Toronto-based writer Grace O’Connell will be presenting her recent work, Be Ready for the Lightning, at the International Festival of Authors. O’Connell, who also teaches creative writing courses at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, has previously written Magnified World in 2012.
O’Connell has been employed at the continuing studies department for five years. Elaborating on her teaching work at U of T, O’Connell described how her personal experience as a “craft-focused” writer has influenced her teaching style. When teaching, O’Connell admits that though her method of teaching writing is informed by academic elements, she primarily sticks to a “workman” approach. This teaching style, according to O’Connell, has been received well by students.
“That’s how I write and that’s how I teach writing. It’s about doing the work on the page, and I try to communicate that to my students,” O’Connell reiterated.
O’Connell further explained that writing, for most students, is an intuitive or instinctive process. However, O’Connell’s teaching method aims to inform and explain the technicalities of writing—such as why certain sentences may or may not work.
O’Connell said, “You can’t just say, ‘This sentence doesn’t work.’ You have to explain why it doesn’t work and what could be done to make it work.”
Since the publication of Magnified World, O’Connell has been focusing on tweaking the storytelling and authentic aspects of her writing style. In regards to storytelling, she has paid particular attention to the “mechanics of structure and pacing,” and, consequently, she admitted to consistently rewriting her outlines. The outcome has been a “more organized” and systematic way of writing Be Ready for the Lightning.
In terms of authenticity, O’Connell has worked to shape the voice of her characters to be “more direct” within a first-person narrative. Specifically, the voice of the main character of Be Ready for Lightning, Veda, has dynamic and authentic tone that has evolved throughout the novel.
“With each subsequent draft, Veda became more direct and open and flawed and real. It’s vulnerable and weird to go through that process with a character—no matter how different they are from you, it feels like you’re putting yourself out there in a very raw way. But I think it is necessary for a strong book, and I’m proud of Veda’s voice,” O’Connell explained.
The two main characters themselves bespeak O’Connell’s attempt to portray flawed and real characters. Siblings Veda and Conrad have a problematic relationship. Connor is violent, and Veda tries to accommodate her brother’s volatility. However, underlying this problematic relationship, is a “deep love for one another,” so much so that it stymies their personal growth. O’Connell wanted to convey how acts performed out of love can result in damaging, rather than healthy, consequences.
“Veda and Conrad aren’t bad people, and they’re trying to be good to each other, but the violence that permeates their lives, both large and small, is complex and difficult,” O’Connell explained.
O’Connell has an undergraduate degree in English literature and a master’s degree in creative writing. When asked about an ideal major to study for a writing career, O’Connell did not endorse a particular field of study. Instead, she said, “I wanted to work with books and words in any capacity. I think having some knowledge of the publishing industry kept my expectation realistic more than anything, but there’s no one thing I would recommend aspiring writers study. If anything, my only educational advice would be to avoid doing an exclusively creative writing focused undergrad degree. School is a wonderful opportunity to learn about a huge breadth of things, all of which will serve you as a writer.”
O’Connell’s works have received praise from renowned authors such as Margaret Atwood. In terms of inspiration, O’Connell states that she draws creative ideas from writers such as Timothy Findley and Robertson Davies.
Currently, O’Connell is preparing for her appearances at series of writing festivals. She will be in Toronto at the International Festival of Authors from October 27 to October 30.
Disclaimer: This article has been shortened for print.