It is considered rude to ask a stranger about their bank account, but a journalist has little shame. "My bills are paid," author Deborah Ellis says. "I'm fine."
Ellis is more than fine. She uses the word "blessed," and she is certainly entitled to her adjectives.
Speaking on the phone from Simcoe, Ont., Ellis has just returned from walking her dog on the kind of brilliant autumn day on which blessings seem more possible than usual. Ellis is the author of The Breadwinner, a children's novel from early in her career that was recently adapted for a new animated film that's been knocking people's socks off.
Why the question of Ellis's financial health? At the turn of the 2000s, when The Breadwinner was first published, she pledged the royalties to an Afghan women's group. Ellis was a part-time writer back then and had been doing anti-war work in Afghanistan and writing "very unsuccessfully" for a long time.
"I just wanted to be published," the 57-year-old Ellis says. "That was kind of it."
In 2000, her debut children's novel Looking for X won a Governor-General's Literary Award. The Breadwinner, from 2001, is about an 11-year-old girl who poses as a boy to earn money for her family in Taliban-ruled Kabul, where misogyny was the rule of the day. This inspiration for the book arose from Ellis's visit to refugee camps in Pakistan, where she heard about Afghan girls masquerading as boys.
"It was a strong image of courage," says the philanthropist whose website bio describes her as a feminist and peace advocate in addition to being an award-winning author.
The book spawned three sequels and, now, a Nora Twomey-directed film with Angelina Jolie as one of its executive producers. A Canada/Ireland/Luxembourg co-production, The Breadwinner had its world premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, where Ellis made her own red-carpet debut. "I was on it for 15 seconds," she says.
Did she enjoy it? "I'm happy to have done it once. Luckily, I'm a writer. Nobody wants to see me, which is perfect."
A veteran now of some 30 books, Ellis tried her hand at writing the screenplay of the film adaptation of The Breadwinner. After she wrote the first draft, the more experienced screenwriter Anita Doron was brought in to polish and tighten. "It taught me a lot about paring down the story," Ellis says. "She did a marvellous job."
The heroine-protagonist of The Breadwinner is Parvana, an inspirational and empowering character. It was important for Ellis to write Parvana as a young girl who is awake to possibilities and luckier than a lot of kids in Afghanistan.
"Because Parvana has professional parents and some education, she has a sense of who she can be in the world," Ellis explains. "She's not looking for adventure, but she knows she deserves something better. I think that's very key to her character."
As for the donated royalties, which is no small sum, Ellis points out that there's more to it than that. The book has been a starting point for actions that are putting kids in schools in different places around the world. The new film carries on the awareness of the issue and a mission.
"It's about the need we have to do something good in the world," Ellis says. "That we can effect change, that we can be hopeful and that we can make things better."
Words you can bank on, 100 per cent.
The Breadwinner opens Nov. 24.