Monday, August 8, 2011

Meet the Author: Sandy Fussell

Sandy Fussell lives south of Sydney (Wollongong) with her husband and two sons. She studied mathematics at university. But it has been history that has been a major inspiration for her writing. She shares in the interview below that she has been interested in history from a very young age. She now works in IT.   She is something of an "accidental writer".  In her words, "when my eldest son stopped reading in Year 4, I panicked. How could a child of mine not love books?"

Her efforts to work with her son on his reading and writing led her to write for herself. She proceeded to write manuscripts for practice. She wrote nine in quick succession. She showed her eighth effort to a number of people and received good feedback. Her ninth manuscript was 'Samurai Kids' which was accepted for publication in 2006 and was published as her first novel in 2008.

 The Samurai Kids series has gone on to be very successful. Book 3, 'Shaolin Tiger' was named as a Notable Book by the Children's Book Council of Australia (CBCA) for Younger Readers in 2010.   It was also short-listed in the Speech Pathology Awards in 2010 (Upper Primary Category). 'Polar Boy', was her first stand-alone novel and was short-listed in 2009 for the CBCA awards for Younger Readers. Her second stand-alone novel, 'Jaguar Warrior' was published in 2010 and has received good reviews. 

Interview with Sandy Fussell

1. TC: Could you tell the readers of this blog why you wanted to be a writer of children’s books? Was there a special motivation or someone who inspired you to do it?

I am an accidental writer. When my eldest son stopped reading in Year 4, I panicked. How could a child of mine not love books? After failing to find anything he would read, I asked him to write a story to show me what sort he would like. To my surprise he said yes, as long as I transcribed. I’m embarrassed to admit it but I kept interfering. In the end he became so exasperated with me; I was sent packing to write my own story. I haven’t stopped writing since.

2. TC: Do you find the writing process difficult? Which aspects of your writing are most challenging?

It is hard to juggle writing with family and work. If the words are flowing, I have to force myself to put the manuscript aside to attend to other things – like feeding the troops and paying the bills. For me, the most challenging part of writing is chapter 5. That is the point at which I know what happens right through to the end, and I get a little bored with the process of continuing to put words to paper. I’m always tempted to start something new. But in the end I want to share the story so I keep going. From chapter 6 onwards it’s a downhill ride!

3. TC: You write historical fiction, could you tell us why this genre is important to you? What about the characters, from where do they ‘spring’?

I have been fascinated by early history ever since I was a child. I would imagine what it was like to live in a different place at a different time and in particular, what it was like to a kid then. Children had very different lives, responsibilities and adventures hundreds of years ago. A fourteen-year-old boy was a fully fledged samurai fighting for his lord. Most readers think of Ananasanq (Nana) from Polar Boy as very old. When I visit schools I often ask students to guess her age. They hover around 100 years old! But the life expectancy in the polar north was much less than that and Nana was more likely to be about 32.

4. TC:  What is the research process like for the writing of one of your novels?

I love research and spend the first month doing nothing else. Then I continue researching as I write. Most of the information doesn’t make it into the book but it creates a sense of time and place which is absorbed almost osmotically into the story.

I pay close attention to the everyday life of my characters - how they lived, what they wore and what they ate. In terms of context, often my readers find these small details more interesting than the big historical events.

For me it is always thrilling when history validates my storyline. I can’t claim it is deliberate but it just keeps happening. For instance in Samurai Kids book 7 which is set in Cambodia, I did not think there were any Japanese people there at the time. That didn’t mean I couldn’t write them in. But then I discovered there is an inscription on the walls of the Temple of Angkor Wat in Japanese dated to exactly the time period I am writing in!

When I was writing Polar Boy it initially began as the story of a boy facing his greatest fear – the polar bear. I also wanted a cultural confrontation. As I researched I discovered the Vikings were coming down from Greenland at the same time and they were called ‘berserkers’ or ‘the bears’. So the bear in Nana’s prophecy about Iluak was really a person all along! Writing historical fiction is about connecting the research dots to form a story.

5. TC: How do you choose the historical periods and the places that you do?

I choose places I’m interested in. I studied Ancient History in high school and at university so sometimes I have a lot of general knowledge about the period such as Samurai Japan or Aztec Mexico. Alternatively it might be a period that has a magical almost exotic appeal for me – even though I may not know many details. I also like to choose periods that are on the edge of well-known times and have drafted a story set in Nubia. Nubia was a black African civilisation that preceded pharaohonic Egypt so while it is not itself well-known; it has a certain geographic and cultural familiarity for young readers who know a lot about Ancient Egypt.

 I like to write about a period that is close to a well researched period because it gives me a solid historical base but also allows room for a wider imagining. Samurai Kids  is set in the mid 17th century which in Cambodia (the setting for book 7) is the Dark Ages. Not a lot of information is known so I can draw imaginative inferences as long as they are plausible. 

6. TC: Of your 8 books, which one was most satisfying for you and why?

That question is so hard. I am always pleased with each novel I finish although I don’t necessarily think my latest is always the best. What will be my most satisfying book is probably unfinished at this point. I have been working on it since 2007 and it has been evolving with me as I (hopefully) develop into a better writer.

7. TC: What has been the most memorable experience in your writing career?

In 2008 I was asked to be the Guest of Honour at the Henry Lawson Festival of the Arts, the longest running arts festival in Australia. Guests are usually high profile members of the arts community but when the chosen guest had to withdraw due to family illness, they couldn’t find anyone to come to Grenfell at short notice. My family live there so my sister suggested me!

I crowned the queen, presented prizes, opened the festival and spoke at the reception. But by far the best part, and my favourite writing memory, was when a local school joined the street parade as Samurai Kids. They stopped in front of the official dais, bowed and yelled ‘Sense’i. I cried. I still do when I think of it. The full account and pictures can be found HERE.

The children of Grenfell dressed as Samurai Kids

8. TC: Are there any children's authors that you particularly admire? Adult writers?

There are many, many authors I admire. The children’s book community is incredibly generous and encouraging to new writers. I am hesitant to list names as I would hate to leave anyone out, but I’ll make one exception. When I first began to write I was invited to a writer’s meeting at author Di Bates’ house. She became my writing mentor, guide and good friend. She still is.

9. TC: Were you taught creative writing in school? Did it help?

I don’t recall anything specific although I am incredibly indebted to the teachers and librarians who fostered my love of reading. I had a strict and often unhappy childhood but these ‘angels of the book’ provided me with somewhere wonderful to hide out.

10. TC: What advice would you impart to aspiring writers?

I used to say ‘Write, write, write. Read, read, read.’ And while I still think that is valuable advice, I would now say: Scribbling every idea into a notebook, be continually looking at the world with an imaginative and slightly askew eye. Honing writing skills is extremely important but perhaps even more important is finding unique story ideas.

11. TC: What has been your favourite response to any of your books?

I get a lot of emails from young readers. Their enthusiasm for the Samurai Kids series is inspiring. They often write to me with story ideas for the next book.

A partially blind girl emailed me (via her mum) to say Taji (who is completely blind) was her hero. One mother wrote to say her child was due to have a serious operation which included a skin graft and he would be on crutches for a while. Part of his preparation was practising to be Niya! Another parent wrote to me to say their China travel plans had changed because after reading Samurai Kids, their young son wanted to visit a Shaolin Temple.

12. TC:  Do you have a book that you are working on right now?

I am currently working on three separate books but my priority is the seventh book in the Samurai Kids series. It doesn’t have a title. I have always wanted to visit the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia but that doesn’t look likely in the near future – so I am going there in my book instead.

Sandy Fussell's Books 

a) Samurai Kids Series (Walker Books)

This is a series about the experiences of a group of samurai children in feudal Japan. Like other stories about Japanese warriors, the narrative is interwoven with the philosophy that is the foundation of their life and training.  The diverse samurai kids learn to fight, but always with the noble desire to prevent war.  The stories and their characters seek to build just and ethical societies. The books offer a range of characters that represent both genders and children of varied qualities, characteristics and challenges. In the video below you view Sandy talking about her exciting series.

'White Crane' (2008) Walker Books
'Owl Ninja' (2008) Walker Books
'Shaolin Tiger' (2009) Walker Books
'Monkey Fist' (2009) Walker Books
'Fire Lizard' (2010) Walker Books
'Golden Bat'(2010) Walker Books

b) Other Novels 

'Polar Boy' (2008) Walker Books

This was Sandy Fussell's first stand alone novel for younger readers (9-12+ years).  It is set in a 13th century polar community, a young boy's destiny transforms him from a frightened child into a courageous hero. Iluak, a Too-lee boy, has been told by his grandmother that it is his fate to save his people from a bear. But the mere thought of a polar bear makes Iluak’s stomach churn and he lives in fear of this destined encounter. When Illuak summons the courage to rescue a Northman (Viking) child from a polar bear he realises there is a far greater challenge involved in the prophecy. Two very different cultures are about to collide head-on in this excellent historical .

'Jaguar Warrior' (2010) Walker Books

This is the story of Atl, a young Purepechan slave. It is set in the age of the Aztec empire and a place we know today as northern Mexico. Atl is imprisoned in a box and has been there seven days and awaits death as part of an Aztec ceremony of sacrifice to the Mexican gods. He is not afraid as the anger rises within him and significant twist occurs in his story. A war-party of conquistadors attacks the head temple and Atl’s reputation as the fastest runner in Technotitlan leads the High Priest to set him free to send a message to get help for the Purepechan people. He escapes through hidden tunnels of the temple and heads into the jungles of South America, encountering dangers and collecting companions on the way. It is a fast moving adventure story that 9-14 year old boys will enjoy.  It is a well-researched historical narrative that many young readers will find a great read.

Teaching resources

Samurai Kids Website (HERE)
Sandy Fussell's personal site has varied resources and ideas for her books (HERE)

Sandy Fussell's Awards

2009 Short Listed CBCA Children's Book of the Year, 'Polar Boy'
2009 Honour Book CBCA Junior Judges Project, 'Polar Boy'
2009 Short Listed Sakura Medal Chapter Book (Japan), Samurai Kids Book 1 - 'White Crane'
2009 Panda Book Award Middle Readers (China), 'Polar Boy'
2010 CBCA Notable, Samurai Kids Book 3 - 'Shaolin Tiger'
2010 Shortlist Speech Pathology Book of the Year, Samurai Kids Book 3 - 'Shaolin Tiger'
2011 CBCA Notable, Samurai Kids Book 5 - 'Fire Lizard'
2011 CBCA Notable, 'Jaguar Warrior'
2011 IBBY Outstanding Books for Young People With Disabilities, Samurai Kids Book 1 - White Crane

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