Interview: Andrea Torrey Balsara
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
I can’t remember ever not reading. When I was younger, I would get so drawn into a story that I would feel like it was real. For a couple of years, I couldn’t accept that hobbits were imaginary and believed that Tolkien had been inspired by creatures from another time. I know. I was young, and hungry for meaning in my life. I was troubled, growing up, and books gave me a place to feel accepted; they gave me a connection to others that I didn’t have with my peers in real life.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing, or rather, learning to write, since my late 30’s, so around 15-16 years. I had a loooong learning curve, but eventually I figured out how to express myself and trust my own voice.
When and why did you begin writing?
I had always dreamed of being an illustrator, and so my initial attempts at writing were to provide myself with picture book manuscripts to illustrate. At that time, I had no idea that I would be able to write a novel, but novel writing has been an incredibly satisfying experience. Writing has gone from being a means to an end, to an end in itself. It has become one of the surprise joys of my life. I love words; I love to take raw emotion, or a vague idea of something, and through words, sculpt it into a story.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I had sold some stories to Heinemann Publishing, where I worked with the first editor who ever believed in my writing, Lee-Ann Wright. I had written short stories, and a bit of nonfiction, but nothing major. One day, Lee-Ann and another editor, Lucy Armour, called and asked if I wanted to write a novel for their new Nitty-Gritty book series for young adults. I had 5 weeks. I had a “mentor” book that I used to teach me about pacing and scene, and I wrote for 5 weeks. I could hardly walk by the end of it—sitting in a chair for that long—but the result was the book The Present. I still love that book. It took the pressure of that time-frame to get me out of my head, to shut up my inner critic, and to trust myself. It was the first time that words just flew from my hands on to the page, and where a story that had been in my heart came to life before me, and I found my “voice.” I loved it, and I was hooked. I am so grateful to Lee-Ann and Lucy for giving me that chance.
What inspired you to write your first book?
As I mentioned in my previous answer, I had written several short stories. My very first that I wrote was pretty raw, and more therapeutic than publishable. When I was little, I saw a beautiful dragonfly sunning itself on a rock. A kid who saw that I was admiring it, held his foot over it while I begged him to not kill it. Well, he killed it. I remember running and sobbing to my mother, and asking how someone could do such a thing (I still don’t know). When I first wrote the story many years later, with all the pain and sorrow I had felt as a child, I had the real ending—the dragonfly dies! Needless to say, the children’s publisher rejected it. I had had my moment of therapy and needed to write a story that children could read without getting nightmares! I rewrote it so that it had a much more positive message, the way I wished the real story had happened. Me, Dan, and the Dragonfly was the result, and was the first story that I had published.
What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?
Stories reflect back to us truths that are often obscured in “real” life. When you are trying to cope in your own life, the interconnectedness of things can be lost on you. In a story, you have direct access to another person’s feelings and innermost thoughts. It can be a way of connecting. Stories can also be the means for a society to see itself, in all its faults, hypocrisies, heroism, and lunacies. If the stories are told well enough, they become universal—a mirror for what it means to be human.
How do you pick your character names?
For The Great & the Small, some of the names were from Stalin’s life—Koba was one of Stalin’s nicknames, as was “Papa.” Sergo was a devotee of Stalin whom Stalin later betrayed. Bothwell was the name of Mary Queen of Scots lover, and I haven’t a clue why I chose it, only that I liked it. For other names, I just chose what appealed to me, without rhyme or reason.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
Believing in my own vision. I was told that young adults don’t like illustrations, they don’t read animal stories, no one wants to read about rats…blah, blah, blah. None of that changed the feeling that I was compelled to write this story. It’s taken years to write, having put it to the backburner—sometimes for years—as other projects came up. Dusting it off and starting again, each time, required that feeling that this story needed to be written.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I love that the story I was yearning to write, eventually took form. I left nothing undone. There is no part of this story that I regret, or would rewrite. It’s been an affair of the heart for me, a deep calling, that has finally been fulfilled.
What inspires you?
The heroism and courage of people who do the right thing, whether anyone is watching or not, whether anyone knows their name, or not. I just read the newsletter from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) and there is an 18 year-old young woman named Gladys who has lost everything, and yet is the devoted caretaker and protector of her siblings and cousins. People like Gladys are the unsung heroes who define the very best of what it means to be human—these people are my inspiration. I am in awe of human beings who can rise above tyranny, terror, injustice, to become shining examples of humanity; people such as Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King Jr. There are others, generations of nameless women and men who have given their lives to care for their children, who selflessly do the right thing, day after day. They aren’t people in the news. But without them, the world would cease to exist.
Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
I think JRR Tolkien had a huge impact on me. His epic stories echoed the way I viewed the world, as an epic battle of good against evil. My writing is different in that I portray that struggle as internal within every human being. But I always felt uplifted by his storytelling, and it gave me hope in a time when I felt very unsure of myself. I loved Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Her folksy style of voice is one of my favorites. It belies the uncomfortable truths the story is exposing, and allows the reader to come to their own conclusions without being preached to. It assumes the reader is thinking, and leaves it to us to fill in the blanks.
Who designed the covers?
Ellie Sipila!! She was the publisher at Common Deer Press. She took some of my old artwork from earlier versions of The Great & the Small, and made a beautiful cover. I love it!
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I learned a lesson that I’ve needed to learn for a long time: that regardless of outcome, I need to follow my heart. If I’d listened to all the nay-sayers I would have never written this book, and I would have regretted it forever. I can’t control what other people think of what I’ve written; all I can control is what I’ve given. Whether you are talking about writing, or anything else, the only real control we have is over our choices—what we choose to do, what we choose to think. Finally understanding that has brought me a lot of joy.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I would tell them, as I wished I could have told my younger self, that life is simpler than you think. You are already good enough. You are already beautiful. What is required is for you to embrace your unique way of seeing the world, to listen to that voice within and shut out the clamour of outside stuff that tells you that you aren’t good enough. Our culture has celebrity-sickness at the moment—if you aren’t on YouTube, or Facebook, or whatever, getting 50 million likes or followers then you’re nothing. It’s not true. Keep it simple. You already have what you need, within you. It’s like the answer to a riddle—you’ve already got the answer inside, but you have to be quiet enough to hear it.