Author David A. Poulsen. Photo from DUNDURN PRESS
Published on: December 3, 2016
A school gymnasium in the small Saskatchewan town of Ponteix is not the likeliest of spots for splashy national book launch.
But given the author and book in question — Calgary native David A. Poulsen’s young adult novel And Then the Sky Exploded (Dundurn Press, 207 pages, $12.99) — the locale for the late October event actually seems quite appropriate.
Organized by the school principal as part of a larger tour of Saskatchewan schools, the launch became a major social event in town. In fact, nearly 150 people showed up. Not bad for a community of 600.
But, as is often the case, the veteran author found that among the most engaged and curious when it came to discussing his newest title were the students.
“They are really very interested and very astute and I especially enjoy the question-and-answer period,” he says. ” A lot of times the kids ask really, really interesting, quite penetrating questions and I love that give and take with them.”
And Then the Sky Explodes certainly provides fodder for deep questions, offering a story that delves into the prickly notion of inherited guilt while probing one of history’s darkest moments.
Poulsen is a prolific and versatile author whose body of work includes everything from cook books, to crime thrillers, to comedic novels and children’s tales about vampires. But he has also carved a niche writing young adult fiction. And Then The Sky Explodes falls into a subset of those books, where Poulsen uses the horrors of history as a backdrop for contemporary stories with teen protagonists. The Old Man, released in 2013, dealt with lingering ramifications of the Vietnam War, while 2011’s Numbers was about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.
The new book offers an intriguing double narrative that follows the journey of a modern teen named Christian, who is horrified to find that his beloved great grandfather’s funeral that the man he adored was a member of the Manhattan Project and helped design the A-bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima during the Second World War.
Devastated by the discovery, Christian is naively determined to make amends during a school trip to Japan. That’s where he meets Yuko, an 81-year-old survivor of Hiroshima, whose story as an 11-year-old in 1945 Hiroshima is told through flashbacks.
“I like to try to put my characters in difficult circumstances and see how they can work themselves out of it,” Poulsen says. “Often those circumstances seem to involve major global things that have gone on in history. I’ve written about Vietnam and the Holocaust and now this. I wanted to examine the whole thing from a kid’s perspective.”
It was Japanese appreciation of Numbers, his 2011 book about a teenager who realizes his favourite teacher is a Holocaust denier, that directly set the new novel into motion. In 2012, Poulsen received a mysterious letter from Japan.
“Because I don’t know anybody in Japan, I thought it was probably a scam — you know, the Emperor of Japan wants to give me 300 million yen and all I have to do is sent my banking information,” he says. “But it wasn’t that. Inside the envelope was a really cool medal called the Sakura, which is given to the author who is voted on by the high-school students in Japan for having written their favourite novel of the previous year.”
As a result, Poulsen was able to expand his school tours to Japan and South Korea that year. While in the former, he decided to immerse himself in local history and culture. Soon, the beginnings of a young adult novel began forming in his head.
And Then the Sky Exploded has its fair share of humour and includes typical teen subplots involving bullies and football games. But Poulsen clearly subscribes to that theory in YA literature that young readers need not be coddled. Not only are they capable of handling dark material that pose big questions, they also have an innate ability to immediately detect when an author is being condescending or inauthentic, Poulsen says.
“I spend a lot of time, not just the time I spend formally in schools, but informally talking to kids and just listening to kids,” he says. “It’s really important that I am aware, that I know what it is they are talking about, what they are thinking about, the interactions they have with their friends and non-friends and teachers in schools. I spend a tremendous amount of time with kids and most of that time I try to listen. That’s what I think is the most important thing. I’ve read an awful lot of literature for young people and I think when it fails, it most often fails because the writer has not been able to capture the voice.”
It’s not surprising that Poulsen feels at home at schools. He trained to become an elementary school teacher, although after a few months teaching French quickly switched to teaching English to adults. He has also been a rodeo announcer, high school football coach and actor. But since the early 1980s, he has been a published author who now has an impressive 17 books under his belt. His next will be the second in his new Cullen and Cobb series, thrillers set in Calgary about an ex-cop and former crime reporter for the Calgary Herald.
It follows 2015’s Serpents Rising, which was the first in the series. Dundurn has ordered at least three more adventures from Cullen and Cobb.
“When I’m working on a project I try to set a word count of 1,000 words a day and I’m able to do that most of the time,” he says. “I feel like, if that’s my job I better do that job. One of the things I do is travel around and talk to groups as an author. So often I have people come up to me and say ‘I have this great book in my head, I have to tell you about it.’ I say ‘Yeah, it’s great, you need to write that.’ Then I’ll see that person again two years later and ask how the book is coming. They’ll say ‘Well, Aunt Martha moved in, we had to renovate the upstairs and the dog died … ‘ Well, you know what? That stuff all happens to writers, too, and somehow we manage to get those books out of our heads and onto paper.”
David A. Poulsen will hold a Calgary book launch for And then The Sky Exploded on Jan. 10 at the Calgary Japanese Community Association, 2236 29 St. SW, at 7 p.m.