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Brian Doyle

You Have to Think and Feel Like Your Readers

By Mary Budziszewski

Volume 19 Number 2
1991 March

The author of Covered Bridge talks about writing for children -keeping the voice consistent, the setting as character, and the role of the editor--and the important part libraries and librarians play in the Canadian children's book scene.

The Canadian library community has made author Brian Doyle the success he is today. A humble, unpretentious man, Doyle explains that he is "all over Canada because of libraries. We, as authors, are literally planted in communities, because the library is the cultural centre in every community in the country."

He adds that if the library industry does not initially accept a book (by giving it a bad review, for instance), libraries usually won't pick it up. "Publishers ultimately lose money because fewer people are interested in buying the book. Then, of course, they won't spend the money to push the book, and the book dies."

This hasn't happened to any of Doyle's books (six to date: Hey Dad!, You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove, Angel Square, Easy Avenue and Up to Low), including his latest, Covered Bridge. He explains, "Libraries and librarians have gone out of their way to promote my books. I have to thank them for that. There has not yet been any problem in promoting any of my books or having bookstores pick them up." Doyle adds that libraries are especially important when it comes to children's books. "This is such a touchy area. Parents want to know what their children are reading, so they first go to the librarian. Without a library's okay, the book usually doesn't get read."

Libraries aside, Doyle's success (he has sold 200,000 books in the last 10 years) also rests on his uncanny ability to tell a good story, keeping the reader fully involved and entertained from beginning to end. He admits the hardest part of writing is keeping the voice consistent, staying in the reader's head the whole way. "It's my concentration that keeps me in their heads. I have to keep in total control and fully concentrate on what I'm doing, or I lose it."

Writing for this age group also implies, according to Doyle, ensuring there is "a purity to the language." He explains, "You must hear what straightforward talk is. You have to think and feel like your readers, because if you don't, you're not communicating." Doyle gives an example of a radio interview he once gave in which one of the interviewers was a child. This child's first question to Doyle was, "What do you do when you're not writing?"

"This was a cocktail party query. That definitely wasn't her question. Someone gave it to her. Her question would have been something like 'Do you work?' or 'Do you have another job?' If you don't know the difference between those two types of questions, you're in trouble." This "straightforward talk" is what Doyle works on most. "Themes aren't as hard. It's the style you've got to work on."

He admits it's difficult to see one's own book objectively, and he knows what his shortcomings are. That is why he works closely with Patsy Aldana of Groundwood Books (the publisher of all Doyle's books). Aldana heard of Doyle when he was working on his first book, Hey Dad!, back in 1978 and approached him. At that time, she was a publisher just beginning to make a name for herself. Aldana read the manuscript and showed up at Glebe Collegiate Institute, a large high school in Ottawa, Ont., where Doyle taught English (and was the head of the English department for twenty-one years). Doyle was in the midst of producing a school play when Aldana asked him to rewrite the book and have it ready in a week.

He did it. "I don't know how I did it. I certainly couldn't do it now," he laughs.

He readily admits that he couldn't work without Aldana's help. "I don't have any problems with prose or style, for instance, but I do need help with the balance of the book itself. Sometimes I will unintentionally overemphasize a character, and then forget about it and leave him or her hanging there. Or I'll introduce a major person and then lay back a bit too much. It's sometimes very hard to see what you're doing. That's what Patsy is there for."

Aldana is publisher at Groundwood Books, but she still edits Doyle's manuscripts. In fact, he is the only fiction author she now edits (she still edits picture books as well). She describes Doyle's fiction as "very funny and very humane. He is a fantastic writer and an exceptional prose stylist. As well, his books never deliver an obvious message. Nothing about them is obvious." Aldana adds that his books have a "special kind of hero, a sensitive, aware child who's very vulnerable and who takes in and observes the world around him."

Becoming an author came as a surprise to Doyle, who never writes specifically to be published. "Writing to be published usually ends up a disaster. I have to write for myself or for a friend or for a family member. That's the only way it works." Indeed, his first book, Hey Dad!, was written for his daughter Megan in the hopes she would begin reading books. "I certainly didn't expect it to be published," Doyle admits. Again, You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove, his second book, was written for Ryan, his son.

This is the reason the narrators in all six books are the same age: pre-pubescent and post-picture book. The majority of his readers are also of the same age group. He then wrote Up to Low for himself. "I ran out of kids, so I had to resort to myself."

His books are situated in the late 1940s to about 1950, when Doyle was the age of his readers. Working from memories and past experiences seems to be a rule of sorts, he admits. The inspiration for Covered Bridge, for instance, came from his own experiences working on a bridge when he was younger. "I couldn't write about something I didn't know. Each of my books is written through my own recollections set in and about the Ottawa area." Setting, therefore, also plays a major role in his books, becoming an actual character that has a real significance in the theme. "My books all seem to be tied to the physical being of 'being there.' Whether it's urban or rural, it has to mean something."

Angel Square, for instance, focuses on city life, with snowy streets at Christmas and little houses. Up to Low is a journey set in the Gatineau Hills in Quebec, where Doyle spent his boyhood summers, and Easy Avenue is set at Glebe Collegiate Institute, where a boy is taken in by the gorgeous, palatial setting. In fact, Doyle considers the setting more important than the characters in the book. "You have to have a relationship with the place you're working with. I have to work that way."

Although he is successful with books for this age range, he admits he would like someday to write a book for adults. "I know I will. The time just has to be right." In the meantime, Doyle is working on a number of other projects, and he is waiting for a film (by Ann Wheeler) of his best-selling book Angel Square to be released next Christmas.

Still an English teacher (now at Ottawa Technical High School), Doyle plans to retire this June after thirty-three years teaching in various high schools in the Ottawa area. He says he's terrified at the prospect of no longer having to be in a classroom every day, but he is also looking forward to having the time to establish a good writing routine. He would also like to become more involved in conducting readings across the country. "I've turned down a lot of invitations throughout Canada because of my present teaching responsibilities. Now I'll be able to just take off anywhere and everywhere."

Ninety per cent of his readings are done in public libraries, something he insists on rather adamantly. "In libraries, children don't see you as a teacher. They're more relaxed. If I do a reading in a classroom, they don't take as much interest in me or what I'm saying. There's a very big difference. It's similar to the difference between bringing a painting into a classroom and bringing the children to an art gallery," he explains.

If Doyle's past success is any indication (his books have won two CLA Book of the Year for Children awards--in 1983 for Up to Low and in 1989 for Easy Avenue--and have been nominated for three Governor General's awards), we are sure to see him nominated soon for yet another bestseller. He, however, is not too concerned about winning awards. In his opinion, the awards he has already won are more than enough. "The CLA awards [I won] last forever. They are miles and miles more influential than, for instance, the Governor General's awards. CLA's awards grab and do something. They put roots down for one's books, and they stay down. I wouldn't trade a CLA award for anything."

Mary Budziszewski is the editor of Feliciter, the newspaper of the Canadian Library Association.

Books by Brian Doyle

Angel Square. Douglas & McIntyre, 1984.

Covered Bridge. Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.

Easy Avenue. Douglas & McIntyre, 1988.

Hey, Dad! Douglas & McIntyre, 1978.

Up to Low. Douglas & McIntyre, 1982.

You Can Pick Me Up at Peggy's Cove. Douglas & Mcintyre, 1979.
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