'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Author Interview: Susanne Gervay

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome author Susanne Gervay to talk to us about her life, her writing journey and her experience with cancer, which inspired her beautiful new book Always Jack. We hope you find this amazing interview as inspiring as we have.

Tell us a little bit about you. 
I live overlooking Bondi Beach. I love seeing the waves crash over the rocky cliffs and onto the sand. I love it when it’s calm and still, as well. There’s always something happening at Bondi from the seal that was sunbaking in the ocean pool, to Cameron Diaz and the paparazzi at Bondi Icebergs.

My two kids have grown up at the beach, too. Their step-dad is a surfer and loves the beach.

My parents were post-war Hungarian refugees who found a home in Australia. Growing up was emotional, as my parents worked two jobs with memories of war and loss underpinning my life. I escaped into writing.

I was a teacher which I loved, then worked at The Hughenden Boutique Hotel with my family. It’s a heritage arts hotel in Sydney’s historic Paddington precinct.

How long have you been writing? 
I’ve written for as long as I can remember, but professional writing started around 15 years ago. I started to write after the death of my beloved father, to remember him. My stories are published in literary journals. I also won some prizes for them. However, I started to write for kids when I got divorced to help my children cope with the loss.

Which genre do you love to write in most? 
I write about people, places, emotions that touch me deeply. I find the writing hard and I cry and laugh as the stories emerge. Do I love it? I feel compelled to write these stories. Most of my work is realistic, layered with social justice challenging readers to make choices.

What other genres have you written in?

Children’s and young adult social realism. Adult short stories that have been published in literary journals and anthologies. My recent story ‘Days of Thailand’ is in a cross Indian-Australian anthology called ‘Fear Factor: Terror Incognito', published by Picador that interprets terrorism in narrative fiction to reveal the human side of terrorism. Other authors in the anthology include David Malouf, Thomas Keneally and Sir Salman Rushdie.

Why do you write?

It is a pressure release from life with all its challenges, joys and sadness. I started to write for publication later in life. I wanted the world to know my father; I wanted my children to see that life is meeting challenges and finding hope. I write for young people because they can get lost in adult agendas as they search for identity. My books are written with a hand outstretched to young people and old, so they know they are not alone and may even find friends in the pages.

What made you decide to write children’s books? 

As a children’s author, I feel a duality. I am a responsible adult who looked after an aging mother, worked, raised two children as a sole parent, faced life-threatening illnesses. However, I am also locked into childhood feeling the turbulent search for identity marking youth. Maybe it’s the turbulence of my life growing up in a post-war refugee migrant family that has kept me there in my youth.

This duality ties me to kids and young adult writing.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

Yes, my first story was when I was a little girl. It was a ‘famous’ series called ‘Susie and the Sardine’. My father thought it was ‘famous.’ He would come home tired from the factory, shower, have dinner and sit in his armchair. He’d listen to my stories and say that I was a wonderful writer. It was the highlight of my days.

Susie the Sardine’s life was dedicated to saving my family from danger – usually sharks. It’s obviously symbolic of my feelings that my family was vulnerable to attack, and my role in life was to be Super-Susie.

What do you love most about producing books for children? Children and young adults are very special readers. They are looking for their own values and who they are. If my books reach them, they will read and re-read my books, searching for their own meaning. I am privileged to be part of their journey.

Your new book, Always Jack, was inspired by your battle with breast cancer at a time when youe children were very young. Why did you feel compelled to write this book? 

When I first got breast cancer and my children were 6 and 9, I hid it from them, to protect them and because I couldn’t cope. I had lots of complications and it was a very hard time but the kids did know there was something wrong. It made them even more afraid. It wasn’t the right thing to do and I am still sorry that I didn’t speak to them about it.

Always Jack was written to put cancer in perspective in a family and within life. It draws kids and adults into Jack’s life and as breast cancer is faced, the readers face it, opening questions, offering support and action and help.

I wrote it so that when a kids, parents, friends, someone a young person knows has cancer, they can talk about it, support them and each other, and reach into the community.

It means a lot to me, as my kids felt alone and afraid at school and at home. I don’t want that for other kids and families.

What do you hope this book will impart to its readers? 

The Cancer Council wrote: ‘Susanne Gervay’s Always Jack makes it safe for children, parents and the wider community to talk about cancer.’

The National Breast and Ovarian Cancer wrote: Always Jack by Susanne Gervay is written from the perspective of a boy. Always Jack is engaging and enjoyable to read. It weaves accurate detailed clinical information into a children’s style, in an easy to read, educational, empathic and understandable manner. Impressively, it covers many aspects of a woman’s experience with breast cancer, including:
• Screening mammograms
• The triple test: Diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, biopsy
• Surgery
• Lymphoedema
• Hormonal treatment
• Men and breast cancer
• Psychosocial implications for the child – fear of losing his mother , of things not being 'normal'.
The message of the novel is hopeful and encouraging whilst not shying away from the child’s pain and fears, using humour to sensitively appeal to a child about a difficult subject. '

I want every kid to read and talk about Always Jack, to bring it into the open so that there’s care, support and understanding.

You are donating a percentage of profits from Always Jack to the Cancer Council NSW and the National Breast & Ovarian Cancer Centre. Can you tell us what this means to you? 

The Cancer Council - through their helpline - reaches kids, adults, families, school community – I want to support them, because a child, mum, dad, grandparent, friend need the support, and can offer support to others.

The National Breast & Ovarian Cancer Centre research breast and ovarian cancer - I want to thank them for their generosity in critiquing Always Jack and ensuring it was medically correct, as well as the important research work they do.

You are passionate about writing stories for children with meaning and emotional support. How rewarding is it for you to see children glean hope from your stories? 

It means everything to me. These are so many special emails I have received about my books. Here are a few and they explain why I write my books:

Susanne, before reading butterflies, i thought the only way to be pretty was to be perfect, the hair the face the looks, but it's not true, i read butterflies in 3 days, i couldn't put it down, it made me really feel good about myself, and think about what it would be like if i was katherine, she went through alot and knew in the end that if she didn't turn out perfect, it didn't matter, she learnt to be grateful to be alive and live with her burns. It's was one of the best books i have ever read, thankyou for giving me a masterpiece to read.

Hello Susanne Gervay. I am writing about a current book I have bought and read, I am Jack. I get bullied at school almost every day and it makes me sick. I just didn't feel like going to school. I pretended to be sick and stay home for the day. I've talked to the School Councillor, I've tried to tell my mum, I've thought of getting back at the bullies, but all these things don't seem to work. But I AM JACK inspired me to tell everyone that I am being bullied. It makes me feel great and today I treated my mother with respect (I wasn't doing that lately because I was fed up with everyone) and I think she knows there is something fishy going on. I just want to thank you for what you have done and I think you are a great writer. I will enjoy reading all your other books. Lowana

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey? 

It’s very hard to get published and I faced many rejections. Because I was writing from such an emotional perspective, it really hurt. I didn’t have any networks so I was ignorant.

As a published author, I am very active in the writing community and am co-head of SCBWI, head of the Sydney Children’s Writers & Illustrators Network, on the board of the NSW Writers Centre, on the May Gibbs Trust and other organisations, as I want to help talented authors and illustrators so they have an easier journey to publication.

I also always approach publishers with ‘unpopular’ themes such as third degree burns, bullying (which is now popular), cancer and so on. They seem unmarketable, so I have to really argue and submit and re-submit my projects.

Life is an obstacle as I have to earn a living as well as look after kids and my aging mother. However, without these obstacles I’d have nothing to write about.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?

A journalist – that may be a writer too.

Name your top five interests:
1. Writing
2. Chocolate – I’m addicted
3. Family and friends
4. The Hughenden Hotel & the Arts
5. Writing festivals, networks, events

Name your top five children’s books of all time:

1. Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird – young adult book today
2. John Boyne, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
3. Adeline Yen Mah, Chinese Cinderella
4. Kate Di Camillo, Because of Winn Dixie
5. Margaret Wild, illustrators by Ron Brooks, Fox

What books did you read as a child?
1. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five
2. Biographies of famous composers such as Chopin, Beethoven, Franz Liszt, Strauss
3. Elizabeth Speare, The Witch of Blackbird Pond
4. Johanna Spryi, Heidi
5. Joy Adamson, Born Free

Describe your typical daily writing process. 

Erratic - as I force time between working at The Hughenden, writing festivals, workshops, director of conferences and festivals, family, health issues. My ideal writing process is getting up early and working for five hours, then having lunch at 1pm and enjoying the day. I usually take a few weeks' retreat to do that when I have a major work to complete.

Describe yourself in five words.

Loving, passionate, funny, excitable, accident-prone.

What’s next for Susanne Gervay?

IBBY, United Nations Peace Story. Peace Story is to be published by IBBY Korea under auspices of United Nations, with support from UNESCO in 2011. 22 countries, 22 authors, 22 illustrators were asked to create a short story about Peace. I was asked to represent Australia and Frane Lessac illustrated it. It is associated with the 5th Nami Island International Children's Book Festival - nambook.org.

I am in the middle of editing my beautiful picture book Ships in the Fields to be illustrated by the gifted artist Anna Pignataro. It is to be published by Paul Collins, Ford Street Publishing in 2011 and is the story of a refugee family re-establishing their life in a new country. This story is inspired by my parents who were refugees and found home in a new country.

The highly acclaimed adaptation of I Am Jack will have its third season of performance in 2011. It’s a play that reaches kids and adults, indigenous and non indigenous and is done by the Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People, performed in remote communities. The concept of addressing a social issue while promoting the Arts is an ingenious approach to creating awareness and getting the message through.

I'm also currently editing Butterflies for Kane Miller Books, USA. Butterflies is a special book that reaches young people and adults and it is wonderful that it will be going to the USA.

Susanne believes writing is part of life and is more than the words on the page. She is passionate about literacy and literature as a major way to change poverty, and she would like to share the following organisations and events with you:
Room to Read – roomtoread.com
Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People monkeybaa.com.au
Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators - scbwiaustralia.org
Sydney Children’s Writers and Illustrators Network - sgervay.com/thehughenden.php
May Gibbs Trust Fellowships - maygibbs.org.au
NSW Writers Centre - nswwriterscentre.org.au

Susanne is touring Australia and New Zealand in 2011

Young Australia Workshop - youngaus.com.au
Newington Festival 29 March -1 April
All Saints Festival 5 - 9 April
The Kids & Young Adult Festival, Rozelle, July 2011

Read more about Susanne at her website - sgervay.com and blog - sgervay.com/blog

Cancer Council Helpline - 13 11 20