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

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Author/Illustrator Interview: Felice Arena

Author and Illustrator Felice Arena joins us as part of our special Behind the Books feature on his work. Here, Felice tells us about his life as a writer and how Specky Magee was born.

How long have you been writing? I’ve been writing professionally for almost 15 years. My first book, Dolphin Boy Blue, was published May 7th 1996 by HarperCollins UK – a day I’ll never forget!

Why do you write for children? When I wrote my first book and took it to a literary agent, he said I had a rare gift in that I had a voice in my writing that would instantly connect with children. I was thrilled to hear this. I’ve been often told that I’m a big kid at heart, and that I could speak to children of all ages. In the real world, I’m not sure what that says about a grown man who still sounds as if he’s still in Year 7, but in the world of children’s literature it’s the perfect fit.

How did you make your start in writing for children? I was living in London during the 90s, working as an actor on stage in the West End. I’d perform in the evenings, so I had my days free to write. I always had a strong urge – a personal desire shared with only a few friends at the time – to jot down ideas, sketch out stories, and make up characters.

During a production of Godspell, in which I played the role of Jesus, I penned my first story about a boy and a dolphin – all set in Australia, of course. I sent it to a literary agent (the same one mentioned above), who then submitted it to a number of publishers. Within a couple of months I had been offered a two-book deal and the rest, as they say, is history. By the way, the agent who took my dolphin story discovered another author a few months later - the one and only J. K. Rowling.

Why do you write? I write because it’s one of the things in my life I’m most passionate about. I write because it’s what I feel most at ease with. I write because I love stories – it’s as simple as that.

What was your inspiration for writing the Specky Magee series? While living overseas I missed Australia and I was feeling particularly nostalgic for all things Aussie. I grew up in the Victorian country town of Kyabram. Sport – especially Aussie Rules footy – was a big deal in our community. Love or hate it, it’s a part of the landscape in Australia. I love it! And I love that families here can still attend an AFL match without feeling threatened by sporting hooligans or having to pay a small fortune for a ticket as do they do in other countries.

When I was a boy, ‘specky’ was a favourite catch phrase in the schoolyard. To ‘take a specky mark’ over the top of your mate, sometimes even off of the footy oval, was considered a cool (albeit random) thing to do. Boys generally liked jumping over the top of each for no reason at all… and calling out “What a specky!” I knew that I wanted to write about a lad who was great at taking speckies and dreamed of one day making it to the AFL.

That idea stayed with me for years, right up until I had a chance meeting with my old schoolmate, the AFL legend Garry Lyon. I told him about the character I had in mind and asked if he would like to help me with the football passages of the book. Garry loved the concept, but was adamant about not just writing the ‘footy bits’, as I had initially proposed. He had some ideas of his own and was really keen to co-write the book with me. I said… “That’s fine – let’s go for it, then!”

Since then our working partnership has evolved as the series grew. It’s not always easy to create with someone else, but Garry and I have a mutual respect and understanding for each other’s writing process that makes it all work in a really organic and cohesive way. I always say there would be no Specky without Garry and vice-versa. We are Specky – just two boys from the bush!

One of the biggest rewards for us is that parents and teachers continually thank us for having gotten their children (often reluctant readers) interested in books. I am always hugely touched when I hear this.

Currently we’re on tour signing the latest in the series, Specky Magee and the Best of Oz, so if you’re reading this and it’s still March or April (2011), why not come and say Hi. Also there are some big, big things in store for Specky in the future.

For more details check out speckymagee.com.au.

What’s a typical writing day? I’m a morning person. Forget about burning the midnight oil. As soon as I wake up, I have a strong coffee and I’m in front of the screen raring to go - that’s when my mind is most fresh and active. I write for most of the morning, have a break during the middle of the day, and in the late afternoon I might rewrite or edit my morning work. Writing is a discipline, and whilst it’s important to be creative it’s also important to treat the process as work. So… I write Monday to Friday, yep, the same days most people work and make sure to have the weekends off to spend with family and friends.

What advice do you have for others on writing for children? It may sound corny, but I think to be a writer for children you must have a good sense of your child-self. Most adults struggle to remember last month let alone what they did when they were ten years old. I can still vividly recall most things about my childhood – not only they way I spoke with my friends but how I felt at the time. For some unknown reason I subconsciously absorbed and stored my adventures with my mates, and fortunately nowadays I can draw on that.

It also helps if you have a solid understanding of the audience you’re writing for. When I’m not creating, I’m visiting schools and speaking with the readers of my books. I see how they interact with one another, what excites them, their likes and dislikes. This sort of feedback is golden for a children’s author.

What else do you love to do, other than write books? I’ve recently gotten into photography. Writing a book requires patience and a great deal of time. I love the instant gratification you get from taking a picture. It’s a great activity to balance out my writing. Both activities are of course linked in a way – they’re both ultimately about trying to convey a story.

What would be your perfect day? The day you get published always makes for a perfect day… oh, and a hug from the one you love. Or both. ☺

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? A filmmaker. I love going to the movies. I try to make it to the cinemas at least once a week.

What were some of your favourite books as a child?
Storm Boy by Colin Thiele
Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek by Jenny Wagner
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
The Berenstain Bears series by Stan Berenstain
The World Book Encyclopedia – Yep, remember, those were pre-Google days!

What’s next for Felice Arena? In September 2011 I have a novel coming out for slightly older readers – it’s ideal for boys aged 11—14. It’s called Whippersnapper and will be published by Penguin Australia. It’s about being young, being old, moving on, and the human spirit (with a little bit of basketball thrown in the mix).

I’m also currently working on an action-packed junior series. I haven’t been this excited about a new character since I created Specky. This kid will blow your socks off (I hope!). I can’t reveal anything as of yet, but you’ll hear a lot about him in 2012 (also to be published by Penguin Australia).

If you want to find out on what else I’m working on, check out my site: felicearena.com or follow me on twitter at twitter.com/fleech.