Interview by the Young Adulting Editors
Marie Powell’s adventures in castle-hopping across North Wales resulted in her award-winning historical fantasy series, Last of the Gifted. Spirit Sight (Book 1) and Water Sight (Book 2), released in 2020. Marie is the author of more than 40 children’s books, along with award-winning short stories and poetry. She holds a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing from UBC, among other degrees. Find more information about Marie at: mariepowell.ca.
You have written over 40 books for kids with Scholastic Canada and Amicus, among other publishers. Many of your books are written for the early reader level, helping boost literacy skills while telling enjoyable stories. What is your writing process like for books for younger readers?
Writing a book for younger readers just beginning to explore books is incredibly rewarding. I worked as a library programmer for fifteen years and had the pleasure of reading to groups of young “pre-readers” a couple of times a week. They have a combination of intense curiosity and extreme distractibility that you have to take into account. Images are so important, but the words have to inspire the illustrator and, at the same time, attract and keep the young reader’s attention. I almost said listener, because the young reader is still hearing the sounds of words and learning the meanings. Someone said that the best readers can hear the words in their heads, and you want to initiate the young reader into that process by attracting the ear as well as the eye. If you want to be published by traditional educational publishers, you also have to keep in mind the mechanics: the 100 words kids should know by X age or grade, whether it’s the correct level to use contractions, things like that. It’s similar to putting together a puzzle in that way. But overall, you have to tell a story that engages their attention with characters that make the young readers want to “play” in the world of the story.
How has your love for travelling inspired your writing? Do your writing interests steer where you choose to travel next, or vice versa?
I love travelling and it feeds my writing process, but not directly. I have always travelled as a journalist, to write about the places and events I see and the people I meet. I’ve worked for weekly newspapers and small dailies where you covered a geographical area and I am always the first to volunteer for a road trip. I like to explore and write about the destinations around me in Saskatchewan and the prairies generally, as well as in Canada—we have lots of great places to see. I was one of those kids who lined up for the driver’s license test the day I turned sixteen, and I love travel time. The combination of horizon line and engine hum take me somewhere every time. I’ve written poems and short stories in my head while driving, and then fleshed out the details later.
I turned to fiction when I travelled to Wales, because my grandfather was from there and I wanted to “walk in his shoes” or at least where he walked (or where I imagined he might have walked, because all of my grandparents died before I was born). I travelled to Ireland just because some friends were going—and I loved it! My bucket list of travel destinations is huge. I can hardly wait until the restrictions are lifted and we can see the world again.
What were your inspirations for your YA fantasy series, Last of the Gifted? How many books do you anticipate will be in the series?
I was inspired during my first trip to North Wales, by the history and the feel of “old bones” in the countryside. In 1282–3, the Welsh prince was murdered, and his house annihilated during an invasion by Edward I (a.k.a. Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots and all that.) The country took another six months to go down on its knees, in spite of the war technology and overwhelming numbers against them. And just to make sure they wouldn’t rise again, Edward built thirteen huge, imposing stone castles and did things so unspeakable that he burned the records, so we don’t have as clear a picture of what went on for the next 20-30 years in Wales, the way we do with Scotland.
Then some 800 years later, the Welsh regained the right to use their own language and now signs are in Welsh first, schools are conducted in Welsh, and we have access to new cutting-edge research about the culture and way of life. That really struck me. So, I guess I am really trying to answer the question: how does a nation keep a language and culture alive for some 800 years after it’s been outlawed? I have funding from Creative Saskatchewan’s Book Production Program and Market and Export grant programs, so that has really allowed me to bring out the series the way I wanted to do it.
As for how long the series will be, I am working on that right now. I am a combination pantser-plotter, so I have an idea, but I am willing to listen to the murmurs and ghosts that appear during the writing. It’s like exploring a landscape or travelling to a new country: you can plan everything and only see what you decide to see, or you can allow yourself to take an unexpected turn down a road you didn’t see on the map. The Last of the Gifted series begins with Spirit Sight, which takes place just before Christmas in 1282, and continues with Water Sight to Halloween in 1283. The characters are chased out of their familiar world, and they have found a new place to live, but they need to survive into the spring of 1284 and learn to navigate the new world. I still need to see how that happens, which means at least one more book in this series. As well, I am intrigued by the secondary characters, which has led me to another three stories that will likely be a second related series, rather than more books in this series. I am working on fleshing out those details now, with funding from The Writers Union of Canada to work with a historical expert so I get a handle on the details from the start.
How did your experience in the MFA program at UBC impact your writing career? Do you have any advice for current and future students in the program?
UBC was amazing! It was the toughest and most rewarding course in writing I have taken, and everything I write during my MFA has been published or won/placed in a contest. The instructors were incredible, but they pushed us hard. The other students in my classes were tough but respectful and really helped me grow as a writer. It was hard, though, especially because I had to work and raise my kids at the same time. The MFA program is a real-life introduction to the crazy world of being a writer today, where you need to have the chops to navigate more than one genre at a pace that never lets up. There are other opportunities during an MFA as well. I got funding and moral support, from scholarships, from work as an editor and mentor in the Booming Ground program, and from the encouragement to present a paper at the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (CCWWP) conference. It also gave me the confidence to teach, edit, and mentor other writers after the program. So, I would say, persist! Take every opportunity you can while you have access to this level of expertise and mentorship. Stick to it, and you will refine your voice, and gain opportunities that you can’t even imagine while you’re going through it.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on next?
Other than Last of the Gifted and the related series, I have another novel in first-draft form from the 13th Century. I wrote it during NaNoWriMo last year because I needed to have some fun with writing again. And I have a novel about 100 pages in, that is more contemporary fantasy. I want to write more short stories and poetry, but I can’t manufacture time yet, so I think those will have to wait a few weeks while I sort out the series. But I use a hand-written journal for morning pages, where I let my imagination run and then flag the pages with different coloured Post-it notes so I can find them later—assuming I can remember what the colours stand for. I hope the restrictions aren’t lifted too soon because I can do my day-job from home right now, and all that extra time is helping. I would have to say persistence is the key for me, too.