Interview with JAMES ROY
by William Kostakis - May 20th, 2009
Earlier this year, I was invited by the Children’s Book Council Australia (NSW Sub-Branch) to speak at their 2009 Triple-A Event, where we reflect on a year of children’s releases and toast the shortlist when it’s announced at midday. I was the Older Readers speaker, which meant I had to read every entrant in the Older Readers category. That meant I had to read the copy of James Roy’s Hunting Elephants that was sitting in my bookshelf. Despite having met the author a few times and my general feelings of guilt stemming from not actually having read any of his books, I’d been putting off reading it, because, frankly, the blurb didn’t appeal to me. Vietnam vets, a rural wedding… to say I was dreading it would be to understate the fact. Significantly.
I won’t sugarcoat it – I read it because I was forced to. Well, I started reading it because I was forced to. I finished it in a day because I absolutely loved it. It was mature, it didn’t talk down to its readers, but at the same time, it showing off. It was just genuinely well-written. That’s the key to its broad appeal – and I handed the book to Mum when I finished. She loved it, and this is the woman who’s only finished reading one other book in the past fifteen years: my own.
I selected Hunting Elephants as one of my picks for the CBCA Older Readers Shortlist, and I was really disappointed when it didn’t make it. But not being on the Shortlist doesn’t mean a book isn’t deserving of your time, and Hunting Elephants is certainly deserving of your time.
First off – why the hate for olives? I mean, granted, I’m Greek, but surely, no one can hate them enough to mention them in jacketflap bios AND on their website?
I don’t rightly know. Maybe it’s because they’re so bold and intense and singular (almost un-subtle) in their flavour, although I’m sure there are aficionados who will accuse me of being a trog for saying that. But I mean, even if you don’t like artichokes, they’re still a bit ‘pick ’em off if you can be bothered’, and if you get a bite of gherkin in your burger, you barely notice. But olives are almost aggressive in their boldness of flavour. I just don’t like them. Is this really what we’re going to be talking about?
Hahaha… You know my priorities: olives first, literature second. 🙂 Now, literature: 2008’s release, Hunting Elephants was one of my favourites of the year. What I loved most was the way you approached representing cystic fibrosis, and didn’t blatantly try to manipulate the audience into “feeling for the sick kid”. There was a certain understated realism to its portrayal – was it based on a personal experience… or just a lot of research?
First, thanks. And that’s more like it. Sure beats the olives question…
When I worked as a registered nurse on the adolescent unit of a major children’s hospital, there were several issues I didn’t feel I wanted to discuss in my writing, mainly because I was dealing with that stuff every day. Dying kids, mental illness, cancer, eating disorders and cystic fibrosis. But I was still observing it, and biding my time as a writer, and I wrote about other things. Then, when I stopped doing that job, I was ready to write about some of that stuff. In Town, I included a character with anorexia nervosa, and in Hunting Elephants it was CF. I saw one boy die exactly the way Joel did in Hunting Elephants, and it wasn’t pretty. Fortunately many kids with CF are getting transplants nowadays, but it’s still a tough life. So here’s my soapbox moment: tick the organ donor card on your license renewal form, people, and support CF fund-raisers. There is a cure out there somewhere.
We’ve had heaps of requests that we ask authors about their process… so, how did you go about writing Hunting Elephants? Are you a planner? What was the biggest change that came out of the editing process?
I’m not a planner. Any time I try to plan, I end up getting impatient and frustrated and just getting on with the writing. I fly by the seat of my pants, and let the book come out of asking one question, which was first said by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing).
And Studio 60… and I think I’m the only person on the planet who preferred / watched the short-lived Studio 60…
Well, he said that his characters come out of asking this: “What do they want?” Lili Wilkinson goes one step further, and suggests we also ask: “What do they need?”, remembering that sometimes the want and the need are in opposition. And once you know what a character wants, you make it almost impossible to get it. That’s the conflict, right there. So this is a question that I’m asking, almost subconsciously, the whole time I’m writing.
Hunting Elephants was going to be about a tunnel rat in the Vietnam War, full of creepy stories and adventures. But when I researched and interviewed, I learnt that there is the clichéd, typecast view of the Vietnam vet – angry, sullen, traumatised, unwilling to open up – and then there are all the others. Plus one guy who didn’t in fact do very much during the war, but was more comfortable letting people believe he saw and did traumatic stuff, rather than acknowledge that his experience wasn’t in fact all that harrowing. I found his story much more interesting.
A caveat to that: this is not to say that the support guys who were based at Nui Dat weren’t fought against, but simply that what we believe we see and what we actually see and what we’re allowed to believe are often three completely separate things.
What about it are you most proud of?
The structure. Flashback isn’t something I’ve always done well, so I found that the way it worked in Hunting Elephants was quite pleasing. I’m also quite proud of the cystic fibrosis stuff, because it feels like something of a tribute to the kids I nursed over the years, and their families, who are confronted with emotions and challenges no one should ever have to face.
You mentioned Town earlier and it’s something we have to talk about. A friend and fellow blogger, Adele Walsh, over at Persnickety Snark, picked this quotation from it that made my morning:
“And to Mr Richard Foster who is joining our geography and maths facility. He’s apparently quite the cyclist, so those of you wanting a good hard ride might like to track him down.” p.15
Town received a lot of award attention (insert dramatically long list of accolades here, including the NSW Premier’s Award [Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature 2008]), did you write it thinking it’d be so well-received, or did its reception surprise you?
Strangely, when I finished it, I felt incredibly satisfied. With almost everything else I’ve ever written, I get a serious case of cold feet once the final proofs have gone back to the publisher, and it’s now out of my control. I agonise about whether I rushed it, whether I could have sent away a better book with another six months at it, and I doubt whether it will even get bought, much less get good reviews. And shortlists and awards are the furthest thing from my mind. But with Town, I knew that it was a good book. That sounds arrogant, but I don’t mean it to be. I just felt very, very satisfied, and didn’t feel that I would have changed a single word even if I’d had another year at it. Which is ironic, because on the first reprint, we had to change several words that were typos.
Did its reception surprise me? A little, I guess. I felt it was the best book I could produce, but when it got a five-star review in Australian Bookseller and Publisher, I was a little stunned. In a good way. A very good way. And when someone tells me that they’ve read it (it’s not even necessary that they’ve enjoyed it – having read it is enough) I’m still a little surprised and flattered. I think this is because after years of writing books that got good reviews, I still felt slightly invisible. I still haven’t seen someone reading one of my books on a train or a bus, though. But I have seen someone reading Loathing Lola. True story.
Tempted to use that to a segue-way to a conversation about me… but I won’t. I know you keep churning out novels, what’s next on the horizon? Tell us about them.
Earlier this year was The Gimlet Eye, in the Quentaris series. As my first proper fantasy book, that was a lot of fun. And in the US was Max Quigley, Technically Not a Bully, which was a rebadge of Problem Child.
Later this year is Edsel Grizzler: Voyage to Verdada, which is Book 1 in a trilogy for middle-grade readers. It’s a kind of existential sci-fi thing about a boy who is transported to Verdada, the land of lost things. It’s all happy happy, joy joy in Verdada. Or so it appears…
And very early in 2010 is Anonymity Jones, a YA book about a girl whose life is in something of a tailspin, and the drastic measures she takes to regain some kind of control. I know, that’s never been done before in a YA book, has it? What’s different for me with this book is that it’s quite short, so I’ve had to be very direct and (hopefully) elegant in my prose.
And after that? The remainder of the Edsel Grizzler trilogy, and another collection of linked short stories like Town, only set in the city. The working title? City, obviously. I’m pretty excited about that one.
Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature 2010 mayhaps?… Working on anything at the moment?
Always. I’m just tidying up the end of Anonymity Jones, plus working on a couple of commissioned pieces. Plus I’m putting notes aside for some of the ten or so projects I’ve got slated for the future.
Ever considered writing another Mack book?
I was planning to, but every plot point I tried seemed too convenient or coincidental, and a little opportunistic. Never say never, but at the moment I don’t think so.
What inspired you to write The ‘S’ Word? A frustrating puberty?
Ha! Nice try!
Actually, yes, kind of. My sex education was largely from World Book Encyclopaedia. In fact, I think my mother thought I was going to be a fashion designer, because every time she came into my room I was reading about Sewing Machines. Of course, this was only a page or two over from Sex.
But to be completely serious, there were so many books for girls about their ‘changing bodies’ and ‘relationships’, but very little for boys of 10-14. There were books for much older boys, and for little kids, but I wanted middle-grade boys to be able to open my book and get answers to what was worrying or confusing or interesting them without feeling intimidated by the language, or patronised by the level of information.
I also wanted to emphasise to the next generation of young men that sexual development isn’t about the mechanics of sex, but about relationships and mutual respect. This is why I dedicated whole chapters to discussing how we talk to girls, how to behave on dates, etc. I felt a little stung by a review that said this book was potentially detrimental to relationships, because that was EXACTLY what much of the book was about. I’m still not convinced that reviewer even read the book.
I also want to acknowledge Gus Gordon for his fantastic illustrations. I asked him for a chapter header, and one illo per chapter, two illos for the longer chapters. He came back with complete cartoons, each of which tells a proper little story. He was worried that a couple of them had gone too far, but I don’t think we rejected a single one.
On your website, you mention you hate authors who take themselves too seriously, or refer to themselves in the third person… Are you willing to name-drop?
Mmm, nice try. No, although I think they – and you and your readers – know who they are.
I will say this, though. Any published writer who begins to believe that their success is a birthright or an inevitability needs to be very careful, because they’re possibly destined for a nasty surprise. I am a big believer in the sliding doors principle, where tiny circumstances can affect later outcomes. I would never argue that I am a better writer than every unpublished author, nor would I argue that I am a worse writer than some hugely successful authors. I feel privileged that I get to do this as a full-time job, and of course there needs to a be a bit of ability and truckloads of hard work. I am blessed with both those things. But there also needs to be good fortune. Consider this: had the editor to whom I sent my first book been having an off day, or had just filled her 1996 publishing schedule that morning, or simply not liked my writing, or I’d sent the wrong sample chapters, I could still be writing cover letters and filing rejection slips in my scrapbook. And that situation could come back any day.
As I say, I feel immensely privileged to be able to make stories up for a living. I filled out an online form a couple of days ago, and under occupation, I clicked on Arts/Communication. And under that was a list of about twenty jobs. Writer wasn’t on there. So few people get to do it. Yeah, I feel lucky.
So to the authors who get to smug about their success, I’d say this: be wary of believing your own publicity. There’s that old saying – ‘Be nice to the little people on the way up, because you’ll probably hit them on the way back down.’ Panel-beat that however you like for this scenario, and it still holds true.
Of your books – which one has the best opening line?
Can I have three?
“It was the last time I saw her.” (Almost Wednesday)
“Harry was dying.” (Hunting Elephants)
“Once, in a street not very far from yours, there lived a girl, whose name was Anonymity Jones.” (Anonymity Jones)
I like the last one best… Who do you prefer to write for, children or young adults?
Both. I know that sounds glib, but I really do love both, for different reasons. My imagination was somewhat snap-frozen at 10-13, thanks in no small part to the place I was living at the time, so I love writing about that time in kids’ lives, when things are simpler in many ways, but complex in others. Life’s a little more optimistic then than it is once true adolescence hits, perhaps. And yet I love being able to stretch my legs a little more when I write for older readers.
As far as speaking goes, I absolutely love getting up in front of an audience of Grade Fives and Sixes – their enthusiasm is so much fun, and they respond in a really fresh way. High school audiences can be a bit more of a challenge, but when it works, it’s incredibly rewarding.
The most frustrating thing about being a writer?
When I was a registered nurse, I had a staff room. I had colleagues. I had peer support. Writers don’t get that every day. So the loneliness – or perhaps I should say solitude – of writing can be challenging.
But I think my biggest personal frustration is that after thirteen years and almost twenty books, I still have to do as much schools work as I do, because for the most part, good reviews don’t necessarily ensure good royalties. I love schools work, but once in a while I’d like to be able to call my agent and say ‘I’m not doing any school gigs for the next three months – I’ve got some writing I want to do and I need some uninterrupted time’, and know that I can still pay the mortgage.
If you could claim any other writer’s work as your own, whose would it be?
Easy. Roald Dahl. Some authors can write funny, some can write gross, some can write important and moving. Roald Dahl did the lot. Plus he wrote some pretty good stuff for grownups.
If you could rid the world of ONE book, which would it be?
I’m tempted to say Mein Kampf, but I don’t know how widely it’s read. So probably Twilight. I think it and its companion books set the liberated woman back by about thirty years, nothing much happens, I’ve read fan fiction that is better, and I think it’s dishonest in its description of many Western teens and their attitude to sex.
Last Australian book you read?
Into White Silence by Anthony Eaton. Brilliant, creepy, chilling, and I wish I’d written it.
And the last non-Australian book I read was Tamar, by Mal Peet. It won the Carnegie Medal, and is such a fantastic blend of history, mystery and young adult angst.
Tags: Aaron Sorkin, Almost Wednesday, Anonymity Jones, anthony eaton, Children's Book Council Australia, Edsel Grizzler, Hunting Elephants, Into White Silence, James Roy, Loathing Lola, Mack, mal peet, Mein Kampf, NSW Premier's Award, olives, Problem Child, roald dahl, Studio 60, Tamar, The 'S' Word, The Gimlet Eye, The West Wing, Town, Twilight