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

Monday 1 November 2010

Author Interview - Sandy Fussell

We're delighted to welcome acclaimed author Sandy Fussell and great friend of Kids Book Review today with this wonderful interview.

Tell us a little about you. I grew up in a house with very few books. Every birthday, every Christmas, I slowly added to my treasured bookshelf. I’ve always been a reader and word lover – books, crossword puzzles and even the dictionary.

But I became a writer by accident. Many authors start to write when a child stops reading – to provide something to encourage them to pick up a book again. But I’m a lot lazier than that.

When my then ten-year-old son stopped reading, I convinced him to write to show me ‘a story that wasn’t boring’. He agreed as long as I typed what he dictated. But when the main character disappeared mid-plot because ‘girls are too irritating’, I tried to give some advice and our mother-son project fell dramatically apart. ‘Go write your own book,’ he ordered. So I did. And I still am.

What genre do you write in? I predominantly write children’s historical fiction with a strong mystical/mythical element. While this springs directly from the culture of stories set in ancient times, many readers equally relate to it on a fantasy level. As I do. My genre of choice as a reader is fantasy and science fiction.

What other genres have you written in? I have written a picture book to be published next year and am working on a Young Adult novel. I dabble in fantasy and would love to write a horror story. I never will though. I am much too easily frightened. One minute of scary music and I am hiding under the pillow for the rest of the movie.

Why do you write? I write because it feels good. I love the thrill of the story, the poetry of a beautiful verbal image and the wonderful reward of sharing it all with children, on the page or in person.

Perhaps this will help explain. I was giving an author talk to Year 5. At question time a boy asked: Do you get headaches? I found the question off-putting as I suffer from regular migraines. Me: I do. What made you ask that? Boy: Your head is so full of ideas the skin must be stretched really tight and that would hurt a lot. Then the boy next to him piped up: That’s why she writes stories. To empty her head out.

What do you love about writing for children?
The honesty of the readers.
The magic of the stories.
Having an excuse to spend hours talking with kids in schools.
Workshopping with young imaginations.
The community that is children’s literature.

I also like the hands on research. For Samurai Kids I went to sword fighting classes. But sometimes I have to be more imaginative. For Polar Boy, I couldn’t travel to the Arctic so I sat in a bathtub of ice. Not for long though! In my latest book, Jaguar Warrior, slave boy Atl is imprisoned in a box waiting to be sacrificed. To see how it felt I sat enclosed in a fridge packing box – painted black inside. Very scary. Very disorientating.

Your Samurai Kids series has become somewhat of a sensation. Why did you write a series of books focused on martial arts? I’ve always been interested in martial arts and attracted to the philosophy and history behind them. Unfortunately I’ve never had the time to devote to the practice of a martial art – one day I’ll be the old lady up the back of the akido class!!

I dabbled a little in taekwondo – but not enough to count. I broke my foot after only four lessons. Not at taekwondo – it was a writing related injury. I had a good idea for a story in the middle of the night and I was walking down the stairs to my office in the dark when I fell. (I insist the last step wasn’t there that dark, stormy night but no-one believes me.)

How did you research the books? Did you travel to JapanI’ve never been in to Japan, except in my imagination. I’ve read lots of books and watched lots of films, documentaries and Youtube clips. I’ve been to sword fighting classes, studied 17th century Japanese texts, learned the Shakuhachi flute, spent hours doing origami and developed a fascination with Japanese culture in general.

I start with the facts and then ask myself: what if? Then I let history, culture and geography shape the answer my imagination comes up with. Research is critical to historical fiction because you can’t sacrifice historical accuracy for story. The writer has to find the best way the two co-exist together.

What drew you to create a troupe of martial artists who were physically compromised? I was reading about how a person was born a samurai and I started to think along the lines: what if you didn’t want to be a samurai? what if you didn’t want to fight? what if you weren’t any good at it? And that evolved into: what if the reason you weren’t good at it was not your fault? After all, you might only have one leg.

I kept thinking about the disabled children I have worked with in the past and my cousin, who has one leg, and I realised that these weren’t impediments. The things that make life difficult in one area can lead to excelling in another. There are many different paths in life that end in the same place.

Who is your favourite Samurai Kids character and why? I don’t have a favourite. The Kids wouldn’t like that and they are a very pushy bunch, constantly making a noise inside my head!

Although I write with Niya’s voice, Samurai Kids is no more his story than that of the other Kids. The readers would not have it any other way either. They all have different favourite characters – sometimes based on the Kid and sometimes on the spirit they identify with.

The interesting thing about a character-based series is that it develops a life of its own. The characters are in charge and in this case, they have decided that no one character is dominant.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book-writing journey? My greatest obstacle is time. I have a school age family and a full time job. Writing time comes last. I have been fortunate to find publication and a readership quite quickly. I call myself the Cinderella author. It’s as if a fairy godmother waved a wand over me.

For the first year I kept worrying I would turn back into a pumpkin but now I’m holding on to those glass slippers so tight no-one will get them off me. I have so many story ideas I wonder if I will find enough time to write them all.

What’s a typical writing day? My writing day is really a writing night. It begins at 11pm when everyone else is in bed. I write for about an hour and then work on writing-related projects for another hour. Sometimes when I am really excited about a project or story I’ll sneak a little bit of writing in during the day and call it ‘lunch hour’.

Read a lot and write a lot. Like everything else, being a good writer requires practice and training. Learn from others but trust yourself too. In the beginning of my writing career I tried to get rid of the short, simple sentences that characterise my writing. I wanted the long flowing ones from ‘real books’.
What advice do you have on writing?

I was surprised to find that when my first book was published, I still didn’t sound like a real writer. I sounded just like me! Then one day I was listening to an editor speak about the search for new voices and suddenly realized what I had tried so hard to remove from my writing was my voice and the fact that it was different was a good thing.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? I would like to be an animator using computer skills to bring images and models to life. I suppose it’s a visual variation on what writers do with words. Other jobs that appeal to me are teacher-librarian and games programmer.

What books did you read as a child? I loved the books that transported me to other places. I can still remember clearly when I first came into contact with the Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings and the Dune series. I read the Hardy Boys when all my friends were reading Nancy Drew.
I still have a tendency to avoid something just because ‘everyone else is doing it’, especially if there is a line being drawn about what girls should read and what boys should read. A good story is for everyone to choose from.

What else do you like to do, other than write books? I’m always learning something new. At the moment I am teaching myself to draw manga and taking shakihachi flute lessons from Dr Riley Lee, who was the first non-Japanese Grand Master of the shakuhachi. One of the Samurai Kids, Kyoko, likes to play the flute but I had no idea how hard it was until now. I like puzzles – crosswords and sudoku – and I read a lot. Up to three books a week.

What would be your perfect day? I’d begin by sleeping in until 10am. I’m not a morning person. I’d write in the garden, sun, birdsong, running water and frog calls. Someone else would make my lunch. Preferably sushi. I’d spend the afternoon with the family and after dinner, read and write some more.

What five words best sum you up? Can I skip this one? (That’s five words!)

What’s next for Sandy Fussell? I would really like to write on location and as my next historical novel is set in Africa…

But in a more realistic future I have four books coming out in 2011/12, two Samurai Kids titles, a picture book and a YA novel. Beyond that I have a new series idea and would very much like to write an animal fantasy. I’m also about to pilot a new project blogging with schools. I hope that is successful as I love the idea of finding new ways to interact with readers. Especially if there is technology involved.

See more of Sandy's work at sandyfussell.com

You can read her blog - Stories Are Light, too - it's wonderful!