Interview by Emily Stringer
Guyanese-Canadian author and writing instructor Natasha Deen has published over 24 works for kids and teens, and she writes in a variety of genres, from non-fiction to speculative fiction. Her works have been nominated for numerous awards, including the Sunburst Award and the Alberta Readers’ Choice Award, and they have been chosen as CCBC Best Picks for Kids and Teens as well as Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Natasha’s YA novel, In the Key of Nira Ghani, was both a Red Maple Honour Book and won the 2020 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. When she’s not writing, she spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her pets that she’s the boss of the house. Visit Natasha at www.natashadeen.com and on Twitter, @natasha_deen.
You write in many genres—from urban fantasy to contemporary fiction—for many grades—middle grade to YA—and have a prolific publishing schedule. What does your writing practice look like? Does it change depending on the project? Where do you do your best writing?
Creating a writing schedule (and sticking to it!) is a key tool to success for writers. What makes it difficult is creating a schedule subject to the individual’s abilities, personal obligations, deadlines, goals, etc.; that uniqueness can make scheduling an obstacle course for writers when they are trying to sort out what works best for them.
For me, I’m all about win-win, creating specific practices, and being kind to myself. So, it’s little things, like setting a timer for fifteen minutes of writing, and saying that in those fifteen minutes I will give it my best effort. Bear in mind, I’m not saying, “I will write x-amount of words,” or “I’m going to write my best scene, ever.” I’m just going to try my best.
Then, I give myself a break (five minutes). After that it’s another round of writing and then another break. This time, the break is ten minutes. As the day progresses, I keep at the fifteen minutes of writing, but I give myself longer breaks because I’m getting tired, and so is the creative side of my brain.
I also try to be flexible—some days, as writers, we need to step away from the page. IT IS OKAY not to write every day. IT IS OKAY to take breaks and recharge.
Practices will change according to the project. If you’re a writer dealing with serious/traumatic materials, you may not be able to stick to the same writing schedule/practice as you did when it was a lighter topic. Flexibility, I think, is one of the secret weapons in our writer’s arsenal.
As for the last question, because I travel for work, I’ve learned to write in airports and airplanes, staff rooms and libraries, but my favourite place to write is my office (and the fact that my pets are usually snoozing beside me in said office is one of the reasons it’s my go-to place).
You teach writing workshops for a variety of audiences at schools, libraries, and more. What is your favourite aspect of teaching writing workshops? How has the advent of remote lessons impacted your teaching?
Writing can be a lonely task—a writer is surrounded by voices all day, but those voices are in their head. When I’m teaching, it’s a wonderful opportunity to spend time with fellow writers, to listen to their practices and premises, to share the survival stories of being in this industry, and join in the laughter and the light of people pursuing the thing that gives them wings.
While remote learning has meant we don’t spend time in-person, it’s opened the writing world. Now, people who may live in rural areas or those with work/life conditions that would have hampered their ability to participate in workshops can join in the fun. It’s also been a positive for festivals—what a joy to attend a panel that’s in another province (or country!) and do it from the comfort of our homes.
Your contemporary fiction YA novel, In the Key of Nira Ghani (Running Kids Press, 2019), about a Guyanese girl trying to balance her parents’ “old-world” expectations and her own dreams of being a musician, received many awards and accolades. What has been the most rewarding part of the reception to this story?
I don’t know that I could pick a “most rewarding.” Nira’s story was a creative risk—she’s from a lesser-known culture, an immigrant, and not wealthy. And yet, the connections she made with readers lights me up. Having folks who say, “This is the first time I saw myself in a book,” or “I’m nothing like Nira, but everything like her,” is—ah, I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.
As writers, one of the things we need to keep close to our heart is that somewhere out there is someone who needs our story. They’re having a bad day, they’re feeling unseen, but it’s you, your story that will connect with them and brighten their day. So, take that risk, write that story that’s in your heart and mind. Believe me, someone out there needs to read your words.
The middle-grade series Girls Survive released multiple titles in January, 2021, including your title, Maria and The Plague: A Black Death Survival Story (Capstone). What was it like writing and releasing a book on a historical plague while experiencing the impacts of COVID-19—at a time when yourself and the audience can uniquely relate to the struggles of the main character?
I was researching that book in late 2019 and thinking, “I’m SO GLAD I’ve never been in a pandemic!” and “Please let me never have to survive a pandemic!” and then…COVID-19.
It was an experience researching a plague that had so many (so many!) similarities to what we are going through (travel restrictions in 1347 Florence? Yep. Governments implementing protocols to keep their people safe? Yep. Seeing the best and worst of humanity? Absolutely).
Weirdly, the book’s research gave me hope. We, as a species, have been through pandemics—the Plague, the Spanish Flu—and we survived. The other side of the hope was seeing how people came through for each other. I think about that a lot: that at the end of the day, kindness is the true measure of a person’s strength and when we care about each other in the same way we care for ourselves, we can survive and thrive through the most difficult times.
Your upcoming YA book Depth of Field (Orca Book Publishers, 2022) combines high school romantic drama with gritty survival action. Without too many spoilers, what can you tell us about how you developed the novel into what it is?
I was thinking about COVID/Maria and the Plague and how woefully inadequate I am to survive anything. (Let’s be clear, I’m the person who injures themselves rolling out of bed). That fact got me thinking about those two words that are gold to writers, “What if?”
What if a kid got lost in the wilderness? And what if he was totally inept at anything—the kind of person who gets lost in his basement? How does he survive? From there, I started thinking about why, why is he there? And why is he making the choices he’s making? Of course, a great part of the fun was sorting the twists for the readers, too.
I gave myself time, space, and patience, end eventually came up with the premise for Josh, a kid who’s been dumped by his girlfriend for being boring. In a fit of hurt and ego, he decides to head to the mountains to get photos of a family of bears. It’s risky and dangerous—and decidedly not boring. Only, it’s Josh. He gets lost, he’s unprepared for getting himself found, and then he stumbles into something he was never meant to see. Now, he’s being chased through the wilderness by a group of men and the question is, will he survive?