Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 21, 2002
Local children's author honoured
Monica Hughes says writing unites her faith and imagination
By RENATO GANDIA
WCR Staff Writer
Monica Hughes, 76, has always loved reading and writing. She learned to read even before going to school and still remembers some of the early books, especially the terrifying illustrations of Straw Peter.
One of Canada's best-known authors of young adult and children's literature, Hughes is now a member of the Order of Canada.
Well loved by her readers, she enchants her audience with heroic protagonists, fascinating settings and sensitive conflict resolution.
Her beautifully told stories include works of science fiction, historical fiction and contemporary realism, and have been translated into many languages.
She has received numerous national and international awards and continues to inspire and share her talent with new Canadian writers.
But being a member of the Order of Canada is exciting for Hughes.
"I was in total disbelief when I received communication from (the Governor General's office)," Hughes told the WCR.
Aside from writing, faith is important for Hughes, a long-time member of Edmonton's St. Andrew Parish. Faith influences her writing.
"Totally. I think it's one of those things that's almost impossible to separate - like Siamese twins.
"It's my life, my faith, my imagination and what I do as a writer. They are all tied in together and it's hard to separate."
In the midst of her hectic schedule, Hughes still finds time to be involved in her parish where she is a lector.
In the past she was involved in the parish's Development and Peace committee. Hughes used to put out a bulletin every week during Lent using the materials provided by the archdiocesan CCODP.
Professionally, Hughes' career in writing began with a flood of publishers' rejection slips. While living in London and Zimbabwe she wrote adult short stories and even novels, but no luck.
But in 1971 when her youngest child started school, she explored juvenile novels. The would-be writer devoured them and found her voice.
While enrolled in a correspondence course on writing from the University of Chicago, Hughes decided to write four hours a day for a full year. She began by sitting at the kitchen table with a black Bic pen and loose-leaf paper, painfully typing it all later.
"I still use the same system, only now I have a magical word processor to help me edit."
In 1975, Hughes wrote her third book, Crisis on Conshelf Ten, which was accepted by an international publisher. Since that time, she has had 32 books published, plus a number of short stories.
Hughes received an international award for her book Keeper of the Isis Light from the prestigious Phoenix in 2000. The award was given to a book that survived in the literary world for 20 years.
Asked to describe Hughes' writing, book reviewer Doug Barbour replied "She recognizes the universality of human emotions and deals with them in a clear-hearted as well as clear-headed fashion."
Hughes is not afraid to tackle tough moral and emotional subjects, yet she never fails to tell an entertaining and well-extrapolated science fictional story that can appeal to all readers, Barbour said.
Hughes is particularly interested in the tension between scientific progress and ecology. After watching a program by Jacques Cousteau about an underwater habitat, Hughes asked herself, "What would it be like to live under the sea?"
"That was the first projection of the now into the future."
Hughes was focused on technological details when she started writing science fiction, but in story after story, she began to ask different questions. How does the world affect the people and their relationships? How do advances in technology affect ecology?
"I have an ideas file full of possible novel and short story starters, enough for the next 10 years."
Before coming to Canada in 1952, Hughes lived in Zimbabwe for two years, working in a dress factory and a bank. Then Canada's National Research Council employed her as a lab tech.
She enjoyed her job in Ottawa, met Glen and got married. Because of her husband's job with the government, they moved to Edmonton in 1964.
"I had a difficulty when I moved to Alberta. Ontario was so beautiful . . . the colours."
"Then I decided I'm going to make myself like it. So I started paying attention to grasses and things like that." This brought her to explore painting, embroidery and weaving while she continued to write.
At one point Hughes couldn't make up her mind whether she was going to be a full-time writer or a full-time weaver.
"But then I decided words were more important to me, as I realized that wall hangings lose their popularity easily, but people will keep on reading."
"Love of words" nurtures Hughes' spirit. "I think it is a self-perpetuating thing: this goes back to when I was a child and I only wanted to be a writer.
"(It's) the same thing now . . . growing old and learning more. I still love to communicate to people through my books."
When not writing, Hughes sews and knits for her four children, Liz, Adrienne, Russ and Tom, and four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
In between doing volunteer work for her parish plus other groups, Hughes swims three times a week.
"It's a great time for ironing out wrinkles in plots."
By summertime, Harper Collins will publish her next book called The Maze, a science fiction fantasy, partly inspired by a teen murder case in Victoria.