Category Archives: Authors

Beyond the Cover: author reading on social justice

This past Saturday, at 7:30 pm, we (Midway Press, a division of Playfort Publishing) hosted an author reading at the SAGA Public Art Gallery in Salmon Arm, BC. Three authors each read from his or her latest published work. Although the story lines and contexts were different, each had a theme of social justice. The event, therefore, carried that exact theme: Social justice.

Three old friends (and authors) decided to get together to discuss a topic that each had recently written about: Social justice. Each spoke about a different aspect, with different stories: Don Sawyer about youth growing up in less than ideal situations, whether it be three native siblings taken from their mother and the reserve and put into separate foster homes, or a young boy witnessing his father die in a horrific car accident, or a teen girl being raped by her church minister in his young adult fiction book Running; Tom Wayman about the Afghan war and its absence and presence in Canadians’ everyday lives as citizens of a nation at war in his collection of poems Dirty Snow; and Carmen Rodriguez about three generations in a family affected by the 1973 military coup in Chile, and their flight to Canada as political refugees in her fictional take on true events in Retribution. Although each book is about something entirely different on the surface, they each speak to how social injustice affects everyone, whether or not they are even aware of it.

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Despite the dark (and I’m sure some of you are thinking depressing) overtones of the topic, each author injected humour into his or her book and the reading, along with something we all can relate to: Hope. It is truly amazing what human beings can overcome when given hope.

The discussion afterwards was lively and fascinating, with a range of points from educational matters in post-secondary institutions, such as leadership and politics, to communication barriers in this new technological world.

The authors signed and sold their books, each at a discount from the list price – even we got our hands on autographed books from Tom and Carmen!

We would like to thank Don Sawyer, Tom Wayman, and Carmen Rodriguez for allowing us to be a part of this enlightening event, as well as all the people who showed up, listened intently, asked questions and gave comments, and bought books from these authors. We couldn’t have done it without all of you!

The PFP team

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Fathers: family, love, and laughter – even when you’re away

The Lunch Bag Chronicles by Don Sawyer

One of the most difficult parts of being a parent who worked for periods overseas was the sadness I felt at leaving my two daughters behind in British Columbia.  Thankfully, they had (and have) a wonderful mother who would point to the moon at night and tell them that I was looking at the same moon way over in Africa, and then she would get out maps and talk about the countries I was in.  At night, they would count off the nights until I returned home.

Much of my work in Africa took place more than 25 years ago when my kids were small (Farish is turning 30 and Melissa is 36), and it was heart wrenching for all of us when I would get into the car and head to airport to fly to Ghana or The Gambia.  I loved my work, but I missed my daughters terribly, and I worried about losing touch with them when I was gone for weeks at a time.

Even when home, I had begun the practice of drawing and writing lunch bags for my kids to take to school.  Most were jokes, a picture drawn on one side with a question, the punch line on the back:

What do married snakes do after they’ve had a fight?

Hiss and make up!

Or (ghosts generally only appeared around Halloween)

Why did they put the ghost in jail?

Because he was haunting without a license!

But sometime the bags reflected events in the girls’ lives.  When Farish was going skating with her class, I drew a picture of her slipping with this helpful suggestion:

Have fun skating

But here’s some advice

Try to keep your bum

Off of the ice

And the day after Melissa was elected president of her elementary school, I sent this message to school with her:

We’re happy you won

And you’ll be good everyone says

But how long do we have to

Keep calling you prez?

I made the bags after the kids were in bed, and the process of finding or making up a joke just right for Melissa or Farish, edit it for the lunch bag format, come up with an illustration and colour it with the set of pencils the girls gave me for Father’s Day became a nightly ritual while they were in their mid-elementary years.  I was no illustrator, but I had a lot of fun drawing the pictures to go along with the jokes.  And I always got a smile out of it, thinking about the girls opening their lunch, laughing (or groaning!) at the joke and sharing them with their friends.

It took time, but the practice to me was a kind of meditation on my daughters: their interests, personality, sense of humour and the events that filled their days.  The whole process made me think about who they were, and how their lives were unfolding.

But things got more complicated when I was about to head over to Africa for a month or so (I was the director of my college’s International Development Centre and managed a number of development projects in West Africa).  By this time the lunch bags had become a fixture in the kids’ lives, so much so that they brought each one home after school and saved them in cardboard apple boxes (eventually we accumulated over 1,000 bags). So there was no way they were going to put up without bags for the duration of my trip.  That meant frantic lunch bag production, 20 or 25 at a time to be doled out while I was gone.

And they became a link between us as each bag reminded them that I was thinking of them and made them feel I was not really so far away.

Often the bags I drew and wrote for the day I left included messages about my upcoming trip:

Why did the little chocolate chip cookie cry?

And when I got back, I would sometimes make references to the places I’d been – and African jungle animals would often prowl the bags for a while:

What steps should you take if you are attacked by a lion?

After The Lunch Bag Chronicles (Playfort Publishing, 2010) was published, I discovered that there is a whole network of fathers who illustrate their kids’ lunch bags (who knew?), and I have had the privilege to share the book (and hundreds of bags that didn’t make it in – I figure I’m good for about 10 sequels) with kids and parents at readings and in classrooms.  From parents, I have heard over and over the ways they stayed in touch with their kids while at school – notes in their kids’ lunch boxes, photocopied poems taped to bags, bits of fatherly and motherly advice tucked in with a sandwich.

Whether 5,000 or five miles away, school is a time when our kids learn healthy life lessons and develop values and attitudes that will sustain them for the rest of their lives.  Knowing that their parents care about them and think about them enough to brighten their school day with a joke, note, or picture connecting them to their homes and parents is a reminder of how special they are and the importance of family, love, and laughter.

Don Sawyer

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Melanie Jackson explains Raw Deal

Here is our author Melanie Jackson talking about her most recent title with us, Raw Deal, which we just received from the printers last Friday! It really is an awesome mystery for young adults 🙂

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Interview with author Don Sawyer (Part 2)

Here is part 2 of our interview with author Don Sawyer. Read part 1 here.

PF:  What was your first publication?
  Very first? A poem called Chuckie that appeared in The Fiddlehead in the winter of 1977. I still have the cheque: $5. They’ve been trying to figure out why their books don’t balance for 34 years.  My first book was Tomorrow Is School and I Am Sick to the Heart Thinking About It, a non-fiction account of our first teaching experiences in a Newfoundland outport.  That book is also available through you.  Uh, Playfort.

PF:  Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.
  It’s difficult to tease out any one incident. I have lived in Newfoundland outports and small BC native communities. I have given workshops in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. I have taught on reserves and at universities. I have managed CIDA projects in West Africa. I have canoed the Fraser River and climbed in the Selkirks. My wife and I took our honeymoon travelling from Windsor to Vancouver by train. I have seen suicides on reserves and on the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit. I’ve seen my kids grow up in a multicultural society that has equipped them to work effectively in extraordinarily demanding cultural and social milieus. I’ve written a book for kids about Confederation, and I’ve worked with Secwepemc elders while writing a book about Shuswap communities for elementary grades. All of these are uniquely Canadian. And all of them affect who I am and what I write.

PF:  What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
  When Tomorrow Is School was published by Douglas and McIntyre, the first review (in the Vancouver Sun) panned it. I was devastated. Scotty McIntyre took me aside and told me two things: 1) If you accept the good reviews, you have to accept the bad ones. Better to not pay much attention to either, and 2) Writing a book is as close as a man can come to having a baby. After months of labour, you finally produce the manuscript. After careful and loving editing, it toddles out the door. Then it’s on its own. You’ve done your best and now you have to let it go.

PF:    What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?
  The usual: be persistent. I’ve never been able to nail down the exact figure, but legend has it that John Grisham’s first novel A Time to Kill was rejected more than 40 times. (Which means that 40 editors have now either jumped from high buildings or been fired.) Editors, for the most part, are not particularly good at picking stuff to publish. That’s why they rely on established writers. You just have to be at the right place at the right time. (Oh, and have a really good piece of writing.) One other note: I’ve been published by big houses and small ones. My best sales have come with the smaller publishers. Like Playfort. They often take more time marketing your books, and they also may have specific niches (e.g. aboriginal schools) where they have established themselves.  So I hope you take the hint and market the crap out of my books.

PF:  Tell us about some other recent writing projects.
  I wrote two books for Highgate Press, Playfort’s Quickread imprint, that are very interesting. But then you know that.

PF:  That’s not the point.  The readers don’t.
DS:  Oh, right.  So anyway, they are novels for adult readers with low reading skills. I wrote three of these for the BC Ministry of Education several years ago, and they have proved very popular with ESL and adult education students, as well as in alternate high school programs. The two I finished last year are mysteries. The first is Hurricane on Grimm’s Island and the second Saving Farley’s Bog. The trick with these is to write a fully adult novel at a grade 3 reading level that is engaging and entertaining. (Sound easy? Try it sometime.)
And then I got involved with you a couple of years ago on the lunchbag project.  Can I say that?

PF:  Let’s keep it impersonal.
  (Sigh).  OK, I got involved with Louise Wallace, the Playfort publisher, when we worked together on a labour of love, The Lunch Bag Chronicles. For years I drew pictures attached to jokes on my daughters’ lunch bags. They liked them so much, they brought them home, and eventually I had collected over 1,000 bags. We picked out a sample of these, combined them with a bit of narrative, and brought them out in book form about a year and a half ago. It’s a beautiful book, and it was a real pleasure to work with such a creative, collaborative team.

PF:  You say Playfort is collaborative.  How is that different from your experience with other publishers?
  The Playfort collective is a family of committed, talented people with expertise in every aspect of writing and publishing. There’s Harry, one of the most experienced editors in Canada. You’ve accepted manuscripts from best-selling authors such as Melanie Jackson. Otto, one of the most fantastic graphic artists anywhere.  And you too, Louise.

PF:  Uh-uh.  Impersonal.
  Right. Well anyway, Louise, the publisher, comes up with remarkably creative marketing ideas. Then there’s Violet, our office manager, who anchors us with her hard work and quiet competence. And Christina, our brilliant 14-year-old young adult editor. What a team. What that means is that we bring all of the expertise necessary to take a book from creation to publication together under virtually one roof.  We can be responsive and efficient.  For example, I just sat down with Violet to do the final edit of Running.  We had the whole thing done in a little over an hour. In most houses that would take months via email and with all the delays involved. As a writer I am involved in every aspect of the book’s production, from layout design and cover to marketing and promotion. I don’t feel like an outsider wondering what mysterious machinations are churning away in the bowels of the publisher’s office – or when it might finally spit out my finished book. We all work together and know the realities and constraints – as well as the possibilities – of operating a small publishing house in Canada. It’s fun.

Playfort Publishing would like to thank Don Sawyer for taking the time to answer our questions. His newest title, Running, is in the works right now and is expected to go to the printers in a few days.

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A bit about Melanie

As a mystery writer, I love creating sleights of hand in my plots. I lay out the red herrings and then – wham!, the villain isn’t who you thought it was at all. I credit this love of literary legerdemain to several writers and movie directors I enjoyed while growing up. (Plus, I suspect I have a vicariously criminal personality, but never mind that for now.)

One writer I adored was the inimitable Agatha Christie. My vote for best Agatha is the bone-chilling Sad Cypress. A young woman named Elinor is found guilty of murdering a fluffy blonde and condemned to be hanged. The situation seems so hopeless you really don’t see how diabolical Agatha will save her … I dare you to white-knuckle your way through this one.

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Interview with author Don Sawyer (Part 1)

We recently had the privilege to interview Don Sawyer about his new young adult title, Running, which is coming out soon. Here is part one of that interview, we hope you enjoy it!

PF:  Tell us about your latest book, which is coming out very soon, I believe.
DS:  That’s right.  Running will be out before Christmas.  It’s being published by Playfort Publishing’s young adult imprint, Midway Press.

PF:  So tell us a little about the book.
DS: Running is a fast-paced story about friendship, redemption, and the triumph of love.  Louie and Paul come from very different worlds.  Yet they have one thing in common. Tragedies have shattered their families and the boys’ lives.  To bury their hurt they run—fast and relentlessly.  A chance accident on the trails brings the two boys together, and an unlikely friendship grows.   Joined by Annie, another loner who has secrets of her own, they form a threesome that runs like the wind in the hills above their town.  But a disastrous attempt by Paul to join the school’s cross country team and an explosive encounter with their star runner turns the alliance upside down.  So then we follow the three as they try to overcome their isolation and anger, become a real team, and hatch an audacious scheme.  I think young adult readers will find it engaging, thought provoking, and a damned good read.

PF:  Playfort distributes some of your other books.
DS:  You should know.  You’re the publisher.

PF:  I was trying to appear objective in this interview.
DS:  Oh, right.  They, er, you handle both The Meanest Teacher in the World and Miss Flint Meets the Great Kweskin.  Both are at the upper elementary levels, but they are being used successfully right through middle school. The stories (seven in each book) are fairly easy to read (written at about a grade 3 level), but more importantly they’re just plain fun. They focus on the dastardly Miss Flint and how her ever-resourceful charges at Haywood Elementary get even. Kids at all levels can relate since, it seems, everyone has had a teacher like Miss Flint.  I also completed a teacher’s guide with lots of ideas for using the stories creatively in the classroom with the emphasis on having fun. I’ve delivered dozens of readings and writing workshops using the stories, and they never fail to engage and entertain kids.  Lately we have been pioneering the use of Skype to conduct readings right across the country.

PF:  Describe your ideal writing environment.
DS: I have a great office with lots of light and a comfortable chair, and I also enjoy writing outside on my deck using a laptop. The big thing is being somewhere I’m not distracted by, well, life. This February, my wife and I rented a place on an island in southern Alabama. It was a kind of winter-averse writing retreat for me. I managed to finish off Running, a book I’d been working on for months, in about three weeks. I love being involved in my community, international development work, gardening, walking Farley (our SPCA refugee Lapphund), working out, and so on. But darn, it sure gets in the way of writing.

Part two will be posted next week. Check back to find out the best advice he’s ever received as an author and the advice he has for aspiring authors-to-be!

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