Caroline Pignat, seated at third from left, with her writer’s craft class at All Saints Catholic High School in Kanata, Ont. Pignat has just won her second Governor General’s Literary Award, which she will receive at a Dec. 2 ceremony at Rideau Hall. Photo courtesy of Caroline Pignat

Award-winning author inspires Catholic students

  • November 28, 2015

Caroline Pignat was teaching her Grade 12 writer’s craft class, doing the daily morning prompt and getting ready to start a new unit on script writing. It was like any other morning.

Then word trickled in that the Canada Council for the Arts announced she had won her second Governor General’s Literary Award. Pignat had to switch gears after class and get ready for a full day of press interviews, including an on-air interview with CBC.

Pignat was awarded a GG Literary Award for her latest novel, The Gospel Truth, a young adult historical fiction which was originally meant to be the fourth instalment of her Greener Grass book series, which won Pignat her first GG Literary Award. But as she began to do research for the book, one of the supporting characters, Phoebe, took on a life of her own.

The Gospel Truth takes place on a Virginia tobacco plantation in 1858. The story is told through the points of view of six characters, from the slaves, their masters and a visiting birdwatcher. The novel is written entirely in free verse to imitate the character’s thoughts and feelings.

“First-person (writing) you’re in their head, but free verse, you’re in their heart,” said Pignat. “When I switched and I realized that’s how the novel was going to go, it was intimidating because normally, historical fiction, you do your research and certain things have to happen... Free verse was much more organic. I had to think of symbols and deeper meanings to what was going on.”

Pignat said she has always been a writer. As a young child, she was an avid journal-keeper and she wrote every day. Her favourite writings were the letters she wrote to her grandmother in Dublin, Ireland. Every month, she would flip through pages of her journal entries and pick the best stories to retell for grandmother. She made sure her letters were always funny and entertaining to read.

Pignat said writing those letters was great practice, but it wasn’t until she was at university that she really thought about becoming an author.

“I always thought getting published and being an author, when I was a kid, was like how the boys wanted to be NHL hockey stars,” she said. “It’s a wish but... I’m going to grow up and be a teacher instead because that’s a real job.”

Pignat said she now realizes she doesn’t have to choose between her two passions in life. She said that God has called her to be both teacher and author. Though it may be difficult at times, the two have always complemented each other.

“My passion for writing definitely inspires my teaching,” she said. “Teaching Writer’s Craft is like meeting with a writing group each morning... I learn from the kids just as much.”

Pignat currently teaches part-time at All Saints Catholic High School, a Grade 7-12 school in Kanata, Ont. She has been teaching at the high school for eight years, starting as a full-time Grade 7 religion teacher in 2008.

Pignat said it was her students in Grade 7 that inspired the voices of her first novel, Egghead. Being with her students helped her understand the audience she is writing for. Now that she is teaching Grade 12 students, they inspire an entirely new voice in her writing.

“My passion for teaching also inspires my writing,” said Pignat. “Because I mainly write for young adults, being with my target audience every day keeps me in touch with what matters most in their lives. It helps me write authentically and I feel more connected to my readers.”

Morrigan Coady, 19, was one of Pignat’s first students in Grade 7 religion in 2008-09. At that time, Pignat had just published Egghead.

Coady remembers when the novel was first published and how Pignat used the book as a way for them to discuss anti-bullying issues. To this day, Egghead is used as a novel study for Grade 7 students in many schools in Ottawa.

Coady said that more than her former teacher’s fame as an award-winning author, what she remembers most about her Pignat is that she was inspiring.

“I’ve wanted to be a teacher my whole life, but I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to teach until I got to high school,” said Coady. “She is just a really good model for someone I want to be like because I think it’s important to have teachers that are inspiring and not teachers who bore you.”

Coady said she really connected with Pignat and after Grade 7 decided to join the Creative Writing club that Pignat led after school. She was a member of the club throughout her high school years. She even took Pignat’s writer’s craft class in Grade 12.

Now, Coady has graduated high school and is studying English and History at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

After finishing her undergraduate degree, Coady hopes to pursue teacher’s college.

“(Pignat) shows that it is possible to do what you love,” said Coady.

“You read books all the time, but getting published seems like this immense challenge, so when you meet someone who has been published and... they’re like a real person, it makes you feel like you can do it too.”

Coady stays in touch with Pignat through e-mail and Facebook. She is currently working on a novel that she first started as a school assignment for class. Coady said Pignat has been a great encouragement for her writing and for her studies.

“My most influential teachers have been the ones that teach about what they love,” said Pignat. “We were excited because they were. We were engaged because they were. I became a teacher because of teachers like that. I aspire to be the kind of teacher they were for me.”

Pignat will be attending the Governor General’s awards ceremony on Dec. 2 at Rideau Hall to formally accept her award.

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