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INTERVIEWS

Philip Ardagh
Malorie Blackman
Kevin Brooks
Robert Cormier
Cormier & Burgess
Sharon Creech
Joseph Delaney
Berlie Doherty
Anne Fine
Jack Gantos
Sonya Hartnett
Michelle Harrison
Tanuja Desai Hidier
David Levithan
Graham Marks
Chris Mould
Anant Pai
Mal Peet
Philip Reeve
Chris Riddell
Marcus Sedgwick
John Singleton
Robert Swindells
Nick Ward


The Joey Pigza books are really the first of your books to have crossed the Atlantic. Are your other books very different?

Yes. I write for different age groups and different age levels. The 'Rotten Ralph' picture books I write are for 4 - 8 yr old children, and the the Jack Henry books, collections of autobiographical stories, are for Grades 6 through to 8. They are all taken from my childhood diaries - I was a big diary keeper and kept really accurate journals - and so later on in life I picked out all the really good details and rewrote them as stories. Most recently I've written the Joey Pigza books, really for the same age group, Joey's 11 12 so in the States they're rated for 8 and 9 yr-old readers up into middle school - I keep getting middle school awards, which means that they're reading it at 13 or 14. They're books that seem to have carved out a good bit of range. And then I write teenage novels, which are upper grade novels for high school children, with more mature themes - it's like writing books for adults - you don't pull your punches with thematic material - you don't pull your punches with the language and the subject matter - you're just writing the strongest book you can - which is always how I think I'm writing - like with Joey, the only thing I ever think when writing those books is to pull back the language just a touch and it's mostly just the dialogue - outside of that I actually think they're suitable for any adult to read - I think good children's literature always is - I'd like to think that Joey fits into that category - I really enjoyed writing the Joey Pigza books from his point of view - with that really gasping language - one phrase after the next - on paper when I wrote it you could just stack those phrases endlessly - a whole tower of babble - I love the unstable prose - but then I had to read the book for Books On Tape - so they put me into a studio - my god, I got into a sentence and I was halfway through and went blue in the face, I'd run out of breath - they would come on the studio loudspeaker, "Mr Gantos, we heard that rather large gasp" and I'd have to go all the way back to the beginning and start again - I felt like a polevaulter trying to get over the bar to the end of the sentence - Just recently I received a letter from one teacher and she said, "We love your book, don't get me wrong, but I'm trying to teach these children how to write proper sentences, and your book is teaching the complete opposite. How do you reconcile that?" I said, well, it's the kind of language that simulates an inner life. When I write in regular prose forms, narrative essays for instance, I stick with the regular prose rules.

Where did the character come from?

The character of Joey is sort of put together from several characters that've known over the years - I moved about forty times growing up - my father was in the construction industry and in the navy and so we moved frequently - I went to ten different schools - moved mid school year - into different neighbourhoods - so I ended up knowing a lot of children - when I was young I noticed that there were always those kids who were described as wilful or bad or rotten, very active, very very active - in schools they'd be sitting out in the hallway or on a long bench at the principle's office - trying desperately to sit still - I always knew kids like that - and I think it's because I moved so much I was always on the fringe - I didn't have a core group of friends - so I always had to hang around with the unusual kids - I hung around with a lot of very active kids! - and then I started visiting schools as a writer - and I had teachers do this trick where they always take the most active children and put them right at my feet because they think, well, if the child is closer their attention span will be longer - I think it's logical - so when I'm speaking in schools frequently I'm stooping down with one hand on a child's head while pulling some object out of the hand of another child over here meanwhile trying to maintain the talk but just doing a little active-kid housekeeping around my ankles! - I was in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I was speaking in a class - the child was at his desk directly in front of me - and he was so smart - as I spoke he would finish all my sentences - and when I was just getting ready to deliver a punchline for a joke he would suss it out and deliver it for me - he was great! - and he was spinning around in his seat like a top - he was gleeful and bright but really active - then suddenly, about three quarters of the way into the program he started getting this very grim look on his face and he stopped having fun - and he looked over at the teacher wildly and he said, "Teacher, teacher I forgot to take my medication!" - She just pointed to the door and that child just launched himself out of his desk and out the door, down the hall, and you could hear him slamming the lockers all the way down the hall, wham, wham, wham, and the echo of it all the way down the hall to the nurses office - and when that kid did that it just really touched me, it really hit a nerve - I was on the road, because I live in Boston, so I went back to the hotel that night - and I always have a journal - I'm a big believer in keeping journals and at the end of the day, especially when I'm tired, after I've been talking for four or five hours, I take out my journal and I just try to write one or two pages about the most interesting thing that happened to me that day - and so that kid was topic #1 - I wrote a little description about him and the next day I reread it - though this is pretty interesting - I wrote a little more - the I wrote a little more - and then I made a big mistake - I started writing in the third person - it was about Joey - it was good but it didn't capture any of the manic energy - it didn't have those long sentences - and it wasn't as heartfelt and sympathetic to the main character - it began to get the flavour of what we call in the US desease dejour kind of books - suddenly hyperactivity is popular so there'll be ten books on hyperactivity - dyslexia's popular, suddenly everyone's got dyslexia in children's literature - and it seemed like it fell into that category - which was unacceptable to me - so I changed it and wrote it from the first-person point of view and it suddenly seemed to capture a certain personality and situation, but it also had a lot of heart and soul - it was sympathetic to him as a character not just as a problem - it was really Joey's book, not the disorder's book - and that's what I wanted - I wanted any kid to read it - you don't have to have ADHD to read it - once I got on that track with the writing the book fairly took off - usually for a novel I get a free stretch of four or five months so I really have to get going and get that first draft out - I'm an obsessive rewriter.

When you say you get that stretch, what do you mean by that?

Well, in the fall and in the spring I do a lot of school visits and so I travel a lot - I may be in Seattle for a week - home for a week - Phoenix for a week - it's very disruptive, trying to keep the continuity of writing - I'm good at sketching things out and making notes on the road but writing full force is difficult - so in the summer when all the school travel settles down and all the conferences are over then I have May June July August and September that are mine, really mine - and so I really have to take advantage of those months - so that's when I write madly - and rewrite madly - and I love rewriting - I tell the kids this all the time - I think they've got the fantasy desire to believe you just write it once and it's a masterpiece - and so I say I rewrote that twenty times and that twenty-five times until I got it just right and they nearly flop over - oh, don't tell us that - and I say well you should write it two or three times at least - the teachers are at the back saying, Yes!

The viewpoint in the books is quite positive towards medication. Is this your personal view?

Yes. But with a caveat. I think it's very important for anyone thinking about ADHD and medication to make sure they work hard at getting the proper diagnosis - it's very difficult to determine - it's a very subjective test - it's not objective like you walk in they take an X-ray of your arm and they go yes your arm is broken we see it here in the picture - ADHD doesn't really represent itself so graphically - it's more a behaviour issue - and there are a lot of teenagers with problems - and some of them can be as routine as a child not getting enough attention at home - perhaps there are family troubles perhaps not - but they're just needing more attention - there could be a misdiagnosis for that kind of child - they say well let's put him on medication - in fact, the kid might just simply need more family life - so I'm for medication when it's necessary - otherwise I say therapies are good or maybe some family counselling

The patch that Joey wears - Is that quite common in the States?

In the States it's still mostly in pill form - the patch is still fairly experimental as a means of delivering medication slowly all day long - the problem with Ritalin most of the time is they'll take it in the morning - as soon as they have lunch the food offsets the medication and in the afternoon they're off the wall again- regulating it has become something of an issue.

I like both books a great deal but the second Joey book is particularly strong because of the adult characters as well as Joey. Are you particularly pleased with that book?.

I like the second book very much - for a combination of reasons - one, I'm originally from Pittsburgh, so that's my hometown, that's my turf - and Joey's father, carter Pigza, seems to me like an awful lot of men I knew growing up out there - just sort of wool-gathering the philosophy of their life from anything - Humpty Dumpty for instance! - I know that when I'm writing it for Carter it seems so outrageous, it seems comical almost and yet at the same time I talk to people out there, anywhere, and they really do have these odd beliefs, so Humpty Dumpty could become for him a symbol - and also I like how for Carter Storybook Land becomes Scarybook Land at night - in the daylight everything seems positive - at night you see the cloudy side - Carter's not just a cardboard character that represents a point of view - I try to give him enough characteristics to round him out...

Oh yes, I felt a lot of sympathy for him...

I do too - I really do - He tries - He does, he's just so off track! - And he's got so many self-indulgent activities - his drinking, his constantly being annoyed with just about everything - I believe in the book that Carter really wants a relationship with Joey but he just doesn't know how to maintain it - for instance, when Carter comes in that night, when he says, "I've been thinking again.." you know that every time that Carter's been thinking it brings trouble - "you don't need that medication, if you were any man at all you'd pull yourself up by your bootstraps" - that kind of talk which I think is fairly typical father-son talk - I think Carter actually believes that's a good thing - he's not doing it to torture Joey - he really thinks he's going to help Joey - that makes all the difference in the world to me - it makes Carter seem sympathetic - he's just misguided.

The opening of the book is so funny. The car journey that Joey and his mother take to his father's house is a classic comic sequence.

You know, when I wrote that book… well, I'll tell you a little bit about how I write - I always write the juicy parts first - the parts of the book that I get a very clear, crisp vision of - and I know this is my tunnel into the book - this is my doorway - and that was one of the original scenes - now when I wrote it I wasn't absolutely sure it was going to be the opening scene - I just knew it fit - that was the template piece - and once I got that piece and shoved it into the beginning of the book it was like fuel for the rest of the book - and every time I got lost with the writing - you know, if you lose your ear in the book - I'd go back - you know what I do? - this is just awful - it's probably a huge waste of time - but it helps me a lot - every day when I write a novel I wake up at 5 in the morning and start working very early and every day I read the whole novel - so if I'm on page 100 I start reading in the morning from page 1 to page 100 then write another 1000 words and then the next day I read all of that again - and as I'm going through it I'm re-writing of course but it really - for me - it creates that very tight focus and you don't have a tendency to drift off because you're going to see it, you're going to feel it - and I'm a very character-driven writer - I don't write a book because I fall in love with the plot first - I really fall in love with the characters first - and I just really drive that character through the story - and I make sure the story stays fairly tidy in its structure - not like Tolstoy where I have an a plot a b plot and an alphabet of subplots where you can go into a 50 page cul de sac before you go back to the main story - in these books I really march them forward - and I think that kind of process helps.

I presume the introductory pages about baseball in the UK edition were just for the UK?

Yes, entirely! - and I have to say, it was troublesome to write that - it's a very short piece but I think I took a whack at it every day for a week - over and over and over - you're describing baseball which you know innately - you know how it works but you don't know how to explain the rules - the I would send it off to other people saying let me know if I've made any sense here at all - it was the hardest part to write! - it did concern me - I thought that this second Joey book, knowing that the first book was well-received, would seem a little obscure because of the baseball - that was a concern - when I reread it there's not a real lot of obscure baseball particulars in it - pitching and hitting and catching and base running - there's no real strategy to explain.

How many more Pigza novels are there going to be?

I am writing another Joey book but I think there'll be just this one more - When it comes to series I'm very particular - I've read series books like everyone's read series books - Hardy Boys, Bobsy Twins and Biggles - I read Biggles when I was when I was growing up in Barbados when it was a British colony - I went to British schools when I was young - so I read a lot of British books - sometimes you see characters that are taken just tone step too far - like Joey Pigza will never Become An Exchange Student in Russia and Joey Pigza will never Go On A Safari - I want really to examine what I think is the final theme - it's contrasting themes that match up - that is, everyone now goes back to Lancaster - they're at the mother's house - granny's back living at the mother's house - the mother has a boyfriend - the father is now in Lancaster - and he's driving around on a motorcycle madly all over town - he's there - there's a lot of chaos - a lot of argument - a lot of conflict - and Joey's first thought is to flee - then, like so many children, he thinks he can solve his parents problems - so then he really tries to take on the weight of the world - and find ways to resolve really just unresolvable adult misbehaviour - eventually he has to come to the conclusion, like so many children, that really you're going to be fine, living through your own manufactured identity, you can't live through your parents' identities, you have to become yourself, you have to set your own standards

You mentioned getting up at 5 o c' clock to do your writing and you've talked about these four months of the summer when you're freed up to write fiction - am I right in thinking that your also involved in the teaching a creative writing course?

For many years I taught them, at Emerson College, Boston - I started the undergraduate and graduate program in children's literature and writing - at the graduate level a student would have to take a two-semester course with me to write a novel - and we would write a 120 to 150 page novel over the course of the two semesters and we would start it, workshop it, rewrite it and get it prepared as if they were going to publish it - I loved working with the students - I would have twelve of them - they'd have to sign up and hang in there from beginning to end - I was full time tenured professor - it's a lot of work - I began to see my teaching career usurping my writing career and I began to think I was going to have a writing career deferred if I kept it up - I loved the teaching but I just couldn't keep it up - and so I retired from that in 1994 - that wasn't good enough - then I started another program! - a Masters and Fine Arts program in children's book writing that was low residency - it was two semesters a year - you would come up as a student for two weeks each semester - one in the summer - one in the winter - in Vermont - on a beautiful campus - you would work exclusively with other writers in the field - other really well-established writers - the rest of the semester would be correspondence - we had so many teachers and librarians - people who had always wanted to write books for children but didn't exactly know how to get started - these were really people who had something to say - I did that for two years - and that exhausted me too - then I passed it on - and that program's going very strongly to this day - and it really has met a need - now I just write books and out together my lecture and travel circuit every year - I think I'm like Mark Twain or Dickens on the stump - going round to speaking venues - get up there and deliver - go to schools and teach teachers - offer workshops in how to use creative writing in the curriculum - how to storyboard a picture book - how to use journals in the classroom - That's very satisfying because I still get to teach.

When you were involved in those courses did any successful books come out of them?

Yes, quite a number - There's a really fabulous Young Adult writer called Chris Lynch - he lives in Scotland, outside of Edinburgh and he wrote his first book in my class - Janet Hautge, I don't know if she's published over here - Eric Kramm wrote his first book in my class - there's been quite a number of really successful graduates who did get that leg up - it's so difficult to get the time to write - writing a book just devours time - you can't just whip one up.

Is there any interest in bringing out any of your other books here?

I really hope so! I think what happened is this. Transworld liked Joey Pigza right away - It won a very good award in the US - it came over here and it did pretty well - so it got some attention for me - the second book won an even bigger award in the US - it was a Newbery Honor book - so I think Transworld is not just publishing the book - they're beginning to think of the author - I think those Jack Henry books of autobiographical stories of my childhood - I think those are the books they might pick up - but we'll see - the thing they have to be concerned about is Does the humor translate? - I think in Joey's case it obviously does - humor can travel - I love Sue Townsend - I just loved those Adrian Mole books - Roald Dahl has worked - I just love everything by him - I'm hoping humor comes back the other way, from America to England!

I expect a favourite scene when you're in schools is the actual swallowing a key sequence…

It's a little bit like I'm a circus act - I was in a school recently and the teacher had gone down to a locksmith and got a whole bucket of discarded keys - they all had a key on a string round their neck - so when I walked into the auditorium about 300 children or so all had these keys - they saw me, they threw their heads back and and sat there holding the key over their own mouths - I shouted, "No! No! Don't swallow it!" - They love the bit where the key is passed through Joey's body and comes out with a clink in the toilet basin - oh, they just love that! - they'll raise their hand and ask, "Now how did he get rid of the key? How did they get the key out of him?" - they just egg me on - the other bit that gets them is when he sticks his little finger in the pencil sharpener and gives it a turn and the nail comes off like peeling a shrimp! - the second book doesn't have quite those galvanising moments - it's a little broader in theme - but they do like the bungee jumping off the bridge - they say '"Did you do that?"

AFTER THE INTERVIEW, WHICH ACHUKA CONDUCTED OVER LUNCH IN LONDON JUST BEFORE GANTOS TRAVELLED TO THE AIRPORT TO CATCH THE PLANE HOME TO BOSTON, HAVING BEEN IN THE UK TO APPEAR AT THE EDINBURGH BOOK FESTIVAL, HE SHOWED US HIS CURRENT JOURNAL AND ALLOWED US TO TAKE PICTURES SHOWING HIS PLANNING NOTES FOR THE THIRD JOEY PIGZA NOVEL...

 


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Editor: Michael Thorn
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