Photo by Tina Wallace
Local novelist Alan Cumyn has been writing stories since he was 15. From his first novel Waiting for Li Ming, his dark novels Man of Bone and sequel Burridge Unbound, to his most popular children’s book The Secret Life of Owen Skye, he’s come a long way.
He’s won the Ottawa Book Award twice, won the Silver Birch Express Award, and has been shortlisted for the Governor General’s award, the Giller Prize, and the Trillium Award.
On Oct. 29, he joined professor Aïda Hudson’s children’s literature class at the U of O to read from one of his stories and speak about his experiences as an author.
One difficulty Cumyn faces is writer’s block. He joked that he combats it by simply working on his backyard deck, then clarified that he distracts himself for a while with things like household chores and eventually finds a way through it.
“I will stop and do something else for a while, but not for too long, because I really trust my subconscious to be working on the project,” he said. “And when I go back to my computer in my office, it is not because I know what the answer is. I just have a feeling that I know what the answer is and I will trust that.”
Once his writer’s block is cured, he gets to work in his office, which he calls a “free thought zone,” a place where there are no stupid ideas and there’s nothing too outlandish for him to try.
Cumyn read a chapter from The Secret Life of Owen Skye called “The Bog Man’s Wife.” Deemed to be one of the most frightening and controversial chapters in the book, it has mystery, a stark ambiance, and a haunted house. At a conference, he was criticized by librarians for a question proposed by characters in the story: “Where do babies come from?”
Despite the fact that Cumyn had left the question unanswered in the book, the issue lingered simply because the question had been asked in the first place. Some of the librarians found the question inappropriate for a child audience. However, this concern has not affected the critical acclaim the book has garnered; it has a global fan base with editions released in South Korea and Germany.
His latest book, All Night, is a romantic comedy about a young couple who attend a funeral dressed in a costume that offends the family of the deceased. Hence, they return home from the funeral and spend all night thinking about what’s important to them. Cumyn said his idea for writing the story was his way of “honouring the older generation of young people trying to make a life in the arts.”
As for those aspiring writers, Cumyn has some advice.
“The seed of a story is about an interesting character in a compelling situation. You can’t write about somebody in a vacuum,” he said. “There have to be difficulties, obstacles, to overcome.”