I am delighted that Jane Baird Warren is joining me today in celebration of her debut novel, How to Be a Goldfish.
I absolutely loved this historical middle grade set in 1981 Canada. It’s a story of kindness, courage, and the unraveling of family secrets. Jane masterfully presents two point of view characters, David, a city kid who is obsessed with Star Wars, and Lizzie, a farm girl who is on her way to being just as straight-talking as her grandmother. Filled with fascinating Canadian history relating to the treatment of gays, child indentured servants, and single mothers, Jane weaves a story filled with family lies and secrets. Readers will be on the edge of their seats as truths begin to emerge and competing ideas of what is a perfect family risk to tear two families apart. Hope is always at hand, however, as well as witty and entertaining expressions, making How to be a Goldfish both a fun and suspense-filled read!
Some family secrets feel too big to share…
When her teacher assigns a family tree project for parents’ day, Lizzie knows it won’t be long until Scotch Gully’s gossips start up again. Most folks in her conservative town are used to the fact that she’s the only kid with an unmarried mom, but when Lizzie’s family tree research uncovers a shocking secret about her grandmother, Lizzie knows that certain townsfolk will start their back-fence talk about her family once more. She turns to Harry ― who’s been like a grandfather to her ― for help and advice, but Harry has problems of his own. Someone has arrived at his farm claiming to own it, and is forcing Harry out. Now Lizzie must face losing Harry and the place that’s been her second home. Lizzie finds a surprising ally in David, the new owner’s son. Together, their sleuthing uncovers the keys to saving Harry and his farm, but sharing the secrets she and David have uncovered will put Lizzie’s complicated family on centre stage.
Told in the alternating voices of Lizzie and David, How to Be a Goldfish is a compelling, heartfelt, humorous read about acceptance and understanding, and will provide a gentle introduction to discussions about alternative families, homosexuality, feminism, forced adoptions and social justice.
Even though How to Be a Goldfish is Jane’s debut novel, Jane isn’t new to writing. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and in many literary magazines across North America and the UK. She also has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and freelances as an editorial consultant.
With all this as her background, I’m curious about how she landed in children’s literature, but even more so about how she knows so much about family farms, clever country language, and some of the most tragic aspects of Canadian history. So, with no further ado, let me turn things over to Jane. She joins us from Quebec, to tell us what was on Jane Baird Warren’s…
First foray into children’s literature: In her burred Scottish accent, my mother used to say, “Why don’t you write for children?”
At the time, I was writing and publishing short fiction and poetry. My head was full of fantasies about writing “the great” literary novel, doing book signings, and accepting the Governor General’s Award for fiction (with grace, modesty, and wearing a gorgeous gown).
I’ve always done this – falling inside a fantasy. For as long as I can remember, I’ve imagined myself being all sorts of things – a spelunker, a UN Translator, and a doctor slash bush pilot flying my own small plane to work in remote northern regions. I’ve even imagined myself as an entirely different person. I suppose that’s one of the appeals of writing – living out these fantasies in stories of my own making. But writing for children? That was something I had never imagined. Not even once.
Then, while chasing my Great Literary Novel Fantasy I enrolled in an MFA in Creative Writing. This was not long after my mom died. I expect that preyed on my subconscious and led me to choose Writing for Children as one of my three required writing disciplines.
My kidlit teacher was Glen Huser. A lovely man. He introduced me to the remarkable breadth and beauty possible in MG and YA. He pointed me toward books like The Chocolate Wars, Staying Fat for Sarah Byrne, Tuck Everlasting, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. That was when I first saw that it was possible to write books with beautiful prose that could be read and enjoyed by MG and YA readers and (and this is my favorite part!) by adults! I knew… I just knew that I wanted to do this. But it required unlearning a lot of old skills and the discovery and practice of new ones.
Starting line for How to Be a Goldfish: How to be a Goldfish began with only broad strokes – a dual-narrative, Parent-Trap-inspired, fun-filled middle-grade mystery novel (Phewf, that’s a mouthful!) where the big ending would be Lizzie and David discovering how they are related.
However, as I wrote, the world was becoming increasingly ugly and mean-spirited. All that unrest and unpleasantness began to seep into my writing brain. The negativity and the ‘othering‘ really got to me. Then BAM! Transgender individuals were banned from the military. As I watched and listened to the public reaction, I thought, “Come on, people! We’ve been here before with gay rights and freedoms. How can you not remember this?” We are so much better as individuals, and as a society, for accepting gay relationships, marriage, and the should-be-obvious-by-now truth that not all families need to look alike. Shouldn’t we extend the same acceptance to transgender folks?
Then came the tweet from Barak Obama where he quoted Nelson Mandela and reminded the world that no one is born hating. We have to be taught to hate, and if we can be taught to hate, we can be taught to love. The moment I read that it became my touchstone for How to Be a Goldfish.
However, I didn’t know any of this when I first began writing. And until I discovered it, I think it’s safe to say I hadn’t yet reached the starting line – I was just doing my pre-game stretches. Even then, it took time and a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out how to best structure a story that would be fun to read, a little exciting, and carry the heft of Mandela’s message, all without being preachy.
It was a fun writing puzzle to solve. I found the solution in the structure and time settings. Essentially, I created a strobe light that flashed once every forty years to highlight a moment in history. Goldfish is set in 1981 to capitalize on a reader’s reaction to surprising historical events. But not just the readers’ reactions. David and Lizzie have to face history also. Their sleuthing uncovers events from 1941 (it’s that 40-year strobe light in action!) that change not only their lives but the lives of the people around them.
But you asked about family secrets, and I admit… I am more than a little obsessed with those. Secrets are at the core of How to Be a Goldfish. They are also central to my current project, a YA thriller. And… drumroll… I’m even planning my next project – a novelization of my family story, which spans four continents and is rife with all manner of strange secrets.
Research Agenda: I love research! I can totally fall into the rabbit hole of that dreaded “Research Rapture.” For Goldfish, research was a massive part of finding the best way to get my takeaway across. I needed to find the right combination of historical events to allow my 40-year strobe light to shine on precisely the right issues. That took a long while and a lot of reading!
The farming details were more straightforward. I’ve never lived on a farm, so everything was based on research – in person, online, and in books. But I was fortunate to have expert readers to set me straight on all manner of farm-related things, including what a difficult lamb birth really looked like.
Biggest trick for solving plot problems: My biggest writerly temptation happens when (or because) I know where my characters need to go both in their physical and emotional space. Too often, I force their movements. Sometimes it’s egregious – like a deus ex machina – because it’s hard to see them suffer, right? But more often, it’s inorganic. It’s me, the writer, visibly moving my character across the storyboard rather than letting my character drive the action/reaction. And that never works! It ends up reading as stilted and unsatisfying.
Don’t get me wrong, I love plotting. I love the time it saves. But I believe the real magic happens when I let go and discover my inner Pantser. Once I do that, once I let myself sink deeply into my characters, their thoughts and actions begin to surprise me. When they surprise me, they’ll surprise my readers, and that will keep a reader engaged. It’s also when characters cease being representatives of a behavior or action (dare I say two-dimensional?) and come alive as individuals worth caring about.
So, my trick for solving plot problems? Let go and listen to your characters. They’ll tell you what needs to happen.
Favorite writing break: I live in Canada now, so the things I do when not writing are very seasonally dependent. Because we live on the shore of a beautiful lake, in summer, it’s all things aquatic: boating, kayaking, paddle boarding, and swimming. In winter, there’s snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and sledding with the Littles. But I also make quilts. They take a long time, but nothing compared to the time it takes to write a novel and hold that published book in your hands. In comparison, quilting provides relatively immediate gratification.
Best advice she has received from other authors: This may seem counterintuitive, but… don’t hold on too tightly to your power as The Author. Clinging claw-like to that control could mean you’re missing editorial suggestions that could make your book better.
I recently sent my “finished” manuscript to my agent. I thought it was brilliant. A shiny, beautiful thing. But apparently, she did not. She had suggestions, including a few large structural ones. My first reaction was defensive. But then I drank some wine, slept on her concerns, went on holiday, and did a lot of walking and thinking. And guess what? She was right! So Very Right!
Because I didn’t hold on too tightly to my authorial control, I will have a much better novel. Being open to editorial suggestions can be empowering and make your manuscript better. And for me, it’s all about writing the best book possible.
Mind: What I wish I’d known…
I thought I’d “made it” when I got my first agent. Sure, she was a junior agent, but she was also kind and clever and worked for a prestigious New York literary agency. Best of all, she loved my book. What more could a writer ask for? After twenty subs, the book hadn’t sold, so I did what my more experienced writing peers suggested – I began a new project. What no one told me then, and what I wish I’d known, was that not all agents want to hold your hand through your new novel development.
I shared those early chapters with my agent. She was friendly and encouraging. At first. But over time, our communication dwindled. It became clear that she lacked enthusiasm for this new project – the middle-grade novel that became How to Be a Goldfish.
My partner suggested I call her, but I’m not terrific with spontaneous conversations. I’m the person at the party who sits in the corner observing. Or the person hiding in the bathroom with her Kindle. So, I wrote her instead of calling.
I said I was pretty sure she wasn’t as in love with the new MG novel as I was and suggested that perhaps we should part ways. She agreed. I’d expected that answer, but it was still a knife to the gut that she didn’t fight to keep me as a client.
Picking myself up after that and getting on with the business of writing was really really hard. But I did it – one day at a time and with the help of an amazingly supportive kidlit community. Eventually, I found my touchstone in that Obama tweet, and I continued writing until I had a polished version of How to Be a Goldfish. And that got me a fantastic new agent who… drumroll…. sold that book!
Thanks so much, Jane! I love the thoughtful way you approach your books and the business of writing. It’s been an absolute pleasure chatting with you!
To purchase How to Be a Goldfish click on the book below.
If you would like to learn more about me, take a look at my website at sandranickel.com.