University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

In Their Own Write

Kenneth Oppel, Andrew Pyper, Lynn Crosbie, Cristina Kuok, David Layton and Tim Long

Kenneth Oppel
He has written about video-game addicts, giant praying mantises and the whaling adventures of a seven-year-old. He has read with J.K. Rowling at the SkyDome in front of 16,000 fans and receives oodles of mail from adoring kids. So tell us, what kind of out-of-this-world bedtime stories does children’s author Kenneth Oppel concoct for daughter Sophia, 5, and son Nathaniel, 2? Well, ahem, usually none. “After I’ve spent my day thinking up stories, I think, ‘This is work. I don’t want to work any more. Let’s read a book,’” he laughs.

Oppel (BA 1989 Trinity) can be forgiven for needing a few minutes of downtime. He has published 16 children’s and young adult books, and recently wrote his first novel for grown-ups, a medical thriller called The Devil’s Cure. He is also the author of the best-selling titles Sunwing and Silverwing, about a tiny but tenacious bat named Shade. “I had always said I’d never write a talking-animal story,” says Oppel, 33. “But there was a literary challenge in writing about animals who saw with sound as much as sight.”

Oppel’s first book, Colin’s Fantastic Video Adventure, was published when he was just 17 after he received encouragement from children’s author Roald Dahl. – Stacey Gibson

Andrew Pyper
Andrew Pyper, author of Lost Girls, is explaining how his U of T tax class inspired him creatively. Sort of. The 1995 law grad’s well-intentioned attempts at note-taking would inevitably disintegrate into scribblings of short stories. “I couldn’t sustain that much tax reality,” he laughs. Good thing. Kiss Me, his celebrated short-story collection, was published while he was articling at a Bay Street firm in 1996. After being called to the bar later that year, Pyper, 33, left law to write full time. “It was like leaving a bad relationship or running from a burning house,” he says. “It was more automatic than considered.”

If Pyper was running from a house on fire, he was also heading straight toward a chaotic fictional world rife with spectral sightings, hardened lawyers and small-town eccentrics. For two years, he concentrated on writing Lost Girls, the story of Bartholomew Crane, a lawyer who is defending a client accused of murdering two teenage girls in the backwater town of Murdoch, Ontario. The literary thriller intertwines elements of the Gothic with the psychological – while also being compulsively readable.

Lost Girls became a national bestseller in 1999 and garnered Pyper six-figure two-book deals in the United States and the United Kingdom. The book was also optioned by Jersey Films. But Pyper, who is working on his second novel, approaches his commercial success with a grateful wariness. “I think if you try to anticipate or accommodate market pressures, you’re doomed,” he says. “Your work will always end up being compromised and it will read like it’s compromised.” – Stacey Gibson

Lynn Crosbie
It’s a rare person who can speak with equal authority on Robert Browning’s Fra Lippo Lippi and Hugh Hefner’s dating patterns. But poet and writer Lynn Crosbie fires off pop culture and literary references at the speed of Quentin Tarantino dialogue. This signature style is evident in her latest book, Dorothy L’Amour, a fiction piece based loosely on the life of murdered Playboy model Dorothy Stratten. “It’s sort of an extension of the dramatic monologue,” she says, citing Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid as an example of the form. “People are taking true stories and extrapolating or finding spaces inside of them to be creative.”

Crosbie’s writing shape-shifts into several forms and genres. She is the author of four poetry collections, including Pearl and Queen Rat; a culture critic whose work appears regularly in several magazines and newspapers; and author of Paul’s Case, the controversial book that features a series of fictional letters to murderer Paul Bernardo in the Kingston Penitentiary. Crosbie, 37, is also working on her first screenplay, about late Maple Leafs hockey player John Kordic.

Crosbie, who earned her PhD at U of T in 1996, says the university gave her a strong sense of the literary canon. “It gave me a nice basis for all the work I do because I always have this really quite large and awe-inspiring frame of reference.” – Stacey Gibson

Cristina Kuok
Getting paid to attend parties, charity balls and event openings may sound like a fantasy job, but not for Cristina Kuok. As the social editor until recently of Hong Kong Tatler, it was her responsibility to report on the area’s social scene. “I never studied journalism, so it surprises me that I ended up as a reporter,” says Kuok, who earned her BA in East Asian Studies from Woodsworth College.

After she graduated in 1994 Kuok returned to her birthplace, Hong Kong, and worked in a series of jobs involving public relations and event organization. At one function that she organized, she met the managing editor of Tatler; he later called her to ask her to identify people in the photographs of the event. “I said, ‘Maybe I should be doing your job.’ And he said, ‘Well, actually there is a job opening.’”

At Tatler, the 31-year-old Kuok met and interviewed celebrities like Chow Yun-Fat, the Hong Kong actor best known in North America for his starring role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Now she freelances for the magazine while working in a family business. “The best thing about the job was that you got to meet such a variety of people,” she says. – Hilary Davidson

David Layton
In his memoir, Motion Sickness, David Layton (BA 1995 Victoria) recounts his turbulent childhood journeys through Moroccan deserts, picturesque Greek villages and working-class London neighbourhoods. The reluctant odysseys were led by his mother, Aviva, who was in the midst of a prolonged breakup with David’s father, poet Irving Layton. The memoir captures family life with the honest, grainy coarseness of a documentary film, while also maintaining a delicate lyricism. “It was always conceived as a black comedy,” says Layton, 36. “Because of the nature of this family of mine – and the nature of families in general – there’s a lot to laugh about.”

Layton didn’t begin his writing career until his late 20s. After dropping out of high school, he worked as a day-care supervisor and a bank officer; during a year-long bout of unemployment, he read Hemingway, Conrad and Céline until dawn. At 25, Layton enrolled in U of T’s pre-university program (now called Academic Bridging), a six-month course that prepares mature students for undergraduate studies. “I was absolutely lost,” he says. “I completely hit a wall at 25, and the way to scale that wall was U of T. Considering the background of my family, I had this enormous fear of failing. I couldn’t bear the notion. It took me all those years to face that fact.”

Layton earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, went on to write for various periodicals and newspapers and is now at work on his first novel. Despite the success of Motion Sickness, he is still apprehensive about labelling himself a writer. “I have discovered that writing a first book is not the beginning of becoming a writer, it’s the end of wanting to be a writer,” he says. “It’s not till after three or four books that you can probably admit to yourself that you might be getting a handle on the game.” – Stacey Gibson

Tim Long
When Tim Long (BA 1992 UC) started writing for The Varsity student newspaper, he realized he had no taste for journalism, but quickly discovered a “knack for making fun of people.” His column satirizing campus politics garnered him an internship at New York’s Spy Magazine, which led to staff writing jobs at Spy, Politically Incorrect, The Late Show with David Letterman and now The Simpsons, easily the most successful half-hour animated comedy in the history of TV.

As a supervising producer with The Simpsons, Long writes, directs, oversees other writers and makes a wheelbarrow full of money. At 32, he thinks about retiring. Or maybe trying his hand at film. “I’m vastly overpaid,” he says. “I could probably fill my house with toonies.”

His advice for anyone attempting to follow in his footsteps? Don’t – unless you are in love with the work. “When I started out, I wasn’t making much money, but I never dreamed of doing anything else,” he says. “People who try to make a career out of what I do don’t do so well. People who care only about the quality of the work tend to do well.”

Letterman, he says, taught him that it was possible to put out a superior show within the American TV industry and to follow his true passion. Such as? “I’ve always had a burning desire to do something that’s not real work.” – Margaret Webb

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