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February 3, 2016

Stephen Swartz (@StephenSwartz1): Writing True Life

A Girl Called Wolf
A few days ago my fellow Myrddin author, Alison DeLuca, writer of YA fantasy and steampunk novels, mentioned to me a website called GIRL WHO READS. I had known of it from her past blogging but this time it was like a kick to my head because I was just then launching my latest novel which happens to be about a girl…yes, you guessed it: a girl who reads!

However, the circumstances are not quite what one would expect. This Inuit girl, Anuka (no last name), the protagonist/heroine of the story is based on a real person. I connected with “Anna Good” when she began tweeting and commenting about my 2014 vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN. As so often happens these days, we “friended” each other, and through that connection I gradually learned about her amazing life growing up in Greenland. I thought it would make a great novel; I told her she should write it. Anna started writing her story for the 2013 National Novel Writing Month competition but she could not make much progress. She declared she wasn’t really a writer but she did love to read. In fact, she is earning a degree in librarianship.

Anna was born on the east coast of Greenland where she was given the name Anuka, which means “wolf” in the Tunumiisut language. Unfortunately, she became an orphan at age 12 yet lived on her own for almost a year in that rugged landscape before being forced to seek food in a distant village. Once “captured” by the villagers, she was put with a family and made to go to school. From there, Anuka’s adventures lead her to the Children’s House, a Catholic orphanage in Nuuk, the capital. Without giving away too much more, Anuka eventually arrives in Canada to continue her adventures. (I explain more in this blog:

Despite being taught only by her mother, who is a shaman, Anuka learns the official Greenlandic language and some Danish before fate pushes her into learning to read English. She learns the language by reading the Classics. She loves books which to her are windows to other worlds, keys to unlocking her imagination—yet her imagination is not as vivid as the real episodes in her young life. And here is where Girl Who Reads comes in: There is a key scene at the Children’s House, when Anuka (renamed Anna by the Sisters) is given a book as a birthday gift from the Sisters. It is Jane Eyre by Emily Brontë. Suddenly Anna realizes the direction her life is going and decides to change it.

At sixteen years I was one of the oldest guests in the Children’s House, so Sister Margret gave me the job watching the younger children. Tuglik [another Inuit girl] got responsibilities, too. She helped the children bathe in the evenings. So we worked together. Then we slept, feeling so tired from our tasks during the day.
The Sisters thought I was good with children. They always told me. The children were happy being with me. I talked with them and we played games in the yard. I was good at herding them. The Sisters thought I could get a job as a teacher or be a child care helper at a school or in a rich Danish family’s house. I heard a clock ringing in my head. It was like that Jane Eyre’s life! She lived in an orphanage, too. Then she was hired to care for a child at a rich man’s house. Later she loved the old man because he was blind. Yet I could never love an old man.
The Sisters tried to take care of me but I always had to go out and climb a mountain. I had to play with dogs. I had to sit by the shore and stare far away. They understood me. I was like Maria in the film Music Sounds. Maria was a Sister, too, and she cared for the children at a rich man’s house. Then she married him! Just like Jane Eyre did with her rich old man. I wondered if that was my path, too. Like her, I wanted to belong someplace and find love with somebody. Having one special person to think about and be with every day seemed like the best thing.
As I mentioned above, Anna Good loves reading and plans to be a librarian. Quite remarkable given her humble beginning and many subsequent adventures. It was fun to collaborate with her. I blogged about the process we went through ( I asked her to break down major events at each place she lived, both good and not good. She told me as many details as she could and I fashioned a dramatic narrative as best I could in her “natural voice”. Then she would read what I wrote and suggest changes. Once finished, of course she read through the whole book and we tweaked it further, trying to shape a dramatic narrative more than getting every little real detail down right. At that point the book had ceased being her story and was becoming a universal story that only began with her actual experiences. For that reason and perhaps feeling a bit introverted, Anna chose not to be listed as co-author.

Writing a true story still has its hurdles. Not everything that actually happened fits into a good story and some things need to be left out. Other things can be combined just to smooth the flow of the reading or to be more clear to readers. On the other hand, a person’s life is full of events and actions we often would have rather not had happen. But that is life and what makes reading (and writing) a biography so compelling. Taking liberties is what I would call it; Anna approved them. The result is what we both hope is an intriguing and uplifting tale of strength, courage, and love in an often cruel world.

Buy A Girl Called Wolf at Amazon

About the Author

Stephen Swartz grew up in Kansas City where he was an avid reader of science-fiction and quickly began emulating his favorite authors. Since then, Stephen studied music in college and, like many writers, worked at a wide range of jobs: from French fry guy to soldier, to IRS clerk to TV station writer, before heading to Japan for several years of teaching English. Now Stephen is a Professor of English at a university in Oklahoma, where he teaches many kinds of writing. He still can be found obsessively writing his latest manuscript, usually late at night. 
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