Interview by the Young Adulting Editors
Brooke Carter is a Canadian novelist. Her books include contemporary young adult titles Another Miserable Love Song, Learning Seventeen (a CCBC Best Book for Teens), Lucky Break, The Unbroken Hearts Club (a CCBC Starred Best Book for Teens), and the forthcoming Double or Nothing, all from Orca Book Publishers. Her young adult fantasy series debuts on April 7, 2020, with The Stone of Sorrow (Runecaster Book One). She lives with her family in BC, where she is hard at work writing and searching for the perfect cloak.
You did an MFA at UBC Creative Writing. What was the most important thing you learned during your degree?
My time at UBC was extremely valuable. While I’m not one of those people who thinks a creative writing program is absolutely necessary, I do think having deadlines and facing criticism is part of the process. A program like this kind of forces you into that. A writer doesn’t have to publish in order to be a writer, of course, but if publishing is a goal then it’s vital to get used to soul-crushing rejection, lack of opportunity, and having to write and rewrite your work endlessly. Connections and community matter, too, and I have some beloved friends from my time there.
There were three very important things that happened during my time in the MFA (because I can’t pick just one):
The first is that I was under pressure to write several long projects to completion while also working full-time and expecting my first child. In two years I wrote a YA novel, a literary novel, a TV series, and a couple of screenplays. As writers, we have to train ourselves to produce the words despite impossible deadlines and life events getting in the way. If we have health issues and financial struggles or other barriers, that makes things a lot harder, but we have to find a way to finish. I think somewhere inside me I always hoped that a book would sort of magically appear on its own, but it’s really just about not quitting—even when it seems hopeless, and even if it takes a long time.
The second important thing is that I majored in screenwriting and was blessed to work with an incredible writer and mentor, Sara Graefe. Her lessons in structure and the process of writing a screenplay are essential to how I write today. I start with my simple pitch idea and then expand it by working out the dramatic structure. Then I blow that up into a synopsis, then a treatment, a chapter outline with beats, and then somehow a very ugly first draft is born. Every book starts from dust, grows bones, builds muscle, and then hopefully has skin and hair without being completely hideous.
The third important thing is that I took a Writing for Children class with the incomparable Susan Juby. Though I had been writing short stories from the POV of teens since forever, and even though I almost exclusively read YA, I never considered that I was actually a YA writer. Taking Susan’s class was like being in one of those dreams where you can suddenly run really quickly and gracefully without ever stopping or even breathing hard. It was in this class that I drafted the bulk of what ended up being my second published book, Learning Seventeen. It was also in Susan’s class that I wrote a short exercise about a young Viking girl named Runa—and that is the moment my Runecaster series was born, though it would take almost a decade to get to where I am with it today. I will love Susan forever for her generous support and inspiration.
Tell us about the mythology behind your new Icelandic fantasy novel for YA (the first in a trilogy!) called Stone of Sorrow.
I am Icelandic-Canadian. My amma Gudrun sailed to Canada at a young age to start her life here, and the character of Runa is named after her. My grandfather also has an important character named after him. I’m inspired very much by my family, and also by the Scandinavian studies and Icelandic literature courses I took during my undergrad. I love the sagas, and I absolutely adore the wonderfully weird customs and superstitions of Iceland. We practice many of them at home, including the slightly malevolent Yule Lad tradition.
The Stone of Sorrow is not a historically accurate book. My version of ancient Iceland is an alternate magical reality, and it borrows from some of the old myths and turns others upside down. Familiar gods and goddess pop up throughout the series, but I like to think I had something new to say about them, or played with their characters in an interesting way.
The main magic element in the series is based on runes—that ancient system of writing. It’s used as both an alphabet and as a source for magical staves and symbols that help my heroine on her journey. My Runa is a reluctant spellcaster—she’s not very good at casting runes, and she has some disability with her eyes and a panic disorder that makes things all the more difficult. Norse mythology is fairly complex, mainly due to the different interpretations of ancient texts. Even the origins of the universe are told differently depending on which gods or goddesses you ascribe to.
Ultimately, this is a tale of sisters, and of a young woman coming into who she is and owning how she changes over time.
In the past, you’ve written high-interest, low-literary novels for Orca Book Publishers. Can you tell us what drew you to that form?
I’ve always written short—it’s the screenwriter in me. I like to tell a lean, mean story, and the hi-lo books from Orca Book Publishers (I’ve written for their Soundings and Sports lines), are a challenge. You need to tell an exciting story, one that is going to hook a young person who either doesn’t like to read or is struggling to read, and you need to tell it quickly. But that can’t be at the expense of good character development or subplot. Structure is vital, and oftentimes we need to edit the sentences down and simplify things. Word choice can be tricky, but it really helps you to tell a story plainly, which is the best way to tell anything. It is sometimes very difficult to take a novel’s worth of story and tell it in 20,000 words or less, but that is what we do, and I benefit from the expertise of an amazing editor. Some of my favourite recent YA books are hi-los, and one thing I love about Orca in particular is their mission to publish diverse books for kids and teens and their commitment to making quality ownvoices books. It’s very special to get to work with them, and the entire team is so lovely and supportive.
It’s also incredibly rewarding to get emails from young readers who say they enjoyed my books. The best email I received was from a mother whose teen daughter hated to read. It was so hard for her, but she picked up my book, Lucky Break, because of its sports content, read it in one sitting, and then wanted another. That is incredible to me. Books have been so important in my life and have saved me from some dark times, and if I can explore those themes in contemporary YA lit, and now in YA fantasy, then that’s honestly my dream job.
How does the place where you live influence your work?
I’m very fortunate, after decades of living in tiny places on busy highways, to now live in a place that backs onto a forest. It’s not rural, and it’s fairly close to the city, but I have eagles flying over my house and cougars and bears in the back, and the sound of a creek nearby. The moss on the trees can inspire a scene, and sometimes I go down the road to Alouette to stare at the lake or river. One day I did that when I was stuck on a scene and the image of a raven flying over the water came to me and opened things up. In Icelandic culture, and in my writing, a connection to nature is very important. Because Iceland has a treacherous landscape and climate, many of the myths and superstitions are elaborate warning systems. My protagonist, Runa, connects directly to the elements as part of her magic, and in many ways I experience that when I’m inspired by the natural world around me.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m in the substantive edit phase on book 2 in the Runecaster series (publishing in early 2021) and I am also writing book 3. In August this year I have another hi-lo coming out (Double or Nothing, from Orca).
Apart from my desire to add a fourth book to the Runecaster universe (a spin-off of sorts featuring a supporting character), I have a YA graphic novel series that is burning a hole in my heart. It just wants to be told. Hopefully I won’t have to wait a decade to accomplish it, but what else am I going to do?
Brooke Carter’s latest book, The Stone of Sorrow (Runecaster Book One), will hit the shelves April 7th, 2020! Our review is forthcoming.