Friday, April 29, 2011


I love this list -- it covers many basics!

~ Do not put statements in the negative form.
~ And don't start sentences with a conjunction.
~ If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
~ Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
~ Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
~ De-accession euphemisms.
~ If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
~ Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
~ Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.

William Safire, "Great Rules of Writing"

Friday, April 15, 2011


In my previous post I wrote about the long circuitous road to my newest novel THAT BOY RED, and how it started with my love of a book, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, by L.M. Montgomery.

This is how I first met Anne...

It was a hot day in late Spring, in Bombay (now called Mumbai) India. I was a student in Standard Four – Grade Four. I went to a private school, one of the best in Bombay – Cathedral and John Connon School. There was a girls school and a boys school back then, although later the schools merged and became co-ed. The girls’ uniform consisted of light cotton dresses with faint grey and white pin stripes, and a sash denoting the house (red, yellow, green or blue) to which the student belonged. I belonged to Red House, so I had a red sash.

My class was large and particularly lively and high spirited – read undisciplined – and as we grew older, we became the bane of all the teachers in school. I suspect that the unfortunate teacher who drew the short straw and was assigned our class threw herself down on the floor drumming her heels in despair and then went on to develop unexpected tics and twitches as the year progressed.

But back in Standard Four, we hadn’t yet reached the pinnacle of our potential for mischief. My teacher that year was a western woman, Mrs. Chaubal, and she had a great knack of handling us. I haven’t the faintest idea if she was British, Irish, American or Canadian. To us kids, all westerners were simply from abroad, and they all had funny accents because, of course, we spoke impeccable and unaccented English. What I do remember about Mrs. Chaubal is that she was pale skinned and freckled, had reddish hair tidily arranged in a French bun – a source of fascination to me – and she was smiling, enthusiastic, and had stocky legs and thick ankles.

One morning, Mrs. Chaubal, gathered us together in front of her desk to read to us. Perhaps she thought a morning read would calm our high spirits, or perhaps she simply wanted to share with us a book she loved.

It was that morning – squirming against the other girls on the hard vinyl floor, the overhead fan whirring our hair, with the faint school smells of disinfectant, chalk dust and sneakers wafting around us – that I first met Anne.

I was hooked from the start. Mrs. Chaubal read with great expression and energy, and she was adroit enough to skip the long descriptive passages that she thought might make us restless. Each morning, she read a part of the book, and each morning our eagerness to hear the story escalated. We were completely still and rapt as she read to us.

When the school year ended and the book didn’t, I had to find a copy of the book to finish the story. I had to find out whether Anne ever forgave Gilbert and what happened next.

I hunted the second hand book stores I frequented, and where I spent most of my pocket money, to no avail. I couldn’t find the book in the library across the road, either. Finally, I discovered it in a new book store and I unhesitatingly spent my precious pocket money on a brand new copy. I devoured the book. I was delighted to discover that there were sequels and I bought all the sequels I could lay my hot little hands on, and read them again and again.

I was an avid reader, and I used to trade books that weren’t keepers for other books to keep myself supplied with reading material. But I never dreamed of trading my Anne books. They were friends to re-visit over and over again. In one of my infrequent fits of organization, I arranged and numbered my books in order of their importance to me. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES was number one. Inside it I wrote:

The grass is green
The rose is red
This book is mine
'Til I am dead
P.S.Even after I’m dead.

I didn’t at first realize, not even after I’d read the books many times, that the world in which the books were set was a real place. I assumed that Anne’s world was entirely fictional.

I can’t remember exactly when I discovered that P.E.I., the place in which the books were set, was real. Perhaps it was when I studied Canada in a Geography class and the name Prince Edward Island leapt out at me and settled with a satisfying click against the name I’d read in the books.

But I do remember that the moment when I realized P.E.I. was real was a light bulb moment.

I decided in an exuberant burst of joyful adventure that one day I would go there. And so I did, after I graduated from university...and met my husband...and was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes to write THAT BOY RED.

I don’t imagine that Mrs. Chaubal could have envisioned the far-reaching and life-changing impact she had on one small girl sitting in front of her, drinking in the words to the story she loved and shared with her students.

Perhaps you teachers who read aloud to your students don’t always get thanked. Perhaps you don’t hear about the lives you change – but be assured that you do change lives. If nothing else, you bring delight – yes, delight, the light – to your students.

Thank you, Mrs. Chaubal, where ever you are.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


My latest book, a middle-grade novel THAT BOY RED (HarperCollins Canada) will be out in bookstores in mid-April. Set in Prince Edward Island during the Depression the book follows the escapades – sometimes hilarious, sometimes hair-raising – of eleven-year-old Roderick “Red” MacRae, and his coming of age through a particularly tumultuous year.

Seeing this book in print feels in a strange and satisfying way like coming full circle. Like most authors, I am repeatedly asked where I get my ideas and about the stories behind the story. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember, so organic and convoluted is the process.

But the story behind RED is a long road that winds back to my childhood.

When I was a girl growing up in India and then England, one of my favourite books was ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery. I loved that book. I read and re-read it umpteen times, as well as its sequels, until the world in which it was set, Prince Edward Island, became as familiar to me as mine. Or perhaps more familiar in the magical way in which imagined and internal worlds can be more real than external ones.

I'm not quite sure what it was about this book that so gripped me, so worked into my inner being. Perhaps it's because Anne's world was so different from mine.

My world when I first met Anne (how I met her is another story, for my next blog post), when I first walked through the magic portal of that book, was Mumbai, a sprawling city teeming with people, hot, dusty, vibrant, a cacophony of colour and sounds.

Anne’s world was almost the polar opposite – rural, contained, peaceful, with familiar nooks and crannies, beloved fields, wild flowers, woods. I crossed roads with blaring traffic and a maidan – a field – to get to school, a field filled with people, the grass trampled by many feet. Anne walked through the woods, through Violet Vale to school. What were violets? What were mayflowers? I had hibiscus, boring, familiar old hibiscus.

I was fascinated by Anne’s cosy family life with Matthew and Marilla, the meals eaten together, the predictability and stability of chores. The satisfaction of contributing to the household. My parents, as upper middle class Indians, had an active social life and servants to do all the work. We children rarely ate dinner with our parents. (And dinner was always the evening meal; the mid-day meal always lunch.) I was wistfully envious of Anne’s chores – washing dishes seemed delightfully cosy and homey. So...pioneerish!

And I was fascinated by Anne’s climate. Oh, the magic of snow.

I’d never seen snow. My seasons consisted of hot, hotter and wet – the wet part being the monsoon, when you could count on rain every single day, and after which you could count on no rain every single day. The summers were dusty and dry, and only mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the noon day sun. And of course, children. If I went out anywhere in the summer, I’d collapse in a sweaty puddle – that’s right, sweat, no lady-like glow, never mind manly perspiration – under the fan when I got home. Anne snuggled into sweaters. I only ever wore a light cardigan on those odd winter days when the temperature dipped below hot.

The Anne books became beloved friends. They were a constant thread through my life when I moved with my family to England. And like all good friends, the books eased the longing and be-longing that such a seismic shift creates.

When I decided after graduating from University to come to Canada, the Anne books were my impetus for choosing Prince Edward Island.

It was there that I met and married my husband. It was there – during my fourteen years on the Island – that I jerked past my inertia and my fear of failure to finally embark on my dream of writing. It was there that I delighted in my first publication success – a book published by an Island press, and one that became a best-seller.

And this book, THAT BOY RED, my latest work of fiction – this book was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes about growing up as a young lad in rural P.E.I. during the Depression.

I don’t think I ever dreamed or imagined when I was a girl in India – and my youthful dreams were wildly extravagant; I was not a parsimonious dreamer – that one day I’d live on the Island, marry an Islander and, inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes, write a book about a boy growing up on the Island, set in the era following Anne’s time.

Full circle.

Sometimes life is stranger – oh, so much neater, so much sweeter – than fiction.