Interview with Alice Kuipers: On Style, Crime Writing, and the Expansion of Genre

Interview by 
Meghan Bell

Alice Kuipers's work includes Life on the Refrigerator Door, which was published in twenty-eight countries and won numerous awards, The Worst Thing She Ever Did (Lost for Words in the U.S.), which won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Juvenile or Young Adult Crime Book in 2011, and 40 Things I Want To Tell You, which was recently shortlisted for the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Book Award. She provides tips on writing and editing on her website and on Twitter.

The following interview was conducted over Facebook chat in the spring of 2013.

ROOM: You experiment with style in all three of your books. What were some of the challenges of each of these styles, and why did you decide to use them to tell that particular story?

AK: Life on the Refrigerator Door is about running out of time. The idea to use notes was one that had been playing around in my head for months, but it wasn’t until that sense of urgency informed the story that I realized the form made sense. Form has to have a function too—I couldn’t just use notes because I wanted to use notes, I realized. They needed to be part of the fabric of the story.

In The Worst Thing She Ever Did I was interested in a young woman who had lost the ability to voice her thoughts. I needed a space for her to find her voice again, and a diary made sense to me as a way to increase intimacy between Sophie and the reader.

In 40 Things I Want To Tell You the controlling aspect of Amy’s character, the way she wants everything to be so ordered, despite the fact her life is falling apart, struck me as fitting beautifully with someone who wrote to-do lists. Amy’s tendency to list, to number the pieces of advice she gives, and to run her website again all fit her story. So, ultimately, all three books have the forms they have because those forms suit the story I’m trying to tell. I’ve written two picture books that are coming out in the next couple of years. Something I see in the YA books I write is a love of white space—room for the reader to fill up the blanks with their imagination. It’s thrilling for me to give a picture book manuscript over to an illustrator and let the illustrator explore their imagination in the white space I’ve left for them.

ROOM: Can you tell me more about your upcoming picture books?

AK: They both feature Victor and Violet Small, who are twins. Violet loves writing books and she co-opts Victor into helping her. The first one is called The Best-ever Bookworm Book by Violet and Victor Small and I should see the final pages in a month or so. The illustrator [Bethanie Murguia] is amazing.

ROOM: With the switch from YA to children’s books, I was wondering whether motherhood has affected your writing and the stories you choose to tell?

AK: I’m not sure I’ve switched. I have a YA novel coming out next year too. I like the different forms (I guess I’m all about form today!) possible in writing for children. There’s something deeply compelling to me about finding the right structure for a book. One of the picture books I tried to write, I’ve rewritten as a chapter book. It works much better. I’ve been drafting a middle grade novel as a picture book to get a sense of the plot. I may do nothing with either but I enjoy the process of figuring out the best way to tell a story. As for motherhood, well, I’ve had two children in the last three years and my next baby is due in two and a half months. I’m waddling around, heavily pregnant, with a three-year-old and a one-year-old, and I can see in people’s faces as they check out me and my growing brood that they think I’m bonkers. I spend most of my time with the children. I’m not sure if the stories I choose to tell have changed, but the luxury of telling them certainly has. I don’t get much time to write and I’m often foggy from breastfeeding or being pregnant, so the ideas slip away like quick fish. I have become efficient at writing in the spare minutes between things—I was waiting at the physiotherapist’s today and I wrote 300 words on a new idea I have. Who knows if it’ll ever work out. I try not to ask myself that very often because I feel overwhelmed when I’ve written 5,000 words and I realize the story I’m telling isn’t going to work out at all. Plotting and outlining is something I’d love to have a better handle on.

ROOM: Three hundred words in the waiting room is pretty impressive though. More than some people can get out in a quiet night. 

AK: Ah, but they probably aren’t very good words. Not yet. I have to edit lots. And lots.   

ROOM: Don’t we all!

AK: I say to myself—get it down wrong. I can always fix it later.

ROOM: You told Novel Matters that a title—whether you keep it or not—is the first thing to come to you when you write a story. The Worst Thing She Ever Did has a different title in the U.S. What were some of the earlier titles for this novel? 

AK: It was always, always called Blood of My Blood as I wrote it. I only changed it because the editors in both the U.S. and Canada thought that was way too vampire. For me, it was about the acronym and I’d never considered vampires. Changing it was challenging. I, foolishly, came up with both titles and suggested them both. The U.S. editor loved one, the Canadian editor loved the other. My son was born prematurely and was in the NICU and I didn’t really mind what the book was called at that point. It’s called Two Girls on the Roof in France. C’est la vie ;D

ROOM: What else inspired The Worst Thing She Ever Did?

AK: The inspiration for The Worst Thing She Ever Did came from several places, as story ideas often seem to. There was the title—the original one, which I loved. There was the fact I was in London at the time of the bombing, staying in the suburbs, watching the news with horror. And there was the idea that I wanted to explore panic disorder. I used to suffer from it and I wanted to find a way to write about panic. And poetry—I used poems I wrote when I was fifteen/sixteen. I used to want to publish them, as lots of aspiring writers do, and it was satisfying to find they had a purpose after all. Not one I could ever have imagined as a teenager, however. Finally, I was interested in the effect of a crime, a terrible crime, upon a family. How do we live after the worst has happened?

ROOM: I really enjoyed Sophie’s friendship with Kalila—why did you feel it was important to include a character like Kalila [who is Muslim] in The Worst Thing She Ever Did?

AK: A mistake people make when they think about terrorism is to think that terrorism is about religion, or skin colour, or groups of people. Terrorism is about fundamentalism. It’s about individuals trying to force their view of the world onto the rest of us, violently. Kalila is the antithesis of this and Sophie sees that.

ROOM: How did you react when you heard you won the Arthur Ellis Award?

AK: I was delighted, of course. And very surprised! I very badly wanted to be there for the ceremony, but I was too pregnant to be able to fly at the time. I have a lovely hanging man statue that they presented to me that lurks in the living room as a memento.

ROOM: Did you set out to write a “Crime” novel? Do you have any thoughts about the way the genre is evolving/changing?

AK: I set out to write a novel about the aftermath of a terrible event. I think to include that as a nominee for the Arthur Ellis Award was innovative of the judges. Crime doesn’t have to be about a graphic murder for it to make good reading. The genre is wide and has many depths, and exploring the psychology of those affected by crime is only one of the many things writers can do with it.

ROOM: Your website lists a lot of tips for aspiring writers—do you have any tips specifically for aspiring crime writers?

AK: My tips for anyone who is wanting to write is to read, read, read. If you find yourself drawn to crime fiction, then you might find you want to write it. Don’t start writing it because you think it’s an easy way to break into writing. No genre of writing is easy if you’re not passionate about it, as with every story, you have to want to tell it. A book can take years to write, so you need to be able to make that commitment to a subject you love. Think about plotting and outline. Carefully laid clues and hints are deeply satisfying to a reader. 

Many writers of crime fiction start at the end. Knowing the ending is key.

Having it written out before you begin can feel like a road map as you start your journey.

Think about what crime means. The genre has many possibilities. Gone Girl is a great work of crime fiction, as is Crime and Punishment. You don’t have to write about grisly rapes and murders if you don’t want to. The psychology of criminals, major crimes to minor, the after effects on a family, all of these are possible, as are many more ideas you’ll come up with on your own. 

Every week, I run a writing prompt series on Wattpad with prompts and ideas for writers of any genre. I give feedback to every writer who takes part in the prompts—you’re welcome to join in. Also, check out my website for tips and ideas about writing.

Interview from 36.3: Murder, Lust, and Larceny

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