Interview: Caroline Wissing

Caroline Wissing is an Ottawa writer with one publication to her name, but many irons in the fire, as you will see. I reviewed her Young Adult novel Voiceless a while ago, and Caroline has graciously consented to allow me to hound her with questions. (And let it be said in passing, that there is absolutely no reason in the world why adults should not enjoy reading Voiceless. Like any good YA, it is in no way childish or simplistic.)

Tell us a little bit of how Voiceless came to be. I think it's safe to say that it is not autobiographical.

Ha, yes, the book is definitely not about me. Or my mother, as she'd hasten to add. 

The genesis of the idea came out of a news story I read about a woman in the United States who takes in old, injured or abused horses and provides a sanctuary for them to live out the remainder of their lives. The idea of this fascinated me and I started to wonder what it would be like if she'd been rescuing people, specifically teenagers.

So there I had a farm and emotionally damaged kids, and I was free to explore their relationships to each other and to the horses they helped care for.

The character of Ghost came to me as a mute. Even though I realized it would be an enormous challenge to write a novel-length manuscript with a first-person narrator who didn't speak, I decided that was simply who she was and went with it. The others also came as they were, flaws and all. I love to develop characters who are quirky and deeply flawed, as most of us are.


What do you hope your readers will take away from Voiceless?

I hope Voiceless exposes some of contemporary society's injustice. Using fiction to shed light on social problems lets readers identify with characters and see situations from a fresh perspective. It's easier to ignore homelessness and the homeless than it is to look deeper and realize they're people, and their reasons for living on the street are as numerous and varied as the homeless themselves.

As tough as life is for Ghost, she manages to cling to a shred of hope and survive. Teenagers who are dealing with difficult situations and sometimes making bad choices need to realize that these years are some of the toughest they'll have to face. There's always hope in tomorrow.


You published with a small press. What would you say are the advantages and disadvantages?

Publishing my first book with a small press was a great experience. I loved working with the editor who was assigned to my manuscript and really felt that he respected my opinion about any changes that needed to be made. He helped shape the story into a much better book. I also had a say in other aspects of the process. For example, I didn't like the first cover my publisher emailed to me. The image was the same as the final product, but it was smaller and there was a lot of white space that made it feel more like a text book than a novel. I voiced my concerns and suggested a different layout and they agreed that, in order to promote my book, I needed to like the cover. They made the changes and I'm very happy with the results.

I haven't published with a larger press but I think one of the disadvantages of a small press is that the budget for promotion and marketing is limited. I did what I could on my own, but neither I nor my small press has the kind of money and connections of the big three publishers.


What are you working on now?

Finding an agent! Or a home with a publisher for my other finished work. I have 5 completed novels that I'm shopping, on and off, when I can find the time to research agents and publishers and create submission packages. 

I'm also in the midst of writing a memoir about caring for my elderly mother (who has vascular dementia) and working a full-time job, while also raising two teens. It's called My Life as a Sandwich.


Five! Are they all Young Adult, or have you tried your hand at other things?

One of my completed novels is YA. One is middle grade. Two are adult contemporary and one is adult humour. Plus the in-progress memoir. The other day I started another adult contemporary novel that I'm quite excited about. But isn't that always the way with a shiny new project? My writing productivity varies depending on what else is going on in my life, but I always have something on the go. I wouldn't want to have to live without writing.


And finally, if you had to reduce your library to just a few books, which ones would you choose?

Reduce my library? That's crazy talk.

But if I absolutely had to, I'd choose to keep all the signed copies of books, from both famous authors and from my author friends. I have a copy of Not Wanted on the Voyage signed to me by Timothy Findley, and a couple of signed books by Margaret Atwood that my husband gave to me. Those and the signed books by friends are more valuable to me than other books that I could either replace or borrow.

Review: Voiceless

Voiceless by Caroline Wissing is a literary Young Adult novel that tells the story of Annabel Cross, alias Ghost, who has lost her voice, her home, and almost all of her hope. As the story starts, we find her living in the country with a foster family and longing to be reunited with her mother, a woman who has never managed to shake her dependence on drugs and violent men. But a new boy arrives at the foster home and introduces yet another complication to Ghost's already difficult life.

We work both backward and forward with Ghost, finding out how she has become voiceless and abandoned, and how she works through a complicated adolescence, making some foolish choices, and paying dearly for them. She eventually has to take her life into her own hands, and step out into the unknown, completely alone.

Wissing writes beautifully, evoking a powerful sense of place.  She is a master of the telling detail, making a setting click into place with one or two sure strokes. Her characters are also drawn with a sure hand, their different voices and personalities clear on the page.

If there is any quibble I have with this book, is that it is perhaps too realistic. Ghost is not your typical novel heroine, being rather passive most of the time and trying to duck down out of her problems, rather than facing and defying them. She only takes action when pushed to it out of direst need, and her supply of initiative dries up rather quickly. This is entirely consistent with the way many people live their lives, but it did leave the book feeling rather directionless for a while.

But Ghost and her story are bound to live in your head for a long time after you put the book down, and Voiceless is a fine example of the excellence that can often be found in the Young Adult category. Bleakness and beauty, horror and hope, undeserved suffering and unexpected grace come together to stir and challenge us.

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