Walking the Line: An Interview with Sylvia McNicoll


By Anita Daher

Ontario author Sylvia McNicoll has been honoured many times over the years for her novels, including winning the Silver Birch award for crush.candy.corpse, a novel about a teen girl standing trial for the manslaughter of an elderly Alzheimer’s patient.

She also works seemingly indefatigably for fellow authors through organizations such as Access Copyright, teaches creative writing, tours extensively and edits. The details of our first meeting escape me—during a book tour, or perhaps at a conference somewhere—but I recall most vividly my first impression: this woman is present. An intoxicating trait. One hundred percent in that moment and our conversation. Given her prolificacy and an oft-recurring story theme involving the afterlife, she would be forgiven for straddling half in that “elsewhere” writers experience when living life while also musing story.

In her most recent novel, Best Friends through Eternity (Tundra Books, 2016), her main character, Paige Barta, also straddles a line. After being hit by a train, she is brain-dead, breathing and functioning through hospital machines, with her adoptive mother holding her hand, refusing to let her go. And yet, she is very much alive in her own “elsewhere”: a beach, the first step in her afterlife, on which she finds Kim, her best friend from childhood. With Kim’s support, she is given a “do-over,” a chance to go back in time and right her biggest regret: that she didn’t warn her present day best friend she might be walking into a trap.

The “if I could go back” theme is a familiar one in novels and on screen, perhaps for good reason. How many of us have wondered how small changes might change the circumstance of our lives? A pleasant, harmless, daydream. However this novel is a cannonball, hurtling us right into the deep end of story with the Paige’s final, inevitable steps toward her last moments. There is teen bullying—that really bad, dangerous kind that exists today—forbidden romance, death, and from there, we’re hooked, in the skin of our doomed main character as she cracks a shell of self-absorption and blossoms into the best version of the person she might have become. But it’s the choices she makes, and how we better come to understand others in her life past and present, while she digs into a mystery she stumbles upon during her do-over, that makes this a novel that absorbs, and keeps us up way past bed time.

I caught up with Sylvia just as she finished and sent off her next manuscript, and she agreed to answer a few questions.


You’ve written close to 30 novels for teens and middle grade readers, and several more for a European publisher translated into foreign languages. Is there ever a time you are not writing? What do you do during your “down time”?

There’s lots of time that I am not writing, sometimes I’m teaching or visiting schools. On down time, I love spending time with my ever-growing family. Currently I have eight grandchildren and they all live within fifteen minutes of me. They’re my excuse to relive childhood and go to the Science Centre or the beach or on a tugboat ride. I cook up huge meals and have everyone over. Besides playing with the grands, I love walking my dog, swimming, reading and attending live theatre.

You write both plot-driven novels as well as character-driven ones.  Does one come more easily to you?

Plot-driven novels come more easily to me. While I love a story where an author sets a bunch of quirky characters loose and the reader watches to see what happens, I find that an agonizing way to write. I like to think in terms of the three-act structure governed by a beginning, climax and ending. The middle is what happens along the way through research, imagining and character wandering, and it feeds the resolution.

If a helicopter landed in your backyard tomorrow morning with a pilot ready to whisk you anywhere in the world you wish to go, where would you choose?

Helicopters immediately speed up my adrenaline and make me think rescue. I envision a dog being lowered down to save someone floundering in the water. This may be because I wrote a six-book series called Et Vilt Liv (The Wild Life) for a Scandinavian girls’ book club produced by Stabenfeldt. In it a hybrid dog/wolf named Paris pairs up with a 14-year-old girl named Zanna to solve the problems of their world, the Canadian ice fields of Alberta. I would therefore jump on that helicopter and head for the Rockies: Canmore, Jasper or Radium. Love that area of Canada. Now if you had sent a cruise ship I would have headed for Greece.

Some of us write as a form of exploring ideas. Do you? Is there a theme you find yourself returning to in your writing?

Dogs and death—they’re not exactly themes more re-occurrences in my stories. Dogs act as a kind of safe medium to explore friendship, bonding and love as well as loss. Death is part of all of our journeys and we haven’t reconciled to it yet. Of late I plumbed the idea I discovered in Beauty Returns where a viewpoint character dies. As the creator for Kyle’s life in that novel, I allowed him to have everything he ever wanted in his afterlife: a wife, a child and most important, his vision. That made me think that each unique individual would probably want a different kind of heaven and I began writing books that showed personalized post-death places. They aren’t the final afterlife, just the space immediately following death. In Dying to Go Viral, (Fitzhenry Whiteside) Jade visits a Japanese garden where she finds her mother again. In What the Dog Says (not available in English yet), Naomi visits a mountain and meets her pet Brownie. In The Body Swap, which is still in manuscript stage, 15-year-old Hailey visits a carnival and meets 82-year-old Susan, who backed over and killed her, and they swap bodies. In Best Friends Through Eternity (Tundra Books), Paige meets her best friend on a tropical beach. Every one of them scores a second crack at life; some even escape their fates.

In Best Friends Though Eternity death is front and centre, however it also touches on themes of foreign adoption, bullying, abuse, and suicide. You don’t shy away from difficult topics. Which has been your most difficult novel to write? Why?

Each project has its own dark part in the tunnel but Revenge on the Fly (Pajama Press) is a historical novel, which for me presented the most difficult research challenges, especially since there was a long lag between the completion of the first draft and subsequent publication and I wasn’t particularly good at keeping notes. During the substantive edit, I essentially had to re-research and fact check and get myself back into the head of 12-year-old William Alton, who was competing in a 1912 fly killing contest to avenge his mom and sister’s death. I didn’t trust myself to describe one sound or smell without cross-referencing. What was the weather like? I checked StatsCan. What would a school desk feel like? I visited Hamilton School Archives. You can easily block yourself if you second-guess every fact, and I did.

Favourite summer treat?

Do I only get one? Orange popsicles and watermelons, freshly picked strawberries.

I read on your blog that you are “comfortable being uncomfortable.” Can you explain what you mean by this?

As a story reader, I might be content to crawl into a book and cocoon in there but as a storywriter, I find I have to thrust myself into activities outside my comfort zone for research. That excuse provides me with a thicker skin for ambiguity than I might ordinarily have. For example, I am writing a book about teens who find and really save themselves through performing in poetry slams. I, of course, attended slams and decided I needed to write poetry for all the characters in my book. When I encountered a transgender poet I felt she deserved a spot in my story and not only researched her possible issues but wrote her poem and memorized and performed it. It scored a stinging 4.3 from one judge, which is a signal that it offended; usually no one awards any poem lower than 7. (I earned plenty of those, too.) Slam poetry usually involves authentic first person experience. Does the low score mean they felt I was voice appropriating? I will never know. Still I feel compelled to write the story with that millstone 4.3 around my neck, which could mean I will offend the very kids for whom I want to stand up.

You once used a pseudonym. Why?

Oh the Geena Dare years—there were two of them, in which I wrote a book every four months on one of five characters involved in the performing arts. Sharon Siamon invited me to write for Stage School, a series she’d successfully pitched to Orchard Publishing in England: twelve books and we divided the writing. (Linda Hendry, a Canadian illustrator, was also invited to write one, I’m not exactly sure why.) To ensure all the series would be shelved together, we felt we needed to write under one name and Shari chose Geena Dare. This project involved a couple of trips to England where I fronted for the team, discussing the story lines with publishers as well as autographing copies in bookstores, hoping the staff wouldn’t ask for ID.

If you could put any two characters from different novels together in an ice cream shop, which would you choose? What do you think they might talk about?

Zanna Day (Last Chance for Paris, Fitzhenry Whiteside and Et Vilt Liv) and Elizabeth Kerr (Bringing Up Beauty, A Different Kind of Beauty and Beauty Returns, Fitzhenry Whiteside) would get along great. During the post 9/11 clean up, I always imagined one of them would be searching through the rubble with a dog.

At the ice cream shop, Zanna would order a Tiger Tail cone, which is a Canadian flavor combining orange with licorice, and Elizabeth would have Rocky Road, chocolate with marshmallow and nuts. They’d probably complain about their siblings, Elizabeth has an older sister Debra who immerses the family in drama, and Zanna has a twin brother, Martin, who acts on impulse rather than on any kind of safe and sound reasoning. They might walk Elizabeth’s dog, Beauty II, after and Zanna would cry over Paris, the dog she left behind in Last Chance. They would talk about boys and school and the future, which would involve animals in some way.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on The Great Mistake Mystery Series. The Best Mistake Mystery (Dundurn Press) is slated for publication January 2017. This is a middle grade series that celebrates mistakes as discoveries. My dogwalking characters Stephen Noble and his super smart sidekick Renée Kobai observe and chase down clues that solve neighborhood crimes. But it’s the many whoopses, like butt dialing or engaging with a police dog, that often point them in the right direction. The stories take place over three days, with ten mistakes a day that act as story dividers or chapters. Stephen counts and ranks them in order to calm himself over making them. The reader will anticipate the mistake as an additional plot hook but hopefully they will also chuckle and learn to relax and enjoy their own mistakes.

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Youthful Appetite

Anita Daher

Anita Daher has lived in Summerside, PEI, Yellowknife, NT, Churchill, MB, Baker Lake, NU and Sault Ste. Marie, ON, making her an expert on the geographic location of YA writers. She is a prolific and successful YA author herself and the associate teen book editor at Great Plains Publications in Winnipeg.