Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
Today’s guest for the WHAT is Ryan Uytdewilligen who was born and raised outside the small Canadian prairie city of Lethbridge, Alberta. He gained an obsession for film in his teen years, taking in all the classics while developing the ability to name you every Oscar Winner from memory.
In 2016, he published his first non-fiction work; a film history examination called 101 Most Influential Coming of Age Movies. That same year he released his first fiction book—Tractor, a YA novel with Sartoris Literary. His next fiction work, Akela, has been released by BHC Press along with his first novella, a western titled The Last Cattle Drive. Kids Can Press will release his first children’s picture book in the coming future.
Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?
I love stories where animals talk and converse and live their daily lives like humans do. So I was always very eager to write a story like that which was geared for adults. I love historical fiction, particularly stories like Forrest Gump that traverse through moments that we are familiar with and use them as a backdrop – particularly the forties through eighties like that movie does. And finally, I was in film school when I had this funny notion that sea turtles live a really long time – centuries – so they would most definitely see a lot in their life if they moved around. With all those elements in my head, something connected and the story was born!!
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
The hardest part was choosing where the turtle went and what made sense for the story. You can’t just do what Forrest Gump did but he can’t just stay on the Hawaiian Islands either where he is from. He needs goals and obstacles. Once I pinpointed Pearl Harbor as an inciting incident, I think everything clicked and what followed made sense. The character had to be tested and putting him in places where sea turtles don’t belong (The desert/ arctic) and places I’m generally interested in to bring to life (The White House/ San Francisco 1968), it was a blast.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
For this particular story, the plot was fairly firm because I knew where it was going to start and end. I knew the bulk of historical events I wanted to cover, but sometimes I’d come to a location and think “wow, this was also happening there at this time.” If it made sense for the story, it would be added to bring color. For example, Akela ends up in Las Vegas in the late 1940’s. That’s when Bugsy Segal and the mob were still setting everything up and so naturally that was a great fit – even though it hadn’t occurred to me until that moment. I think that spontaneity helped make it wildly unpredictable while supporting the overlying story arc.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
Oh, I’m blessed with the ability to generate story ideas. I can’t help but watch something or read something and wonder “why didn’t they do it this way.” Then a story is born from that. During conversations, someone will say a notion or thought and I’ll be flooded away on some tangent because it’s given me an idea. I have an endless supply – the biggest problem is that I’ll never have the time to properly develop them all or write them into full fledged stories.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
You have to let your ideas bake. I’ve done it a few times where I get really into an idea because of an existing work I’m obsessed with in that moment. Sometimes you are so taken with your own idea, all you can do is write as fast as you can. But after a few days or months, you run out of steam and your attention turns to something different. Sometimes you lose the entire point on why you wanted to write the story in the first place or what it represents for you. I know it’s the right project because it’s stewed and baked in my head for months and even years. I came up with this story, Akela, over five years ago. I baked it for about two years and got really excited the more and more I thought about it. I have stories in my head now that I would love to write, but that may not be the best choice because they’re so new. Let it sit for a few months and then you’ll know if it’s something you truly want to pursue.
I have a lot of cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
I have a cat, Cat Stevens, who usually lies on the desk to bask in the warmth of my laptop. When he wants attention, he will meow until he gets it. Usually, he’s fairly quiet and lets me work though. He’s a good distraction when the words aren’t coming. As far as human’s go, I prefer to be a lone wolf when it comes to writing. I would love to work with others, but for now, getting a sense and developing my own personal skills and abilities as a writer seems to be the most important project of all.