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- author Jackie French

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Author Interview: Chris Wardle

Who is this person? Chris Wardle

What does he do? He’s an author

What his story? I am from the UK but have spent the last ten years or so working on programmes in Africa and Asia with NGOs. Much of that time has been with my Australian wife Jill, and so I am now an Australian resident as well. We are currently living in Cambodia as Jill is working on a health project, although I am due to move to Laos for work in the near future.

How long has he been writing? I discovered my passion for creative writing whilst living in a small village in Cameroon in 1999. It was my first overseas posting and I was a lone volunteer managing the construction of a water supply project. There was no TV, telephone, or indeed electricity for that matter.

I had been writing a lot of letters home about my experiences and found I really enjoyed putting pen to paper. As a result, I decided to write a short story about the pop band that I had played in at college. I wrote it on scraps of paper, and found myself cutting out paragraphs from different pages and sticking them at the sides of others with duct-tape. The resulting collage of scribbling needed instructions to navigate.

After discovering the pleasures of this creative process, I went on to write longer stories about my adventures in Cameroon and the subsequent places I’ve worked in over the past ten years. A lot of my travels have since influenced the characters and adventures that I write about in my Tinfish Series.

Does he remember the first story he ever wrote? I remember that in English lessons at primary school we would often be given an old postcard from a pile that the teacher had accumulated, and were told to write a story about the picture for an hour to fill in the time, although unsurprisingly I have no recollection of what my stories were about.

However, in my first Christmas at a new school when I was nine I remember (largely due to the fear of doing it) standing up in a concert and reading out my story about all the ingredients that wanted to be allowed to be part of the Christmas pudding – including ‘raisins that had been raised in California’, which was an advert at the time, and for which I also tried to do the accent as I recall. Fortunately parents didn’t have video cameras back in those days…

What inspired him to write for young readers? The Tinfish series is my first set of books for young readers. The initial idea came from the invention of two characters called Mr. Tinfish and Mrs. Cat-biscuit (who were based on what I was trying to get my very fussy Ugandan cat to eat in order to wean it off roast chicken – unsuccessfully, I might add). When my wife asked me what Mr. Tinfish and Mrs. Cat-biscuit did, I told her that they would have exciting adventures and live in a lighthouse. I think this starting point for the plot called on my inner-child to develop, and it inevitably evolved into stories for younger readers.

Who is Mr Choli? Mr. Choli is a chicken-eating Northern Ugandan Cat (or an ‘East-African Grey’ if you’re trying to get your mother to take care of him and need to make up a more exotic description). My wife and I were working in Northern Uganda, and Choli and his sister arrived at our doorstep, having been found by some local kids. They were both tiny, about one week old and could fit in the palm of my hand.

A doctor living nearby kindly took in the quiet and well-behaved one, and we eventually took on the less sought-after noisy kitten. His adventures in the first few months included being put in a plaster-cast at the local hospital to mend the leg he broke falling down a small step, and also starting the process for his emigration to the UK. This is a book in itself, and included rabies shots, blood samples being sent to Europe, export consultants (none of which is straight forward in rural Uganda), and a foster family in France for six months. However, he is now with my mother in England, and very happy with his VIP status there.

How did he get his first book published? I use a self-publishing website called Lulu.com, having seen a documentary about online publishing options. The process is fairly straight forward and has been a good way to make the books available, however, I am always looking at other options as I’m sure that with children’s books, the best way to sell them is to get them on the bookshop’s shelves.

What other genres has he written in? Over the past ten years or so, I have been writing a detailed journal of my travels and my work in African and Asia, although this is for my own pleasure rather than with an aim to publish. I have also penned a fictional novel, although have yet to take the plunge and try to publish it.

What are the greatest obstacles he has experienced on the writing journey? I have self-published which is great in terms of getting a book out there, however, I am aware that I am very limited with regard to the audience that I reach, and so I hope that eventually publishers or agents may become interested in my work.

Where did his idea for Mr. Vinegar and the Frozen Sea come from? Mr. Vinegar and the Frozen Sea is about climatic changes that cause the sea near the coast to freeze, and the animals go on an expedition to help organise the fishing at the edge of the ice shelf. Inevitably there are lots of adventures and mishaps on the way, along with two rather disgruntled and cold detective cats.

The initial inspiration for it came from a visit I made to the sea at Nampo in Korea during the winter. The ocean was frozen over and I was quite shocked at how uneven, angular and un-white the ice was, having expected to see the flat fluffy arctic ice that polar bears wander across in documentaries.

The theme of this story, and all of the books in the series, is climate and environmental change and so generating interest in these issues amongst readers would be great. Equally, I have tried to make the stories entertaining and so hope that readers find the stories enjoyable and funny.

What does he love most about writing for children? I love being involved in a creative process. The Tinfish series in particular has allowed my imagination to take hold, as once you’re in a future world with talking penguins living in lighthouse and cats with detective kits, there aren’t too many limits on where the stories can go. Mostly I’ve enjoyed trying to bring humour to the stories and am particularly satisfied if I’ve written a scene which amuses me.

What books did he read as a child? Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner were high on the reading list. My copy of The Bears Almanac (Berenstain) fell apart from over-reading, and I had a lot of Snoopy books. I also enjoyed Roald Dahl, and Dr. Seuss (including Yertle the Turtle).

If he couldn’t be a writer, what would he be? Over the last ten years I’ve being managing programmes for NGOs. At times I have really enjoyed the work and have always appreciated the incredible experiences I have had. For the moment, this is still part of my life and I have been able to fit my writing in with that.

What five words best sum him up? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question without actually writing anything. Meanwhile, my mind has been gradually drifting to thoughts of preparing dinner. Therefore, I am going to go with: hesitant, indecisive, easily-distracted, spaghetti-omelette. (Also ‘innumerate’, depending on whether spaghetti-omelette with a hyphen counts as one or two.)

What’s his perfect day? At the moment we are renting a small flat on the top floor of a thin concrete building in Cambodia, for which our ceiling is also the building’s roof. In addition, there are no buildings on either side to provide any shade from the hot tropical sun. So, although the rent is extremely reasonable, we essentially live in a concrete solar oven. As a result, now that the wet season is approaching, my perfect day is any day which has lots of rain and dark clouds. One involving a funny movie, some live music, pork scratchings, or Lewis Hamilton winning a Grand Prix, would be even better.

What advice does he have on writing for young people? I believe that with anything creative it’s important to make sure you’re enjoying it. Once something creative becomes a chore, I think it loses its vibrancy.

Visit mrtinfish.moonfruit.com to learn more about the Mr. Tinfish series. It includes the first chapter of each book to help you get a flavour of the adventures to come! And watch this space for reviews of Chris Wardle's books!