Interview by the Young Adulting Editors
Gabrielle is an award winning writer, teacher and designer living in Vancouver, Canada. She writes picture books, middle grade, and YA contemporary and historical novels as Gabrielle Prendergast. Her science fiction and fantasy is published as G.S. Prendergast. She has won the Monte Miller Award, the Westchester Fiction Award and The BC Book Prize as well as being nominated or short listed for numerous other honors. Gabrielle has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and has taught writing at Sydney University, San Francisco State University, UBC, Royal Canadian College and at numerous conferences.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You have written for children and teens across the spectrum of ages, including a recent picture book, middle-grade, and young adult novels. What draws you to write for different ages?
Writing for different ages is the best strategy for a midlist author such as myself. If I started hitting bestseller lists in a particular category, I might stick with it for pragmatic reasons. That said, I have a lot of ideas, and fans of all ages, so I’ll pursue the muse wherever she takes me. Certain themes lend themselves better to specific age groups and I’m drawn to a lot of different themes. Who knows, I may even write for adults one day!
Urban fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary realism set in Vancouver’s downtown eastside: you write across genres as well as ages. Despite the differences between genres, is there a common thread that always seems to appear in your writing?
Most of my novels have themes of forgiveness and redemption, both of self and others. I’m not really interested in “Mary Sue” characters, who are perfect and strong and then become more perfect and more strong through the story. I prefer to write about characters who have distinct flaws and weaknesses that they have to confront in order to prevail. One of the most redeeming qualities in anyone–fictional or real–is the ability to forgive. Possibly that’s my Catholic upbringing speaking, but that’s certainly a recurring theme in my books. My protagonists often end up forgiving, befriending, or even loving the villains.
Hi-Lo (high-interest, low-literacy) novels are a specialty of yours, and you’ve also written verse novels; both can be more accessible for “reluctant readers” who want to improve their reading skills. Why is it important to reach this audience?
To answer this question, I like to tell a story about a classroom visit I did up in remote Northern BC a few years ago. It was a small class of 7-9 year olds and we were talking about who likes to read and who doesn’t. One little boy said he didn’t like books; he didn’t even like sentences. His friend, not to be outdone, said, “I don’t even like words.” So I asked him what he did like. He said building motorcycles with his dad. I asked him how he and his dad learned how to build motorcycles. Were there instructions written down somewhere? And he said, “Oh you mean like a manual? Yes we have a few of those.” And I said, “Those are books. Full of words.” And then the first boy, the one who had said, “I don’t like books,” said, “Wait. Is this a book?” He pulled out a HUGE book from his backpack. It was Guns and Ammo Annual (these were country kids LOL). I replied, “Yes, that is a book. Do you like that book?” The kid said, “I LOVE this book.” I said, “See, you do like books! You like books so much you brought one from home!” He had the biggest grin on his face.
Some kids, especially boys, have books put in front of them that they either aren’t interested in reading or they find too hard to read. So then they are labelled “reluctant readers” as though it’s their problem. It’s not. It’s our problem as writers and publishers and educators. We need to find reading material that works for them and validate their interests and choices. I’ve had kids ask me if audiobooks are real reading. Or if comic books or graphic novels are reading. Of course they are. So is Guns and Ammo.
This is why my sister (a UBC prof) and I use the term “undiscovered reader” rather than “reluctant reader.” That puts the onus on us to discover the reader inside them. Writing stories with simplified language is just part of that. We’re not only giving young readers a tool to succeed in one of the “core competencies” of their education, but helping them learn to read for pleasure and relaxation, which is so valuable.
Can you talk about the recent experience of having your YA novel Zero Repeat Forever go viral on TikTok? How did that happen?
A TikTok user bought my book from a clearance sale based on the cover. She loved it and immediately purchased the second one. She loved that one too. Like many readers, she contacted me, asking if there was going to be a third book (the second one has an open ending). I gave my standard answer, which was that I’d like to write a third book, but my publisher wasn’t interested. This is also the truth!
She then posted a rave review on TikTok, which started to go viral. By the time it had 10,000 views the books sold out at Amazon! She had also started encouraging people to contact my publisher, Simon & Schuster US, to ask them to sign up for a third book. By the end of that month the video had over 300k views and S&S had contacted my then-agent to complain about the harassment. They still don’t want a third book. Oh, well.
It’s been very validating to have a whole bunch of new fans for a book that got almost no marketing support. I love this series and would like to continue it, but with S&S being in limbo now, at least until their purchase by Penguin Random House goes through, I don’t see that happening any time soon. The book is still selling well and getting rave reviews posted nearly daily on TikTok. None of them have gone quite as viral as the first one, but I live in hope.
What you are working on next?
I’ve just finished a trilogy for Orca’s hi/lo series, Currents. The first one, The Crosswood, came out last month. The next two will come out this fall and next spring. After that I have another picture book due in early 2022. I’m also writing a middle grade book for which I got a Canada Council grant.
Beyond that, I’m having to strategize carefully about what to do next. I’m agentless again, and not sure if I want to dive back to the traditional kidlit publishing business. With the sale of S&S and several high profile kidlit imprints closing down things haven’t been great. The pandemic has only made things worse. I have a couple of finished books (a YA rom-com and a middle grade humorous fantasy) but I have a feeling they’ll struggle to find homes in the current climate. I may write something for adults. Or I might indie publish something, since I have a significant fan-base now.