Maggie de Vries
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Synopsis on Goodreads:
Kaya is adopted, multiracial, grieving the death of her father—and carrying a painful secret. Feeling ill at ease with her family and in her own skin, she runs away repeatedly, gradually disappearing into a life of addiction and sex work. Meanwhile, her sister, Beth, escapes her own troubles with food and a rediscovered talent for magic tricks. Though both girls struggle through darkness and pain, they eventually find their way to a moment of illumination and healing.
This powerful YA novel is rooted in the tragic life of the author’s sister, Sarah, a victim of serial killer Robert Pickton and the subject of Maggie de Vries’s Governor General’s Literary Award–nominated memoir for adults, Missing Sarah. Sarah’s tragic experiences inspired the character Kaya, as well as an adult sex worker she meets on the streets. Vancouver’s missing women form a chilling backdrop for the story.
I want to say thank you to Maggie for allowing me to interview her. Be sure to check out my review of Rabbit Ears; it’s a fantastic book that I highly recommend!
1. Although Kaya’s story is fiction, Rabbit Ears was inspired by Vancouver’s missing women and the tragic experiences of your sister, Sarah. Can you tell me why you chose fiction as your medium?
MD: I wanted to write a story about a girl who survived, when my sister did not. And after I learned that my sister was sexually abused when she was a child, I wanted to explore the silence around abuse. To do that, I needed to write Kaya’s experience from the inside, and to do that I needed to write fiction. I also didn’t want to subject my family to another book about them. Fiction provided me with the distance and the flexibility that I needed. In the end, fiction also allowed me to include my sister Sarah as someone who helped Kaya, and that was a joy for me.
2. Kaya refers to herself as “you” while Beth refers to herself as “I”. I found this had several implications for both Kaya and the reader. How did this develop? Did you always know you would tell Kaya’s story this way?
MD: I didn’t. I believe that I wrote both Kaya and Beth in third person at first. Then I took a short story writing workshop from Zsuzsi Gartner, and she encouraged all of us to try something different. I went home and tried second person, even though I know it’s frowned up. Immediately, it felt right. Because of what has happened to her, Kaya is at a bit of a distance from herself. “You” makes is easier for her to tell her story. Then, at the end, she is able to switch to “I.” I think “you” also may implicate the reader more than first or third person does, forcing them to place themselves in the place of the character.
3. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
MD: I always say, read, write and live. Sometimes writers forget about the living part, but if we aren’t living fully, and paying attention to our sensory and emotional experiences, observing our world closely, we won’t have the stuff to write from. I also believe that we find our voices by grounding ourselves in our own experiences and writing from there, even when we are writing about aliens or life on the other side of the world.
4. How did you feel when you found out Rabbit Ears had been nominated for a 2016 White Pine award?
MD: I was thrilled! I knew that it meant that many teens would read and talk about Rabbit Ears, and that made me very happy. Also, even though I grew up in Vancouver and I have lived in Vancouver for much of my adult life, I was born in Guelph, Ontario and my mother lives there now, so I have spent a lot of time there. I’m excited about coming to the ceremony on May 17 and spending some time in Ontario then.
5. Can you share with us any projects you’re working on?
MD: Right now, I’m working on revisions on A Voice for Change, which is a different project for me because I’m not the author. A Voice for Change is Rinelle Harper’s story and she and her mother are the authors. I’m the writer. Rinelle is a remarkable young woman, and it has been a great honour to work on this book with her and her family. I have learned a great deal. I’ve spent a lot of time in Winnipeg and I’ve traveled to their home community of Garden Hill in northern Manitoba. I believe that A Voice for Change will come out this fall.
I also have a picture book coming out next spring called Swimming with Seals. Like Rabbit Ears, it’s a true story in fictional form. My sister Sarah and her daughter Jeanie both love to swim, just like in Rabbit Ears, but they never got to swim together. In Swimming with Seals, they do.
6. What have you been reading lately? Anything you can recommend?
MD: Right now I’m reading The Hunter and the Wild Girl by Pauline Holdstock, which is a strange and beautiful, like a dark fairy tale. And I just finished Ru by Kim Thuy, which is one of the most poetic books I’ve read in a long while. Haunting. Also by my bed at the moment is The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. I had never read anything by Oliver Sacks, and when he died last August, I was reminded that that was a terrible gap in my reading. What a fascinating man!
When I finished this book all I could think was wow. Just wow! Even though Kaya’s story is fiction, the author has weaved in true stories of Vancouver’s missing women and that builds up such an emotional response in the reader. The characters of Rabbit Ears have their own deep, dark painful secrets; the more you read, the closer you are to figuring out what those are. I couldn’t help asking myself is this the story of a survivor or someone who couldn’t get out. Rabbit Ears is an incredible book and the author brings alive some very important issues, including but not limited to: Vancouver’s missing women, drug addiction, sex work and teen runaways. This is a must-read, something that shows you can help break the silence and bring awareness. A discussion opener.
I couldn’t immediately get into the book. The format and writing style surprised me so it was hard to convince myself to continue reading. I’m so glad I did because once I got into it, I couldn’t stop. Later on, deep into the book, I started reflecting on the writing. Rabbit Ears is split into two POV’s: Kaya’s and her older sister, Beth’s. Within each chapter, there are a lot of page breaks; short entries like you’d find in a journal or diary. What’s really interesting (I didn’t immediately see the difference) is that Kaya’s POV is in second person while Beth’s is in third person. This means that instead of Kaya referring to herself as “I”, she uses “you”. This has a few implications. For the reader, it fits with the idea that by reading this, you provide a space for Kaya’s story. It could even mean that an Outsider is telling Kaya’s story because for some reason Kaya herself isn’t able to. This worried me about how the book would end, as I mentioned before. For Kaya herself, the “you” creates a wall – it’s easier to tell your story if you’re looking at yourself from far away. The entire format of the book is a perfect fit for the story.
I loved the different perspectives of Kaya and Beth. Kaya, Beth and their mother are grieving the loss of their father, who passes away from cancer before the book begins. This seems to set off the events happening in Rabbit Ears. Kaya is adopted and multiracial; with little to no friends in school, she is constantly dealing with bullying and racism. She ends up meeting Sarah, a sex worker and heroin addict, in Vancouver’s Eastside. Sarah saves her and tries to warn her of the dangers. She herself doesn’t believe she can get out, but Kaya has a home and a family. Sarah views Kaya as a survivor, someone who can be saved, someone who doesn’t belong in this world of sex trafficking and addiction. The fact that the author has written in her own sister, Sarah (who was a victim of serial killer Robert Pickton) as a character makes the novel all the more powerful and moving.
We don’t see Beth’s POV as much as Kaya’s, but we do see enough. I would say Beth takes up the tough love approach when it comes to how she and her mom deal with Kaya. Beth doesn’t understand why Kaya would do this – hurt their family and runaway from home. She thinks their mom is too lenient on Kaya. Beth is also embarrassed by what’s going on, not wanting her friends to find out. However, Beth is also worried for Kaya. After all, they are still sisters and I felt like throughout the novel, Beth really comes through. This bond of sisterhood is strong.
This book is shorter than my usual reads, but the length doesn’t diminish the plot. If you feel like this book will make you uncomfortable because you’ve never experienced what these characters go through, I recommend you read this. This book opens your eyes, it makes the unbelievable very real. Fortunately, I’ve never had to experience what Kaya and other characters go through. I know these things can and do happen to women, but reading this book actually opened my eyes. So if you’re reading this book or you’ve read it and think “how can this even be real”, stop and reflect. Kaya’s story is fiction, but her story is representative of so many victims. There is truth between the lines.