Sunday, November 8, 2009

Some answers to your questions

Hi there International Literature Today students. Thanks for the questions you asked. I have assumed that your comments and questions were mainly in relation to the Sausage Sizzle excerpt that is online for you to read but you may have read A Hairy Tale or Muffin Magic. Copies of these are available in the University of Iowa Library and at IWP at Shambaugh House if you want to read them. A Hairy Tale is currently out of print so it isn't available to purchase. The manuscript of Sausage Sizzle is in progress.

Joe said "You have a real gift for making your characters seem believable and real. Did you base your characters on people you know? Why does Michael seem to not really care about his family, only about his gifts?" Chelsea said "In the extract from Sausage Sizzle, the father (Michael) seems to act almost child-like. I wondered if this was intentional, and if so, why?"

Answer: Thanks for the compliment. That's reassuring to know. My characters are based on small pieces of people I know but each character is a unique mixture that makes up a different person. The things that happen to them are based on small and big things that have happened to me, my friends and family, or that I have read about or heard on TV. Michael does care about his family but he's a slightly reactive person. He's a bit selfish and he's had many years experience of receiving bad gifts for birthdays and Father's Days. How many of you remember giving your dad socks or soaps on ropes as gifts? Well, I visited my father when I was about 30 and found a Brut soap on a rope hanging in the guest bathroom, that I gave him when I was about 13. I probably don't need to say more on this topic. I have exaggerated the issue in relation to Jack and his dad to make this common phenomenon funnier than it would be normally. Michael does have a slightly childish tantrum about the gifts. It wasn't intentional that I make him child-like. His voice just came out that way. Interesting ....

Michael said "Your piece has a sort of humor that is both childish and mature. What is the biggest influence on the humor you present in your story?" Also someone Cramer said "The cucumber incident at the beginning of your story was very humorous and unexpected. Where does your humor come from? Any particular source of inspiration?"

Answer: I suppose I draw on everyday things that I find funny or that I think kids find funny and I exaggerate them. I take things to extremes with humour. I laugh at the same things that kids laugh at, and the things that some adults consider silly in a childish way, often appeal to me. I like playfulness. Laughter. Joy. Pure joy. Most of the time, I see this in children, but not so much in adults, so I draw from what I see in children. I like simple slapstick humour. However I also like paradoxes and irony. I like playing with language, and that is something that appeals to children as they get older and develop their language and puzzle-solving skills. I use humour in dealing with serious topics too. Morris Gleitzman is an author who does this extremely well. I also like the way David Hill does this in See Ya, Simon. The cucumber incident is based on a real situation. A mentally ill gentleman (who obviously had voices in his head) used to come into a library where I worked and say disgusting things in a loud voice. On one particular day he was doing this and simultaneously thwacking a large cucumber into the palm of his hand. He was in my children's department at the time, and I had to try and use the skills I had learnt in a recent 'dealing with difficult people' course. I exaggerated this incident for the purposes of this scene in Sausage Sizzle.

Julian said "You do an amazing job of showing us how nervous Jack is at the beginning through his activity. What sort of things do you do to make that seem natural? Why do you work with children so extensively? Where do you find inspiration for stories that will be successful with younger audiences?"

Answer: I think it works to show things through action and dialogue rather than to try and describe abstract concepts like feelings. As readers we all know how we behave when we're nervous. I just have to think about that, but also how Jack's age will affect that. I think about his physical, mental and emotional development (taking that psychology 101 paper was useful!) and how that determines his behaviour. His own personality affects that too. I discovered when I began working as a Children's and Teenage Services Librarian that I have a natural rapport with kids. I actually like them a lot as people. It's not that I have particularly overriding maternal instincts. I just like them. I read a lot of children's books because I enjoy them more than adults' books. I also go to children's movies and visit toy stores, simply because it's fun. These things help with inspiration but getting the 'ideas' has never been a problem. It's persevering with them until the end which can be difficult.

Hannah said "Are the characters in Sausage Sizzle fictional or are they based on real people? Can you talk about the process for developing your characters, especially Jack who I found myself really empathising with."

Answer: The characters are completely fictional but they each have an element of someone I know or a mixture of bits. I was bullied for a couple of years at school, so bullying as a theme has appeared in a couple of my books. Muffin Magic was published in the Kiwi Bites series. Sausage Sizzle isn't finished yet. The girl who bullied me when I was 11-12 could even recognise one aspect of herself in the boy Jason who is mean to the main character Mark if she thought about it carefully enough. Bullying is a commonly experienced phenomenon in schools, so I feel it's important to talk about it and provide support in as many ways as possible. Developing characters requires you to think a lot about big and little things to do with your main characters, and ask a lot of questions. What's the point of the story, what are their problems, what do they need to do, how would they behave in certain situations, who are their friends, what are their relationships like, what do they eat, wear, etc, etc. You can use a character grid if you want and fill in the blanks but you don't have to know everything about them to start with. A lot of the detail gets filled in later as your characters start to interact during your manuscript drafts.

Joseph said " Was the grass seed responsible for the barbequed sparrow?"
Another person with the surname Thomas (sorry, my photocopy chopped off your first name) said "The impression was that there was some science fiction influence on the excerpt from Sausage Sizzle. Is the novel a science fiction piece or were you at all influenced by science fiction when writing it?"

Answer: Yes, the grass seed is responsible. Yes, it is related to science fiction. It is connected to a genetic modification experiment that goes wrong. I don't read a lot of science fiction but I am interested in things like genetic engineering, toxins, pest control, evolution, animal conservation and environmental issues in general. The idea for the book came up during an exercise when I was running a writing course. We used nouns and adjectives that commonly go together. Then we mixed them up and brainstormed possibilities relating to unusual combinations. The combination that I played with was grass and explosive (I think). I came up with the story idea after asking a lot of What If questions.

Karen said "The author has a style of writing that enables the audience to read the story smoothly. The characters are all very believable as is the story line. Bullying is a very serious problem, something many of the characters seem to struggle with. What other sorts of everyday issues does the author find important to incorporate into a story?"

Answer: Thanks very much. Also see the reply above for my comments about bullying which I think can be a very destructive thing in a child's formative years. It's interesting that you say 'many of the characters' struggle with this. Do you mean just in Sausage Sizzle or in my other books too? I'm wondering what you've read. I guess Michael is behaving like a bully in this excerpt although if you read on, you will see it's a short phase related to him reaching a landmark age with which he's not that comfortable. William is undoubtedly a bully. There's nothing subtle about this. There will be a satisfying resolution to this however. In Muffin Magic there is also a satisfying resolution. In both stories, the resolution is brought about by cleverness and likeable personality because neither of the boys who are main characters are in a posititon to be physically dominant. I also like to incorporate themes that show that children are powerful and can use their talents even though they may feel like adults are making the decisions in their lives. I guess that's why adventure stories are so popular with kids. I also want to help kids to talk about the problems they encounter in their lives, because nobody can prevent bad things from happening, but the impact of them can be lessened by teaching children how to talk about them. Themes that involve conservation, animals and our environment regularly get incorporated in my stories too.

Emily said "You use a lot of colloquial and (I assume) distinctly New Zealand or Australian phraseology, which works well in young adult and children's books. How do you think that writers of adult literature can imbue that same sort of realistic dialog and tone into their work?"

Answer: Firstly, I think some people find it easy to write natural conversations between people, but this depends on how well you know the lifestyle and background of your characters. I get a bit carried away when I write dialogue, whereas I struggle with descriptive passages. It helps to really listen to the way people of different ages and backgrounds talk (focus on detail), watch movies and read books that are aimed at a particular age group. In some ways, it's about really listening and practising writing dialogue. But I do know people who try really hard and never manage to write natural dialogue. You have to be able to get into the head of that person, and that can be the most difficult thing of all for some writers.

Tony said "I love how the story is so real and there are no unnecessary literary devices. It seems like such an everyday occurrence that you could picture yourself or your neighbors in Sausage Sizzle yet it is extremely captivating. What inspires you to write stories like this? Are these events based on experiences you've had or someone you know?"

Answer: I like writing for children because you have to get to the point quickly. They don't put up with waffle or a writer trying to impress with clever literary devices. The writing just needs to grab the reader and be entertaining. You can still do this with everyday, ordinary events and people. Perhaps that's what makes it appealing. Everyone can see themselves in these situations. They can empathise with the experiences of the characters because they are things we have in common - sibling rivalry, bullying, neurotic parents, etc, etc. I always loved reading about other children's lives when I was little. I admired the naughtiness of Ramona the Pest, the strength and freedom of Pippi Longstocking, and the stubbornness of Laura Ingalls in The Little House on the Prairie. I guess that's why I'm inspired to write stories like this about characters that I like.

To be continued ....

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