“Writing for young readers is almost like dipping into a fountain of youth; for hours a day, I am a child again.”—Iain Lawrence
Iain Lawrence is a journalist, travel writer, and avid sailor, and the author of many acclaimed novels, including Ghost Boy, Lord of the Nutcracker Men, and the High Seas Trilogy: The Wreckers, The Smugglers, and
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When I was 12 or 13, I wrote picture books for my younger brother . . .
I started writing short stories after I graduated from high school and kept it up—though sporadically—during my ten-year career as a newspaper reporter. But journalism has a way of sponging creativity, so I went to work at a fish farm instead, in the hope that I would have more time to do my own writing. Two years later, when the farm went bankrupt and I found myself on employment insurance, I started writing seriously. I thought I could produce a publishable book during my one year of E.I. It was a naive idea; five years passed before I sold my first book.
My favorite stories from my childhood are the ones that were read to me . . .
The first story that I remember reading for myself is Robinson Crusoe. I would take it down to the river that flowed behind our house and lie in a little grassy nest. But I never finished it; I didn’t have the patience to read books as thick as that. I remember reading Owls in the Family and Born Free, skipping every second page and then every third in my hurry to reach the end.
My favorite stories from my childhood are the ones that were read to me, a chapter or two at bedtime. Strongest in my memory are beautiful stories like Stuart Little and The Wind in the Willows, and others that gave me nightmares like Treasure Island and Moonfleet.
Stories for young people are tremendously fun to write . . .
I love the shorter length, the quicker pacing, and the necessity of trying to see everything through the eyes of a child. Writing for young readers is almost like dipping into a fountain of youth; for hours a day, I am a child again.
I don’t think any story begins with just one idea . . .
. . . but from a connection of unrelated thoughts. I think all my stories begin with this idea of reliving old favorites, and of trying to capture the emotions that went along with them—fear or wonder or magic. When I look for new ideas, or decide what to tackle next, I think of what sort of story I would like to hear.
I write every day, starting in the morning and going on until mid-afternoon . . .
In winter and in rain, I go back to it in the evenings. But I find summer days too tempting to keep me inside. I always write on a computer and always play classical music, often the same CD over and over and over. In an annoying ritual, I have to win a game of computer solitaire before I can actually begin writing.
I begin every story with an outline, working forward and backward to fill in the plot. The outlines include notes on characters and settings, and they tend to be very chaotic, written almost as a dialogue with myself. They are full of questions and answers, of diverging alternative plots. I revise as I go along, replacing sentences and paragraphs with better ones, but keeping all the words on the computer screen. The passages that I’ve changed—and little notes that I’ve made to myself—keep piling up below the point that I’m working on. When I reach the end, I’ve got many, many pages of disjointed phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. It’s like a junk pile that I like to pick through now and then, just to see if there’s anything useful among the things I’ve thrown away.
I hope most of all to create characters that readers will remember . . .
I think it’s an amazing process that allows a reader to actually see what a writer imagines, to actually feel what a writer feels. I love getting letters from readers who say they felt as though they were inside the story. When I was the same age as them, I read about Captain Bligh’s amazing voyage in an open boat. I remember being so enthralled by one scene, where the sailors were trying to capture a seabird that had landed on the gunwale, that I almost shouted at my sister, who came into the room just then, “Shut up! You’ll scare the bird away.” That’s the feeling I’d like to create for my readers: that the story is utterly true at the time of its reading—that if you so much as move, you’ll scare the bird away.
Iain Lawrence lives on one of the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Columbia, and is an avid sailor. He lives with his longtime companion Kristin, as well as their dog Misty, and cat Sam.
A CONVERSATION WITH IAIN LAWRENCE ON THE LIGHTKEEPER'S DAUGHTER
Q: When did you develop an interest in writing? Did your teachers recognize your talent and encourage you?
A: My grade three teacher told my parents that I would grow up to be a writer. In later years, in junior high school and high school, creative writing class was my favorite part of school. I remember being praised but not encouraged. I was a very shy child, so it was intensely embarrasing if my stories were chosen to be read aloud, and excruciating if I had to read them myself.
In grade eleven or twelve, I volunteered to be a school correspondent for the neighborhood newspaper. But my first published story was so changed from the version I submitted that I never wrote another one. When I graduated from high school, though, I hoped to be a writer.
Q: In the Acknowledgments you talk about Lucy Island as the inspiration for the setting of The Lightkeeper's Daughter. What was your inspiration for the characters and story?
A: The first time I sailed to Lucy Island, there was a lightkeeper and his family living there. The last time, their house was just a stub of foundations poking up from burned and bulldozed ruins. It was like a different island, sad and somber, and it's this one that the McCraes inhabit–with a different name so that the real and very happy lightkeepers won't be mistaken for my fictional ones. The McCraes were inspired in part by the sense of loneliness and loss that lay thickly over Lucy then, and in part by the needs of the story. I gave each of them one strong desire, and their relationships arose naturally from the clashing of their different wants.
Q: You write "Alastair was good at everything because he only did the things that he was good at" (p. 101). How should we decide what to do, if it's not simply the things we're good at? Is there something you're not good at that you enjoy?
A: It's a bit of a Catch-22, isn't it? You can never enjoy doing something you don't do well, but if you do it badly long enough, you get good enough to enjoy it. There are many things I like to do now that were only painful at first. By never trying twice, Alastair limited himself to a very narrow range of interests.
Q: Tell us about your process. Some writers say that their best writing comes out of revising and editing, while others prefer the spontaneity of their first version. How do you work?
A: I love writing but don’t care much for rewriting. Once I’ve told a story, I tend to lose interest in it and want only to go on to the next one.
I used to start a novel knowing nothing of what would happen. I just began at the first page, wrote through to the last, and called the whole thing finished as soon as I reached the end. After many rejections, I realized I was doing something wrong. It’s my theory now (and I wonder sometimes if I didn’t just pick it up from someone else) that you can outline and write, or write and rewrite. But, really, it amounts to the same thing. A story that is started without an outline will become the outline, going through changes and revisions until it seems right.
Now I like to plan the story carefully and fully, going through it chapter by chapter until I know, for each of them, the beginning and the end, and most of what will happen in between. I like to know the characters, what they are like, and how they talk. The writing always strays from the outline in places. But, like a new highway built beside an old one, they eventually rejoin.
Q: Do you have any personal experiences with whales? What is your connection to them, and why was it important to you include the whale in the book?
A: This story really began with the whales. The very first thought that inspired it was to tell the songs that whales might sing to each other. Its title then, and nearly till the end, was The Singing of Whales. Several years passed from the day I started the first version to the day I finished the last, all during a time when I spent entire summers wandering the coast in a little sailboat. I often saw whales, and sometimes sought them out. I bought a hydrophone to listen to their voices in the water, and it was always incredibly moving to be near them. One time, we were overtaken by a pod of killer whales. We were going so slowly that they could have shot by, but instead they slowed as they passed. They surfaced right beside the boat, and all around it, a big group of adults and children, and it seemed for a while that we were traveling with them. It was magical, really. The killer whales of the coast represent the ultimate in freedom to me, and it breaks my heart that they're dying.
Q: Usually we think about parents sacrificing for their children. Yet, in a way, Alastair sacrifices his future for Murray's when he agrees to stay on the island. Do you think that happens often in families? How do you decide what to sacrifice for someone or something you love?
A: I think children seldom make even small sacrifices for their parents. But when they're older, and adults themselves, they often make huge ones, I think. It's ironic that Alastair, by giving his father what he wants, almost guarantees that Murray can't hang onto it. I can imagine that Alastair might have gone to school, studied whales, and returned to Lucy Island one day. I can imagine, too, that Squid would have stayed, and that Murray would have died a happy man on his own little island. But Alastair found that he had given up too much, and by doing it had doomed them all. If sacrifice has a limit, I have no idea what it is. But I can't imagine giving up life for a country, or even for a tiny little island.
Q: In many ways, this story is a tragedy. The characters learn and change, but only through great pain and the death of Alistair. Did you consider other fates for Alastair?
A: For a time, Alastair did have a different fate - or at least the possibility of one. An earlier version of the story made it clear, at the end, that Alastair paddled away from the island in hope of reaching Vancouver. Whether he arrived or not wasn't said. But it was unthinkable that Alastair would go on with his life without letting Squid, at least, know that he was still alive. So the ending was changed to be less ambiguous, and I think this one is better. But, yes, these character became very real for me, and I thought about them for a long time afterward, often wondering if Alastair might have survived.
Q: At one point Hannah reminds Murray that "No man is an island" (p. 112). Do you agree? Do you identify with Murray's desire?
A: Hannah, of course, is quoting the poet John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..." I agree very much with that. The more firmly a person is connected to the mass of humanity, the better that person seems. At the same time, I understand Murray's wish for a simple life in an idyllic place, free from the worries of the world. That he can't have it, no matter how he tries, is a sad reality. Like most people, I think, I'm often less of an island than I'd wish, and sometimes more than I'd like.
Q: Why did you want to tell this story (particularly for a young adult audience)?
A: For a long time, I considered telling this story in a more straightforward way, beginning with Alastair's birth and ending with his death. It would have been the same story, but very different. Trying to tell it as a series of memories was a puzzle that interested me through the planning and the writing. I wanted a sad story about people struggling for something they couldn't quite reach, and settling for something close. That, to me, pretty well sums up what life is about.
“A fast-paced, atmospheric yarn that will have adventure buffs glued to their seats. . . . First-rate!”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
“This poignant adventure invites readers to look beyond others’ outer appearances and into their souls.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly
“This touching novel, [set a few years after World War II], will speak especially to readers who consider themselves different, flawed, or misunderstood.”—Starred, School Library Journal
LORD OF THE NUTCRACKER MEN
“Big themes are hauntingly conveyed through gripping personal story and eerie symbolism.”—Starred, Kirkus Reviews