The third floor attic of author-illustrator Kevin Sylvester’s home suits him to a tee. Separated from the domestic part of the house, it has his books, music, skylights with views of the sky and trees, and a steeply sloped ceiling covered with the memoranda of his life.
Though cluttered, with dressers jammed with files and shelves loaded with books, the attic is where he’s written most of his highly popular middle grade novels, including the Neil Flambe Capers, which chronicles the global travels of a hapless 14-year-old crime-solving chef. Like the hero of that series, Sylvester wears glasses, was an eccentric kid with a sharp wit, and is still a walking encyclopedia of history.
This third floor oasis that Sylvester has created takes some effort to reach, though. Up a narrow flight of stairs, past a second floor landing crowded with end tables and walls of framed photos and prints and quirky mementoes, then up a second flight of stairs narrower than the first and through a hobbit door.
But the effort may also be the point. Once there, it’s takes as much effort to leave – a fact that doesn’t seem to have hurt productivity at all. He averages a book every eight months or so. In fact he says it’s the only place he can get anything done, mostly because it’s all his – nobody’s going to tell him to clean up his office or put away his stuff. And because it’s so separate from the rest of the house, his family knows when he’s up there, he’s working, so they leave him alone.
Another reason for staying in his chair has to do with the walls – they slope at about a 45-degree angle which means standing up straight is a challenge. But Sylvester doesn’t mind: “I'm only 5'6."
Literally every inch of wall is covered: family photos of his wife, Laura, their children at various ages, his mom and dad, siblings, his first dog, a wedding photo, a family reunion in Manitoba. And keepsakes from his past: a picture of Evelyn Waugh, and one of our galaxy; sticky notes with pithy sayings; his kids’ grade school drawings; a photocopy of a Farley painting he’s fond of but “would never be able to afford;” and souvenirs from places he’s visited, postcards, and restaurant coasters.
You’d think having all that ephemera on the walls would make it hard to focus, but Sylvester insists it’s a valuable part of the creative process: “Little memory bits – artwork the kids have given me, photos of space, hockey.... cooking. All the stuff my books are about. It’s like living in a large memory box. Sometimes things just pop together in ways I don’t quite understand. It’s my subconscious working.”
The coaster from a Vancouver restaurant where he came up with the idea for Neil Flambe, for example, is tacked up next to a map of Paris and of China -- places where Neil traveled in separate books.
Sylvester says if he were to “design a getaway hut in woods, it would still look like this, all my things tacked up on the walls.”
Before the attic was renovated about eight years ago, Sylvester carried his laptop around different parts of the house – an extra bedroom, the dining room table. It had been drafty and dark, with a thin carpet loosely laid on top of “bouncy” floors, but once they insulated the walls, added skylights and reinforced the floors, it made an ideal work space.
He’s created separate zones for writing and drawing, thinking and storage. At one end a large chest of drawers holds old files, notes, manuscripts and contracts. At the other end, a sort of catwalk -- open to the floor below and accessible only by a ladder – is where he stores anything to do with taxes. Skylights added to that section disperse enough natural light to illuminate the whole attic. One of them opens to let in fresh air – in the summer he has a fan to move it around.
In the middle, are two desks, one an antique card table from his parents’ home where he writes. The other – salvaged from the trash -- is a big oak teacher’s desk which holds the huge tablet where he draws. The chair swivels so he can look around freely – out the window or at his walls. When he’s not drawing and sketching – very fast on a huge tablet, perfectly capturing each character’s personality – he’s writing, or staring out the window or contemplating the bits of memorabilia.
Moleskins help him keep his thoughts organized – plots are worked on the right side, characters and dialogue on the left. Once he has compiled enough of both the ideas get transferred to the computer.
Having a separate oasis like this is ideal, he says. “Writing is solitary and you need a quiet space. If you’re working on a book, you don’t want anyone else around.”
But there’s potential for too much isolation which Sylvester combats by playing hockey three times a week, and meeting up with writer friends on Facebook. He’s also involved in charity work, including raising money for food banks by annually donating a limited edition lino-cut print to CBC’s Sounds of the Season charity drive and show. Although he’d like to see food banks become obsolete, he knows it won’t happen soon, so he contributes however he can.
Although studying English and Philosophy at St Michael’s College at U of T, Sylvester always wanted to be an illustrator. A summer job at CBC led to full time work as a writer and producer; at some point he edited CBC’s Christmas story collections by well-known authors like Tim Wynne-Jones and Sheree Fitch. He was also taking courses at OCAD to improve his drawing skills.
Ultimately, though, he became a CBC sports broadcaster, but when Andy Barrie once asked him on air what he would do if he didn’t do sports Sylvester immediately said illustrate children’s books. Children’s author Elizabeth MacLeod happened to be listening, and called up to suggest he take his ideas to Kids Can Press. Two years later, in 2005, they published his first book Sports Hall Weird.
Since then, he’s published – or about to publish – about 20 books. His wife, Laura, who still works for CBC, is not only his “best friend and university sweetheart,” but also the first editor on every book. On those occasions, however, she doesn’t venture up into his oasis – he comes downstairs.