Susanne Gervay is an accomplished author of children’s and young adult books, her latest release is ‘Ships in The Field’ and we got to ask her some questions about her writing and inspirations.
B&L: Can you tell us a little about how you got started as a writer?
I’ve always written. However becoming a published writer was a different journey. When my beloved father died, I began writing stories for him. I wanted them published so that his legacy would continue beyond the grave. I spent hours in my local library reading the literary journals to see where I could send these stories. I joined the NSW Writers Centre and Fellowship of Australian Writers, formed my own writing critique group. Becoming a published writer started. My stories eventually were published in literary journals such as Southerly, Westerly, Quadrant, Mattoid and others. I won my first prize from the Society of Women Writers for ‘The Baby is Sweet’ which was published in the Sydney University journal ‘Southerly’ and other short story awards.
I love the short story form and write across ages. My story ‘Days of Thailand’ was included in a 20 story cross Indian-Australian anthology – ‘Fear Factor: Terror Incognito’ edited by Meenakshi Bharat and Sharon Rundle ( published by Picador Australia and India), alongside the works of Sir Salman Rushdie, Thomas Keneally, David Malouf. My new young adult story will be included in Ford Street’s new anthology ‘Trust Me Too’ to be published in 2012.
B&L: What inspired you to write children’s books?
Kids mean a lot to me. I think they are funny, loving, explorative and vulnerable. When I became divorced, my two children became divorced and I was confronted with their confusion, sadness and sense of loss. Kids have the right to be happy and be all they can be. I started writing children’s books for my kids and for all kids, so that they could find a friend in my books. My books are for the parents, grandparents and community too, as sharing a story can make the world safer.
My JACK books – I Am Jack, Super Jack and Always Jack – have become rite-of-passage novels for many children and parents as they find themselves on the pages. JACK invites readers to love, cry, celebrate and find their own answers and positive pathways dealing with – bullying, blending families, cancer, refugees, aging grandparents, love, friendships and whatever life holds.
B&L: You write children’s and young adult books. Is it more difficult to write children’s book? Can you tell us a little about your process for writing children’s stories?
The process of writing for young people is the same as writing for adults. You understand and engage in your characters and their challenges. Once you write from their world view, there is an authenticity. When I am writing from Katherine’s viewpoint in ‘Butterflies’ I am a 17 year old teenager. When I write from Jack’s viewpoint in ‘Always Jack’ I am a 12 year old boy. It’s about getting inside their heads and writing honestly.
I am never condescending, telling young people what to think and feel. Young people have complex emotional lives like all of us. Writing down to them, makes them throw away your writing. Writing for young people is about choices, offering them experiences for them to decide how to interpret them.
However there are restrictions in writing for young people. The ‘gatekeepers’ that is adults who know best, can censor your work or underestimate young people’s ability to make choices in their lives. This is especially relevant to writing young adult books. Young adults can read anything they chose, so why read young adult books? It’s because they identify with the protagonists and the challenges relate to their own search for identity. Search for identity young adult writing needs to be honest, powerful, relevant, complex and real, so it can reach them. However this can be a minefield for authors. My young adult novel ‘The Cave’ about male youth culture and their search for meaning was censored.
I wrote ‘That’s Why I Wrote This Song’ with my teenage daughter who wrote the songs that drive the narrative. Her songs ‘Psycho Dad’ and ‘I Wanna be Found’ are real and passionate expressions of how she felt and many young people feel.
It was intense working with my 17 year old daughter as I write honestly. She found that confronting. It is a very special book to us now.
B&L: Ships In The Field is the upcoming release, can you tell us a little about the book please?
Ships in the Field is a celebration of those who find home in new lands. I wanted it to be a picture book, so that everyone from age 5 to 95 could engage and laugh and love and share the story. There’s a lot of sub text for those who wish to see it.
It is inspired by my family and our experiences.
My family were Hungarian refugees who had been through war, Stalinism. They escaped Hungary ending up in an Austrian refugee camp. Australia selected them and they came as bonded migrants on a battered WW11 warship. My parents didn’t know what Australia was, but they knew they could rebuild their lives offering their children a future. Like other refugees they worked long hours – my father in the Holden car factory; my mother in the clothing factory. Life in Sydney began in one room with the family sleeping on mattresses on the floor. But there was a belief in their new country and the future.
Ships in the Field is funny, warm, real. It contains some of my family stories growing up here. My father made hats from the serviettes at dinnertime for us. My mother cooked chicken soup every night. My father worked in a factory and mother sewed dresses both in a factory and at home. Our trips into the country were happy family time and a celebration of being safe and here. My father did see the ‘ships in the field.’
B&L: What message do you hope this book will send?
Message is a strange word. I want readers to feel and think about those who find home here. That we’re all connected through love of family and belief in the future.
The back cover of ‘Ships in the Field’ encapsulates part of the ‘message’:-
‘Everyone has the right to a nationality’
B&L: How did you come to be working with Anna Pignataro on Ships In The Field?
It was hard to find the right illustrator – someone who loves ‘Ships in the Field’ like I do. Anna Pignataro is an award winning acclaimed illustrator who had not illustrated another author’s book for 5 years. She was waiting for a story that touched her. When she read Ships in the Field she responded immediately to Paul Collins the publisher of Ford Street. ‘It’s my story’ she said. Her parents were Italian migrants who had to leave their beloved dog in Italy as they found a home in Australia. Her water colour washes with the soft lines and palette capture the character, love, family as they struggle with the past to seek a future. Her daughter became the natural model for the girl in ‘Ships in the Field’.
Anna put aside all other projects to dedicate the next 6 months working long hours to create ‘Ships in the Field’ – which was a deeply personal and important journey for Anna.
B&L: According to your website you have quite a few roles and titles in the literary world. How do you juggle all of them?
Passion for literature, young people, family and community is a driving force. I get tired but when I was speaking a few days ago as a Role Model for Books in Homes to the kids at Plunkett St Public School in a Housing Commission area, I felt teary and privileged.
I am so proud to be an Australia Day Ambassador and was deeply moved when Governor Marie Bashir presented me with an Order of Australia on 16th September 2011 at Government House.
Many of my roles have come out of my books which are endorsed and used by many organisations including The Cancer Council, Life Education, The Alannah & Madeline Foundation, Room to Read, Books in Homes, Variety Charity, the Children’s Hospital Westmead Sydney and others.
I juggle it all because it’s important.
B&L: Where is the most unusual place your writing has taken you?
I was part of a fact finding delegation to Kiribati with Pat Dobson, the father of indigenous reconciliation. I addressed schools, spoke to teachers, engaged with youth communities in Tarawa, the main island in this island nation located on the equator in the Pacific Ocean with a population of 100,000 (2011), composed of 32 atolls and one raised coral island, over 3.5 million square kilometres.
It is an island nation threatened by rising seas, with severe issues of sanitation and water shortage, with a high child death mortality rate and great poverty. However it is also a nation of vibrant youth, powerful singing and dance, community.
B&L: How does it feel knowing your books are being read across the world?
I love it. To think that my books are read from the USA to Korea to Indonesia and even translated into Slovenian. It’s wonderful.
B&L: What’s next for Susanne Gervay?
There’s so much. I am an Ambassador for the National Year of Reading 2012 which will take me across Australia. I will be doing a speaking tour in the USA about my young adult novel ‘Butterflies’. I have festivals and conferences to attend.
Creatively I will be working on my new picture book ‘Gracie and Josh’ to be published by Ford St which is endorsed by Variety making life better for ill children.
I have a new JACK book to write and will be flying to Vietnam as research for it.
My JACK books have been optioned as a feature film and I am co-script writer with John Larkin. It’s in development and very exciting. The feature film is expected to coming out in 2014.
Thank you for taking the time out to speak with us Susanne, good luck with all of your upcoming 2012 projects
If you would like to learn more about Susanne Gervay and her work I’ m sure she would love for you to head over and visit her at: www.sgervay.com
I devour books, vampires and supernatural creatures are my genre of choice but over the past couple of years, I have broadened my horizons considerably. In a nutshell – I love to write! I love interacting with a diverse range of artists to bring you interviews. Perhaps we were perfect before – I LOVE WORDS!