Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler opens up about new memoir, impact of hit show

Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler will appear at The Broom Factory this Saturday to promote her new memoir, The Mother of All Degrassi. Photo via KCFF/ECW Press.

If you grew up in Canada between 1979 and 2017, chances are, Linda Schuyler had some impact on your childhood.

In 1979, Schuyler, along with producer Kit Hood, launched The Kids of Degrassi Street, the first iteration of the popular television franchise, which would eventually spawn four spin-offs and several TV movies — and impact the lives of millions of viewers around the world.

Now, Schuyler is opening up about her career and the impact of Degrassi in a new memoir, The Mother of All Degrassi, which takes readers on a journey from the show’s humble origins on the CBC to its status as one of the most beloved youth-based television shows in the world. On Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, Schuyler will appear at the Broom Factory in Kingston to discuss the book and answer questions from fans. Ahead of this weekend’s event, Schuyler spoke with Kingstonist about her memoir, Degrassi‘s impact, and what might be next for the storied franchise.

Given the fact that Schuyler wrote and co-created one of Canada’s most successful television franchises, it was only a matter of time before she would write a memoir, creating an official record of the history of the beloved show, along with some behind-the-scenes stories that had remained a secret for decades. However, according to Schuyler, writing a memoir wasn’t something she had planned before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Schuyler’s memoir is titled The Mother of All Degrassi. Photo via ECW Press.

“I couldn’t have written The Mother of All Degrassi while I was still producing Degrassi,” Schuyler emphasized. “I needed to get some distance from it. I had no idea that one day I would write a memoir. I would tell people stories, [and they] would say, ‘You should write that down…’ It took COVID to get it done.”

After Degrassi: Next Class, the most recent iteration of the Degrassi series, ended in 2017, Schuyler found herself with the time to reflect on her decades-long career. With the pandemic shutting down the film and television industry in early 2020, she began to put pen to paper at her farm in Grafton, Ontario, and The Mother of All Degrassi was born. Schuyler reflected, “It just turned out to be the ideal opportunity to be very quiet, not have a lot of visitors, and to be able to reflect on where I’ve been for the last 40 years of my life.”

For someone who spent most of her career working alongside dozens of other people, Schuyler said writing a book was a completely different process, one in which she had individual control over the finished product.

“I love working with my writers, my art directors, my producers, my directors, my editors… I love collaborating and working with people. When I was writing [the book], there was nobody to really bounce my ideas off of. My husband was a good sounding board, but it wasn’t the same as having a team,” she said.

“I just had to finally put myself in a mode of ‘Just go for it.’ Even then, it didn’t arrive fully formed as a first draft; no book ever does. It was a process for me — and a steep learning curve.”

Since releasing the book in November of 2022, Schuyler said the response from readers has been positive: “I’ve received really lovely reviews and comments, [and] I’ve been doing a lot of talking at various universities and community clubs. I’ve enjoyed that because I still get to connect with fans.”

Aside from the positive response from fans of Degrassi, Schuyler’s book has also been honoured with several literary awards, including a silver medal for memoirs at the Axiom Business Book Awards.

For a show like Degrassi, which has been around for decades across numerous incarnations, Schuyler explained the book has resonated with multiple generations of fans, in part due to Degrassi‘s current popularity on streaming services.

“It’s more accessible now than it’s ever been. You can get it on Amazon. You can get it on YouTube. There’s all kinds of other places where it comes out — I don’t even know what they are, but it’s available,” she said.

Schuyler has noticed, however, that younger audiences at some of her recent speaking engagements do not always have a strong attachment to the show; they’re the first generation of Canadian television viewers since the 1980s not to have grown up with their own version of Degrassi.

“I gave a lecture [recently] at the Durham campus of Trent University. It was [for] first-year students in gender studies, and they were fresh out of high school. For the first time, I was talking to people… who didn’t know Degrassi, because we haven’t been producing since 2016,” she remarked.

“That would have been their high school years… The teachers and the professors were bigger fans than the kids.”

Despite younger viewers not having a dedicated version of Degrassi to call their own, at least not yet, Schuyler still believes the show remains relevant today, especially Degrassi: The Next Generation, which premiered in 2001 and aired for 14 seasons. Viewers watched as the show delved into serious topics — teen pregnancy and abortion, homophobia, mental health, childhood cancer, and gender identity — with its trademark blend of drama and humour.

Given Schuyler’s role as the “mother” of the popular franchise, it’s not uncommon for fans to come up to her at events to share the impact Degrassi has had on their lives, which is exactly what happened several weeks ago at the Supercrawl Festival in Hamilton. Schuyler recounted,

“One beautiful transwoman come up and said to me, ‘I didn’t know what I was until I watched your episode on Adam [Torres, a transgender character]. I went right into the bathroom afterwards and started crying,” Schuyler recounted.

“I wasn’t crying because I was sad; I was crying because I finally thought to myself, I had found an identity. Stories like that are just so reassuring for me and worth all the risks that we’ve taken along the way to produce the show.”

Unlike shows south of the border, which often address such topics in a sensationalist or highly dramatic manner, Degrassi has always been lauded for its commitment to authenticity: a show about teenagers and the real issues they face. The show has never shied away from portraying topics other programs likely wouldn’t have touched at the time. In the early 1980s, Degrassi Junior High viewers watched Spike navigate the complexities of teenage pregnancy. The follow-up series, Degrassi High, launched in 1989 with a two-part episode as a character contemplates having an abortion. In the early 2000s, Degrassi: The Next Generation would make headlines for its gripping portrayal of a school shooting.

Schuyler’s experience as a junior high school teacher in Toronto helped shape her understanding of young people and inspired her to create a show that allowed audiences to see themselves in the realistic characters.

“I was really empathetic to their stories of what they were going through,” she said of her students.

“When I started teaching in Toronto, my classroom was an inner-city classroom, and it was so diverse. I had kids from China and kids from the Caribbean. Many of the families didn’t speak English at home. I thought to myself, ‘these [students] are going through their own puberty, their own issues, [and] many of them are also juggling their parents’ cultural background and linguistics.'”

Schuyler added, “I thought, ‘these kids really deserve a place where they can hear their own stories.’ I kept looking for what that place was, until I realized in the late 1970s and [early] 1980s, it didn’t exist… One day this light bulb went off and I said, ‘If nobody’s going to make these shows, then I’m going to do it.'”

All these years later, Degrassi continues to resonate with viewers throughout Canada and around the world, as it has become a big hit with audiences overseas.

“We had a big impact in England and Australia and many European countries, Middle Eastern countries, even South America. It really travelled,” Schuyler said.

“When I started to tell these stories, it had never been my intent that it would travel, but I think there’s enough commonality about that stage in your life, when you are a child becoming an adult, that you can relate to [it] regardless of what country you are in.”

Given the numerous issues depicted on Degrassi over the years, Schuyler has difficulty picking just one moment as the show’s most impactful. However, she is most proud of the ways the show was able to evolve with the times.

“We’ve been able to push boundaries in a different way than we could when we first started out… You look at Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High: the closest thing we got to having a gay character was Snake’s older brother. In Degrassi: The Next Generation, we had Marco, and we watched Marco come out. As the show went on, we’d have kids arrive fully out… I’m proud of all of those storylines,” she remarked.

Degrassi: The Next Generation premiered in October 2001 and would run for 14 seasons, featuring some of the most groundbreaking storylines in franchise history. Photo via WildBrain Ltd.

Schuyler also pointed to the story on Next Generation involving Adam Torres, an openly transgender student, as an example of the show’s evolution over the decades.

“That was a storyline we talked about for three or four years, but we couldn’t find a way to get it in. Then we finally did crack it, and I’m just so proud of us because we had the first transgender character on scripted television, two years before Orange is the New Black came out,” she expressed.

Despite numerous groundbreaking storylines, some of which generated a fair bit of controversy amongst audiences, Schuyler said the show never sought to portray issues for the sake of being sensational.

“We choose [our storylines] because we think they’re important and they need to be heard,” she said.

While The Mother of All Degrassi delves into the history of the popular program, including its meteoric rise and decades on the air, Schuyler also shares new insights about the end of the beloved show, which happended in 2017 when Netflix chose not to renew Next Class after its fourth season. At the same time, Schuyler and partner Stephen Stohn sold the rights to Degrassi to DHX Media (now WildBrain), as they moved into the next chapter of their careers.

“It was really hard,” Schuyler said of the process of saying goodbye.

“At first, we weren’t sure it was over. We were in discussion with Netflix, but… the landscape had changed, the broadcast executives had changed, there just wasn’t a pickup to go forward with… I’m used to having cancellations and starting up again; that wasn’t the issue. It took a while to realize, ‘Oh, I don’t think we are coming back.’ At the same time, we sold our company to WildBrain, and so we didn’t have the same rights in the storylines anymore… It was the right time for us to do it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t bittersweet, and I think all of that played into me wanting to write my memoir.”

Writing her book allowed her to come to terms with the emotional weight of leaving behind a show that had been a major part of her career for so long. She mused, “So often, when we’re really busy in life, it’s just one problem, to the next, to the next. To have time not being in production, and you add COVID to that, it really was a good reflection time for me.”

Despite the fact no deals are currently in place for a Degrassi reboot, for Schuyler, it’s a question of when, not if, Degrassi will return to screensL “I do think there is a need for a new Degrassi. It’s going to be very interesting to do an environmental scan now and see what it we we need to be addressing with these kids. I’m very hopeful that we’ll find a way into a new series.”

Since the release of The Mother of All Degrassi, Schuyler has been on a tour promoting her memoir, which has allowed her to connect with fans all over the country. This Saturday, Schuyler will sit down with Clarke Mackey at Kingston’s Broom Factory to discuss the book, share stories from the show, and sign copies for fans.

As it turns out, Schuyler and Mackey, a Professor Emeritus in the Film and Media Department at Queen’s University, are old friends. Mackey helped edit Schuyler’s first documentary film Between Two Worlds, and he even directed several episodes of Degrassi Junior High.

“I haven’t seen Clarke in years… He was my first editor on Between Two Worlds, and I learned a lot about storytelling from Clarke,” Schuyler shared.

Saturday’s event is set for 7:30 p.m. at The Broom Factory (305 Rideau Street) and is presented by the Kingston Canadian Film Festival (KCFF). More information is available on the KCFF website.

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