Being fairly new to the blogging scene, I was quite surprised when I was asked to host children’s author, Sandy Fussell on the final leg of her blog tour. The tour is celebrating the release of her fifth book, Monkey Fist, the fourth instalment in the Samurai Kids series.
Sandy assures me she has absolutely no artistic talents but it amazes me how she can paint such vivid images on the pages of her books with just a few simple words. I flicked open Monkey Fist to a random page and this is one of the gems I found.
Edging away, the man frays into the fringe of the crowd. It folds around and over him. One moment he was there. And now he is gone.
Sandy’s books are rich with imagery and as a very visual reader, they are a dream to read. Being an illustrated novel makes it doubly so. That relationship between the writing of her books and the illustrations used in them is what I will be talking to Sandy about today.
Q1. Every author is different in their approach to the writing process. What comes first for you, plot or character?
I begin with setting but that’s a result of the fact that I have given myself a thematic project - writing around the world in different countries at different times, following where my interest in ancient times takes me. Once I have chosen the setting, it is definitely character before plot. My characters talk to me and when I find out who they are I can imagine what sort of situations they would have got themselves in to and how they would have handled them. They create their own plot with just a little help from me.
Q2. The Samurai Kids books are in essence, historical novels. How have you kept the stories relevant to children today?
The time and place is historical but the stories are universal – about overcoming difficulty, meeting challenges, confronting villains and bullies and believing in yourself. Samurai and Ninja is a variation on the ever popular Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Good Guys and Bad Guys - although in Samurai Kids some of the ninja are good. Everyone secretly wants to barrack for a ninja.
I have purposely combined eastern and modern expressions to create a sense of the recognisable but exotic. The two words of the series title are an example of this. I also take familiar idioms and sayings, giving them a Japanese twist like “flatter than a rice pancake.”
Q3. Your first novel, White Crane was released in 2008. We are only just over half way into 2009 and you have released Owl Ninja, Shaolin Tiger and now Monkey Fist in the Samurai Kids series, as well as your CBCA shortlisted book Polar Boy. I also have it on good authority there are also a number of other titles coming in the near future. This makes you a fairly prolific writer by any standards. How do you manage your writing schedule? In other words, can you run us through a day in the writing life of Sandy Fussell?
I am a very disciplined person and I work best with a schedule and a deadline. I think this comes from my professional training as a project manager. I’m also realistic about the time available to me. I am a wife and mother. I have a day job although I generally work from home. If I want to write I have to use those hours at the end of the day when everyone else is in bed (although I have learned not to use them to sound my Japanese gong when brainstorming onomatopoeias). My writing day begins at 10pm and ends at 1pm. I have set word count that I always write (calculated form the deadlines for the project I am working on) or a set number of pages to edit. I may not keep the work the next morning but I like to produce something on a daily basis. I shut my laptop down at the end of the Japanese hour of the Rat. It has an appropriate feel as not only was I born in the year of the Rat, but apparently rats make good writers. I hope so!
Q4. When you started to write the Samurai Kids books, did you have it in mind from the beginning that they would be illustrated novels or was that a decision originating from the publisher?
It was the publisher’s decision but I was very excited about it because… (see question 7)
Q5. Do you think the illustrations help young readers visualise the characters and action in the books?
I do. And I also feel with a historical novel it helps provide a more accurate picture in their mind. Not that the accuracy is important in itself but sometimes in not getting the right picture, some of the story loses its impact. When kids flick the pages of one of my books and see the illustrations, their faces light up. So younger readers themselves definitely feel illustrations enhance the reading process.
Q6. Rhian Nest-James is the illustrator for the books. What is the process of choosing an illustrator for a book?
In my experience, the author is not involved in the process. Children often ask me if Rhian and I worked on the book together as they usually think the words and pictures were created at the same time. While I have input regarding the historical accuracy of images, I am glad I don’t make the more artistic decisions. I am not a visual person and when the first folio of illustrations was complete I was pressed to admit which picture I didn’t like. Not only did it go on to prove a firm favourite with all the readers (I collect opinions at school visits and hardly anyone ever agrees with me), the illustration inspired two whole pages of text in the subsequent book, Owl Ninja! I have total trust in the team at Walker Books and in Rhian. I’m happy to leave the illustrations in their safe, capable hands and get on with what I do best –words.
Q7. When I write, I have a very clear image of my characters in my mind. How close has Rhian come to capturing your image of the Samurai Kids and Ky-Yaga?
I am often asked this question and the answer always surprises people. I had no mental pictures. I am not a visual person and part of my excitement about having the series illustrated, was being able to see what my characters looked like.
I see in words. I had heard musicians say they saw in sound but never an author say anything similar. Then one day I was in the crowd listening to Ursula Dubosarsky speak – and she said she didn’t see in pictures! I admire her work immensely and was thrilled at the thought we shared a similar perspective.
I do think though, I would have instinctively known if one of the pictures was not right.
Q8. How important do you believe the cover art is to the success of a book?
Very important. Initially I thought Samurai Kids would suit a manga style cover but Walker Books’ vision for the series had a more traditional and historic tone – while keeping the look and feel very modern. The cover is also very age independent – it appeals to both younger and older readers. This has proven to be a wise approach as many of the fans who write to me are boys in Year 7 and 8 and I know from my experience as a parent, this age group are very conscious of book covers.
Q.9 The covers of your Samurai Kids books have a very distinctive style. What was your reaction when you first saw Rhian’s covers?
I love them. They are a truly visually stunning package. I probably shouldn’t admit to a favourite but I like the cover of Shaolin Tiger best. Burnt orange is the perfect colour for a story set in a Shaolin monastery (where the monks where orange robes) and the figure with the sword between his teeth is very striking. But then again purple is my favourite colour and when I was a kid I always wanted to be a ninja, so I like the Owl Ninja cover a lot too.
Q.10 I understand with children’s picture books, many illustrators dislike authors passing on their ideas or directions when it comes to the illustrations for the book. In your experience is it similar for illustrated novels or is there more interaction between the author and illustrator?
I don’t want to contribute illustration ideas. I know where my skills lie and they don’t extend to anything graphical. I can’t even colour co-ordinate furniture. Or my wardrobe. I enjoy seeing the pictures as a finished product. It’s like getting a special present. I do however happily provide input on how a sword is held, city defence layouts or hairstyles. History is my comfort zone. I have a strong trust in my editor and my illustrator’s feel for the story. Rhian Nest-James does a wonderful job of bringing my words to life. I never feel excluded from the process and have been consulted about possible choices of pictures for chapter and headings. But I gladly leave the artwork decisions to those who know best.
Q11. How important is the relationship between the author and the illustrator in the success of the book?
I don’t think the two roles need to work physically close together. The collaboration could be successful even if the two parties were on either sides of the world. I think what is more important is how the illustrator relates to the text. Can they take the story and bring it to life in a meaningful way? Rhian does exactly this with Samurai Kids. I love the authentic traditional Japanese ink element of her drawings. The illustrations are readily accessible to the wide reading age of the series’ readers – seen as neither too young or too old.
Rhian and I keep in email contact. She is not only a talented illustrator but a wonderful person with a quirky sense of humour. There is an interview with her on the Samurai Kids website.
Q12. Finally, if there is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you first started writing. What would it be?
I think I was fortunate to have excellent advice from the very beginning. I am indebted to my mentor Di Bates, who guided me through so many decisions. One of the key elements of her advice was to be active in the writing community. She told me: if you want to write, be professional about it from the start. So I went to seminars, assessments, conferences, workshops and I wrote every day. I am a prolific writer and can always be found playing with words.
After I had been writing for a year, Di sent me an email that said: it is time to stop writing anything and everything and decide what it is you want to be known for when you look back in ten years. And that’s how I came to write historical fiction. I still have that email taped up in front of the desk where I write. It continues to give me direction and never fails to inspire me.
Thank you Sandy, it was a pleasure to be part of your tour.
Now, if you have been following Sandy's blog tour or just reading this interview and are still wondering if you should go out and buy a copy of Monkey Fist? Do yourself a favour, buy the entire Samurai Kids series.