Behind the Book with Marie Powell
Liz - Tell us a little about your part of the world?
Marie - Sure. I was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, which is the middle prairie province, pretty much in the middle of Canada. I have lived in Regina--some 65 km east of my hometown--for about 30 years. Regina is located in southern Saskatchewan on Treaty 4 Territory, ancestral lands of the Nêhiyawak (Cree), Anihšināpēk (Saulteaux), Dene, Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda peoples, and the Homeland of the Métis. It’s very flat because it was once a glacial lake. Winters are really cold (like 30-below) and we’re blanketed by snow for about eight months, so there’s no such thing as a “snow day.” Summers are really hot (like, 30-above), and the wind blows all the time here in Regina. So you have wind and sky all around you, and extremes of weather in very distinct seasons.
Liz - That actually sounds wonderful to me! Why did you decide to write for the YA audience?
Marie - I guess I became inspired by the young people I worked with during my 15 years as a library programmer. I really enjoyed reading young adult novels, and still do. I took classes and workshops in writing for children and young adults from some very good writers and teachers. That evolved into majoring in it during my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.
Liz - You’ve also written over 40 children’s books. Can you tell us about some of these?
Marie - My children’s books cover a range of topics and include fiction and nonfiction. I’m lucky to be published by several excellent traditional publishers, like Scholastic Canada, Amicus, Lerner/Lightning Bolt, Crabtree, and many others. I’ve written five themed series of juvenile beginner-readers with Amicus, two Grade Two science books, and several books in history and media studies for middle grades. You can see them all on my website under “Children’s Books” https://mariepowell.ca/childrens-books/
Liz - Which is your favourite?
Marie - All of them are favourites in different ways, including the books I’m working on now. But my “heart-project” is definitely my young adult series, Last of the Gifted. I have two books in that series published by Wood Dragon Books: Spirit Sight (book 1) and Water Sight (Book 2). These books tell the tale of two siblings in 1282-83 Wales, who pledge their magical abilities to protect their people from the invading English army, with help from the last true Prince of Wales, after his murder! These books combine magic, mythology, and history with the historical realities of 1282 Wales.
Liz - Would you consider writing more children’s books?
Marie - Absolutely! I’ve been working on a middle grade book recently. It’s a contemporary fantasy set in Saskatchewan, about a young artist who finds a way to use her drawing talents to create a magical bond with the fragile and endangered riverbank community where she lives.
Liz - You’ve also written a number of award-winning short stories and poems. How does your process differ from writing these to a novel?
Marie - I’m not sure that it does. I’m inspired by what I read, and I tend to read everything. I practice free-writing, and I think it’s healthy to try different genres. I’ve been lucky to have publication success in the ones I’ve tried so far.
Liz - You enjoy travelling – what would be your favourite location?
Marie - North Wales is one of my favourite places, because my grandfather was from there and I was able to “walk in his shoes” and soak up the atmosphere. It’s full of history and you can almost hear the stories whispering on the wind there. I love the process of travel more than the destination, so getting away and exploring a new country or area is always exciting.
Liz - What’s a longed-for destination you’ve yet to visit?
Marie - There are so many places! Greece, Santorini, the sites of Troy and Crete, Australia, New Zealand. And no doubt places I haven’t even thought about yet!
Liz - You did a lot of castle-hoping through Wales, which would have been amazing. How long did this take and did you get to spend much time at each location?
Marie - There’s never enough time! I’ve gone to North Wales twice now for about three weeks each time. I spent a few hours at each castle, but I’ll go back to some of them more than once. Each one was amazing in a different way. The large stone castles like Conwy and Caernarvon are impressive. The smaller castles of the Welsh princes were surprising for me, and that’s where I learned about the events that eventually became pivotal in Last of the Gifted.
Liz - Which castle was your favourite?
Marie - It’s so hard to answer questions about favourites. I have explored at least a dozen different castles in North Wales, and I love all of them for different reasons. And there are so many more that I want to see. Wales has some 500 castles, and many are just mounds on a hill with stories that you have to use your imagination to see. That’s really what inspires me.
Liz - The Last of the Gifted series is a YA historical fiction trilogy set in Wales circa 1283 – what was it about this era that drew you to it?
Marie - My grandfather had been born in Wales and I knew he was a Welsh speaker. Since I’m also a journalist, I wanted to get into travel writing, so I planned a trip to Wales to do double duty and find out more about my own heritage at the same time. The first time I went, I rented a cottage on a sheep farm in north Wales and went castle-hopping every day. In some of the smaller Welsh castles, there were placards showing the history, and how losing a war in 1282 caused them to lose their language and their way of life. I started thinking about what it would be like to actually live through something like that. Looking around today, you can see the resurgence of the Welsh language and culture everywhere. Welsh is first on the signs, kids go to school in Welsh, and if you live and work there, you’re expected to learn the language. I was really struck by how people could hold onto their language and culture for 800 years after it had been outlawed. And that led to writing about it in these novels.
Liz - Book one, Spirit Sight, won bronze at the Moonbeam YA Fiction awards – congratulations! Can you tell us about it?
Marie - Yes, I’d love to! Spirit Sight focuses on a brother and sister team who each have magical gifts. Hyw is a warrior-in-training who can see through the eyes of birds and animals. His sister Catrin can see the future in a drop of water. Ambush and murder force Hyw to stretch his gift in unexpected ways. He bonds with the spirit of the murdered Prince of Wales, who advises him and helps the two of them as Edward I (Longshanks) and his army invade their country. I wanted to use the historical reality of that time, as well as the legends and stories and myths they would have been familiar with.
Liz - Book two, Water Sight, released last year – how did you find writing book two compared to book one?
Marie - Water Sight carries the story on into 1283. It focuses more on Catrin and I dug deep into her point of view. Her gift of Second Sight leads her to three magical relics to rally Wales—but she has to outwit the English lord who wants to use her gift to capture the new prince and bring down the country. Her brother Hyw is on the run with the prince, but his gift of shifting shapes puts him in jeopardy. With Hyw trapped in his magic and her betrothed imprisoned, Catrin faces an impossible choice: save her brother, or save the man she loves.
Liz - Can you tell us what the third book will be about?
Marie - The third book will take their story into 1284, as the two must find a way to survive King Edward’s harsh rules. The Welsh suffered the loss of their rural way of life, their laws, and even the use of their own language. Yet they managed to keep enough of their language and culture intact that they were able to bring it back some 800 years later when the restrictions were finally lifted. So, this will focus on their resilience and the rebirth of the land after the devastation of war. I’m also finding that I want to write about some of the secondary characters in a related series of their own, so that’s starting to take shape as well.
Liz - You’re also an experienced panelist and speaker – what topics do you like to talk about and do you ever get nervous?
Marie - Yes, I have terrible stage fright. I find I have to be prepared mentally and also have lots of information at my fingertips. But really what helps the most is focusing on the audience. I like to find out what the audience wants or needs, and then find a way to help them get it. My favourite topics include the craft of writing, freeing creativity to write, and things like time management, editing, and research. One of my current favourites presents my research trips to Wales and how I used that in my novels.
Liz - Photography is another of your many talents! What do you like to photograph and have you/would you ever use your own images in your cover art? Or perhaps in their own book?
Marie - I have done a lot of black-and-white photography and still have a darkroom in my basement, although I don’t use it much anymore. I started doing photography as a general newspaper reporter, and it became a major hobby for me. I took photography at Ryerson when I was young and I still remember carrying a big 4X5 camera around the streets of Toronto. I loved photographing people and reflections, as well as experimenting with filters and darkroom techniques. Now it’s so easy with good quality cameras in our phones and all kinds of software to experiment with. I still love it!
Liz - What else are you currently working on, or what do you have planned for future projects?
Marie - I’m actually writing a contemporary fantasy right now about a young woman who wants to be an art photographer and takes a job at a struggling community newspaper. The intersections of past and present interest me. Not time travel as much as how we can learn from the past and how things keep cropping up. It’s amazing how things change over time, and yet so much remains the same.
Liz - Where can our readers follow you?
Marie - The best place is on my website or social media:
***Photo credit to L.L. Melton