Kenneth Oppel is the author of numerous books for young readers. His award-winning Silverwing trilogy has sold over a million copies worldwide and was adapted into an animated TV series and stage play. His books are adored by readers of all ages and lucky for them, he is prolific! He writes across genres, topics and themes and has authored books that are staples in Canadian classrooms, libraries and homes. He has just released Bloom, the first in The Bloom Trilogy, which is a riveting story about an environmental disaster and the three teens who appear to be immune to it. Part 2 in the series, Hatch, is being released in the fall. Born in British Columbia, Ken lives in Toronto with his family.
Here is TVO TeachOntario In Conversation with Kenneth Oppel
1) How did you start writing? Do you have any anecdotes about when you were just starting out?
After the first Star Wars movie came (when I was 10 years old), I decided I wanted to write my very own magnificent science fiction epic. Naturally I wasn’t going to call my story Star Wars; I settled on the much more original title, Star Ship. I began work in a Hilroy School Exercise Book. Interlined for help forming those tricky lower-case letters. All thirty-eight pages are filled.
I still have this notebook. I wrote in pen, pencil and brown marker. I was already making rudimentary efforts to edit. There were numerous crossings-out. I replaced a limp “walked” with the more expressive “scurried”. I labeled blocks of text with instructions on where and how they should be reshuffled. I marked potential chapter breaks. I left myself stern notes which said: “go to page 1-3A” or in emphatic capitals, simply: “REWRITE”. It made me realize how little my life has changed in 41 years.
I can’t tell you what it was about my story was about with any accuracy, other than a group of brave male space warriors in amazing spaceships, blowing up alien spaceships, and occasionally landing in various space stations to sizzle more aliens, who I now suspect were probably quite undeserving of their fates.
At some point I must have decided that Star Ship was a rather anodyne title, and boldly crossed out all references to it on the front and back covers. Instead I was going to call it Rebellion. I believe this late change of title coincided with a flagging of resolve on my part -- and not long thereafter, I abandoned work on the manuscript – sensing, I think, that it was more and more becoming a pastiche of Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica. My own imagination was not yet ready to kick in and transform my source material into something more original.
2) What books are you reading at the moment?
Right now I’ve got David Copperfield (Charles DIckens) on the go, and don’t know why I’ve avoided him for so long. He’s a great humourist and his characters are so vivid, and his stories so utterly satisfying. Before that I read Emily of New Moon, a childhood favourite of mine, and still a delight to read. Before that, an upcoming book by Eric Walters called King of Jam Sandwiches which is heartfelt and harrowing, and before that I read Tim Wynne-Jones wonderful collection of stories, War at the Snow White Motel. And before THAT, it was another Victorian novel, Wilkie Collins’ Woman in White. Those Victorians really knew how to put a story together!
3) What/who inspires you today?
Oh, I’m easily inspired. Could be a scene in a book or a movie, or a landscape, or a good climbing tree, or a display in a museum, my own family, a dream, a pandemic. Ideas come fairly easily to me, which is why, over the years I’ve filled countless notebooks. Very few ideas become finished stories, but by writing them down, I give them a chance to germinate and grow. I interrogate them, and transcribe their answers, and those might lead to secondary questions, which in turn give me more answers. Sometimes I start to see a beginning, middle and end to the story. I’ll put together a rough outline, and if I’m still excited about it, I might type chapter one and see what happens. I’m getting better at figuring out which story ideas are good to go.
4) How are you holding up during these times?
Fairly well. My work is solitary, and I’ve always worked from home, so I’m very fortunate little has changed for me, in terms of work regimen. Psychologically, I’ve found this a rather anxiety-inducing and dispiriting time, especially with the recent instances of horrific racism and police brutality in North America. I’m alternately encouraged and discouraged by humanity. But when I work, I try to focus on the world of my story, and shut it all out. I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to do what I do.
5) Your latest trilogy begins with the novel Bloom in which the world is besieged by an invasive plant. Where did you find your inspiration for this story?
It came from two places. The first was a sentence I’d had banging around in my head: “There was a dead patch in the garden where nothing grew.” I liked it and wrote it down in my Ideas notebook. I wondered about this dead patch, why nothing grew there, and daydreamed about something buried deep in the soil, something ominous, something that one day might come up. And what if it did? What would it be? So, I had that idea, but nothing more really happened to it, until my eldest daughter told me this amazing nightmare she’d had.
In the dream, she is walking outside and it begins to rain. Amongst the raindrops are little eggs that hatch to release countless strange insects. Terrified, she runs for cover under a bridge, and there on the ground is a man, in the process of being eaten by a bug that is much, much larger than the others.
When my daughter told me this dream, I thought: That is a pretty good dream. Naturally I had to have it. Like all good scenes or images, it triggered an avalanche of questions. Why is it raining eggs? What’s inside them? Who is the kid?
I stepped back and imagined a story in which, after a global rainfall, strange plants start appearing worldwide. Nothing kills them. They crowd out crops and produce a storm of pollen that everyone is very allergic to, except three kids who live on Salt Spring Island, in British Columbia -- a part of the world I’m very familiar with.
Anaya, Seth, and Petra are, for some reason, impervious to all the other invasive plants that begin to appear: the sleep-inducing vines that strangle you, the buried pit plants that grow under lawns and fields and sidewalks and roads and digest whatever might fall into them.
Anaya, Petra and Seth aren’t friends, but they’re quickly thrown together when the government takes an interest in them, and wants to know why they’re immune, and whether they can fashion vaccines from them.
That’s all I’m going to tell you. If you go ahead and read Bloom -- and its sequel Hatch, coming this September -- you’ll find my daughter’s dream, the one that started it all. I barely had to change a thing.
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