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Cape Breton-born writer finds his niche with younger readers

SYDNEY — Like many young teens, Neil is determined to form a rock band with his friends, and maybe even catch the eye of a pretty girl or two.

Tom Ryan

But unfortunately for Neil, he's already in a band — the Family McClintock, his family's band that has been playing Celtic music together all over Cape Breton since he was five years old — but he's none too happy about it.

That's the starting point for Inverness native Tom Ryan's latest novel, "Totally Unrelated," put out by Orca Book Publishers of Victoria, B.C., last month as part of its new Orca Limelight series that aims to expose readers between the ages of 11 and 14 to the world of performing arts.

So far, response has been good for "Totally Unrelated," which has been picked as a  Junior Library Guild Selection for 2013, which means the books will get plenty of exposure in schools and libraries in the United States.

Ryan, 36, has been living in Ottawa for the past couple of years and has been steadily making a name for himself with his writing for younger audiences. His first young adult novel, "Way To Go," was chosen for the 2013 Rainbow list, the 2013 YALSA Quick Picks and was recently selected as a White Pine Award nominee.

"I'm a full-time writer," he said. "My partner has a good job, so I'm able to keep working and publishing.

"As long as I can keep writing full time, I can't complain.

"I've been writing since I was a little kid. And I always kept it up. I took creative writing classes in university and I wrote some stories after that and even did some script writing."

Even after graduating from Mount Allison University in 1999 with a BA in English and then moving on to Nova Scotia Comminity College in Halifax for its screen arts program, Ryan knew he still wanted to be a writer.

"I spent 10 years working in the film industry, but I never gave up on the idea of writing novels," he said. "When I had the opportunity, I jumped (back into writing) feet first and it's played out well."

Ryan has been with Orca since he wrote "Way to Go" for the 14-17 age group in 2012. That novel is also set in Deep Cove, the same imaginary Cape Breton town (he says the town has a lot of Inverness in it) that is also the setting for "Totally Unrelated." After 'Way To Go,' Ryan wrote anotehr young adult novel, "Tag Along," which came out in October, the same month as "Totally Unrelated."

"'Tag Along" isn't based in Cape Breton, though," said Ryan. "It seems every other book I write is set in Cape Breton."

In April, Orca will release Ryan's young adult novel "Big Time" as part of the Orca Limelight series. Unlike "Totally Unrelated, "Big Time" isn't set in Cape Breton.

Ryan credits discipline and hard-won experience as the keys to getting a toehold in the publishing industry.

"I write six or seven hours a day," he said. "I taught myself that the only way to get it done is to get your butt in the chair every day and just do it. The longer novels take about six months to write and then it's back and forth with my editor, Amy Collins, for another six months. The shorter novels take half that time."

Although he enjoys writing fiction for younger readers, Ryan admits he always thought he would write for adults.

"But when I met the Orca editor, she thought that I would write well for kids. For kids, you want to tell the story right off the bat. The story is the most important thing for kids; you want it lively and interesting, but keep it simple."

Ryan said he's pleased with the reception he's been getting for "Totally Unrelated," which was the first novel he wrote for the 11-14 age group.

"It's more of a comedy," he said. "I wanted it to be a bit lighter — a 'feel-good' book. It's getting a good response and it also showed me that I could enjoy writing the lighter stuff."

To find out more about Ryan's work for Orca Book Publishers, go to


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