Interview by the Young Adulting Editors
Sara de Waal is a writer and teacher from Abbotsford, BC. She graduated from the Master of Fine Arts Program at the University of British Columbia in 2020 and her first picture book, 48 Grasshopper Estates, was released with Annick Press in April, 2021. Sara writes to practice seeing and loving the world better. Sometimes, this takes the form of writing picture books, and sometimes it takes the form of short fiction, essays, or poems. She is inspired by her students who are some of the best storytellers she knows. Telling stories brings people together the way a good meal can. Sara writes to find those good words, the ones that can go a long way, in a world that is always hungry for stories.
Your first book, 48 Grasshopper Estates, tells the story of a girl’s imagination and creating connections with others. What inspired you to tell this story?
Like most kids, I had a pretty active imagination. And not much has changed! I often think of creativity and imagination in kids (and adults) as this magical lightness that can make anything happen. And this is true—but it also comes out of a desire to solve a problem, meet a need, or bring something into existence that doesn’t exist for you in the moment you’re in. For example, if you don’t have a friend, you can imagine one—or, even better, you can make one using your imagination. In 48 Grasshopper Estates, Sicily invents things and makes things to meet her needs. She makes food and music and entertainment. But creativity and imagination can be about so much more than just meeting a personal need or solving a problem. When imagination and creativity happen in community, they can bring together people and populations that might otherwise remain isolated. I wanted to write a book about the possibilities that come out of making things, and how this magic can go beyond one person and spread to a whole building of diverse, delightful, and sometimes lonely human beings. Imagining Sicily and her world helped me to tell this story.
Picture books require a fine balance of storytelling using both images and limited wordcounts, and can be, as with your book, a collaborative experience. What was the writing process like?
When I first set out to tell this story, I knew it wasn’t going to be solely about Sicily. I wanted it to be a story about her whole community, and of course, about the newest member—the boy with the very striped socks. Because of the very limited wordcount, I realized that the only way to tell so many stories in so few pages, would be through relying heavily on the illustrations. At the beginning, I included notes to the illustrator indicating the essential elements that would need to be communicated through the pictures. This was especially important for the silent spreads—the pages that would have no words at all. Once Erika Medina began working with the texts and the notes, she really made the story come alive through her own interpretation of the individual scenes. This was an exciting and dynamic process that took place over many drafts and many months. Writing a picture book is a unique experience because it requires a higher level of collaboration than other forms, and the book experiences tonal shifts from draft to draft as the images come into play with the texts afresh each time.
What do you find essential to your writing practice?
The most essential part of my writing practice is probably reading. I notice that if I’m reading scores of funny, delightful, and poignant picture books, my motivation for learning how to write picture books goes way up, and I want to sit down and try something new, play, work out an idea. From there, sometimes a longer project will evolve and be sustained by that initial joy sparked by reading. It’s the same for adult fiction, YA, graphic novels, and essays—reading is always the fuel for writing. If I feel anxious or bored or stuck when I approach the page, I’m probably hangry for a good book.
There are other ways to fill up before writing. Play is important to me—going outside, collecting objects, drawing for fun, writing silly poems. These kinds of activities helped me write Sicily’s story. If I’m writing for kids, I like to try to do the things I liked doing as a kid. If I’m writing for adults, I like to get out and spend time with the great quirky human family. This can be as simple as going into the gas station to pay for gas instead of paying at the pump, and having a longer than thirty-second conversation with the cashier. “Writing a novel” sounds overwhelming; writing about a stop by the gas station seems doable and even fun. And maybe that gas station scene could turn into a novel. Who knows? The important thing for me is spending enough time with books and with people so that I’m full of interesting words and interactions, and then tricking myself into writing about those in small ways, with the potential for each small writing act to become something more.
Other things that help: Daily practice of some sort (right now, I write a daily haiku); getting enough sleep; taking lots of walks; dancing; finding every opportunity to lighten up. (Even if I’m writing something serious; especially if I’m trying to write something serious.)
What has been the most impactful part of your experience in the UBC Creative Writing MFA? What advice do you have for a writer who might be considering pursuing an MFA?
Anyone can decide they want to write and then practice and improve by reading and writing intentionally and often. But it’s very easy for years to pass with many good intentions and very little writing. Doing an MFA forced me to carve out the time I needed to practice and practice some more, so that by the time I finished my degree, I knew that continuing those disciplines and practices was worth it. The program taught me that writing is always hard and always worth doing. Now I can hopefully continue carving out that time on my own without the support of the program.
UBC’s program specifically was impactful because it forced me to write across genres and try things way outside of my comfort zone—like comics. Taking comics changed the way I think about the relationship of text and images and deepened my practice of writing for children. The more classes you can take outside your “main” genre, the better!
The MFA exposed me to authors and works and genres I’d have never found on my own; it also provided deadlines and opportunity to develop practices and disciplines. Beyond all those benefits, the MFA gave me the opportunity to learn from and network with incredible writers. The MFA itself ends eventually, but the friendships and connections you make along the way continue. These invaluable relationships are my most treasured takeaway from my time at UBC.
My advice to anyone considering entering an MFA program is to use the time to start many projects, to make as many friends as you can, and to be invested in the work of your peers. In this way, you’ll come away with both work and relationships to sustain you when the writing journey gets aimless or lonely down the road.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I’m interested in polar bears, monsters, rocks, ice, opposites, the periodic table, loneliness, and how size and position change can change your perspective. So, I’m in the dabbling stages of picture books, graphic novels, and short stories that play with these ideas. This year I’m also working full time as a Grade 7 homeroom teacher, so a lot of my dabbling is happening in the Middle Grade age range. I’m compiling a list of Grade 7 Must-Reads, and I’m looking forward to curling up with a chapter book a weekend. Fall will be a time of filling up on new books and new experiences, and I’m excited to see what projects these inspire in the coming year.