Trent Ernst, Editor
Author Shane Peacock came to Tumbler Ridge on September 24 to speak to students at Tumbler Ridge Elementary
Peacock is a biographer, playwright, journalist and screenwriter, but he is best known for his series of kids’ books, especially his series “The Boy Sherlock Holmes.”
Peacock was born and raised in Ontario. He says he is intrigued by weird things.
His first story as a journalist was to write about Sumo Wrestling, and because he writes about unusual subjects, he says, his research methods have, at times, been out of the ordinary too. He has learned the arts of tight-rope walking, silent killing, trapeze flying, and sumo eating, all in the service of his art.
He did not, he is quick to point out, actually try sumo wrestling. “I’m sorry for the image that might have put in your minds,” he jokes.
Peacock says he grew up not liking to read. “I thought it was boring,” he says. “More than that, I knew it was boring.”
But while he didn’t like reading, he loved stories. “I have never met a person who doesn’t like stories,” he says. His dad told him stories before going to bed, ratcheting up the excitement until he could stand it no more. “And then he would say time for bed,” says Peacock. “And I’d have to wait until the next night to hear what happened.”
While part of his mission is to promote his books, he says part of what he does is to impart knowledge, too. Rather than just entertain the kids, Peacock says part of what he does is try and teach them something.
In this case, he told the students about the Great Farini, a Canadian tightrope walker who saw a circus as a child and decided to become a circus performer, defying his strict disciplinarian parents to learn how to walk the tightrope. “Already,” says Peacock, stepping back from the narrative, “we have hooked you in. We have conflict between him and his parents.”
The conflict develops further, says Peacock, with the introduction of Charles Blondin, a french tightrope walker who walked across the falls on June 30, 1859. He challenged others to match his feat, and Farini, an unknown at the time, stepped up to the challenge. “Now we have a hero, with Farini,” says Peacock. “And a villain with Blondin, and we build the tension.”
5000 people, says Peacock, showed up to see Blondin, but 20,000 people showed up to see Farini. “Why do you think four times as many people showed up to see the amateur?” Peacock asked the kids.
“To see if he could make it?” responds one.
“That’s part of it, but you are a polite Canadian boy,” says Peacock. “What’s the real reason?”
“To see if he would fall?” says another.
“Closer, but you’re still too polite,” says Peacock.
“To see if he would die?” says a third.
“You could be an author,” says Peacock. “They wanted to watch and see if he would die.”
But, says Peacock, he didn’t. And here the story takes a turn for the ridiculous, as each funambulist tries to outdo the other, by carrying people across on their backs, by doing a headstand in the middle, by carrying a stove out onto the rope and making breakfast.
Peacock plays up the unreality of the whole thing, by asking if the kids believe that these men did these things.
“Nooo!” Cry the kids.
“Would you believe that Farini carried a washtub out onto the tightrope and lowered a bucket to the river to pull up some water so he could do his laundry?”
“Well, here’s a photograph of the Great Farini, carrying a washtub out onto the tightrope to do his laundry,” says Peacock, making another point about writing, the need for surprise.
After his appearance before the kids, we sit down to chat. Peacock says most well-known Canadian authors do pretty well, but not as well as many people might think.
“If you’re a big deal in the oil and gas industry, or a big hockey star, you’re making a lot of money. If you’re really big as a writer, you might be making as much as the plumber down the road. If you’re a Margarat Atwood or a Michael Ondaatje, you’re doing quite well. Your books get sold around the world, your books get turned into a movie. If your book gets turned into a movie then you do really well. But there are many writers who are fairly well known, adored by the critics, who have to have day jobs. They teach at university or something. If you want to make a living at it, you have to really hustle, like I’m doing right now. I’m away for three weeks, I’m speaking two times a day, sometimes three times a day. It’s really grueling.”
Peacock says there is a possibility that one of his books might be adapted. “I’m a little anxious right now because my agent just told me someone is interested in turning one of my books into a movie. I don’t get too excited, though, because I’ve had a number of people express interest, but nothing’s ever happened. Getting a movie made is a bit of a crap shoot.”
And, while some authors call the book tour the ‘get out of the basement vacation,’ Peacock says the work doesn’t actually stop. “As I’m on tour, my publisher is sending me final proofs for my books and saying ‘we need this done by Monday’, so while I’m on tour, I’ve still got to work on the book, worry about the movie, and at every stop I have people who are saying we’re changing the grades you’re speaking to, you have to deal with the financial stuff…it’s not just sitting down and writing the book.”
So, why not, say take up plumbing? “It’s my passion. And for a lot of writers, they’ll tell you they can’t do anything else. It’s not that they don’t have skills to do other things, it’s just that writing is what they have to do. You want to have a voice. You have things you want to express. Your imagination is really important.”
Of course, some days becoming a plumber can seem like a good idea, says Peacock. “There are days when you wonder why you’re doing it. I have a family, three kids and a wife, and I’m the main breadwinner. That can weigh on you. Every morning when I get up, if I can’t come up with ideas, the family doesn’t eat. So you have to keep coming up with ideas. You have to keep sitting in the chair.”
The chair? It’s something he picked up from Kenneth Opal, he says. “I saw him speaking at a conference in Toronto. It was about his life as a writer. And the first thing he did when he got up was show a picture of Roal Dahl’s chair. He had been over to England, to where Dahl lived, and he had a little shed in his back yard, almost like a garden shed. He used to write there, in this battered old chair. The very first thing Ken said was, ‘you want to know what it’s like to be a writer? Look at that chair. The most important thing about being a writer is you have to get in the chair. You have to get in the chair everyday.’ I meet a lot of kids who romanticize what it is like to be a writer. But it’s work. It’s hard work. You have to get in the chair every day and put in the work.”
Peacock says his style of writing has evolved over the years. He used to get an idea and just start writing it, not knowing what was going to happen in the story. But that changed when he started writing what is his most popular series to date. “When I wrote the Boy Sherlock Holmes, I was contracted by the publisher to write the whole series. They offered me a lot of money, and said, ‘we want to start with four books, and we’ll sign a contract for four books,’ which is unusual in Canadian Publishing. But they also said, ‘the only way we’ll do this is if we know what the four books are going to be like.’ They wanted to see outlines for all four books. So I had to sit down and really figure out in detail what the stories were going to be like. That really changed the way I write. I had to plan more, and I found that I liked that.”
Still, says Peacock, he doesn’t want to just write to the outline. “I always make sure I leave a lot of room for surprise,” he says. “You should never be wedded to the way you design your story. You have to make characters that are so real that they argue with you. You want your character to fall in love with this one woman, but the guy says to you ‘I don’t like her,’ and that’s when the story is good. So I do both now.”
His new book, due out next year, deals with that very concept, about how literary characters can seem alive. In it, the main character, Edgar Brim hears his father reading classic horror stories like Frankenstein and Dracula, and discovers that they’re actually real, and has to hunt them.
“I seem to be starting to interact with classic literature a lot more,” says Peacock. “The Boy Sherlock Holmes. The Dark Missions of Edgar Brim. I love classic literature. The ones that are so great they transcend time. My greatest writing heroes are Dickens and Shakespeare. I like those kinds of things. Those stories can never be fully explained why they’re great. I like exploring them and bringing them to kids, and exploring the origins. How would you come up with the Dracula story? Where did it come from?”
While most of his books are for a Young Adult audience, Peacock says it was never his intention to become a YA writer. “I never sit down ‘this has got to work for a kid in grade seven’. I write about what I think is interesting. I thought it would be fascinating to write about what Sherlock Holmes would have been like as a kid. It’s the idea that is exciting.
“The character is fascinating. The stories might not be that great—even Conan Doyle didn’t like them. But the character is great. Frankenstein is another one. Mary Shelly was 19 when she wrote it and it’s not a very good novel, but the idea is eternal. It’s an unbelievably good idea. And they’re so much fun to riff on, because there’s so much you can do with that idea.”