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With The Fire Reapers, Yukon author turns to young adult fantasy

In Patricia Robertson's old house on Jarvis Street in Whitehorse, there was a false window. A writer since the age of 10, she did what writers do; she looked at the window and fantasized.

In Patricia Robertson’s old house on Jarvis Street in Whitehorse, there was a false window. A writer since the age of 10, she did what writers do; she looked at the window and fantasized.

“I at one point imagined a child moving in and then discovering a secret room behind the window,” she says, and so was planted the first seed of her new novel, The Fire Reapers.

Since 1994, when she published her first short story collection City of Orphans, Robertson has been a prolific and respected talent. Her poems and short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines, and her work has been nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, two National Magazine Awards, the Journey Prize, and the Pushcart Prize. Her second collection, The Goldfish Dancer, arrived in 2007 and was critically acclaimed. The National Post said, “each of her stories is a polished gem of unusual lustre.”

The Fire Reapers, a fantasy novel for young readers, presents something of a departure for Robertson but, she says, “My fiction has always had an element of magic and fantasy and characters who had fantasies in it.” Writing for young readers was new, but the craft is the same, she says. “As with all fiction you have to be able to get into the characters. And I found I was writing for the child in me.”

Just in case that childish self was too distant, she honed her ear in the presence of her 12-year old niece. “One of her phrases was ‘holy crap,’” Robertson laughs, “she said that all the time. So my character says ‘holy crap.’ So it was partly listening to kids at that age and talking to them, and partly just writing a story that I wanted to read. I really enjoyed writing it. It was fun to invent a world and invent rules, and tackle bigger themes. I found that I could deal with things like climate change and fundamentalist cults in a way that it seems hard to do in adult literary fiction.”

Having two protagonists who are 12 years old created a different kind of challenge when it came to publishing the work. “It kind of fell between two stools,” she explains. “My agent said it wasn’t really YA (young adult fiction) because YA is supposedly 13 and up and the protagonists are 12. She said why don’t you make them 13, but I said, no, then you get into the beginnings of sexual attraction and so on. And they’re not 13, they’re 12.

“I eventually had it edited by a freelance children’s editor in Toronto, and she said the same thing. She said, ‘You’re going to face challenges (publishing the work) because it doesn’t fit into a niche marketing category.’ So I just got tired of people telling me this. I started the book seven years ago, and I wanted it out, and done.” With all this in mind she came to the decision to publish the book herself.

By getting The Fire Reapers out and done, she clears her decks for several projects, some already on the go. “I’m about halfway through a book of short stories,” she says, “and I’ve started on the first draft of a new YA novel called How to Talk to a Glacier. I’m going to be writer in residence in Kingston starting in January. And I want to write more essays.” Her essay Against Domesticated Fiction will appear in Best Canadian Essays 2013.

The Fire Reapers launches Friday, November 15 at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse. Doors open at 5 p.m. In addition to a reading and book signing, there will be snacks, wine, and a coffee bar.