Profile by Dave Jenkinson.
How many high school students do you know who have had two books published by the time
they were in grade 11? Many of you likely thought of Gordon Korman, but there is also Nicole
Luiken (pronounced LI-ken). The middle child in a family of three, Nicole was born May 25,
1971, in Hawk Hills in northern Alberta. As Nicole explains, "Hawk Hills is not a village, but
rather it's a small farming community. I went to school in Manning which is the closest town.
Now it's a half an hour drive, but, before they paved the road, it was a little longer, and the school
bus took longer yet. I spent 12 years riding the school bus."
"We had a curling rink up at Hawk Hills, and so I curled when I was younger, but I was never
that great at it. My dad had beef cows and did grain farming, but, by the time I was in grade nine or so, he sold off the cattle and just went with straight grain farming. To some extent, I was a 'typical' farm girl. I drove the swather for my dad for a couple of years in the summers, working for him, but I've never been that much of an outdoor person. We were quite unusual in that we actually had a pool at our house, and that's where I spent most of my 'outdoor' time. We ordered the pool from the Sears catalog, and it wasn't huge at all, only about five feet deep and 11 feet long, but you could fit a fair number of kids into it. Because of the pool, our place was very popular in the summer, and people would always come over and visit."
"I've always been an avid reader, and so I'd spend hours reading. Even despite the jouncing up
and down and all the kids getting on or off, I liked to read on the school bus. I have great
concentration powers because of that experience. I started off reading Nancy Drews in about
grade three. I read anything I could get my hands on. My dad had a big collection of Louis
L'Amour westerns that I went all the way though, and I read a lot of different things from
romance to science fiction, of course. As a child, I loved the Narnia and the Oz books."
Nicole wrote her first book at the age of 13. "It happened to be summer holidays, and my mom
had gotten me a book out of Edmonton extension library. The book was called A Guide to
Fiction Writing. We had filled out this little questionnaire, and, as one of my interests, Mom had suggested that I put down writing, and somebody at the extension library had shipped me this
book. It detailed how to go about writing a book, and I was quite interested. I had a 50 page
handwritten 'thing' at the time, but it was never going to develop into a book because I worked
on it so infrequently. When I got this book, it said, 'Write every day' and all of this kind of
standard advice, and so I started writing a book that summer, and I just never stopped." While
Nicole's writing was self-initiated, she acknowledges that her "English teachers, Mr. Conrad from
Rosary School and Steve Walker and Ms. Juneau from high school, were all encouraging."
"I sent my things out from the very beginning, but I just didn't get published from the very
beginning. The first two books definitely received form letter responses, and then the third one
started to get a slightly more detailed kind of rejection letters. The fourth one, Unlocking the
Doors, was actually published by Scholastic. I think I was 16 when we got the news that it was
going to be published, and then quite strangely only just a few months later I got the news that
Escape to the Overworld was going to be published too by Tree Frog Press. Those two books
both came out when I was in grade 11, and then The Catalyst came out my first year of college.
In terms of writing sequence, Unlocking the Doors was the fourth book that I wrote, Escape
to the Overworld the sixth, and The Catalyst was the fifth."
"In sending my things out, I started with the Canadian publishers and specifically with Scholastic
as a large publisher. I think the reason that I chose Scholastic was that I knew that Gordon
Korman had been published by them, and, of course, I knew he was another author who had been
published about the same age as I was. I just got Scholastic's address from the back of the title
page of one of their books and sent my manuscripts off. Things were a lot easier in those days
when you didn't need agents. I picked Tree Frog Press because they had a magazine at the time
called Mountain Standard Time that they put out into the schools, and so that's where I knew
"Even before I was published, I had told people that I was writing books, and I passed what I'd
written around to my friends who would sort of give me some feedback. Everybody thought that
my doing writing was cool, and, when I got published, it was just a continuation of that sort of
thing. I don't think anybody quite realized how rare it was for someone my age to be published. It
was just, 'Oh, Nicole's smart, and she's been writing books for years.'"
"When I first started writing that book when I was 13, of course I wasn't thinking career-wise. It
was just something fun to do, but, by the time I graduated from high school, I knew that being a
writer was what I wanted to do. I also knew that it was going to be hard to make a living full
time, and that's why I decided to become a library technician as sort of my bread-and-butter job.
It was just a two year college course at Grant McEwan College in Edmonton. I didn't have to
invest the whole four years in a degree for something that wasn't my life's dream. After I
graduated, I started off at Alberta Education, a government library, and then I was briefly at a
junior high library. My favorite job was at the college in Grand Prairie, but then my husband
started making enough money so that I could quit and start having kids and stay home and do
Being the mother of two small children provides Nicole with limited opportunities for writing, but
she says, with a chuckle, "If you look around, you can see how messy my house is. Basically I do
pretty minimal house work. I have a feeling that's where most people's time goes, but you just
have to make the time to write. When I was working full-time, my writing time was in the
evening, and I would go from about eight until 10:30 or 11 at night. Now it's more broken up. I
can usually, if I'm clever, get in an hour during my younger son Luke's nap, and then my other son, Simon, likes to play games on the computer, and so I let him have an hour or so. Then, when my husband Aaron's home in the evenings, he takes the kids for half the evening while they're awake. Of course, there's the time when the children are asleep. So, there is about three and a half hours available to me during the day, but I don't usually hit all three of those periods. There's usually something like having to wash my hair or having to do some baking, or whatever that interferes. But it's a pretty rare day though when I don't get in some time. As well, my parents are now only a 15 minute drive away, and that's made quite the difference."
Recalling the origins of her books, Nicole says, "Unlocking the Doors is basically a ghost story. I distinctly remember I was in the classroom in grade nine when I came up with the idea. I was talking to my friend Irene, and I said, 'Hang on, I have a story idea,' and I stopped to write it down. And she replied, 'What? How can you just do that?' I think the initial idea was to write about a character who was afraid of everything and who seemed like a total scaredy-cat. Then, of course, the challenge was figuring out the rest of the novel. 'Why is she afraid of everything?' That's when I got into the fact that there was a ghost in her house."
"Escape to the Overworld was definitely inspired by a writing exercise set to us by my English teacher, Mr. Conrad. He had this little chart that he handed around. It was a sort of tongue-in-cheek 'how-to-write' a science fiction novel. Depending on what branch you followed on this little chart, the villains would turn out to be bug-eyed aliens or robots or something. I
chose robots, and I pretty much wrote the 'Prologue' for Escape to the Overworld in class that day. A few years later, I had just finished The Catalyst, and I wasn't sure what book idea to go with next. I told my family about three or four ideas that I had, and they all voted for Escape, and so that's the one I did next."
The Catalyst came into being as a type of an anti-novel. "At the time, I was in high school, and
I was reading a lot of the 'Sweet Valley High' romance series, and I got so sick of how perfect
the main character was. She was blonde, everybody liked her, and she was smart at school. So, just sort of in rebellion, I came up with Medusa Noire who is totally the 'anti-of-everything.' She's ugly, she walks around with a headache all the time that makes her angry, and she's got psychic
powers. She doesn't do well in school, and she's just the opposite of the girls in all those series romance books."
While out-of-print. The Catalyst has re-emerged as an e-book. Nicole explains, "The e-book
thing is a very uncertain market right now. All of the publishers want to get in at the ground floor in case it takes off, but it hasn't really yet hit. As well, there's a whole wrangle going on over the payment to authors. For a printed book, the author does not get a very high percentage of the
sales, and that, in a way, is quite legitimate because the publisher has to pay all the printing expenses and all the distribution and everything like that. But when you go to an e-book, the whole thing changes, and so we authors want a bigger part of the pie, and the publishers, of
course, want to keep their share. As well, they haven't really come up with a standard e-book
reader. The e-book could become big, but, in the meantime, books are already there, and they're
great. I don't see a shift real soon, not unless the prices on the e-books start really beating out the print ones."
A dozen years passed between the original publication of The Catalyst and Violet Eyes.
Nicole explains, "I was writing the whole time, but I just stopped getting published. In a lot of
ways, I think with the three earlier books the editors cut me a break because I was so young, and
so then, all of a sudden, I started getting the rejection letters and had to learn how to do all that revising and editing myself, and it took me a while. And I was also starting to try for the bigger market because I do want to make a living at this, and I think that's very hard to do in just the Canadian market, and so I'm moving into a bigger fish pool shall we say."
"I now have an agent, Lucienne Diver of the Spectrum Literary Agency in New York, and she sold both Violet Eyes and Silver Eyes and my adult suspense thriller, Running on Instinct which was written under the name N.M. Luiken. I had spent so much time learning how to revise that Violet Eyes was highly polished when it got to the editor and accepted by them. Consequently, that book had actually fairly light editing on it. After they got Violet Eyes, the editor said, 'Well, we're interested in offering you a two book contract. Would you be interested in doing a sequel?' Violet Eyes is the seventh book that I wrote, and Silver Eyes is actually the twenty-fourth. I had, of course, revised Violet Eyes a lot of times in the years in between, but I had never considered a sequel. And then suddenly they were suggesting this, and I said, 'Well, give me the weekend to think it over.' I just sort of brain stormed over the weekend, and then I replied, 'Ok, I've got a few ideas. I think I could write a sequel.' I'm not going to turn down money, but it was the first and only time I've signed a contract when I didn't have the book for it already written."
"Writing a sequel was a very 'different' experience because then I handed in my second draft to
the editor whereas usually it's my fourth draft or so. Needless to say, the editor had a 'few'
changes that I needed to make, and they all had to be done in a rush space of time. Simon, my
first son, had just been born, and so it was a little hectic, but I think it came out rather well in the end. I would like to write a third 'violet eyes' book. I get regular fan mail about it which is very flattering, but the editor who bought my books is no longer with Pocket Books and unfortunately
book sales for Silver Eyes haven't really been high enough for the publisher to want a third book. So there may be a third book, but it's not looking good."
"Violet Eyes, which was the 2004 recipient of the Golden Eagle Book Award, started off with the whole thing of Angel's saying that she wanted to be a tree. That was the first scene that I wrote for that book, and then I had to figure out who this girl was and why she was so different. I had had the idea for the loyalty chip years before, and I'd come up with a whole different other set of characters, but it never really seemed to quite jell. When I was looking for a plot for Silver Eyes I remembered it and thought, 'Oh, yah,' and then the story took off."
"Violet Eyes and Silver Eyes are both definitely science fiction whereas a lot of my other
stuff tends to be more of what they term 'speculative' fiction because it's got the paranormal
powers and that sort of thing rather than the straight science fiction." Asked how she differentiates between the two genres, Nicole replies, "When someone asks me what kind of
fiction I write, I have to say 'speculative fiction' because so much of it doesn't always fit under the science fiction idea. When you say science fiction, most people will think the 'Star Trek' sort of thing. Something with ghosts people don't even think of as being science fiction, but it is clearly speculative."
When asked if her books required a lot of research, Nicole replies, "No. In some ways, that's why
the majority of my books tend to be more the paranormal stuff. You don't have to do much
research because I'm not a real research buff the way some writers are. They really enjoy it, and I do it because it's necessary. With the science fiction, it is the future, and you can do what you want, but you really need to have read a bunch of science fiction and be aware of the current
ideas. My husband and I actually both belong to the same Edmonton science fiction writers group.
We've been members for years, and the club's nickname is 'The Cult of Pain.' It got that
nickname after one particularly brutal critique of somebody's story."
"Most of my books tend to start off with a couple of characters in a scene and then grow from
there, but I have done it the other way around. The current book that I'm working on I call my
'Alien invasion novel in the 1200's.' Basically the springboard was when I decided I wanted to
write an alien invasion novel that took place a long time in the past. I spent weeks going through
Asimov's Chronology of the World trying to find a time period that interested me, and then it took me a while to actually come up with characters for that one. That approach was quite different from the way than I usually go about it. I avoided writing that book for years because I knew it was going to be heavy on the research."
Looking back at her first three books and how she has changed as a writer, Nicole says, "I think I
have definitely improved as a writer since those first three. My books have also tended to get
thicker since then. I don't think I could write a 97 page one like Unlocking the Doors any
more. I just don't think that's possible for me."
"I'm still working on most of the books that I've written although there are a few that I have
abandoned. They're just not going to make it. Actually, the few times I've tried to write outside
the speculative fiction genre have not worked out well, and so I don't think that I'll ever work on those again, but I don't like to give up on my books. There's usually something about them that I really want to see published, and I'm willing to rewrite and rewrite them until I can get the job done. I know that Violet Eyes got rejected many, many times in its previous form, and it's
much better now that it's been rewritten, and so I don't see why I can't do the same with the
other books too."
"Right now I'm moving back and forth between adult and YA books. The project I'm working on
presently is adult, and my next 'scheduled' one is YA." Nicole observes that what she finds as the biggest difference in writing for the two audiences is "basically the age of your characters. I don't think I'd want to do more than a two viewpoint book for a young adult book. I actually like writing first person point of view, and I think that's a lot more possible in a young adult than in an adult market."
As to future books, Nicole says, "I have a young adult one called 'Frost' out with my agent right
now, and I have an adult one called 'Cross My Heart and Hope to Die' that's making the rounds.
And "When Dreams Come True,' another young adult one, is also out there making the rounds.
'When Dreams Come True' is about a girl whose dreams come true literally. 'The Frost' is set up
in Baffin Island in Iqaluit, and there's all sorts of cold things happening involving an evil,
menacing Jack Frost type character. The adult one, 'Cross My Heart' has got a few more psychic
powers in it."
Books by Nicole Luiken.
- Unlocking the Doors. Scholastic, 1988. Grades 4-7.
- Escape to the Overworld. Treefrog, 1988. Grades 4-7.
- The Catalyst. Treefrog, 1989. Grades 4-7.
- Violet Eyes. Pocket Pulse, 2001. Grades 5-10.
- Silver Eyes. Pocket Pulse, 2001. Grades 5-10.
This article is based on an interview conducted in Edmonton, AB, on August 21, 2003.
Visit Nicole's home page at http://www.geocities.com/nmluiken
Photo credit: Nick Polard