2002 Margaret Laurence Lecture

Janet Lunn


For the Love of Story

Thank you to The Writers’ Trust of Canada. While it’s more than a little unnerving, it’s a very great honour to be asked to give the Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture.

My memories of Margaret Laurence are few but they’re good ones. I knew her first through her books. Many years ago I had an ongoing argument about Canadian literature with a librarian in a small Ontario village. Bessie Webster had been in her library for forty years and she had never become a fan of Canadian literature. I was and we used to argue strenuously and at great length. Finally I bought the library a copy of The Stone Angel. The very next morning Bessie called me on the phone. “Alright,” she said, “you win. Would you like to go shopping for Canadian novels with me?”

Years later, after I had joined The Writers’ Union, I knew Margaret slightly - at the distance that I felt fit my status as the author of three little-known books. More years later, I had lunch one day with her and a mutual friend at her house in Lakefield. She was then, as she always was, a warm and gracious woman.

She was also, a great story teller. It is this that makes me particularly pleased to be giving this speech honouring her memory. I’ve called my speech, For the Love of Story.

When I visit schools to talk about my books, children often ask me, “If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you would be?”All I can ever think to answer is, “Beats me”.

I loved writing long before I started doing it, long before I could even imagine doing it, long before I realized I was doing it. And, at the heart of my life as a writer - of my entire life, in fact - is a love for story.

I heard my first stories from my sister Martha. We snuggled together in the big armchair by the living-room stove while she read to me. I was probably about three. Martha is four years older than I am and she was already in school. Slowly and labouriously, she read me old testament tales from our book of Bible stories for children and fairy tales from her school reader: Rapunzel, The Goose Girl, The Twelve Dancing Princess. I was enthralled.

“Once upon a time...” The words would no sooner leave my sister’s lips than I would be in the story, living it with the spell-struck princess or the goose girl. Those stories settled forever into the marrow of my psyche. And not only those particular stories, story, itself.It invaded my life - and it invaded the landscape where I lived.

When I was two years old our family went to live in an 18th--century farm house, a mile and a half outside the village of Norwich on the Connecticut River in Vermont. The house belonged to my divorced grandmother who was a businesswoman in New York. She’d bought it to retire to. It was 1931. My father was an engineer out of work and we lived there through the years of the Depression.

We were a middle-class German-American family – all my forebears are German – except for the Scot one of my great-great grandmothersmarried in a burst of unlikely impulsiveness. Almost all my immigrant ancestors came to the U.S. in the 1830s and 40s but they and all their descendants, until our time, lived in German communities in or near New York City. And so both my parents spoke German. Mine is the first generation that doesn’t.

These very urban, New-York parents had a hard time in rural Vermont. But they made the best of it. While my mother dealt with farm animals and vegetable patches, wood stoves and freezing water pipes, my father sold cars and found a variety of small jobs that added up to an income. As an adult, I know what those years must have been like for thembut I didn’t know it then – and those years were such a gift to us children.

We were three girls then (I have a brother but he wasn’t born until I was eight). We all fell under the spell of the Vermont countryside. It was a paradise of hills and woods and rushing water, of trailing arbutus blooming under the last snow in spring, of white winters and summers heavy with wild berries and the scent of roses.

We only had each other until we started school and the brook, just behind our house and the meadows on the hill above it marked the boundaries of our world. I remember hot summer afternoons, lying in the meadow, dreaming, and others, standing with my sister Ann in the ripples thebrook made as it glided over the stones. We would dare each other not to move when the minnows nibbled our toes. In winter we would lie on that same spot on our stomachs and clear a place with our snow-crusted mittens so we could watch the minnows dartingaround below the ice.

I have read essays on the subject of mythology that argue persuasivelythat the creatures of European folk and fairy tale do not belong in North America. For the most part, I believe that’s true. In fact, I wrote an entire novel predicated on this conviction. But it isn’t always true. Children make their way through their world, happily picking and choosing whatever fits into it. Certainly Inever found castle ghosts or creatures born of mist or bog in the sunlit hills and streams of Vermont. But Iknew that the ones I found in the Scandinavian stories of Selma Lagerlöf and Elsa Beskow could be there, the elves and brownies and trolls and gnomes, the creatures ofclear, northern light. They lurked behind the high rocks. They scurrieddown the hills and slid along the shadows made by winter snow drifts. They were as real to me as our two horses,our cow,our pigand our ducks and chickens.

There was, too, the ever-present past. My sister Martha did more than read me fairy tales. She told me stories of savage battles that were fought in our brook between the early Vermont settlers and the native Abenakis (she would always lower her voice and say, “and the water was thick with blood”). She told me there was an Abenaki baby buried under the huge pine tree that towered over my bedroom window. It was sadness for the dead baby that made the tree sigh so mournfully. I believed everyword.And why not? Our brook’s name was Blood Brook and that tree did sigh endlessly.

Then, when I was old enough to go to school and our class went tramping through the old village graveyard on Memorial Day, I discovered that that old graveyard was full of people named Blood. As for the pine tree, when it had to be cut down about forty years ago, there were no tiny bones among its roots nor was there any sign that there had ever been any.All the same, the scenes I saw as I listened to those tales are still as real in my memory as the brook and the tree they were told about.

But the past that lingered in our community was that of the forebears of the families descended from the eighteenth-century pioneers. That past was as near as yesterday’s memories. When I listened to the stories at gatherings in kitchens, or in the Grange or the church hall, most of the time I couldn’t tell whether they were about our old neighbours or about their ancestors with the same names. They were told in a way that made it impossible. The past was always there, nudging the present.It was just beyond a barrier that was not-quite imperceptible. You could almost reach out and touch it. I longed to go into that past. I dreamed myself into it. I have written fictional characters into it.

Teachers have thanked me for writing historical novels in order to teach history to children in an interesting way. I don’t. I don’t write historical novels to teach anything. I write them because some small, stubborn part of me still feels that, if I am quick enough, or wily enough, one day I will find my way through that time barrier.

Stories. Eventually I learned to read for myself and, like every writer I’ve ever known, I was, straightaway, a voracious and a compulsive reader. Ours was not a book-loving family. I never saw my mother read a book that wasn’t a cookbook. She was much too restless to sit down long enough to read. My mother was a wonder. She was incredibly energetic, she was volatile and she had a mind that knew no logic. It worked in swoops and swirls and figure eights and I found it mysterious, even as a child.

My father had a very logical mind. I think of my father’s mind as being like a piece of graph paper, squared off and unbendable. He was a solid, very conservative thinker. He was not much of a reader, either.

Neither of our parents ever read to us except that, every Christmas Eve, Dad read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And neither of them encouraged my predilection for reading. (I can still hear my mother’s voice, “Janet, put that book down and go outside and get some fresh air!”) Years later, my father wasn’t entirely happy about my writing, either. After I’d published my first book, he took me aside and told me that I could lose my husband by spending so much time writing books.

I slid into making stories without even realizing I was doing it. Daydreaming. Aren’t all fiction writers daydreamers? Alas for me, daydreaming was considered the eighth deadly sin by my parents and my teachers. I was always in trouble for indulging in it.I daydreamed for the reasons most people do, to feel better about the painful realities of life, but, every bit as often, to make stories or toburrow more deeply into the books I was reading so that I could create sequels. I had no idea that I was practicing to be a writer.But, of course, I was. I worked my inventions over until they felt right. I was tireless. I checked every detail of every setting. I tried the dialogue again and again until it sounded real – and like the good descendant of all those Germans that I am, I carefully added the he saids, she saids, and they saids.

But I never once thought of those daydreams as stories. Stories were what you found in books. Ordinary people like me did not write books. The names on the spines of the books I read: Louisa May Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Lucy Maud Montgomerywere names belonging to unreal, mythical people, not ordinary people you could actually know or be.

I had friends – sisters, Audrey and Marguerite Frost – who were Robert Frost’s grandchildren. This meant absolutely nothing to me. But they had an aunt, Eleanor Frances Lattimore, who had written books for children that were in our library. And one of them was about Audrey and Marguerite and their cat Ulysses. It was called The Clever Cat and I was given a copy of it for my ninth birthday, the year it was published. I had the kind of reverence for that book that a votary has for vials of water from the Ganges or bits of wood purported to be from the true cross.I still have that book and I swear it still exudes a faint aura of the sacred.

I created an Eleanor Frances Lattimore in my mind, a creation which, no doubt, would have startled the original. I never met the original and I have no idea what she looked like. But my Eleanor Lattimore was beautiful. She had soft, white hair piled high on her head and a beatific smile on her face. She was a bit plump, she was always dressed in a sort of generic historical costume and she vaguely resembled the picture of Martha Washington in the book the library had about American presidents and their wives.

No, the notion that I might become a writer never even suggested itself to me, not then, not all thorough school or university. There was nothing in the environment of my growing years that might have offered that suggestion. No Eleanor Frances Lattimores came to our four-room schoolhouse in Norwich to talk about books or the people who wrote them and we did not write stories in school. Nor did I write the plays some of us put on in Janice Reynolds’s garage. I was shy and timid and my daydreams were much too private.

We left the Connecticut River country when I was ten. All these years later, I still feel the echo of the heartache I felt. It wasn’t that my entire childhood was an idyl. I don’t think anyone’s childhood is that. Butthe hills that rise steeply from the western shore of the Connecticut River had become the country of my heart. No place I have lived since has held me sopowerfully (although the low-lying country at the edge of Lake Ontario where I lived for thirty-one years, has come a close second).

We moved in 1939. The U.S. didn’t enter the second world war until 1941 but the Americans were building planes, war ships and weapons and there were jobs for engineers again. My father found one in New York City and we lived in the outlying suburbs.

I graduated from high school in 1946 and was set to go to Bryn Mawr college in Pennsylvania, where I’d been offered a scholarship in English. But, when I wrote the college entrance exams, I failed Chemistry. (That place in the human brain where numbers are computed is missing in my case.) It was a dreadful shock when the college not only took away my scholarship, but would no longer have me as a student. The day the letter came to tell me this, I cried all afternoon, my mother got into the sherry, my brother and sisters tiptoed around us with great care and my father started looking for other possibilities. He found Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Our Canadian next-door neighbors suggested it. Now there was an exotic notion to brighten the gloom!

The registrar at Queen’s wrote to say that I’d have to have grade thirteen. My resourceful father checked out the World Almanac and found Ottawa University. The Oblate Fathers who ran the university didn’t accept women but they had an affiliated college that did. The college turned out to be the Notre Dame convent school in Ottawa and I went there.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I arrived in Ottawa. My father and I flew up from New York. We got rooms at the Lord Elgin hotel, registered me at the convent school and went out walking. It was a warm, soft September evening and we wandered for quite a while in awe. The castle-like Chateau Laurier, the old-world-looking parliament buildings, the canal, the river, the space – the whole city seemed to be not quite of this world. We finally came to roost on a bench behind the parliament buildings to watch the sun set along the river. Then the carillon began to ring. That was the grace note. I was captivated.

I was a very young seventeen and I took to boarding-school life as only a girl who’d steeped herself in girls-school stories could do – andI did manage to get through upper school math. That fall I went to Queen’s to study psychology. I was defeated by graphs and white rats and B.F. Skinner. I changed to English and history. My ambition to become a serious student of English or history – or anything – was defeated by a very good looking ex-airman with a wicked sense of humour. He sat behind me in professor Alexander’s class in Middle English. This was 1947. The veterans were just back from the second-world war and Richard Lunn was one of them. We were married a year later.

Richard got a job as a reporter for the Kingston Whig Standard. I started having babies. And Iwas reviewing books for the paper. When the older babies became small children eager for bedtime stories, I asked the editor of the paper if I could review the children’s books. He was some surprised. It had obviously never occurred to him to review those books. Nobody in Canada, outside of library publications, reviewed children’s books.I got the job.

It was acasual decision that turned out to be among the most important of my life although I didn’t realize this at the time. What I did realize was that I was rediscovering the joy of reading books written for children. Maurice Sendak was new on the scene in the 1950s and so were both E.B. and T. H. White, Rosemary Sutcliff, Philippa Pearce and Mary Norton. I took great delight in the inventive plots of books like Charlotte’s Web, Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Borrowers – and something more than that.

Children read differently than adults. Adults tend to read first with head, then with heart. Children read with every part of themselves at once. As Graeme Greene said once, “no one ever reads again with that intensity with which he reads at the age of ten”. And so children’s books tend to be more of a piece. While I wasn’t about to give up reading the subtler, more complex, more leisurely novels for adults, I was revelling in the simple, spare, understated writing that’s found in the best children’s books. It touched something in me that has always been touched by essential forms of expression: myths, fairy tales, traditional folk music, line drawing, poetry.

I was hooked. I not only read all the new books that came to the paper every month, I read again all my own childhood favorites. Then I reached back into history to read every children’s book I could find that had ever been published in – or translated into – the English language plus all the critical books and essays that touched on the entire field of children’s literature.

Richard got a job at the Toronto Star and we moved to Toronto.The book editor there let me have the children’s books as well as a whole special section at Christmas time. I had a fine time gathering books from publishers – and building a library for my own children (none of which I relinquished to them when they left home). I was filled with missionary zeal. I persuaded a couple of magazines and a CBC radio program to take my reviews. I gave talks on children’s books to Home and School Associations, I gave lectures at summer school to school-library student teachers. Finally, I had read and dissected so many books that, almost in spite of myself, I started writing.

My first efforts were stories for children’s magazines and they were pretty embarrassing. I remember labouring long and lovingly over a story about a dear little witch who wasn’t very good at her job. When I think about some of the splendid books I was reading and how much I’d always loved the Grimm Brothers’ collections of fairy tales, The Secret Garden and the stories of Louisa Alcott,I have to wonder in which carefully-concealed corner of my psyche I found the impulse to write precious stories like that. There were others just as bad.

I sent them out to magazines. Back they came. Over and over again. Is there a writer who doesn’t know that game? Then oneday I got a twenty-five dollar cheque from The Family Herald in Montreal for a story that took up two inches in a very small box at the foot of their children’s page. I was so carried away by the excitement of having sold that story that when the repair man came to fix my grandmother’s old electrified treadle sewing machine, I let him talk me into buying a new one on time. And that’s not the whole story. That man wasn’t gone long when the Encyclopedia-Britannica salesman showed up. I signed up with him, too. That afternoon I knew that soon, very soon, I was going to be earning real money. The euphoria faded at about the time Richard came home from work that evening. I knew, then, that I’d better sell a lot more stories - fast.

It took a lot more stories – and years – before I was making any money at all but I did sell a few. And it had finally gotten through to me that my mentors were – had to be – the authors of the books I loved best. I’d never had any encouragement to write and no mentors but the authors of those books and, gradually, I was realizing just how important they were to my writing. I found myself reading my treasured old books once again, not with a child’s eye nor with a critic’s eye but with a student-writer’s eye.

I once heard the painter Robert Motherwell being interviewed on the radio. He talked about the painters he admired and the painters who sent him home to paint. I realized that I was finding this with the books I read. There were writers whose stories I admired. There were writers whose stories I picked apart, chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence, almost word by word, to see how they were put together. And there were writers I read simply because they sent me racing to the typewriter. That’s still true.

Then, in1968, I publishedmy first book, the one that got my father worrying about my marriage. I was forty by this time, and at the centre of a growing family – the oldest of our five kids was in his late teens and the youngest was ten. And they all had friends who had friends, all of whom seemed to be living in our house. My life was a juggling act. It was, often, more than I could cope with. I was greedy, I wanted it all, but time to write always had to be stolen. And always the stolen time came in frustratingly small scraps: an hour here while babies napped, fifteen minutes there while they were with the kids next door, a blissful half day on a Saturday or Sunday when their father took them all off to the park and, later, whole working days while they were all in school and proper mothers were pushing vacuum cleaners through their houses – or baking prize-winning pies.

The thing with writing, of course, is that it won’t be confined to those stolen times. It’s like yeast dough, it crawls out of its bowl and sneaks across the floor at you; it’s like the dog who chases after you when you thought you’d locked him in the yard on your way out to get the groceries.

I would find myself stirring soup with one hand and writing dialogue with the other, jumping up from the dinner table because the disparate fragments of plot that just wouldn’t work had suddenly come together. I’d stop in the middle of reading a bedtime story because something in it made me see that the protagonist in my story had the wrong name or should be two years older than I had thought. I beat my stories into the cake batter and the cake batter into my stories. I made not only my husband, but my kids act as sounding boards for every word I wrote and every word I wrote had an echo of them in it.( My son John remembers squeezing himself into the family laundry basket full of clothes that never got ironed while I read to him). There are, discernable bits of my life in all my stories, as well as the lives of my parents, my siblings, my husband, my children and my friends.

I now had two books published and we moved from Toronto to Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario. The second book was a history of Prince Edward, Richard’s home county. Because he was a journalist, the County Council had asked him to write the book as a 1967 centennial project. We wrote it together. This, I might add, is not a great exercise for a husband and wife to engage in.

During the research for the history, We had come across an old Loyalist farm house. It hadn’t been lived in for years. It had no furnace, no plumbing and a leaking roof but it had an original fireplace and bake oven in its kitchen and it was on a small bay. Richard was willing to settle for anything that would get him home to his county. The old fireplace, the bake oven and the bay were all I needed. Then, when we discovered that the house had a resident ghost, all the kids wanted to live there, too. So we moved.

I wrote a book set in the house with the ghost as one of the characters. I sent it to the U.S. publisher of my first book. In my blissful ignorance, I was sure that, once you’d had a book published, you would never again have any trouble publishing anything you wrote. The manuscript came back to me – not as fast as those early stories had done but fast enough. It had a long, friendly letter accompanying it with criticisms and suggestions but it was very definitely a rejection. I was crushed. When I could finally bring myself to re-read the manuscript, I knew the editor was right but I didn’t know what to do with it so I shoved it into the back of my filing cabinet. I wrote and published a picture-book story and a collection of Canadian hero tales but not another novel.

It was 1970. The arts were coming alive in Canada. It’s hard now to remember a time when opera in Toronto was performed in the old Maple Leaf Gardens, there was no National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and music concerts in most towns were a few chairs gathered around a record player in the public library. There were few bookstores (and none of the giant chains, either, of course) and there was very little publishing in this country. Then came the Canada Council for the Arts and with it grants for writers and publishers and support for organizations like The Canadian Children’s Book Centre. With this kind of encouragement, hopeful writers for children were beginning to send manuscripts to publishers who, of course, had no editors who understood – or even liked – children’s books. Clarke Irwin & Company, one of Canada’s pioneer book publishers (now long gone), decided to hire a children’s editor and I got the job.

What a new wrinkle this was in my life! Manuscripts were coming in. I was meeting other writers for children. We editors talked book talk at lunch in the restaurant across the street ( when my house was full of teenagers who, in those days, weren’t talking to anyone over thirty). I stayed at Clarke Irwin for two-and-a-half years, got into a fight with my boss over the subject matter of a book and quit.

At the same time, my children were finishing school and leaving home in rapid succession. Richard was now teaching at Ryerson (then Polytechnic Institute, now university) in Toronto. He was home weekends and for three months in the summer. My rejected manuscript about our house and its ghost had been nagging at me almost from the moment I’d put it away. Now, at last, I was free to get back to it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t touch it. While I had often questioned my ability to do it, raising children had always felt like an essential and rewarding job. But that job had grown up and gone away. I was honorably retired. I could write stories with a clear conscience. And it felt like an acutely selfish thing to be doing. I felt as though I should be out delivering meals on wheels or pushing gift carts around in the local hospital, the things my farm neighbours did when their children grew up. But I wanted to write. But I couldn’t write. I couldn’t even go near my workroom. I became seriously depressed.

Rescue came in a form I could never have anticipated. I met an elderly British scholar/mythologist/children’s writer named Katherine Briggs. She was in Toronto to give a lecture at the Osborne Collection of Antiquarian Children’s Books. The editor at her British publisher’s, was a friend of mine, and she had asked me to take Dr. Briggs to lunch and entertain her. Well! I listened, Katherine Briggs entertained.

She was entertaining before she even opened her mouth. She was a woman of just above medium height with short, wavy, white hair, very blue eyes and a commanding presence. I can’t remember what kind of dress or suit she had on but I remember her bright purple shoes, her bright purple cloak and her bright purple hat. The shoes were suede and had buckles, the cloak was voluminous and the hat was a sort of wide-brimmed cavalier affair without the plume. I was impressed. We had lunch and then she said, “Now, my dear, where shall we go where we can talk?” So we spent an afternoon in the members lounge of the Royal Ontario Museum telling stories and drinking gin. We both drank gin but Dr. Briggs told most of the stories – and dispensed wisdom.

When I confessed to her how selfish I had come to feel about writing stories, she told me a story that snapped me out of my depression and made the rest of my writing life possible. She told me that, during the second-world war, she’d helped staff a tea kiosk in London during the blitz. She said that the firefighters would come in towards dawn. Their faces would be grim and grimy and they would be so weary they could hardly reach across the counter for their mugs of tea. After a minute or two, one or another of them would always say, “give us a story, Kate.”

At once, everything about the importance of story telling I’d been trying to get across to myself fell into place. I went home that day with a cheerful heart and I have never been bothered by that demon again. There were others.

During the writing of the history of Prince Edward County, I had become very attached both to the people who lived there and to their history. What’s more, researching that history had brought a revelation. Prince Edward was settled by the Loyalist refugees from the American Revolution. I had pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States every single morning of my twelve years in American schools. I’d studied American history for all but two of those years – a lot of it about that revolution, its glorious patriots and its dirty traitors. Now, I discovered that the dirty traitors, the Loyalists, were the heroes, the good guys in Canada.

I had become a Canadian, not by conviction but because I couldn’t seem to grasp the mathematical formulae needed for the study of chemistry and because I had fallen for the nifty fellow sitting behind me in an English class at University.

Conviction had soon followed. My fondness for this country that had begun on my first evening in Ottawa had grown until I was like a convert to a religion or political party. There was a time when I practically buttonholed people on the street to tell them what a great country this was. I had come to feel more at home here than I had anywhere since leaving Vermont. I’d read Susannah Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, Hugh McLennon, Morley Callaghan – I’d read everyone from Sam Slick to Frederick Philip Grove. I’d taken out Canadian citizenship. I canvassed for a political party. I wanted to belong here. I wanted to belong to this country the way my husband did. I spent years working at saying caffee instead of cawffee, ooranges instead of aaranges and hoose instead of hause. To no avail.

At one point in her novel, The Four-gated City, Doris Lessing saysthat once you’ve left one country, you’ve left them all. I think she’s right. After writing the history of Prince Edward County, I finally had to admit to myself that, no matter how my twigs and branches might wave in the great white north, my roots were deeply imbedded in that rocky New England soil south of the border. I didn’t – couldn’t – entirely belong in either place. I was never really going to belong anywhere.

Much as we belonged to the countryside, we were strangers in that Vermont community. (The people there couldn’t even pronounce our name, Swoboda.) I never felt at home in suburban New York and, here I was, an immigrant in Canada with no hope of ever belonging the way my husband did. I couldn’t even be as Canadian as my children. That longing to belong has informed my life and almost everything I’ve written.

When I started writing again, I went back to the book about my house and the ghost that haunted it. With my new-found confidence, I let my imagination travel where it wanted to go. And away it went, back in time to the American Civil War with a child who, like me, belonged everywhere and nowhere. While the story, which I called The Root Cellar, is not autobiographical in its plot or its characters, it is emotionally autobiographical. I realized, when I’d finished writing it, that I’d gone step by step on the journey my heroine had taken and I’d made a kind of peace with myself about having been always an immigrant. As well I had come to care deeply for the Lake Ontario country where I was living – nd where I’d set so much of my story. Another demon dealt with.

Another thing the writing of this book did for me was to help me see myself as a writer.A couple of years earlier, during the time I hadn’t been able to write anything, I’d gotten the invitation Margaret Laurence had sent to every writer in the country to join the newly-formed Writers’ Union of Canada. There was no way I could have brought myself to join a union of writers with the stature of Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton or Alice Munro. I was a housewife who reviewed children’s books and had written one book. One small book.

In the intervening years I had published two more small books and I was finishing this novel. I got up my nerve and joined the union. I still didn’t feel like a full-fledged writer but, surprisingly, I felt as though I belonged with those who were. It was almost a shock to find out that there were other people who understood about the compulsion to write, who suffered the same agonies when stories wouldn’t come right and the same mourning periods when stories were finished. It was a gift I had never expected.

I did know, by this time, however, that I was a writer for children. C. S. Lewis insisted that no one writes well for children who isn’t still, at least partly, a child him-or-herself. When I first read that, I had been reviewing children’s books for some time and I thoroughly agreed with him. I saw this in writers like E. B. White, Mary Norton and Lewis, himself.ButI had also just published my first book and I wasn’t at all sure I had enough of this quality to make me ever succeed as a writer for children. One day I confessed this fear to Peter Martin who was my publisher. Peter stared at me in absolute astonishment. Then he burst out laughing, “You’re the only eight-year old I know with a thirty-five-year old vocabulary,” he said.

At first I wasn’t sure how I should take this but I decided, finally, that however it was meant, it was true. I have never managed even the semblance of sophistication. I am still astonished by the world and everything in it. The fact is, I have never even quite gotten used to myself.

As well, I had no sooner ceased to be an actual child than I started working with children. During my teen years I earned my pocket money baby sitting. My great contribution to the second-world-war effort was volunteering at the local hospital as what is now called a “candy striper”. I used to pedal my bike furiously on my day to work so I could get there first and sign up for pediatrics. I always wanted children. I married young and had all five children in a space of time that worried my mother, outraged my mother-in-law and sent my husband to the surgeon. I like kids.

Wrapping your life around children puts you in a funny place in our world, though. A child psychiatrist I saw being interviewed on TV recently pointed out that ours is not “exactly a child-centered society”. I’ve known this for years. But it still irritates me when I get asked, “why do you write for children?” – or more bluntly, “When are you going to write a real book?” No one ever asks me why I write history or historical fiction but interviewers, teachers, kids, quite a few writers for adults and, sometimes, even friends still ask me why I write for children. In fact, the only people who never do are other children’s writers and children’s librarians.

The answer is that all the stories I feel compelled to tell are for children – or teenagers. At one time I thought I would write fiction for adults but it wasn’t for me.What sustains a writer through the hard, agonizing, sometimes tedious hours, weeks, months, years of writing a book is the compulsion to get said whatever drove him/her to it in the first place. That compulsion never leaves me when I’m writing a story for kids. The excitement that comes with being taken by a new story idea may dwindle and even completely disappear through the miserable times when the story won’t come together or a character won’t emerge into the light or the right word or phrase lurks just beyond the crack in the door to my subconscious, but the compulsion to tell the story? Never.

Sheree Fitch said in a talk she gave in Ottawa a few months ago that, for her, writing for children means “staying in a safe place”. I’m not at all sure that children’s stories are all that much safer than adults’ stories except that they have more conclusive endings than most adults’ stories and stick closer to Aristotle’s definition of drama.And children’s books do not deal in irony or despair.

Perhaps this is whatmakes them feel safer. Whatever the truth of that may be, it isn’t the safety that entices me, it’s that frisson I feel as I start off on a new adventure with a set of characters I have only just met. I know where the adventure starts and I know where it’s headed, but, try though I may to map the whole of it, it gets away from me. I have discovered that I am a true combination of my mother and my father. The part of me that’s my father carefully maps out a story from start to finish. Then the part of me that’s my mother takes over and there goes the map. They battle for the upper hand, back and forth, back and forth in a sort of uneasy counterpoint until the adventurers finally come to rest on the last page.

I’m addicted tothe journey, the actual writing process. It’s awful, it’s wonderful, I feel driven, all the time I’m writing, but I’m never completely happy when I’m not in the middle of a story. My husband once told me, crossly, “when you’re not writing a book you’re doing your damndest to make a story out of your life and not always a good one, either.” So I keep writing.

My life story is about love affairs with places, with people and with words. In it there have been so many good friends, so many rich experiences and so much fun. I now have a 73-year old vocabulary and I’m quite content to know that I am still eight years old, still amazed by life, and can still so easily cross that thin line between this three-dimensional world and the other one where time gone by is lodged and stories happen. One of these days I may have to drift off into whatever brain fog is currently afflicting the aged. I can only hope, if that happens, that I will have found myself, once again, in the hills where the brook runs clear and the wind sighs in the big pine tree. But not yet.

I’m like a small boy I once knew, a neighbour when my children were growing up. He was a dawdler. One morning his exasperated father shouted up the stairs, “Gregory, have you made your bed yet.”

Greg shouted back, indignantly, “I can’t make it, I’m still in it.”

That’s how I feel about this writer’s life, I’m still in it - and I’m still loving it.

Thank you.



Janet Lunn's Margaret Laurence Lecture was delivered in Toronto on May 31, 2002. Her lecture is included in the series anthology A Writer's Life: The Margaret Laurence Lectures which was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2011. 




Woodcock Fund


Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing


September 19 for books published between June 201 and September 18, 2018


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