Your Samurai Kids series of books makes reading fun for children while also having a historical basis which may encourage children to do further research. Could you give us some more detail on your approach to writing your Samurai Kids series for children?
I have always been fascinated by history and I think that shows in the stories I tell. I choose slivers of time that are not necessarily well known but are still accessible to my readers. Samurai Kids is set at the end of the golden age of the samurai.
It’s all about action and adventure – Samurai and Ninja are equivalents to the Cowboys and Indians of my own childhood. I look for the humour in history. And I try to make it real with imaginative hands-on research – which is not as easy as it sounds when you are writing about somewhere you have never been and things that happened hundreds of years ago. I went to sword fighting classes and am learning the shakuhachi flute (I am useless at both!). I do origami, archery and am learning to draw manga. When I was writing Polar Boy I sat in a bathtub full of ice and for Jaguar Warrior, I ‘imprisoned’ myself in a refrigerator packing carton painted black inside.
While I am writing I also read primary sources – texts written at the time. My favourite for the Samurai Kids series is Musashi’s Book of Five Rings. It keeps me firmly anchored in feudal Japan – whether it’s the hour of the tiger or the year of the rat. It’s never 11am or 2010!
Your fiction writing is an example of fiction that entertains and intrigues children without talking down to or lecturing them. Have you found that children respond well to their intelligence being respected, rather than being treated as the recipients of a cliched moral message?
Kids read at different levels and with different life experience. I try to write multi-dimensional stories and I never make preconceived judgements about what my younger readers are able to draw from a narrative. Samurai Kids is an exciting action adventure with lots of sword waving and shuriken star throwing. But it’s also a historical novel with interesting facts woven into the story such as how a samurai sword is made and the importance of the bushido code. At times the story is gentle. The Zen in Sensei’s teaching is a life lesson with philosophical overtones but on the other hand, the telling of a Zen koan can be quite nonsensical. So there is humour there as well.
I’ve often read that a book shouldn’t contain a message but I can’t help it. To me, history and the lives we lead are a message and stories are an important way to learn. What is key is that the message doesn’t drive the story but is a seamless, integrated part of it. Samurai Kids contains a strong theme that disabilities, physical or otherwise, should not define who we are or what opportunities we are offered. But it’s not said like that. The Samurai Kids each have a disability and they just get on with the job of learning to be samurai and have some marvelous adventures along the way. They find strengths in spite of, and sometimes as a direct result of, their so-called weaknesses.
A lot of children’s fiction is aimed at girls or boys, rather than at both. What is the key to writing fiction which appeals to both?
Boys and girls both want a good story – a lot of action, adventure, mystery and myth. A surprising number of boys, based on my classroom experiences, also want a little romance (but not too much!) The story is first contact – where the reader connects. It is often said that boys will only read books where the main character is a boy but girls will read with a hero or heroine. As the mother of two boys and an observer of their friends’ reading tastes, I would have to agree in general. But a really good story with a feisty heroine (such as Felicity Pulman’s The Janna Mysteries) will still attract male readers. Although I don’t consciously decide to write about boys, to date all of my books have had male lead characters, because in the times I am writing boys and girls led very different lives and usually it is the role of a boy that fits my story line. But there is always an important female character – because I equally want to explore the role of women. There were girl samurai – not many – but they had to be especially brave and skilled – like Kyoko.
I also think that to write successful fiction for any readers, boys or girls, you need to be in their world. I spend a lot of time in schools as an author, and doing the same things kids do. I read their books, watch their movies and share their trends. That’s easy because I enjoy it but equally, it helps me to look through their eyes.
What motivated you to start writing fiction books, and could you explain how you came to get your first book published?
When my avid-reader ten-year-old son announced “all books are boring” and stopped reading, I did everything I could to motivate him but nothing worked. I’ve heard a number of children’s authors say they wrote a book to encourage their child to read. I am much lazier than that. I convinced him to write the book to show me what wasn’t boring. But our mother-son project came undone when I kept offering suggestions. Finally, he folded his arms and glared: “go write your own book”. In other words: “butt out mum”. So I did and took his advice. I found I loved writing and haven’t stopped since.
I believe generally that being published requires a degree of luck but it is luck you make through opportunity. I read my work in a number of places and was approached by Walker Books to submit the Samurai Kids manuscript to them. Concurrently, based on feedback from a manuscript assessment session at the NSW Writer’s Centre, I was doing my research to find which publisher I believed best suited the story and my dream to write a number of books. I had already decided it was Walker Books Australia, who were developing their new Australian list but had a parent company in UK and sister company in the US who published some of my favourite authors. Luck and opportunity had collided for me.
You have written, “There wasn’t a great deal of choice in my primary school library and we weren’t a ”go to the town library” kind of family. When I got to high school and saw the rows and rows of books in the library, I didn’t know where to start. So I began at A. I found Asimov and Aldriss and loved them. I read nothing but science fiction for the next five years!” What do most enjoy reading now?
I read anything and everything but my favourite is fantasy, especially if it has a historical overtone. Lately I have been reading a lot of Australian fantasy – particular recent favourites are Karen Brooks’ Tallow (first in the Curse of the Bond Rider series), Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series, Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori and Ruth Manley’s The Plum Rain Scroll. I still have Asimov and Aldriss books on my shelves. I aim to read three books a week (one of those might be a picture book so not many words there) and moonlight as a book reviewer to feed my reading habit.
Samurai Kids is often referred to as historical fantasy which I find interesting because I research meticulously. To me it is pure history although I made a conscious decision not to tie my story too closely to the politics of the time. I think the fantasy connotation comes from Sensei’s almost magical qualities (Niya calls him a wizard) and the animal spirits of the children. But to me a holy-man teacher would appear almost magical. And martial arts masters have always studied animals to learn from them (many moves such as the White Crane are derived from those observations). So the Kids’ adoption of a spirit guide is culturally valid. Perhaps my love of reading fantasy seeps into how I write history.
You have written that your favourite book is The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. What makes this book stand out for you?
I love animal fantasy stories and in addition to The Tale of Despereaux I am a fan of William Horwood’s work including the Duncton Wood series. It takes a special talent to write through the eyes of a mouse or a mole. I hope one day to write an animal fantasy and have been working on one for many years.
But what I love most is the dichotomy and the skill with which Kate DiCamillo tells her story. The Tale of Despereaux is beautifully written. It is a gentle work in poetic language. But it is also a story of action and adventure, good and evil. Despereaux is a true hero – a needle-waving, rat-braving princess-saving kind of mouse!
How do you develop the initial concept for a story?
For me a story begins as a paragraph. It might be an idea, an image or a character. Once I have written that early paragraph and fallen in love with it, then I start to ask the questions it forms. And the more answers I find, the more story I have. The story starts to eat into everything I do. Constant conversations fill my head. I have to write to empty out my head space.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new writers?
I used to say read, read, read and write, write, write because a new (and established) writer must read avidly to learn and be aware of the market and write consistently to improve their craft. But now I think it is even more than that. New writers need to be persistent. Never give up. Plan for the long haul. And be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. This is how opportunities are created. Be the one brave enough to make a public pitch. Go to festivals and speak up. Have your work assessed. Read your work in public every chance you get.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I have a number of projects lined up. The Samurai Kids haven’t finished their travels yet and another series idea is beginning to form. 2012 will see the release of my first young adult novel and my first picture book as well as another Samurai Kids title. I am partway through a junior historical novel and my animal fantasy is an ongoing long-term project. I had a look at the scraps of paper in my ‘postponed ideas drawer’ recently and worked out I probably won’t live long enough to work on them all!
More on Sandy Fussell and her fiction can be found at www.sandyfussell.com.
The Australian Literature Review