Monthly Archives: July 2008

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.

But wait! There’s so much more…

Shelf Elf Blogiversary Bash: Presents Requested!

This coming Friday is my one year blogiversary. I can’t believe I’ve been at it for a year already. Time flies when you’re reading and writing and raving about kids books. So to celebrate, I’m planning to post a little carnivalesque thingy here at the blog on Friday, July 11th. I’d love it if you dropped me a link to a review of a book that you’d like to “give me for my 1st birthday.” Just something you’ve read lately (or ages ago) and loved and think I’d like too. On Friday I’ll post all the links, creating a virtual birthday bash of sorts.

So, send me a present (and make my day). Just leave your link in a comment below and then be sure to swing by the party on Friday.

(photo © Adrian van Leen for openphoto.net CC:PublicDomain)

Curse of the Spellmans

If there’s a book out there that’s more fun than Lisa Lutz’s purely wonderful Curse of the Spellmans then I sincerely hope I’m lucky enough to find it someday. In the meantime, I want Lisa Lutz to write, write, write, so that I don’t have to wait very long to read the next installment in her series about the delightfully neurotic Spellman family.

For those of you who haven’t read Lutz’s first book, The Spellman Files, I am very jealous. This is what you need to do. Send away your children (or don’t have any until you’ve read the aforementioned books) and your spouse/partner (or stay single until you’ve read the aforementioned books) and then settle down in a sunny spot for a weekend of reading with some yummy treats and beverages to fortify you. If you don’t fall head over heels for the hilarious Spellmans, I’ll be very worried about you.

The Spellmans are a completely dysfunctional family of private investigators. There’s the “Parental Unit” (Albert and Olivia Spellman), David Spellman (lawyer, perfect older brother), Izzy Spellman, (diehard PI, middle child) and Rae Spellman (super precocious youngest daughter). You couldn’t call any of the Spellmans “normal.” Aside from David, they’re just about the most suspicious, bungling, secretive, wacky crew you’ll meet in a novel. I’d love to be able to describe the plot, but it’s just too silly and convoluted to bother. Let’s just say it involves Izzy doing some serious surveillance, numerous Suspicious Behaviour Reports on family members, some vandalizing of holiday lawn tableaux and a few Doctor Who marathons. Part of the pleasure in reading this book is trying to follow all of the crazy narrative threads. It’s one madcap romp into family instability. Read it. Love it. Then introduce the Spellmans to everyone you know.

Read my equally gushy review of The Spellman Files here.

Poetry Friday: Canada

This week contained Canada Day, and it went more or less uncelebrated in my house. (Is lounging about drinking lemonade on your back porch for hours and hours with your dog celebrating?) So here’s a great patriotic poem offering a rather romantic portrait of Canada.

Canada – by Billy Collins

I am writing this on a strip of white birch bark
that I cut from a tree with a penknife.
There is no other way to express adequately
the immensity of the clouds that are passing over the farms
and wooded lakes of Ontario and the endless visibility
that hands you the horizon on a platter.
I am also writing this in a wooden canoe,
a point of balance in the middle of Lake Couchiching,
resting the birch bark against my knees.
I can feel the sun’s hands on my bare back,
but I am thinking of winter,
snow piled up in all the provinces
and the solemnity of the long grain-ships
that pass the cold months moored at Owen Sound.
O Canada, as the anthem goes,
scene of my boyhood summers,
you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table,
you are the dove-soft train whistle in the night,
you are the empty chair at the end of an empty dock.
You are the shelves of hooks in a lakeside cottage:
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh,
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson,
Anne of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery…

For the rest, go to Poetry Foundation. Oh, and happy 4th of July!

(photo © Jordan Miller for openphoto.net CC:Attribution)

13 Reasons Why

I tend to gravitate towards downer books (and films and music). I like sad. Sad and romantic? Better still. Even so, I’m not sure I would have picked up Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why if it wasn’t this month’s selection over at readergirlz. At first look, the premise seems just too sad, even for me. The story is so sad, that I got suspicious. It made me think that the book was just calling out for attention or controversy. I was wrong, and I’m glad I gave it a chance.

Clay Jensen comes home from school to find a package on his doorstep. Inside the package is a bunch of cassette tapes recorded by his former classmate (and crush), Hannah Baker. Hannah committed suicide a few weeks before, and on the tapes she explains thirteen reasons for choosing to end her life. (Not exactly light reading). The novel follows Clay from the time he receives the tapes, all through the night and into the next day, as he travels around town, bearing witness to Hannah’s most difficult experiences.

This story will grab you and refuse to let go until you’re finished. In that way, it sort of mirrors Clay’s own experience with “the Hannah Tapes.” He starts listening and can’t stop until he’s worked his way through all of them. Asher really succeeds in getting you inside Hannah’s head, and that is absolutely critical to the power of his story. I suppose there’s an element of voyeurism to the tension in this book. You want to understand what would lead someone with her whole future ahead to kill herself. You’re basically listening in on a dead girl’s secrets. That’s creepy, but it’s compelling creepy. Hannah’s voice is completely honest and real, and in the beginning, not all that likeable. She’s so angry and seemingly vindictive. It’s a bit uncomfortable feeling that you don’t much like this girl, knowing her fate, but as the story progresses and Hannah’s pain and depression just seep out of every word on the tapes, you start to feel such a connection to this character. This is a deep book, and it doesn’t offer simple messages about teen suicide, which I think is just the way it should be. The ending will really make you think.

I can’t wait for the live chat with Jay Asher on July 24th at the readergirlz forum. This book – and topic – should certainly make for an interesting and important discussion.