A fomer high school teacher, literacy mentor, and university instructor, Don Aker fell into writing after attending the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Writing Workshops, where instructors encouraged participants to write with their students. Encouraged by winning the short fiction and nonfiction categories of the 1989 and 1990 WFNS Atlantic Writing Competitions (now called Nova Writes) as well as Canadian Living’s 1990 National Literary Competition, Don went on to publish numerous stories and articles and has written 20 books.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and YA in particular?
I began writing in 1987 after taking a course for teachers offered by Boston’s Northeastern University on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard. At that point in my teaching career, I felt I wasn’t as effective a writing instructor as I needed to be, and while pursuing my Master of Education degree, I learned of the highly regarded Martha’s Vineyard Summer Writing Workshops, which I applied to attend. Lynn Bloom, the instructor of the course that I took (and herself a writer), insisted that if educators wanted to teach students how to write effectively, they had to write themselves. Lynn believed that teachers often get locked into an assign-and-assess instructional mode, forgetting what it’s like to face a blank page or screen, so she required us to write every day and to share our writing with each other so we could receive suggestions for improvement. At the end of the two-week course, Lynn asked us all to share with the class one piece of writing that we were pleased with, and at the conclusion of that final meeting, Lynn took me aside and told me that the piece I’d read was strong enough to be published. Not only that, she offered to stay in touch with me to help make that happen, an offer for which I will always be grateful. At the time, she was writing a book called The Essay Connection, and she later included in the book two of the pieces I’d written. Besides earning me a little money, those pieces provided me writing “credentials” that elevated me in the perception of editors to whom I submitted later work.
I was drawn to write YA fiction because of my work with teenagers. During my 33 years in the classroom, I was witness to the struggles many of them faced every day, and those struggles seeped into my writing. For example, my first novel, Of Things Not Seen, focused on domestic violence, and I was drawn to write it after learning that one of my students was being physically abused by her father. I was the adult who had to report the abuse to the RCMP and Child Protection Services, and that student’s experience kept haunting me until I knew I had to write about a fictional character caught in similar circumstances. Since then, all of my novels and most of my short fiction have focused on social issues that reflect the pain I saw in many of my students’ lives.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
I simply don’t have time for it. I know that sounds flippant, but it’s true. Lots of days I probably delete more words than I leave on the screen, but my job is to keep putting them there, so I do. Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass and many other novels, once said that “All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?” For me, the key is not to be overly critical of my writing until I’ve completed a first draft—I can be ruthless when it’s time to revise, but I keep that ruthlessness at bay so I don’t derail the creative process. Also, I find it especially helpful to begin each session by reading aloud what I wrote the previous day. Like a skier building up momentum on a slope, I build momentum with my voice—when I get to the end of what I’ve written, I’m usually ready to write the next sentence/paragraph/page. For writers of fiction who find themselves completely bogged down in a story, I recommend they focus entirely on their character in that moment. There’s usually something the writer doesn’t know or hasn’t understood about that character, so I suggest they take time to explore the character’s backstory thoroughly until the answer presents itself.
After living in the Annapolis Valley for a number of years, has moving to the city influenced your writing?
Moving to Halifax hasn’t influenced my process or, for that matter, what I choose to write about, but it has definitely affected my output. Now that I live minutes rather than hours from my grandchildren, I spend less time at my laptop than I did prior to the move.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I need to write very early in the day. When I first began writing, my daughters were toddlers and I didn’t want to take time away from them, so I set my alarm clock for 5:00 every morning and got up to write until they woke. That ritual has continued to this day. The only difference (besides the fact that my daughters are now grown with families of their own) is that I no longer need an alarm clock to get me out of bed. Whether I want to be or not, I’m awake every morning between four and five o’clock. People my age will know why.
Do you remember your first WITS experience? As a former teacher, was it different to talk to teens about your own personal writing instead of school curriculum?
I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t recall my first WITS experience. I lay the blame on having been in schools for most of my life, first as a student, then as a teacher, and then as an author, so they’ve begun to blur over the years. One impression I clearly recall, though, is how, despite their differences, young people everywhere are so similar. I’ve given presentations in private schools in very wealthy neighbourhoods as well as in inner-city schools in deprived urban settings, yet the students in both asked me many of the same questions. Last year I presented at schools in Vietnam, and while their culture is very different than my own, they shared the same hopes, desires, and fears expressed by Canadian students. I find it heartening that young people are more alike than they are different, which probably explains the broad appeal of YA literature.
Regarding your question about content, I never spoke to my classes about my own novels—I felt it unfair to promote my writing above the work of other authors—so it was definitely unusual to hear students at WITS presentations comment on my books. More than anything, I was surprised by how passionate young people could be about the characters I’d created.
Where has been the most interesting place you have presented to children?
I’ve been fortunate to take part in three of the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Book Week tours, and during one of them I was invited to speak at a lock-down facility for young offenders in Calgary. I learned after my visit that the majority of the staff had actually been reluctant to have me come because they were worried about my safety, but the librarian at the facility persevered and got permission to extend the invitation. It was an amazing experience. Because my novel The First Stone is about a 17-year-old who commits an act of violence that nearly kills an innocent person, I focused on that book in my presentation, and the students eagerly asked questions about the story, my writing process, and so on. But it wasn’t until the next day that I learned the full impact of my talk. The librarian emailed me to say that two of the young men at the facility actually came to blows in her library over who would get to sign out the last copy of The First Stone. I was alarmed, of course, until I read her final line: “I’ll welcome fighting over books in my library any day.”
What was the last great book you read?
I recently finished Lori Lansens’s This Little Light, which blew me away. Set in the near future, it depicts a world where the alt-right controls all aspects of society (much like if Donald Trump’s base became the prevailing influence). More than just a sobering view of extremism, Lansen’s book demonstrates the power of voice in writing. I can’t recall the last time I heard a narrator so clearly in my head.
Do you have a guilty pleasure (you are willing to share?)
White chocolate and red wine. In combination.
When you are not writing, how do you like to spend your time?
I read everything I can get my hands on.
What are you working on right now?
Sorry, but I never talk about a current project. I don’t consider myself superstitious, but I worry that speaking about what I’m writing will lessen my motivation for writing it. (Now that I think about it, maybe I’m superstitious after all.)