Published March 2010
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The man behind the curtain
Allan Stratton abandoned a career in the spotlight to explore the darker terrain of adolescence
Allan Stratton’s young adult fiction is known for its dark, challenging subject matter, but you’d never know it from the author’s disarmingly sunny disposition. The 58-year-old former playwright talks a mile a minute, at great volume, sometimes squeezing his eyes shut while making a point. “I’m talking a bit loudly,” he admits at one point, “like I’m on a stage.”
The reference to the stage is fitting: throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Stratton was known for writing lighthearted, farcical plays that were produced across the country. In the past decade, however, he has reinvented himself as a YA author unafraid of tackling disturbing themes, whether it’s sexual violence (Leslie’s Journal) or the HIV/AIDS pandemic (Chanda’s Secrets and Chanda’s Wars). His new novel, Borderline (published this month by HarperCollins Canada; see review, p. 35), is about a Muslim teenager whose father is accused of colluding with terrorists.
Stratton sees a clear connection between his comedies and his much darker novels for adolescents. “Comedy and tragedy are flip sides of the same coin,” he says. “Good farce … posits a world where we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control, struggling to maintain our dignity while social facades disintegrate around us.”
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When I walk into his cozy, bright home in Toronto’s India Bazaar neighbourhood, Stratton takes my coat, introduces me to each of his four cats, hands me a large cup of coffee, and apologizes for not having much food in the house – seemingly all in a single breath. Stratton drinks a half pot of coffee in the morning and then doesn’t touch caffeine for the rest of the day. “Otherwise, I’m…,” he says, making a sound that closely resembles a lawn mower.
Moderation is not Stratton’s forte. When he drank – he quit 12 years ago – he was up to three bottles of wine a night. When it comes to praising his mother, he cannot find enough superlatives, describing her at one point as “perfection.” The strong, maternal female characters in his work are often modelled after her, and he acknowledges that she (like all good mothers) is his biggest fan. “If I were an axe murderer, my mother would say there was a good reason,” he says.
Having grown up the gay son of a divorced single mother in 1950s small-town Ontario, Stratton is acquainted with shame and the keeping of secrets. He had a tumultuous relationship with his father, the details of which he politely tiptoes around, and one of his earliest impulses was to write things down in a bid to impose order and escape the chaos that characterized his childhood. It’s no coincidence that he now reaches out to a teenage audience with the messages he himself yearned to hear growing up. “We’re all afraid of shame and stigma, and of losing the respect and love of others,” he says. “We all want to be part of society but also our own person.”
Stratton’s first escape hatch was a scholarship to attend Neuchâtel Junior College in Switzerland for his last year of high school. “All of a sudden I wasn’t alone and weird, and it wasn’t a crime to get good grades,” he says. Stratton’s first play, The Rusting Heart, was published while he was still in high school, and he later cut his teeth as an actor, performing with the Stratford Festival and earning a master’s degree in drama at the University of Toronto. He found quick success as a playwright: the farce Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii (1980) has become something of a classic with more than 300 productions, and Rexy! (1981), a satire about William Lyon Mackenzie King, won the Chalmers Award, the Canadian Authors’ Association Award, and the Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new play.
Stratton’s transition to novels occured when his ideas outgrew the stage. He had written a play, The Phoenix Lottery, that didn’t immediately find a home, but it kept expanding in his mind until it included hundreds of characters and its setting ranged from America to Italy, the Arctic, and Cuba. “I realized that no theatre in the world could afford the set,” he says. “That’s when I became a novelist.” The Phoenix Lottery (Stratton’s only adult novel to date) was eventually released by Riverbank Press in 2000.
Around the same time, Stratton was “discovered” by Annick Press director Rick Wilks, who was serving as a juror for the Canada Council when he came across Stratton’s application for a writing grant. “He was clearly a great storyteller with a real edge, and not afraid to handle difficult issues,” says Wilks. Looking to publish YA fiction with more serious themes, Wilks tapped the playwright.
Stratton’s first YA novel, Leslie’s Journal, appeared in 2000 through Annick Press. While the book’s troubled teenage protagonist displayed Stratton’s characteristic wit and penchant for sparkling dialogue, it also explored themes of date rape and stalking – subjects Stratton had become acquainted with when he taught drama at the Etobicoke School of the Arts in the mid-1990s. (He stopped teaching because it drained his ability to write.) The book was a critical success – the American Library Association named it one of the best YA books of the year – and Wilks commissioned Stratton to write another YA novel, this time about the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. Stratton did some research in Botswana – “People spoke to me if I promised to keep their secret,” he says – and the result was Chanda’s Secrets (2004), which has gone on to be published in more than 30 territories.
In fact, Chanda’s Secrets was such a success that Stratton moved to his current publisher, HarperCollins Canada, for the follow-up, Chanda’s Wars (2008). Any hard feelings between Wilks and Stratton have since been smoothed over. “In the early days there was no sense that Chanda’s Secrets would be the first of a series, so when the time came to do a second title we were unable to hammer out an agreement,” says Wilks.
Stratton says he likes writing teenage protagonists because their emotional lives are raw and vulnerable: “What do I remember about being a teenager? 1. Life’s not fair. 2. That sucks.” However, wary of labels, Stratton is conflicted about his books being pigeonholed as YA. “It’s a bit like classifying something as gay literature or ethnic literature or Canadian literature,” he says. “You know that it’s going to get more attention in a particular field; on the other hand, it means that lots of people won’t read your work that otherwise might.” Stratton claims such qualifiers set up false assumptions about quality. “Whom do Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and The Lovely Bones most appeal to: teens or adults? Why must there be a choice?”
Since moving to fiction, Stratton no longer writes plays, and he claims the world of theatre was not especially hard to leave behind. “I loved theatre, but I’d done what I could do there,” he says. Stratton continues to adjudicate for community theatre groups, and also speaks to teenagers and librarians, gigs that satisfy his need for collaboration. “With a play, you really get to see, hear, and feel an audience’s reaction,” he says. “With a novel, you hear from your readers in e-mails. It’s a much more distant thing.”
Stratton is currently at work on three books: The Resurrection of Mary Mabel McTavish, a humorous novel about a young woman who claims to have been raised from the dead (the project is currently without a publisher); and two medieval stories for HarperCollins, The Grave Robber’s Apprentice and The Necromancer’s Revenge. Last fall, he spent 10 days on the South African film set of Chanda’s Secrets, an international co-production between Vancouver’s Dilemma Productions and Germany’s Dreamer Joint Venture Productions.
When I spoke to Stratton in late January, he was preparing to attend a writer’s retreat in Cuba; he’s visited the country more than 40 times. “I can’t do yoga, so I snorkel to relax,” he says. He was also looking forward to a spring trip to Cambodia and Vietnam with his husband Daniel, whom he has been with for 21 years.
Stories of date rape and HIV infection, themes of otherness and persecution, have not precluded Stratton from enjoying his life. “There’s no question that Allan wants to look at the dark, foreboding side of [things],” says Wilks. “But he also understands that within that there’s hope.” As Stratton puts it, “Life often proceeds not by conscious desire but by our openness to new opportunities.”