Monday, June 20, 2011

Highlights from Waterloo Region: Writer-In-Residence Kenneth Oppel talking about Half Brother

Highlights from Waterloo Region was created in order to give more exposure to the local authors, bloggers, readers, publishers, book events and more in the community. Please go to the Introducing...Highlights from Waterloo Region page for an archive of past highlights or to find out more about how you can become involved.

The Writer-in-Residence program at Kitchener Public Library is designed as a sort of mentoring program between already published authors and those in the community wishing to learn more about writing and getting into publishing. KPL chooses one writer to do a series of talks and give manuscript advice to writers over a number of weeks. The talks are open to the public and all you have to do is register with the library before the date.

I went to see the award-winning young adult writer Kenneth Oppel on April 10th, 2011. He talked about his newest book Half Brother and the research and inspiration behind it and read two exerpts from the book itself. This was my first time going to a Writer-In-Residence program talk and Kenneth Oppel sure made it worth my time! He was a wonderful and very engaging speaker and I was able to learn a lot about the writing and editing process from him.

All of the talks planned for Kenneth Oppel's residency. Unfortunately the final reading was cancelled.

One of the reasons I chose this event to go to was because of the subject of the book - a family who takes a chimp in to their home and raises it as if it were human. I took anthropology in university and although there were less than a handful of classes to take on either primatology or linguistics, they were both subjects that interested me. Hearing that this talk was going to be about the research behind the book, I knew I just had to go and learn more.

Here are some of the notes I took about Kenneth Oppel's chimp research, how he writes, and edits, and everything else in between. I apologize for the lack of details. Unfortunately, I waited a bit to long to write up my account and the details are a bit fuzzy. I'm glad I took so many notes.

A description of the talk from KPL

The first part of the talk focused on the inspiration and research specific to Half Brother.

*The type of primatology research that the book is based off of is called "cross-fostering".

*Kenneth Oppel decided to write this book after hearing that Washo, a chimp from a similar project in the 70s had died. This brought back memories of him learning about Nim in his university days.

*Nim Chimpsky is the name of the chimp who was part of an anthropology experiment and is the true inspiration for his story Half Brother. The project ran for 2 years and was stopped because the researchers considered it a failure. They could not tell whether Nim was actually learning language or just responding based on cues from the family. This stuck in Kenneth Oppel's mind because while hearing about this he considered how cruel it was for the chimp to be taken away from it's only family because the research stopped.

*His original idea was to have the story written from the chimp's perspective. He quickly realised how hard that would be for readers to follow and how limiited the vocabulary would be and scrapped that idea.

*After some consideration, he decided to place the book in the 70s. This was partly because of the ethics of the expiriment. The type of expiriment on chimps would not be nearly as likely to happen in the present time period. The other reason is that the 70s is a time period he grew up in so he felt it would be easier to write it then anyways.

*While writing Half Brother, he kept a picture in his mind for inspiration. Most notably, The Brady Bunch.

*He said that the book is about love in general and that the treatment of animals was an important issue. He then went through a list of different things that chimps have been a part of for either our own amusement or medical research since the 40s. NASA, the circus, movies, and tv shows (BJ and the Bear) were notable.

*We then got a little tour of the Fauna Foundation. This is sanctuary for older chimps. He was able to take a tour of the sanctuary while researching for Half Brother and took some video to show us. This place is amazing and they treat their chimps like rock stars.

The second last part of talk was a tour of his writing office. Some interesting things were:
*that he works at home
*the bookcase full of books which have inspired him
*a pile of books next to the bookcase (on a small table) full of books being used for research purposes
*there is a couch in his office to rest and recharge
*there is a cork board behind his computer where he posts images that relate to the story he is working on

Then the last part of the talk focused on the development of a manuscript from idea to editor.

*We got to see a short video of his "ideas notebook". This is were he writes down all his kernels of thought that might make a good story some day. In the question and answer period one person asked if he keeps all of his idea books. The answer was that he used to but they started to become overwhelming. It was hard for him to let go of at first just in case that next book idea might come from one of them. Then he realised that if the idea was good enough he would probably come back to it one day anyways. He doesn't keep old idea journals anymore.

*What's included in an idea notebook exactly? Ideas (obviously), but also...doodles, questions, and answers.

*After the ideas comes an outline for the story.

*Then he writes the first draft.

*He prints out the first draft and reads it to others out loud. This is very important. By reading it out loud it is easy to see where others get bored and where they are interested. These are the areas that he can work on more for the next draft.

*The "1st draft" (different from the first draft) is the first presentable draft that is sent to the editor.

*After being sent to the editor, the 1st draft comes back with lots of sticky notes (in Can) or track notes (US). These are the areas the editor believes need more work. By the time he gets these notes back he has had plenty of time to reflect and he usually agrees with most of these assessments from the editors.

*He then writes another draft.

So that's all he talked about. It was a TON of information and Mr. Oppel was so engaging and funny and down-to-earth that this time just flew right by. If you ever get a chance to hear him talk or read from one of his books, this is a must. You wont regret it!

We even got a chance to buy a book or two (I bought Half Brother, of course). And he signed them to us and was so kind to even pose for a picture with me.

Kenneth Oppel and Me

Signed: "To Erika / Best Wishes / Kenneth Oppel"

Kenneth Oppel's next book, This Dark Endeavor, is a prequel to the Frankenstein story and comes out later this year. You can visit him on the web at to learn more.

The front cover of KPL's In Touch magazine


  1. As I'm reading the book right now, this was good fun to read. Thanks for taking the time to write this all down!

    1. Thanks for dropping by to read this. It was so much fun. Glad this could compliment your reading :D

  2. Thanks for nice posting.


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