Saskatoon StarPhoenix Interview - Katherine Lawrence on 'STAY'
Reviewed by: Cam Fuller
There may be one fewer puppy book in the world but in its place is Stay, a realistic story of an 11-year-old girl who wants a dog while her parents are splitting up.
Kids actually helped decide which way the book would go, says author Katherine Lawrence.
“First, I wanted to write a children’s book that was about a dog and how that dog was named because that is one of my family’s favourite stories.
“I wrote that story and then I decided I needed some feedback from kids. So I workshopped that manuscript at a couple of elementary schools, Grades 3 to 8, and they clobbered me.”
The younger children were fine with the draft but the older ones had lots of input. They questioned why the main character, Millie, didn’t have a cellphone and didn’t use a computer. They were suspicious about the parents getting along so well. There wondered why there was no friction between Millie and her sister.
“It was just too happy from start to finish,” says Lawrence.
“It was a really, really interesting process.”
She instantly realized that the book she wanted to write was hiding underneath, the one about a fractured family.
“It’s what I write about. I write about families. I was raised by a single mother. My parents divorced when I was Millie’s age. I get it. But I didn’t know if I could write about it for kids because I think I was afraid of treading on sensitive territory.”
The feedback was ‘go for it,’ and that’s what she did.
“They’re just so sophisticated,” Lawrence said of her elementary school critics. “I left those workshops thinking I had license to do just about anything.”
The process began again with not just rewriting but a shift from prose to poetry, which is where Lawrence excels. Her three poetry collections, Ring Finger, Left Hand, Lying to Our Mothers and Never Mind have won several Saskatchewan Book Awards and nominations.
Stay is Lawrence’s first novel in verse, a free-flowing storytelling form with unique appeal for young people who aren’t as intimidated by poetry as adults.
“I’ve since learned that teachers and educators love the genre because, for the reluctant reader, they pick up the book, they can read one piece and they get it. And if they’re curious they can turn the page and there’s the next one. So they get mastery of a story right away. And for the avid reader, they get all the figurative language and they’re off and running.”
Lawrence wrote as a teenager, and loved when writers would visit her class — it made writing seem doable. She got into poetry in university “and then, after I had kids, I started wanting to find a way to express the tsunami of family life.
“In the midst of raising a family I was also revisiting what my parents went through in their decision to divorce because I came to look at that with way more empathy and appreciate just how tough it was for them.”
Lawrence firmly believes that writing saves lives. It teaches empathy, it’s a means of escape, it helps readers express themselves. And when you have a book, you have a friend.
In writing, her approach to her audience is no child left behind. She wants them to stay, you could say.
“You’ve got one chance with these kids to lose them or keep them on the page, and I don’t want to lose a single one.”
This article originally appeared in the June 8th edition of the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.