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Q+A with award-winning author Sylvia McNicoll

May 1st, 2012 by Carrie Gleason


Q: Crush. Candy. Corpse. is your thirtieth book for kids and teens. You've written about everything from basketball, puppies, and robots to eating disorders and image. Why did you choose to write about the issues in this book? Why now?

A: Five years ago my mother started showing the first signs of Alzheimer's Disease when she tried to pay for our lunch with a plumber’s business card instead of her VISA, much like Cole’s grandmother in the story. It struck such a discordant note, as she was an avid shopper who wielded her credit card like a light sabre. I didn’t know anything about Alzheimer’s at the time, but I felt so angry and frustrated along the painful journey we were forced into taking that I needed to write about it. I know I would have been better off if I had read about someone else’s experiences before it happened to us. For readers today, it’s even more important to understand Alzheimer’s because they are in closer contact with their grandparents, “grandboomers,” who have helped with their upbringing. My readers will be more affected than any other generation. 


Q: You've written books from the point of view of girl main characters and boy main characters, but mostly girls. Why?

A: When I was younger and lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I’d play movies on the insides of my eyelids of adventures starring...ME! I’d be a soldier, a fireman, or a police officer. I never wanted to be anything other than a girl, but in these movies I always imagined myself a boy. It might have been the decade I was growing up in. It wasn't as common for girls to be these things then, like it is now. Now I write girls as stars in their own stories, sometimes in less than expected ways, like Sunny on trial for manslaughter. Currently in Canada I feel an unintentionally anti-feminist movement that pushes male protagonist books into the school curriculum and library so that boys will read since “girls read anything.” Instead, girls are being told subliminally that they don’t matter. Well, girls do matter and they shouldn’t have to imagine themselves as a boy to see themselves as a star in an adventure (or a protagonist in a book).


Q: Librarians often tell stories about the feeling they get when they have had success putting the right book in the hands of a reluctant reader at the right time. Have you had this experience with any of your novels?

A: I’ve enjoyed this experience many times right from the beginning of my career. My first book dealt with a girl whose mom was dying of cancer. My purpose had been to show readers suffering through ordinary painful adolescence a character who goes through something worse...and gets through it with humour and grace. I heard from a social worker that a girl whose mother was a crack addict came to every session carrying that book with her because it offered her comfort. 

It’s not only the problem novels that turn reluctant readers to fans either. On tour in northern Ontario, a waitress recognized me as the author who had stopped at her daughter’s school the day before. (I was wearing a t-shirt with the cover of the book a mystery thriller.) She insisted on giving me a hug because her daughter had stayed up all night reading her first novel, one the teacher/librarian had loaned her the money to buy, and that she had followed me to the car to have autographed. Teachers and librarians are often the unsung hero in these stories.

Another rewarding experience was when I met a guide dog named for the canine character in one of my books. The dog's foster owner, Samantha Hobbs, was 19 and had raised several guide dogs as a result of reading this book (her favourite) when she was nine. She came to launches of the subsequent books in the series with her foster dogs. With Crush. Candy. Corpse., I’ve already had this kind of success. Many girls have emailed to say they’ve stayed up nights and read under desks at school to gallop through the story. I’ve heard from a physician’s wife how her daughter trailed behind her reading interesting bits from the novel, exclaiming how she was learning so much about Alzheimer’s.


Q: You're careful in the book to leave the judgement of whether or not Sunny is guilty of a moral crime up to the reader. In your mind, is Sunny is guilty or not?

A: Sunny is actually my alter ego, Sonja and Sunny being names my mother had considered when I was born, Ehret being my maiden name. In many ways, I allow Sunny to do and say all the things I maybe thought about doing or said inside my head when my mother was ill. She questions the value of telling the truth. I’ve always prided myself on being honest, but I regret not lying to my mother at the beginning of the illness especially. I told my mom, who was German, “No, you’ll never visit Germany again.” I shouldn’t have answered her question that way. It was my anger and frustration speaking, not kindness or compassion. Sunny is more courageous than I ever could be. She is definitely Not Guilty. 





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