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Strength from Solitude - Frieda Wishinsky speaks with Monica Hughes
by Frieda Wishinsky

The stories of the prolific young adult writer Monica Hughes seem to flow from her pen. But each of her carefully crafted tales simmers in her mind for a long time before she puts it down on paper.

"I keep an idea in my head and let it grow there," she says.

And as the idea grows, she develops a plot, builds characters, envisions places, and nurtures the theme that ties it all together.

What are those themes? What are the concerns and issues that link her stories?

Her stories often focus on environmental problems. She has a deep concern for the damage humans inflict on the planet. She also has a profound understanding of the loneliness young people experience as they strive to find a place for themselves in a difficult, complex world.

"The most intense agony of a child is loneliness," she says. Yet despite the loneliness, her characters learn how to draw on their strengths to cope with their feelings and predicaments. Many of them display ingenuity, curiosity, and an independent spirit.

Hughes intimately understands the intense loneliness of childhood and the search for a place in the world. Born in Liverpool, England, she grew up in Egypt and Great Britain. Her father was a mathematician and somewhat of a hermit. Her mother was quiet and unobtrusive.

She and her only sister were given freedom to think, to dream, to discover their interests. "You had your own time," says Hughes. "There wasn't much external entertainment. You played your own imaginative games."

Later, during World War II, Hughes worked in the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service). After the war, she spent two years working in a dress factory and in a bank in what is now Zimbabwe. In 1952, she emigrated to Canada and worked in Ottawa before marrying in 1957.

Although the love of stories and desire to write were always present, Hughes did not actually begin writing till 1971, when her youngest child started school. Then, as if a floodgate had suddenly opened, the stories poured out. Between 1974 and 1995, she had twenty-seven novels published, two-thirds of which have science fiction themes.

Her most recent book, The Seven Magpies, though not truly a science fiction tale, does have deep elements of magic and the unknown. It also explores other themes that resonate in many of Hughes's stories: a lonely heroine, a strange setting, and mysterious events. And it is set during World War II, a time she vividly recalls.

In this story, Hughes describes the hauntingly beautiful Scottish Highlands. She conveys the sense of looming fear that pervaded the troubled and trying war years. The tension of the war's horrors, even for those who lived in remote parts like the Highlands, hangs like a curtain over the story and the heroine, Maureen Fraser.

Maureen has been forced by her parents to attend the Logan Academy for Young Ladies. Her father is off fighting in the war and her mother is busy with the WRNS in London. Her parents are confident that in Scotland, Maureen will be shielded from the dangers of the war. But even in the Highlands, there is no escape from it or from the complexities of life.

Maureen soon contends with the girls at her new school. She's left out of their tight clique, strange whisperings, and rules. She's affected also by the stark Highland landscape, which both fascinates and frightens her. It too seems to hold secrets, mysteries, even magic.

Suddenly the war intrudes on the eerie quiet of the ancient Highland hills. And as it does, it draws Maureen into dangerous situations and questions of loyalty and betrayal. In the process, she has to draw upon her reserves of intelligence, intuition, and courage.

The Seven Magpies touches on a place and a past Hughes knows well. Yet she is just as comfortable and adept at setting her tales in the future, in places that exist only in her imagination.

"The basic issues are the same," she says. Matters such as the desire to belong, the hurt in being left out, and the need for empowerment and control are perennial conditions of childhood.

But futuristic settings have given Hughes a special kind of freedom. They've allowed her to explore the possible consequences of present actions-such as society's wanton destruction of the earth's natural resources and the deterioration of the elements that make life possible and pleasant on earth.

And from those concerns, Hughes has fashioned a steady flow of stories. How does she create so many plots in so short a time? Perhaps it's because she is also always open to new story ideas.

The plot for an upcoming book, for example, took shape after a conversation with a teacher on a plane. The teacher was returning to her teaching job abroad after a six-month sabbatical. "She could almost not bear to go back," says Hughes. "They read no fiction at all in her country. They play no imaginative games. She told me how hard it was to teach only facts."

That conversation saddened and intrigued Hughes. And soon a story was born. And although the final manuscript was not set in the teacher's country, but in a mythical island Hughes created, the theme inspired by that conversation set the stage.

It's a creative process that's as magical as any plot. And Hughes knows that and enjoys every aspect of it. "It`s wonderful fun," she says with a twinkle of delight. 

Frieda Wishinsky is a freelance writer. Her latest book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone, HarperCollins.


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