Lindork’s Lists: Q&A #15: Marty Chan
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on Oct 17, 2021
The fifteenth person I’m profiling in my paid newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Marty Chan, Author and Playwright
Getting to know Marty Chan:
Marty Chan, 56, is a popular children’s author and playwright based in Edmonton. He writes books for kids, plays for adults, and tweets for fun! If you’re not following Marty on Twitter, he’s quite hilarious (could probably add ‘comedian’ to his list of titles!) so you should definitely check him out there.
I feel like I’ve known Marty for a long time—I can’t pin point when I first learned about this talented, award-winning author, but I know the first time we worked together was when I invited him to be a guest speaker at the first-ever Edmonton International Cat Festival back in 2014. Marty has a book called True Story, which is based on his own two tuxedo cats Buddy and Max. He did a reading of the book and shared more about his cats and love of cats as part of the presentation, and since then I’ve been keeping up with all the fun projects Marty’s been up to, including the YouTube Channel he launched during the pandemic, where he shares lot so great writing tips (and sometimes magic tricks lol).
Marty is such an amazing local talent, full of knowledge and also so willing to share that knowledge for others—if you’ve ever wanted to write your own book, I think he has some great advice in this Q&A.
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Marty:
Can you talk about the work you do as a childrens’ author, playwright, and as you say on your website, professional liar (since 1988!!) Can you touch on some of your book series – where do you get your ideas? Can you talk about what’s changed since 1988? Can you talk about how the pandemic has changed the work you do?
I raided my own childhood experiences for a lot of my kids books. While the specifics might be different, the experience of growing up seems to be universal.
For example, when I wrote The Mystery of the Graffiti Ghoul, kids and grownups instantly identified with the first chapter and a horrible clothes shopping nightmare where my main character had to try on corduroy pants while his mother watched. Everyone who read the story or heard me talk about the real-life experience that inspired the chapter told me their horror stories of clothes shopping with a parent or guardian. The clothes they had to wear might have been different, but the feeling of embarrassment was the same. Of all the works I’ve written, this is the one that has resonated the most with readers and it’s the one that is the closest to my own life.
“I guess the adage is true: ‘write what you know.’”
I’m not the only one who borrows from their lives to write their stories. When I served as the Writer in Residence for the Edmonton Public Library, I noticed how many people who had penned memoirs or kids books inspired by their experiences. I think it’s only natural for people to want to create something that is familiar.
What has become less familiar is the world of writing over the last 30 years. With the internet, the gatekeepers hold less influence over what is published or produced. Now, marketing people have just as much sway over what is giving the green light as the editors. While there is still room for personal, quirky, and offbeat stories, publishers need to be able to balance those risky stories with books that can pay the bills and offset any losses from a book that doesn’t find an audience.
I’m not sure where publishers and authors sit right now because of the ripple effects of the pandemic. I know early on book sales went down because of brick and mortar bookstores closing their doors due to COVID-19, but then online sales took off and publishers were able to reach their readers in different ways.
In fact, I find that my own work as a kids author has taken off because of the pandemic. When the pandemic started, I lost all of my school and library visits but schools and libraries moved to online content. So I had to learn very quickly how to adapt my live sessions to virtual ones. I started a YouTube channel (martychanauthor) with short videos that offered writing tips for kids. I also did nothing but virtual visits from January right up until now. The great thing about going virtual is that I could do a visit for a school in Iqaluit and with a click of the button I’d be doing a session for a school in Toronto and then another session for a school in Calgary. If I were doing live sessions, there is no way I could have done all those sessions in just one day. I’m most likely going to stick with virtual for another year and see where it takes me.
What’s something that people might know about, that may be surprising about writing children’s books? And/or that they might not know in general that’s not written in a resume?
I started off as a playwright because I just didn’t like being on stage. I liked making actors talk for me while I could lurk at the back of the audience and watch people react to my work. When I started writing kids books, I assumed the kids would just read my books.
My first publisher (Thistledown Press) pointed out that I’d have to go into schools to do book talks. I had no idea that this was part of my job, and I had to overcome my shyness very quickly. If you’re going to pursue kids writing as a career, be prepared to do a lot of book talks for kids.
Pro tip: kids can be brutally honest, so be prepared for some searing critiques of your work. And if you’re in the middle of a session for Kindergarten kids and they start rolling around the carpet or playing with their shoelaces, you’d better be ready to adapt.
Can you share some memorable moments or ‘successes’ for one (or more) of your projects that you’ve been proud of?
Probably my favourite experience as a playwright came out of my thriller play, The Bone House. The premise of the play was that an audience came to hear a lecture from a serial killer hunter. As the show went on, the audience suspected the hunter was actually the killer, but they were trapped in the theatre. At the end of the play, the killer made his presence known. The play premiered at the Edmonton Fringe in 1999, and audiences were screaming for their lives in the show. I’d never experience that kind of reaction from play before or since. I remember seeing a review of the play where the critic wrote that he had to remind himself that this was a play and he was not in any danger.
Now, as a kids author, my favourite moments come when a kid who claims they hate reading is the first to run to the library counter to put my book on hold. I remember doing a session at school for Grades 4 – 8, a teenager hated being in the gym for what he assumed was a talk for the little kids. He stood against the wall near the back of the gym, but as I talked, he moved closer to me until he was sitting in the front row with the fourth graders at the end of the session. I love these moments where I can see that I’ve made an impact. I often post about these moments of victory on my Facebook Page during a tour.
Of course, with virtual visits, it’s harder to see these moments, but they are there. I remember doing a session for Kindergarten kids. To close my session, I have a tech trick where I disappear. The kids freaked out so much that about three or four of the kids jumped out of their seats and ran around the room looking for me. The teachers howled with laughter and I got a few emails after the session about how much the kids enjoyed the session.
Can you share challenging moments, obstacles or even failures, you’ve had to overcome in the projects you’ve been involved in, or in your journey as an author? Also, how long does it typically take for you to write a book from start to finish!?
One of the toughest things any writer has to face is rejection. You pour all your heart into a project and you hope that someone will like it. I’ll be honest, when I get that rejection “thanks, but no thanks” letter, it’s a gut punch. I question whether I made the right career choice and it takes me a day to get my confidence back. One of the biggest challenges came when I worked on the last book in my Ehrich Weisz Chronicles, a steampunk fantasy in which a young Harry Houdini teamed up with Nikola Tesla to combat creatures coming from other dimensions.
I finished the first draft of book three, only to learn that the editor was going on maternity leave. I opted to wait for her to come back to finish the revisions. Unfortunately, she decided not to come back, and I was left in limbo for about a year and a half before a new editor came on board. All told, I had to find a way to plug back into my story after nearly three years away and keep the story fresh and exciting. It was a real test of my commitment to the story and I’m glad I stuck with it.
Normally, a book would not take that long to write. If I’m working on a book for reluctant readers like Kung Fu Master or Haunted Hospital (my Orca books), it usually takes about a year from conception to publication. I generally revise my work about 3 – 5 times before I submit it to the editor, and then we’ll kick around the draft another 2 – 3 times before it’s ready to go. I love revising. I’m an odd duck that way. Most other writers hate revision, but I like to revisit my story and characters.
“I think of revision as a chance to replay video games I loved and see if I can find easter eggs in the story.”
Can you share advice for others on pursuing their dreams, or becoming a professional writer, creating a business around yourself and your interests?
If you’re going to pursue writing, treat it as a job or a business. The people who wait for a muse to inspire them will wait a very long time.
“Set a writing schedule for yourself to build your discipline. I’ve had days where I was sick but I still wrote because that’s just part of the job. The more discipline you build, the better able you are to meet deadlines, which is the one thing that will get you more work.”
Yes, a great story will get you the first book contract, but what you want is the second and third contracts. If you’re good and punctual, you’ll get on a short list of writers who editors will give more work to.
Could you articulate “why you do what you do?” Why are you passionate about writing? Storytelling? The book ideas you choose to write about?
I think I’ve always loved telling stories whether they are plays, books, or videos. I love the connection that I can make with an audience. When I wrote plays, I could see the audience’s reaction. With books, it’s harder to get a sense from the readers what they thought, but when I do school visits, I know firsthand if I’ve connected with the kids or not. Those moments of knowing that something I created made someone laugh or scream are the reasons I keep doing what I’ve been doing for 30+ years.
I think lots of people (myself included) think “I would like to write a book one day”—what are some tips or principles for those who want to get started?
Tell yourself that one day is today. Don’t wait. Ideas can go missing as easily as the one sock in the laundry hamper. Write your ideas in a book or on your tablet, then go back to it every single day and add something. I don’t care if it’s a word, a sentence, a paragraph or a page. If you add something to your idea every day, eventually you’ll have enough to make a first draft. Once you have that, remember to revise, revise, revise. Put your best foot forward when you submit your work. In fact, show your story to people you trust to be honest in giving you feedback. Make the changes to your story and take the opportunities to improve your writing. When you have something solid, that’s when you send it out to publishers. You only have one chance to impress an editor, so make the most of that chance. Also, ice cream not only works for heartbreak but it also works for rejection letters.
Can you tell me about your hobbies! What do you for fun? What do you do when you’re not busy writing?
Podcasts. I love listening to podcasts. This American Life, Serial, Hidden Brain, WTF, and Under the Influence are just some of the ones I listen to while I’m riding my stationary bike. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve also become weirdly obsessed with mukbang videos where people make YouTube videos of themselves eating food. I follow Mikey Chen as he eats his way around the world. And for some strange reason, I’ve taken up video editing as a hobby. I like sticking clips together to tell a story. It reminds me of when I used Lego bricks to build whatever my imagination desired.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work professionally, personally, or anything that I’ve missed that you’d like mention?
I’ve had a pretty diverse career. Some fans may know of my work in theatre. Some people might remember my humour commentaries on CBC Radio. And now kids are reading my books. When I look back at everything I have accomplished, I realized that all this was possible because I said yes to every opportunity that I was offered, I met my deadlines, and I wasn’t afraid to fail. To anyone who wants to do this, I have this advice: be brave, be curious, and be persistent.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix (or other streaming services) and why?
Just one show? Argh. Too many to choose from. I’ll say Ted Lasso, because it’s funny and optimistic. In a jaded world, this show is refreshing. The characters are great and you can’t help but cheer for everyone. (Note from Linda: I just started watching Ted Lasso and it is an amazingly uplifting show that just makes you happy, so def vouching for this!)
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
Do yourself a favour and support Canadian writers. Get a hold of Susin Nielsen’s We Are All Made of Molecules. It’s funny and touching. Well worth your time.
What is one of your favourite restaurants or stores you’d recommend in Edmonton?
My favourite local shop is the Italian Centre downtown. The fruit and vegetables are great and affordable. I think that’s where I discovered champagne grapes. They also have an amazing deli.
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
I’ve visited a lot of places in Alberta. If you’re in Cold Lake, find Mamacitas Mexican Restaurant. A fellow author and I were on tour in Cold Lake. Of the three days we were in the area, we visited the restaurant at least four times.
Thank you Marty for sharing your story!
You can connect with Marty on:
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