Book People: Susanne Gervay

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Book People: Susanne Gervay

Susanne Gervay does children’s books which deal with tricky issues well. She writes with genuine kindness and care when dealing with issues such as cancer, blended families, refugees and bullying. I recently reviewed ‘Gracie and Josh’ here which deals with childhood illness, and the impact this has on the entire family. Whilst the subject matter is of course serious, Susanne has written with hope and humour, making it a book for all. I find this with all her books – heavy subject matter explored with beautiful words, lightness and hope, always hope. Learn a little more about Susanne as she answers our ten questions.


Ten Things You Need to Know About Susanne Gervay

1. Tell us about your latest book.

‘Gracie and Josh’ came out of a request from the wonderful VARIETY the children’s charity (www.variety/ to reach young people and families with hope.

This seemingly simple picture book was written to celebrate the journey of families that face challenges – a special needs or ill child – and how each day is meant to be their adventure.   It’s written to hold onto the joy of growing up whatever happens. It’s for everyone to engage, understand, laugh and share.

Through joyous illustrations and story, I seek to reach the heart of children.  Children play whatever happens. Young children are in the present and time is outside their awareness.  Gracie and Josh are a brother and sister who play. They are making a film together. Josh is the film maker and Gracie is the famous Gracie spider from Incy Wincy spider.  There are good days and bad days. This is a story about sibling love where Josh helps his sister. Gracie helps him. It is a story about parental love. Their mother is always there even when not present.

Francine Scully’s beautiful review captures the essence of ‘Gracie and Josh’ published by Ford St Publishing 2013:- ‘Gervay’s perfectly carved words are matched with the beautiful watercolour illustrations from Serena Geddes. The illustrations are full of character and truly capture the strength of the relationship between Gracie and Josh and her skill in harnessing the character’s facial expressions and emotions is striking and powerful. One of the most noteworthy illustrations sees Gracie by Josh’s bedside. Gracie’s mouth is agape, her face slightly panicked as she tries to show a ghostly looking Josh all the spiders she has found for him in books. The words are so sharp they cut through your heart: ‘Look Josh, the spider fell down six times. But the spider didn’t give up. You have to try, try and try again.’ It is heart wrenching.

Gracie and Josh is a book about sticking together – through good and bad. It is about unconditional love and support, about resilience and about never giving up. It is a book that will make you turn to your family members and hug them. It is a book that you won’t easily forget.’

Reviewer Jenny Mounfield writes:  ‘It isn’t often—if ever—that a picture book has the power to bring a lump to my throat. This one did it for me. Endorsed by Variety the children’s charity, Gracie and Josh is not a story about fighting a life-threatening disease; it’s a story about life and living—and milking every drop from every minute we have been given. This is a profound lesson for us all.’

2. How did you get started as a writer?

Becoming a writer was the farthest thing from my mind. Like most writers, I just wrote because you do.  However from a child, I always played around with words to understand life.  I started the pathway to becoming a published author during my father’s terrible illness when he was dying of a brain tumour.  My first published works were short stories about my father published in literary journals. I then started to write stories about my children and then, for my children.

I sent out my work to many publishers with little knowledge of the marketplace or process. It meant the early years were painful with rejection.  That is one of the reasons I was on the board of the NSW Writers Centre and later its Chair, and head of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators SCBWI, to provide a network, sharing of information and community.

'I am Jack' poster for the stage production by Monkey Baa Theatre

‘I am Jack’ poster for the stage production by Monkey Baa Theatre

3.  What does a typical day look like for you?

I have no typical day. As an established author, the writing life becomes complex with speaking at festivals, conferences, workshops, community events, locally, nationally and internationally. In addition I write articles, work at The Hughenden Hotel, head SCBWI Australia East and New Zealand and work with other literary and literacy organisations, as well as family and a personal life.

It is difficult to juggle everything and get time to write.  When I am on deadline , I let my life go and block out a week or more. Everything literally falls apart around me. I am trying to get a system working to get balance but I struggle with that.

4. Can you describe your workspace for us?

Crowded and chaotic, with mega attempts to get order, until disorder takes over again.  I have a desk, computer, big screen books and files around. Through double doors, my study opens to my bedroom and my lounge room and I can look through to the trees at Centennial Parklands on one side, and my courtyard on the other. I love that sense of continuity and feeling of space even though it is a small Paddington-style terrace.

Susie's messy desk

5. Any words of advice for young readers and writers?

Writing must be about growth and development, exploration of imagination and ideas and craft. It is also about the development of writing groups and the participation in and attendance of writing events. It’s about developing skills as a writer while getting into the life of writing.  When young writers focus on publication, it is similar to a talented young sportsperson going to the Olympics without training and development. For young writers, youth is the time for the training to become an author.

For young readers, books are the entry to incredible, rich, diverse worlds. Don’t read the books that you ‘hate’ as it turns you away from the treasures inside those pages – ones that make you laugh, cry, identify with. Some precious books will become valued companions all your life.

6. Do you have a favourite book or character (your own or somebody else’s)?

I am in love with all the characters of my books.  Gracie from ‘Gracie and Josh’ is so delicious she jumps off the page into my arms. Jack  from the Jack books, of course is based on my son so I LOVE him so much.  Pip from ‘That’s Why I Wrote This Song’ is based on my daughter, so I LOVE Pip so much too.

The Grandad in ‘The Cave’ is my father and his wisdom, loyalty to family, sense of justice is deeply felt.  Grandad was inspired by my all time favourite character Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ who is the epitome of courage and leadership.

I am Jack

7. If you were not a creator of books for young people what would you be?

I can’t imagine what I’d be anymore. Being a writer has become incorporated into who I am now.

8. What is your favourite food to eat and/or your favourite music to listen to whilst you are working on your books?

I love chocolate and dill pickles. So I eat plenty of that while I write.

My favourite music is Leonard Cohen – does anything equal Hallelujah?

9. How much of yourself or people you know is in your books?

I write from deep personal experience and sometimes it’s funny and sometimes sad and sometimes quirky. In my Jack books I invite you into my home. I invest a lot of emotions in my work. I risk a lot too. However I feel that readers, especially young people, deserve integrity, truth and I write for them with great respect for their emotional and intellectual life.

10. If you could have one wish for the world what would it be?

Terrorism to end now, immediately, mid –sentence, before I take a breath.

I write about this often in short stories. It slips into my books. I’ll never understand how anyone, for any reason can kill indiscriminately.

I was privileged to represent Australia in ‘Peace Story’ where 22 authors, 22 illustrators wrote 22 stories for world peace IBBY and UNICEF.

My story ‘Days of Thailand’ is one of 20 adult stories in ‘Fear Factor: Terror Incognito’ published by Picador Australia and India where 10 Indian and 10 Australian authors were invited to write about the impact of terrorism in narrative fiction as a pathway to peace. I was privileged to have my story alongside stories by Sir Salman Rushdie, Thomas Keneally, David Malouf.

My story ‘Meatloaf Soldiers’ is part of an international UNESCO anthology for PEACE the brain-child of UNESCO Youth Ambassador Mariah Kennedy who is the editor. It will include stories by Australian and international authors including Michael Morpurgo. It will be published by HarperCollins mid 2013.

Thank you Susanne!

The cover of each of Susanne’s books takes you to the Australian based online bookstore Booktopia. If you live in the US or would prefer to use Amazon click here. If you live in the UK or would prefer to use Book Depository click here.

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Susanne Gervay

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