These days, grit is a term applied to the legendary hero, sacrificing their life and freedom to take down the evil power. Stories like the Hunger Games and the Lord of the Rings are said to be gritty, and, well, they are. But that doesn’t mean that real life isn’t just as rough.
Take Alison Acheson’s book Mud Girl. Life for the protagonist, Abi, has never been easy. But between her runaway mother, depressed father, verbally abusive boyfriend and his son, things have never been more difficult. A teenage girl with no friends and no money, Abi dreams of leaving home and starting fresh, but pushes doggedly along, learning to be both a child and an adult, and you can’t help but cheer her on. There’s something very real and relatable about Abi and her struggles, and it’s brought even closer to home by the banks of the Fraser River and the beaches of Point Roberts. Abi teaches us that the quietest people are the most resolute, the odd ones out make the best friends, and the most important people in our lives are the ones who have the power to hurt us the most.
I got in contact with local author and writing teacher, Alison Acheson, to discuss where her and Abi’s worlds intersect.
Why did you begin writing?
I began writing because I loved to read and I wanted to be on the other end of the experience. There seemed to me to be something almost magical about creating story. There still is something magical in it.
Is Abi or any of her experiences based off of your own life?
Her experiences aren’t REALLY based on any sort of lengthy situation in my life. It’s more a composite. When I was a teen, there was a boy in our church youth group. Rumour was that he had a child. He didn’t have much to do with this child, to my recollection; the child lived with the mother. But the boy really used the story to attract other girls. And strangely, it did.That bothered me, and stayed with me… I suspect it bubbled up in me from some subconscious level…and came into the story.
Young people finding practical solutions to things is another element that figures in my life. I was only seventeen when I left home, and I had to be aware of possible dangers and I had to take care of myself. I’ll add that my immediate family situation was a world apart from Abi’s. But because of my experiences, I feel I’ve lived similar ways of dealing with what comes.
I love the tougher side of this book; it’s not your typical young adult, happy-ending, romantic novel. Why did you feel compelled to tell this story?
There’s a house–or at least, there was a house–before it was torn down–that I used to pass frequently on River Road on the side of the Fraser River, much like the one in the story-including the dilapidated greenhouse on a dock. Every time I drove by it, I would have an image of a girl living in it, and a dad, in a chair, unwell. And eventually, I just had to write about her, and find out what was up. It’s the old “what if?” question that writers work from.
Are you satisfied with your results? In fact, how do you determine if your end product was successful or not?
Let’s use an analogy of dance. How much of a dancer’s art do we—the public—see? Very little. Minutes on stage. Yet hours of work and sweat go into each performance. YEARS of hours. So there are many pieces of writing of mine, and complete novels in fact, that will never show up. But every word I write builds toward the “few minutes on stage.” Think about ALL the art forms. This is true for every one of them. Why would writing be different? There is writing and practice writing. Practice writing IS successful in that it accomplishes its purpose: practice.
I know the other pieces are successful when it feels as if that gap between what’s in my head and what is on the page is as small as it can possibly be.
When I was growing up, my best friend lived in Richmond. Richmond was full of very deep and wide ditches at that time. The water was dark and muddy, and covered in murky plants. My friend could jump over those ditches, but I was terrified to do that. I was convinced I’d slip in. Some of her neighbours’ houses had cute little bridges over their part of the ditch, and I loved to cross those.
When I feel as if I can easily fly over the gap, or have somehow created a good bridge, then that is “successful.”
The other time my work feels like a success is when a reader of the intended age enjoys it. I don’t care so much about whether adults enjoy it, but when a young person does, yeah!
In all those years of hours of work, I’m sure you’ve run into writers block at some point or another. How do you deal with it?
I don’t often have writer’s block, though there was a time when I did. When I was in my late teens, I knew I wanted to write, but sometimes I just couldn’t. At one point I realized there were times when I felt I didn’t have anything to say, so I would try to relax about it. I would ride the bus, letting ideas, bits of conversation, somebody’s body language, start an idea. Or I’d go for walks around the Stanley Park seawall and think. Something else I used to do was try to take part in an art form that didn’t involve language. This has always been good for blocks–as if the wordlessness pushes words out of me. I’d go see a dance performance or listen to some instrumental jazz or go look at visual art. I’d also go through periods of reading books about writing. Sometimes I’d read the same book over and over until it began to bore me. That too, would push me into finding some story to write. But now, I’m very busy. I work full-time from September to April, teaching writing, and I have three busy sons. So my writing time is precious and I usually have more than one project happening. If I’m blocked on one, I move on to the next…then back to the first. And so on. Much of writing is making yourself sit in your seat and write. Even when you’re blocked. It’s important to learn not only about writing, but about HOW you write. That way you know when to push–or write–through a block. And when to get away and take a walk.
Finally (the burning question!) where, oh where did Abi’s mother go?
Where did Abi’s mother go? Ooooo…you can’t ask that! For two reasons: 1) I’ve always wanted to write a sequel…in which that will be shared. And 2) I had a “flash” of story at one point, in which I knew everything about her mother–where she was, why she’d gone there, why she stayed there. And I was on a bus with nothing to write on (that was pre-cell phone days). By the time I’d gotten off the bus, walked to where I was going, talked to people, been interrupted, talked to more people, went to my office, found a piece of paper and pen…the thoughts had vanished. Lesson? Always carry some means to write and stop and do so even if people are talking at you.
So, any last words of advice for young, aspiring writers?
Write. Write some more. Write all the way to the end. Start another project.
You can check out more about Alison on her website and at your local book store.