Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Fun and Informative Author Interview

A short while back I had the opportunity to read an interesting MG novel titled Saving Davey Gravy. I’ve been trying to read more ‘boy’ books lately, and this one looked like a good candidate. I wasn’t disappointed.

I enjoy promoting new and/or indie authors, so I contacted the author, Rhys Tate (his first name is pronounced Reese), and he agreed to an interview. He’s an interesting and well-spoken young man, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking with him. So without further ado, let’s get started.

Tell us something about how you came up with the decision to become a writer.

Oh, boy. Like most writers, the standard answer is, “I guess I always wanted to write.” Up until I returned to tertiary study, I had a few half-hearted attempts that never went beyond a few pages – in fitness terms, I was the guy who jogs a block, loses his wind, gets discouraged and gives up for another six months. I had flunked out of university, was in a job that I hated, fast approaching 30 and suddenly watching my friends do amazing things, and it really scared me.

I had a recurrent dream that I was back in high school, but with a lot of papers due and no memory of attending any classes. I’d sit there in the class, lost, and wake up feeling absolutely demoralized.  So, I looked up writing courses online and found a two year diploma at a local TAFE (our more structured version of a community college), and signed up. I wrote my first, dreadful short story as part of the entrance requirements, but they let me in anyway. A couple of nights after I was accepted, I had the dream again, but this time I approached the teacher after the class and admitted how far I was behind in things. She agreed with me, but told me if I did this and this and this, that I could catch up and pass the class. I still remember the feeling of release and elation when I woke up. And they said Carl Jung was crazy.

Of course, little did I know that the diploma would lead to five more years of degree, Honours and postgraduate study, and probably a lifetime of learning how to be any good at writing.

You’re too hard on yourself, Rhys. I read your first novel, and I think you’re already a good writer. I probably should tell our audience that you’re an Australian, as some of your terminology may be unfamiliar to some of them.

When you aren’t busy creating new characters, what do you do for your ‘real’ job, Rhys?

I’m a high school English and English as a Second Language teacher, although I’m currently a Person Friday for a small medical company (copywriting, marketing and website stuff, along with a whole load of administration), a position which allows me to work mostly from a home office as I take care of some ongoing family concerns. I’m also doing some tutoring and relief teaching to keep my feet wet until I can drop back into teaching full-time.

In keeping with the standard writing responses, I worked in many fields before I discovered an affinity for writing and teaching. My first position was in a slaughterhouse (I left to complete high school after three years, especially when I started dreaming about the place), and I drove trucks part-time through university. They’re probably the two most memorable jobs I’ve had.

Sounds like you’ve learned a variety of skills at a fairly early age. And your dreams sound quite interesting. Tell us, Rhys, is Davey Gravy a creation of your own imagination, or is he a manifestation, in part or in whole, of an actual person?

I don’t think you can ever write about a complete actual person and do them justice, unless of course you say so up-front and spend a long time researching them. On the other hand, writers are constantly watching the people around them for quirks of personality, so they can carve off said quirk and reassemble it with bits and pieces of other people into the Frankenstein’s monster that is a novel’s protagonist.

It’s an awful thing as a writer, because it really does feel like that – that your main character is this horrible shambling beast with stitch lines holding all the different pieces together, and somehow readers will know, and point at your book and laugh. You have to trust that the character becomes his own entity through the writing, editing and redrafting process. I mean, as a reader I’ve never thrown a novel down and screeched, “That character is a blatant construct!” Yet they all are.

I guess there was this mad, knockabout kid called Garrett at my primary school, and Davey’s probably closest to a nicer version of him. At least, a version I wouldn’t fistfight occasionally.

Great thoughts on your character development. I’ve never considered it in quite that way before. And I really like Davey. I think he’s an interesting character, although he does have a few odd quirks. But don’t we all?
I love the chicken aspect of your novel. How did you learn about farm life? Reality or reading?

Through reality. We only had a hobby farm of 55 acres, but we managed to keep horses, pigs, sheep, dogs, cats, rabbits, four types of chickens, two types of ducks, guineafowl and peacocks. That’s in addition to the garden variety Australian native animals which would occasionally visit. And snakes. Lots of snakes. We lived beside a small natural lake, and where there’s permanent water there are snakes. Although they were all very poisonous (in keeping with tourist’s perceptions of Australia’s killer wildlife), the only truly dangerous ones were the tiger snakes, which would chase you if they were having a particularly cranky day.

The dairy scenes from Saving Davey Gravy come from my friends’ parents’ dairies. When you stayed at their houses, you’d be obliged to help out in the dairy, sometimes - it’s how things worked. So, I guess the part of the book about Davey keeping his eyes in two different directions, looking out for a cow’s raised tail, absolutely comes from personal experience. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have Davey’s reflexes, and usually ended up with a gumboot full of cow manure.

Oh, yuck! That’s quite in keeping with the gross factor of your novel, isn’t it? And I was surprised to discover that the gross factor wasn’t as off-putting as I expected it to be. Guess I’ve read enough boy books that it’s kind of thickened my skin on that score. But the boys certainly seem to enjoy it, don’t they?

It sounds like you had a lot of opportunity as a child to learn responsibility and animal husbandry. All of those experiences will undoubtedly give you lots of ‘fodder’ for additional fun reads. Now we know a little about your home life, but what about school? Were you a jock?

Not at all. I was a geek before geeks had any kind of social prestige. In primary school it didn’t really matter, but in high school I was definitely much more interested in computers than sport. It wasn’t until I left school that I took up sport seriously, and oddly enough it was rowing. Although I’m too short to be an elite rower, I went okay at club level, and suddenly found out the powerful allure small pieces of metal tied to ribbons hold for sports people. Like Napoleon said, “All men are enamoured of decorations … they positively hunger for them.”

Rowing is a total bling sport, and I managed to catch up on a decent collection of trophies over three or four years.

Ah, I quite enjoy your style of humor, Rhys. I can’t quit smiling. But let’s talk a bit more about your novel. Aside from Davey, Paul is a very interesting character. How did you create him?

I’m pretty sure I didn’t know a Paul during primary or high school. However, as a teacher, I occasionally run into a student like Paul - kids with an amazing amount of poise who seem to hover outside of popular cliques not because they don’t know how to get into the inner circle, but because they can’t seem to be bothered with it all ... almost like they say that some super-smart kids do badly at school because they find it so boring.

At my primary school, there were two big tribes of boys in my year level, based around the two classes and who was in each class. It seems strange, but the groups played in different areas and barely interacted with each other – there’s probably an anthropologist out there who would be fascinated by this behaviour. Then there was a small posse of outsiders who rarely fit in with either group, for whatever reason, and were sometimes treated pretty badly as a result. Perhaps the character of Paul is my way of subconsciously apologising to these kids.
I enjoyed how the boys in your novel worried over their possibilities of teacher assignments. Did you ever have a teacher anywhere near as mean or bizarre as Mrs. Cowell?

I went to primary school in the early to mid 80s, and there were still plenty of teachers whose teaching methods seemed to come straight out of a Dickens novel. In fact, you either had a cool young teacher who would put effort into constructing a varied curricula with heaps of engaging activities, or one of the older teachers who would endlessly recite from the textbook and come down like a tonne of bricks on the inevitable acting out which occurred in a classroom of bored kids marinating through summer in our little sweatbox portables. You would get one of the older teachers every second year, and the part with Davey and Ted fretting about who would be their teacher for the upcoming year is absolutely taken from real life.

Of course, Mrs Cowell is a construct of the worst bits from all of these teachers, with more than a touch of hyperbole thrown in. Or, maybe not – Mrs Powell, my grade five teacher, overheard me calling her ‘Pow-wow’ when I was in grade six, and tore strips off me. She made me come back to her grade five classroom for a day, so she could humiliate me in front of her younger students at her leisure.

 Hmmm. Powell, Cowell. I think you may be onto something.

You obviously aimed Saving Davey Gravy at a boy audience. How did you come up with the formula that involves so many of the things that appeal to a young male crowd? The gross factor is particularly good, but also the shorter length and the other themes. Did it involve a lot of research, or are you just naturally talented in that area?

Thanks for the compliment! I was very lucky that my TAFE had a very strong writing department, and that the Writing For Children lecturer was Hazel Edwards, an Australian author of over 200 children’s books. Hazel is incredibly astute in the manner of a person with that kind of creative output, and inside a month of teaching me, she told me that I had a good voice for novels directed at boys, and that I should aim in that area because it was under-represented in the market.

The voice isn’t something I consciously strive for. I think it must be a product of growing up in the country – Australian farmers, by and large, are laconic, dry and very straightforward. They’re probably like that everywhere, but especially so here. At the same time, we have that very British tradition of gently but relentlessly mocking things, especially authority figures and our own shortcomings.

As an English teacher, I am convinced reading is the primary way that students can improve their English skills. In fact, I was never explicitly taught any more than basic grammar (you may be able to tell); I picked up everything by reading widely. Now, in most cases, I can tell if something contravenes a rule of grammar more by feel than knowledge. I think 80% of English homework for students below the senior levels should involve reading for enjoyment and reporting on this reading (books, obviously - I’m not sold on the word count in most manga, comics and video games, although they have their place), but instead we try to hit kids over the head with endless grammar lessons. Show me a kid who reads for an hour a day, and I’ll show you a student who has the necessary command of English to do very well at school and university.

I think a lot of tweens fail to make the jump from shorter chapter books, which they find manageable but perhaps a little beneath them in terms of theme, to longer young adult novels, which have the themes but may scare them off in terms of length. I’m hoping that Saving Davey Gravy somewhat straddles this divide.
Those are all very good points, Rhys. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the need for young people to be encouraged to read more, and more varied, books. I’m a firm believer in learning by application. The rules of writing are often lost on a person if he isn’t exposed to it repeatedly, and reading is going to give him that exposure.

Because of the theme of Saving Davey Gravy, I’m curious about something. What was your nickname in school?

I took high school pretty seriously for the first couple of years. I was caught cramming for an upcoming test before school one day, which led to variations on the nickname ‘Square’. It reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Bart skateboards into a locker full of books, and as he lies dazed on the ground with a calculus textbook on his head, Jimbo and the boys turn up: “Hey! He’s learning on his own. Get him!”

Later on, when I was rowing, as the smallest guy in the crew (at 5’11” and 190lb) I became the ‘Nugget’. People also call me ‘Po’ a lot, because of my surname. I didn’t really want the last one, because it’s my uncle’s nickname as well and it seems like I’m trying to appropriate it, but you can’t fight a nickname. They just happen.

 What might we expect to see from you in the future? Any more Davey books, or something new?

Saving Davey Gravy was meant to be a one-off, but I like the characters so much that it’s going to become a trilogy. Ted will move away to the city, and it’ll be up to Davey to convince him to return so that they can beat Port Blue in the grand final of the football season.

Other than that, I’ve almost finished a much longer novel about a boy called Jack who likes playing elaborate jokes. One of them backfires spectacularly, and as a punishment Jack has to take a four day working trip with his belligerent truck-driving grandfather, Ron. The thing is that Ron has found a variety of weird shortcuts in his decades of driving through the sparse backroads of Australia, and some of these lead through very strange and frightening places. If I had to sum it in a sentence, I’d say it’s a book about trucks, practical jokes and being terrified in the Outback.

I’m also frameworking a collection of short horror stories aimed at the top of the middle grade/ bottom of the young adult market. I remember the love/hate relationship I had with horror at the same age, if only because when I read The Amityville Horror, I had to sleep with the lights on for six weeks. The internet has fundamentally affected the genre of horror for this age group, both (unfortunately) through early exposure to real life horrors, and through the explosion in a variant of the classic campfire stories, known as ‘creepypasta’. Horror narratives will have to shift to accommodate these changes.

The inevitable writing about writing on my website also gobbles up some time. If you’re a writer who’s reading this and pondering the pros and cons of setting up a website, I’d definitely recommend it. It acts as a focal point for your work, which encourages you to get more stuff done and out there. The trick is to not get so caught up with writing blog posts that you neglect what you’re trying to showcase; one substantial post a week is plenty.

I’m excited to hear you have more ideas for Davey and his gang, but the horror stories aren’t my forte. It amazes me as an adult reader of children’s books, the scare factor available in today’s market. I could never have handled it.

Thank you so much, Rhys, for joining me today for a small glimpse into your life and into the lives of your characters. I appreciate you for taking the time, and I wish you much success with your future endeavours.

For anyone interested in reading Saving Davey Gravy, here’s a short blurb:

In the first week of Grade 6, average schoolkid Davey Grant has to deal with one furious teacher, two new nicknames, three psycho chickens and his Mum nearly going into full-on, please-run-screaming-from-the-building meltdown mode – all in time to beat the invincible Port Blue in the first game of the Aussie Rules football season. Can he make it?
Saving Davey Gravy is an upper primary/ middle grade chapter book for children aged 8-11, containing fifteen snappy chapters and a guide to Aussie Rules football and Australian slang. With plenty of humour, sport and action, it is written to appeal to reluctant readers.
Buy Links
My site:

And if you’d like to learn more about Rhys Tate and his thoughts, follow his blog at: http://rhystate.com/re-writing/

Happy Reading!

Cordelia Dinsmore