Lesley Strutt is a poet, academic, essayist, and playwright. This season, she adds novelist to her accolades with her young adult book On the Edge (Inanna Publications).
On the Edge follows Emerald Lake Visser, a 14-year old orphan living an isolated life on her aunt and uncle's farm. Things change when Emma, as she is known, meets Jess, an elderly neighbour who teaches Emma to sail. For the first time, Emma feels at home - she takes to sailing like she was born to do it, finding freedom on the water. But when Jess passes away and secrets about Emma's family are revealed - including the fact that her mother might in fact be alive - Emma takes her fate into her own hands, running away on Jess' boat, The Edge.
In Emma's story, On the Edge combines a high seas adventure, a family story, and a page-turning mystery. We're excited to welcome Lesley to Open Book today to tell us more about the novel as part of our Kids Club interview celebrating books for young people.
She tells us about the three decades of sailing experience she drew on to create Emma's journey, the real life teens whose courage inspired Emma's character, and the misconception about YA writing she'd most like to clear up.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
On the Edge, begins when Emma, who thinks she’s an orphan, discovers her mother might be living in the Bahamas. Desperate to solve the mystery of why she was abandoned, Emma sails thousands of nautical miles all by herself to get the answers she’s looking for. She faces storms, exhaustion, and the danger of being caught by the authorities. She must fend off modern-day pirates and learn to navigate on the ocean. And she must be brave enough to face the truth when she finds the answers.
Emma’s sailing adventure draws on many of my own experiences from more than 30 years of sailing. Emma’s trip from Kingston, Ontario to the Bahamas mirrors a trip that I made in 2002.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
Yes, absolutely. I hope girls, in particular, take away the message “We’re strong and we can make our dreams come true.” I hope girls will be inspired by Emma to believe they are resilient and brave enough to do anything they set their minds and hearts on. This story takes as its inspiration two courageous girls, Laura Dekker and Tanya Aebi, who sailed solo around the globe in their teens. Epic journeys like the ones these girls undertook are not easy, but they can be accomplished with determination and focus, intelligence and resourcefulness.
Is there a character in your book that you relate to? If so, in what ways are you similar to your character and in what ways are you different?
I absolutely love my main character, Emma. She has inspired me when I’ve been discouraged, and she helps me keep going even now. I think she is even braver than I am, which is why she inspires me when things get tough.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
All I need in order to write is a pen and a notebook. Once I have the first draft, I input it into the computer. That’s my first editing process. Luckily, I can write just about anywhere. It doesn’t need to be in my study. I can write on the bus or on the train, but I need to be certain I’m not going to be interrupted. And most important I need time – time to think through the elements of the plot and the details of the character’s background. I make very detailed notes about my characters, and not all of the information comes out in the story. However, it helps me get a clear picture of the character so I can imagine how they will react to events, to other people, to crises. Sometimes I sketch scenes from a chapter on filing cards, if the timeline is tricky.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?
Writing for young people is sometimes considered “easier” than writing for adults. It is not. I’d like people to realize that the amount of research and labour that goes into writing a YA novel is as great as for an adult novel.
What defines a great book for young readers, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great kids’ books, whether you read them as a child or an adult.
In my opinion, a great book for young readers leaves the reader with a feeling that life is good, there is beauty and joy in the world, and that the future is within their power to create. I like a book that leaves the reader knowing for certain that this life adventure we are on is challenging but that with courage, curiosity, and determination we can meet all the challenges. I am just re-reading Francis Hodgson Burnett’s book The Secret Garden. The main character evolves from a self-centered miserable child into a loving, caring child who spreads joy all around her. Her worst traits become her strengths – her stubbornness becomes fearlessness and her burdensome whininess turns into curiosity. A set of contemporary books that I really like is Seven The Series, published by Orca Books, with the authors Eric Walters, John Wilson, Ted Staunton, Richard Scrimger, Norah McClintock, Sigmund Brouwer, Shane Peacock. The main characters in these books are boys who have to solve a problem given to them by their grandfather. Each of the boys faces obstacles that seem impossible to overcome, but each boy rises above them to discover something amazing about himself and the world he lives in.
Lesley Strutt is a prize-winning poet, playwright, essayist, and a blogger, with a PhD in Linguistics from McGill University in Montreal. She is the descendant of William Pittman Lett, a pre-confederation poet who was known as the Bard of Bytown before Bytown was named Ottawa in 1854. In 2002-2003, she sailed a 32-foor Hunter from Lake Ontario to the Turks and Caicos, then spent the winter sailing around all the islands in the Bahamas. Her debut collection of poetry, Window Ledge, is forthcoming from Inanna Publications in 2020. She lives in Merrickville, Ontario.