We are excited to present another installment of our ongoing How She (or He) Does It series, wherein we ask the deep questions about–you guessed it–food and books. We interview fascinating, passionate people who are striving to balance life’s demands with their drive to create so that we can learn from them and, of course, share their thought-provoking responses with our readers. We’ve had quite the lineup of interviewees over the past few years and here they are if you wish to get caught up:
Tabitha Emma, graphic designer
Suzanne Cleary, ceramic jewelry artist
Theodora Armstrong, photographer
And now, without further ado, we present Rachelle Delaney, the acclaimed author of multiple-award nominated novels for children. In 2010 Rachelle was named the top under-30 author in Canada and she continues to prolifically produce witty, smart and thoroughly absorbing novels that can (and should!) be read by readers of all ages. Rachelle is the definition of adventurous: she’s always trying new things and travels to a new place around the world at least every year. She’s gone to circus school, babysat sloths and hung out with orangutans. She’s recently learned to play the fiddle and, as you’ll see below, she’s now trying her hand at visual art. Her novels are equally adventurous, from shipfuls of pirate children to dogs riding the subway in Moscow. It’s always a thrill to speak to her about what she does and how she does it, and we hope you enjoy this interview as much as we have.
Welcome to Fork & Fiction, Rachelle! We’re delighted to have you with us. First off, can you tell us what it is you do and where you live?
I write novels for middle-grade readers (ages 8 to 12), including The Metro Dogs of Moscow and The Circus Dogs of Prague. I also usually have a day job—I’ve spent the last four years working in communications and as a project lead for the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental organization.
I consider several parts of Canada home, including the west coast, where I spent most of the last 15 years, and Alberta, where I grew up. But for the last year I’ve been calling Toronto home.
Can you give us some background for how you came to be doing what you do?
I didn’t ever plan on, or really think about, being a published author. I just always wrote, from the time I was about eight until I reached university, at which point I decided to study it more seriously though still not with publishing in mind. My first degree was in environmental studies and creative writing, and I went on to do an MFA in Creative Writing (where I met Fork and Fiction’s own Ria Voros). My Masters thesis was my first children’s novel, which was published a few years after I graduated.
Way to start strong out of the gates! What’s been your proudest career moment so far?
I’ve published five novels in the last six years, which has been exciting and intense and sometimes totally exhausting. But I’m relieved to report that the thousands of hours I’ve spent writing (and rewriting, and rewriting again) seem to be paying off—I can see and feel myself improving as a writer. So I think my proudest moment was the publication of my last novel, The Circus Dogs of Prague. I knew it was my best yet, and also the one that feels the most me.
I know what you mean; the more you work, the more you know yourself as a writer. What about your work gives you the most joy?
One of the things I love best about writing is that it allows me to study so many things. I spend vast amounts of time (sometimes years) researching and planning before I ever actually start writing a novel. This usually involves interviewing interesting people and travelling wherever possible. When I wrote The Metro Dogs of Moscow, I took the opportunity to spend some time in Russia tracking down stray dogs on the subway. I’ve spent the past three years taking in circus performances for a yet-unpublished novel. And because I’m a firm believer in “method writing,” I had to dabble (albeit clumsily) in some circus skills classes myself. Sometimes research is painful.
Who is your biggest cheerleader?
My mother. Not only does she read everything I write and offer feedback on drafts, she has gamely accompanied me on a few research trips, including the one to Russia, which involved frostbite, getting lost on the Moscow subway, and a mildly traumatic afternoon the St. Petersburg State Circus, which inspired The Circus Dogs of Prague. She’s a trooper.
Sounds like you’ve had some great adventures together. What do you enjoy least about your work?
Spending vast amounts of time by myself. In my late-twenties I spent a few years freelancing, working from home, often in pyjamas, on my novels and other writing contracts. I was constantly being told I was “living the dream,” so it took me a little while to realize how much I hated it. I mean, I adore writing, but I also absolutely need to work with people. Finding a balance between human interaction and alone time is often tricky.
What do you still hope to achieve creatively?
Confession: this year I decided that, at nearly 35 years old, I would learn to draw. I’d done everything in my power to avoid drawing since about age 10, when I got it in my head that I had zero artistic ability. Whether illustration will ever become part of my creative work will not, I imagine, be determined for a very long time. But I’m loving the challenge and the way it wakes up a different part of my brain.
What quality do you think is most important for a writer to be successful?
Perseverance and dedication. Good writers might have some innate talent, but they get really good by sitting down and writing, every day. My dad used to coach every sport imaginable, and he always told me, while we were practicing lay-ups or the triple-jump or overhand serves, that if things are worth doing, they’re worth doing poorly. And that goes for writing as well.
Good advice, Dad! I’ll keep that in mind next time I’m berating myself over a poorly written paragraph. How do you juggle the work you do with your other demands and responsibilities?
I try as much as possible to make writing my first priority. On my days off, I start the day with writing (well, usually after a run or a yoga session. Otherwise I get too restless). I have a deadline, I’ll get up super early and squeeze in writing time before I go to work as well.
What book made a big impact on your life?
I read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak during a pretty formative time in my writing education, and I remember needing to be alone for a few hours after finishing it. I think I felt equal parts shattered by the story and gobsmacked by how Zusak had managed to connect the reader so completely to these characters (including the narrative voice of Death. Death!). An author friend of mine summed it up nicely when she said, “I had no idea you could do that!”
I also think that much of what I know about humour I learned from The Princess Bride by William Goldberg. I’d say anyone who knows me well would agree with that.
Who is your favourite author and why?
I have so many much-loved authors. Isabelle Allende for beautiful magic realism. Jessica Grant for her near-perfect debut, Come Thou Tortoise, which I so admire for being at once hilarious and profound. In the world of contemporary kids books, I’ve recently discovered Katherine Rundell, who wrote Rooftoppers, a delightful middle-grade novel set on the rooftops of Paris.
Digital reader or paper?
Both. I love having a physical library, and some books, like poetry books, just feel like they should be in print. But e-books have kind of revolutionized my travels. No longer do I have to lug around a suitcase or backpack full of novels—they’re all on the iPad.
Who would be on your dream dinner party guest list?
I recently saw the film Iris, so Iris Apfel is definitely invited for her wisdom and sass. Also Maria Popova, the brainy and eloquent creator of Brainpickings. Maybe David Sedaris for hilarity? Oh, and Maria Tagliaferro, the pastry chef at Helmut Newcake (more on that below). Who would, of course, bring cake.
Do you eat while you read? If so, what?
So I recently developed a thing for mug cake. I know, I know—microwaves. But mug cake, guys! In my humble opinion, an adorable little warm cake in a mug is basically the perfect reading snack.
Oh, I just looked up that link…mug cake looks like it’s in my near future. What was the best meal of your life?
I have celiac disease—basically a severe gluten allergy—which you might assume would make travelling a little challenging. But I travel a lot and don’t find it too tricky, especially in France, which happens to be one of my favourite places. So this past November, I was on my way home from Laos and decided to extend a four-hour layover in Paris for four days (because how could I not?). And several people, including my baked goods guru Ria, told me that I had to check out Helmut Newcake, which has basically revolutionized gluten-free desserts. We’re talking true Parisian-quality pastries. My visit resulted in my eating a giant Madame de Fontenay for dinner. And it was one of the greatest things I’ve ever tasted. Tears might have been involved.
What is always in your fridge and/or pantry?
Right now I live by myself and have a bad habit of only buying food for a few days at a time, so sometimes my fridge is embarrassingly bare. But there is almost always quality dark chocolate around. Because priorities.
What is the most important non-food thing in your kitchen?
My moka pot. I know there are far more sophisticated ways of making espresso, but I just love the ritual of boiling water, heating the pot, and watching the espresso rise out of the spout and (if I’ve done it just right) form a nice crema. I take my coffee to my table and sit down with a book that has nothing to do with the day ahead, and I spend fifteen minutes or so reading before running off to catch the subway. I think of it as taking back my day before I devote it to other things.
Who are you most inspired by?
I recently discovered the illustrator Lisa Congdon, who inspires me not only because she’s crazy talented and accomplished, but because she didn’t take up drawing until her thirties. She’s always very honest about being a “late bloomer,” and how she gets braver and freer, in art as in life, as she gets older. I’m into that right now.
How would you sum up your life in three words?
I’m going to go with this, found on a building in Toronto.
Thank you so much for giving us insight into your writing (and eating) life, Rachelle! We wish you all the best on your next book; no doubt it will involve a lot of adventure…and maybe a trapeze or two? We can only hope!
R & H
Love your Dad’s approach, Rachelle, I might have to use that line with my own kids. As for Zuzak – isn’t he UH-MAZE-ING? He shares the same agent and I met him once at a party at her house. I was very uncool about it.
I admire people who take up new creative pursuits as adults. Especially visual arts! I am intimidated by anything more than a stick man. But, I started playing the harp in my early 30’s. I love the harp for so many reasons, including reminding that it is important to ignore that pesky ego. There are surprising payoffs at the end!