Feature

Cottage Industry

Travels With My Family
Marie-louise Gay and David Homel

Groundwood Books
$15.95
cloth
120pp
978-0888996886

When you hear the word “vacation,” what do you think of? Beaches and warm water, nice hotels with swimming pools? Giant waterslides and amusement parks and miniature golf? Me, too.

But not my parents.

So begins Travels with My Family, a delightful, funny and deceptively deep book about a peripatetic clan whose two children prefer the beaten track to the many oddball destinations their parents kept insisting on.

The book combines the talents of two of Quebec’s most well-regarded and award-laden authors. Marie-Louise Gay is best known for her ongoing, hugely successful Stella picture books for young readers (Stella, Star of the Sea; Stella, Princess of the Sky, etc.); David Homel is the author of five novels (the most recent, 2003’s The Speaking Cure, won the Quebec Writers’ Federation Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction) and is a Governor-General’s Award-winning translator. They’re married, with two sons, now aged 23 and 19. Travels marks the first time the prolific pair has shared author credit, so it’s hard not to wonder whether, with two writers in the same household, the idea of such a collaboration was always in the air.

“Absolutely not,” says Gay as we chat in the couple’s Outremont home. “We never thought of that at all. I’d been writing and illustrating children’s books for over 30 years and David had never had anything to do with children’s literature. It just happened.”

“At one point,” says Homel, “we tried to do a project together but were unable to. But it wouldn’t have been for kids. It seemed natural that we would go on working in our own areas.”

“Then,” Gay picks up the thread, “about two years ago, the idea came to me to do a book about all the travelling we’d done with our kids. I wanted to make it a picture book, but it soon became obvious that it would not be a picture book anymore. It was much too long. I would talk about it with David and at one point he said “Gee, I’d really like to work on that with you.”

“Once it became obvious that it was a work of longer fiction that was forming, something that I’m more used to doing, I saw that I could get involved in the project, which was full of personal emotions of different sorts,” adds Homel.

For the novelist the timing was especially propitious.

“I was working on another project that was offering some effective resistance, so I was happy to say, ‘Well, if this project isn’t going too well, maybe I can do this.’ It proved to be an excellent kind of time out, and it gave me a lot of confidence afterwards, because Travels was fun to do – not easy, because writing is writing – but it gave me a sense of enjoyment, which was lacking for me at the time. It was a lifesaver in some ways.”

Division of labour on the project was never completely clear cut. “I would make a skeleton or outline and hand it to David,” Gay says, adding that she herself created a lot of the dialogue “because I’m used to doing that with characters of those ages. When you’re writing the voices of children it’s so important to get it right, so that children can identify. It’s not so much a conscious thing, like ‘This is a three-year-old,’ more than that you just know when it sounds right. I have an instinct in that sense.”

How conscious of the age of potential readers were they while working on the book?

“You have to be very careful of that because it really depends on the level of the [individual] reader,” says Gay. “With Travels we’ve had seven-year-olds, high level readers, come up to us and say ‘This is great,’ and 10-year-olds will say the same. It’s a book where you could go from seven to 12. Publishers don’t want to say that, though, because it’s perceived as a big gap. But when you think of how kids read and what they like to read, it’s not as big a gap as you might think.”

In a perfect world one might hope that books would find their readers in a completely unforced way, but in the young readers’ market the reality is otherwise, as Gay acknowledges. “The reason books are [labeled by age group] is that a lot of people just don’t know what to buy. They’ll go into a store and say ‘I have a four-year-old’ and they’ll be directed to the two-to-four section. It’s a very helpful thing when people are insecure.”

Even so, to the neophyte shopper the children/young adult section of a bookstore can be bewildering to say the least.

“It is bewildering,” Gay agrees. “The choice is enormous. And there’s a lot of junk out there, books with no conceivable emotional value. There are writers who seem to think that writing for kids is easy. ‘How hard can it be? I read to my children at night. I’ll write down a story.'”

All this talk leads to another subject, one that ends up drawing emphatic responses from both writers: the practice of ‘road testing.’ With books targeted to specific age groups, and with public readings being such an integral part of the kid lit market, is it not tempting, even irresistible in some cases, to try something out in a public forum, to see if it’s ‘working?’

“I’ve never done that,” says Gay firmly. “I’m not interested in doing that at all.”

“People seem to assume that about children’s books,” comments Homel. “But do we do that with adults’ books? Would I read a section of a novel I’m working on to ‘adults’ to see if it would ‘work?'”

“Think of The Speaking Cure, which has to do with psychiatry and war and Serbia,” Gay addresses Homel across the kitchen table. “Are you going to say, ‘I’m going to find people who like war and Serbia and psychiatry and I’m going to read it to them?’ No. You try to write for as universal a group as possible.”

Not that it isn’t fascinating to see the response when a finished work is read to an audience of kids. Homel cites a memorable reading in Toronto to a crowd of mostly Asian children. “It was quite obvious that these were kids who were not allowed to make fun of their parents at home, and it was enormously liberating for them to hear a story where the adults are figures of fun.”

Another thing both have noticed is that when it comes time for questons from the audience, kids ask many of the same things adults do. The old ‘Is this a true story?’ chestnut will obviously never go away.

“We’ve told groups of kids, ‘Everything in here is true, but we’re writers,” says Gay. “You take the truth and you do something with it. You’re not just transcribing. It’s not a journal, it’s fiction. But curiously enough it sure sounds like a story of two writers with two sons.”

Travels cleverly and entertainingly flips the stereotype of the fuddy-duddy parents and the wild innocent children straining at the leash. Having one of the sons be the narrator was clearly a crucial decision.

“That’s what makes the book so pleasurable for kids,” notes Gay. “If it had been one of the adults [telling the story], it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. It’s a flip, sure, but I find that children have a very strong conservative streak. Yes, they go into fantasy and adventure, but in what pertains to their habits and domestic life, they like things a certain way. They like to be in their homes and in their beds. We had to find a way to make [that reversal] work logically. The main thing we wanted to stress is that the child is taking over the story.”

“The fun part was to be able to make fun of ourselves by letting somebody else make fun of us,” Homel says. “We were able to look at ourselves as characters and enjoy our own weaknesses as parents and as human beings. It’s comic but it’s also dramatic. The parents are not the fearless leaders. They do the wrong thing, they slip up, they get you into trouble.”

“It’s also a testament to our sons, who have always been quite open with us, and critical of us,” says Gay. “We could see our kids seeing us like that, so we said, ‘Let’s just accept it and go with it.’ It opens a door. And kids who are reading the book and have parents who aren’t like the ones in the book can still relate to that sense of frustration, that you want to do one thing while your parents don’t.”

The real-life response to Travels by younger son Gabriel surprised his father. “He said, ‘This is the best thing you’ve ever written,’ which was funny because I didn’t know that he’d ever read anything I’d written! In workshops I always say you have to figure out and understand your emotional attachment to your work, otherwise it’s not going to work. For me, in this case, it was very clear. This was a way of going back to the family. I don’t mean nostalgia in the negative sense, more like, ‘Let’s for a moment transport ourselves back to this time when we did things for the moment and with a sense of play and discovery.'”

While there’s no obvious overarching narrative thread in Travels with My Family, there is a certain ascending logic in the kind of adventures retold, from relatively innocuous (a beach encounter in South Carolina with the man-child Mr. Sandcastle) to more hair-raising, peaking with a chapter set in Mexico, where the family gets caught up in a peasant uprising in Chiapas.

“The culmination of knowledge the kids have attained earlier on makes it possible for them to understand certain things,” Homel explains about the sequencing. “The further you go away from home and the stranger things get, the more demands the travelling makes on you, the more intelligence you need. So in terms of character development it makes sense to have [the Mexican adventure] at the end. There are other lives beside yours. You are not the centre of the world.”

“But I would stress,” emphasizes Gay, “that we are not writing in order that kids would learn something. I don’t want that to be said about what we do. Basically you write a story that you hope will engage, and you can write about any subject. There are different ways. So, how would kids see a revolution like that? Well, they see it in their way. After that it’s up to the kids reading if they want to learn more about it.”

Was there a view from the start to spinning Travels into a series? The concept certainly lends itself to that idea.

“No, not at all,” says Homel. “There’s much less of that kind of planning than people generally suppose. We both wanted to avoid the clichés that often come with series, where you feel that the author is calculating several books in advance.”

Planned or not, the success of Travels has occasioned a projected second book. Set in Europe, this one will forgo the on-the-road format for an account of an extended stay in one place: a remote and primitively equipped village in the south of France. The sons will have aged, resulting in an appropriate change in narrative tone.

Given Homel’s earlier point that “writing is writing” and his view that it is an inherently challenging and serious activity, and Gay’s comment on the way some writers underestimate the difficulty involved in making first-rate children’s books, how do they feel about the canard that somehow the creation of children’s literature isn’t quite a bona fide literary undertaking?

“I do get a lot of that,” acknowledges Gay. “You know, ‘Do you ever think you’re going to write books for adults?’ The implication being, ‘Do you think you’ll graduate one day?’ I’ve never let that get to me and I never will. You just do the books that you want to do.” mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette. He is the author of the bestselling novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry, and is currently working on a memoir about life as an obsessive fan of soul, reggae, and hip-hop.

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