Sun, Nov
26
2006

In Conversation with Kenneth Oppel

Here’s the second part of the article and interview I wrote that ran in the 98th issue of The New Quarterly (the first part can be found here). It was a pleasure to interview Mr. Oppel; though we talked primarily by e-mail, I did manage to meet up with him at the Eden Mills Writers Festival and at a library reading back in February. He was very approachable and gave some excellent answers to my questions.

Kenneth Oppel’s website can be found at http://www.kennethoppel.ca/. He is currently working on a prequel to his Silverwing series.


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Mr. Oppel, you are well known for your Silverwing series and Airborn has been on the children’s literature best seller lists for almost a year, now, but this came only after fourteen years of hard work. Just how did you support yourself during your early days of writing?

In the early days I wrote numerous books that were unread by millions. So I did all sorts of part-time work. I worked as a secretarial temp; I typed people’s doctoral theses and memoirs; I worked for BBC Children’s TV, reading scripts and books and writing coverage for the producer.

I also wrote screenplays, which could be quite lucrative, though none of mine were ever filmed. Silverwing was my 12th book, and the first that was popular and made me (over time) any significant amount of money.


Did you come from a family of readers?

There were plenty of books in the house. Our parents read aloud to my brother and me when we were young. I’m not sure any of us could be described as books worms, but we did read a fair amount, and the importance of education and discussion was stressed very much in our house.


Your first book, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure was published after a mutual friend suggested you send a copy to Roald Dahl and after Dahl passed your book on to his literary agent. How much of Roald Dahl’s work influences your writing and has that changed over time?

My very first book was a complete homage to Dahl, a humorous fantasy adventure story written in a British idiom and filled with Dahlian hyperbole. My later books really don’t resemble his writing at all. I had to discover my own voice, and the kind of stories I was best suited to tell. In terms of Dahl’s influence on me, what remains is his sense of wonder, and the way his child characters always become empowered.


I’m also seeing influences by Jules Verne. Was he among the authors you read when you were growing up? Who else has influenced you and how?

I never read Verne as a kid; I was familiar with his stories via their film and TV adaptations. Captain Nemo, the Nautilus, journeys to the center of the earth and around the world — these were all familiar and beloved icons of my childhood. It was the nature of his stories that influenced me, the look of his machines. Same thing with Robert Louis Stevenson, to whom my latest books have also been compared. I don’t think I ever read Treasure Island or Kidnapped as a kid, but the stories were well known to me and, obviously, joined my imaginary reservoir. Other influences? Hemingway, the cartoonist GBTrudeau, Brian Doyle… it’s all over the place.


I understand that you decided that you wanted to become a writer when you were twelve. Did you always see yourself as a writer after that point or was that a realization that hit you later? How and when did it hit you?

Writing was bound up pretty tightly with my sense of self, even at the age of 12 and 13. It was something I loved doing, something I thought I had a special flare for, and it felt like a very personal extension or reflection of myself. I remember telling my father in the kitchen one night that I wanted to be published by the time I was 16. I don’t think I ever envisaged myself doing anything other than writing for a living, though, as university wound down and I realized I had to have an income, I did panic a bit and wonder if I should be working as a book editor, an arts journalist, or trying to get into advertising. Luckily, it turned out I was unemployable, so it forced me to keep writing!


What parts of your identity play into your sense of yourself as a writer? Do you see yourself as a Canadian writer, and does that affect your writing, or do you resist these sorts of definitions?

These definitions never seemed very important to me. I’m a very proud Canadian, though I’m not sure anything distinctly Canadian (in terms of style, themes, or ideologies) emerges in my writing. It’s not the kind of psychoanalysis most writers want to perform on themselves or their work. It just doesn’t make your job any easier, or your writing any better!


After the Silverwing series, you jumped from bats to flying machines in Airborn. Not to mention cloud cats and the aerozoans of Skybreaker. Do you fly much?

I fly quite a bit for business reasons now; it’s not a particular pleasure of mine, but it’s unavoidable. For a long time I was very scared of flying. Now I’m resigned. My interest in the sky stems, I think, more from its potential as a new world to be explored. And the idea of flight fascinates me — maybe because I’ve had vivid flying dreams, and because I think it’s interesting to imagine yourself in an alien element.


You’ve said that you wanted to become a writer after wanting to become a scientist (and an architect), and I’m noticing a number of themes in your novels that have to do with biology, or “hard” science. There’s the Live Forever Machine, your bats of Silverwing, cloud cats and aerozoans. Clearly, your wish to become a scientist — or, possibly, a biologist — hasn’t left you, has it?

No. I’m really interested in science, especially biology, though I lack the skills and training to understand them in any depth. I think I see in science the possibility for the kind of wonders and miracles that we used to expect from religion and the supernatural.


So where does architecture figure into your stories?

Mostly in the way I approach writing. I’m a big planner, a drawer of blueprints. I see my stories visually. I like to imagine my stories as skyscrapers or soaring suspension bridges.


The Devil’s Cure is listed as your only adult novel: one in twenty-two. Tell me a bit about how this book came about. When did you realize you were writing for an older audience, here, and what made you come to that realization?

I’d written an original screenplay about a death row inmate whose blood contains an enzyme that might be a cure for cancer. He refuses to give blood for research — he’s a religious extremist — and escapes when they force him to comply. It was what they called a “high concept” screenplay and I optioned it to a producer, but it went nowhere. I liked the story enough to wonder if I could turn it into a novel — by dint of its subject matter and the characters, this could not be a children’s book. But I’d been curious to see if I could write a book for adults — and what it would be like — so I gave it a try.


Did you enjoy writing The Devil’s Cure more, less, or the same (but in a different way) than your young adult and children’s novels?

I started out enjoying it because it was different and the change was invigorating. But increasingly I realized I was writing a genre book — a medical thriller — and felt constrained by its conventions and expectations. By the end, I felt the strain of writing about characters and events that were so far outside my realm of lived experience and personal interest. I actually hate stories about serial killers and FBI manhunts and people with guns, and would avoid any book about these things. There are many things about Devil’s Cure I am proud of, and I still think it’s a good read, but it made me realize that this wasn’t the kind of book I enjoyed writing, or should be writing. I’m not saying I’ll never write for adults again, but if I did it would be a very different kind of book. I’m happier right now writing for a younger audience. My imagination feels completely unfettered.


I was intrigued how, in Skybreaker, you have scenes where the principles drink alcohol (in moderation) even though, by today’s standards, they’re underage. There’s also a wonderfully funny scene where Kate and Matt smoke cigars for the first time, and then there’s the remarkably physical nature of their developing relationship. The story allows the smoking and the drinking because it’s giving an accurate picture of a different era, albeit a fantasy one. Did you have or did you envision running into any problems with these adult hot button issues in this book?

I figured the period setting would exonerate me. Also, having a glass of champagne, or a puff of a cigar, didn’t really strike me as hot button issue — compared to what some teens are sampling, it all seems pretty innocent and tame. So far, no one’s taken me to task! The only complaint I ever had about Airborn was the pirates’ foul language — not their murderous habits, mind you, but their occasional cussing!


You’ve won numerous awards, including the prestigious Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. You have a big budget adaptation of Airborn that appears set for 2006 or 2007. Where do you go from here?

The fact is I still have to get up every day and create something new. Having accolades and film deals is wonderful, but it doesn’t make the day to day work of writing any different, or any easier. In some ways harder because, though you may feel appreciated and successful, you feel an increased pressure to produce strong work and please your readers. Right now I’m working on a prequel to Silverwing, set 65 millions years before the first book, at the time when the very first bats achieved powered flight.


Okay, I can’t resist asking: I’m deeply interested in the developing relationship between Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries in Airborn and Skybreaker; I love their banter and chemistry, the way their friendship/love continues despite Matt’s poor background and Kate’s parents’ likely disapproval. Kate and Matt so well matched to go adventuring and breaking barriers. So, I’ve got to know: will there be a third book featuring Matt Cruse and Kate de Vries in the future? And are they likely to elope?

I’d love to write a third book about Matt and Kate and have every intention of doing so eventually. Will they elope? Not sure. That would mean marriage, and that sort of makes them grown-ups, which might be completely boring to the bulk of my young readers. But who knows? The challenge is, I have to take the relationship into new territory or else it runs of the risk of becoming stale. That’s one of the many challenges of writing a sequel!


Thanks to Kenneth Oppel for taking the time to talk with me.


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