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