You describe in your recent Guardian interview how you comforted your daughter with the Spiderwick Chronicles while she was in hospital, suffering from seizures. “She seems to have healed, with no real memory of hospital. But I remember; and I changed. In those haunting days, I found the true power of words. The magic of story.” Can you elaborate a little on this?
The Spiderwick Chronicles were long finished at that time and the movie was out; I started to tell Sophia a fairytale but my wife told me to read her one of mine so I decided to retell her the story and it had a tremendous impact. I’d always made stories I really liked & loved; they were great fun & entertaining to children but after the hospital incident and witnessing the power of escapism, I came home and put any stories I was working on aside and took a different approach.
I thought it was interesting your wife wanted you to tell one of your stories…
Yes, I remember that so vividly; Sophia was watching lots of Disney at the time and I knew she’d recognise fairytale stories. But Angela knew that there’d be a bit more heart and soul in my voice if I told one of my own – rather than reciting something else. And she was right.
So how did your attitudes to writing and storytelling change as a result of this experience?
I think the stuff I want to say now is more philosophical, deeper and more fun. There was a huge impact on how I view the stories I want to tell; what types of stories and their subject matter. When you experience something like that, your brain adapts to your new realities. I remember myself and my wife thinking, we’ll have to be parents who deal with this kind of thing now. Everything else just falls away, like deadlines etc. Your priorities get reset. It’s good that it opens your eyes & we’re just fortunate that the seizures were for a limited period of time. For many it’s a lifetime things. That kind of realisation is very intense & reminded me of what was important in life.
Is this when you started visiting hospitals to read and write with children?
I had done some hospital visits on and off during tours; when the US sent me out on my American tours, I always said ‘maybe we should do a school or hospital stop’. But after my stay with Sofia, it became more important than ever. I thought about how much the children had a life involved existing in hospital and I thought it would be great for authors to visit these kids.
I went to Bellevue hospital in New York City, a hospital for emotionally challenged patients, and it was so rewarding all round. So I made it mandatory for my tours; I wanted to visit kids in hospital, not just those that would be brought to bookstores. As an author, you have to do the stuff you want to do and if it catches on, then great. I’m off to Edinburgh hospital and London hospital as part of this tour – and it’s amazing. I just get in there and hang with the kids.
I was at the Cork International Short Story festival this weekend and Nuala Ni Chonchuir was talking about how writers can do great things to help charities…how did the idea of the Starlight storytelling initiative come about?
I made the request to visit hospitals on this tour, having worked with Starlight in the U.S. Starlight in the US is different to here; in the US the charity helps children who are permanently in hospital through events, often outside the hospital. The charity aims to make life easier for the children and families involved; these events are a kind of escape from the hospital. In the UK, Starlight grants wishes for children as well; it’s a bit bigger. Simon & Schuster picked up the rope and got involved and figured out way to keep author visits to hospitals going on a much larger scale.
It’s certainly an admirable cause and I’m sure it will make a huge impact in many children’s lives.
Thank you. That’s what I hope.
And now, a little about your writing… Tell us about your newest book, The Search for WondLa.
The story is about a young girl called Eva Nine who is raised in an underground hole by robots. The place is under attack by aliens and so Eva Nine comes to surface of the planet, only to realise that she’s not on earth like she thought, but on an alien planet. And there seems to be no other humans alive. So the story follows Eva Nine as she tries to find another human. Along the way, through the other characters, she comes to understand what family and home really means.
And it seems The Search for WondLa is being received well by fans and critics.
Yes. It came out in the states last fall – but it’s only just out in paperback. It sold very well in the US, and quite well here, and I’ve been lucky that the reviews have been stellar. I’ve been very fortunate.
So why so long for the UK tour?
I was on such an exhausting tour for the trilogy, so after that I had to get home and work on a new book. I love coming over here, but it’s always a conundrum for me to balance book making with promotion and tour, especially between the UK & US. I’m doing all the text & all the illustrations for this book so the workload is essentially double so it limits my time even further. In the UK, paperback books do so well, so it made sense to come and tour here once the paperback was released.
In your guardian interview you said “I just can’t come up with a little story off the top of my head. I have to ponder my plots, mull my character’s motivation and steep myself in the subtext.” Is this true for both writing and illustrating?
They come in dribs and drabs. I’m fortunate now at this stage in my career that I’ve got stories I’ve been mulling over for ten years or so. In the late 90s when I was refining some sketches for earlier books, I remember sketching out what would be Eva Nine in Searching for WondLa. I take my time to figure out what the story is truly about and what it is not about. This helps to give me focus and then I feel prepared when I do start writing. I do have a more distinct image of my stories and characters now. I’m more efficient at this stage. I still engage in exploration but it’s not as meandering; the stories are almost familiar when I start to write these days.
How do you balance your artistry between writing and illustrating? How does one affect the other?
It can be tricky at times but for the most part when I’m creating a story, I do lots of sketches and notes with some character notes and ideas thrown in. I focus on my writing. Having so many years as just an illustrator behind me, it’s easy for me to create a script for myself to illustrate. It’s just like when I was working with other writers; but now I make my own script. From time to time I will sketch and draw id story so I can be a bit more tuned in to the characters. Sometimes I draw and then change the text to perfect it.
You will be attending the Telegraph Bath Festival of Children’s Literature on September 25th; what importance do you think festivals have when it comes to writers and readers?
Any festival that celebrates reading – I’m in, sign me up! Especially if it’s multi-generational, where adults can go and listen and learn about books alongside youngsters. It’s great to share an enjoyment of reading. As a writer, most of my time is spent in isolation; I see family & friends and that’s it – I live in a bit of a vacuum. Of course, there are editors and publishers for feedback, but this is nowhere near the affirmation of a room of. say, 500 children, all saying they like your work. I love and need that.
What is the loveliest feedback you’ve ever heard from a reader?
I just love that they love what I do. For me, it’s very affirming. When I’m writing, I don’t follow trends in publishing. I try not to make anything contrived. I just try to create from my heart things I’d have loved as a kid – I say to myself, ‘what would 10 year old Tony have liked that 40 year old Tony can make?’ I did an event at Bluewater and a girl turned up as Eva Nine. We used to get that with Spiderwick too – that’s always an amazing experience.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I appreciate the questions about Starlight, as well as my own writing.