An interview with Andrew Smith

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andrewsmith

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

So I asked Andrew Smith (thank goodness for Twitter) if he would do an interview for me and he only went and said yes!!

Here we go:

Certain parts of the male anatomy (namely testicles) have a recurring theme in your novels. In your experience, do they take up a lot of space in the mind of a teenage boy? 
There are all kinds of reasons why balls occupy so much space in a teenage boy’s mind. First, they are uncomfortable and get tangled up and pinned in awkward positions quite a lot. Also, they release a constant supply of a powerful hallucinatory chemical that makes guys insane. Nobody tells you that stuff in biology class, but it’s true.
Homosexuality is explored in both Grasshopper Jungle and Winger. Can you tell me what inspired you to write about this topic?
There are gay people everywhere in my life–in my family, in my community, people I work with, friends, and students I teach. Why wouldn’t I have gay people in my stories? The only time a gay character should be avoided is when he or she is being used as a SYMBOL of gayness–when the sexual identity of the person becomes the main element of that character’s relationship to the arc of the narrative. That’s a shitty and dehumanizing thing to do to any group in society.
Grasshopper Jungle is a pretty zany, imaginative book. Where did you find inspiration for it? 
This one I honestly don’t know. I just started writing and it came out. I knew I wanted to write about the end of the world and adolescence, though, because I’ve always been fascinated with how adulthood and settling into one’s role (whether that role is defined internally or imposed on you by society) is really similar to the end of the world.
How was your experience of high school? And do you think your experiences had an impact on the topics you now choose to write about?I was a total outsider/loner/never-fitting-in type dude in high school. I wrote a lot then, too. I think that my teen experiences surface in just about everything I write, particularly in WINGER, since, like Ryan Dean, I was much younger than my classmates. That sucked.

Can you describe your writing space?
My writing space is an office on the second floor of my house. It is an absolute mess, full of boxes and books. My desk is so cluttered I can’t do anything on it except use my keyboard.
Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what do you like to listen to? 
I love music, but I never listen to anything while I’m writing. I need absolute silence.
What would your advice be for budding authors like myself?
Stay away from the internet. Don’t watch too much TV. If you know more about the characters in Doctor Who or The Walking Dead than you know about the characters in your community, then give up now. You’re not going to be a writer.
I took part in a fiction writing short course in which we were encouraged to write in a notebook every day. Do you carry a notebook with you? What do you write in it?
I have one small notebook. I write one sentence in it every day. That’s it. Just one sentence. Some of those sentences have become bigger things.
Are your characters inspired by people you know? Or people you notice on the street? Or are they completely made up from scratch?
All of my characters are people that I’ve encountered in the real world, to some degree or another.
I LOVED Joey Cosentino as a character. Have you ever met a Joey in real life?Yes. Joey was a real kid that was a friend of mine around the time when I was in college, about 20 years old or so. That’s all I’m going to say about him.

Who is your favourite author and why? Favourite book?
My favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut because he was a literary badass who obviously wrote exactly what he wanted to write–none of his work was contrived or a mash-up of publishing trends. I can’t stand seeing books like that. My favorite (sorry, I’m American–feel free to add that extra vowel) book is Breakfast of Champions.
What is the best thing about being a published author?
Tough question. There are lots of things about being published that give me stomach aches. I truly enjoy meeting other authors, editors, agents, and the people involved in publishing. I love the travel. I get to see so many parts of the world that I would never have gone to without the doors that being a published author has opened for me.
Cuss words feature quite a lot in your books (Grasshopper Jungle in particular.) Have you had many complaints about this?
I get hate mail for every book I’ve ever written. One particularly nasty letter came from a mother who “discovered” one of my books in her 15-year-old son’s school backpack. What a lousy mom. I looked her house up on Google Earth, just so I could see what kind of place such a hateful, mean woman would live in. Kids cuss when they talk to each other. No big deal. It’s part of the wonder of human communication. These people who get bent out of shape because I use a word like “fuck” in my novels probably never stop to consider how very damaging words like “fat” or “ugly” or “stupid” can be to other people, but I bet those words come out of their mouths, because at least they can brag to themselves how they never say “fuck.” Fuck that.
You must hear almost constant praise about your books. Have you experienced any negativity towards them and how do you deal with it?I don’t take negative comments well. I’ve never had a negative review or comment from a legitimate review source, though–only from internet crackpots who are brave behind their keyboards. I never read reviews on places like Goodreads, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble because there are too many idiots who post on those sites, and I don’t have time for that.

Which was your favourite book to write? 
I truly enjoyed writing Grasshopper Jungle, Stand-Off (which is the sequel to Winger), and, especially The Alex Crow (coming in March from Dutton/Penguin). Those books were fun to write.
I can safely say I feel thoroughly privileged to have done this. Huge thanks to Andrew Smith, both for the fantastic books and for doing this for me.

Some books I love … #11

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winger

Andrew Smith has done it again. For the second time in my life he has toyed with my emotions, given me a million laughs and entertained me in the most wonderful fashion.

After reading Grasshopper Jungle* I hoped more than anything that he’d written something else, and much to my delight, he had! This!! (he’s also written a series called The Marbury Lens and a novel called 100 Sideways Miles but the only way I can get hold of them is through Amazon as Waterstones can’t get them. Cue major sadface) Anywho, I was not disappointed. In fact, I was so far away from disappointed I couldn’t even see disappointment on the horizon. To borrow an idea from the book, it was five out of five beautiful-leather-bound-volumes on the Laura Hole book-lust scale.

Ryan Dean West is a fourteen year old in eleventh Grade (meaning he’s been bumped up by two years because he’s so smart) at a boarding school for naughty kids. He’s also a talented Rugby player and plays Wing on the school Rugby team (hence the nickname Winger) and he draws comics in his spare time. Things are pretty bad for him in the first few chapters:

1. He’s been moved to the even-naughtier-boys dorm, called Opportunity Hall (or O-hall) and is having to share a room with a hulking great bully called Chas Becker, who also happens to play on the Rugby Team.

2. His best friend, Annie Altman, thinks of him as a little boy.

But then he makes a string of awful decisions (getting drunk on the night before term starts being a prime example) that get him into some big shit with lots of people. (I spent a lot of time thinking, in the most motherly way: “no Ryan Dean!! Don’t do that, you silly boy!”)

What I loved about Ryan Dean is that he more than makes up for his “skinny-bitch-ass” build by making big-ass choices that ultimately lead to him winning over the girl he loves and fighting his demons. He’s a boy of two halves; on the one hand, he’s a little boy who’s in love with a girl and can’t help himself around other girls (namely his room-mates girlfriend) who’s afraid of creepy Mrs Singer, one of the teachers who lives in O-hall. On the other, he’s courageous – he isn’t scared to kick ass, even if that ass belongs to one of his best friends. He isn’t afraid to stand up for himself when he’s threatened. And as Winger, he spends a lot of time being threatened.

Written in first person, and with such authenticity (I’m pretty sure Andrew Smith knows what goes on in the mind of a fourteen year old boy) and with the perfect degree of teenage colloquialisms, Winger is engrossing, mesmerising, and ultimately a very believable coming-of-age story.

The book is full of moments that are spread out like a spiderweb. Time is linear, but moments from the start of the novel have an impact on future events. I know, I know, that’s exactly what happens in real life – everything has a knock-on effect – but what I love is that Smith is constantly reminding us of how Ryan Dean got to where he is. He brings past moments into the present and gives them meaning. Its like being on a rollercoaster (sorry for that massive cliche, but that really is the perfect simile) and it ends with a horrible twisty drop that made me bawl like a baby until I was practically dehydrated.

I really did love this book. Like, almost enough to stroke it and call it my fluffy bunnykins or some other hideous pet name. I might even marry it! (let’s face it, I’m closer to marrying this book than I am to my fiance mwahaha) But seriously, it is sky high on my recommendation list, I cannot praise it highly enough. Bravo Andrew Smith … for the second time in my life, and hopefully not the last, I salute you sir.

 

 

 

* see my blog review here: http://laulahole.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/some-books-i-love-7/

Some books I love … #10

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neverwhere

 

Prior to reading Neverwhere I am ashamed to say I was a Neil Gaiman virgin. It’s not that I didn’t want to read anything by him, it’s just that I didn’t get round to it until now. But by golly, am I glad I’ve popped that particular cherry!! 

The story follows a normal, everyday guy called Richard Mayhew, who lives a normal, everyday life with his snobby fiancee Jessica (not Jess … Jessica) working in a normal, everyday office that he’s made a vain attempt at livening up with the addition of those awful troll dolls. Walking to dinner one evening, he notices a girl lying unconscious on the street, so, like any good samaritan, he offers his help, much to Jessica’s disgust. She offers him a snobby ultimatum (“if you help that girl, we’re over!!” or something to that effect) and to her even greater disgust, Richard picks the broken girl up and carries her back to his flat, leaving Jessica to go to an important dinner with her boss by herself. 

Richard is unaware when he picks up this girl that by doing so, his life is about to turn in a very unexpected direction, one which involves danger (lots of that), rats, angels, unheard-of underground stations and many, many doors. Incidentally, the girl he so graciously picked up is named Door, and she has the gift of opening doors. She is a wonderful character, beautifully portrayed as one who is strong-willed and sure of herself, but one who has suffered an inordinate amount of pain with the murder of her whole family. 

She is just one of a large cast of amazing character charicatures, each totally unique and wonderfully crafted, and each with an extraordinary name (the Marquis De Carabas, Hunter, Hammersmith and Anaesthesia being just a few). 

The journey Richard takes through London Below (and some of London Above) is fraught with danger and near-misses and adventure. It is a winding journey of epic proportions, weaving upwards and downwards, upside-down and inside-out, and sometimes even back to front, and it is as brutal and gruesome in places as it is gentle and humorous in others. Despite the fact it took me a good few weeks to read (it’s been a very busy few months for me) every time I picked it up I was instantly transported to this wonderful, weird world full of oddities and trinkets and quirkiness. 

Gaiman’s writing feels of a similar quality to J. K. Rowling, which is high praise in my world (being a humongous fan of Harry Potter) but with a bit more bite and many more swearwords. The imagination in this man’s head is just awesome, there is no other word for it, and I would kill to have just a tiny slice of it for myself. (I wouldn’t actually kill …)

Neverwhere is a superb read, one which made me feel hundreds of different emotions and unlocked some that I’d never even felt before, some that I can’t even properly describe. It has given me a huge, deep respect for Gaiman and sparked a flame of curiosity and intrigue that makes me want to read everything he’s written. 

The question remains: which one do I read next? 

Laula “Freshman” Hole.

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It’s official … as of September I will be studying Illustration at Plymouth Uni. 

I am so, so unbelievably happy about this, my heart is singing. I had confirmation via UCAS today, after a bit of a hiccup with my application. Originally my application was declined and withdrawn automatically as the Uni hadn’t made a decision about my application by the deadline date. So after a bit of digging around and phoning the admissions people (a supremely helpful bunch, I might add) I found out that it’s because I hadn’t replied to an email asking to send in my portfolio (an email that I never received!) so I quickly put together a dropbox folder of all my show-off pieces and sent it to the course leader. After a bit more ringing around a week or so later the admissions team emailed to say they’d like to offer me a place but I had to go through clearing (check me out! No interview or anything …) so I sorted out my clearing choice but had to wait another week until UCAS was back up and running (something to do with Scottish results or something) before everything was made official. 

Which leads us to today, when I finally got proper UCAS approval. 

So now I have just less than seven weeks to sort money, childcare and my head out and actually try to get into a learning frame of mind. To tell the truth I’m actually bricking it. I’m nearly twenty-five, I feel like an old fogey compared to eighteen year olds and I’ve got two children. I feel like I’ll never fit in but I’m sure I’ll find a friend. I can be painfully shy in new situations and I stare at people a lot, which may not help my situation. To overcome this, I’ve joined the Illustration BA facebook group to try and get to know some of my fellow freshmen before I start. 

I’m also a bit worried about being bottom of the class. In school I was always “the arty one” and people would ask me to draw them, but now I’ll be hanging out with a load of other artists and I can only imagine how inferior I’m going to feel. Some of the students have posted their work on the facebook page and I’m already feeling a little intimidated. I guess I’ll just have to keep practising … I know I can draw but I lack ideas and I can only see that as a bad thing. 

Nevertheless, I am so totally overwhelmed and buzzing – the future feels exciting and scary in equal measures and I’m going to put every last ounce of effort and strength into Uni that I have. Having my girlies has given me a kick up the bum to get myself into a career where I can actually provide for them. It’s given me life experience and a drive and determination like nothing else can. I may not have gone to Uni straight after school but I’m glad I gave myself the time and the space to reflect on what I want and what I need from life and I feel pretty certain this is what I’m meant to be doing. 

Wish me luck! 

Some books I love … #9

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Brace yourselves …

wetlands

 

I don’t love Marmite but I did love this book despite the vulgarity and regardless of the vomit-inducing descriptions of bodily torture. It is totally unique (although from the same vein as Roche’s other book, Wrecked) and really pretty disgusting to read. Considering I usually pride myself on my incredibly strong stomach and my inability to be easily shocked, that was no mean feat.

At first I thought it was a bit of a feminist romp, a little gratuitous and most-definitely gross, but about halfway through I started to see the protagonist, Helen Memel, in a slightly different light. She’s an eighteen year old school student with a very colourful sex-life and is an unfortunate sufferer of haemorrhoids who has had to have an operation on her butt due to a shaving accident and the subsequent infected lesion on her piles. Her blatant disregard for hygiene makes for an interesting period spent on the hospital ward.

There were many threads to her story, which made her a very vivid character. Firstly, and possibly the most discussed, is her sex life. For an eighteen year old girl she has certainly been around the block. From the sounds of it she has copulated with a large percentage of the population (both male and female) which I found slightly gross, but who am I to judge? She is a fictional character, after all. Dotted throughout the novel are descriptions of various partners she has been with and their sexual preferences (I won’t go into details), a chance meeting with a stranger who wants to shave her all over and many, many period related incidents (tampon swapping with friends anyone? how about reusing homemade tampons? No? Thought not …) Then you have Helen’s obsession with bodily secretions – any finger-shaped orifice will inevitably have a finger inserted, and if it just so happens that said orifice produces any substance, it will inevitably get eaten or sucked from her finger. Dried smegma (ewww) gets chewed from under her fingernails, scabs get picked and eaten … you name it, she’ll eat it.

Then there’s her new-found love for her male nurse, Robin. He seems like a nice chap and he doesn’t seem that phased when Helen asks him to take photos of her post-op butt wound, nor does he bat an eyelid when she tells him some pretty shocking stories about her life. She is constantly finding reasons to press the buzzer to get his attention and he is always gentle and caring. I got the impression that this was something she’d never had from a man before, apart from her father, whom she has a happy, if slightly awkward, relationship with.

Her relationship with her mother is slightly more strained, due to her mother’s attempted suicide when she was younger and the many strange rules and ideals that mother dearest imposed on her. Despite all this, Helen spends a lot of her time in hospital trying to get her estranged parents back together. This struck a chord with me. Roche writes that what all children of divorced parents want most in the world is for their parents to be together, but I can’t say that’s true. Of course, there was a time in my life when that pretty much was all I wanted, but growing up with four parents who loved me and supported me was a million times better than growing up in an unhappy house with two people who love me but aren’t right for each other. I had the best of both worlds, and I have my parents divorce to thank for that.

But back to Helen. She has endured a lot of pain in her short life, and she is naive and childlike in her cries for attention. After a failed attempt at organising a meet between her parents she rips open her butt wound and endures a massive, almost-fatal bleed and an emergency operation, and it just goes to show how deeply this has affected her. Her promiscuity is just a way of dampening the pain and hiding her true feelings. It’s a cry for help, which no one hears.

Something that intrigues me about writing (and writers) is whether everything they write down is a secret fantasy, or a snippet of truth that they wouldn’t dare tell anyone. I wondered throughout the whole of this book whether Charlotte Roche has shagged her way around Germany or whether she inserts the shower head into her lady parts to get herself off. I got my answer in an interview published at the end of the book. The novel is semi-autobiographical, there are some scenes she has taken from her own teenage life, which I found surprising but also kind of cool.

We forget in all this hygiene hysteria that we’re actually pretty robust and our immune system is there for a reason. This book isn’t gratuitous at all – it’s an honest (if slightly exaggerated) account of human pain and suffering. Roche is unflinching and relentless in putting forth all the gory, dirty details of femininity and of humanity. When all we see is flawless, airbrushed, pornographic perfection it’s actually a breath of fresh air to view the female form in all its dirty, sweaty, hairy glory.

Shaun Tan

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I’m going to try and describe my love for Shaun Tan. I anticipate this will be pretty hard. 

fighting a monster 2013_b 

When I look at his artwork, particularly on his blog, my stomach ties itself in knots. It’s a very peculiar feeling, and one that happens very rarely. It’s almost like a dulled version of the overwhelming love I felt when I met both of my daughters for the first time. I get this little lump in my throat, kind of feel like I want to cry because they are so utterly beautiful. I know, I know. It seems a bit of an extreme reaction to what is essentially just pencils on paper. But the shivers these images give me might be similar to how one might feel hearing their all-time favourite band playing their all-time favourite song. There just aren’t strong enough words to describe that feeling. 

I first came across his work while shelving stock in the children’s section at work (good old Waterstones) It was a gorgeous picture book called The Lost Thing and I took it over to the counter and just stared at it for a long time (don’t worry, I wasn’t ignoring customers – it was a particularly quiet day). I think I bought it more for me than my daughter. Of course I read it to her, but having just turned one she didn’t really show much enthusiasm for anything except In The Night Garden. Another of his books that I fell in love with was Eric. It’s so sweet and beautifully drawn. My colleague and I both adored his work so we put together a Shaun Tan display to show off just how awesome he is and if memory serves me well, we sold a fair few of his books. 

I just can’t get over his skill; the precision and sophistication of his hand-eye coordination is mind-boggling. His use of limited palettes with colours that wouldn’t necessarily go together in anyone else’s head is incredible. He pulls off these quirky colour schemes and I find myself irritatingly envious of his talent. But skill isn’t everything. What I’m really jealous of is his crazy, beautiful, surreal imagination and his ability to create exquisite, stunning work that is both confusing and lovely at the same time. There are many wonderful illustrators out there but not many that give me chills.

force evil 1_step behind_b

I find this piece particularly lovely. His ability to portray wet stuff is awesome – it’s something I really struggle with but he makes it look so simple and effortless. The symbolism in his work makes me happy – every image oozes meaning and the tiny details keep my eye and mind engaged for inordinate amounts of time. I could literally spend all day looking at a single image and still not fully understand all the many meanings it portrays. I would gladly paper my walls in his pictures and spend all day staring at them. 

Browsing his work on Pinterest earlier I came across a wonderful article by Tan giving advice to new illustrators, which I found very helpful (having just found out I’ve been accepted into Plymouth Uni to study Illustration). I just hope I can build myself up to something near this level, but I know it will take a heck of a lot of hard work and a lot of practice to get my standards anywhere close. 

 

Bird King cover

All artwork featured on this blog post is copyright (C) Shaun Tan. http://www.shauntan.net/

Books I didn’t love but will write about anyway.

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Life is too short to waste on books that aren’t floating my boat. I have a finite number of days left to live and selfishly I don’t want to spend any of them reading something that gives my synapses a sadface.

Lets say I have fifty years worth of reading ahead of me. It takes me roughly two weeks to read a book (I know, I’m slow, but I like to savour the words), maybe less than a week if it’s something extra special. That gives me twenty-six opportunities a year to colour in my grey matter with something explosive or charming. Altogether, twenty-six books a year for fifty years gives me a limit of roughly 1300 books, which may not sound like a lot but when you consider the vast multitude of books that have already been published that I haven’t sunk my teeth into, and then think about how many more books will have been published by the time I exit the building, there are just too many variables to compute. It is the job of the publisher, the marketing teams and the booksellers to make sure I find these gems that will shape my world and challenge my perceptions. 

I want each of these books to amaze me, build me up and break me back down. I want these books to enlighten me and enrich my life.

Maybe I’m just not in the right frame of mind to finish these particular books at this point in my life. I really hope that’s the case, because each of the books have been picked up for a good reason. I won’t name the books I didn’t enjoy because I wouldn’t want to influence anyone. As a bookseller it is not my place to un-recommend a book or show it in a negative light. That’s not to say they’re not good books that will excite and delight other readers – they are bestsellers because they have done exactly that, but for me, not so much. 

Thinking about it, maybe I’m guilty of book-lust. I love the feeling of the initial attraction, the hook that sinks itself into you, but I don’t have the stamina or the commitment to keep going, and perhaps that’s a massive flaw. I’d love to be able to make myself keep going, but when I’ve got finite days, months, years in which to cram the best, most intriguing, thought-provoking, spine-tingling books, then like a relationship that’s hanging on by a thread or a dead-end job, it’s just better to quit while you’re still alive.

I’m aware this is a bit of a non-bloggy-blog-post but it’s something that’s bothered me for a long time and I don’t know if I’m alone in this. Maybe I shouldn’t dwell on it so much. Maybe that in itself is a waste of life.