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Q&A: Kidlit author Eric Wilson on the 40th anniversary of his literary debut

Murder On the Canadian 40thTo celebrate this month’s 40th anniversary of the publication of Eric Wilson’s first middle-grade novel, Murder on the Canadian, HarperCollins Canada has reissued the title, complete with a snazzy new cover. The mystery was the first in what turned out to be a series of 20 books featuring the characters of Tom and Liz Austen, which have sold more than 1.5 million copies in Canada to date. Q&Q asked Wilson about his long career as an author on the heels of this important milestone in his literary life.

It’s been 40 years since you published your first book. How has the publishing landscape, and children’s literature especially, changed during that time? I have seen a profound change in how we view ourselves as Canadians, and a lot of that change has been driven by our culture in the form of books, music, art, film, and television. In 1976, school librarians told me they would not put a maple leaf on the spines of our books because this meant poison to children. Now all ages are intensely proud to be Canadian. Kids, parents, and teachers devour the world-class literature produced by our authors and illustrators. It’s great to have seen this change happen.

You originally got into writing because you were frustrated by the lack of action-packed books for kids in your classes when you were teaching. Do you think there are more options now than there were for young readers when you started out? Lucy Maud Montgomery and Farley Mowat were trailblazers, demonstrating to other authors that our stories could resonate with readers everywhere. Others took up the challenge – Gordon Korman, Robert Munsch, and many more – and now Canadian books are being checked out daily from libraries throughout the world.

 Why did you decide to write mysteries for kids, as opposed to other genres? I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid, and so my mum tried to convert me with a gift of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It didn’t work – no one could convince me that a girl could fit down a rabbit hole. Then she tried The House on the Cliff, number one in the Hardy Boys Mystery Series. Before long I owned every one of those books and could be found reading them all day and even at night by flashlight under the bedcovers. In other words, mystery worked for me and I felt certain as a young would-be author that mysteries would work for the reluctant readers in my classroom.

Many adults grew up reading about Tom and Liz Austen. Have you encountered any multi-generational fan situations? I recently received an email from a father in Guelph, Ontario. It said: “When I was in Grade 8 I fell in love with your books. I’m now almost 42, and my 8-year-old son and I just finished reading Code Red at the Supermall. He loved it too. … With so much digital content and devices and distractions these days for kids, it’s so wonderful to read a book together with my son and never turn on the television!”

How does it feel, as you look back over four decades of writing, to know that your books have engaged generations of readers? Although I last taught in the 1980s, my heart remains in the classroom, which is why I continue to visit schools to promote literacy. It’s wonderful to know that, thanks to my books, I am a teacher to this day, even in schools I will never visit.

What’s been the greatest joy of your success as an author? There’s nothing quite like receiving in the mail a package from Madrid containing the 52nd reprint of Asesinato en el Canadian Express. Now that’s happiness!

How has your writing developed over the years? The best thing that ever happened to me was meeting my wife, Flo. With her encouragement I began to take risks with my mysteries, introducing social issues like child sexual abuse (The St. Andrews Werewolf) and the use of chemical weapons (Cold Midnight in Vieux Québec). Perhaps the story I am most proud of is The Inuk Mountie Adventure in which a Machiavellian Canadian prime minister secretly conspires to sell out the nation to our neighbour so that the U.S. can gain control of our water resources. The new country would be known as U.S.A.C. (the United States of America plus Canada), a concept that I’m happy to say has outraged kids for years!

Do you ever find it a challenge to come up with story ideas that resonate with today’s technology-obsessed kids? There’s no technology in Treasure Island and children still love that story. My dream is that Eric Wilson mysteries will last as long as the great tales of Robert Louis Stevenson.