James Roy has more awards under his belt than you can count. Ben Beaton asks him about Edsel Grizzler: Voyage to Verdada, the first book in a new three-part series.
Where did the concept of Edsel Grizzler: Voyage to Verdada and all that it entails come from?
The first part of the story had been rattling around in my head for over 10 years– the idea of a quirky boy who discovers a mysterious inter-dimensional pod/portal. But that was as far as the story went. Then, in my usual way, I simply forced myself to launch into the story and ‘follow my nose’. What I ended up with was something of a classic three-act structure, but ironically, the first act, despite being set in the real world, felt too surreal, almost cartoonish. Whereas Verdada was a rather more austere, soulless kind of place, despite its pretense of being ‘A Place of Forever Fun’. So I had to make Edsel a rather more sad, lonely kind of individual than he’d originally been. I also think there’s a bit of a fable going on, speaking to this idea of reality and artificiality. There might even be a touch of humanism–I find the idea of people disregarding the wonder and joy of being in the present while they look for something better, quite sad. I don’t think life is a dress rehearsal.
Your hero Edsel Grizzler faces a difficult choice, and suffers the consequences. What messages are there for readers about signing up for a ‘sure thing’ before reading the fine print?
I find the word ‘message’ suggestive of some kind of agenda, which young readers despise. Having said that, if a kid were to read my book and, as a result, begin to think about how they can find joy in the everyday, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Voyage to Verdada sits comfortably alongside Alice in Wonderland, or even The Wizard of Oz, where the simple pleasures of home outweigh the excitement of the discovered world. Were you thinking of the ‘stranger in a strange land’ scenario when you wrote the novel?
I think that all good stories put characters in different ‘worlds’. Harry Potter and the Narnia books are obvious examples. But in some ways, ‘realistic’ books deal with this idea as well. One of my favourite books is Josh, by Ivan Southall, which is about a city kid who ends up in a country town where his pedigree dictates that he should fit in, but he doesn’t. But if I were looking for a real link to the ‘stranger in a strange land’ scenario, I’d probably look at the nine years I spent in PNG and Fiji as a missionary kid. Perhaps at some subconscious level I’m exploring my own questions of belonging. That’s what writers do, isn’t it?
What do you think teens are looking for from a good book in this digital age?
I don’t believe that what young people want from their entertainment has changed all that much. Basically a good story with strong, believable characters will do it every time. What has changed a little is how we access that story. The Sunday night TV movie has declined in popularity, because we now prefer to buy the DVD of a show we really like and watch several episodes in a row, rather than sitting down to watch it at a prescribed weekly time, interrupted by ad breaks. In the digital age the method of getting the story–audio book, digital reader, ebook, graphic novel, or conventional novel–is somewhat secondary to our universal desire for a strong story. We love stories. It’s actually very simple.
What are you working on next?
I’m really excited to be putting together some of the planning for City, a follow-up to Town, which was a collection of linked short stories I find short stories both challenging and liberating. And when City is done, it’ll be time to return to Edsel. I can’t wait..