Recently I, caught up with Susanne Gervay, ambassador for Room to Read, author of the children’s book series I Am Jack and young adult novel Butterflies
How/when did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I was always a writer, but publication didn’t cross my mind. I thought everyone wrote novels and by eight, I was writing to work out the ‘meaning of life’ or to escape ‘the meaning of life.’ I only became an author when my beloved father passed away. The intensity of the loss was so great, that I needed to write about him. I wrote story after story. Writing and life became intertwined.
Slowly came the realization that I wanted to share my writing. I wanted other people to know that my father was special, that he survived war, prison and migration and protected us all. Then as a sole parent of two young children, I wanted to write for young people, so they’d always feel there’s a friend in their corner – to play with, share growing up, be there for the challenges of life and know they can be all they can be.
Were there any significant mentors/supporters who really assisted you when you were starting out?
My writing group of unpublished writers was a key support in my journey of becoming an author. I developed a lifelong friendship with fellow novice author Moya Simons. We workshopped each other’s writing, shared disappointments and successes. The writers in my writing group all became published in the end, which was a great joy to me and to each other.
The craft of writing for children and young adults might seem challenging to some. What attracts you to that demographic?
Writing for young people is challenging as authors face parental, teacher and community gatekeepers. How do you navigate truth with the inbuilt and well-meaning censorship implicit in writing for children and young adults? You tread lightly but do not compromise your commitment to the story and your readers.
Writing down to young people for worthy reasons can never be acceptable. Young people feel and think about everything, except they do not have the experience to navigate life. Writing is partnering them on their discoveries.
Young people read very differently to adults. If a story reaches them, they will read and re-read it many times. Story becomes part of their search for identity and it is a privilege to travel with them. I receive many emails and cards from adults and children sharing the impact of my I Am Jack books, Butterflies for young adults, my picture books for all ages.
I receive emails and letters for my books all the time from young readers, parents and teachers. Some emails in response to the I Am Jack books are:
When I knew I Am Jack was true, I imagined myself in Jack’s shoes. I felt sorrowful and sad as Jack had to put up with bullying for a long time. It would have been a burden forever if I was Jack. – K
My heart just floated into nothing when I discovered that Jack and Samantha were your actual children. – A
My son was a victim of a false gay rumour at a school camp. [Later] they studied I Am Jack. My son's teacher told me that my son finished the book before the class did, participated in the class discussion which he is normally very shy in doing, all because he identified with Jack. Thank you – L
I get bullied at school almost every day and it makes me sick. I just didn't feel like going to school. I pretended to be sick and stay home for the day. I've talked to the School Councillor, I've tried to tell my mum, I've thought of getting back at the bullies, but all these things don't seem to work. But I Am Jack inspired me to tell everyone that I am being bullied. It makes me feel great and today I treated my mother with respect (I wasn't doing that ….) – L
The cemetery scene really resonated with one of my students as both his parents died in Afghanistan. He is comforted by the thought that they are watching over him and that he can talk to them at anytime, just like Nanna and Jack do with Grandad. – R
I love writing for kids and young adults.
When you set out to write, do you have a particular topic or issue in mind? If so, how do you choose it (or perhaps it chooses you)?
I write from a very personal perspective. When something touches me, it swirls in my mind, often for years, until it emerges as the core of my book. For my young adult novel Butterflies, a girl asked me to write about growing up with severe burns. While I initially refused to do it, it wove into my passions on difference, disability, disempowerment/empowerment and giving young women a voice. It was years of thinking and research – interviewing burn survivors, parents, siblings, doctors, firefighters, community until I understood it in my heart. Then I wrote Butterflies. When The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney asked if it could endorse Butterflies. I cried.
Like tempering steel, the process of passing through the fire helps make a person of exceptional quality. Butterflies captures these subtleties for the reader, and gives a stunning insight into a difficult topic.
– Dr Hugh Martin OAM
President of the Australian and New Zealand Burn Association and
Head of the Burn Unit, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Sydney.
In a world that is increasingly complex, how do you approach the task of having an authentic voice for younger readers?
As an author for younger readers or adults, it is the same process. You get into the mind and emotions of a character and react to the world as that character does. This is the basis of all stories. An authentic voice means you understand and are that character, know how they react and feel. For example, in To Kill A Mockingbird the narrator, Scout, is eight years old. The voice is authentic because it reflects a child’s voice and her exploration of an adult world fraught with adult issues of racism, sexual abuse, mental health, group violence, sole parenting and more. It also reflects her journey, understanding, courage, values and who she wants to be within the joys and adventures of being a child in a world that is so new to her.
You’ve been asked to conduct a workshop for the ACT Writers Centre. In what ways do you think your workshop will benefit emerging writers?
At a key level, it provides the opportunity to network with other writers and help establish and/or deepen your creative community. It’s an opportunity to work as a group where ideas and craft issues can be explored, developed and answered. It demystifies the complex world of publishing which is essential for those entering the world of children’s writing.
Is there any general advice you can give emerging writers?
Read the books of much loved children’s writers. Read school journals and short stories. Establish a writers’ group to share your work, edit, comment, develop your craft, enjoy as well as struggle with the process. Join your local writers centre, go to festivals and participate in the creative life. When you feel ready, submit your work to magazines, journals, enter competitions. Research publishers and what they are publishing. Then submit the appropriate work for the appropriate publisher. Pin your badge of courage on and learn from rejections so you can get closer to your goal.
Do not write for the market. Write from your passion and belief in what you are doing. Publication is precarious, so you need to write something you love and are committed to.
For those who want a quicker process, write on the computer as it makes editing so much easier. Research during your writing process. The internet can be a great friend.
The Biggest tip is to be willing to work on your craft to ensure that your piece is as good as it can be.
This blog post is part of my Blogger in Residence with the ACT Writers Centre and first appeared in Capital Letters