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Learning to Write like a Child - Frieda Wishinsky speaks with Joe Kertes
by Frieda Wishinsky

"There are two kinds of writers," says Joe Kertes. "The Timothy Findley kind who can project themselves into another world and time and the Philip Roth type who write a broadened version of their own experience."

There is no doubt in which category Kertes, an acclaimed writer of both adult and children's books, as well as the head of the renowned Humber College Writing Program, belongs. His work is firmly rooted in his experiences and background. One of three sons of immigrant parents from Hungary, he arrived in Canada as a child with his family. Though by no means autobiographical, all four of his books explore themes, describe personalities, and present settings drawn from Kertes's life and his family's adjustment to a new country. Through his words, the reader senses that he intimately understands the world he develops. He knows people like his characters. He empathizes with their conflicts and relishes their humour.

But Kertes was a "late bloomer" to writing. He did write one early work, a novella, at fifteen, which he rediscovered a few years ago. "My parents were throwing out a big box of my stuff and I was flipping through it. I pulled out this novella and was appalled at how bad it was," he laughs. "But even though it was awful, it made me realize that you learn every time you write."

It wasn't till after completing a B.A., M.A., and part of a Ph.D., that Kertes began writing seriously. At that time he was also teaching composition at Humber. He credits the support of Humber colleagues and his wife Helen for helping him through the process.

"I always wanted to write," he explains. "I kept saying, `I want to write. I want to write.' It was my wife Helen who finally pushed me to do it," he relates smiling. "So I decided to write every single night for however long it took till I finished my novel. I wouldn't watch the news. I wouldn't listen to the baseball scores. I would just carve out some time no matter how tired I was."

Teaching composition was also influential in shaping his style. "I kept teaching clean, clear, precise writing and it rubbed off on me. I always begin the year with composition classes by telling my students what Picasso said. That it took him his whole life to learn to paint like a child. That's true of writing also."

Kertes followed through on his writing decision and the result was his first novel, Winter Tulips (Doubleday Canada), published in 1988. To his delight, this fast-paced, funny, coming-of-age novel won the Stephen Leacock Award.

His next book, soon to be published by ECW Press, began as a short story. "Paul Quarrington saw it and said you have to turn Boardwalk into a novel. At the time I was working on an epic novel and I told Paul that. He said just take three months off. So I did. And it was the only time I felt that something absolutely and completely wrote itself. It was such a thrill." The theme of Boardwalk continues Kertes's interest in the strong bonds that link family members together. "Boardwalk explores the difference between two brothers who have completely different values and who come from completely different places psychologically," he says. "They disapprove of each other but love each other too."

Like his adult novels, Kertes's children's books have evolved naturally. His first children's book, The Gift (Groundwood), was written, "when I suppressed the urge to write my big immigrant epic novel," he says. The Gift, a gentle story of the friendship of two boys from different backgrounds, led directly to Kertes's latest children's book, The Red Corduroy Shirt (Stoddart), which deals poignantly with friendship, with cultural understanding and misunderstanding. The two children's books share a strong sense of time and place: Toronto in the late 1950s and early '60s.

At present, Kertes is immersed in his epic three-generation novel. It's called Yard with Trees and much of it is set in Hungary. "It covers two periods in which I didn't live," he says. "I had to do a lot of research." Luckily, he was offered an opportunity to teach in Hungary. He spent an eye-opening and emotionally intense month in a country he hadn't seen since he was a child.

In Hungary Kertes lectured on such topics as "The Effects of Mass Media and Perception" to keenly interested students. "They don't have the kind of TV access we have," he says. "They read a lot and are wonderful to teach." He also travelled, spoke to people, visited historic sites, and soaked up the cultural and political atmosphere.

Now with the upcoming publication of two new books, one adult and one for children, what of Kertes's future plans? Besides completing Yard with Trees, he is busy creating exciting new programs for Humber. He recently began an innovative and well-received summer comedy workshop and continues to oversee the Humber College Writing Program.

Although not a full-time writer, Kertes is committed to continuing what has become an undeniable passion. "I love writings place in my life," he says. "I write because I love to write. I write what I have to write. I need to tell a story." 

Frieda Wishinsky is a freelance author. Her latest book is Jennifer Jones Won't Leave Me Alone (HarperCollins Canada).

This month, the children's book reviews have been held over for a larger section in the December issue.


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