‘Focus. Click. Wind.’ explores political unrest through the eyes of a teenage photographer

*This article was originally published on Kingstonist.*

Amanda West Lewis’ new Young Adult novel, set in Toronto in the late 1960s, asks hard questions about political engagement, trust in governments and police, and the human cost of war, according to Groundwood Books, which provided Focus. Click. Wind. to me, through Kingstonist, free of charge, to allow me to create this article.

A teenager works to find her place in the Vietnam War’s political unrest of 1968. Living in New York City, she is closely in tune with the anti-war protests and sit-ins and longs to make a difference — with her camera.

In Focus. Click. Wind., 17-year-old Billie and her boyfriend Dan are swept up in the dangerous anti-war events at Columbia University and beyond. He’s ready to enlist and make a difference from the inside, but she is younger, more cautious. Her wish is to capture every moment and document this historic period through photography.

After Bobby Kennedy is assassinated, Billie’s mom makes the choice to move to Canada and support draft dodgers there. Of course, Billie sees this as “running away” and quickly makes plans to return to NYC as soon as possible — and even more so after learning there’s a grade 13 in Canada, which means she has an extra year of school before she can truly make a difference on her own.

“I am fascinated by the choices that young people make as they begin to see the society that they are growing up in. During a time of war, the questions about what we want as a society become heightened. But teenagers, who are severely impacted by war, usually have no say in the decision-making process,” said Amanda West Lewis, the author of Focus. Click. Wind.

Some of Billie’s experiences are based loosely on Lewis’ life. The author moved with her mother from New York to Toronto in 1963, and lived in the house on Lowther Avenue that she describes in the book. She was a child at that time, but in 1968, when this story is set, she was 13 years old.

“I went to the protests at Queen’s Park. I was often at Rochdale College and I went to Jarvis Collegiate. My mother opened our house to the Draft Dodgers, as they were then called. I grew up in that world of activism and commitment to making the world a more just place. So, yes, there is definitely a connection! But I hasten to say that I was never involved with any extremist organizations.”

Now, Lewis lives with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones, outside of Perth, Ontario, and said that Kingston is her “main city.”

“Whenever I need a hit of city life, [Kingston is] where I go. I love it! It is such a rich place, with great restaurants, cultural events, interesting people, and of course incredible natural beauty. My mother, Laurie Lewis, who is also a writer, lives in Kingston and is very involved in the Kingston literary world. For a number of years, she had her own press – the Artful Codger – that specialized in publishing Kingston writers. So I live vicariously through her connection and am usually in Kingston at least once a week to visit her.”

One of the reasons Lewis published her eighth book with Groundwood Books was their editor, Shelley Tanaka.

“The opportunity to work with her on a book was a life-long dream. Interestingly, Shelley is in Kingston partly because of Tim and I. Shelley and her partner shared an office space with Tim and I in Toronto. We were all self-employed, living in the same neighbourhood, and had children the same age. We became fast friends and spent a year talking about leaving Toronto. Before we knew it, we all did!”

Shelley Tanaka, Amanda West Lewis, and Lewis’ mom on the Chez Piggy patio. Submitted image.

Lewis explained that she finds the activism of the 1960s inspiring. “It was the only way that a huge societal shift could happen – the shift from a society that assumes its youngest members are disposable, to a society that is forced to listen to its youth. I think we are in a similar moment now and we are seeing a similar shift with today’s activists.”

Using the lens of Billie as a photographer created a lot of strong imagery in this book. By experiencing life through her lens, Billie is a true observer of situations. When things get rough, her camera calms her and allows her to better frame her thoughts.

While the author is not a photographer herself, her father was. “Although I didn’t grow up with him, I grew up with his photographs,” Lewis shared in an interview.

“Good photographs tell stories, so I am drawn to the narrative of photography. As far as Billie being a photographer, that was partly inspired by reading about Catherine Leroy, one of the two female photojournalists in Vietnam. I knew that Catherine would be an amazing role model for Billie. I also liked the metaphor of someone who is the observer, and not the observed. Someone who is fully engaged in a situation, yet aiming for transparency. Of course, Billie must learn that she can’t escape being part of the picture. There is never any objectivity. The observer affects the observation.”

Lewis uses everyday experiences to explore and define the character of Billie. While she’s developing film, Billie uses the calm and quiet of the darkroom to meditate on exactly what she wants — in her life, in her relationship, and for the world. The darkroom process is beautifully developed by Lewis, and would leave even those who have never thought about film photography appreciating that side of a photographer’s identity.

Focus. Click. Wind. hit bookstores on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023, and Lewis said that she was both excited and nervous about her book launch.

“This book is very close to my heart and it is hard to launch it into the world. I feel very vulnerable. But I love doing readings and talking to people about books,” she said before the launch. “The people who live in Kingston have such huge hearts, and I am looking forward to sharing the book with them in one of my favourite bookstores –– Novel Idea!”

Lewis launched the book at Novel Idea on August 8 and held her second launch event at the Book Nook and Other Treasure in Perth. While rainy days kept the crowds down, she shared that 20 to 30 people attended each event.

“People were really engaged,” she shared after the events. “There was a lot of discussion about draft evaders and the issues surrounding student protests and activism. The people in attendance who were older had so many stories to tell! The people who were younger all said they learned so much, and were fascinated by what they were hearing. They were eager to compare it to their own experiences.”

Some of those in attendance were fans who had read her novel These Are Not the Words, which is a loose prequel to Focus. Click. Wind. “The readers were delighted Focus. Click. Wind. was a continuation of the same character. They wanted to discuss how that came about in terms of my writing process. And they were excited to see where Missy/Billie was heading. Several asked if there might be a third book…,” she hinted, noting that the two books can be read entirely independently of each other.

“It is enormously gratifying to have people respond so enthusiastically to my readings. I think just about everyone who came bought a book, if they didn’t have one already,” Lewis expressed. “But I also realized that I need to be prepared for difficult discussions. We had a strong difference of opinion at one of the launches, and it gave me pause.”

“Although it didn’t happen, there is a potential for a Q&A to be explosive. I realized that I hadn’t prepared myself for that possibility. So I think I need to make sure that my adrenaline doesn’t interfere with my moderating skills. I need to ensure that we stay on topic, and that if possible I steer things back to writing and the choices I made as a writer.”

Lewis said that the most important thing she took away from her recent book launches is that she fell in love with the book all over again.

“This book has been a part of my life for five years. Being able to share it and launch it into the world feels amazing!”

Learn more about Amanda West Lewis and her new book on her website.

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