Chad Lucas has been in love with words since he attempted his first novel on a typewriter in the sixth grade. He has worked as a newspaper reporter, communications advisor, freelance writer, part-time journalism instructor, and parenting columnist. A proud descendant of the historic African Nova Scotian community of Lucasville, he lives with his family near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He enjoys coaching basketball and is rarely far from a cup of tea. Thanks a Lot, Universe is his debut novel.
You wrote Thanks a Lot, Universe while also working a day job, parenting four kids, and coaching a youth basketball team. How did you make space for your writing practice?
I’ve learned how to write just about anywhere, including on the bus to and from the office, when I’m not working from home thanks to COVID-19. I’ve also tried to find a rhythm that works for me. I don’t subscribe to the old notion that a “real” writer has to write every day—that just isn’t realistic for me right now. But I try to squeeze in writing in the early mornings and on weekends when I have longer blocks of time.
What’s the number one thing (besides a computer!) you need to write, and why?
Other than time, my noise-cancelling headphones. I have a playlist of instrumental music, mostly electronic, that helps me tune out distractions and focus. A good cup of tea doesn’t hurt either.
Sometimes middle grade writers are encouraged to employ generic North American settings for ease of marketability, but I loved how distinctly Haligonian your book is. Was this a deliberate decision on your part? And what was it like to work on a Nova Scotia-centred story with an American publisher?
It was definitely deliberate. I was an avid reader as a kid, but I encountered very few books with kids who looked like me or lived where I lived. So I wanted to set Thanks a Lot, Universe in Nova Scotia, and I’ve heard from so many local readers who loved that aspect of the book. I braced for my publisher to ask me to change the setting, but it wasn’t an issue at all. My editor and everyone at Abrams have been really supportive.
Thanks a Lot, Universe is told from the perspective of two young teenaged boys, Brian and Ezra. Was it easy for you to write in these distinct voices, or was one of them trickier to inhabit than the other?
Brian’s voice came more naturally, mostly because I had his plotline first. Ezra sort of gradually insisted on taking a bigger role in the story. But that said, Ezra’s voice was a lot of fun to write. They’re very different characters—Brian’s shy, socially anxious, an internal overthinker, while Ezra’s much more outgoing—so that made it easier to develop a distinct voice for each.
Did your characters take you in any surprising directions during the drafting process?
This book went through a lot of drafts even before I found an agent and a publisher, and as I mentioned above, Ezra kept asserting himself. He was a minor character in the first draft, and his role kept growing until finally I realized he needed to be the second narrator. Along with providing a different perspective, he brought so much more life and humour to what could have been a heavy story.
Your book touches on some important issues that many youth in Canada face. For example, Brian ends up in foster care after his parents’ struggles with mental illness and the criminal justice system, while Ezra navigates his burgeoning queer identity and deals with racial microaggressions from his white peers. How did you approach writing about these topics for a middle grade audience specifically?
Middle graders are thoughtful, curious and savvy, and today they’re growing up in a time of massive social upheaval. So it’s important not to underestimate them or talk down to them, and I tried not to do that in this book. It doesn’t end with a tidy happily-ever-after, because that wouldn’t have felt very authentic. But at the same time, I put a lot of hope and humour in this book as well. I think a middle grade audience needs that balance: they’re ready for honest talk about complicated topics, but it should come with some hope that things can get better.
Brian and his mom share a love of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Have you introduced any books to your kids that are now a family favourite?
We love Jonathan Auxier’s books, like Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes, and The Night Gardener. I still read out loud most nights with my 11-year-old, and we’re also big fans of Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong books and Lamar Giles’ Legendary Alston Boys series. I love that there are more adventure stories with Black kids front and centre these days.
You were paired with author Darcy Rhyno in the 2016 Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program. What was that process like for you?
The manuscript I worked on with Darcy, which will be my next book, is due out in spring 2022. I learned so much from working with Darcy on revising and receiving feedback that has carried over into my writing process. Working closely with a mentor is a real gift, and it helped prepare me for working with an agent and an editor.
What was it like to launch this book in a pandemic?
A mixed blessing. Of course, I had visions of launching in public with friends and family (and cake!), not from my bedroom on Instagram Live. But at the same time, it was great that some of my writer friends from across Canada and the U.S. were able to tune in and celebrate with me. And I’m grateful to Tom Ryan and Woozles, who hosted and helped make the event special. (Also, I still got cake!) I hope I get to launch Book #2 in person next year, but I’ll likely still do something online as well.
How do you blow off steam when writer’s block hits?
Going for a run or a walk has been a general sanity-saver, especially during the pandemic when we’ve all spent so much time in one place. Sometimes the cure is just patience. For me, I usually get stuck when I’ve written my way into a problem that I haven’t figured out how to solve yet, and sometimes the solution shows up randomly in the shower, or at 4 a.m. when I’m half-conscious and wishing I was asleep. I’d prefer if those solutions showed up fully formed in the morning, but sometimes you take what you can get.
Finally, can you give us a sneak peak of any upcoming projects? The universe wants more!
As I mentioned, the book I worked on as part of the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship is going to be my next published book! It’s another middle grade, about a Black boy who moves to a mostly white small town and discovers it’s a place of nightmares—literally. I’m in edits on it now and I’ve just seen first sketches for the cover, and I can’t wait until I can share more details!
—Questions by K.R. Byggdin