Interview with Leonie Agnew

Leonie Agnew’s amazing new book, The Memory Thief, is a story infused with imagination, wonder and magic. It has just been released by Penguin Books NZ and it is a book that everyone should have on their TBR pile. You can read my review here on the blog.

The Memory Thief captivated me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. There were so many aspects of the story that I was curious about and I was lucky enough to get to ask Leonie my burning questions. Check out my interview to find out how Leonie adapted the idea of trolls for her story, how Dunedin inspired the story, and which of her memories Leonie wouldn’t want a troll to eat.

  • You wrote the first draft of The Memory Thief while as the Children’s Writer in Residence at the University of Otago College of Education. What was it about being in Dunedin that sparked this story?

I was alone in Dunedin and spent many hours wandering through the local botanical gardens, which was close to my writer’s cottage. I’ve never started a story based on a setting before, but the place felt so atmospheric, especially around twilight. I was also inspired by the name of a park in Howick called the Garden of Memories. Also, while staying in Dunedin, I would often drive to Christchurch and visit family. At my aunt’s house I saw a statue in their neighbour’s garden. At first glance I thought it was a person, which got me thinking about writing a story where statues comes to life.

  • Both Seth and Stella are intriguing characters who have a complex relationship. Did you know from the start how their relationship would develop?

I think so, yes. (Sorry, the first draft was years ago.) Some of the ideas come together in the first draft, but I knew before I started.

  • We’ve seen trolls in fairy tales and stories before but never quite like the trolls in your story. How did you develop the idea of trolls?

Great question! I was googling different books and came across the subject of Scandinavian trolls.  It was almost eerie. Straight away, I read trolls turned to stone, were allergic to iron, could appear human and only came out at night. Perfect! The Dunedin Botanical Gardens had a sign which said ‘Open from dawn until dusk’. (It’s been taken down since, I know because I tried to get a picture.) I loved that because there’s no time, which suggests the original gardeners knew there was something dangerous in the gardens and people’s safety depended on daylight, rather than specific times. Also, the gardens have many statues and a troll could pass for one. Finally, there were iron fences, so I knew my main character would be trapped inside.

There was one problem – trolls were also carnivorous. I felt this was a little boring but, luckily, I had been playing around with the idea of memories and gardens. So I changed the idea, making Seth feed on human memories, rather than actual bodies.

  • What is one of your memories that you wouldn’t want a troll to eat?

Any memory of my mother.

  • The Memory Thief has the best book cover for a New Zealand children’s book that I’ve seen for ages. Kieran Rynhart seems to have captured the characters and the tone of your story perfectly. How did you feel seeing Kieran’s illustrations for the first time?

The same way you did. Kieran hit the tone perfectly and captured a sense of the city, too. The atmosphere of the novel was definitely portrayed on the cover. I’ve had some great covers, but this one is my favourite.

  • How did you manage to score a cover quote from the one and only Chris Riddell?

A lot of people ask me that one! We were on stage together at the Auckland Writer’s Festival. Chris and I got talking and went out for a drink. He wanted to know what I was working on, then asked to read the manuscript. He sent me pictures of the characters, too, which was lovely! He is an extremely collaborative and generous man. I also have some pictures he drew of me on stage.

  • As a School Librarian, I see how hard teachers work and how busy they are. How do you juggle teaching and writing?

It’s very hard and I wish we had more children’s residencies like the one at Dunedin University. School holidays are my golden time, but this year I have a study grant to do a Masters in Creative Writing. I am getting lots of writing done!

  • Do you share your stories with your students before they are published?

No because they’re too young! My books (so far) have been nine and up.

Interview with Belinda O’Keefe

Belinda O’Keefe is a New Zealand author, whose picture book, The Day the Plants Fought Back, was a finalist for the Best First Book Award at the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Belinda’s first novel, Partners in Slime, won the 2020 Tom Fitzgibbon Award and is released by Scholastic NZ this month. Partners in Slime is one of favourite NZ children’s books this year and you can read my review here.

I caught up with Belinda to ask about her inspiration for Partners in Slime, which of her relatives has helped her out of a jam, and what awards mean to her.

• What inspired you to write Partners in Slime?

My youngest son Dylan has always been fascinated with science, constantly experimenting with all sorts of things. For about a year, he and his friends were obsessed with making slime, and it was after tearing my hair out at the state of my slime-splattered bathroom that I had a brainwave for the plot of Partners in Slime!

• Did you have to do a lot of slime experimentation as research for the story?

I left all of that up to Dylan, and yes, he experimented with all different types of glue, shaving foam and other kitchen ingredients to get the perfect recipe. It was a heap of fun seeing what he came up with!

• Jake and Cooper start their slime business to earn some money to get tickets for the opening of the Steel Beast rollercoaster. What can you remember desperately saving your money for when you were a kid?

I don’t remember saving my money for anything big when I was a kid. I used to love going to school fairs though, and I remember doing a heap of jobs to earn a bit of extra pocket money so I could spend it on things like candy floss and treasures at the white elephant stall.

• Cooper’s Uncle Ivor is a scientist who helps Jake and Cooper when things get a bit messy. Do you have a relative whose skills or knowledge has helped you out of a jam?

My dad always helped me out of a jam growing up. He was really good with his hands, and could fix just about anything. Uncle Ivor has a lot of the same traits as my Dad – he was always running around with the kids at birthday parties, joining in all the games and acting like a big kid. He had big bushy eyebrows too!

• How different was it writing a novel to a picture book?

It was completely different. I found it more of a challengewriting the novel – there’s a lot more editing involved, and ittakes a bit of planning getting the chapters to flow. Having said that, I found it more rewarding when I finally finished my first draft! I was also able to let my imagination run wild, as I didn’t have to think about how illustrations would fit onto each page. I love the fact that every reader will have a slightly different picture in their heads when they read it.

• Partners in Slime would be a great read aloud for Years 5-8. Do you read your books to your sons before they are published?

Yes, I always read my books to my sons (and my husband too). I usually read them each chapter as I write them, to make sure I’m on the right track. They’re brutally honest, and tell me if it’s good or not. We sit at the dinner table and I have a pen handy to make any changes they suggest – they’re a huge part of my editing process.

• The ending of Partners in Slime is fantastic and leaves the story open for sequel. Are you planning to write more books featuring Jake and Cooper?

I’m actually in the middle of writing a sequel – I just had to do something with that cliff-hanger ending!

• Your first book, The Day the Plants Fought Back, was shortlisted for the Best First Book prize at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and Partners in Slime won the Tom Fitzgibbon Award. What do awards mean to you as a writer?

Awards are a huge deal for me – it validates my writing and gives me encouragement to keep at it. I had seven years of rejection letters before I got my first book published, so I think it’s a great lesson for my kids, and for other kids (and adults too!), to never give up if it’s something you’re passionate about. I still have to keep pinching myself!

• What books are you and your family enjoying at the moment?

My boys haven’t had much time to read lately as they’ve been super busy with after-school stuff, but some of their favourite books have been the Harry Potter series, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. As for me, I’m never without a book to read – I always have to have the next one lined up as soon as I’ve finished the last page. I read a real variety – thrillers, comedy, tragedy, YA. One of my favourite junior fiction novels I’ve read recently is Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan.

Partners in Slime is released in June by Scholastic Books NZ.

Interview with Brian Conaghan

Brian Conaghan is the author of such award-winning books as The Bombs That Brought Us Together, We Come Apart (a verse novel co-authored with Sarah Crossan) and The Weight of a Thousand Feathers. Brian’s latest book, Cardboard Cowboys, is destined to become another award-winner. It’s an unforgettable read, with characters that stick with you long after you finish their story. You can read my review of Cardboard Cowboys here on the blog.

I caught up with Brian to ask about the importance of music in his stories, his characters and how he ensures readers connect with them.

– What inspired you to write Cardboard Cowboys?

I simply had the idea for this 12 year-old character, who evolved into Lenny. However, like all my books, my inspiration is always the same: find an engaging story with an interesting set of characters, chuck some obstacles in their way and tell their story in the most entertaining manner I can think of.

– Music plays an important role in the story, especially in the connections between people. It’s what Lenny’s Mum holds on to when Frankie goes away and what gives Lenny confidence. Does the music featured in the story hold some significance to you?

​Music plays a huge part of every book I write. I feel that it can provide an additional layer to certain characters; in many ways it galvanises Lenny and Bruce’s relationship. The music featured in the story is exactly the music my own mother was listening to when I was Lenny’s age so it’s hugely significant for me. Plus it still sounds amazing!

– Do you play music as you write to help you get in to the characters heads and set the tone for the story? If so, what did you listen to as you wrote Cardboard Cowboys?

When I want to capture a particular moment or tone within what I’m writing I tend to listen to music that corresponds to that mood. It helps to place me in that emotional space that is required. Music has been hugely important in my life for as long as I can remember, I always listen to it when I’m working. For the past few months it seems all I’ve been listening to is Vikingur Olafsson, Kevin Morby, Waxahatchee, Arab Strap and Mogwai…and always Bob Dylan.

– Lenny is a character that I immediately connected with. His voice sounds really authentic. Did he come to you fully formed or did you have to spend time fleshing his character out?

He came to me in many guises throughout the past few years, and his voice kept getting layered as these years trundled on. He is an amalgam of three things: my imagination, students I taught when I was a teacher and one of my closest school friends.

Cressida Cowell has said that ‘empathy is a vital skill, and books are the best, and most fun way to learn it.’ Cardboard Cowboys is a story that will teach readers a lot about empathy. How do you ensure that readers will connect with your characters and what they’re going through?

I always want my characters to be honest with how they are feeling, and how they might express themselves. Emotion manifests itself in many ways, be it laughter, sadness, silence, self-harm etc. Most of my characters over the course of my books have demonstrated such feelings and more. I think readers will always recognise snippets of my characters’ lived experiences, be it relationships with parents/peers or environmental.

– Lenny and Bruce are one of those fictional duos that are really memorable. Who are your favourite fictional duos?

​My favourite fictional duo, by a mile, is Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting For Godot. Beckett shows the possibilities of language through these two characters, and how dialogue functioned beyond anything I had ever read previously (and since). I know it’s essentially an absurdist piece yet the communication between the duo is so fluid and emotional, which is something I always try to aim for in my own work. Although, I’m certainly no Samuel Beckett. 

Interview with Peter Millett

Peter Millett is an author who loves to make kids laugh. He has written books for kids of all ages, from picture books to novels. Peter’s latest book is a collection of funny stories for Ladybird Books. Ladybird Funny Stories for 5 Year Olds is a fantastic collection of stories that has been brought to life by Rhashan Stone and Gemma Whelan, as an audiobook. Funny Stories for 5 Year Olds has just been released and you can read my review here.

I caught up with Peter Millett to ask him about how he got this gig with Ladybird Books, how we decided which stories and characters to mash-up and more.

  • How did you get this gig? Were you approached by Ladybird

Ladybird is a fantastic publisher with a terrific history of publishing quality books for children. I was super excited to get to work with them on a series of funny picture books in 2020 that were aimed at 2-3 year old readers. While we were doing that my editor Becky asked me if I was interested in writing some longer humorous stories for 3 year olds that could be included on an audio book. One thing led to another and I ended up working on an audio book aimed at 5 year olds instead. This is how much of my career has evolved. One door opens and then another different one, and then another different one after that opens. I feel energised each time I get to try something that I haven’t done before.

  • Funny Stories for Five Year Olds is only being released as an audiobook. Did you have to consciously consider, as you were writing them, how well these stories would read aloud?

Yes. And I had to plan this project really carefully too. Most of my longer comedy writing (Boy Zero/Johnny Danger) is for 7+ so I can slip in puns, malapropisms and double-meanings to get the giggles flowing. With audio books it’s a little harder to use wordplay so you have to create jokes that come from obvious mix ups and misunderstandings that are easily understandable for the youngest of listeners. The magical elves in one of my stories get hopelessly confused and end up creating a pair of crocs (crocodiles)  instead of a pair of socks. That silly scene is easy for kids to get first time and laugh at.

  • You hit the jackpot with narrators for Funny Stories! Did Gemma Whelan and Rhashan Stone do anything surprising with your stories (like different voices than what you were expecting)?

Jackpot is an understatement. Gemma Whelan has appeared in Ben Elton’s comedies and I grew watching and memorising Ben Elton’s comedies! I still can’t believe that Gemma has voiced my stories. Yes, she blew me away on this audio book. I had a pretty wild image in my head about how zany the Queen of Hearts, the Bad Fairy and Cinderella’s Gruff Stepsisters could be. Gemma exceeded that image by quite a way! To quote Spinal Tap she turned the dial up to ’11’. Rhashan genuinely surprised me with his animal character impersonations. He didn’t hold back. He dived into wacky-land and came up with sounds that I didn’t know that human vocal cords could generate. He’s a legend in my books.

  • Each of the stories in Funny Stories for 5 Year Olds is a mashup of classic stories and characters, which make for some hilarious combinations. How did you decide which stories and characters to combine?

One at a time! That’s how. This audio book is one of the most intricate and complicated writing projects I’ve ever attempted. Looking back now it all seems so obvious. But at the time I found it quite a challenging to blend multiple disparate storylines and characters into one cohesive unit that somehow was funny and easy to comprehend!  I did a lot of walking and thinking while writing this collection. At the end of the day I’m a fan boy and I’d always wanted to see all of these famous and quirky fable and nursery rhyme characters bump into each other and watch the sparks fly. The Golden Duckling was the most fun of all the stories to write.

  • If you could write a mashup of any three stories in the world what would you choose?

Hmmm. That sounds like my next audio book project. 🙂  The Day of The Triffids, Swiss Family Robinson and Anne of Green Gables.

Rough idea: Anne finds herself stranded on a deserted island infested with human-eating plants. She bumps into the Swiss Family Robinson who are oblivious to the dangers below as they live happily up in the treetops. Anne must overcome their confusing language barriers and frequent awkward misunderstandings by using roleplaying methods to help alert the family to the perils they unknowingly face. After the human-eating plants are defeated, Anne wants the family to sail a raft to New York where she can stage a Broadway musical about her wild experiences on the island.  

Interview with Des Hunt

Red Edge is the fantastic new book by one of NZ’s most prolific authors, Des Hunt. I’ve read many of Des’ books over the years and I love them because they’re set in New Zealand and focus on our unique wildlife. Des’ books are always fast-paced and action-packed.

After reading Red Edge, set in my home town of Christchurch, I wanted to ask Des some questions about the story. Check out my interview to learn about the inspiration for Red Edge, how Des decides what wildlife will feature in his stories and his secret to writing a page-turner.

As someone who has grown up in Christchurch and has lived around the area where much of the story is set I feel like you’ve really captured my home town. Did you visit Christchurch and some of the locations when researching the book?

I visited Christchurch on four different occasions over a period of three years: two to visit schools and two to do specific research such as visiting Riccarton Bush. I searched the suburbs that had been most affected looking for one that would best suit the ideas I was having for the story. I chose Avonside because I found several houses around there that hadn’t been repaired – the Horton House in the story is based on a couple of those.

Cassi and Quinn are both kids that were young when the earthquakes occurred. They are still affected by them, even now, 9 years later. Have you met kids like Cassi and Quinn when you’ve visited schools?

Yes. That was always the main impetus for the story. At the time I was doing workshops where I asked the children to write a short backstory of themselves. Almost every one of those featured the earthquakes, particularly emphasising the number of houses they’d lived in, and the multiple schools attended. To me it was clear that growing up with instability in home and school was having an affect on these kids, especially their relationships with others. They would have had to make and break friends so regularly that it was sure to influence their dealings with others.

This is your first time writing a female lead character. Did Cassi’s character come easily to you?

I was surprised how it came together so readily. Probably my contact with readers during school visits helped, as girls are usually more willing to share emotions and personal information than boys. She’s a character that I got to like a lot, and I’m hoping she’ll appear in some more stories.

Matiu the tow-truck driver is one of my favourite characters in Red Edge. He helps Cassi and Quinn when they need it the most. If you could have someone handy like Matiu to help you out in a tricky situation who would you choose?

I’d choose someone just like Matiu. They would need to have good sense of humour, be willing to help people, work hard, and have a positive outlook on life. It would need to be somebody much younger than me as most of the problems I experience are age related. I know there is no shortage of such people in Aotearoa as I meet many of them during my travels.

Your books often focus on criminal activity and the kids who bring the criminals down. Do real events inspire your stories?

Very much so – I am an avid collector of news stories. As an example, the story of the lunchbox full of dead lizards in Red Edge came from a newspaper report in August 2017. That got me thinking of using wildlife smugglers as the bad guys in the story. There have also been several court cases involving scammers targeting ’quake victims. I try to get into the heads of these sorts people in the hope that I can make my antagonists more real.

Red Edge is a tense, action-packed read. What is your secret to writing stories that make readers want to keep turning the pages?

One of the things I don’t like reading in a book is lengthy descriptions of people or clothing or buildings or towns – in fact, almost any description of a thing. This has carried over to my writing, where I give very few descriptions of faces or places, unless they are relevant to the story. I like my readers to get a feel for a person through what they do and think, along with some idea of the locations through what happens there.  This helps increase the pace of the story. Then, after the first draft is finished, I start cutting out anything that doesn’t contribute to one of the following: developing a character, progressing the story, contributing to the climax. I also make sure there is a good mix of slow- and fast-paced parts, so the reader can catch breath at times, especially after major action scenes.

Many of your books feature our wonderful New Zealand wildlife, including Albatross, Huia and Weta. How do decide which animal will feature in each story?

This is often dictated by the location and the animals that are found nearby. Giant wētā were always in my mind for a story and, at first, I couldn’t see how it would fit in with Christchurch. I did visit Mt Somers near Methven to look for wētā, but I found it difficult to include the location in the story. Then the Kaikoura earthquake occurred and I knew there were species around there, so giant wētā became the main animal in the story. I like writing about our endemic animals as many of them are pretty special zoologically. Also, in the back of my mind is the thought that people who have respect for animals are good guys, and those who abuse them are bad.

You are especially good at creating the villains in your stories. Who is your favourite fictional villain?

I’ve been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing since I was about 11, so Professor Moriarty from the Sherlock Holmes stories is my number one choice. Amongst more recent writing I would choose Lord Voldemort from J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series. In my own stories I particularly like the gang leader Skulla from Cry of the Taniwha.

Check out my review of Red Edge and get a copy from your library or bookshop now.

Interview with Jonathan King

Jonathan King’s first graphic novel for children, The Inkberg Enigma, has just been released. It is a brilliant graphic novel filled with mystery, adventure and secrets. You can read my full review here on the blog.

I really love The Inkberg Enigma (it’s one of my favourite children’s graphic novels of 2020) so I wanted to ask Jonathan my burning questions about the story. Read on to find out about Jonathan’s inspirations for the story, the process of creating a graphic novel and some of the Easter Eggs you can find in the story.

Reading The Inkberg Enigma made me feel like I was 10 again, reading Tintin. Did you set out to create the kind of story that you would have loved as a kid?

Yes, I absolutely did. Tintin was huge for me as a kid: The Black Island was the first one I read, but I devoured them all over the years. I knew from the outset that I wanted it to be an adventure with fantastic elements. I think I decided fairly early that it wouldn’t be a globe-trotting kind of thing – that Tintin often did – but digging into the secrets and corners of one location. That’s what I love about stories – that can show us how our own world has hidden wonders.

The Inkberg Enigma is set in the fictional town of Aurora. Being a Christchurch local I immediately recognised Lyttelton in your illustrations. Did Lyttelton inspire the setting?

Lyttelton – and Diamond Harbour access the water – definitely the primary inspiration for the setting. I have family in Diamond Harbour and Lyttelton, and have spent quite a bit of time there. I love the self-contained nature of the two of them (in my story there’s no Christchurch just over the hill). And I’ve always had a connection to places by the sea – with their attached nautical influence, like Lyttelton has, of hotels, seamen’s union buildings, antique shops with diver’s helmets in the window (which I really did see in Lyttelton!). Other influences are Cannery Row in Monterey in California – where John Steinbeck set his book of that name — Astoria in Oregon (where The Goonies was filmed) and, for the castle, Larnach Castle in Dunedin.

I love that the main character in The Inkberg Enigma, Miro, sells off treasures from his attic to get money to buy books. Is this something you would have done as a kid?

I don’t know if I would go quite as far as Miro does! But I do remember what it felt like to be obsessed with things – like Star Wars figures or comics – and doing anything to complete collections. 

Mr Hunter is one of the creepiest characters in the story. I’ve been wondering where he got his huge scar from?

I think Mr Hunter has been involved in some very dangerous situations at sea over the years – but ignored or buried them, to continue the regime of (what they think is) control over the sea and the creatures below. I think there’s a climate change metaphor in there too …

The kids at my school often complain about how long it takes a creator to release a new graphic novel. To put it in to perspective for them can you explain the process of creating The Inkberg Enigma and how long it took you to pull the story together.

It takes a long time for new ones to come out because it takes a loooooong time to draw them! Unlike commercial monthly comics – which usually have a writer, a penciller, an inker, a colourist, a letterer – a graphic novel is usually the work of just one or two people. It took me about three years from start to finish. Part of that was finding the story. I had the world and the kids in the story pretty early … but the story they were in and the relationship between them took a while to find; I made a false start and pencilled / roughed about 40 pages … that I abandoned. But once I cracked the relationship between the kids, the stay was clear. Then I just had to draw it all. Certainly a detailed, clear line style slows things down. I’d love to try a looser (faster!!) style in the future.

Did you experiment much with the character designs before settling on their final look?

I think their look came quite quickly. Learning how to draw it consistently took a little while longer!

The name of the bookshop in the story is a nod to your film adaptation of Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain that you wrote, directed and produced. Are there other Easter eggs for readers to look out for in The Inkberg Enigma?

I’m thrilled you spotted that. Yes, there are others: a number of Tintin props, I think. The books in the bookshop Miro looks at are favourites of mine. The museum building is based on the jailhouse in Goonies (a real building in Astoria!) I’m sure there’s other odds and ends!

How does your film background influence your comics?

I’m not sure. Probably it does n terms of story structure – something I’ve spent a long time thinking about. I probably think it terms of close ups and wide shots … and even the ‘lens’ that I frame images in: a wide angle lens sees something differently from a ‘long’ lens. Certainly telling the story with pictures is as important as words. 

Would you like to make a movie of The Inkberg Enigma?

All the way through making I didn’t think that I did: it was only ever meant to be a comic. Now that it’s finished, it’s its own thing … yeah, I kinda would actually! 🙂 

There are so few comics and graphic novels published in NZ for kids and teens, even though these books are some of the most popular with kids in our libraries. Do you have plans to write more for this age group?

I’m sure one of the reasons that there are so few is that for something takes so long, it’s really hard to get enough income to justify the time it takes (though I must acknowledge the support I ad from Creative NZ). Some cool local creators are Katie O’Neill’s Tea Dragon Society books, Ant Sang’s Helen and the Go-Go Ninjas, Roger Langridge’s Abigail & The Snowman and, of course, bob Kerr and Stephen Ballantyne’s Terry Teo books. 
I would love to write more for this age group. Having done a book that took years to draw, I’d love to write book that’s just words – a mystery perhaps! And, yes, before long I’ll do another graphic novel. 

Check out my review of Jonathan’s graphic novel, The Inkberg Enigma. Available now from Gecko Press.

Interview with Frida Nilsson, author of The Ice Sea Pirates

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Photograph by Ellinor Collin

One of my recent favourite books has been The Ice Sea Pirates, written by Swedish author, Frida Nilsson and published in English for the first time by the wonderful Gecko Press.  The Ice Sea Pirates is an adventure story full of pirates, wolves, mermaids, frozen landscapes and a whole lot of heart.  You can read my review here on the blog.

The Ice Sea Pirates was still on my mind several days after finishing the story and I was lucky enough to be able to ask Frida Nilsson some questions.  Read on to find out what inspired Frida to write The Ice Sea Pirates, which story she would jump in to, and how she comes up with the names for her characters.

  • What inspired you to write The Ice Sea Pirates?

The inspiration mainly came to me shortly after my first child was born. Until then, my books featured another character, they had much more humour in them and were not classic sagas. When I became a mother it was suddenly more important to me to try and make some sort of change with my books. A lot of us are worried, I think, about the conditions in our world, with poverty and pollution, the death of many species, the plastic in all the oceans. My story about Siri is my way of questioning how we live our lives. We constantly take more than we need and in the long term, that’s not going to work.

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  • The Ice Sea Pirates is one of those books that I felt I wanted to jump in to.  If you could jump in to one book and be part of the story which one would you choose?

I think I would choose Charlie and the chocolate factory (and if possible I would bring my kids along since they are absolutely crazy about chocolate)

Siri is incredibly brave and determined and I’m sure children will wish that they could be like her.  Which book characters did you wish you could have been when you were growing up?

I hope that the children that read the book will NOT want to be as brave as her. Children characters in sagas like this are often “thrown out” on adventures that are far too dangerous for a real child – and this is how it should be I think. I hope that Siri’s journey can inspire children in another way.  I hope they find the courage to question the things that are wrong with how we “overuse” our planet and how the stronger use the weaker.

But, to answer the question: One character that I envied a lot was Lisa in Astrid Lindgren’s books about the Bullerby children (The children of Noisy Village). I grew up far out in the “dark woods” with no neighbourhood children or siblings at all, and sometimes I would miss the company of people of my own age. I envied Lisa simply because she lived in a village with a lot of children that she could play with all day. And best of all: Lisa did NOT go on any dangerous journeys. Her everyday life and play were adventure enough.

  • Captain Whitehead is the terrifying pirate captain in The Ice Sea Pirates.  Who is your favourite pirate from history or fiction?

Well since I’m a big fan of the Aardman films I must answer the Pirate Captain in the movie ‘The Pirates! In an adventure with scientists’ (released as Pirates! Band of misfits in some parts of the world). If I’m not mistaken this film is based on a book with the same title, although I haven’t read it.

  • The crew of The Sea Raven have some fantastic names.  How did you come up with their names?

I found a list on the internet of old French soldiers names and I used a lot of them, but translated them into Swedish first of course. Then I just used my imagination for the rest.

  • Peter Graves has translated your story into English.  How do you work with translators to ensure they capture the essence of your stories?

In this particular case I could actually read the translation before it went to print. It’s not quite as easy when it comes to a Czech or a Russian text. It was a true pleasure to read Peter Graves translation. I think he did a fantastic job. When a foreign publisher takes on one of my books I must put my trust in the whole “crew” that works with the title (translator, editor, illustrator etc) because they all know their country and their readers much better than I do.

Make sure you grab a copy of The Ice Sea Pirates from your library or bookshop now.

Interview with Alan Brough

Alan Brough high-res 3 credit James PenlidisAlan Brough is the author of the crazy, laugh-out-loud new book, Charlie and the War Against the Grannies.  Alan is a Kiwi who now lives in Australia and he has worked as an actor, director, musician and a dancer before he became a writer.  Charlie and the War Against the Grannies is his first book for children and I certainly hope he writes many more.

I had a few questions I wanted to ask Alan and he has very kindly answered them for me.  Read on to find out about weird granny behaviour, the things you need to have in a war against grannies and how Alan came to write his crazy story.

  • What inspired you to write Charlie and the War Against the Grannies?

One morning I was watched a middle-aged man in a beaten up old car deliver my newspaper and I wondered whether kids did paper round anymore. That afternoon I saw a granny delivering pizza menus and, for some reason, I came up with the idea that a boy tries to get a paper round but can’t because all the deliveries in his neighbourhood are controlled by an evil cabal of violent grannies.

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  • What is your strangest grannie experience?

My grandmother had a glass eye. The idea of it completely freaked me out. One morning at the breakfast table she took her glass eye out and rolled it across the table to me to try and make me feel more comfortable about it. It didn’t work.

  • Did you have a paper round when you were a kid?

No. I couldn’t cope with the early mornings.

  • What are the 3 most important things you need to fight a war against grannies?

Shortbread laced with tranquillisers, a hairnet full of false teeth and questionable morals.

  • Charlie and Hils have an awesome secret code called Flush Latin for communicating secretly from a toilet when they get in trouble. Did you have your own secret code when you were a kid? 

Hell yeah. I still love codes. I used to make up all sorts of secret codes. I loved writing invisible messages in lemon juice, I had secret drop-offs for swapping secret information with other agents and I was never without my ‘KnowHow Book of Spycraft.’

  • You’ve been an actor and a director as well as an author. How different is comedy on the page than comedy on the screen?

I suppose the essential difference is that comedy on the screen can be done purely with images. You can tell a whole joke without words. Whereas comedy on the page – for me at least – is all about words. Their order, the way they sound and even the way they look.

  • Charlie is hilarious and I’m sure it is going to have kids rolling around on the floor in fits of laughter. Who are your comedy idols when it comes to writing?

Thank you. I’m really pleased and proud that you think Charlie is hilarious. As far as comedy writing idols go I love Douglas Adams, Dorothy Parker, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka (he’s really funny), Kyril Bonfiglioli, Nancy Mitford and Ronald Hugh Morrieson (born and bred in my hometown of Hawera.)

Interview with Mark Smith about The Road to Winter

Mark Smith is the author of the amazing new YA book, The Road to Winter.  I absolutely loved The Road to Winter, from the first page to the last!  It’s a thrilling story of survival in the aftermath of a virus that wipes out the population. Check out my review here.

I was thrilled to have the chance to interview Mark about The Road to Winter.  Read on to find out what he couldn’t live without, what inspired him to write The Road to Winter and what books you should read next if you like his book.

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  • What inspired you to write The Road to Winter?

The Road To Winter (TRTW) evolved from a short story I wrote in 2013, entitled Breathing In and Out. When I decided to turn it into a novel I was determined to write a page turner that would engage younger and older readers alike. It is largely an adventure story told through the eyes of a sixteen year old boy – but it touches on a number of very relevant issues, including conflict, attitudes to violence, relationships, loyalty and the treatment of asylum seekers.

  • The Road to Winter is set in the aftermath of a virus that wipes out a significant part of the population.  Would you survive if you were in Finn’s position?

I’d like to think I would! The advice when writing is to “write what you know” and Finn’s understanding of the environment – and how to survive in it – is largely my own. He hunts, fishes, grows veggies and trades food. I think the hardest test Finn faces is the isolation – which, of course, is broken when Rose arrives in town in need of his help.

  • What is one thing that you absolutely couldn’t live without?

Coffee! I actually thought of weaving that idea into the story somewhere but it didn’t make the cut. When you are creating a dystopia there are lots of these decisions you need to make – what’s still there and what’s not. In TRTW though, I deliberately didn’t take a lot of time to explain the dystopia because I wanted it to be a character driven novel, rather than one dealing just with the consequences of living in a post-apocalyptic world.

  • Finn has his dog Rowdy but who would you want by your side if you were in Finn’s situation?

Finn feels the loss of his family very deeply and I certainly would too. If I were forced to survive in a world like his, I’d want my family there with me to help!

  • What is your favourite survival story and why?

As an outdoor education teacher I’m a huge fan of adventure non-fiction. I consume books about survival in extreme circumstances – Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Joe Simpson’s Touching The Void. Simpson’s story is an incredible tales of survival. I’d also recommend the account of Ernest Shackleton’s epic journey of survival in Antarctica in 1914 and Tim Cope’s On The Trail of Genghis Khan.

  • The Road to Winter is your first book.  How was your road to publication?

By 2014 I’d had more than twenty short stories published in magazines, journals, anthologies and newspapers in Australia. I learned my craft as a short story writer but I always wanted to write a novel. It took me 18 months to get the manuscript of TRTW ready to submit to a publisher. I chose Text because they have a strong reputation for supporting new writers. They loved the manuscript and offered me a three book deal. The sequel to TRTW is due for release in May 2017. I know the road to publication is a long and difficult one for most writers and I am incredibly thankful that mine was relatively smooth – but, in the end, it’s the quality of the writing that will decide whether your work is published or not.

  • The Road to Winter is marketed as YA but it has the look of a gritty adult thriller.  Did you write it for a particular audience or just because you wanted to tell this story?

It’s a really good question! I didn’t consciously write a YA novel – I wanted to tell a particular story in a particular way – through the eyes of a sixteen year old boy. I do think that we often categorise books by their protagonist rather than by what the story is saying and whom it may appeal to. I think TRTW will crossover into the adult reading market very easily – and Text have printed it in trade paperback format to encourage that. As you say too, it has the look of a gritty adult book – again, the cover design being part of the crossover appeal.

  • What other books would you recommend for fans of The Road to Winter?

In writing TRTW I was influenced by reading a number of books – some obvious, some less so. The obvious ones are John Marsden’s Tomorrow series and The Ellie Chronicles. But I also enjoyed The Dog Stars (US) by Peter Heller, Clade by James Bradley and Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

Interview with Christopher Edge

Christopher Edge is the author of many great books for kids, including the Penelope Tredwell books Twelve Minutes to Midnight, Shadows of the Silver Screen and The Black Crow Conspiracy.  Christopher’s latest book is the out-of-this-world, inter-dimensional adventure The Many Worlds of Albie Bright.  I absolutely love this book and you can read my review here on the blog.

I had some questions about The Many Worlds of Albie Bright that I wanted to ask Christopher and he has very kindly answered them for me.  Read on to find out if bananas are indeed radioactive, which Back to the Future film is Christopher’s favourite, and what’s the coolest thing that he has ever built.

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  • What inspired you to write The Many Worlds of Albie Bright?

Lots of things! One of the sparks was a popular science book I read called How To Destroy The Universe And 34 Other Really Interesting Uses of Physics. It described cancer as a ‘quantum killer’ and explained how this disease is caused by a single-cell in your body mutating and going rogue. This got me thinking about the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics which suggests that quantum events might happen in one universe but not a parallel universe, so I had the idea of a boy who might have lost his mother to cancer and how he might try to use quantum physics to find the parallel universe where she is still alive. From this spark I slowly built the story and thought about the different parallel worlds the boy might find and how his life might be subtly different in each one. When friends asked what I was writing, I told them it was like It’s A Wonderful Life, but with added quantum physics!

  • One of the things I love about your book is that there is lots of science in it. Did you have to do lots of research?

Back when I was at school, I got a grade D for GCSE Physics – so I’m not any kind of science whiz! But as an adult I’ve become fascinated by the wonders of the universe as expertly explained by scientists such as Brian Cox, Jim Al-Khalili, Michio Kaku and Brian Greene. The American physicist Richard Feynman once said, “If you think you understand quantum physics, you don’t understand quantum physics”, but thanks to a huge pile of books in my office by these and other expert authors, I’ve been able to pretend that I understand a little more than I did before I started writing The Many Worlds of Albie Bright. It was important to me that all the science mentioned in the book was real and accurately described, so I had the manuscript checked by a friend who’s a Professor of Particle Physics and also works at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Luckily he said it passed the test!

  • Are bananas really radioactive?

Amazingly, YES! All bananas contain potassium which is a natural source of radioactivity. This means that if you’re standing next to the fruit bowl in your kitchen and it’s got a banana in it, then every second you’ve got a chance of being blasted with a gamma ray of radioactivity. Don’t worry this is completely safe and won’t turn you into a radioactive banana-eating superhero! However, large shipments of bananas have been known to trigger false alarms when they pass through radiation monitors at ports and airports!

  • Albie uses just a computer, a Geiger counter, a cardboard box and a banana to travel between dimensions. What is the coolest thing you’ve ever built?

A Tusken Raider from Star Wars using toilet rolls and cardboard boxes!

  • Back to the Future gets a couple of mentions in your book. It’s obviously a favourite of yours (who can blame you?). Which movie is your favourite?

The first Back to the Future is obviously the best. In some ways I wish they’d have kept it at just one film as it’s just so perfect from start to finish, whereas I don’t feel that way about the second and third films. Having said that I do like the fact that in one of the parallel universes that Albie visits in the book there’s a cinema showing Back to the Future IV…

  • If you could travel to a different dimension what is one difference that you would like to see and one that you wouldn’t like to see?

Difference that I’d like to see: greater equality. Difference that I wouldn’t like to see: a universe where libraries no longer exist. #savelibraries!

  • What’s the thing you enjoy most about writing stories for young readers?

It’s funny, I spoke about this at the end of an interview I gave to Front Row on BBC Radio 4 and said that one of the things I like best about writing stories for young readers is that you have a fearless audience. Young readers aren’t a jaded audience – they’re an audience with high expectations, who will go with you anywhere if you can deliver on giving them a great story. And it’s a real honour to write for an audience like that.

To find out more about Christopher Edge and his books visit his website, www.christopheredge.co.uk.