She’s a Scrapper

By Anita Daher

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch has the sweetest smile, but on the inside, she’s a bit of a scrapper.She’s fought though an early-years reading difficulty, stirred things up at her high school newspaper, and worked for a time as an industrial sales rep—a male-dominated industry. Now, an internationally celebrated author, Marsha battles through deadlines and plot knots, all the while with arms extended, ready to lend a hand or ear where needed.

She is one of those rare individuals who will change you: with her ideas, stories, example and her energy. She certainly changed this magazine two years ago when she climbed aboard to write a column featuring young adult books and authors. Marsha stepped down from this post at the close of 2014, and we thought it an exceptional idea to shine the light back on her.

dancebanishedFull disclosure: I adore Marsha. How could I not? I met her about a dozen years ago through her involvement with an online children’s lit forum. She is author of nineteen books (thus far). Her most recent, a teen novel called The Dance of the Banished (Pajama Press), was released August 2014.

I caught up with her during a quiet moment in early January.

I read somewhere that you began writing novels for adults until you truly found your “voice” in children’s lit. Is this true?  

This is true. The first work of fiction that I wrote was a 500 page meandering historical novel set during the Armenian Genocide. I thought it was for adults. It got rejected about a hundred times and rightly so. As my father put it, “If you ever get this published you’ll never live it down.”

I set it aside and concentrated on picture book texts. My first picture book, Silver Threads, was published in 1996. My agent told me that my voice was not adult. Over the years I tore that big book apart and rewrote every single word. It morphed into five separate books, three for young adults (The Hunger, Nobody’s Child, Daughter of War) and two illustrated chapter books (Aram’s Choice, Call Me Aram).

There are many novels written for adults with young characters. How do you perceive the difference in how children are portrayed in adult novels versus children’s?

Young characters in adult fiction are sometimes portrayed as powerless, passive, or victims. In children’s fiction the child is in control. I don’t mean that they have control over everything, but they can make choices rather than have an adult make the choices for them. As well, horrible things are done to children in adult fiction and it’s presented as entertainment, for example, a murder mystery where the victim is a child. In children’s fiction, those same things may happen but the story is told from the child’s point of view. This makes children’s fiction more intense but it also builds empathy in the reader.

Having said that, designating a book as YA, children’s or adult is artificial. More than half of YA book purchases are made by adults, for themselves.

Have you ever given up on a novel?

Writing a novel is the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I constantly feel that I’m not up to the task. It’s not unusual to start and stop a project many times. I struggle with the voice, I am daunted by the research and traumatized by the true stories I hear when I interview people. There were times that I wanted to set aside each book that I’ve written but I do go back. As an example, I first wrote a short novel in 2006 about Tuyet, a Vietnamese girl who was rescued by Canada just before the fall of Saigon. I had written it as a novel because the actual Tuyet suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and didn’t remember a lot of the details of her own early life. I was not able to place the novel because it was missing something.

Then a few years later I resurrected it. Gail Winksill at Pajama Press liked the novel but told me it would be much stronger written as narrative non-fiction. I told her that I had never written narrative non-fiction and didn’t know how. She told me that I was a natural for the genre.

So I took her word for it and plunged back in, getting back in contact with Tuyet and her family, and also others who had been involved in the rescue mission. The result was two books, Last Airlift: A Vietnamese Orphan’s Rescue from War and One Step At A Time: A Vietnamese Child Finds Her Way. In order to ensure the accuracy of these books, I read every word to Tuyet as we sat across each other at her kitchen table. Some things I had speculated, but when I read them to her, she remembered what happened and was able to correct small details. Sometimes it would be weeks after that she’d suddenly remember something new. I was afraid that I was re-traumatizing her, but she told me that I had given her back her childhood and she was thankful for that.

Your early school days were not easy for you. In past interviews you’ve mentioned a learning disability similar to dyslexia that delayed your reading skills, plus a certain constraint you felt while attending a Catholic school after your parents had divorced—a subject not to be discussed in that system. Do you feel these early experiences have influenced the types of characters you are drawn to write?

Although they were painful years, they shaped my perspective. Parents told their children not to play with me or my sister because we were “products of a broken home.” My grade four teacher told my mother I was unteachable for the same reason. When I was nine, our house was pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables by drunken men driving past in cars, calling our mother a whore because Dad had walked out. My stories are all about the people who are judged through ignorance. My stories help the reader step into the shoes of a person they might otherwise despise.

You write about (among other things) genocide, famine and war crimes. What has been your most difficult story to research and write?

The most difficult challenge has been to write the World War II trilogy, Stolen Child, Making Bombs for Hitler, and Underground Soldier.

Ukraine lost more citizens than any other country in WWII and many who managed to survive Nazis oppression were sent to Soviet concentration camps after the war for the sin of surviving. The few who did escape to the west were cowed into silence, fearing retribution on family members left behind. My challenge was to find people to interview, who had good recall and who were willing to speak to me. It took me more than a decade to do the research for these three novels. Aside from my own books, there is virtually no mainstream fiction written from a Ukrainian perspective about World War II.

You’ll note that Putin is still trying to use old WWII stereotypes as a weapon in his current war with Ukraine. Underground Soldier came out a year ago, just as the Euromaidan protests were coming to a head. This book is based on true events, about a teen who joins the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in their struggle against both Soviet and the Nazi oppression. As I watched events unfold a year ago in Kyiv I was struck by how relevant Ukraine’s hidden history is. Would Putin have been able to get such traction if it hadn’t been for the still-engrained old Soviet propaganda?

On occasion, you’ve received a negative response regarding the controversial subjects you tackle. Can you discuss? Has this in any way influenced you in your choice of subject matter for next books?

There has been one topic that has generated hate mail and the occasional death threat – the Holodomor, the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine during which millions of people were intentionally starved to death because they opposed Communism. My picture book, Enough, illustrated by Michael Martchenko, was published in 2000. It was the first mainstream work of fiction to be published on that topic and its release generated a flurry of horrible things — swastikas spray-bombed on the house where it was assumed I lived, emailed and snail-mailed threats and insults. It was like those drunken men who called my mother a whore.

I’ve often been asked who sent the hate mail but of course the people who do it are always anonymous.

Have you ever been surprised by a response to one of your books?

What gratifies me the most is when readers tell me they can see themselves or their own family members in the characters that I’ve created. Many people also send me their own personal letters, documents, diaries and photographs, trusting me to be respectful but accurate in my use of them.

If you were a super-hero, what would be your super-power?

Time travel.

You have received many honours for your work. Is there one that has stood out in particular for you?

The Order of Princess Olha. This honour was bestowed upon me in 2008 by the then president of Ukraine, Victor Yushchenko (not to be confused with Victor Yanukovych, who was drummed out of office in the Euromaidan protests) in recognition of my writings on the Holodomor – in particular my picture book Enough.

You write, give workshops, moderate list servs, and co-run Authors’ Booking Service with fellow author Valerie Sherrard. How important is balance between family, work and play in an author’s life, and how do you manage it?

Many aspiring writers say that they don’t have time to write. I don’t know of anyone who has time to write. Do you have time to write, Anita? It’s not about carving out the time, it’s about the passion. It’s sort of like asking people if they have time to pick at a scab or go binge drinking. When I’m not plunged in the midst of writing, I am a very cranky individual. That said, I limit myself to three hours of writing a day, and not every day. Anything I write beyond three hours is usually crap anyway. This means that I do have time for other things, like life. Family is very important to me. Going out and socializing? Not so much. My idea of ideal “play” is a walk with friends or a long solitary bike ride, going to the movies with my husband, or visiting with my mom, who has Alzheimer’s.

I write mostly in the winter and summer because spring and fall are hectic with school and library presentations. Valerie and I flip back and forth on looking after Authors’ Booking Service so it is time-manageable. It’s also very satisfying, helping educators and library people find their dream author for a visit. Valerie is the perfect person to do this with. Not only is she a dear friend and a brilliant writer, but she’s almost as OCD as I am.

Most memorable reader response?

A woman in Winnipeg who took six months to read Making Bombs for Hitler. She loved it but could only read a page at a time because her own mother had been an Ostarbeiter just like Lida and the story cut her to the quick.

If you could use only one word to describe yourself, what would it be?

Persistent.

How important is the role of a mentor in an emerging writer’s career?  Did you, or do you still, have someone in your life you value as mentor?

Having a mentor is a valuable thing. It’s one reason why I host Kidcrit, a free private online critique group for aspiring writers. This online crit group has been around since the mid-1990s.

I didn’t have a writer-mentor myself and never met a writer until I was one, but Gail Winskill, Publisher of Pajama Press, has been my mentor since the mid-1990s. Back then I was a freelance writer for the local newspaper and I did a lot of book reviews. Gail liked my “voice” even back then and has been encouraging me ever since.

You once said that you write about subjects that fascinate you. Do you find that what drew you in the early days still holds you, or are your writing interests changing?

My passion is writing about the bits of history that have been distorted or forgotten for political reasons. That hasn’t changed. There are many stories still to be written.

Tell us about your most recent novel, Dance of the Banished—your personal connection to the story, and why you chose to tell it from the perspective you did.

My own Ukrainian grandfather was interned during World War I as an “enemy alien” at an internment camp in Jasper Alberta. This injustice had a profound effect on his life and has had ripple effects through the generations of my family.

I’ve written a couple of books about the internment from a Ukrainian perspective – Silver Threads and Prisoners in the Promised Land.

A few years ago, a couple of historians approached me with newspaper clippings about a group of men from my own home town of Brantford, Ontario who were interned as “enemy aliens” during World War I just like my grandfather. However, these men had emigrated from Turkey.

I was immediately drawn to the story on a number of levels. It wasn’t just my own family history of the internment, but also the fact that these men were from my home town, and that they had emigrated from a region that I had already written five books about.

At first I thought those interned were Turkish, but as I peeled back the layers I was intrigued to discover that they were actually Alevi Kurds, a religious and ethnic minority who had been persecuted in Turkey. Doing the research for this book was a breathtaking plunge into unexplored history. And since it was published, I’ve been distressed yet again how history repeats itself, with ISIS and the Yazidi Kurds.

The challenge in writing this novel was to not overwhelm the reader with everything I found out. I had many false starts, even deleting a 200 page draft and starting again on page one. I ultimately settled on showing the story in two journals, one written by Zeynep, who stays behind in Turkey during the war, and the other written by her fiancé Ali, who comes to Canada just before war breaks out. It was exhilarating to write this book and I learned so much.

What’s next?

I’ve got a couple of books down the chute. One is a true story about a Ukrainian woman who was executed for hiding Jews in World War II. The other is a true story about a Vietnamese boat child.

Thank you, Marsha!

You can read more about Marsha Skrypuch on her website. And you can find out about her KidCrit writers’ group here, and the Authors’ Booking Service here.

 

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