25th Trillium Award

Larger-Than-Life Characters and the Cobourg Community: An Interview with Author Shane Peacock

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The Great Farini, by Shane Peacock

By Megan Philipp

Shane Peacock writes about extraordinary people, larger-than-life characters that we dream of being as children, but never get to be. During his career as a journalist and writer of non-fiction, he pursued these fascinating, sometimes odd, personalities, from Canada?s prime ministers in his book Unusual Heroes: Canada?s Prime Ministers (Penguin Books Canada) to Port Hope?s William Hunt in The Great Farini: The High-Wire Life of William Hunt (Penguin Books Canada). He has also written three successful plays for the 4th Line Theatre, an outdoor theatre in Millbrook, Ontario that has gained national attention; these plays brought to life William Hunt, Port Hope preacher Joseph Scriven and two Canadians training to be spies at southern Ontario?s Camp X. Shane is, however, perhaps best known for his highly entertaining books for children (which adults seem to love as well), with his most recent publications being the final installment of his Boy Sherlock Holmes series, Becoming Holmes: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His Final Case (Tundra Books), and his contribution to the Seven series, Last Message (Orca Books). Regardless of whether he is writing non-fiction or fiction, interesting, extraordinary characters are always at the heart of Shane?s stories because, as he says, ?those characters are, to me, much more fun, more theatrical, much more interesting to create and to read about.?

Currently residing in an old Victorian house in a protected forest in Cobourg, Shane jokingly remarks that his fascination with larger-than-life characters extends to the residents of his hometown. He says, ?I sometimes tease people in my area when I speak, telling them that I like writing about strange people and that?s why local people often show up in my stories.? His family having gone back a long way in the Cobourg area, it?s a place he feels at home in and familiar with, which is probably partly why local history from the region, and the people, have turned up in his writing. When asked about whether he would be incorporating any more local history into his work, however, Shane explains that while it?s a possibility, he ?might be more apt to not tell local stories in the future,? as he likes to explore something new each time he embarks on a writing project.

Since portraying real-life interesting people in his plays and non-fiction writing, Shane has turned his attention to writing about fictional characters, which includes his reincarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?s Sherlock Holmes. Oddly enough, when Shane began writing Eye of the Crow: The Boy Sherlock Holmes, His First Case (Tundra Books), his main character wasn?t even named Sherlock Holmes. He knew he wanted to write a spooky mystery set in Victorian London that would challenge young-adult readers with concepts such as racism and justice, but didn?t see the resemblance of his hero to Conan Doyle?s famous character until later. He reveals, ?The idea to make my hero Sherlock Holmes came later, when I realized, after re-reading the Conan Doyle stories, that I had created a character that could be HIM.? Despite being a part-Jewish character, Shane?s young detective became a ?fully fleshed-out, human Sherlock? who he describes as ?brilliant,? ?complicated? and ?flawed.?

The story behind Shane?s involvement in the Seven series is much different. A concept devised by author Eric Walters, the Seven series is about a grandfather who dies and leaves behind seven grandsons who must complete his bucket list of dangerous and exciting tasks he never had the opportunity to do himself. Eric Walters got a different author on board to write one novel about one of the grandson?s stories, and Shane was given the chance to write Last Message, as Eric wanted some of his favourite authors who, as Shane says, ?packed a commercial punch? to be a part of the series. Shane, who readily admits he?s always up for doing something different as a writer, accepted the challenge.

If co-ordinating Last Message with the other authors? six connecting books (which were all published on the same day in the fall of 2012!) wasn?t difficult enough, Shane was also working on the final Boy Sherlock Holmes book at the same time. As someone who is used to working on only one novel at a time, over an extended period, this presented a huge challenge, but one that he no doubt successfully managed.

Shane?s main character in Last Message is Adam, the only American in the series, who Shane describes as ?insecure? and ?not very nice.? He explains that Adam has three tasks in the novel — to go to southern France in search of a lost Van Gogh painting, to find something left behind by French children?s novelist Antoine de Saint-Exupery and to enter the forbidden Chauvet Cave. On the journey, Adam ?learns about himself, about greed and materialism, and about valuing the right things, which are, as Saint-Exupery often said, invisible, or in our hearts.? When Shane begins to write a book, he often starts with figuring out the meaning of the story first, rather than the setting, character or plot like many other authors, because, as he says, ?My stories HAVE to be about something, something meaningful to me, something between the words.? Just as Shane explores difficult concepts in his Sherlock Holmes stories, his goal in writing Last Message was to highlight modern materialism, something that many people are influenced by and his character Adam exemplifies.

A great read for boys, the good news about the Seven series is that the books can be read in any order, without the need to read every single book in the series before getting to Shane?s. He suggests, though, that ?if you read them all you have the amazing experience of investigating a family from seven different perspectives, and of following some pretty explosive adventures.?

Perhaps Shane?s attachment to writing about interesting characters is one reason young readers have fallen in love with his books. His books seem to have the power to get a child who doesn?t like to read ?hooked on reading.? As Shane says, teachers and parents will often tell him that children who previously weren?t interested in reading at all are now devouring his books — a great honour for him, especially knowing what honest critics children can truly be.

At the same time, Shane is making a difference in Cobourg that goes beyond his writing. Together with fellow author Ted Staunton and the children?s librarian at Cobourg Public Library, Shane has been helping to run a short story competition each year, which students can enter. They had as many as 600 entrants one year, and usually have about 300 entrants, which is still highly impressive.

When asked about his greatest goal as a writer, however, his answer wasn?t about the strange characters, or about educating anyone. To him, ?writers really aren?t citizens when they write.? He says writers ?should tell the truth about life.? There?s no real responsibility when writing for children, just the need to ?touch their souls? or ?enlarge their souls,? and, of course, to entertain.

Shane Peacock was born in 1957 in Thunder Bay, Ontario, one of four brothers. He attended school in the northern town of Kapuskasing, before attending university, where he studied history and English literature. A biographer, journalist and screenwriter, he is also the author of 11 novels and three plays, and has been nominated for numerous awards including several National Magazine Awards and the Arthur Ellis Award for crime fiction. When not writing, Shane Peacock enjoys playing hockey with his three children and watching sumo wrestling. He lives near Cobourg, Ontario. For more information, please visit Shane?s website.

Megan Philipp is an Editorial Intern at Open Book: Ontario. Having completed the Publishing Certificate Program at Ryerson University, she is pursuing a career in publishing. She also writes and edits for The Mindful Word, an online magazine focused on mindfulness and engaged living.

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