Colin Haskin’s young-adult novel Ferret Girl tells the story of smart, sarcastic Ontario teenager Fiona Forrest, whose family life is so darkened by her reticent father and absent mother that at times she envies the peace and stability of Bandit, her pet ferret. When she suddenly finds herself shrunk to ferret-sized and able to talk with Bandit, she and her former pet embark on a series of fascinating conversations and exciting adventures in the suburban wilderness. We talked with the author about fantasy novels, the craft of writing and, inevitably, ferrets.
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The most obvious question first: have you yourself ever owned a pet ferret?
Nope, it never worked out. My home situation never lent itself to ferret-keeping. I often worked long, long hours and ferrets require—and deserve—a good deal of attention. And now, even though I spend long periods at home, I’m often absent for a week at a time.
The family situation in Ferret Girl—the deep sadness Fiona's mother and father are trying to live get through—is handled with great sensitivity. Quite a few YA writers would have left it at that. What prompted you to add an element of fantasy?
To be honest, I’m not enthusiastic about fantasy as a genre. Nobody pigeonholes Lewis Carroll as a writer of fantasy, and yet his work is full of it. He used fantasy to get at other things. To a much lesser extent, it was the same for me. I wanted to write a story with little adult involvement, rather in the tradition of British children’s literature where mother, father and the nanny are left entirely out of the picture and the protagonists must make all the decisions and, in the process, transition toward adulthood.
I set out to do a tight story with fairly fast pacing, a narrow timeline and few characters. I had meant to confine all the action to within the four walls of Fiona’s home, but Bandit had other ideas. I also wanted to attempt a book that both adults and teens would enjoy. My inspiration was the likes of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mocking Bird. Neither are true children’s books.
Fiona shows herself to be remarkably resourceful and quick-witted in her new world. Do you predict a happy future for her, back in her old one?
Fiona will always be resourceful. Just as when she was a teen, Fiona will grow up to be a competent, goal-oriented achiever with boundless compassion and a bright future. She will have a perfect life. Then she will fall in love and choose to compromise that perfect life. After that, anything can happen.
How did the idea for this book come about?
The idea for Ferret Girl occurred when my elder daughter Dashiele was about four—she’s now closing on 34. At the time, she had a hamster that would sit up and rapidly open and shut his mouth. Dash was convinced the creature was talking to her, and longed to know what he was saying. She decided that would only happen if she could somehow be his size. He was very small, so he had a very small voice. When I finally got down to the writing of it years and years later, I found that hamsters were boring, dull and unintelligent. Ferrets, I discovered, were quite the opposite.
Most of the book was written after my children grew up, or were in their late teens, and I was on my own. I enjoyed long vacations from my job, so I used the time to write. When I couldn’t keep my hands off the thing, I would sometimes do it at work. Ferret Girl has been rewritten many times. For several years, I made a long daily commute by bus. It was my practice after each rewrite, to print out the manuscript and edit it while riding back and forth. When I came to the last page, I entered the changes on my computer, rewrote here and there as I went, and started the process all over again. Toward the end, I resolved that each rewrite must be 10 % shorter than its predecessor. Less is better.
Did you set aside a block of writing-time each day? A page-goal each week?
I'm not one for writing 10 pages a day, or the like. I tend to withdraw from everything and everyone and write in long bursts of a month or two. Occasionally, days after I've run out of food, I will show up at a grocery store looking, and babbling, like a madman. It generally takes me a day or two to properly rejoin the rest of the world.