News and Interviews

The In Character Interview, with Heather Camlot

When Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals in 1946 (a year before his historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers), it seemed the world was changing. And that sense of change and possibility is the backbone of Heather Camlot's Clutch (Red Deer Press), which follows one 12-year old Montreal boy, living in a poor Jewish neighbourhood and dreaming of a better life.

Inspired by Robinson, Joey Grosser aspires to move his family to a better neighbourhood after his father's death. His combined hope, drive, naïveté, and anger make for a compelling, relatable, and utterly real character, and a story that Kevin Sylvester called "A home run".

We're pleased to speak with Heather today about Joey as part of our In Character interview series. She tells us about the inspiration for the names in Clutch, rehearsing dialogue out loud, and why Joey would be a faster writer than she is. 

Open Book:

Tell us about the main character in your new book.

Heather Camlot:

Clutch is set in 1946 Montreal, the year Jackie Robinson played with the Royals, and follows Joey Grosser, a 12-year-old boy who just lost his father and believes that living in their poor ghetto of a neighbourhood killed him. Joey’s incredibly determined to make enough money by the time of his bar mitzvah, about three months away, to move his family to the other side of Park Avenue, where the rich people live. But as smart and driven as he is, he’s also naïve and blinded by his anger, which gets him into trouble.

OB:

Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?

HC:

When I started writing Clutch, Joey and his brother, David, were modelled after my uncle and my dad. But now, besides their basic appearance and a few character traits – Joey a determined businessman with that twinkle in his eye, David a wisecracking tag-along who looks up to his brother – I don’t see my uncle and dad anymore. And I’m happy I don’t. It means Joey and David have taken on a life of their own, that this is their story. I had a basic idea of where I wanted them to go, but they steered the writing in directions I hadn’t thought of. And I think Clutch is all the richer for it.  

OB:

How do you choose names for your characters?

HC:

Joey, David, and Ben are classic Jewish boys’ names and when I researched their meanings, they fit with the characters’ personalities. For Uzzi Wolfe, submachine gun + fearsome animal sounded perfectly sinister together. Mr. Abelson and Mr. Friedman’s names represent who they are or should be, Able and Free. Because this is such a personal story, many of the other names came from family and friends, and some wound up being wonderfully fitting; wealthy businessman Simon Bernstein, for example, is a combination of my grandmother and great-grandmother’s surnames, and coincidentally has the same initials as one of the real men he was based on. Even the name on the grocery store window – Bernier et fils – has significance: although Clutch talks a lot about baseball, I’m actually a soccer fan, so I named the store after a Montreal Impact player!

OB:

What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?

HC:

My characters tend to talk a lot, probably because that’s what I feel most comfortable writing. Dialogue runs through my head all the time; for me, that’s where story ideas start. When I’m writing, I rehearse dialogue out loud, like an actor preparing for a role, and keep altering it until it sounds right. My advice would be to do just that; be the character and say his or her lines, don’t just read them. If it sounds false or unnatural to you, guaranteed readers will feel the same. 

OB:

Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?

HC:

Joey tends to get caught up in his own world, in his own thoughts. He’s stressed out and doing too much at once. He wants everything to be right and he takes that burden on himself. That’s me in a nutshell. We’ve both recently lost our dads, but we grieve differently. Joey gets really angry at mere mention of his father. I completely break down and cry. Joey’s also more of a doer, a go-getter. It’s taken me six years to write and publish Clutch. Joey would have been done in six months.

OB:

Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader? 

HC:

Gary D. Schmidt’s characters and novels are so real and intense they leave me an emotional wreck. Okay For Now is the novel that inspired me to write, but I think Joseph, from his most recent novel, Orbiting Jupiter, is the most memorable. Joseph is passionate and driven, but broken and very aware of his fate. I would also say Jacky from Allan Stratton’s The Dogs, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Severus Snape and Remus Lupin from Harry Potter, Doc Graham from Shoeless Joe and Good Ol’ Charlie Brown. I seem to have a thing for tortured souls.

OB:

What are you working on now?

HC:

I have tons of ideas running through my head, but concretely, I’m revising an early draft of a dark romantic comedy for adults, I have a nonfiction proposal for middle-grade readers that’s ready to go, and I have an assortment of workshopped picture books that I need to tackle. I have more projects than time, but that’s probably a good problem to have. 

______________________________

Heather Camlot is an editor and translator who has written for the Globe and Mail, The New York Times, and Canadian Living, among others. She lives in Toronto. 

Related reading

Clutch

It's 1946. A poor Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal where a few dollars equal a fortune, and no matter where you go, you'll find the best home cooking anywhere on earth. It's also a million miles away from the posh mansions on the other side of town. But a 12—year—old boy can hope. 
Just across town something incredible is happening. Jackie Robinson is playing for the Montreal Royals. And he's going to change the world. If Jackie can do it, then so too can a poor Jewish kid from The Plateau. 

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