Having placed them at the centre of all six of her novels for young adults, Diana Wieler remains preoccupied with teenage males. “They’re endlessly fascinating,” she says over the phone from her home in Winnipeg. Having grown up in a house without males (her father left when she was six, and she had no brothers), Wieler developed a kind of scientific interest in them as psychological subjects. But her relationship with her characters is far from clinical; writing them is a process of close engagement. Asked if she would create a female protagonist, she seems to hesitate. She might – if she found the right avenue for one, but she says “a novel requires so much commitment by the writer that you have to think of things that are compelling to you.” Compelling is a word Wieler uses a lot in our conversation, which is fitting, given that the root of the word translates into the title of her new novel, Drive, published this fall by Groundwood Books. The story involves different kinds of drive: there is the drive through southern Manitoba that Jens Friesen, the 18-year-old protagonist, takes with his younger brother in a borrowed truck. There is also, in both the brothers, sexual drive, and the drive of ambition.
Motion is central to Wieler’s writing. “In my books there’s a strong forward movement,” she says. “People start out in motion and continue in motion, physical and emotional, throughout the story.” Certainly, there is a lot of movement in Drive. The narrative sustains a fast pace as Jens and his brother Daniel tackle a number of tough situations over the course of a long weekend. Given the value she places on progression, it is not surprising that one of Wieler’s major influences has been film structure in which, she explains, there are three acts. At the end of each act a decision is made, and the character moves forward. Although she was not exactly captivated by filmmaking when she first studied it at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology about 18 years ago, she has since given workshops on incorporating its techniques into novel-writing.
It isn’t just within a single plot that Wieler needs progression; she also looks for it in her own development as writer. “It’s very important for me to try different things … I don’t want to repeat myself.” Certainly, she has set herself some formidable challenges in her novels, both in the complexity of the characters and in the situations she has them confront. Her first novel, Last Chance Summer, features a 12-year-old foster child with fetal alcohol syndrome who struggles to make good on his promise to his social worker when he goes to stay on a farm for “troubled teens.” Bad Boy takes the emotional turbulence into the realm of an older teenage male who, angry and confused about his parents’ divorce and his best friend’s homosexuality, has to learn to control his own aggression. The RanVan trilogy enters the realm of spiritual adventure, but also continues the starkly realistic treatment of social and emotional issues that include grief, sexuality, AIDS, and racism. One of the traits that links all of Wieler’s protagonists is their outbursts of anger. Why is this a constant in her novels? “Anger becomes a very good engine for story,” she says. But it also presents a challenge, because it means that many of her characters are not immediately sympathetic. Jens, for instance, has a bad temper and is arrogant, and Wieler’s challenge was to have the reader want to follow him and look beneath the surface of his flaws to discover what is really in there. “I’m looking for the most believable human being. Nice people are easy; less than nice people are far more difficult and interesting. Also far more real.”
How does a woman who grew up in a house without men create such believable young males? It helps to be around her husband and 13-year-old son, but her information-gathering extends well beyond that. The emotional realism in Wieler’s characters is largely a matter of empathy: her ability to put herself in another person’s position and to see a situation from all angles. (“Which isn’t great when you want to have an argument with your husband,” she says with a laugh.) The creative process itself tends to govern what emerges on the page. “You open up a character you’ve created, and then you watch. The characters tend to take over for themselves. I had big fights with Jens about his voice,” she recalls. “I wanted him to be a lot snappier, more polished, and he just demanded to be this very simple voice, rough around the edges. And of course, the character always wins. You’re not pushing it, you’re chasing it. You’re following that exciting little flicker ahead of you.”
Wieler’s research also involves field work. As part of the background study for Daniel, the younger brother in Drive who is a blues guitar prodigy, Wieler spent time with a folk musician she had read about in a newspaper. At 17, he was the youngest person EMI had ever signed to a song-writing contract. She also goes to the places she’s writing about. Finally, with the background in place, Wieler turns to her music collection for inspiration. She assigns a song to the protagonist in the novel she is working on, and, after her husband and son have left the house for the day, starts the morning’s writing by blasting the song on the stereo. Jens’ song is “Push,” by Matchbox 20, and it’s a good fit. The song, like the character, is self-pitying, melancholy, and angry by turns, and yet, as you spend more time with it, it grows on you.
It’s no wonder that Wieler gets inspired by music. She has a good ear for dialogue and the aural image: skills that were honed, no doubt, by years of copywriting for radio ads. She hits the right tone by listening to conversations around her and reading her dialogue aloud as she’s writing it. The visual image is also crucial. “I’m not a pretty writer,” she states. “There’s more power, often, in that simpler story…. Words come second. I get these very strong images and I see it in a cinematic way.” She began writing short stories when she was working at CKXL radio in Calgary, and her success with them led her into longer stories, then novels. But the influences of aural and visual media remain strong in her work. Recently, her visual orientation has led to portrait drawing classes, and she is thrilled with the results. “I love people, and even as a child that’s all I wanted to draw…. You are looking so closely, you get to rediscover … love. And I think that’s what creating a character is like. They’re not all positive, but when you look that closely, you love even the negative things about them…. I believe you have to love each and every character in your book, even the not-nice ones … in the way of a guardian angel, with that total understanding.”
In the past, Wieler has described her novels as long-term relationships akin to marriage, and being in the initial stages of a new project, she is being discreet with the details. As usual, it will be about young men, and although the storyline is anyone’s guess at this point, we can be sure that it will move.