Author spotlight: Tom Ryan

YA author Tom Ryan is a previous Lambda Literary Fellow whose books have been nominated for the White Pine Award, the Stellar Award, and the Hackmatack Award. In addition to a number of young adult novels, he published his first children’s picture book, A Giant Man from a Tiny Town: A Story of Angus MacAskill, with Nimbus in the fall of 2018. Ryan divides his time between Cape Breton and Ontario. His latest book, a young adult thriller titled Keep This To Yourself, is forthcoming from Albert Whitman (May 2019). Ryan is currently holding a pre-order giveaway for this title.

In what follows, Ryan talks to us about not buying into writer’s block, his guilty pleasures, new projects, and more.

How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, writing for children in particular? 

I grew up in rural Cape Breton, well before the internet and with limited access to TV, so from as far back as I can remember, books were my best friends. At some point I started making up elaborate stories of my own, and I never really stopped. After high school, I studied English Literature at Mount Allison, which was a great education for a budding writer. Over the decade after graduation, I continued to write short stories, and even made a few unsuccessful attempts at getting something longer off the ground, but it wasn’t until 2010 that things really came into focus. My husband is in the navy, and when he was posted unexpectedly to Victoria, we moved to the west coast, and I decided to take six months to see if I could finally write a novel. Originally, I planned to write a mystery for the adult market, but a chance encounter with the acquisitions editor at Orca (a respected kidlit publisher in B.C.) convinced me to shift focus, and Orca ultimately published my first YA novel Way to Go in 2012. I discovered that I love writing for young readers, and it’s been full steam ahead ever since.

Your newest book, Keep This To Yourself, is a thriller for young adults. Did you find it challenging to adapt such a dark genre for a younger readership?  

One of the things I love about writing YA fiction is that I get to explore and examine one of the most dramatic of life’s stages—the transition from youth to adulthood. Relationships are in flux, the future is uncertain, and change is happening at an often overwhelming pace. In Keep This To Yourself, I tried to layer several complicated realities on top of the mystery—from the dissolution of childhood friendships to the struggles particular to queer high schoolers—so that the paranoia and suspicion that thrillers rely on build from several directions at once. Teen readers are astute and aware, and I’ve found that they’re often willing and eager to dive into dark, twisty stories. So far, the response from young readers has been great, which is really exciting!

What do you love about living in Nova Scotia? 

As far as I’m concerned, Nova Scotia has it all. Atmosphere, natural beauty, a thriving capital and fascinating small towns, and above all, amazing, creative people. Because my husband is in the military, we move quite a bit; we left Halifax last year for Toronto, and we’re moving again in a few months, this time to Ottawa. But we own a farmhouse deep in the countryside of Cape Breton, and I’m lucky enough to spend a few solid chunks of time there every year. Cape Breton is my favourite place on earth, and I’m never more inspired than when I’ve finally crossed the causeway and left the rest of the world behind.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? 

Read as much, and as consciously, as you can. It’s so important to write regularly, to practice and make mistakes and develop your own voice, but in my opinion it’s just as important to pay attention to story structure, so that you can take your fresh ideas, compelling characters, and great lines and pull them together into something that will keep readers turning the pages.

Did you have a mentor when you started writing? What was this relationship like? 

I’ve had several mentors in my life, from great teachers, to other, more seasoned writers, to editors who helped me gain perspective on my work and recognize what was and wasn’t working. My greatest mentors, however, have been the books and writers who really grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Now this is how you tell a story!” As just one example, I revisit Fingersmith by Sarah Waters every year or two, to marvel at her brilliant use of language, her wonderful characters, her note-perfect plot with its unexpected twists and “how did she do that!?” moments. It’s one of several books that have entertained me, given me something to aspire to, and taught me so much about what I’m trying to accomplish with my own work.

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Wine and candy!

What do you do when you have writer’s block? 

I don’t believe in writer’s block. When I’m working on a new book, I give myself a strict word count goal, usually 2000 words a day, five days a week, and I don’t get up from my desk until I reach it. I consider myself extremely lucky to be doing this for a living, and I take it as seriously as I would any other job. A plumber doesn’t have the luxury of getting plumber’s block, and I don’t let myself fall for false narratives about inspiration or “waiting for the muse”. Don’t get me wrong, I suffer from loads of self-doubt—doesn’t every creative professional —but I’ve trained myself to tune those feelings out when I’m working.

Do you remember the first time you were paid as a writer? How did it feel? 

Cashing my first advance cheque was a moment I’ll never forget. Real money that I’d made from one of my stories? Amazing! It wasn’t much by any measure, but it was an important and validating first step that revealed to me that the writing life might just be possible.

What are you working on right now? 

I just finished edits on a YA novel I co-wrote with my friend Robin Stevenson, about two teen cousins from opposite sides of the country who end up on a road trip to Toronto Pride. The title is up in the air at the moment, but it will come out in spring 2020 from Running Press. I’m also about to start editing my next YA mystery (working title I Hope You’re Listening) about a teen girl who copes with her guilt over her friend’s unsolved, decade-old abduction by anonymously creating a podcast to help solve missing persons cases. When a new abduction in her small town is revealed to have links to the old case, her life is tossed upside down. It comes out in fall 2020 from Albert Whitman. I’m also writing two new books at the moment, they’re both about gay teens in the mid-80s, but the similarities stop there. I tend to keep details of my works in progress close to the chest, but I hope to have news about them both sooner than later!

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Recommended Experience Levels

The Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia (WFNS) recommends that each workshop’s participants share a level or range of writing / publication experience. This is to ensure each participant gets value from the workshop⁠ and is presented with information, strategies, and skills that suit their current writing priorities.

To this end, the “Recommended experience level” section of each workshop description refers to the following definitions developed by WFNS:

  • New writers: those who have been writing creatively for less than two years and/or have not yet been published in any form.
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