An author of our very own: Interview with Ms. Heather Hunter

By: Brendan Wong                         Monday, May 24th, 2010
Campbell Chronicles (Albert Campbell C.I. school newspaper)

B: What do you think makes a good story?

HH: Realismó ordinary things that people can relate to. Itís the detail - the background, the atmosphere, that makes a good story, and of course appealing characters that ring true. I guess Iím just not into fantasy.

B: Who or what inspired you to write Kimberley of Millpond?

HH: Well, of course it was my mother, Bernice Thurman Hunter, who was the author of the Booky Trilogy. As for this book, I found the beginning of it on her computer. She had rewritten the first six chapters. So I went to the Osborne Collection where they keep authors' artifacts and retrieved the original 50 year old manuscript to work from. And of course, I can remember Millbrook. It was a fun project for me to do because I could go back in time to my childhood. I followed her storyline, but I did a complete rewrite, so there are a lot of my own chapters. My mum always inspired me to write. She believed in my ability since I was a child.

B: The setting of your book is the fictional town of Millpond. Describe your fondest memory of living in the small Ontario town of Millbrook.

HH: HmmÖ It could be skating on the pond in winter, when we wore little bob skates, which amounted to   double blades strapped to our snow boots. Yes, skating. I remember the ice cracking behind us and seeing the air or water bubbles just under the surface. Today's parents would consider it too dangerous.      Also, I remember my mother picking me up after school at 11:30 in the morning. This was grade oneó we had no kindergarten in Millbrookóand all we did was play anyway. We learned nothing much in first grade in Millbrook, so it was a shock when we moved to Toronto and the other kids could read and write. It was before education was centralized.ó all the other kids who were older had to stay in school, while the grade one class got out early, so we would walk down the path to King Street, which was the main street of town. My mum would buy me an ice-cream cone at Wood's restaurant and Iíd sit on those stools that twirled around. So I guess thatís probably my favourite memory, my mom picking me up from school.

B: Describe some of the differences between living in a small town, such as Millbrook, and living in a big city, such as Toronto.

HH: I guess the main thing is that everybody knows everybody else in a small town, which made it safer for children. Perhaps it was the time periodó I think it was a more innocent timeó but we literally had the freedom to roam the town. The adults would all keep an eye on the kids, and if we did something wrong, any adult was free to tell us off. I mean, here in Toronto, there are neighbours that live two doors down and I donít know their names. But it could also be considered a bad thing too, because you couldnít get away with anything! If you did something wrong, before you got home, somebody had phoned your mom and told on you!

B: The majority of the storyline centres on Kimberly, a character representative of your older sister. How are your personal experiences represented in the book?

HH: Well Iím Valerie, the pesky little sisteró and I think that that character adds some humour to the story. Thatís how Iím in the book. But of course, I was writing about my sisteró I can remember her back then, and my parentsó itís my family I was writing aboutÖsomewhat idealized, for sure. My parents werenít perfect. The chapters involving Valerie were my very distinct memories; these things really happened. I donít want to give away too much from the book, in case anyone wants to read it. Someone asked me the other day, ďAre you allergic to bees?Ē and I said, ďWhy?Ē She said ďBecause I read your book, and that was a scary incidentĒ, when I learned I had an allergy to bee stings.

B: Is there a theme in your book that you would like your readers to recognize?

HH: I think that childhood is a universal experience. We all enjoy nostalgia, looking back fondly to our childhood. Itís something that we all share and it shows us that weíre all the sameóbecause we had the same childhood feelings. The family is universal and stories about them draw us together. It doesnít matter where we were raised, or even when! Weíre all people. When we start talking about childhood, we all start to smile and reminisce.

B: What is your greatest strength as a writer? Have you developed a specific writing style?

HH: Yes, I think my greatest strength might be my descriptions. Well, first of all, I think that I can transport a reader to another place, another time, and take them on a little journey out of their lives. And my writing style, which Iíve worked on, is  very terse, very crisp. My students will tell you that I insist on making a point in as few words as possible, with very apt diction, not ramble on, as I'm doing now.

B: What was the most interesting thing that you learned while writing this book?

HH: Well, I remember my mother saying, writing is 10% talent, and 90% hard work. I really experienced that. Writing the first draft, the creative process, when youíre spilling it onto the pages is a really exciting time. But to have it turn into a really good book, you have to rewrite, go over tweaking it a million times, but it must turn out sounding effortless. She used to say that writing is rewriting. Going over it, over and over and over, perfecting the wording, even the punctuation is gruelling. You can agonize over a comma, or a word, change it, and then change it back again the next day. Perfecting it is really a lot of work. So I spent most of my time, as most writers do, revising for endless hours at a time because once I start,  I can't let it go.

B: What was the greatest challenge while writing your book?

HH: Iím in the story, re-living it. Sometimes it was really hard for me to know if it was any good. I forget, sometimes, what really happened and what we made up. The book and my memories have blended together now. It was hard to get some distance on it, to get the reader's perspective, to be sure that everything was clear and logical. And also, not being too sentimental was a challenge because I was writing about my family, and writing about my parents, who are both gone now. I tried not to idealize them too much which is easy to do with nostalgia. I wanted it to be realistic.

B: So, what are your current projects, next steps, and goals as a writer?

HH: Iíve got an idea for a young adult novel, YA fiction. And itís actually about a boy I taught in Campbell, many years ago. He was a very troubled boy and he made a very deep impression on me. It's a story about him, and in the book it showed what goes into the making of "a bad kid". He goes on to have a very ignominious future. I hope it'll make people think twice about the way they treat other people, and what can be the long-term consequences of unkindness. That will be my next project.

B: Would you like to tell us any more details?

HH: Oh, I wonít give you any more than that. And this is what I plan to turn my attention to. Being a writer has been my dream all my life. So I guess thatís my goal, to put writing first now that I am retiring from teaching. What a luxury, having the time to write! And promote my motherís work as well. Iíve been asked on quite a few occasions to do presentations on her life and work because sheís quite a famous childrenís author. There are even 3 CBC movies based on her Booky Trilogy, so I want to promote her work so she'll be remembered and so her books don't go out of print.

B: Sometime in the future, when you wish to end your career as a writer and reflect on your journey, what thoughts do you hope to have?

HH: Okay, first of all, I never intend to end my career as a writer, and thatís the beauty of this careeróthat you can do it even if you end up with physical limitations as you get older. My mother was writing right up until the night before she went into the hospital and died one month later. She kept her career going to the very end; it's what kept her going.

She started late in life though, as Iím doing, so sheís really my inspiration and role model. My motherís first novel was published when she was fifty-nine. Thatís the beauty of it as a second career. On a snowy day, you donít have to go out, but you can live in your imagination, in the world youíve created in your book. Like my mother, I hope to just keep doing it.

I hope that with my writing will bring some pleasure or even comfort to people because they feel a kinship with me. This makes people feel less alone; when you read a book, you can identify with the characters, basically you feel connected to other people, the human race, and just that fact, I think, is good for people.

B: Especially for younger people for whom your book was intended? How would you classify this book?

HH: Yes, thatís the interesting part about childrenís literature or historical fiction. Kimberley is told from a child's point of view, but adults can enjoy it, especially adults who lived during that time period. We all like to look back and remember ourselves as children. My motherís work was like that; it was classed as children's literature and historical fiction, but her readership was very wide because people enjoyed the honest, even insightful point of view of a child. Like the very famous book, To Kill a Mockingbird, gives Scout Finch's perspective, even though you know that itís not childrenís literature. Mine is children's literature, but Iíve had so many adults love it because it transported them back to the 50's and their own childhoods, which people like to do.

Historical fiction sounds like an oxymoron. The details of the time period must be accurate, but the writer is freer and has the leeway to alter things. Even though the characters were based on real people, I could change them for effect. Fiction gives you the freedom to be creative and go with the flow. You might be writing something thatís a true incident, but you can embellish it. Or you can compress time; thereís not a lot that happens in a year, but you can take all the incidents that happened over five years, and put them into one. You can change the characters too. Bobby was really a girl! Anyway, I think I should stop now that I 'm rambling.

B: Thank you for the interview. It's a lovely book. Any last words?

HH: Check out my website which is dedicated to my mother, Bernice Thurman Hunter. My son is my webmaster! It is great when your kids are old enough to help you. And thanks for the interview, Brendan; they were good questions.