Quill and Quire

Eric Walters

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Walters has a tiger by the tail

In the time it takes you to read this article, Eric Walters may well have written another novel. Well, maybe not an entire novel, but a decent chunk of it. Since the publication in 1994 of his first book, Stand Your Ground, Walters has gone on to write 14 more – an average of three books a year. So large is his stockpile of manuscripts, many will have to wait several years before they see publication. Impressive by any standards, his output is even more mind-boggling when you consider that he also teaches elementary school full-time, coaches a soccer and a basketball team, and puts in another 15 hours a week as a crisis social worker at Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga, Ontario, where he lives with his wife, three children, and two dogs.

Eric WaltersWalters has the kind of preternatural energy you might, in an effort to console yourself, attribute to amphetamine abuse, a childhood spent too near hydroelectric transmission towers, or a severe manic episode that’s lasted 42 years – his entire life, in fact. I briefly flirted with the idea he must be a negligent father, but whenever I telephoned to speak with him, he was either dutifully ferrying his children to various sporting events, or playing with them out in the snow.

“When people ask how I do it all,” he says over the phone, “I just tell them I don’t get much sleep, so I don’t piss anyone off. But really, it’s just a question of managing your time well. Most people don’t. And doing all these things makes the writing fresh.”

It’s not uncommon for Walters, during a 10-minute recess, to write four pages of his latest book. Once, while he was driving home, a grain truck flipped over on the highway, jamming traffic. While waiting, Walters got out his laptop and wrote another three pages. He’s been known to start work on new books during family holidays.

His first drafts typically take him between 30 and 90 days, Stars being the quickest, and War of the Eagles the longest. A forthcoming juvenile novel, Three by Three, was written in just under two weeks, prompted by his students, who demanded a new chapter every day.

In fact, Walters relies heavily on his students for all his books. “My novels are almost always written for my class, and I use their names for my characters. I’m continually reading to them as I write, and getting their feedback. Their comments are excellent.” And Walters takes their critiques seriously. When students at Plum Tree Park School didn’t like the last chapter for Diamonds in the Rough, he rewrote it.

Walters’ output is doubtless also fuelled by a genuine love of writing. “It’s so much fun to do,” he says. “By page 40, the characters write themselves; I just don’t get in their way. When I get in this groove, it’s almost as if I could open up the laptop slowly and catch the characters talking amongst themselves.”

Fighting back tears of envy, I ask if there are ever any bad days. Maybe his characters get a little sullen, and need a little slapping around, a little coercion? “No, not really.” Slow days, then, what about slow days? “Well,” Walters says helpfully, “sometimes I walk the dogs when things aren’t going well, and usually it’s fixed by the time I’m halfway around the block.”

As impressive as Walters’ speed are his fertile imagination and the variety of his subjects. This year sees the release of three new titles: The Hydrofoil Mystery, a period adventure featuring an invention of Alexander Graham Bell’s (reviewed in Q&Q’s March issue); Tiger by the Tail, a comic novel about escaped exotic pets; and Visions, an Inuit ghost thriller set in the Northwest Territories.

Drawn equally to period and contemporary subjects, Walters is always thorough – and inventive – with his research. “Research is one of the nicest parts of writing,” he says, “and it makes the writing easy.” For his 1997 novel, Trapped in Ice, about a doomed 1913 Arctic exploration, he read extensively, and though he didn’t travel to the North he did go out into his backyard during a blizzard, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and took notes until he couldn’t feel his fingers, and his ball-point froze. While writing Tiger by the Tail, he drove to actual farms north of Toronto, where people keep exotic animals in barns, and videotaped cougars and tigers. For Rebound, a novel-in-progress about a young athlete in a wheelchair, he spent a day in one himself. Clearly undaunted by literary challenges, Walters has also written with confidence about other cultures – Inuit, Japanese, native – and credits his masters training in multicultural social work.

Surprisingly, Walters did not grow up in a literary environment. “I didn’t even read as a kid,” Walters confesses. He came from a poor single-parent family, and started work at the age of nine delivering groceries. “I played sports constantly, too,” he says, and his dream was to be a pro basketball player.

It wasn’t until he was teaching that he had the urge to write, as a way of encouraging his own students. He cites Canadian writers William Bell and Martyn Godfrey (“he has a good handle on kid dialogue”) as influential, as well as Newbery winner Jerry Spinelli.

Walters thinks of himself as an “action-oriented writer,” whose appeal is strongest with boys, but points out that girls read his books, too. “Put it this way,” he says. “Girls will read the Hardy Boys; boys will never read Nancy Drew. That’s a fact.” His popularity with young readers does seem unconstrained by gender, judging from the numerous readers’ choice awards he’s won, including the Silver Birch and Blue Heron. His books have also been recognized with more literary accolades, shortlisted for the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People, the Ruth Schwartz Children’s Book Award, and the CLA Book of the Year award.

But it isn’t enough for Walters simply to write the books. He also wants to sell them, lots of them, and now he’s routed his Herculean adrenalin to this task. “Promotion is an important part of writing,” says Walters, “and I wasn’t good at it. So I interviewed people who were.” Walters talked to independent bookstore owners, children’s editors, book club managers – and most crucially, best-selling children’s author Eric Wilson, who promotes his books widely by touring schools.

In early 1998 Walters decided to take a sabbatical from teaching and devote himself to promotion. And by the end of this June, he will have visited over 250 schools in southern Ontario, talked to about 80,000 students, and sold many of them his books. The bulk of these bookings he made personally, cold-calling schools and introducing himself to the librarians. It’s an itinerary most writers would find cripplingly exhausting, regardless of the handsome $300-per-half-day feeWalters commands for his visits.

“I find I leave the schools feeling energized,” Walters comments. He concedes that the fact he’s a teacher doubtless helps; for him, it’s just business as usual, except that he actually spends fewer hours in front of kids than he would when teaching.

Walters doesn’t stop with school visits. If you work in a bookstore in southern Ontario, there’s a good chance you’ve already met him. “I go in and say, ‘Hi, I’m Eric Walters, you have some of my books here, why don’t I sign them, and you can put up a “Signed by Author” card and move them to the front counter.’ Then I give them a flyer with all my books and the awards they’ve won. If they don’t know me when I walk in, they know me when I walk out.”