Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life! Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process. Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning? Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?
The idea for this book came from three ideas that intersected. The first idea presented itself via me a young man who had been disowned by his family. I had recently started a new job and I had immediately felt a connection with this guy – let’s call him Ashley – because he, like me, was originally from South Africa and he had come to Canada in 2000, as had I.
When I asked him about his family, he told me that he didn’t see them any more, that they had disowned him, he was excommunicated.
I was incredibly shocked. I come from a very close-knit family and I can’t imagine something like that.
“But why on earth would they do that?” I asked.
“Because I’m gay,” he said to which I replied that wasn’t any reason at all to kick him out.
“They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he said as if that explained everything but I still didn’t understand and he explained their way of thinking, that homosexuality is a sin and he needed to repent, or he would not go to heaven along with his family.
“But surely they speak to you in secret?” I asked, simply unable to grasp the concept of one’s family just abandoning a member like that. “How old are you?” I asked him.
“I’m twenty-two,” he said, “and they don’t speak to me. Not even my twin sister. My Mom meets me for coffee every six months or so, to see if I have repented, or if she can persuade me to.”
“Not even your twin sister,” I echoed. “I just can’t get my head around that. How long ago did this happen?”
“Two years ago. I’ve been fine really. I couldn’t live a lie. The funny thing was, or maybe it’s not so funny, I was actually going to propose to my long-time girlfriend, ask her to marry me but then instead, I ended up telling her I am gay.” He grinned. “Not exactly what she was expecting. But I needed to do it. I didn’t have a choice. Or, I did have a choice, I could live my whole life a lie or I could be myself.”
I just knew that I would find a way to write about his story. He was so lovely, so gentle and so kind, a talented artist and we soon became good friends. I asked him if I could use him as a muse in a story that was forming in my head and he agreed.
The second idea came from urban exploration. I love being an urban explorer and I have set off alarms more than once, I can tell you! I do live by the code; go in if you can find a way, don’t break things, don’t destroy, don’t steal, leave everything as you found it.
I often search websites looking for places that other explorers have posted and I found a mention of an old school a couple of hours outside of Toronto and I persuaded my husband to take a trip.
The first time we went was in the middle of winter and there was definitely enough there to pique our interest in returning in the spring.
In the meantime, I did some research and found that the school had been many things in its time; a prisoner-of-war camp for German officers in the Second World War, an English school for Chinese immigrants and an Islamic school, the last of which had fallen into bankruptcy and the local government was trying to figure out what should be done with it.
When we returned to the school, it was very easy to get into all the buildings (of which there were many). In one room, I found some scraps of paper written by a former student; some ramblings, a poem and some homework and that made me wonder about the kids who had boarded there.
So I had three things which converged into a single book idea… firstly, Ashley being disfellowshipped. Then the school with the Islamic kid’s jottings (Islam, a religion with which I was unfamiliar, a religion which is clearly having a powerful impact on the world and about which I wanted to learn more), and then, the school itself.
The history of the buildings was so remarkable, and so was the destruction that had been wrecked upon them; violent damage that had taken concentration and work and focus and I found myself wondering about the perpetrators of all that ruin.
What kind of kids (or young adults) would have that much anger, and that much time to invest in the almost-systematic destruction of a place?
I knew I had good ideas for an overall story but I still needed a protagonist and I found her fairly easily.
A friend of mine had been talking about her primary reason for marrying her husband and it was because she could trace his genealogy back to the first settlers of Canada – he came from a solid bloodline and she wanted that for her children.
“Imagine,” she said, “not knowing the genetic pool from which you’ve sprung. It’s unthinkable!”
At least, it was unthinkable to her. Her comments immediately made me want to develop a character obsessed with her ancestry because this was something that couldn’t have interested (or worried) me less in my real life.
I think that’s why I write books – I try to explore themes about things that I really am unperturbed by but which seem to cause others a lot of distress, and religion is surely one of them, along with family trees.
But then I stopped myself short — who would be interested in reading a book about religion and fragmented families? But once an idea is had, it cannot be ignored, for it raises many questions which I personally needed answers to. Sometimes I think I also write books to answer the questions in my head about things that are bothering me in the world.
I had decided that my main character, a young immigrant woman from England, would take a summer to live off the grid in the old school and somehow become involved with the young Islamic student and a fellow who echoed my disfellowshipped friend.
Homelessness and religion… surely the kiss of death for a novel? I had other aspects for sure, the young kids who had destroyed the school headed up by Lenny, one of my favourite fictional bad boys ever, and there was also the ex-boyfriend of my protagonist; he was the main reason she ended up homeless and alone. And there would be crime, of course there would, Ashley’s boyfriend was a shady realtor, Imran (the Islamic student) seemed intent on jihad (or was that just an idle threat?) and Lenny’s crime-driven lifestyle would result in a young girl being murdered – all crimes which Joscelyn (the protagonist) solves. All she wants is some time to be left alone, to regroup and think, but she ends up sorting out a whole bunch of crimes and finding resolution to the things that had happened to her.
She also believed that her mother killed her father by hitting him over the head with a cast-iron frying pan and she gets to the bottom of that once and for all.
Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?
It was a very difficult book to write for a number of reasons. The main one was the voice in my head that kept shouting at me that no one would want to read this book, that I was an idiot for wasting all this time writing a book that no one would want to read. I had that voice in my ear the entire time I was writing the book (and it’s still there, now!)
The next challenge was the subject matter. I wanted to understand the religion of Islam in a real way and I undertook to study it, first reading the Qur’an and then rereading it, and then looking up explanations of it, and buying books that explained it and really trying to get to the bottom of it. I did not find it easy. I have studied a lot of Buddhism which seemed far more accessible — trying to fathom Islam was a lot harder and I can’t say that I personally succeeded. Even this day, it seems to be a remote religion to me, hidden behind silk drapes and swirling smoke, a religion of secrets and half-meanings, inferences and assumptions.
I was brought up as a Catholic, I went to a convent and so Islam was completely unchartered territory. As a Catholic, things are pretty easy to understand, although I am sure there are thousands out there who would disagree with me on that point. I was equally in the dark about the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also feature in the story.
I had read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie when the book first came out and, at first read, I didn’t understand it at all. I didn’t understand it much more when I read it the second time, but it slowly started to make sense the third time and then, a lot more sense the fourth and by the fifth, I loved it.
Why try so hard with a book, you might ask? Because I, like the protagonist in my novel, felt that The Satanic Verses held the key to something important, that it would be the answer to a question I did not yet know.
And because Between The Cracks She Fell was exploring Islam, it seemed natural to me to want to include references to The Satanic Verses but for that I had to acquire permissions, which was a fair bit of work (and expense.)
I didn’t want to write the book without The Satanic Verses because Gibreel and Chamcha stood for the good and evil that was going on my book, and also, Gibreel understood and gave word to all the feelings of exile and homelessness that my protagonist, an immigrant who has fallen on hard times in her new country, feels.
So I fought for the permissions and got that all sorted out.
Another challenge with writing a book like this is that you don’t want it to be an info-dump; all the information has to be seamlessly woven into the plot and characterization, so that it reads in a way that is absolutely natural and unforced for the reader.
Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them or did you self-publish?
My publisher is Inanna Publications, out of York University, headed up by my Editor-in-Chief, Luciana Ricciutelli. This is my fifth book with Inanna and and I cannot speak highly enough of them. I also have a sixth and potentially seventh book lined up with them, so clearly we make a good team!
Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?
Yes! If you had told my earnest teenaged-self that it would take that long and be that difficult to get a book published, it would not only have surprised but horrified me. Having been told I “had a way with words” and having penned stories and poem for most of my life, I never figured I would have to wait that long or work that hard before I got to the point of actually being published. And then, once the book was published, I was surprised by how many people responded well to it. That was The Hungry Mirror, which was about a young woman with body image issues and I didn’t think people would like the book but they did. And they still do, which is wonderful.
Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?
I am working on three novels: The Nearly Girl (which will be published by Inanna in Fall 2016), No Fury Like That (which is being considered for publication by Inanna for Fall 2017) and Rotten Peaches which I have written to rough first draft and which needs a lot of work. The Nearly Girl is about a girl with a rare psychological disorder; she gets things right but only nearly. For example, she will set off to take a bus to work and she does get on a bus, only it’s the wrong one. She also has no way of feeling extreme heat or cold and is quite happy to take picnics in the snow, wearing only a t-shirt and sandals. As you can imagine, this makes normal life impossible for her, and in order to be eligible for welfare, she has to attend therapy sessions by Dr. Carroll. But Dr. Carroll is a man with secrets of his own – he keeps his family drugged and locked up because they are so untidy and noisy – and Amelia (the protagonist in The Nearly Girl), discovers this and puts her own life in danger by setting them free. The book also features Henry, a poet trying to prove propositional logic with his poems, Meghan, (Amelia’s mother) who is a body-builder, as well as a cast of characters who join Amelia for Dr. Carroll’s unusual brand of therapy, Do The Opposite Thing.
I had such fun writing that book – it’s quite light-hearted and the characters, while somewhat quirky, are all very funny and loveable. I love John Irving’s early works so very much and I sometimes think that some of my characters and plots are reminiscent of Cider House Rules or The World According To Garp, or A Prayer for Owen Meany – although I would never categorize myself in that great writer’s level.
Q: What’s your favorite place to hang out online?
I switch it up between Goodreads, Wattpad, Scriggler, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. I do different things on each one and I have an author page on Facebook as well as my own personal page. It can be a bit addictive and when I haven’t checked in in a while, I find I get a bit anxious and that’s a bad thing! I find Facebook great for links to news items of the day that people are chatting about and one link can lead to another. I check the newspapers and I find Twitter is also good for interesting writer sites and links.
Q: Finally, what message (if any) are you trying to get across with your book?
That the world and the people living in it are complex and complicated and lovable and flawed and mysterious and obvious. That all of us have the potential to fall through the cracks when the going gets tough and do we have what it takes to climb back out with resilience and start all over again? The book is also about friendships and family and stepfathers versus biological fathers and it’s also about love and religion. Organized religion is under scrutiny right now, what with suicide bombers, a Pope trying to make changes and things are not as they once were, when believers had surety of faith. The book questions faith, puts things under the microscope and then leaves the decisions to you. The book is not irreverent, it simply asks the questions – how do you feel about this or that?
The book is also very much about the concept of home. What makes a country a home? That you were born there? What is home anyway? And why is it of such importance to us that we each have a home?
Q: Thank you again for this interview! Do you have any final words?
Only that I hope readers are intrigued by the book and will pick it up. The book is a thriller/suspense novel and an exploration of faith, power, crime and social isolation and how organized religion can wreak havoc on the lives on young people and I very much hope this will be of interest of people.
About The Book
Title: Between The Cracks She Fell
Author: Lisa de Nikolits
Publisher: Inanna Publications
Publication Date: September 15, 2015
Format: Paperback / PDF
Genre: Suspense Thriller
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Book Trailer: http://bit.ly/1h9oqnN
The award-winning author of The Hungry Mirror, West of Wawa, Glittering Chaos and The Witchdoctor’s Bones delivers an original and riveting new novel about societal betrayal, familial loss and religious jihad. A suspenseful and lyrical read, Between The Cracks She Fell is a powerful-first person narrative about the explosive consequences of betrayal, survival in troubled times and the pervasiveness of religious domination.
When Joss finds herself having to make mortgage payments without help from her depressed, stoner boyfriend who has just moved out, and the company she works for folds leaving her suddenly unemployed, she is forced to sell her house, on which she takes a financial loss. She decides to camp out in a vacant complex of school buildings to give herself time to decide what to do next. It turns out the building is used by a gang of teenagers for wild, drug-fueled parties and Jess soon finds herself both repelled by their charismatic evil leader, as well as sexually attracted to him. She knows he is dangerous even before she finds his girlfriend’s dead and violently abused body in the school library. During this time, she meets and befriends two other people in difficulty: Emma, a narcissistic thief living with her dog in a stolen car and Ashley, a young homosexual who is heartbroken by the fact that he has been expelled from the Jehovah’s Witness church because he is gay. When her former boyfriend reappears as a born again Christian, Joss is immersed in a journal she found that contains the thoughts of a Muslim teenager who becomes increasingly radicalized. Her struggle to understand her former boyfriend and this young man’s spiritual quests prepare her to make some hard decisions about her future. Between the Cracks She Fell is about a woman who falls off the grid and the explosive consequences of betrayal, survival in troubled times, and the pervasiveness of religious domination.
I reached my destination with no great sense of joy but at least I wasn’t crying.
A purple, red and black pentagram marked the path ahead of me and the sea of grass rolled this way and that and my throat closed and my eyes stung but I swallowed the tears.
I tried to pretend I was Gibreel Farishta, a hero bigger than me; that tuneless soloist tumbling out of thin air; what an entrance, yaar.
First you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry?
But there would be no more crying for me. My former life was dead. I needed to escape for a while, hide out and then, once I got my energy back, I would figure out what came next.
Right now all I could say was that I was alive, and that is the point I guess, much like Gibreel, standing, with pigs falling out of his face and no God to help him.
I held my arms aloft and waded through the knotty field, as if paddling through an upward flowing river, pushing forward against the current.
The summer offered shoulder-high fragrant grasses laced with thistles and weeds and despite the misfortunes of past events, I was not blind to the beauty of the tiny lilac flowers or the red roses that grew wild and free.
I could see the buildings in the distance. It had been a while since I had seen them but they sprawled low at the other end of the playing fields, just as I remembered.
I had packed for the task at hand; knife, bottled water, flashlight, pillow. Kind of funny really, how natural this solution felt, like it was some kind of okay. It wasn’t the first time I’d purposefully left the grid; my first solo adventure had taken place when I was eleven. Tired of school, friends, mother, swimming lessons and tuck shop lunches, I hid out in a farmer’s shed, armed with books and apples and bars of chocolate. I stayed for two nights and two days, sleeping in a hairy horse blanket that I shook free of cobwebs and drew close around me, breathing in that rich scent of dry sage, dust, leather, sweat and all the other good things that horses smell of. I returned home when I ran out of food and reading material. Mum was furious but I wasn’t sorry; I’d done what I needed to do and it
was the same this time, although there was less choice in a sense, as I had in fact lost my house to the bank and my job to the recession and my boyfriend to a nervous breakdown.
I could think of no other way to heal, to regroup and to find the solo me that I could rely on. I had made a mistake, relying on Shayne but I would get over that. I would get over everything.
About The Author
Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived in the U.S.A., Australia and Britain.
Her first novel, The Hungry Mirror, won the 2011 IPPY Awards Gold Medal for Women's Issues Fiction and was long-listed for a ReLit Award. Her second novel, West of Wawa won the 2012 IPPY Silver Medal Winner for Popular Fiction and was one of Chatelaine's four Editor's Picks. West of Wawa is available in bookstores and online.
Her third novel, A Glittering Chaos, launched in Spring 2013 to reader and review acclaim, and is about murder, madness, illicit love and poetry.
Her fifth novel, Between The Cracks She Fell, will be published in Fall 2015 and has been called “a whirligig-ride into the dark recesses of “what-next? It is compelling and multi-layered penetrating and twisty tale of insurrection.”
“A lyrical and deeply moving examination of emotional pain and faith on a collision course with organized religion. Lisa de Nikolits highly believable and human characters are outsiders struggling to find meaning, and perhaps hope, in contemporary urban society. With a deft and confident clarity of style, she explores the complex interplay of faith, crime and social isolation. Highly recommended.” - M. H. Callway, award-winning author of Windigo Fire (Seraphim Editions).
Connect with Lisa:
Author Website: http://www.lisadenikolitswriter.com/
The Mesdames of Mayhem: http://mesdamesofmayhem.com/about/
The Mesdames of Mayhem: http://mesdamesofmayhem.com/about/
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