Interview with The Miramichi Reader

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“In seven days, she will fall,” say the crows. “As she falls, so do we all.” Who falls? wonders M. The ominous, supernatural message starts M on a quest that could save more than one life. But what if the person in danger happens to be her nemesis? Along the way, M meets up with Gray, a Cree boy with his own hopes of saving a runaway Indigenous girl. As they begin a wild journey through the city and into the bleak northern woods, M grasps for the true meaning behind the crows’ messages and pushes deeper and deeper into worlds she doesn’t know or understand, holding fast to a questionable dream that she might be a modern-day Joan of Arc.

Messenger 93 is the sophomore YA novel from Toronto author Barbara Radecki. Thom Vernon, award-winning author of The Drifts says, “Radecki’s masterful turns of suspense and mystery send M, and the rest of us, on a thrill ride from downtown to the deep woods. It’s a can’t-put-down, must-read adventure!”

Barbara Radecki started her career as an actor and is probably best known for voicing Sailor Neptune in the original English dub of the popular Sailor Moon series. She has transitioned to writing, with a focus on full-length fiction and screenplays. She co-wrote a modern adaptation screenplay of Jane Austen’s Persuasion due out in 2020, starring Alicia Witt and Bebe Neuwirth.

Her debut novel, The Darkhouse, came out to acclaim in 2016/17, including a Kirkus star and spot on CBC’s 15 Great Reads for Young Readers (1 of 5 for YA). In 2017, she was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. Her second novel, Messenger 93, comes out in April 2020.

Radecki answered some questions about her writing and her new novel.

How does symbolism play into the creation of your novel?

A key component of Messenger 93 is the reader-question of whether the events in the story are symbolic or if they are real. This strikes at the original reason I was inspired to write the book: if we believe, for whatever reason, that we are meant to “save someone,” can we? Should we? Is this the foundation for human survival, or is it our egos searching for validation? If it can be one or the other, then where is the line and how do we find it? How have our ideas been fashioned by social constructs? What is the basis of true compassion? So the crows and the messages that appear throughout the book are always floating in and out of that liminal space, asking the reader to ask, “What does it really mean?”

Teenage protagonists have changed a lot since the 1990s. Back then, coming of age meant a whole different thing. What is it like writing for a readership that wasn’t even born when Kurt Cobain killed (1994) himself or even when Winona Ryder, famed mom from Stranger Things (and some other movies) was charged with shoplifting. (2002)?

The most specific change I see is in the portrayals of female protagonists. In years gone by, it seemed necessary for a teen female hero to ride one of two narratives: her goal was love, or she had to be a mirror for the male characters we glorified in stories. That was always constraining to me, even though I value love as a central theme for stories, and even while I cheer on the female warrior. But today’s protagonist doesn’t have to be a warrior to be a hero. She finds her strength in sometimes unlikely or unexpected ways. Characters who must face their deepest selves, learn who they really are, take responsibility in greater society, engage with others in meaningful, authentic ways, these narrative arcs are moving in on the ones about the aimless fascination with excess and success. I think the teen protagonist now has a greater sense that they fit into a bigger world and that the world is controlled by forces they no longer trust or assume to be static and unchangeable. They have more awareness and want to have greater agency in all aspects of our societies.

“Today’s protagonist doesn’t have to be a warrior to be a hero.”

What is your writing process like?

My writing process has changed a lot over the years as I’ve developed my craft. The one constant is the arrival of the idea. It drops in like an unexpected parachute-borne package. But, because the story starts with a galvanizing idea, I then have to figure out how to write my way into it. For my first two novels, The Darkhouse and Messenger 93, I booked off a chunk of time and wrote, virtually stream-of-consciousness, until the stories were done. The Darkhouse in six weeks (ten pages a day!), and Messenger 93 in 4 months. Except that turned out to be a very inefficient way of writing. Both books required dozens of drafts of rewrites before the most effective storylines were revealed. Both laid waste to hundreds of pages of gorgeous (and terrible) prose that never served the arcs. For Book 3, I’m taking my own teaching advice and outlining a fundamental story arc before I write. Outlining allows me to tweak elements that I can see lack function or don’t make sense, so this time I have a (mostly) clear path to explore. As a result, I can sit down with a very broad list of story points necessary for the scenes I’m about to write, and I still have plenty of room for creative flow. Now I have a better sense that I’m not only writing for my own enjoyment but for my readers’ enjoyment too.

“When I’m ready to begin writing, I set aside two hours a day to work in creative free-flow. I’ve found that two hours is usually my limit on any given day for prose-building.”

My refined process is that I begin with an immersion in some necessary research, then I set aside several weeks to plan my main story events and structure. Along the way, I flag character developments, sub-plot events, and thematic points I might want to include. When I’m ready to begin writing, I set aside two hours a day to work in creative free-flow. I’ve found that two hours is usually my limit on any given day for prose-building. But, after that, I can unplug from my inventing power source and plug into my editing power source and find that I have another robust burst of creative energy. I can edit (if time allows) for many more hours than I can free-flow write. And because I know this about myself, I schedule my writing days accordingly. I can interrupt editing with life-errands, but I do like to know that I have that two-hour creative writing block available without interruption. And that said, I’m a huge believer and advocate for “write every day, even if it’s only fifteen minutes,” because writing makes you feel much better than not-writing, and fifteen minutes will still leave you with something on the page, even if it will be edited, or changed, or cut.

How did your work in tv/film influence your own writing?

My work in film and TV has been extremely useful to my fiction writing. On the plus side, I’ve learned that bringing a story to the world is collaborative. In screen work, every production requires a team of creative minds to come together and nurture it from idea to final product. Without the dreamy creation of a story, there is no story, but without the input of an audience of some kind, you can’t know if your ideas have landed. As a writer, I needed to develop my listening skills in order to hear, accept, and celebrate later input by beta-readers, agents, and editors. I also learned from inhabiting characters on set. The importance of aspects like motivation and emotional depth. I learned how key dialogue is, how you don’t waste words on mundane conversation but find the heart of the conflict or connection in every interaction.

What about the rejections? Are publishing and acting similar in that regard?

Working in the film industry has also built up super-muscles for how I handle rejection. Oh, the rejection you face auditioning for roles! I learned how to deflect the “no” and not personalize it. I learned how to persist. I learned how to accept feedback and turn weaknesses into skills. I learned how to reject feedback that didn’t resonate, and to search for other ways to dig deeper into my storytelling.

What is the hardest thing about being a writer?

By far the hardest part about being a writer, for me, is the nebulous space after I’ve written a story and when it’s being launched into the world. I live in a state of anxious worry that readers won’t find it. The possibility that your story will fade away—after so much attention on research and building and writing, after so much thought and analysis and refinement, after years of that work—it’s so sorrowful. The book is a living, breathing entity to you for so long, and then in an instant, it becomes… like a ghost. Misty, intangible, billowing away from your grasp. This is the only stage where the writer has no control. The only way I can resist that distraction and sorrow is by jumping into my next story. Because writing makes you feel much better than not-writing.

Who do you think would like to give Messenger 93 as a gift and why?

I think Messenger 93 would make a great gift from parents (or any adults) looking for a page-turning read for their teen daughters or other teens in their lives, who enjoy a dynamic read, but who are also asking big questions.  Also adult readers to adult readers who’ve been wondering: “What does it mean to save someone?” And who might want to gift this book as a part of that conversation.

Thanks, Barbara!

For more information on Messenger 93 and Barbara Radecki, click here.