If you wrote a book, what would it be about? For Colin Haskin, his first published book is about 14-year-old Fiona, who shrinks to the size of her pet ferret and experiences amazing adventures.
“Fiona has had enough of her parents’ problems and longs to escape and be with Bandit, her pet ferret,” Haskin said.
Why did Haskin, a veteran journalist of 44 years, choose to write young-adult fiction? Actually, he wrote an unpublished mystery-romance many years ago, but people who read it believed it was three books in one. “I’ve also made other attempts at fiction,” he said, “all of which slumber in shoe boxes at the bottom of a closet.”
A promise to his children to write a book for them and a hankering to try his hand at young-adult fiction set him on course to write Ferret Girl. “I wanted to write a story with little adult involvement, rather in the tradition of British children’s literature where mother, father and the nanny are left entirely out of the picture, and the protagonists must make all the decisions and, in the process, transition toward adulthood,” Haskin said. “For Fiona, that meant constructing a certain situation. She could just as easily have been shipwrecked, or, as in Hatchet, the contemporary classic by Gary Paulsen, she might have found herself the sole survivor of a plane crash. Fiona’s airplane wreck was, by her choice, an ill-advised physics experiment in which she manages to shrink herself to the size of her pet ferret. Her motivation was her unhappy family situation, and that had to be convincing. I also wanted to attempt a book that both adults and teens would enjoy. My inspiration was the likes of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. Neither are true children’s books.”
Fiona is modeled after Haskin’s two daughters, but it took him about three decades to write the book after first having the idea for it. His eldest daughter inspired the idea when she was 4 and became convinced her hamster was trying to communicate with her. Haskin said she decided she would only be able to communicate with the hamster if she were its size. He changed the hamster to a ferret for the book because he considers them more interesting and intelligent.
Writing the 180-page paperback took Haskin about five years, on and off. “Most of the book was written after my children grew up, or were in their late teens, and I was on my own,” Haskin said. “I enjoyed long vacations from my job as an editor at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, so I used the time to write. When I couldn’t keep my hands off the thing, I would sometimes work on it in the newsroom amid all the bustle of a daily. Ferret Girl has been rewritten many times. For several years, I made a long daily commute by bus. It was my practice after each rewrite, to print out the manuscript and edit it while riding back and forth. When I came to the last page, I entered the changes on my computer, rewrote here and there as I went, and started the process all over again. Toward the end, I resolved that each rewrite must be 10 per cent shorter than its predecessor. Less is better.”
Haskin’s home situation, long work hours and travel schedule never permitted him to own a ferret, but he did extensive research to capture the true character of ferrets. He even asked Scarlett Gray-Saling, a ferret breeder and founder of the Heart of Ohio Ferret Association, to read an almost-final draft of the manuscript. “She set me straight on a thing or two about ferrets.”
Ferret Girl has already earned the Kirkus Star, which is awarded by the editors of Kirkus Reviews to books of remarkable merit. Haskin pointed out that the Kirkus Star is awarded to fewer than 10 percent of all books it reviews, and it reviews more than 500 submissions each month. He hopes that Ferret Girl will flourish. “I would like to see the book enter a second and third printing,” Haskin said. “Perhaps, if Ferret Girl sells well, a mainstream publisher might decide to take it on. And, if I let my imagination get the better of me, there’s always Hollywood. Ferret Girl has the potential and scope to be a really entertaining animated movie.”
People have already asked Haskin whether he will write a sequel. “At first, I thought no … too difficult,” he said. “After Fiona shrank, I had to think and rethink every move that Fiona made. It is exhausting work for a writer. Not only that, but I am not terribly enthusiastic about fantasy as a genre. Nobody pigeonholes Lewis Carroll as a writer of fantasy, and yet his work is full of it. He used fantasy to get at other things, and that rather worked for me, too. More recently, I thought of Rickie, Fiona’s little brother, and the idea of Ferret Boy was born. I’d also like to do a story about a goose whose best friend is a hummingbird. However, before I start either book, I hope to tackle a YA novel set during the War of 1812.”
The below excerpt from Ferret Girl begins not long after Fiona shrinks to Bandit’s size and speaks with him.
They fell silent and soon Bandit took another nap. Fiona sat with her back against the cage, grateful that he had kept his promise. Shadows crept toward her across the dining-room floor. It was getting late, and she had no idea of the time. The living-room clock had stopped and she wondered what had become of her father. He would be as mad as heck when he learned what had happened, but she longed to see him walk through the door.
It was time to make that call. Dad was her only hope. He would have some idea of how she might return to normal. Fiona thought about all the phones in the house and decided that each presented a different problem. They were either too far off the floor or sat on bedside tables miles away upstairs. There were wireless portables, of course, but they might prove difficult to control. In the end, she decided on the phone in the kitchen.
Fiona left Bandit asleep and went to consider the thing. The phone was right where it had always been, attached to a wall under a run of upper cabinets and above a countertop. Below that were some drawer handles she could use as footholds. She pulled herself up from drawer to drawer and gained the countertop. The floor lay far below like an empty parking lot at the foot of an office tower. The phone itself was within easy reach. As long as she could release the handset, Fiona figured she had merely to press the buttons. That was the idea, anyway. Instead, the handset slipped out of her hands and crashed to the floor. Her cost was an irate ferret.
Bandit appeared in the doorway and glared at Fiona with angry pebble eyes. “What are you doing, now? This is the second time you have disturbed me.”
Fiona slid down the telephone cord. “Sorry, I’m trying to make a phone call.”
“Make a what?”
“A phone call.” The handset rocked on its back like a big plastic banana. “You speak into this thing and someone at the other end hears you.”
“Is that necessary? I am standing right here, and I hear you very well.”
Fiona groaned. Trying to communicate with a ferret was like talking into an empty bucket. It sounded good until you needed an answer. “It’s the way things work.”
“Well, it is not the way of the ferret. The way of the ferret is good.” He drew back from the phone as though afraid. It had started to beep. “This is a machine, which is bad.”
“Maybe, but it’s the way of the new ferret — me. I’ll be the first ferret in history to talk on the phone. You should be proud of me. I might even call my boyfriend.”
“What is a boyfriend?”
“I’ll let you know when I find out.” Fiona wondered what Dee would say if he knew he could hold her in the palm of his hand.
She tried pressing the buttons with her bare feet — her legs were much longer than her arms — but the phone bucked like a boat in a rough sea. She got much the same result using her hands. In the end, to keep it from moving, she had to jam the handset against the dishwasher.
Dad’s phone rang a few times, paused and then went click. Pick up. Oh, please pick up. Fiona heard a second click and knew it had switched to message mode. Her heart sank. It was his cell phone, the one he used for taking business calls and text messages. His smooth, warm voice came on sounding more like a likeable, old-fashioned farmer than someone in the construction business. No matter how big or small the problem, the voice said, Forrest Construction would take care of it. Fiona felt desolate and abandoned and very much afraid. She had expected him to answer.
“Come home, Dad. I need you,” she said. “Something amazing has happened — or it would be, if it weren’t so awful. I tried to make something and it went really, really wrong. And all the clocks have stopped. I don’t know the time.”
Why that last part was important, Fiona couldn’t think. And something was wrong. In the reflection of the dishwasher door, which was black, she saw her lips move. She heard nothing. It was like watching Bandit when he had something to say and couldn’t make himself heard. She pushed the redial button three or four times with the same result.
On a hunch, she tried Dee’s new number. It was almost as though he had been waiting. “Dee Kumar speaking.”
Fiona was ecstatic. “Dee, it’s me.”
“Hello?” His voice sounded airy and faint as though it had traveled across the years instead of the few miles from his home.
“Dee, it’s me. Can you hear me?”
“Hello?” the voice asked one more time, and then hung up.
Fiona stared helplessly at the phone. She may as well have been on the other side of the moon.
Bandit scratched an ear. He was puzzled. “Who is Dee? Is he a cousin?”
Fiona glared at him. It was as if she had been invited into his cage on false pretenses. For so long, she had longed to talk to him and what had she learned? Not very much, as it turned out. Just a lot of ferret theory. And as far as she could tell, Bandit had never hunted a day in his life. All he ever stalked was a wind-up Mickey Mouse figure she had unwisely set marching across the playroom floor. He had tried to eat it.
“It’s all ferret fantasy, isn’t it?”
Bandit bobbed and weaved, ill at ease. While he appeared to sense Fiona’s anger, his intuitiveness exceeded his capacity to understand. “What is fantasy?”
“Ah, nothing important,” Fiona sighed, at once regretting her outburst. It wasn’t his fault. “It’s another word for imagination.”
“I do not know that one either.”
“Well, I don’t know Latin for hawk or porcupine, so we’re even.”
“If you wish, I could teach you the words for creatures like Putorius vulgaris and Buteo jamaicensis.”
“You do that,” answered Fiona with salty conviction. “My science teacher would be very impressed.”
“It would be my pleasure,” he cooed, failing to notice the sarcasm. “It is the way of the ferret. I am a great hunter.”