Quill and Quire

Carrie Mac

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Author Profiles

Out on the wire

YA novelist Carrie Mac has a new publisher to work with and a new genre (fantasy) to work in

Carrie Mac’s newest novel, The Droughtlanders, has a strikingly dramatic opening: an acrobat is walking a tightrope without a safety net when he’s dive-bombed by pigeons and plummets to his death.

Mac knows something about balancing acts herself. Over the past two years, she has published three issue-oriented teen novels with Orca Book Publishers while also working at other jobs. And with her new book she’s switching both genres and publishers: The Droughtlanders, which Penguin Canada will publish in July, is a dystopian fantasy novel for young adults, and the first in a trilogy.

I meet the 31-year-old Mac at a café near her home on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, and one of the first questions I ask is whether she writes full-time. The answer is yes and no. Certainly she spends much of her time writing, and usually has three or four projects on the go at once, including screenplays and short stories, which she calls her “first love.” But she also works on-call as a paramedic, and loves that too, both for the adrenalin rush – when working city shifts, she often covers the notorious Downtown Eastside, where heroin overdoses are common – and for the “tons of fodder” it provides for her writing. “At least 60% of the calls are from elderly people,” she explains, “and they tell amazing stories. I’ve met Holocaust survivors, and people who were in the very first hockey league in all of Canada, and people who worked in the diamond mines up north.”

Mac has been a curious listener since she was a child. In the first grade, her favourite book was Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy. That same year she got her “first job,” reading the Bible to Doukhobors in an old folks’ home in Grand Forks, B.C. She was paid 25 cents per page, but more importantly, she got to hear their stories. Since then, Mac has worked as a sign-language interpreter, a children’s bookseller, and a staffer in group homes and at a transition house.

It’s easy to see the influence of Mac’s part-time jobs in her first three novels. The Beckoners (2004), about a gang of bullies in a high school, was followed later that year by Charmed, the story of a girl’s descent into the world of drugs and prostitution. (Crush, Mac’s third novel, was released in April of this year and is reviewed on page 58 of this issue.) The Beckoners won an Arthur Ellis award last year, and the novel’s telling details make the viciousness of its situations palpable.

Indeed, judging by the hatred Mac expresses for her own school days, I get the impression she saw some brutality firsthand. However, she’s guarded about her upbringing, which she says took place “all over” B.C. Her school days ended in Grade 11 when she was doing “way too many drugs” and dropped out. She finished Grade 12 by correspondence soon afterward, completing the year’s work in the space of a few months and spending the rest of the time pursuing a self-directed reading program. She’s been living in Vancouver for about a year; her best friend since the age of nine lives in the apartment directly beneath Mac’s.

As an autodidact, Mac has no problem with self-discipline – which is good, since her contract with Penguin Canada for the new trilogy means she has to write two more novels of about 120,000 words each. Mac declines to reveal the amount of her Penguin advance, but says it’s just enough for her to buckle down and concentrate on writing for now. While the trilogy will keep her busy over the next year – the second book is to be submitted this fall, and the third next spring – Mac also has a short-story collection on the go, which she’ll be sorry to set aside for that long. She is also turning a screenplay she wrote into a novel for adults, and has temporarily shelved yet another book for young adults.

For Mac, Penguin came calling out of the blue. “At one time I had thought about commissioning a novel about female bullying,” recalls Penguin senior editor Barbara Berson, “and when I read The Beckoners I thought it was exactly what I would have wanted from such a novel. It was terrific, and I thought that [Mac] showed great promise. So I found her e-mail address and contacted her, to ask what she was working on next. She sent me ‘Triskelia,’ and I read it that night and loved it, and made an offer almost immediately.”

“Triskelia” was the original title of The Droughtlanders. The novel is set in the future, in a world divided into two classes of people: Keylanders, the ruling elite who control the earth’s water, and the disease-ridden Droughtlanders, who have almost nothing going for them except a rebel group trying to overturn the balance of power. Mac says the starting point for the story was the aftermath of 9/11, with the surrounding talk of conspiracy, cover-ups, terrorism, and fears for national security.

Orca, which had published Mac’s first three books, had already passed on “Triskelia” before Berson ever saw it. Mac had first come to Orca when she submitted the manuscript for The Beckoners cold; after accepting it, associate publisher Andrew Wooldridge asked her to write two books for Orca’s Soundings series of YA titles for reluctant readers. Wooldridge says he turned down “Triskelia” because fantasy is not his house’s strong suit. “At the same time,” he admits, “sometimes you pass on a book and then you see what happens with it later and it makes you look at it from a new angle. But I’m delighted to see that it’s getting published and is part of a trilogy.”

When the Penguin offer came in, Mac had no agent and didn’t know any other writers she could consult about how to negotiate a contract. She has since hired an entertainment lawyer, but still doesn’t have an agent. “I got approached by the Transatlantic Literary Agency last year after the Arthur Ellis award,” she says, “But I’d managed by myself before, and I couldn’t see the point of a smaller percentage of next to nothing, as a YA author especially. The Penguin thing is just a bonus; I never thought I’d make any money on writing.”

Has it been difficult for Mac to write in two genres? “Not at all,” she replies. “I just love a good story.” Her main concern, she says, was ensuring that the new book’s fictional world maintained a coherent internal logic. “That’s one of the things I asked the kids, whether they saw any gaps in the science of the world, its technology or politics or culture.”

The kids she’s referring to are the members of two book clubs in Vancouver run by Christianne Hayward, a local storyteller, educator, and Vancouver Kidsbooks employee. Mac visited two of the groups that Hayward runs: The Bookjackets, who are in Grades 9 and 10, and The Wormers, in Grade 8. They had read The Beckoners and Hayward approached Mac and asked if they could read the manuscript of The Droughtlanders – after which the club became a kind of focus group for the rest of the trilogy. “They’re an exquisitely bright group of kids,” Mac says, “very critical, well read, and their parents come along so you get their point of view as well. They are all well spoken and have a sense that they are entitled to say what they think, which I love.” Mac even plans to incorporate some of their feedback into the plotting of the second and third books – killing some characters, sparing others, and developing a love story. (She notes, too, that the boys were more responsive to “the blood and guts,” and says she wrote The Droughtlanders with boys in mind.)

After the Triskelia series is done, it looks like Mac will have no shortage of offers for her other material. Berson says she would consider anything Mac writes for publication, and Orca’s Wooldridge would also like to work with her again. “She is one of my favourite authors,” he says. “Her voice is unique, and she is young. There are not a lot of young people writing for young people nowadays.”

So if she could consistently make enough money, would Mac give up her non-writing work? She doesn’t think so, and quotes Henry David Thoreau on how vain it is to sit down and write if you haven’t stood up to live. With her writing career taking off at such a fast pace, who knows if she’ll maintain this balance? But it seems fairly certain that whatever happens, she’ll land on her feet.