Karma, by Cathy Ostlere

The KevinfromCanada blog was delighted to sponsor the Read, Write, Review! program at Calgary’s Lord Beaverbrook High School as part of this year’s WordFest program. Five authors were involved in presentations to students there — as part of KfC’s involvement, I asked students to conduct an interview with each author for posting here. This is the fourth, conducted and written by Ella Haggis. Thank you, Ella!

During the Calgary International “WordFest”, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Cathy Ostlere. She’s currently promoting Karma, her new novel about a girl who travels to India for the first time with her father only to be separated from him by the chaos of the Sikh massacre of 1984. She presented a passage from the book and answered questions to about 100 students from Lord Beaverbrook High School. Once she began her presentation to a daunting theatre full of teenagers, I was surprised that this same calm, pleasant woman kept me glued to her emotionally-charged writing. Not everyone is lucky enough to ask an author about the details of their book, so I was anxious to dive right in and talk with her.

Ella: If you could find one inspiration, your initial inspiration, that made you sit down and dedicate your time to writing the book Karma, what would it be?

Cathy: The initial inspiration for doing it, I think, was probably, when I found a (computer) file and started reading all this very raw emotional material I had. I realized how much this country, (India), had affected me. It really changed me. And then what had happened to the Sikh people was unbelievable. I think it never left me, and so I think somehow I thought by writing this story I would honour the Sikh people and honour India.

Ella: What other feedback have you received from writing Karma?

Cathy: I’ve had great feedback. Interesting feedback… One from a young man who said he loved the book, but he did not understand why the cover was pink. And another woman yesterday on her blog wrote she loved the book and she said, “but what were the publishers thinking, did they think a guy wouldn’t want to read this book? By putting pink on the cover you’ve just held off all these guys who might read it.” She thought it was a really strong story for young men because one of the characters was a young man.

Ella: Well the cover’s pink, but if you took off the cover it’s yellow…

Cathy: It is yellow!

Ella: People say yellow’s a gender neutral colour, so essentially… Okay, if you want to give the gift of Karma to a (male) friend just take off the front cover.

Cathy: Yeah. I should’ve asked the guys in the audience what they thought of the pink… I’ve had lots of emails from people who said they did not know about the Sikh massacre in ’84, so this is a piece of history that they didn’t know about, and they felt they needed to know about, so that was good. I’ve had emails from people who’ve said they didn’t want to read it because it said ‘verse’ on the cover, and they were like, “I’m not reading a book of poetry” but for whatever reason they did, and then they just loved it, but the verse threw them off. So in fact for the paperback edition I asked the publisher to drop ‘a novel in verse’ off of the cover. I said, “Why turn people off before they’ve opened the page?”

Ella: Yeah, it’s interesting, some people might be drawn to that, seeing ‘a novel in verse’ but some people might also see it like, “Oh, poetry…”

Cathy: “No! Poetry! High School!” But I mean even that audience, I think really only one young girl said that she’d read a verse novel. It’s just not in our consciousness here, so people say, “Well I don’t know what that is”.

Ella: Why did you determine that it was a passion of yours to write in verse as opposed to just saying, “Okay well these ideas are cool but I’ll just write normally”?

Cathy: I think it’s a great teaching thing as well, writing in verse. You take away rules so you take away line rules and paragraph, punctuation, capitalization… Spelling still matters, but you take all the other stuff away. But don’t call it poetry, because people again say, “I can’t read or write poetry!” Right? So if you take it all away and just say, well we’re just gonna’ write, and when you want a line break, just make a line break. I think if you write like that, it’s possible for the imagination to expand as well. So if the writing is easier—because you’ve got fewer restrictions–then your mind may go places that it might not have not gone. So, I think that it’s a really good thing.

Ella: I was fascinated by the switch from the characters. You originally started with Maya’s diary entries and then it goes to Sandeep’s diary entries and then back to Maya’s. Did you find it at all difficult switching characters or switching voices?

Cathy: I didn’t. It was a bit of a relief. That first part of Maya’s diary is really intense. I mean it was like, “Oh my god. This girl’s going through so much”. I didn’t plot out this story either. I didn’t really know what was going to happen. Maya just came. So when Maya went mute, I went, “Oh. Now what?” I tried different things, I thought, even if you’re mute you can still write a diary. But I thought do I want her really mute, because she’s put so much energy into this diary so far. It matters to her, so then to completely close down in every way, I thought I wanted her to be now inaccessible to the reader. She’s so alive and the readers will think, “Where is she?” Some readers had difficulty switching to Sandeep because they thought, “We want Maya back,” but I thought this is the point. The point is she has shut down. So Sandeep showed up, but, see, I really liked Sandeep. He was just quirky and funny and a little goofy and I just liked his personality, so it was a bit of a relief to write him. The biggest danger of that section though was Akbar. In fact, in the original draft he really took over and we had to cut Akbar way back, ’cause Akbar just wanted to run with that part of the book. He was a very strong character and we had to cut him back. But no, I felt Sandeep, no, not that hard. You know, he’s a male, but I have a son. I don’t know, I just thought…

Ella: It was more fun to write than challenging?

Cathy: He was more fun to write than challenging!

Ella: You mentioned how it would be great for, if you’re writing in a diary, to take away the form and try free verse. If people really want to pursue writing, what can young writers do for themselves to get better and other ways they can challenge themselves to become better writers?

Cathy: Well I guess keep a journal. I think the problem with journals though is you end up writing about yourself. You dump all your feelings. I’ve never really been great at keeping a journal because I tend to dump all my feelings out and it’s like, “Blah. This isn’t writing. This is just the inside of my head, who wants to read that?” So, I do carry a notebook with me. If you carry a little notebook even with you, listen all the time. Listen for a phrase, a word, a character, and when you see it or hear it, just write it down. So you have this little book filled with, literally, jumping off points to write with. So if you have a book and say one day you actually have some time, you want to sit down, you just want to write, you get your little book out and maybe there’s a sentence, an odd sentence, that some guy on the bus said that was so incongruent to his surroundings and then you might be able to jump from there into some writing.

Ella: Also, for people who would really like to pursue writing as a career, I was interested to hear… What did you do for post secondary? How did you pursue writing?

Cathy: Yeah I really didn’t start writing until my thirties. I was traveling a lot and I was writing a lot. I owned a tabloid here in Calgary and I was doing that kind of writing but my idea was always more creative writing. It’s just a thing that calls to you all the time. So I didn’t really start until I was in my thirties and then when my brother went missing I put all my energy into that book… Honestly, I don’t know. People do go through post-secondary, they get graduate degrees, and they end up teaching. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know. For sure, I do think a degree is important. I’m not sure how many are important, but going to university is great. It’s something everybody should probably do. You had the chance of meeting someone who might change your life, and you might find it in a faculty you didn’t expect. But really, if you want to be a writer, go live your life, and live it fast and hard. Travel. Think. Read. Talk to people. Go around the world. Read things. Really, take unusual jobs… So I would say less school and more life. More life.

Ella: “Less school and more life”. I’ll explain that to my parents.

Cathy: I do think you should go to school. I think everybody should try it. Because I’ve had friends who didn’t, and they still think, “Gee did I miss out on something?” It’s not bad to have a couple initials after your name at some point. And you do meet people. If you go to school away from your city, better. Two of my kids did that, and they loved it.

Ella: So, once you’ve got all of your inspiration, how do you really start making a living as a writer? Where can you start talking to people, and try to publish a book?

Cathy: Well, you know, it’s sort of like the rest of the world, often it’s who you know. So as a writer like any career you want to make connections, and that sounds too crass, so, you make friendships. You make a community for yourself and what happened to me is I had a community of writers that watched me suffer through writing my first book, Lost, and finally one of them said to me, “Listen, I know this agent in Toronto, do you want me to ask him if he’ll look at your book?” And I was like “Oh whatever, I don’t even care anymore,” I was so done with it, and so I said “Okay” and he agreed. So I sent him three chapters and then I sent him the whole manuscript, and then he agreed to take it on. That was just luck, but you can send your manuscript to an agency and they may or may not look at it. But really what you want to do it is make a community, publish as much as you can in small journals, radio, whatever you can get. You want a resume. The moment you have a certain amount on your resume you can apply for grants, and that’s what I did. I’ve had Canada Council grants, AFA grants, ACDI grants, I even have a travel grant right now to promote Karma. So there’s money out there, so you got to go for it. But you have to have something published so they can know that you’re serious. And you help other writers as best you can. If I can get my agent to read someone’s work, I’ll try to do that… So write, get published in smaller journals, literary journals… That’s what I did. Write. Send it out, send it out, send it out, send it out, and get rejected, and get rejected and make friends who are writers.

Ella: After the success of Lost, why did you decide you would direct this book Karma towards teenage readers?

Cathy: Well, here’s my big confession. This took about nine years. After Lost (2008) I wanted to keep writing because I was afraid if I stopped I wouldn’t get back into it, so I thought I need to do something right away but I thought another adult novel was going to be like another nine years. So I naïvely thought, “Well a young adult, how hard can that be?” I thought, “Gee they’re not as… whatever.” And I don’t know why I say that, I mean, I had three kids but I really thought I could write something in six months and I would just keep writing. So when I found the ‘India’ file, and I saw all this stuff, I thought, “Oh, cool. Okay. A two hundred page verse novel. That’s what I’ll do.” And I started it, but the problem was that Maya was such a strong character and the story just kept growing and growing and Sandeep entered and it grew and grew and I sold it when it was halfway through and I kept saying to the editors, “Oh I’m up to 350 (pages). I’m up to 400, 450, 500…” They said, “Doesn’t matter, keep going, we don’t mind big thick books.” So it ended up being almost three times what I intended it to be. The story became epic. It became political. It became all these things I had no intention of doing, and then on top of all that, I realized how stupid it was to think that somehow if you’re writing for young adults you don’t need to write as well, or it doesn’t need to be as layered, and I realized I was insulting. It was an insulting thing to think. Then I flipped and I realized that the writing of this was more important than the writing of (Lost), because this is the future reader, the future thinker, the future student. Whoever reads this, it possibly might change their life towards what they think about genocide. That really matters, and I had some responsibility towards what I had to say about the world. What I had to say about Hindus and Sikhs, and religion, and forgiveness. It was a lot about forgiveness. That was a huge responsibility. This, (pointing at Lost), was simply, when I look back on it, my personal story, “Here’s what happened, like it or leave it”. This, (pointing at Karma), became a statement to the world and my reader who I assumed would be younger (though that hasn’t been the case, really), I had to give them a lot of faith that they might run with some of these ideas.

Ella: What I thought was really cool was reading things that affected Canada. Like there’s all of the politics in India and as young readers growing up it’s important to know the history of what’s going on outside your country, but I also was really interested in the intolerance that it hinted on. Like how Maya [in Canada] has people talking behind her back about her sari and things like that, so do you think that that same intolerance that you had in the book is accurate today?

Cathy: I think there’s probably less of it, certainly. But I suspect it’s still there. I mean, has bullying gone away? Even though we have “Stop Bullying” signs in the hallway? I don’t know, I’m not in the school system. The difference, I suppose, is a lot of kids whose parents may have been immigrants but they weren’t, they were born here. Or maybe their parents were born here and then they were born here. I mean, I meet young Indian girls who don’t speak Hindi. They don’t speak Punjabi. All they speak is English, and I don’t know what it’s like for them. But in this case, because this is ’84, Maya’s the only one in the whole school. When I went to school in elementary there was only one Indian family. In high school there was one black student, that was it. So it’s different now. It is different, and I suspect it’s much better… But I did have a girl in my class, and her name was Jeevit. When I was ten I was friends with her, and I went to visit her house. I remember having to take off my shoes, and I remember how beautiful the house was. There were these silk carpets, so it was different than my house. The mother wore a sari and the father wore a turban… I didn’t realize it until far into the book when I remembered Jeevit. I went, “Oh my god, she must be coming up through this story.” So that’s what I was thinking about. Our personal lives show up in our fiction.

Ella: Well thank you very much.

Cathy: Oh thank you, Ella.

Ella: This has been really great, and I hope more Beaverbrook students read it, Although it has a pink cover, I will just tell the guys, “Don’t be daunted by the pink cover, it’s really a great novel, so thank you.”

The paperback edition of Karma comes out this January. I recommend this book very highly to other teens. As epic a story as Karma is, it still finds its own way to relate to teenagers through the essential questions that Maya and Sandeep must ask themselves. The novel’s “verse” style adds to its eloquence and complexity, but was not difficult to read. My thanks to Cathy Ostlere for taking time to visit Lord Beaverbrook High School.

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One Response to “Karma, by Cathy Ostlere”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Ella is not only a very literate interviewer, but also worldly wise and clever! (I love her suggestion of removing the cover for males.)

    And as someone who has also written a novel that’s not in prose, I found Cathy’s decision about what to say on the cover very, very instructive. Thanks!

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