An Interview with Adrienne Kress

Treat time everyone. Today I am tickled to offer you an interview with the lovely and talented Adrienne Kress, author of Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and the upcoming Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate. Welcome to Adrienne!

What inspires you (situations / works of art / places / foods / people)?

Really – everything. But I would say out of that rather large category, films are a huge inspiration for me. I am quite the film buff, and when I see something in a movie that just gives me butterflies, I totally have to write about it. There are also the odd interactions between strangers that I witness in various public places that can get the creative juices flowing. People in general are just so interesting. I love to people watch and give them character traits. My favourite game is “cast the passing stranger in a period film”. For some reason a lot of people look like monks to me.

Is your writing space a place of loveliness? Describe where you work.

I think it is a place of loveliness. Some may think it is a place of messiness. I feel very comfortable in it, and that’s what matters most. When I was looking for an apartment to rent when I moved back to Toronto, I really made sure to picture where I would be writing. It was important that I had a separate area for that, to distinguish between a work space and rest space (something I think that is very important when you work from home).

Name 2 writers whom you admire – one writer for grown-ups, one writer for the littl’uns.

Only two? Okay. Fine. If you insist. Douglas Adams totally changed the way I looked at writing books, and he is just plain hilarious. So I guess he can be my adult choice. For the littl’uns. . . I seriously don’t know. I am a huge children’s lit fan and each author brings their own unique voice. Love Norman Juster (The Phantom Tollbooth), and of course A A Milne, J M Barrie and Lewis Carroll. Have to say, though it may sound obvious, I have a great deal of admiration for JK Rowling, not simply as an author but for someone who knows how to maintain grace under pressure, and keep her private life private. She is a pretty admirable woman and I would love to meet her.

Top 3 Kids’ lit titles you’re desperate to read right now.

Oy. Again, many to choose from. Actually I’ll tell you one series I am really interested in reading is the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. I first noticed it because, and this is so not the usual reason, the artist who designed my cover (John Rocco) did those ones as well. But I hear it is all about Greek gods and stuff and I love that stuff. I also haven’t had a chance to make my way through all of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, so that’s another one. I also have two titles by friends I can’t wait to read, one that came out this past March: Hazel’s Phantasmagoria by Leander Deeny. And a YA by my friend Lesley Livingston coming out in January: Wondrous Strange.

If you could live inside a kids’ book, which book would you choose?

Again, obvious, but Harry Potter. Ever since I was little I was obsessed with boarding school books. I just always wanted to be in one (a boarding school that is). And to be in a boarding school where you also get to do magic . . . dude. I wouldn’t like all that end of the world stuff though. Maybe I could be in the Harry Potter world post Voldemort. Though if we are doing the age thing correctly, I am technically the same age as Harry (we are both born in 1980) so I would have been around for all that. Not sure I would have been cool enough to hang out with them though. Probably would have admired them all from afar.

I’ve read about how your dad read to you when you were a kid, and how that has influenced your journey as a writer. For all those parents out there who might need a little inspiration in the read-aloud department, could you explain why that experience mattered to you then, and matters now?

It has influenced me a great deal. I was never naturally inclined to read, still am not. Don’t get me wrong I love books, but sometimes I forget that I love books. Strange, I know. But for relaxation I would choose going to a movie or watching television before reading. It isn’t a natural choice for me to pick up a book. So my dad reading to me really made books special. It also introduced me to a lot of books I might never have read otherwise, Dickens and Douglas Adams. As a writer writing children’s books it also is always in the back of my head that someone may be reading the story aloud, so I want to have fun with words, make sure that the activity of reading the book aloud is a pleasant experience.

Having a parent read to you also makes books a very pleasant ally. You have all these excellent memories of books, because they were a part of growing up and spending time with your parents. Books therefore can never be scary, or too big, or too many words. They can be challenging, but not intimidating. They are happy things.

What led you to write Alex and the Ironic Gentleman?

I was initially inspired to write Alex while I was living in London, UK, specifically when I taking weekend break in the town of Bath. I’ve always had something on the go writing wise – plays, short stories, and I’ve always wanted to write a cozy mystery, but I’ve learned I am not very good at writing cozy mysteries. But I had never considered writing a children’s book before. I’m not sure if it was Bath that made me want to write that kind of book, or just the getting away from the city and having a chance to think. But suddenly the decision to write a children’s book just sort of happened while I was there as I was doing a lot of walking and thinking and stuff.

I am a huge children’s lit buff, total Harry Potterphile, and wrote my thesis in my last year of high school English comparing Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Let’s just say I have read many great books in the genre. And I suddenly thought to myself, “Well I bet I could write one of these books.” Not because it was easy, but because I knew the genre so well.

Well whatever inspired the initial decision, it was definitely Bath that inspired so many particular details about the book. The doorknob shop was based on a doorknob shop I passed on my walk, the bridge that Alex and her uncle live on is based on the bridge in Bath with all the shops on it (which in turn is based on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence Italy) and so on.

Then as I thought more about the structure of the novel, I decided that Alex was going to be a love letter, an homage, to all my favourite children’s books. So the first Act, up until Alex leaves on her adventure, I consider very Roald Dahl (to me the Daughters of the Founding Fathers’ Preservation Society totally typify the sort grotesque characters he liked to write). Then Alex’s journey to Port Cullis is Alice in Wonderland, where she meets some interesting characters in a forest and has miniature adventures where she needs to solve problems before moving on. Lewis Carroll made fun of the world of his time in Alice, and I try to do something similar with this section. Lord Poppinjay, for example, is a composite of all the bosses I had as a temp. The third Act, Port Cullis and onwards, is Peter Pan, at least the part with the pirates. It also owes a lot to Treasure Island. There are other authors I reference as well throughout the book: the chapters all begin with “In which . . .” which is a reference to A A Milne for example.

I just really love these books, they were a huge influence on me growing up, and I kind of wanted to say thank you to them with Alex.

How much do you LOVE John Rocco’s cover art? (I think you are so lucky to have such awesome covers for your books. I can’t imagine a kid not being desperate for your next book just upon seeing the smashing, fiery cover art. Wow).

I was really very lucky with my cover art. I have become such a huge John Rocco fan since I learned he would be doing my covers. He has his own stunning picture books available and I would recommend anyone and everyone to pick them up. I have also been very lucky with my publishers in that they are very open to my opinions about the cover. We are currently working on the paperback cover as well as the sequel’s cover, and there are a few changes being made to the original. More streamlined, and a little brighter. It’s still totally awesome, but we’ve had a great dialogue back and forth to make the cover please everyone’s needs and still look wicked cool.

Yup. I did just write wicked cool.

The chapters on Alex’s train journey are wonderful. They’re one of many sections of your novel that have replayed in my mind since I finished reading. I adore how you reveal the train’s true creepiness ever-so-gradually. Have you traveled by train? What is it about train travel that made you imagine its potential for freakiness?

I have traveled by train, but never by such a gorgeous (or freaky) train. In fact the reality of train travel is pretty unglamorous.

However, I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie mysteries, and art deco wonderfulness. Of course one of the most famous Christie mysteries is Murder on the Orient Express, and ever since I read that book (and saw the film), I’ve wanted to ride to Orient Express. So I really wanted to put in something in my book with that sort of train.

Also there have been a few films made recently of the 1920’s/1930’s where there is a real sense of a party that never ends. Of people forgetting about the real world and submerging themselves into decadence. It’s kind of unsettling, almost like biting into a dessert that’s a little too sweet. At first it can be wonderful, but after a while it starts to make you feel sick.

This never ending party idea fit perfectly with my obsession with absurdist theatre that began for me in high school. I love those circular existential plotlines where nothing really changes and dialogue is repeated over and over. It really kind of spooks me out when things just happen almost the exact same way over and over again. Both my plays have this circular storytelling. Quite freaky, as you say. And that was the last element that I wanted to add into the train sequence. I’ve had dreams where strange things are happening all around me and no one else seems to notice. Often I’ll revisit the same scene later in a dream, and know that I’ve been there before but no one else does. I really wanted that slightly nightmarish quality, which interestingly is far more frightening to adult readers, than to kids.

All these pieces came together to make the train sequence. It used to be much longer, with the dinner scene written over and over again in slightly different ways. Probably would have suited a play much better, but it got a bit much within the context of the book.

The zombie thing . . . no idea where that came from.

“Mental Dictation” is one particularly hilarious, wacky notion in your book. Can you explain how it works? How did you come up with this concept and have you ever worked for someone as ludicrous as Lord Poppinjay?

I have never worked for an individual quite like Lord Poppinjay, but I have worked for many bosses (having been a temp) who expected you to almost read their minds. It’s very odd, especially if you are a temp, so only have been with the company for like a day, when your boss expects you to do things without actually telling you to do them. So I decided to sort of make fun of the whole reading the mind thing, by having a boss who actually expected you to literally read his mind. I have had quite a few friends read that section and totally get it. I doubt it resonates quite as well with the kids, but it is still funny for them I think. But for anyone who’s ever worked for someone else, there is quite the parallel there.

Alex’s story is peopled with so many memorable and wonderfully quirky characters (my favourite: MakeCold 6000, the talking fridge). I know this is a bit like asking a parent which kid is the favourite… but, which character is nearest and dearest to your heart? (After all, who’s kidding, we all know parents have favourites).

That is a very tough question to answer. You mean mean person. My favourite. Seriously I really truly do love them all. I find Lord Poppinjay hilarious, and Alex’s Uncle really endearing. So this is not easy to answer. Okay. My top favourites (aside from Alex) are: Jack Scratch, MakeCold, Extremely Ginormous Octopus and Giggles. But I would have to say that Captain Magnanimous holds a soft spot in my heart. I wanted him to be this wonderful heroic moral guy. It was also going to be a bit of a joke how fabulous he was, hence the name, but he never really comes across as too much, or insincere. He’s just . . . lovely. For some reason he also is based a little on Ewan Mcgregor, which is a bit odd as I do like the man, but he’s not the actor I always had a crush on – never had posters of him on my wall or anything. When I got the publishing offer from Scholastic, one of my first thoughts was that, “Wow, Captain Magnanimous is going to exist in the canon of children’s literature.” It made me really really happy.

Can you give us a little teaser for your next title, Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate?

Basically it’s about a boy named Timothy Freshwater who finds himself having to help save a dragon trapped in human form, by taking him back to China and having him scale the Dragon’s Gate. But for a more complete description, please do check out my publisher’s website here: www.weinsteinbooks.com.

It’s going to be interesting to see what people think. The story does involve Alex about half way through the book, but she’s now a secondary character. Also she is seen from Timothy’s perspective, so it’s a bit different. I know a lot of people want to see Alex again, and they will. I do hope they adore Timothy as much. Though, to be honest, he is a little harder to love. Still, I think he rocks.

And now for a little randomness…

Since I read Sasha Cagen’s book, “To do list: from buying milk to finding a soul mate, what our lists reveal about us,” I’ve become super curious about people’s To do lists. Do you write To Do Lists, and if you do, would you mind sharing one?

I don’t really write To-Do lists to be honest. On the rare occasion I do they are very mundane, emails I have to answer, chores that need to be done. But I do have a little internal list of things I would like to do. Like ride the Orient Express for example. Or be in a Peter Jackson movie. Or meet JK Rowling. Anything that goes on that list, as far fetched as they may sound to some, I am determined that if I put my mind to it, I could do it. Then again I don’t put things like, “Go to the moon” on there, or “fly”. Though to be honest I would love to do both!

Finally: Johnny Depp as Infamous Pirate Captain – weirdly fabulous, or just weird? (I will keep my own passionate opinions in this matter to myself, as I would not wish to sway your response…)

Neither.

He is perfect. There is nothing weird in the least about his performance. Totally brilliant and perfect.

Thank you ever-so-much to Adrienne, who has a bazillion things on the go. You must check out her blog at The Temp, The Actress and The Writer and her website, www.adriennekress.com. Read my review of Alex and the Ironic Gentleman here, and be sure to look out for Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate in January.

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