Interview by Deborah Vail
Brent van Staalduinen is an award-winning novelist and short story writer from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and the author of the novels BOY (Dundurn Press), NOTHING BUT LIFE (Dundurn Press), SAINTS, UNEXPECTED (Invisible Publishing), as well as the short story collection CUT ROAD (available from Guernica Editions June 1, 2022).
Brent, thank you for agreeing to this interview! Congratulations on your recent nomination for the White Pine Award and on winning the Kerry Schooley Book Award for your previous YA novel, Boy. What have these latest recognitions brought to your writing process, and what, in your opinion, is the one key ingredient that makes for a successful career in writing such as yours?
Thank you! It was thrilling news, to be sure. And what a cool prize: getting nominated puts my book in more hands and my words into more brains, and actual readers get to pick the winner, which makes it extra special. My process hasn’t changed much — every morning still sees me writing, bum in chair and eyes on screen — but it’ll be interesting to see how much busier life away from my desk will get as we move further into the reading period.
Every writer is different, but for me it’s important to keep my routines and keep writing. Tenacity and thick skin are important for navigating the submissions and publishing part of the gig, too.
You live and write in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the setting for Saints Unexpected, Boy, and Nothing but Life. What are some advantages and disadvantages of writing about the place you live? What should writers consider when anchoring their narrative so close to home?
For me, the main advantage is that Hamilton is always new to me (I’m an imported Hamiltonian), so I’m never bored. It’s also relatively unexplored in novels, which means fresh material for me as well as the reader. Finding new perspectives on a place is really important, whether we’re putting our characters in places that have never been explored, or in [insert your favourite/familiar/overused setting here].
When crafting a YA novel, where does your inspiration for your cast of characters come from? How many drafts does it take before you feel like you really know them?
Sometimes characters appear as images, sometimes they’ll be born into a short story. Knowing them can happen right away but mostly they hang around, do interesting things, and wait for me to notice. Mara, a character in my novel Boy is an example of an image: in his case, a troubled man living under a highway appeared in my brain in 2013 and refused to leave. Dills in Nothing But Life is a persistent character: he first appeared in a short story called “Skinks” and buzzed mosquito-like around my head until I promised I’d write him into a novel.
I’ve read that you attended Redeemer University and there are subtle references to the Christian faith throughout your writing. How has your knowledge and experience with the Christian faith influenced your stories, especially when introducing magic realism into a plot?
In a macro sense, I think telling these kinds of stories is a universal link to our collective quest for meaning, as we attempt to make sense of the world around us. We’re the only animal that tries to explain the inexplicable and corral wonder for our own needs and desires. At a craft level, my faith allows me to be receptive to the supernatural and the fantastic, because I’ve fed for so long on tales of miracles, angels, firestorms, demons, plagues of locusts, and people rising from the dead. Everyday magic? Forces moving beyond our sensory perception? Telling a storm to be still? Stopping time? All familiar, all accessible, all fair game. And fun to write, too.
What characteristics of a novel, besides the age of a protagonist, categorize it as YA rather than adult fiction, and what should writers of YA keep in mind as they begin to develop characters and plotline?
Teenage life is full of unique rites of passage, quests, stumbles, falls, temptations, and a host of other conflict-ridden things. Someone who seeks to write YA should try to tap into these, and more. I also think we need to find new voices and stories that diverge from the mainstream. Shine light into attic and basement corners. Upend the canon. Create new heroes, monsters, and villains.
What can readers expect from your forthcoming publication CUT ROAD from Guernica Editions in spring 2022? If you have another project on the go, can you hint at what it might be?
Cut Road is my first collection of short fiction, and I’m grateful to Guernica for helping me gather some of my best stories in one place. There’s so much humanity in these fictions, so many ways people fall short: I hope reading the collection will be like eavesdropping on a gathering of old, young, wicked, tempted, fallen friends.
I have a number of book-length projects on the go in various states of completion, each one as dear and angst-ridden as the next. I want to write everything.
Deborah Vail holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Antigonish Review, Grain Magazine, and The New Quarterly and reviews of noteworthy books in Prism, The Antigonish Review, and Young Adulting Review.