (Second Story), Stinson steps into the shoes of David, the teen brother of a profoundly disabled sister who dies under questionable circumstances. Stinson accurately captures the conflicted emotions of David, who clearly loves his sister while at the same time being embarrassed by her and frustrated with the limitations that her existence has placed on the family. Stinson’s depiction of Ivy is nuanced and real, beautifully showing the young girl’s abilities and perceptions within her challenged life.
What Happened to Ivy is a short novel, but it will stick with you long after you read the last page. Kathy kindly agreed to answer the following questions:
You dedicate this novel to Tracy and Robert Latimer. Can you tell me about that?
You know that “Robert and Tracy whose stories haunt me still” refers to the Latimers. I suspect that most teens won’t know who the names in the dedication are referring to but that’s okay. What Happened to Ivy isn’t the Latimers’ story, but their story has stayed very much in my mind ever since their names first made news in 1993. I have strong feelings about the case. What those feelings are isn’t relevant to readers of WHTI and I tried very hard not to use the novel as a soapbox or any of its characters as a mouthpiece for my views. That said, I chose to dedicate the book to Robert and Tracy because of how thinking about them helped inform its writing and because I have great sympathy for them and for others facing what they have faced in their lives.
Ivy’s brother David is fascinated by many geeky things, one of which is his careful nurturing of plants and flowers. His little sister is named Ivy. He never grows Ivy. Why?
That’s interesting. I’d love to know what you or other readers might read into this, if anything.
I didn’t intentionally have David not grow ivy. In fact, in earlier drafts, when the story continued for longer, David did plant ivy in the restored garden as a backdrop for everything else he planted. I wasn’t sure if that was pushing something harder than it ought to be, but when it became clear to me that the restoration of the garden didn’t need to be shown, that there was a more effective place to end David’s story, it didn’t occur to me to go back and ‘plant ivy’ somewhere else. I’m not sorry I didn’t, because I think the ‘odd-looking plant’ that manages to survive the destruction of Ivy’s wheelchair ramp is a more important plant (perhaps?) than ivy would have been.
As you were writing this book, did your own ideas about mercy killing change?
No. But I think David’s did. At least he’s thinking about it anyway.
What’s been the response of readers? What about advocacy organizations?
The reviews have all been positive (so far). That includes a starred review in Quill & Quire, other reviews in media and by various bloggers. When I did a book giveaway through my blog, I got a note from someone who’d already read the book, a parent of a severely disabled child who said, ‘It resonated with me on all levels. It was powerful, heartbreaking, and so authentic. I plan to encourage all of my other children to read it.’ That meant as much to me as the star in Q&Q.
I haven’t heard yet from any advocacy organizations. I’ve imagined that some who speak up for the rights of people with disabilities might object to the story but maybe they won’t, because even though I personally have sympathy for David’s dad’s position, I think how Ivy is written, albeit through her brother’s point of view, makes it pretty clear that I have sympathy for her, too, that I see her as a fully rounded person and not just the sum of her disabilities. Also it’s not clear at the end of the book whether David’s dad will be let off the hook for his role in her death, legally, or by his son.
Can you tell me about your research process for this book?
When I knew roughly what I wanted in the character of Ivy in terms of how she looked, behaved, and what life was like for her and her family, I read about a number of possible afflictions (for lack of a better word) she might have. Cerebral palsy seemed to make the most sense, but because there’s such a range in how cp can affect people, I didn’t want it to seem as if I thought all people with cp were as drastically disabled as Ivy. Since it was entirely plausible that she’d have had a number of surgeries over the course of her eleven years, I decided she’d suffered brain damage during one of them too. Of course to balance off how negatively this affected her life, I had to be sure to show the other side too, that she is a person capable of love and joy and laughter. ‘Research’ for that came more from real life, from people with disabilities I have known and from parents of kids with various disabilities.
I also did a ton of research into the legal end of things for various scenarios around how Ivy’s life might end and what her dad’s role in it might be, what he might be charged with, what the legal process would be, and the likely outcome of a trial. A lot of that research was incorporated into earlier drafts of the novel, but it eventually became apparent that the legal stuff wasn’t David’s story so much as his dad’s, and it was going to be far more effective to provide a much tighter time frame for the story than including all the legal stuff would have allowed for. A matter of weeks instead of many months or even years.
Which character was the most challenging to write? Why?
David. Believe it or not, he started out as a secondary character— to Hannah, the girl who moves in across the street and becomes a friend to David and to Ivy. I think in a funny way, although I wanted to explore a situation something like the Latimers’ in my writing, part of me was afraid to get too close to it. Needless to say, the story became much more powerful when WHTI became David’s story instead of Hannah’s and I let myself really get inside what he was going through.
David also started out as a girl. He became a boy after a conversation I had with my oldest grandson one day. Oddly enough he was a much easier character to write as a boy. He was far more interesting, in terms of his relationship with his dad and with Hannah. Being a boy didn’t change his relationship with Ivy as much. It was sometime after David became a boy that he became the novel’s main character.
What is your writing routine?
Mornings are my best time to write. I can sometimes write on into the day but after a good morning’s work, I’m usually incapable of much more creative thinking. If I’m editing someone else’s manuscript (I can’t live on royalties alone), I set my own project aside for those days. Other things interrupt the ‘write every morning’ routine too, but I don’t fret about that as much as I used to. I’ve been at this for long enough to know that sometimes being away from one’s desk is a good thing for a project.
What aspect of being a writer drives you nuts?
Knowing I’m earning about 7 cents an hour on most of my books. Knowing there are lots more readers who would love certain books I’ve written, if only they knew they existed.
What aspect of being a writer makes up for what drives you nuts?
The thrill of making ‘something from nothing’ (as the title of one of my favourite picture books goes). And the thrill of knowing there are people taking the same pleasure in reading something I’ve written as I get from reading the books I enjoy.
What are you working on now?
Having recently completed final revisions to a picture book text, I’m working on a collection of short stories for an adult audience. It’s a long way from being ready to submit to a publisher but the picture book—The Man with the Violin, with illustrations by Dušan Petri— will be published by Annick Press this fall. Dare I say, it may be as big a hit as Red is Best, which has been in print now for over thirty years? (And no, I haven’t said that about any of the books I’ve written since Red is Best!)
Do you have advice for an aspiring author?
Read. Read lots. Read widely. And write.