ALU Summer Book Club: Intro to Monster Child

All Lit Up’s Summer Book Club continues this month with another brand new read: Rahela Nayebzadah’s Monster Child from Wolsak and Wynn/Buckrider Books sparked us from its very first pages. Today we talk to Paul Vermeersch, senior editor at Wolsak and Wynn, about publishing the book: “There’s a girl who cries tears of blood. There’s a lot of blood, and this haunted feeling, but a subtle haunting. Of course I wanted to publish it.”


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Download a passage from Monster Child here.

Our second read for ALU summer book club proved to be all kinds of riveting: Rahela Nayebzadah’s Monster Child is a magical, unputdownable debut that knocked our socks off. Nayebzadah’s ability to draw us in with vivid imagery and deeply-realized characters had us fully swept up in the lives of the Afshar’s, a working-class Afghani family in suburban BC. The novel unfolds through the eyes of the family’s three children—Beh, Shabnam, and Alif—as they take turns telling a dark and spellbinding story that had us wondering by the end: who exactly is the monster child? We’ll share more of our thoughts on the book next week, but first we talked to the novel’s editor Paul Vermeersch who discovered Monster Child in a slush pile at Wolsak and Wynn and subsequently published it under the Buckrider Books imprint. Thank you, Paul and team Wolsak!

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All Lit Up: Monster Child is Rahela Nayebzadah’s first book with Wolsak and Wynn. What drew you to her work? What made Monster Child a must-publish for the Buckrider Books imprint?Paul Vermeersch: I found Monster Child in the slush pile at the Wolsak and Wynn office. Rahela had submitted it to us during our open reading period. Usually, when a submission interests me, I’ll bring it home and take my time reading it. But this time, the title caught my eye, so I sat down and started reading it right there. I think I read half of it before I stood up again. I was captivated by the tone of it. It was dark, but boisterous. And it was written in the voices of these children, but it wasn’t a children’s book. That’s such a difficult thing to pull off. A child narrator so often signal that a story is for children. But here was a gritty, nuanced, mature story with three young narrators. On the surface, it’s a family story, a cultural snapshot—what people might call kitchen-sink realism—but this is a glitchy kind of realism, like a photo negative tinged with blood magic. There is a wildness in it. There’s a girl who cries tears of blood. There’s a lot of blood, and this haunted feeling, but a subtle haunting. Of course I wanted to publish it.  ALU: Can you tell us a bit about the editorial process behind Monster Child?PV: Stories are illusions. Stage magicians have a useful lesson to teach us about revealing our tricks. I don’t like to get too detailed about the editorial process because it might ruin the illusion. I can tell you we worked very hard on this book. Rahela worked very hard. We knew we had to get the voices of the three narrators just right. They had to be different enough to tell them apart but similar enough that it was clear they grew up under the same roof. We worked on pacing. It’s a very slim book, and we allowed it to be slim. And of course, an enormous effort went into getting the Dari right and depicting the culture the Afghan diaspora as accurately as possible. As uncanny as the story can sometimes be, it all had to feel real. If a reader is to believe that Shabnam can cry tears of blood, they must first believe everything else. ALU: The book cover is striking. How did the cover design come together? PV: I had several conversations with Noelle Allen, Wolsak and Wynn’s publisher, about the design brief for this book before we approached a designer. We wanted to get at the essence of the book without being too literal about the subject matter. We wanted to foreground the blood motif without having a literal bleeding eyeball on the cover. We wanted to communicate something about the three children without having a family portrait. There’s a scene early in the book where a sheep is selected for slaughter, and that image proved pivotal for getting the look of the book just right. The sheep on the cover symbolize the children without portraying them. The bloodstain appears as though the paper itself is saturated with it, instead of it being part of the picture, instead of it coming from the sheep. It’s less gory, but more meaningful. It is as though the medium of storytelling itself is permeated with blood. I think that’s how this book feels. Michel Vrana designs a lot of covers for us, and he designed this one, and once again, I think he nailed it.  ALU: What can readers look forward to in their reading of the novel?PV: Well, first of all, you get to know these three kids: Beh, Shabnam, and Alif. They are wonderful. I’ve spent so much time working on this book with Rahela, that I really feel as though they are real people, and I kind of miss them. They find themselves in some messed up situations, and sometimes they do the wrong things, but they are good kids, and they are captivating. Sure, they’re outwardly unassuming—they seem like normal, working-class suburban kids—but everything about this story is quietly intense. The characters are quietly intense. When something strange occurs, the strangeness catches you by surprise, but never in a way that takes you out of the story. And the more you see the world through their eyes, the more you become them, and they become you. Julio Cortazar has a story about a man who goes to an aquarium to look at axolotls; eventually, he looks so deeply into an axolotl’s eyes that becomes an axolotl. It’s symbolic of how a story can get inside you and change you. I think the protagonists of Monster Child can do that, too. ALU: Did anything surprising happen on the way to publication? Any anecdotes you would like to share?PV: There was this little matter of a global pandemic, and then a series of publication delays because of it. Other than that, everything has been perfectly normal. And then I started crying tears of blood.   

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Paul Vermeersch is the senior editor of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers and the creator of the Buckrider Books imprint. He is also a poet, multimedia artist, and creative writing professor. His poetry collections include The Reinvention of the Human Hand, a finalist for the 2011 Trillium Book Award, and most recently, Shared Universe: New and Selected Poems 1995-2020. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph for which he received the Governor General’s Gold Medal. He teaches in the Honours Bachelor of Creative Writing & Publishing program at Sheridan College where he is the founding editor of The Ampersand Review of Writing & Publishing. He lives in Toronto. Photo credit Meg Matera Photography