Today my guest is a young writer who I first met through one of those “oooh they look interesting” follow-clicks on Twitter, just because his work looked as though it might appeal to me. I am so glad I did follow because Ross has proved to be both interesting and fun and his work is delightful.
Welcome, Ross, and thank you for agreeing to answer my questions.
Elin: Can you tell me a little about yourself? For instance, do you have to have a day job as well as being a writer?
Ross: I work a full time job as the grocery department manager of a supermarket. I also do work for the company travelling to various stores throughout Atlantic Canada as the Subject Matter Expert (SME) for Computer Automated Ordering. In my free time I am outside as much as possible, enjoying the maintenance required of my property, camping, target shooting, or just sitting on my small deck and reading with my beloved bulldog at my side. Writing tends to happen during the rainy days and cold winter nights.
Elin: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Ross: I am a little of both, actually. I tend to make a brief outline of plot, mostly in bullet point form or mad scribbling as I come up with an idea as I am writing. Much of what happens ends up surprising me. Sometimes I am disappointed by my characters, other times proud. I find that, most often, I internally plot things out as I am writing. I could be working on chapter three and see a thread that I can tie in to chapter seven which may or may not completely change the course of events I had believed to be unfolding. My main focus is to get the thoughts/ideas and the gist of the story on the page and then spend countless hours scrupulously editing in the comfort of my favourite chair.
Elin: Do your characters arrive fully fledged and ready to fly or do they develop as you work with them? Do you have a crisp mental picture of your characters or are they more a thought and a feeling than an image?
Ross: My characters are relatively well formed in my head before they reach the page. I have a very clear and detailed image of them in my mind, as if they were standing in front of me and allowing me to take detailed notes of their every feature. They each have a clearly defined voice and, if it doesn’t sound too bizarre, I hear them speaking as I write their dialogue. I tend to write character study types of stories, be they in first person or third, so, with that, every character has flaws as well as qualities to be exposed. When writing in first person I am limited to the narrator/protagonist’s vision of everyone else, and indeed himself/herself, which conveys a skewed, but true to the narrator’s, impression. The third person story allows me much more leeway and analysis of the characters as fully fledged individuals while at the same time making them much more vulnerable to the reader’s dissection.
Elin: What inspired you to write One Boy’s Shadow and add a nicely spooky touch of paranormal to that sweet YA romance?
Ross: One Boy’s Shadow originated in a very disturbing dream I had many years ago. I remember waking in the dead of night to the sound of a gunshot (which was all in my dream). I grabbed paper and pen on my bedside table and quickly wrote down all I could remember. I think it was on a sales flyer, actually. The next morning I re-wrote my notes in my trusty coil-notebook and then tossed it aside for more than a year. The strong images from that dream and the notes I made formed the basis for the novel, though I made numerous changes. So, that’s the origins of the story. The inspiration to actually write it came from a quote of Toni Morrison’s “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Growing up in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia I was an avid reader. I constantly searched to find the one novel that really spoke to me, that I could relate to — but secretly. As a terrified, over-weight kid, deeply in the closet, I so desperately wanted to find a book that I could take comfort in. I wanted a safe, warm, welcoming world where beautiful boys met and fell in love while having a Hardy Boys style adventure complete with ghosts and time transfers. I wanted to find a book I could return to, again and again, whenever my own world felt so very cruel, ugly, and hateful. I never found it. Despite the fact that there have been many changes in society and that there are many more books available/accessible now that reach out or speak to gay/lesbian youth there may still be one kid out there searching like I did. And if my book and that kid should somehow connect and that young person finds that special place within the pages, then that’s all that I could ever hope to achieve.
Elin: I think that’s a very good description of One Boy’s Shadow. Your novel is a fairly contemporary story but is there any other genre that you’d love to try? SF? Old West? Shifters?
Ross: I never really think of writing in any particular genre when I am writing a story, so I suppose the short answer to your question is no. That being said, I don’t know where future stories might take me. I’ve always been most fascinated by the in-depth character study and the search within ourselves. Today’s contemporary will one day be historic so it is my hope to give the time(s) I am working in their most accurate representation, be that through sports, music, popular culture, modes of transportation etc. I also like to use symbolism and allegory rather than make statements, which some readers will see and others will not. I have always enjoyed discussing literature with fellow readers to delve into the subtext and nuances of scenes, to debate the merits of an action or ruminate over the appearance of an object or the suggestion of a phrase. So, the long answer to your question is that while I don’t strive to write one class of fiction or another what I do strive for is a story to be universal.
Elin: Can you name any author/authors, past or present, who have been a great influence on your work?
Ross: It is difficult to say any one author’s work has influenced me more than any other. I have enjoyed and been enraptured by so many great books that I believe each of them has resonated with me while at the same time inspiring me to tell my own stories in my own way.
The first novel that I read that truly spoke to me was George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I found it misplaced amongst the many pre-teen fiction books in my grade six classroom. The cover was black with a man’s eye peering through the words. It was unlike anything I had ever encountered before. The words flowed smoothly over rough terrain and I was taken to Oceania and watched Winston with an unease I had not known a book could create. I saw things on the page that I could relate to the very world I was living in and it compelled me to read further. This was the book that caused me to fall in love with literature. I have not read it since grade six but I could tell you details about Julia, O’Brien, Big Brother, and Room 101 to this day. I still find myself chanting “Oranges and Lemons” and resisting the urge to write 2+2=5 just to see if it sparks a conversation.
Elin: What are you reading? Something to be clutched to the bosom or tossed aside with force? Fiction or non-fiction?
Ross: I’m always reading a half dozen or so books, depending on which room of the house I am in or what mood I am in. Currently I am reading: Luthor by Paul McShane, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Deception Point by Dan Brown, Light Before Day by Christopher Rice, Conduct Unbecoming by Randy Shilts, and The Macken Charm by Jack Hodgins. I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction but rarely read one book cover-to-cover before starting another. I never want what I am reading to affect how I am writing so by varying it up I feel as though I won’t be distracted from my own artistic vision. There are novels which I will forever clutch to my heart, The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub, At Swim, Two Boys by Jamie O’Neill, The King Must Die by Mary Renault, Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley and so many others. As for novels to be tossed aside, we’ve all encountered them but what I may toss someone else may treasure and as long as we’re all reading, that’s what matters.
Elin: Villains – incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize? A moustache-twirling nightmare or … ?
Ross: Villains are a very interesting subject, especially when you tend to write character studies. I believe the villain is most effective when it is also the protagonist. I love the anti-hero for the commonality of the vices and the virtues. We are all flawed and wrestle with internal demons and what demons are greater than those of fear and self-doubt? Certainly it is enjoyable to have a well-established villain such as Dr. Moriarty or The Joker or even a large corporation but behind every faceless multi-national company and every make-up donning ne’er do well, there is a face or faces of people with a story or stories that led them to their current position, through their own choices or coercion or circumstances. I like to work in the realm of the antagonist and protagonist really having a very thin line between them, if one exists at all. There are moments when bad things happen and there may or may not be people involved in making those things happen. The villain in my work tends to be a momentary lapse in judgement, an indoctrinated hatred, or a lack of understanding — all of which, one could argue, stem from fear and self-doubt.
Elin: What are you working on at the moment? Can you discuss it or do you prefer to keep it a secret until it’s finished.
Ross: I tend to never discuss, in any detail, what I am working on until it is completed and I have edited it at least ten times. What I will say is that it is not a sequel to One Boy’s Shadow but I do appreciate the many people who have asked for one. I like to have a tiny thread that connects stories together so there may indeed be a minute link from my first novel to my second. I also have a collection of Christmas themed short stories I may look to publish at some point, having written one almost every year for my mother over the past ten or more years. I may just e-publish them one at a time.
Elin: Could we please have an excerpt of something?
Ross: To date I have but one published work, so here is a sample from One Boy’s Shadow:
The story is being told by its 16 year old narrator, Caleb. In this scene Caleb is spending the day with his older brother, Blake, whom Caleb idolizes. The boys are spending one of their last days of summer vacation together. The scene takes place on pages 131-134 of the novel. © Ross A. McCoubrey
Baseball was the one sport that both Blake and I loved to play. I enjoyed watching him play volleyball and compete in track events, but I never had any inclination to participate in those things. Baseball was by far the most aesthetically pleasing sport. The crack of a wooden bat (not those awful aluminum ones) as it made contact with the ball, the whack that erupted when the ball soared into the sweet spot of the catcher’s mitt, the smell of the freshly cut grass, and the dust from the
dirt between the bases. A batting cage was a poor substitute for playing the actual game of baseball, but it was still fun.
We spent over an hour in the cages and then killed some time at the driving range at the same location. We grabbed a slice of pizza before the movie and afterward got some food from a Mr. Sub and took it to a picnic park to eat. We sat on the tailgate of the old Ford and ate our subs, washing them down with Cherry Coke.
“This has been really fun. Thanks, Blake.”
“My pleasure, bud. It’s nice to spend some time with you again. Feel like I haven’t been much good to you this summer.”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“I mean it. I feel like you’re pulling away from me, like maybe you’re getting yourself ready for when I go away next year.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s not like that at all.”
“We don’t talk like we used to, though.”
“I guess I don’t know what to say. I mean, after last time … you didn’t exactly respond the way I expected.”
Blake hung his head. “Look, I know I screwed up, and I still feel bad about it.”
“I know. Figured this was kinda your way to try to patch things up.”
The sky was turning this amazing purplish-orange colour as the sun went down. The first of the streetlights began to hum as their bulbs flickered into action.
“No. I really just wanted to spend some time with you, like I promised.”
“Oh. Right. I forgot about that. Sorry.” I did feel bad for making Blake’s promise to me sound like something he felt obligated to do.
“Don’t be.” Blake crumpled up his sub wrapper and stuffed it back in the paper bag. “Look, can we just start fresh? Forget the other day?”
I nodded as I wiped my mouth with a napkin and stuffed it into the bag.
“Cuz I really am on your side, Caleb. I want you to know that.”
“So you know you can talk to me about anything, right?” Blake sounded like he was getting at something.
“Yeah. I know. It’s cool.” I saw that Blake appeared awkward. He rubbed his hands together over and over again. “Something on your mind?” I asked him.
He studied my face carefully. “I need to talk to you about something, but I’m afraid you’ll take it the wrong way or get mad at me, so I don’t know if I should say anything or not.”
I put down my bottle of pop and took a deep breath. “Just say whatever it is you need to say. I promise I won’t get mad.”
Blake tried to fix his eyes on mine, but I turned away, gazing at the skyline to free myself from his caring expression. “I just want to tell you, first of all, that I’m really glad you’re my little brother and that I love you, Caleb. Nothing can ever change that, okay?”
I hadn’t predicted him saying that. I found a lump forming in my throat. I couldn’t look at him. I knew what he was going to say next, but after what he’d just finished saying, I knew everything was going to be all right, too. Not being able to speak, I nodded. I tried to fight back the tears that came up before he could say another word.
“If I’m wrong about this, well, I don’t mean it to hurt you in any way, but I think that first kiss you told me about was with Shane. Right?”
Blake’s voice was soft and caring. It was the same-sounding tone he’d used when I was small and had a bad dream, running into his room and crawling under the covers with him so I wouldn’t be scared anymore. I trusted him completely.
“Yes,” I whispered.
“Do you want to tell me anything?”
I nodded again as a tear spilled out and ran down my right cheek. I took a moment to gather the strength to say those two little words that I’d never actually had to say before. I turned to face my brother.
Blake slid down the tailgate next to me and put an arm over my shoulder. It’s hard to explain the overwhelming surge of emotions I had when I first spoke the words aloud. I felt like I could laugh and cry all at the same time. I looked at my brother with what I can only imagine looked like absolute desperation. If no one else on earth were going to love me unconditionally and stand by me against all odds, I needed it to be him. I knew, just from his expression and posture, that he had
my back. Inside, I wept, but on the outside, I did my best to remain strong, stoic, and able to take whatever came next. I wasn’t ever going to allow myself to feel weakened by something so central to my being. If anything, it was going to make me stronger. I knew if I spoke, however, the words that came out would tremble. I waited for Blake to speak.
He smiled at me and simply said, “I am so proud of you.” He pulled me toward him and gave me a hug. I bit my lip as hard as I could. Sitting back in my spot on the tailgate, I casually wiped at my eyes and asked, “Not that it matters, but how’d you know?”
“I didn’t. Not for sure. But at camp this summer, one of the guys in my room, Jesse, was gay, and I had no idea until a bunch of us were talking one night about our homes and he mentioned how much he missed his boyfriend. I talked to him a lot and got to know the kinds of things he went through before coming out. A lot of what he said made me think of you, and I thought, if you were gay, I didn’t want you to have to go through all that stuff alone. I went online and found a bunch of really good sites that explained what you might be going through and
how I could let you know that I was someone you could be open with and not worry I’d tell anyone else.”
“You really did all that for me?”
“Of course, I did. Jesse even told me that, if you wanted, you could e-mail him and have someone else to talk to.”
“And, just to let you know, Jesse’s pretty hot. If that helps.”
I laughed. It was nice of Blake to give me a chance to smile.
“You have no idea.”
“I’ve still got a long way to go.”
“I know. But at least you won’t have to do it alone, right?”
I nodded. “That means a lot to me.”
“Not to be nosy … but you and Shane haven’t had sex, have you?”
“God.” I turned red.
“I mean, it’s cool if you ever do, just … I just wanna make sure you’re safe. That’s all.”
“No, we haven’t had sex.”
Blake nudged my arm with his elbow. “But you’ve thought about it, right?”
I went redder still. “Well, of course, I’ve thought about it. I think about it all the time. Don’t you?”
“About sex with Shane? I mean, he is pretty cute and all, but …”
“Idiot.” I chuckled. “You know what I meant.”
Blake laughed. “Of course, bud. I think about sex all the time, too. We’re guys—it’s how we’re programmed.”
100% of my profits from the sale of One Boy’s Shadow go to non-profit organizations. I am raising funds to support The Youth Project, a safe-haven/resource centre for LGBTQ youth in my province’s capital city of Halifax. Please check out their site and Facebook page:
Buying links For One Boy’s Shadow
Thanks for the chat!
Thanks again Ross and good luck with the WIP!!