Sylvia McNicoll is the author of the new young adult novel Body Swap, in which a teenager and a senior citizen switch places after an accident. Her many other books include Dying to Go Viral and Best Friends through Eternity. She lives in Burlington, Ontario.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Body Swap, and for your characters Hallie and Susan?
A: Senseless death in a young person is the single most event I feel overwhelmed by in life--if only I could change even one factor so that they don’t pay for some inattentive or foolhardy moment with their lives.
Regret is an emotion, therefore, I feel compelled to probe. How powerful is it? Can we change any point of our past if our regret is strong enough?
It’s a theme I also explored in Dying to Go Viral and Best Friends through Eternity. The main character dies in the first chapter and then gets a do-over in the rest of the story so that their regret can change something even if it’s not their ultimate fate.
Enter Hallie. She’s inspired by a real girl (as all of my main characters are) run over by an 86-year-old driver in our local parking lot. While I blamed the senior, she claimed vehicle malfunction and the courts allowed her to keep driving. When I expressed dismay at their decision, my writing buddy told me I was an ageist. I realized she was right.
Q: What do you think the book says about aging, and perceptions of older people?
A: I think Body Swap reminds/warns me, and so perhaps my reader, that with good health and barring accidents, we will all grow older and we should all work together to make that experience more of a reward for living well.
People love to say age is just a number but failing health can be the real determinant or quantifier of your life. Youth is not a skill or quality we earn, we all start out young. Age is the real privilege, as Eli in the novel says, and reward for good luck, exercise, sunscreen and healthy eating.
Q: Did you make many changes along the way?
A: Initially I wrote Susan’s thread in third person. I felt it separated her strand more clearly, gave it a natural distance for my young readers without cliché ageist mannerisms on both sides of the generations.
But all my writing friends, my agent, and even my editor later insisted I rewrite and then later stick with first person. (I kept wanting to switch back.) They were right.
I think it was important to give my readers the first person extreme closeness with the experience of aging and no matter how you write it, whether for a film like Freaky Friday or for a novel like mine, soul switches are difficult to keep clear in your audience’s mind.
Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did it change.
A: As far as how the ending evolved, (for me they are never set in concrete even though I have something in mind): what I wanted most to do is challenge people’s perceptions of seniors and teens so I needed a twist.
Susan’s an intelligent woman; I knew she should become proactive about accepting some limitations in her abilities going forward which meant living in an assisted living facility of her own choice on her own terms.
But if I want to surprise the reader, I need to surprise myself. So the actual outcome of the vehicle acceleration propelled the surprise for me, and I hope for the reader. Once it fell into place, it seemed so natural to me.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers?
A: I am so indiscriminate. I love reading everything from the Coffee News in diners to the bulletin boards on school staff room walls. Even though they can be longer and more difficult reads, self-published novels sometimes give me a more authentic hit—these writers are so passionate about their stories they defy publishing norms!
So I guess I have no favourites. Most of my friends are writers, I buy all their books. I love buying and reading an author’s debut novel too. Those are lucky!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Currently I am rewriting a story called What the Dog Knows. It is a middle grade that explores some of the benefits our pets offer us…expanded. Brownie, the dog, is sage, funny, loyal, and loving and he wants to save his 13-year-old person Naomi from drowning. (This is another regret story.)
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I am so grateful and happy to have such a long, evolving writing career. I love my work and my readers.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a link to Sylvia McNicoll reading from Body Swap.