Writing requires a kind of retreat into oneself: Ken Spillman
Kitaab’s fiction editor Monideepa Sahu interviews the multi-faceted author from Australia
Ken Spillman is a multi-faceted author from Australia, whose writing has won legions of fans across Oceania, Asia and the world. With over 35 books spanning many genres to his credit, he is also an editor and a critic. Dr Ken Spillman is an examiner for doctoral and masters degrees. An entertaining and uplifting speaker, he has captured the hearts of tens of thousands of children in Australia, China, India, Malaysia, Oman, Philippines and Singapore.
Ken Spillman’s Jake series is a smash hit with younger readers. His adventure series, The Absolutely True Fantasies of Daydreamer Dev is attracting many fans in India, as is his novel Advaita. His widely appreciated Young Adult novels, Love is a UFO and Blue have captured the hearts and minds of teenagers.
His writing has been shortlisted for a WA Premier’s Book Award five times in four different categories – for two wins. His impressive list of literary honours includes:
Creative Development Fellowship, Department of Culture and the Arts, Western Australia, 2010
Top 5 listing, The Australian critics’ Books of the Year, 1997
Winner, Fellowship of Australian Writers’ National Literary Award.
Over to Ken Spillman, as he shares some exclusive insights with Kitaab.
Your books are widely read and appreciated by readers all over Asia and worldwide. What’s your magic formula for infusing your writing with such universal appeal?
I don’t really think there’s a magic formula. Good stories well written travel all the time – after all, we read to enter other worlds. For a writer coming from outside the US and UK, however, finding global markets is difficult. For me, fun is the key. Sometimes I ask audiences, “Who likes fun?” – and of course they all raise their hands enthusiastically. I have a sense of fun and, beyond that, I can only say that I’ve worked hard for a long period, been patient, had some luck, and benefited from the guidance and example of others.
You are a PhD yourself, and an examiner for doctoral and masters degrees. That’s exceedingly serious business. How do you balance this grave and scholarly side of you with your fun and imaginative work as a children’s writer?
To be brutally honest, I did the doctorate for the scholarship money! Sure, I’ve always had an enquiring mind and enjoyed critical analysis, and I definitely found all of my tertiary education far more stimulating than high school. But all the while, I wanted to write my own stories. Writing for young people came easily because I’ve always connected well with them, not just at the level of fun but in terms of understanding their anxieties.
India captured my imagination immediately when I first visited in 2006. I connected at some deep level and can only speculate that the seeds of this were planted by 2 Anglo-Indian teachers I had in primary school. They spoke with such love about India, and their stories of childhood stayed with me. Anyway, after that 2006 trip I returned home to start reading a lot of Indian books for both adults and children, and planned my next visit. In 2008 I was selected for an Asialink Fellowship, funded by the Australia-India Council, which enabled me to write for nearly four months in Delhi. I had intended to write only one story, but I wrote several – I couldn’t stop! After presenting sessions at the Mussoorie International Writers Festival, I returned to Delhi and wrote Advaita the Writer – my first book with Indian characters and settings. I’m incredibly proud that this is now so popular, and recommended by CBSE. Subsequently, my many visits to Indian schools gave rise to Daydreamer Dev, while the sight of Indian kids in Australian classrooms inspired the Radhika stories.
How does the children’s writing scene in Asia and Oceania compare with the rest of the world? Do you feel that Asian cultures, with their penchant for tiger-style parenting, tend to give inadequate importance to imaginative children’s writing?
Writing scenes are similar everywhere – it’s the publication and distribution side that is different. In India, Oceania and some South East Asian countries, we have huge numbers of good writers and illustrators but we work outside the mainstream. It isn’t easy to sustain a writing practice without taking work to markets beyond our own. My conviction is that the industry in our region should focus on collaborative efforts to establish a third English-language powerhouse – to rival and ultimately top the USA and UK. Regarding your second question, I do think that creative writing is undervalued – but not just in Asia. It’s something we battle everywhere.
You’ve wowed audiences everywhere with your readings and presentations. With all the litfests, launches, readings and other hoopla being mandatory for writers these days, how do you balance it all with the hard work of writing?
The short answer is this: with difficulty. Writing requires a kind of retreat into oneself, an internal life, the loss of audible speech to some extent. My public life is the exact opposite, and it’s not easy switching from one mindset to another. I usually need a day or two of transition. For me, there’s no chance of writing after a day of speaking.
Do you identify yourself with any of your fictional characters?
I identify with all my leading characters in some way. In the Jake series, Jake’s imagination allows him to have fun, and that has always applied to me. He’s more of an action man than I was as a kid, though – less inhibited. I’m a daydreamer like Dev. I felt the way Advaita does in Advaita the Writer when I left Perth to go to university in Brisbane. Like Advaita, and also Oscar in I Am Oscar, I have used humour and crazy thoughts to get through tough times. I exaggerate things in my mind like Radhika does in Radhika Takes the Plunge. You name the character, and there’s a little of me.
Any favourites among your own books?
When kids ask me this, I say that they are like children – I love them all in slightly different ways. The ones that are not yet published are like babies – they can wake you in the night. The others are more grown up and, while I can give them a helping hand, they need to make their own way in the world, and all I can do is hope that they find people who will love them. Having said all that, I have think most often about I Am Oscar and Advaita, which depict young people dealing with very challenging times yet articulating their funny, imaginative selves.
What are you working on now?
Over recent years I’ve tended to work on several projects at once. I’m doing some final edits on another Radhika story – about my Indian girl who has moved to Australia. I’m working on another YA title, and a couple of picture books. I’m really excited about one of these – called The Circle, it’s for older readers, on the subject of displacement and refugees, and it carries pictures by an Indian fine artist, Manjari Chakravarti. I will be setting aside time for a new Jake book very soon, too.