ABOUT ME (the epic version)
My story does not begin with a book—although it may well end with one.
I was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1959. Apparently it was a terribly snowy day when it happened—which, when I reflect upon some of the things that have happened in my life, could very well have been an omen. I was the fourth in what would become a family of six children (four boys and two girls). My parents were originally from England and had come to Canada in search of better prospects than were afforded by post-war Britain. They may also have been seeking escape. Not only from the memories of the bombings, the fighting, and the dying (my father had lost his sister in the war, and my mother many close friends), but from the hardships of life in a country that was still staggering under the effects of a prolonged military engagement that had consumed much of its resources (rationing in Great Britain would extent into the fifties). Quite simply, there were opportunities to be had elsewhere, and friends and relatives convinced them that Canada was one of the places offering the best prospects.
My parents had encountered one another earlier in life, when my mother was six and my father three, but it was in Canada where they really became acquainted and eventually married. A year later, in 1950, they had their first child, and shortly thereafter set off for what was then the Belgian Congo. They were both already well-traveled people before they arrived in Canada, so pulling up stakes to embark on a life in a foreign land didn’t seem all that unusual to them.
Of course they were quite young at the time, and perhaps still full of that sense of adventurism the young so often possess—that impulse and drive to go off and do something exciting, to fill one’s life with the sort of days that later become great memories and the stuff of tales told to others with almost a sense of pride and perhaps a vague hope to impress. But for both of them it was, in a way, merely an extension of the lives they’d been living up to that point.
My father had been in the Royal Navy during the war, serving as a junior officer on escort carriers (the HMS Chaser mainly) and for a while even on merchant ships (when the Chaser was laid up for repairs). He’d been to Russia, India, Jamaica, the US, Canada, and Australia, to name but a few, and it would be fair to say that that had given him something of the wanderlust. Till the day he died, it would never leave him.
My mother had spent her early years moving about the UK, and when the war started she went from aspiring (classically-trained) singer to working in the Admiralty. In January of 1941, during the height of the Blitz, when London was being hammered, she was sent across the Atlantic on a battleship to work in the British Embassy in Washington D.C. Her job took her to Canada (the First Quebec Conference), across the United States, and eventually down to Mexico (to work in the British Legation). After the war she served in Spain for a while before finally moving to Canada and marrying my father.
While my parents were in the Congo, my father contracted typhoid. He’d already suffered through hepatitis, mouse typhus, and malaria, but this time things were dire. At the time my parents were moving between locations, and they ended up in the middle of the jungle, living in a tent, my mother pregnant with my older sister and trying to care for my oldest brother while her husband lay dying on a cot. My mother was certain she was going to end up a widow. The doctor tending my father thought so too. But my father was a tough son-of-a-gun and weathered the storm of that illness. Although far from fully recovered, he was able to make the trip to England, where he spent weeks in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases.
By that time my mother had had her fill of adventuring and wanted to settle down and raise her family, so they moved back to Ottawa and began life anew. But over the years my father’s desire to travel again became an itch that had to be scratched. We used to go out to the airport on the weekends when I was a kid, and you could see in him the yearning to be elsewhere. It was in his eyes as he watched the planes take off for parts unknown, and you knew he longed to be a passenger on them and couldn’t because he was shackled to the earth by circumstance.
It was the matter of finances that ultimately worked in my father’s favor. My parents had six kids, and my father’s government job simply didn’t pay enough to cover the costs of sending any of us to university—let alone all six. A better-paying position opened in Quebec, and we moved there in 1966. But my father really wanted to go somewhere exotic. He wanted adventure. So in 1968 he signed on with a Canadian subcontractor to CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) for a job overseas. What followed for me (and some of my siblings) was nearly a decade of living and traveling overseas in countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Tanzania (with plenty of side trips to England, Greece, France, and Kenya). Even after I stopped being a part of these travels, my father continued to work overseas—Saudi Arabia, Zaire, Pakistan (again), Argentina, Columbia, etc. It was only when work abroad as an electrical engineer dried up that he truly became grounded once more. This time for good, and it’s likely that that sucked some of the life out of him and contributed to his death in 2000.
I often think I inherited my father’s desire to be elsewhere—his wanderlust, if you may. But I found my release largely in books. At an early age I taught myself to read using Dr.Seuss books (Go Dog. Go! was the first—in case you were wondering, which you probably weren’t). After that it was onto comics and Tom Swift Junior (who was much better than the Hardy Boys—sorry Frank and Joe, but you just couldn’t hold a candle to the seductive allure of Tom’s whizz-bang gadgets and out of this world technology).
Once I got started, my passion for reading consumed me. I read anything I could get my hands on, including a lot of unadulterated crap. It really was an addiction, and I think it fed into a yearning for something more. The thing is, you can get lost in books and easily forget the world around you and all your troubles. At the worst times in my life, books were often my best companions, helping me ride out the rough spots. Little has changed over the years, except that I’ve become somewhat more discerning in what I read. (No more crap for me.)
Of course reading wasn’t just about living vicariously. It led me in so many different directions. My love of science and a passion for the world around me developed from reading books. When I lived in Sukkur I discovered How and Why Wonder Books in a cubbyhole of a bookstore in the bazaar. They were a launch pad to learning much about the world around me. And while they’re quaint by today’s standards, back then, for a kid in a foreign country with few resources to draw upon, they were a treasure trove.
Because we moved about so much when I was young, I like to think that much of my education came from reading and travelling, but the truth is I did go to school. Sort of. After grade three, my formal education was largely through the Ontario Ministry of Education correspondence courses, with infrequent forays into traditional schools. The thing with essentially teaching yourself is that you end up spending hours in a room alone having to discipline yourself to do the work that needs to be done. It’s a great training ground for a writer, but it makes for a lonely existence. That’s not to say I didn’t have friends when I lived overseas—but relationships were, by the very nature of our vagabond existence, transitory.
I missed out on a lot by not spending most of my school years in an actual school. On the other hand, I had a childhood that was unusual, often quite exciting, and certainly eye opening. I would be a different person today had I not been immersed in those disparate cultures during my formative years, and certainly my perspective on the world would be far narrower than what it currently is. Nor would I have such a wealth of experiences upon which to draw when writing. The journey I took as a child informs almost everything I write in some way or another and is present in the characters and places I create.
Unfortunately, my childhood also made me a bit too independent of mind and spirit, and as a result I’ve always found it a struggle to fit in. I’ve never really resolved that issue. To this day I feel I’m something of an outsider (even within my own family), which may be another reason why I’m driven to writing. While I’m crafting stories I can be anyone I want to be, do anything I want to do. I don’t have to fit the mold. I don’t have to conform. And most importantly, I can step outside the real world that surrounds me and for a moment live free of the expectations society places upon us.
It’s fair to say that all this contributed to the fact that I have spent most of my post-academic life in a variety of unrelated jobs, ranging from construction to childcare. Some might say I’m rudderless, but I’m just not a nine-to-five-put-on-a-suit kind of guy. I never will be. (In fact, I only own one tie and I’ve probably worn that wretched thing maybe three or four times, tops. Seriously—I kid you not.)
I think the writing bug first hit me when we were living in Isfahan, Iran. I had been reading a lot of Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome—books filled with kids who created their own adventures, part of which involved forming clubs and making maps and gallivanting about hither and yon solving mysteries and such. I loved maps and the idea of having a club tickled my fancy, so I formed the “Secret Explorers Club.” We actually did do some exploring around and about Isfahan, and I drew maps of all the places we’d been. We had a flag and badges (skull and crossbones), and at some point it occurred to me that we should have a newspaper.
When you’re a kid, the fact that something may be impractical and well-nigh impossible seldom enters your mind. Perhaps you simply don’t have enough worldly experience to be put off by the obstacles you have to overcome. So it never occurred to me when I dreamed up the idea just how monumental a task it would be to create an eight to ten page newspaper each week and do it all by myself to boot.
You have to remember that it was 1970, and the home computer was still seven years in the offing. There were no word processors or paint programs or inkjet printers. No Internet or social media or digital cameras. I had to crank out my weekly newspaper on my mother’s manual typewriter. You may have heard of these machines—they existed long before the advent of computers and their only RAM and CPU resided between the ears of the operator. If you wanted multiple copies of a work saved, you did so through the use of something called "carbon paper." (Yes, I know, it’s very hard to believe and you’re probably thinking I’m making this up. But no, it’s true.)
Now if this all sounds like the stone-age of writing, I suppose it was—at least in light of what we have access to these days. Maybe that’s why far fewer people wrote books back then, as opposed to the millions who do so now. Maybe it’s why people wrote very little of anything (although I have to say, my mother was quite the letter writer in her day—maybe because she had aspired to be a writer herself). Anyway, somehow I managed to put together several pages of text each week, along with illustrations I did myself. I didn’t have access to a photocopier, so that carbon paper I mentioned earlier was the only way I could produce more than one copy at a time. If you think it sounds like more work than it was worth, you’re probably right. But if nothing else, I was determined. Once I set my mind to doing something, I followed through until I’d got it done.
That little newspaper proved surprisingly popular—though the circulation was admittedly rather limited (damn that carbon paper!). You learn you’re greatest lessons by actually doing, and publishing my newspaper taught me so much about so many things. (Not least of which is that there’s a limit to how many sheets of paper and carbon paper can be stacked together and threaded around the platen of a manual typewriter. Also, that you have to really hammer those keys to ensure the letter striking the top sheet transmits through that thick stack to the bottom sheet—and heaven help you if you make a mistake!)
What began in Iran dogged me on and off over the intervening years. I continued to engage in the literary craft, but it was decades before I felt I’d developed the skills necessary to actually produce something worth reading. The thing is, you often have to write a whole lot before you finally get to the point where you produce something that merits publishing. For me the latter didn’t really come until I wrote Becoming Darkness. I consider all my efforts before that to be learning exercises.
At some point I realized that if I wanted to get anywhere with writing I had to devote more of my energy to it. Let’s face it, sometimes in life you've just got to cut the cord and take a chance. Better to fail than to have never tried, after all. That said, it wasn’t a decision taken lightly, and it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without the help of others. It could have ended in disaster, but with a little patience and perseverance, it paid off. There were many times, however, when I seriously wondered if I had the guts to stick it out and on more than one occasion I considered throwing in the towel. I’m still plagued with doubts, and whenever I write anything I find myself wondering if it’s any good. I worry incessantly that it may not be.
It took me a year to write and rewrite Becoming Darkness, but that was actually the easy part. I could have self-published after that and the book would have been available to the public in a matter of days (electronically, at least). But I had no desire to go that route. The thing is, self-publishing is fraught with problems, not least of which is the fact that writers generally don’t make much money from it. (Heck, writers don’t generally make much money, period!) There’s also the fact that a lot of readers simply won’t read self-published books—even the free ones. It might not be fair, but it’s something I’ve heard many times from readers. I didn’t want my book languishing forgotten, passed over for whatever reason or even in the best case scenario read by a couple of hundred people. Not after putting all that work into it. Besides, I thought I had something that had the potential to be published through a traditional publisher, so when I finished Becoming Darkness, I researched the art of writing query letters to agents and sent out several to the best agents I could find.
When you mail off query letters you have to accept the fact that the chances are good you’re going to be rejected. It’s the nature of the beast, as they say—or in this case, the publishing industry. Literary agencies are inundated with thousands (sometimes tens of thousands) of queries a month and there’s simply no way they can read through all the synopses and sample chapters they get. You have to have a good enough letter and a truly appealing idea to make the agent you’ve targeted take more than a passing glance at your query. I guess I had just enough of both, because I ended up landing an agent on my first try.
Under her guidance I rewrote Becoming Darkness, trimming the length and changing some aspects of the story to better suit the YA market I was aiming for. It was a lot of work and consumed a lot of time. After that there were more rewrites to polish the manuscript to the point that it could be shopped around to publishers.
There are no guarantees in the publishing industry, and just because you have an agent doesn’t mean you’re going to sell your book. But I was fortunate; my agent found a great home for Becoming Darkness. In the fall of 2013, the manuscript was purchased by Capstone for their new YA imprint, Switch Press, and in late 2014 I finished working with Switch Press editor Alison Deering on the final version of the text. Becoming Darkness was released in the fall of 2015, and that day was the fulfillment of a dream (and proof that if you stick to things long enough, the results can be rewarding).
Now that I’ve finished Becoming Darkness, I’ve moved on to writing other books. I’ve got a sequel written, and most of a third (and final) book complete. But at the moment I’m working on other, unrelated YA novels: a science fiction thriller, now complete (with a sequel that is also finished); and a contemporary that follows the life of a teenage girl as she and her family try to cope with her mother's early-onset Alzheimer's. The latter has a deeply personal aspect to it, as my own mother suffered from and eventually died because of Alzheimer's. I drew on many of my own experiences and feelings to write the book.
There are the dozens of other concepts whirling around inside my head, annoying the hell out of me and begging to be turned into prose (which hopefully will happen before I cease to function). But I see no sense in cranking out too many manuscripts without first trying to find homes for these. I'm hopeful that will happen, but I'm well-enough acquainted with the workings of the publishing industry to realize that the odds are stacked against me.
As a kid I always had this vision of writing being a glamorous occupation, and I’m sure for some writers it is. But for me, at the moment, it would be fair to say that my life outside of creating stories is extraordinarily “ordinary.” In my leisure time I like to draw and paint (in the artistic sense—although believe me, I’ve done plenty of the wall and ceiling kind). I also enjoy staying fit, which involves cycling (a lot), hiking, cross-country skiing (yeah, I know, I hate winter and I engage in something like that—go figure), and weight-lifting. I used to jog and enter races, but I kept getting terrible shin-splints, so that kind of ended. I also used to play tennis (every day with my mother when we lived in Moshi), but the elbow of my racket arm was injured in a horse-riding accident in Pakistan and as I got older tennis became increasingly problematic.
Naturally I like reading—but you knew that already, and anyway, what kind of a writer doesn’t read? I’m into collecting Gold Key comics (sorry DC and Marvel, but Gold Key and Harvey were my first loves). I also like listening to motion picture soundtracks (the orchestral kind—not the song compilations that don’t really have anything to do with the movie and don’t get me started on that!). Ever since I got a Commodore 64, I’ve loved tinkering with computers. Maybe because I grew up with Meccano and electronic kits and was the kind of kid who was always making things.
When it all comes down to it, I like to do just about anything that will expand my awareness of the world around me—because I don’t believe you ever stop learning and that any knowledge you gain in life is worth having.
Incredibly, as much as I love gadgets and tech, I am one of the ten people on planet Earth who doesn't own a cellphone. (Okay, maybe “ten” is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s probably more like fifteen or sixteen.) In this respect I guess I’m a bit of an anachronism. No doubt people stare at me when I walk down the street because I don’t have a phone glued to my ear. Bizarre, isn’t it? I also don’t own a car—but let me be clear: I do have a driver's license. I’ve had one since The Empire Strikes Back was new in theaters. Yeah, I know—seriously a long time ago—though fortunately not far away and in another galaxy.
When I look back upon my life—and I have a lot of years to look back upon—I can honestly say I’ve experienced some interesting moments, both big and small. There was the time when I was flying a glider and found myself accompanied by an eagle who flew opposite me in the thermal for a thousand feet or so. (It really was quite extraordinary.) I once had a run-in with a bull elephant in Arusha National Park in Tanzania. I was with three of my siblings, and I can tell you, the sight of that thing crashing out of the bush had us fleeing like the proverbial bats out of hell. We were screaming our heads off! (Can you actually scream your head off?) There were also the times when I went deep-sea fishing in the Arabian Sea, saw giant sea turtles laying their eggs on a beach at night near Karachi, cruised with dolphins in the Greek islands, dove off coral reefs in the Indian Ocean near Dar es Salaam (gorgeous), rode camels in Pakistan (they are smelly and ornery beasts), and wandered through countless archeological ruins (because history becomes so much more alive when you stand in the place where it was actually made). I’ve also ridden horses, which I enjoyed as a kid until the day our particularly stubborn mare threw me.
Frankly, I can’t remember half the stuff I’ve done. But better to have a life like that than one that’s empty. Sadly, unlike today, when everyone records practically everything, I don’t have much of a record of my life outside of my memories. Back in my childhood and youth few people had movie cameras and even still photography was an expensive endeavor, so we tended to be guarded about the pictures we took. None of this snapping anything and everything in sight. Of the photographs that were taken in my past, a lot have been lost over the years and only a handful remain. Potsherds in the archeology of life. I also have a few mementos, but again, the endless moving about has meant that many were mislaid and are gone forever.
So that’s me—sort of.
If you’re into that sort of thing, you can follow me on Twitter. My handle is @LBrambles. You can also find me on all sorts of other social media—Facebook, as well as Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+ and Instagram. It’s all a little hit and miss at times, and tends to come in fits and spurts -- largely because when I'm writing a book a find all that other stuff a bit distracting.
And that’s about it. Thanks for reading. (And remember to buy my book so I can write some more. Pretty please!)
Lindsay Brambles, Ottawa, Canada.