September 08, 2017

The Winnowing blog tour: Q & A with author Vikki VanSickle

Let's celebrate the release of Vikki VanSickle's newest novel!

The Winnowing
Written by Vikki VanSickle
Scholastic Canada
312 pp.
Ages 12+
September 2017

As part of the blog tour for The Winnowing, Vikki VanSickle kindly answered some questions about her new book.  Her answers are revealing and provide background to the book's premise and her writing of it, and I am delighted to share this interview with readers of CanLit for LittleCanadians.

HK:  Using the word “winnowing”–an agricultural term for cleaning the chaff from the grain–is a brilliant term for the process to which adolescents are subjected in The Winnowing.  How did you ever come up with this term?

VVS:  I actually came up with the title long before the plot or characters, which is something that has never happened to me before. I stumbled across the word in another book and even though it's an agricultural term, it felt eerie to me. I walked around for days thinking 'the winnowing, the winnowing' and eventually ideas started to come together. The first image I had was of the kids gathering at the abandoned pool in the middle of the night for a secret meeting. I didn't even know why they were there, I just liked the image. Things started to snowball from there.

HK:  The process of winnowing comes about to help alleviate the detrimental effects of puberty, like going ACES (Adolescent Chronosomniatic Episodes) and imps (Adolescent Physical Impairments).  The coming of age that is puberty is never an easy transition for young people and this has been a common theme in your earlier novels.  Why make puberty a focus of the government’s control? 

VVS:  I'm obsessed with puberty! I have very vivid memories of that period (pun intended) and how out of control I felt. Everything was so intense. I wanted SO much to be an adult, but I also felt a deep sense of loss, as if childhood was something physical I had left behind and could never get back. It didn't help that the transition was rockier than I expected. I found a lot of solace in books, which is one of the reasons I write for this age group. It's really for my 11-year-old self. Years later as a camp counselor I worked with kids in the midst of puberty and found I was STILL fascinated by it. There's still a lot of shame, confusion, and a lack of conversation around puberty. I like to think I'm adding to the conversation in small ways.

I'm highly aware of the ways in which governments control our bodies already, mostly through health care and legislation. I'm thinking specifically of women's bodies, but this extends to children's bodies and our health and autonomy over our bodies as a human race. I don't think it's that farfetched to imagine a situation in which a government intervenes as drastically as it does in The Winnowing.

HK:  There is much discussion about natural vs. normal when someone who is Natural i.e., conceived without aid of SuperGen hormone, is made to feel abnormal.  The idea of different being worrisome is especially poignant in today’s world.  What message did you hope readers would take from this in light of our current climate?

VVS:  I want readers to think carefully about labels and what they imply. Natural vs unnatural, villain vs hero, conqueror vs refugee, all of these labels depend on the perspective of the person doing the labeling. At the beginning of the book Marivic is a black or white kind of thinker, but as the book progresses she learns to live in the grey space between these opposites. This is also part of adolescence. We teach the concept of opposites very young (think of all those board books: cold/hot, wet/dry, up/down), but as we grow up we learn about ranges, spectrums, and all the possibilities that exist between those opposites. Most importantly, we learn that these differences are okay. Adolescence is an age where people should be expanding their horizons, not limiting them.

HK:  When I saw Dr. Roddenberry’s name, it brought to mind the creator of the original Star Trek TV series, Gene Roddenberry.  Then I noticed several other characters shared surnames with key writers of speculative fiction like J. J. Abrams, William Barton and Lois Lowry.   Is it just a coincidence or did you honour more than several characters with famous writers’ names? 

VVS:  This is definitely intentional! I am a science fiction fan and I wanted to pay homage to creators who made an impact on me. Some of them (like Roddenberry and Lowry) are more obvious than others. I also like the idea of leaving Easter eggs for readers to discover throughout the book. Because there is so much secrecy and conspiracy in the book I thought it would be fun to drop hints and references here and there for the reader in a way that doesn't affect the narrative.

HK:  On your blog at you write about being a fan of The X Files TV show, even winning a story pitch contest.  The  Winnowing has so many of the elements that made the series popular: conspiracy theories, aliens, the little guy fighting nefarious plots, secret government practices.  Is there any overlap between that story pitch and The Winnowing?

VVS:  That's a great question! The pitch was a response to a scenario the moderator gave us, which was "How does Mulder find out the truth about his sister?" (I'm paraphrasing a bit here). If you're not familiar with The X-Files, Mulder's sister Samantha was abducted (potentially by aliens) when they were kids. This mystery drives him to become an FBI agent and study the supernatural and unexplained. In my pitch, Mulder is called into an FBI tribunal and discovers his sister Samantha is not only in charge of covert FBI operations, but is a double agent for the aliens. So not exactly related, but this is essentially Abrams' biggest fear come to life. I never made that connection before! The mind works in mysterious ways.

HK:  There are probably quite a few YA readers who will be craving a romance between characters.  Is there a reason you chose not to include one?  

VVS:  First love and crushes are definitely a huge part of adolescence, but I think this need is very well serviced in YA and even middle grade fiction. It can be trickier for kids who are not into romance to find books that don't go down that route. I wanted The Winnowing to be another kind of love story, about the love between friends. Marivic isn't motivated by heroism or altruism- in fact she has very little interest in 'saving the world.' She wants to avenge/save her best friend, Saren. At no point during the writing process did it feel natural to give Marivic (or Abbot or Kamal) a crush–they were all far too busy!

HK:  Though you tie up all loose ends in The Winnowing, making it a perfect stand-alone novel, there are many stories within that could still be told.  Abbot’s, Kamal’s or Ren’s stories could all reveal so much more about their world.  Even a story from the perspective of the Kesla is viable.  Are there any plans for follow-up stories? If not, will you continue to write science fiction or speculative fiction?

VVS:  After doing all the world-building for The Winnowing I understand why fantasy and science fiction writers create series.  I have so much material that no one will ever see! It feels like an awful lot of work for one book. That being said, I don't have any plans for a direct sequel. At one point I conceived of a three book ARC for The Winnowing, but in the end I was more interested in telling a small, singular story (Marivic's tale) in the midst of a big, highly conceptual story (what if puberty was dangerous and controlled by the government?) I would like to explore science fiction again. I have been noodling a time travel story around in my head for ages, maybe I'll try that next!


Thank you to Vikki VanSickle
for sharing her writing with us,
 in The Winnowing and in this Q & A,
 and for allowing us a glimpse into her world.


You can learn more about Vikki VanSickle 
and her books and writing

If you're in southern Ontario this weekend, you can purchase 
a copy of The Winnowing at the Eden Mills Writers' Festival this Sunday 
and even get Vikki VanSickle to autograph it.  Bonus!

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