Susanne Gervay is an Australian author who writes children’s and young adult fiction. As the daughter of Hungarian post-war refugees, a mother, and a cancer survivor, her experiences empower her to write books that reach out to youth on their journey to adulthood.
Her best-selling younger fiction, I Am Jack, tackles school bullying with humor and insight. Tricycle Press (Ten Speed Pres) has recently bought the rights to I Am Jack for released in the U.S. in fall 2009, with an option for the sequel Super Jack. The book also has been adapted as a play by the premier theater company, Monkey Baa Theatre (it has been placed on the international touring list for 2009 when it will be released in the U.S.).
Did you always want to be a writer?
SG: I thought all eight-year-old kids wrote stories and poems. It was something I did for escapism from the turbulent family life of being the daughter of post-war refugees. Sometimes my writing was funny. Other times, it acted as a way of understanding life.
I wrote because that is who I am. I didn’t think of it as a career. I’m always surprised that I became a writer and grateful for it.
What other jobs have you had (that led to being a writer)?
SG: A teacher, journalist, hotelier, daughter, wife, and the mother of two fantastic kids.
What are you working on at the moment?
SG: I have just finished a hectic promotional tour of my new YA novel, That’s Why I Wrote This Song, which took me across Australia from Western Australia to Darwin. So, I’m now considering where to start–a third book in the I am Jack series or an autobiographically-inspired YA novel called Rosie.
SG: I am a character in my books. I’m the Mum in I Am Jack and Super Jack. Of course, I’m an excellent Mum. (My kids think my star jumps are so embarrassing.) My Jack books are inspired by my family, filled with all the funny and sad bits of life, with Nanna who loses her teeth and Rob who washes dishes until they sparkle and Jack who tells great jokes.
I Am Jack was written for my son when he was bullied at school and has become a rite-of-passage book on school bullying in Australia.
How has your childhood influenced what you write?
SG: I often feel that children’s and YA authors are stuck in those turbulent years between childhood and adulthood. It’s as though we live in a dual world where the child and the adult walk hand in hand.
As the child of post world war Hungarian refugees who experienced Nazism, then communism, to escape and find a new home in Australia, childhood was passionate, loving, painful, scary. I wanted to write for young people, so that life is less scary and so they have fellow traveler in life, in the pages of my books.
What was your favorite book as a child or adolescent?
SG: I read To Kill a Mockingbird at 15. It was the defining book for me, as I sought to understand human relations and the great issues of life from family to racism to power.
SG: It’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, the father is like my father in many ways, with his courage, honor and love. My father was a hero, too. He didn’t know it, like Atticus, but he was. My father appears in many of my books in different ways. He’s the grandfather in The Cave.
How long does it take you to write a book?
SG: Books take me a long time to write. I have to be profoundly affected by something to write about it. I think, rethink, emotionally engage, start to play with story and emotions.
Depending on the book, I research as well. For my YA novel, Butterflies, I spent six months researching, interviewing, understanding burns before I wrote. It is a book about the emotional, psychological, physical, social challenges of growing up with burns.
It was tough writing as I lived inside the world of Katherine to discover her courage and how we can be greater than our “burns.” However, Butterflies is more than burns. It shows the ebb and flow of emotions that affect us all, particularly in the transition between childhood and adulthood.
On average, it takes me a year to write a book. However my latest book That’s Why I Wrote This Song, with music and lyrics by my daughter Tory, took three years.
What is the hardest part of writing for you?
SG: Having the courage to start. To jump into a journey that will become my life for a long time. I can’t separate from my characters and story, so it’s like a fantasy book without the fantasy. I slip through the wardrobe like in Narnia, and am in that world. I cry when the characters suffer, laugh when they are funny and grow as they grow. I find the process emotionally challenging.
Do you work with the television, radio, or stereo on? In cafés, nursing a half-cup of lukewarm tea or in isolation?
SG: I usually have music on. It gets me in the mood. When I was writing That’s Why I Wrote This Song, rock music blasted from my study. Usually I’m a Pavarotti girl, not a rock chick. However, this book and music was about the youth music scene, and I was emotionally there at those festivals, music gigs and living the life. So Good Charlotte and Eminem rocked from my stereo.
I write alone in my study on my computer, as I need the space to enter into another consciousness.
You have battled with breast cancer and come out the other side. Were you still writing whilst you were fighting the cancer? If so, what were you writing? Did writing help?
SG: When I told my son that I had cancer, he said, “But Mum you never die.” We laughed because it’s true. Illness is just one of those challenges that has been in my life since I’ve been two years old. For all its hardships, it offers gifts.
Through it, healing has become part of the DNA of my writing. I could not have written Butterflies without it. Butterflies is currently part of a traveling exhibition on “Outstanding Youth Literature on Disability” (IBBY); I Am Jack is a rite-of-passage book in Australia dealing with school bullying and being adapted into a play which will tour regional Australia in 2008.
My recent YA novel written for my daughter, who wrote the lyrics and music that integrate into the text, was completed during a hard time of illness. Nothing would stop me writing it for her. It’s just been published and is a celebration of our relationship and that search for identity intrinsic to youth.
While my books are endorsed by Life Education Australia, The Children’s Hospital Sydney, National Coalition Against Bullying, WAYS (Youth Outreach Services), NSW Cancer Council and other organizations, they are never didactic. They are always story with passions and loves and humor, engaging readers into that turbulent passage between childhood and adulthood in a journey that is theirs.
My books are trade books but are also read extensively in schools and are part of many programs that reach out to youth.
On Tuesday 27th November 2007, I was awarded the Lady Cutler Award for Distinguished Services to Children’s Literature in Australia by the CBC (Children’s Book Council). I am very proud of that.
(See the following article [“Patients Have a Voice”] I was asked to write for GOFUND supported by Nicole Kidman who is a patron. This explains more fully that relationship between illness and writing.)
How much do you think a writer needs to market his/herself/the work? What do you suggest?
SG: A writer has to be a performer today who is prepared to market his/her work. Word of mouth is of course the best form of marketing. If your work speaks to the reader, then that is powerful. However, you have to get your book to the reader first to start the word of mouth process. That’s where marketing is essential.
When I have a new book released, I do a lot of radio interviews especially on the ABC (like the BBC) stations across Australia from Perth to Canberra to Adelaide. I also do newspaper and magazine interviews. Television is difficult is much more limited, and I usually only do one or two segments. I speak at writers’ festivals, conferences and schools.
A launch is a good idea, depending on the book. That’s Why I Wrote This Song is such an innovative book crossing into music and film. So it was good to launch it. We had the event at Bondi Pavilion Theatre overlooking Bondi Beach. Tory and her band Not Perfect performed the songs that drive the book–“I Wanna Be Found” and “Psycho Dad.” It was launched by The Herd, a hip hop band which is popular in Australia and endorsed by WAYS a youth organization that runs Bondi Blitz Battle of the Youth Bands at Bondi Beach.
There were hundreds of people, and it received media coverage and reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald and was a great celebration.
I find there are problems now in balancing the marketing and writing, with talks and media taking increasing amounts of time and preparation.
Do you have a blog, and if so, how often do you blog? Do you get lots of feedback from readers?
I get some reader feedback through my blog, but most readers email me directly rather than on my MySpace blog. My website and youtube is getting increasing usage, so while readers may not send feedback, but they are reading my blog.
Can you share your favorite fan mail, if you have one?
SG: When a reader relates to a book, they often feel they know the author personally. It’s like the reader and author are friends. I get lots of fan mail. Here are a few examples:
Dear Susanne Gervay:
I loved your book Butterflies and if this has not yet been suggested it is I think a great idea. The book Butterflies made me cry and a movie would be even greater.
Subject: That’s Why I Wrote this song…
IS totally awesome! I started reading, and couldn’t put it down–I finished it in the first two days. I loved the relationship between the girls, and the way you totally captured their world–I’m amazed at how you do that so convincingly and make it seem so authentic…wow.
What was it like collaborating with your daughter to write That’s Why I Wrote This Song?
SG: It took three turbulent years to create That’s Why I Wrote This Song. Working as a mother-daughter team was at times hilarious, loving, and very hard.
When my daughter Tory, who was seventeen, asked me to write a book inspired by her, it was such a deep request. Tory and I had been through a great deal together. Illness has always been part of my life, which, as a sole parent, has been tough on my children. Tory was deeply affected. We laughed and had such special times as she dressed my wounds and helped me. So how privileged was I to write for her. Nothing could stop me writing this book, and although it would be fictional, the spirit would be hers.
Tory writes rock songs. Rock is such a powerful form of youth expression as it reaches into the eternal quest of search for identity. That’s what is intrinsic to Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Stones, Queen and the many other rock writers and singers over the past decades. My books are always about search for identity in its many shapes and forms. Our book would connect through music.
The title That’s Why I Wrote This Song came from Tory’s rock song “Psycho Dad.” The lyrics of two of her songs “Psycho Dad” and “I Wanna Be Found” would become the driving force in our book. The songs drive the narrative, characters, and themes as the music and lyrics meld with my text.
Once we started the journey of the book, life became very tense. I write honestly and I trod into sensitive areas. It was turbulent and many times in the process, I questioned ever doing it. So did Tory. However, That’s Why I Wrote This Song has finally been released, and it is special and our mother-daughter relationship even stronger.
What sort of research have you had to do to write such cutting-edge young adult novels?
SG: The research is intense. When I wrote The Cave about youth male culture, a survival camp, climbing mountains, and fording streams, I was challenged. I went on trips into our bush–the Blue Mountains and Jenolan Caves near Sydney. I cut out articles about RAVE parties and body piercing in the newspapers. I interviewed a friend who knew about “magic mushrooms” for a whole afternoon.
However, the major talks were with my then age-seventeen son. I drove him crazy as talked with him for hours and hours, until I understood the physical demands of rock climbing and kayaking. I felt like I “sucked” out my son’s life. He forgave me and ultimately gave approval for the book, otherwise I couldn’t have written The Cave.
The process is similar for my books. I interview, live the life, go into the experience, so I can emotionally understand that search for identity that is pivotal to young adults. YA readers always know a liar, so my books have to have integrity. I have to know the reality, to write about it.
You deal with a lot of issues in your books, such as fears, sexuality, self-esteem, prejudices, bullying and violence. What message do you hope you are conveying to the young adults that read your books?
SG: That passage to adulthood is a fragile one. Youth are seeking experiences, yet are inexperienced. As they plunge into life, pulling away from the ties of dependence on their parents and childhood’s rules, they face the world with very little armor.
Life can be jagged with peer-group pressure, family break-ups, broken hearts, parental expectations, body-image fears, sexuality, a world which presents the Twin Towers and climate change as the future. Without the experience that life is uneven, that there are hard times, but also good times, young people can get lost. That is where young adult literature can become a friend, providing experience, inviting readers to become participants, to find their own answers and travel the pathway of life and know it’s worth it.
Anita Loughrey writes teacher resources and children’s non-fiction. Her books have been published by A&C Black, Hopscotch and Brilliant Publications. She also writes regular features for Writers’ Forum in the U.K. about authors and the writing industry. She recently interviewed all 31 speakers for 2008’s Bologna Conference.
The SCBWI Bologna 2008 interview series is brought to you by the SCBWI Bologna Biennial Conference in conjunction with Cynsations.