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The Story

Grade eleven should be easy for a sixteen-year-old who is a talented writer, but Ben Corbett is desperately struggling to keep his life together. For nine years, he has hidden a secret from his classmates, his teachers, his neighbours, from everyone but his girlfriend, Ann. Now a chance of a lifetime threatens to ruin everything.


Don answers questions about Of Things Not Seen:

QUESTION: What made you decide to write about the topic of domestic violence in Of Things Not Seen?
DON: I began writing in 1988, and I concentrated on writing short fiction for an adult audience. (In fact, I still write short stories when I have the time.) I never planned to write a young adult novel, but I eventually did so as a result of something that involved one of my students. When I was teaching English in the early 1990s, I required my students to keep journals in which they recorded thoughts and impressions, and I would collect them every week and respond to what they'd written. I told them that whatever they wrote would be confidential, so they could feel free to write about the things that were most important to them. Over a period of time, one student began to share things that were very disturbing until, one day, she passed in an entry in which she wrote that she was being physically abused by her father. As a teacher, I was required by law to contact the authorities, but I felt bad doing so because this student had opened up to me and told me something that she didn't want anybody else to find out. Of course, looking back on this now, I think maybe she did want people to find out and that was her way of reaching out, but at the time I struggled with the reality of betraying a confidence. It bothered me so much I knew that, if I ever wrote a novel, it would contain that experience of discovery. Then one Sunday I was in church and our minister was preaching a sermon from Hebrews 11:1, which says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As soon as I heard the phrase “of things not seen,” the idea for the novel just unfolded in my head, like it had been there all along.

QUESTION: What's the first thing you think about when you plan a story? Characters? Plot? Setting?
DON: A lot of people assume that writers begin by thinking “What will my story be about?” That may be true for some writers, but for me the most important question is “Who will my story be about?” I can’t write a single sentence until I can see my character clearly in my head. Once I know who this person is and what he/she wants, then I can begin figuring out what might keep him/her from getting it. It’s then that I have my story.

QUESTION: How did you come up with the characters?
DON: I always begin with a main character, and the other characters evolve as this main character’s situation and his/her problem become clearer.

QUESTION: How did you come up with the twists in your novel?
DON: I wish I could take the credit for these, but my characters provide the twists. They “tell” me what they will and will not do, and twists often arise because they’re forced into situations they’d rather not be in.

QUESTION: Did you get your writing talent the same way Ben did—by observing situations?
DON: I think one of the most important skills a person needs to be an effective writer is the ability to observe and record details accurately. I love to watch and listen to people interacting in a variety of situations, and these observations often creep into my writing. To answer your question about where I got my writing “talent,” though, I don’t think it’s something anyone “gets.” I think writing is less a talent and more like a “muscle” a person exercises and develops. Writing is something you work at it like any craft. In fact, one writer put it best when he said that writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. One of the best ways to develop one’s writing ability is to read, read, read—see how others do it and then try to do the same sorts of things.

QUESTION: Is Brookdale, the novel's setting, the town of Middleton, where you lived when you wrote the book?
DON: Brookdale is not a real place. However, writers write best when they write about things they know, so I modelled Brookdale after Middleton. It isn’t exactly the same, but most Middleton people recognize familiar elements. Middleton students who read my second novel, Stranger at Bay, find a lot of similarities between Brookdale High and Middleton Regional High School. My third novel, The First Stone, is set primarily in Halifax and the surrounding area, but I couldn’t resist including a character whose home is Brookdale.

QUESTION: How long does it take to write a book?
DON: Different books take different amounts of time. Usually, it takes me three to four months to write an outline and a rudimentary first draft. However, The First Stone took five years to write. I began it in 1998 and wrote about half of it, then got sidetracked by several other books and didn’t get back to it until 2002. I’m actually glad that happened because The First Stone became a very different story than it would have been if I’d finished it in 1998. During that time, I became interested in other aspects of the story than those that had drawn me to write it in the first place.

QUESTION: Readers don’t find out if Ben ever got to go to that writing institute. Why didn't you include the aftermath of the conflict in your story?
DON: That wasn’t the problem in the novel that Ben needed to solve—it was merely the catalyst that brought everything to a head. I didn’t feel it was necessary to take the story further after the real conflict had been resolved, and I left it up to readers to decide if Ben went to the writers’ institute.

QUESTION: Are you going to write a sequel to Of Things Not Seen?
DON: Many, many readers have asked me this question. As I’ve said several times, writing begins with a main character, and that character actually lives in my head while I’m writing the story. All the while I was writing Of Things Not Seen, Ben was like a real person to me, and he only did what he wanted to do. (I always get into trouble when I try to force a character to do what he/she doesn’t want to do.) As soon as I finish a book, that character “moves out.” For example, I really don’t know if Ben went to that writers’ institute in Ottawa—he “left” before he told me. If he decides to move back into my head again for a while, I might be able to write a sequel. Until that happens, though, the answer is no.

QUESTION: Why does Ben’s mother in Of Things Not Seen not have a name?
DON: It wasn’t until I’d written half of the novel that I realized I hadn’t given her one. Most characters appear in my head with a name already “attached” to them. Ben’s mother did not, and I just assumed a name would come to me as I wrote more of the story. However, the farther I got, the more it became clear that she didn’t need one. In her mind, she was “Mrs. Rankin”—she was a wife and a mother, but she had no true sense of herself as a person in her own right. It’s only when she finally stands up to Rankin that she achieves this understanding and acceptance of herself as an individual.

QUESTION: When did you think about starting to write Of Things Not Seen?
DON: I began writing the book in 1993. Before this, though, I did some research and found that publishers don't want to receive entire manuscripts. They don't have time to read them. Instead, they want a couple of chapters and an outline of the plot in the form of chapter synopses. So I outlined the novel from beginning to end and wrote the first two chapters, then bundled them up and sent them off. I'd gotten a list of young adult publishers and began working my way through them alphabetically, and over the next year I got a lot of rejections. Most very were kind about it, but a few weren't. One editor even wrote, "No-one would ever want to read this," which devastated me. I was ready to throw the whole thing into the trash, but my wife encouraged me to keep writing the book and, in the meantime, to keep sending out the bundle, which I did. Finally, it went to Leona Trainer, who was president of Stoddart Publishing's YA line at the time, and she liked it and asked to see the entire manuscript. By this time, I had finished it so I sent it to her and the rest is history. I think it's interesting that every male publisher I sent it to rejected it, but Leona accepted it. When it won the Ann Connor Brimer Award, Leona and I went to the celebration, during which another publisher came up and asked if I was working on another novel. When I said I was, he gave me his card and asked, “Would you consider sending it to me?” Looking at his name, I blurted—much to Leona's enjoyment—”But you were the first one to reject Of Things Not Seen." Leona still laughs over that. By the way, Leona eventually left Stoddart and joined the Transatlantic Literary Agency—the largest literary agency in Canada—and became my agent. (She sold The First Stone to HarperCollins, and she sold my fourth novel, One on One, and my fifth novel, The Space Between, to HarperCollins, too.) She has since retired and I have a new agent, but we’ll always be friends. I consider myself very fortunate to have connected with her early in my writing career.

QUESTION: How many hours did you put into Of Things Not Seen before you finished it?
DON: That’s a very difficult question to answer. Some writers I know write for three to four hours every day, and some write until they’ve produced a certain number of words (usually 500-1500). Because I was working full-time as a teacher at the time, I wrote whenever I had a spare moment, which was’t often. Sometimes, it takes me two hours to write a single page, and sometimes I’ll get two or three pages written in that time. However, it’s not unusual for me to spend two hours on one paragraph. All my writing doesn’t end up on the page, though. A good chunk of it rolls around in my head. (People often find it hard to understand that I’m writing when I’m staring out the window.)

QUESTION: You often switched scenes from one character to another, especially near the end of the novel. Why did you do this?
DON: Delaying an outcome can heighten suspense, and I tried to build tension by keeping readers waiting for “the reveal.” Also, alternating between characters allowed me to convey one experience (like the decision at the end to call the police) from more than one perspective.

QUESTION: You tend to include a lot of detail about very ordinary things, like the part where you describe Sadie cutting the bread. Do you think all this detail is really necessary?
DON: It’s the difference between “showing” an experience and merely “telling” it. I don’t think long descriptions are appropriate unless they serve a specific purpose, and the best purpose is to reveal something about a character. For example, the descriptions of North Street and Freemont’s Lumber Yard show the poor surroundings that Ben had to live in, and they also show how he has the ability to see beauty even in apparent ugliness.

QUESTION: Do you have any personal life connections with what happens in the book?
DON: Lots of them. For example, the scene with the bread—which you mentioned above—is a perfect example of a personal connection because Sadie is modelled after my mother’s mother. Although my grandmother wasn’t black, she was very poor and learned early in her life to “make do” with what she had. She, too, suffered from arthritis, and I vividly recall watching her gnarled hands knead bread exactly the way I described Sadie doing it. I wish my grandmother had been alive when the book was published—I would love for her to have “seen” herself in those pages.

QUESTION: Do all your characters have connections with people you know?
DON: Please understand that none of my characters are real people—I just used elements of people I know to flesh them out. For example, senior students at Middleton Regional High may recognize that Mr. Lewis is a lot like the grade 12 English teacher, Dave Stewart. He taught both my daughters, and they felt he was one of the very best teachers they’d ever had. He challenged them, and they loved responding to the challenge. Ann is a lot like a girl I went to school with, and Ben is a lot like I was at his age—shy and unsure of myself. Like Ben, I wanted to be a writer but didn’t think anyone from a small, rural community in Nova Scotia could ever become one. However, I was never abused—I had (and still have) wonderfully supportive parents. Although I often model characters after people I know, at some point that character has to take on a life of his/her own. If that doesn’t happen, then I haven’t done my job as a writer.

QUESTION: We didn't see a lot of Ann in the book, yet she seemed to be an important character. Why did you include her?
DON: First, Ben’s life was so grim that I felt there needed to be something positive in it. Since relationships are such an important part of every young person’s life, I created Ann. From a writing standpoint, Ann served another purpose: she enabled me to share information in a variety of ways. One of the most important details that help make writing “show” is dialogue, and I wanted to have a character outside the family who knew the truth and could “talk” to Ben about it. The things that Ann said to Ben about Rankin are the kinds of things I hope any friend would tell a person trapped in an abusive situation.

QUESTION: Do you believe in "love at first sight,” which happens when Ben first sees Ann?
DON: Excellent question. I believe there’s such a thing as “infatuation at first sight,” but real love is something that grows over time. My wife was my best friend long before I married her. (And she’s still my best friend.)

QUESTION: Did you purposely end the novel with Shay to sort of create another story in our minds?
DON: I didn’t want readers to think that abuse happens only in poor families like Ben’s. Domestic violence isn’t confined to particular socio-economic groups—it occurs at every level of society, something I find both staggering and tragic.

QUESTION: Would you make a movie about Of Things Not Seen if you could?
DON: I've written three screenplays and worked with some wonderful script editors, one in Halifax and three from Toronto. I also took a screenwriting course at the International Film and Television Workshops in the United States, taught by a screenwriter from Los Angeles, and one of my screenplays won the 1998 Atlantic Film Festival’s Script Development Competition and another won the 2010 Atlantic Film Festival's Inspired Script Competition. I love the medium of film. Students often ask me, "Do you think Of Things Not Seen will ever be made into a movie?” and I used to say, "I hope so." However, I now understand that what works between the covers of a novel does not necessarily work well on the screen. Although I love its characters and story, Of Things Not Seen isn't as well suited for film because of its interior structure. Like many victims of abuse, Ben puts all his energy into hiding his abuse. He reacts to events rather than enacting their outcome. Basically, he wants to run away; he doesn't consciously decide, “I'm going to stand up to my stepfather and not take this any more.” This ultimately happens because he gets caught by Rankin while trying to run away. While studying screenwriting, I learned that film audiences don't want that. They like to see characters take control of their own story, and it wasn’t until I worked with some terrific script editors that I realized this. I think that if Of Things Not Seen were to become a film, its story would have to be changed. Ben would have to become a different sort of person, and at this point in time I really wouldn't want to do that to him or to his story. Of course, I might change my mind in the years ahead, just as I changed my mind about the story of The First Stone.

QUESTION: I’ve read some of your other novels and they all have similarities. They all include, for example, teenagers going through a rough time, the main character having to cope with something in the past, and so on. Was this planned or just a coincidence?
DON: The American author Willa Cather once wrote, “The most basic material that a writer works with is acquired by the age of fifteen.” And the poet John Ciardi said, “You don’t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.” I think they’re absolutely right. I found that part of my own life the most difficult, so that’s probably why I can’t help writing about that period in my characters’ lives.

 
 
 
 
 



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Fitzhenry & Whiteside 1995

Winner of Atlantic Canada's 1996 Ann Connor Brimer Award

Winner of the Canadian Authors Association 1996 Lilla Stirling Award


Reviews:

"In his first young adult novel ... Aker deals powerfully with the theme of physical abuse ... and he renders the dynamics that allow abuse to continue within a family with great credibility.... Highly recommended." (CM Magazine)

"In Of Things Not Seen, Aker ... peels away a thin veneer of pastoral charm to reveal brutal generational violence toward women and children and endemic racism.... Aker distills the community and family dynamics, which allow abuse to thrive, into a credible and riveting plot." (The Chronicle Herald)

"With a keen eye for detail, [Aker] describes the painful expose of persistent violence.... Of Things Not Seen is indeed frighteningly credible." (Atlantic Books Today)

"Aker's intensity of characterization provides a multifaceted glimpse of the pressures facing a male teen.... This YA novel has one of the best starts of any I have read. I find that reading the first page and a half ... aloud to students elicits a most powerful reaction. As I read, their eyes grow larger and they lean forward, an indication of their involvement. Everyone wants to read this book." (The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy)

Read a complete review online.