William Bell e-interviewed by Hilary Williamson (September, 2006)
William Bell was born in Toronto, Canada. He taught high school English in Ontario until 2002. He has also taught at the Harbin University of Science and Technology and the Foreign Affairs College in China, and at the University of British Columbia. His YA novels have been translated into nine languages and have won many awards including the Manitoba Readers' Choice Award, the Mr. Christie's Award, the Ruth Schwartz Award, and the Canadian Librarians' Association Award. He lives in Orillia, Ontario with his wife, author Ting-xing Ye.
William Bell's recent release, The Blue Helmet is about a teen, Lee, in the habit of violence, who develops an odd friendship with a man damaged by war. Gradually - and indirectly - Lee learns from him that 'you have two choices, the green helmet or the blue one'.
Q: The first of your books that I read was the powerful Forbidden City, in which your protagonist, Alex Jackson, had – in common with many young men - a passion for war movies and strategy games. Is that something you share with him?
A: I share Alex's interest in history but not his hobby, making models of famous military battles. I got that idea from a friend of my parents, a man in his sixties who made lead soldiers and constructed replicas of battle locations, when I was at the initial stage of writing Forbidden City.
I'm not fond of war movies, especially those that glorify war and propagandize the audience. I do like to read accounts of battles and campaigns, not for the martial aspect but because of the human drama of men and women struggling in a situation not of their making. These accounts have little in common with the average Hollywood war flick, and never exalt war or define manhood as the willingness to commit violence.
Q: In your article, It Isn't Just a Story, you speak of how important it was to you to write about the massacre in Tian An Men Square and tell the world what happened. You mention that Forbidden City has been published in 11 countries and 8 languages. Have people written or emailed you about what your writing meant to them? Has the book made a difference?
A: I have received many messages about Forbidden City from readers across North America and Europe. The writers usually talk about how much they liked the novel and how much they learned from it.
The book is used in many schools and so has wide exposure; for that reason I suppose it has made a difference in that it has made people aware of the events in Beijing in June, 1989. (The Chinese government continues to deny what happened.)
Q: You lived and taught in China for two years in the 1980s. Did you meet your wife, Ting-xing Ye, there? And do the two of you share story ideas and critique each other's work?
A: I met Ting-xing in Beijing in 1985, where I was teaching at a college. We work together on all our writing projects and enjoy doing so. We are each other's "first reader," providing feedback and offering suggestions. We support each other, but do not shy away from honest, straight-forward comments. Although it sounds corny, we are each other's biggest fan.
Writers are often (if not continuously) riddled with self-doubt, and sometimes we get discouraged and find it hard to keep going. On these occasions it's great to have someone around who understands what you're going through. Many writers seek out support groups; we have each other.
Q: I was also in Beijing in 1985 (on a cycling trip) and recall how interested people (especially students) were in talking to foreigners, but also how quickly they clammed up when an official arrived. Was that a problem for you when you lived in China?
A: Living and teaching in China gives you the opportunity to get to know people and even make friends. It's important for visitors to keep in mind that recent history has conditioned people there to be cautious about what they say, especially to foreigners.
For me, when I taught there, this was not a problem because I didn't expect my Chinese students and colleagues to "open up" or "bare their souls." I never discussed politics with them and tried not to ask questions that would put them on the spot. Nevertheless, I had a few close friends who trusted me enough to speak their minds privately.
As a teacher I found quite a challenge persuading students to venture personal viewpoints. In Canada we encourage our students to express opinions and we teach them how to articulate their views in speaking and in writing, and how to marshal evidence and references to support their stands. Chinese students are used to expressing the official response, not a personal one.
Too many people, especially some of our politicians in North America, continue to confuse freedom with free market. China is now a free market economy, but politically, even though the constitution recognizes civil rights, such rights do not exist. Freedom of speech remains a dream. Q: The three books of yours that I've read so far (Forbidden City, just some stuff i wrote, and The Blue Helmet) center on individuals isolated in some way, and on relatively dysfunctional families. Does this reflect your view of modern society, and is it influenced by a teacher's perspective?
A: Taken together, my stories don't lean in the direction of serious disharmony in families. In Five Days of the Ghost, Zack and Stones we find protagonists in very happy families. "Dysfunctional" is a word I dislike because it's judgmental and implies that all families that do not measure up to an arbitrary definition of the norm are somehow deficient or "broken."
All families have their share of conflict, and conflict is the stuff of narrative. Because teenagers are, at least to some extent, involved in the painful, comical, contradictory process of defining themselves and becoming independent individuals, they understand and relate to discord in relationships. They are also well acquainted with alienation and isolation - in their interaction with family members, authority figures like teachers, and their peers. Occasional or longterm feelings of isolation are part of the teenage baggage, and the desire to belong stays with us for our entire time on earth.
Many of my protagonists are alienated or cut off; this is perhaps a central characteristic of my stories. Why? Probably because I'm so familiar with the phenomenon.
Q: You fooled me at the beginning of The Blue Helmet, which seemed at first like a same old, same old tale of a troubled teen - it quickly morphed into something else, first a compassionate view of those who live on the fringe, and then a hard look at the damage done by war and violence. Did you set out with a clear direction and goal when writing this novel or did it evolve along the way?
A: Like Stones, The Blue Helmet looks as if it's going to be a certain "kind" of tale, then it seems to shift gears and turn down a different road. I would say the story doesn't so much become something else as deepen and become more complex. Alfred Hitchcock, the movie director, called this story-telling technique "the McGuffin."
The narrative line of The Blue Helmet is wholly intentional and carefully planned. In shaping all facets of the story I take care not to blend the different elements too smoothly or make the pattern of the story "seamless." Rather, I invite the reader to make the connections, just as the viewer almost unconsciously participates in the development of the plot when watching a movie, following along as the movie "cuts" from scene to scene, and building the bridges between them.
Q: You get into bullying in The Blue Helmet, and how victims can sometimes evolve into bullies themselves. Have you observed this in teaching and/or in your own school years?
A: Bullies are weak. Viewed critically, they are losers who build their sense of importance by forcing others - physically or psychologically - to conform to their will. They hate individuality and they loathe strength of character. Viewed charitably, they are needy people whose insecurity is so profound that they feel whole only when others validate them by conforming to their will. That's why they prey on others who lack confidence.
Those who are bullied often become bullies themselves because of that same insecurity.
Every teacher, if he or she has eyes to see, is familiar with bullying. But much bullying occurs out of the purview of authority figures and is hard to combat.
Related to the bully but not quite the same is the person for whom violence is an acceptable - often the preferred - method of dealing with a problem. I would put the Lee we meet at the beginning of the novel in this category, and it is in this respect that he resembles actors on the international scene.
Q: A key character in The Blue Helmet turns out to have served in the Balkans as a peacekeeper; how did you go about researching this? Do you think the peacekeeping role is an effective one, and that it can improve people's lives?
A: As noted in the back of The Blue Helmet, I used several books in researching the Balkan campaign by the PPCLI in 1993, notably Carol Off's The Ghosts of Medak Pocket: Canada's Secret War (Random House Canada, 2004). Also very helpful was Maggie Helwig's novel, Between Mountains (Knopf Canada, 2004) which shows the traumatizing effect of the wider Balkan conflict on two non-combatants, a journalist and an interpreter.
Cutter's story reflects the effects of PTSD on my late uncle, who was taken into the RCAF at 17 1/2, flew 11 bombing missions over Germany as a tail gunner in 1944, and was discharged at 19 as "unsuitable" after being stripped of his medals and flying badge, physically unharmed but damaged in other ways. Like Cutter, he was mistreated by the military in which he served.
I believe that peacekeeping is our only hope for the future. Considering the framework, bureaucratic and otherwise, in which peacekeepers are required to operate, I think their efforts and achievements are heroic and extremely impressive, and show our country at its best.
Q: Can you tell us anything about your next project(s)?
A: As of this writing, I have a couple of ideas in mind, but nothing I can talk about.Find out more about William Bell, his background and his books, and read his essays at Greenleaf.org.
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