I’ve been tagged by the intriguing and hard-working US poet-academic Lesley Wheeler, for what she calls a “weird self-interview blog-meme thing”. It’s proven to be a good way to revise my ideas about a project while it’s actually on hold, despite the end of the school holidays, because of (a) Some Very Interesting Contract Work I’ve taken on (b) norovirus. Bleah. Eeerrggh. Only the cat has been spared…so far. (An aside: twice when nororvirus has whacked me, I’ve just read a very vividly abject bodily functions scene in a novel. The Corrections and Black Swan Green both cast their voodoo on me. Does reading about the utterly disgusting lower one’s immunity?)
Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book (or story, or project)?
The Zoo of Us was its original working title, but I’ve started thinking of it as The Billy Book – which is a sign of which character I’m finding most problematic – and interesting – in the first draft process.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I had wild ambitions of writing a long, narrative poetry sequence using multiple different characters, telling the story of a family and a menagerie of real and imaginary pets: a sequence that had all the energy, melancholy, humour, earthiness, animal passions and surprise swerves of Alicia Ostriker’s old woman-tulip-dog sequences. The central character was to be a problematically imaginative young boy: his parents’ marriage was going to start creaking under the strain of his exuberant, quirky intelligence.
Yet then I attended a public lecture about the long poem, given by Rachel Blau Du Plessis, and several other lecturers attending said, but who still wants the long poem? How do we persuade students to like them? Nobody reads them! Despite itself, my heart bottomed out, and the fact that my draft had already fallen into prose seemed salient, and not just part of the drafting process after all. What I was left with was the story of a couple who aren’t quite sure whether their son’s imaginative life is a normal developmental phase, a temporary coping mechanism, or something troubling.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s become a novel, even though I wanted to write something less draining after the five years it took to write and publish Fosterling.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Oh, gosh, um, Mads Mikkelsen for the father; Julianne Moore for the mother; a rascally, highly intelligent unknown for the child: someone who becomes an overnight sensation (except to his parents, of course, for whom he has always been both a sensation and a pain in the arse) as a result of the movie, but who is untroubled by his fame, and goes on to be a leader in promoting sustainable living throughout the world!!! (Comic book pow-pow-pow exclamation marks irresistible.) And there will also be a canary, who will nearly steal the show, and a cockatoo with a cameo: somebody will start to Tweet under their screen names, but it won’t be me.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A boy who swears he’s not a boy, and whose imagination goes on increasingly wild flights, starts to trouble his parents and his school, who wonder, can they settle him into a happier pattern?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ll show it to my agents and my current publisher: but no step is ever guaranteed in this age of digital flick-flack and rapid change…
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I’m still at it – three quarters of the way through after a year– I estimate it will be at least another three months before I’ll have a draft ready to admit is mine. (Because whenever I think, hooray, a clean run at writing, here comes influenza, or bubonic supersonic nutjob plague for the whole family, or the end of school term, or Very Interesting Irresistible Contracts with Short Term Gratification Guaranteed…)
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Hmmm. I’d like it to be something of Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, fused with the impish lyricism of a novel by Margaret Mahy, fused with the poetic clarity of An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, fused with the psychological insight of The Progress of Love by Alice Munro. (This is no doubt why first drafts take so long and inevitably feel like the wreck of a higher ideal…)
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Struggles with motivating my eldest son (then age nine) to do homework made me think, imagine what it would be like to have a kid who was too motivated, who worked too hard for their age. How difficult would that be? Things went a bit loop-de-loop from there: the springboard for an idea often launches me into an unexpected direction. (I never learnt how to dive properly at swimming lessons, either.)
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s about how an unusual child copes with a national disaster and personal grief; yet having a child protagonist gives the book a lot of latitude for humour and redemption, too. I think the goofy, nutty bits might be the best thing about it — they might be where I focus the second draft. Oh, this exercise is galvanizing!
I tag Penelope Todd, Raymond Huber, Sarah Laing, Philip Temple and Orchid Tierney… some of whom might have done this already… in which case, I’m ‘it’ again, I guess…