CULTIVATING CREATIVITY: Writing dystopian fiction during a pandemic

By Janet Jarrell/Quinte Arts Council

Jerri Chisholm’s bio lists young adult author, distance runner, and chocolate addict to her credit. She grew up with an eccentric father, a large imagination and a parrot as a family pet. After completing a master’s degree in public policy, she became a lawyer and lives in Belleville with her family.

When Chisholm had her first child, she switched to consulting work to stay home during the early years and yet still keep her foot in the door with the intention of going back to practising law full time at some point.

In theory, this sounds like a solid plan. However, with her first baby, she found it difficult to be a full-time mom and have the time and focus to complete the consulting work as well. She dropped the consulting work.

When things got a little easier at home, she turned to writing. It is something she always wanted to pursue, “so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to give my outlandish writing dream a try,” she says.

She squeezes writing into those moments when the kids are napping during the day or sleeping at night. In the first few years she wrote a couple of books. She sent them around to as many agents in Canada as she could find, with little or no response. She went one step further and sent them along to agents in the U.S., but still had no luck with those early books: “They will never see the light of day,” she says.

She learned the process from that experience, and what makes for a good story. She also knew this was just the beginning. She began writing Escaping Eleven about four years ago. It took a little over six months to write and then she sent it around to the many agents and again, the no’s started coming in.

Chisholm persevered and she is proud of that. There were moments when she asked, “Am I sane?” Yet, it never entered her mind to quit. From time to time, an agent would ask for partial manuscripts, and that was an exciting, hopeful breakthrough. She admits, “that is all part of the process, and the process is very, very slow.”

Then it happened – an agent based in the U.S. made a request for the full manuscript. Chisholm was aware of the ‘slush pile’ of manuscripts that agents all have to get through, so she was prepared for a wait. Finally, the agent read the manuscript, loved it, and was ready to begin negotiations for a deal; but that was when the real work began.

The agent wanted to do edits and give some feedback. Chisholm readied herself for some grammar and spelling, but was not ready for the pages of reworks. It was all a little overwhelming, coupled with the fact that Chisholm now had a newborn (her third child) at home. “For the bulk of the pandemic, March through August, I was working on Escaping Eleven edits, a more demanding process than I anticipated,” she says. “Each round involved substantive shifts in plot, rejigging character development, creating new scenes, and eliminating others. Doing all that with three children at home was trying, at times, just as it was for most other parents out there.”

Head down, reworks during naps and night sleeping, she was determined to get it done. I was curious how juggling mothering and writing so intensely affected her work: “Since Escaping Eleven has quite a bit of violence and some romance, I can’t say my kids were on the forefront of my mind,” says Chisholm. “But, of course, they always have a presence, and so I was mindful to create a strong female protagonist, along with a diverse cast of characters who aren’t willing to accept the status quo. Values like freedom and equality are central to the story, and since a large chunk of the protagonist’s struggle happens internally, I hope my kids glean that sometimes in life there is no rigid dichotomy between right and wrong, there is no black and white, and working through all that is part of the human experience.”

When asked if living through a pandemic has any influence on dystopian material, Chisholm says, “I distinctly remember back in early March sitting on a beach somewhere sunny, thinking about yoga and food and other lovely things. And then I picked up my phone and saw one Breaking News headline after the other—cruise ships stranded, schools shutting down, borders about to close—and I thought to myself, ’Well, the world is about to end…that happened quickly.’ It was a wakeup call that those far-flung, dystopian societies aren’t as far-flung as we’d like to believe. So, going forward, dystopian writers are going to have to dig deeper, push the envelope on imagining how horrific things could be… Otherwise, I guess what we’re writing is contemporary fiction!”

The publisher was happy with the progress, but had more edits, including the change of the cover art. Head down, Chisholm went back to work refining the book. Eventually, the edits were complete and the agent negotiated a deal for a trilogy — Escaping Eleven went straight to hardcover. “A trilogy seemed like an excellent idea at the front end of the process, since it would give me plenty of time to explore plotlines and develop characters. Right now, in the middle of writing Book Three, there are moments when I kick myself. I know exactly how the trilogy needs to end…but getting my characters there after already putting them through so much is challenging.” she says. “There are multiple storylines to wrap up, and yet the third book still needs to feel fresh, which means new characters and new problems to contend with. Plus, I have to make some pretty heavy decisions on who will ultimately live…and who will die!”

She adds: “I never really expected to get published, and all along I assumed I would be back to work as a lawyer by now. Instead I’m doing this, and, I must say, it is far more fun.”

Escaping Eleven, published December 8 by Entangled Teen, is available now.

This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Umbrella magazine, delivered to QAC members’ mailboxes shortly. This limited edition will also be available in select locations.