Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cinnamon Toast and an Author Interview

Shiny Gold Boots! Oversized Sushi! Cheap Beer!

Take equal parts metallic leather, raw fish and beer, throw in a pair of cute actors and some free tequila and you've got the time honoured recipe for the Author's Interview.  Here's is my post-sushi, beer and actors chat with Canadian ex-pat novelist Janet E. Cameron about life, her debut novel Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, the creative process, and the writer's holy grail: publication.

If you had to describe your book in a couple of sentences, how would you do it?

It's 1987, and in the small, rural town of Riverside, Nova Scotia, 17-year-old Stephen Shulevitz finds himself in major trouble when he falls in love with exactly the wrong person. It's funny, it's sad, and we've all been there.

That's the elevator pitch. I wish I had something less prepackaged for you, but now when someone says, 'Describe the book in a few sentences,' that's the one that comes spewing out.

In a number of interviews you've said that your book Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World began as a short story you wrote about two boys who fought on the edge of a river, fell in during the scuffle and drowned.  When you began the process of morphing that short story into your book, did you map out the entire plot or did you discover the story as you went along?

The book started as a very short story told from the point of view of the character who became Mark. When I switched to Stephen as the main character I started writing like mad – he was very inspiring –  and came up with enough for a very long short story or a novella, with the scene by the river as the high point I was working towards. Then a virus erased it from my computer. But when I started working on it again four years later, I remembered how the plot of the old, erased story went and the memory became a sort of outline for me. Some of the book I discovered as I went along. The chapter where Stephen first meets Lana came to me as I was cycling home after work.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King talked about excavating stories, as though every story already exists out there just waiting to be uncovered by someone lucky enough to find it and skillful enough to extract it.  How would you describe your creative process?

I don't actually understand the creative process at all, or how to control it. (This makes me very superstitious.) I just know I was fixated on Stephen and he seemed to bring a rush of ideas with him. I found myself thinking, 'Wow, he's really funny,' as if it wasn't me who was writing. I don't have a mental image of excavating anything, just being open to ideas. I still have a little joke notepad which says, 'I do whatever the little voices tell me to do,' which I think is a good motto for writing.

Everyone out there who has read your book probably feels as though they know your characters pretty well by now.  I imagine you feel the same way to a far greater degree because they are, in many ways, your children. Did you picture them in your head as your wrote?  If I sat you down with a police sketch artist, would you be able to help them draw each of your main characters?  

I have a lousy visual imagination, which is one reason I ripped off my hometown for the setting, but over time I did get very clear mental pictures of these people. Stephen actually shifted around visually for a while because he's so important and because the ‘camera’ is in his head. I kept a print of a self-portrait of an artist called Egon Schiele close to my desk because Stephen often gets a very similar look on his face, though he doesn't resemble Schiele in any other way except maybe his build.

Do you think that visualization helped your writing? 

I 'saw' most of the book happening in my head like a movie, but the details were a bit blurry at times. Several of the scenes were written as dialogue, and then I had to force myself to consider what it all looked like, exactly – physical actions, details in the background, that kind of thing.

If your book is made into a movie (and it really should be) who do you imagine playing Stephen? (the actor could be anyone, living or dead!)

Aw, thanks. And I have no idea. Really. He's so much himself to me that I couldn't imagine an actor pretending to be him.


I don't really know many young actors, and the visual of Mark in my head is too strong for me to imagine anyone playing him. Sorry!

Stanley and Maryna?

That I can answer. Maryna might be played by either Laura Linney or Drew Barrymore. Drew could do the scatterbrained ex-hippy thing and Laura could handle the uptight single mother aspects of Maryna. For Stanley, no contest. Adrien Brody.


Um, a much younger, more vulnerable Janeane Garofalo?  But, again, I really can't think of anyone but Lana in this role.

Years ago, I read a January Magazine interview with Neil Gaiman where he said, "Writers may be solitary but they also tend to flock together: they like being solitary together."  What do you think of that?  

Well, since I started writing seriously I find I'll spend most of my time alone and I'll see friends in small, intense doses. And, yes, a lot these friends are writers and we spend most of our time moaning and complaining together. Is that what Neil means? I'm not sure.
Would you say you a solitary person by nature?

I spend a lot of time alone, but I do get pretty lonely and desperate for a reaction to whatever I'm working on. On the other hand, I don't have time for that much socializing if I'm going to get anything done, and when I do socialize, I often end up putting pressure on myself to have the best time possible to make up for missing work.
Would you call a room full of writers a flock or something else?

Tee-hee. Pass. I'm sure you could come up with something better yourself.

I'm pretty sure a grouping of writers would be called a neurosis. (insert Spockian eyebrow lift here)
So are most of your friends these days writers?

A lot of them are, and it's a relief to talk to people who 'get it'.

Hmm…do you think that's good or bad?

It's good to have people who understand where you're coming from, but I have to be careful not to live in a writing bubble. A lot of people don’t care about fiction and that can be sobering to remember.

Inevitably, any writer who's been published is asked, "How did you do it?" I know how you navigated that road but for those who don't, "How did you do it?"

I won a contest! Well, first I spent almost two years writing and editing the book. Then I sent three chapters off to the Irish Writers' Centre's Novel Fair contest. If you win, you get to spend the day with agents and publishers from all over Ireland, and some from the UK, and that’s how I found my publisher, Hachette Ireland. Hachette are international, and they were very enthusiastic about making inroads into Canada. I was extremely lucky. 

How did social media play into your publishing journey?

Social media &$%ed me over big time in the beginning. Early on I had a major Canadian publisher interested in the book, but they didn't bite because they said I had no online presence. Later I got a website and started up on Twitter (this would be after I got the offer from Hachette), and the gang at Hachette Canada liked this and have tried to work with me online to promote Cinnamon Toast. We had a ‘name that 80s tune’ contest a few days before the book’s Canadian release.

That was one of the more fun uses of social media for book promotion that I've ever seen.  Certainly beat the hell out of the monotonous chorus of 'buy my book's' I'm subjected to in every time I sign onto the Twitter. Social media has changed things significantly for writers, hasn't it? Do you think it’s for better or for worse?

Hard to say. I feel less isolated, which is great. But I do find it takes up a lot of my time and screws with my attention span. And I feel incredibly cheesy whenever I tweet the same self-promoting links over and over. But I'll still do it.

Do you think it will continue to be a major consideration for publishers going forward or not?

This, again, is very hard to say. At times the whole thing feels a bit silly. And it's interesting to note that the more successful an author is, the less time she/he will spend on social media. It might turn out to be a fad, but then I thought that about compact disks back in the day.

How do you feel about social media and your writing?

I'm not sure how it’ll affect my writing, because I only got into social media after most of the work on Cinnamon Toast was done. I'm concerned that it’s turning me into someone who is (even more) desperate to be ‘liked’. I might have to write something soon which is not terribly likeable and I'm not sure if I’ll be able to do it.

You're aware that your book is being labelled by booksellers as gay literature, and more specifically as a "coming out" book. I've heard a lot of rumbling lately online from writers indicating that they are unhappy with booksellers' love of labels and their general discomfort with choosing a single set of labels for works that may span a number of genres.  Do you worry that as a result of this book's labels you may be pigeon-holed?

I hate labels and genres in general, but I can see why publishers and booksellers go for them. There is such a volume of books out there. People shopping want to make a quick decision and narrow down the choices. I'm actually more worried about being labelled as YA than gay. I've even been called a 'children's writer' – based on the title and cover of the book, not the contents. I don't think I'll be hit with a 'gay' label because I'm not gay myself. I think most people see it as a one-off thing. And classifying the book as ‘gay’ might actually be helpful in allowing it to reach an LGBT audience, as there's nothing in the summary or on the back cover that tells you that there are LGBT themes in the novel. I am concerned that because of the ‘gay’ label, straight people will decide they're not interested – not because they're homophobic, but because they might assume they're not the intended audience and switch off, again, because of the volume of work that’s out there and the need to narrow their choices.

What's the craziest thing a person has said to you about your book?

Nothing too crazy yet, but I remember at my reading in Toronto there was a guy in the audience who seemed personally offended by the fact that none of the characters had AIDS. He hadn't read it either.

What's the strangest situation you've been in as a result of writing this book?

I gave a reading for charity with another author, and ended up swearing in front of a room packed with children. I didn't realise there'd be so many kids there and had chosen Stephen's confrontation with Stanley, which has a few swears. I heard people gasping. But I was too nervous to mess with the text and change it.

What was the hardest thing about writing this book?

Letting go of it. Every time I finished a draft I'd get this crushing depression afterwards. I still miss the characters like crazy.

You're currently writing your second novel.  Is it easier the second time around?

No! Now there's more pressure to make it better than the last one, or at least as good.

If you had to describe your second novel in a couple of sentences or less, what would you say?

It's a big mess right now. The story is based on a play I wrote in 1996 and is about a teenage suicide and how it affects the family left behind. (Wonder where I got the idea...)

Sounds like it's got the potential to be another great book already. Now onto another very serious question: what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

African or European?



Janet E. Cameron's Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is currently available for sale in stores and online.  You you can follow her on Twitter @ASimpleJan or drop by her website:


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I LOVE this! Makes me feel like a big deal author. Thank you so much!