The Bookworm International Literary Festival has been Beijing’s major literary event for the past four years and it gets bigger every year. "Every year we try and include more and more voices – not just American voices, not just British voices," says Festival Director Kadi Hughes. "This year, [the festival will]have writers from places like Iceland, Nigeria, Italy and Argentina, [in addition to]Australia, the US, the UK, Scotland and of course, China," she adds. But beyond bringing writers from all backgrounds to Beijing, one of the most rewarding parts at the festival is the positive impact on young writers. Hughes recalls, "Last year, one of the slam poets was very inspiring to older kids and they started writing poetry. It’s so great to have kids partake in these events [and]continue writing themselves." This year’s festival runs from March 4 to 18 and their jam-packed children’s program makes this event more family-friendly than ever before. Three of the festival’s featured children’s authors – Andri Magnason, Shamini Flint and Yang Hongying – took time out to chat with beijingkids about their latest books.
Magnason, the father of four, hails from Iceland and is a writer of novels, poetry, plays and short stories. Published in 18 languages and performed in five countries, his 1999 work, The Story of the Blue Planet, tells of a world where there are only children and no adults. It was the first children’s book to win the Icelandic Literary Prize. His nonfiction book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation, about current issues faced by Iceland, is now a feature-length documentary film. His most recent novel is the award-winning LoveStar.
Tell us about your children.
I have three girls: Hulda (3), Elín (5), Kristín (9) and a son, Hlynur (13).
What were your favorite books as a child?
My favorite books were by Astrid Lindgren – books about lizards and dinosaurs – and Icelandic folklore, very dark stories of elves and trolls.
Tell us about your children’s story, The Story of The Blue Planet. Did the idea come from your own desire to live in a land without adults?
The idea came from many directions – not essentially a dream of living in a world of eternal youth, but rather using that as a stage to invite the villain. He comes to a happy place, offers [more]happiness, and everything goes wrong. It’s a small version of our own world.
What inspired you to write Dreamland, a more political adult book, after writing a children’s book?
I traveled in the highlands of Iceland when I was a child – pristine places with waterfalls and beautiful valleys. Then [I learned] the government planned to destroy these places for a metal not properly recycled in the world. I thought it symbolized how we destroy nature not for need, but laziness and greed.
Do you have advice for young writers?
Read and write – and write about things you are interested in.
What’s your next project?
I have another children’s book coming up. It’s already 300,000 characterswith spaces, according to my computer’s word count. That must mean that it’s very good!
After retiring from corporate law, Shamini Flint became a writer and part-time lecturer. Drawing on her travels in Asia, she writes children’s books with cultural and environmental themes, including Jungle Blues, Turtle Takes a Trip and her Sasha series. A dedicated environmental activist, Flint donates proceeds from some of her books to the World Wildlife Fund. She also writes an adult crime fiction series featuring Inspector Singh. Flint currently lives in Singapore with her husband and two children.
How old are your children?
My daughter Sasha is 9 and my son Spencer is 6.
What were your favorite books as a child?I grew up in a small fishing village in Malaysia that didn’t have a bookshop. As a result, I just read everything I could beg or borrow and wasn’t too fussy – as long as it was a book. My all-time favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird, which I found so inspirational [that]I grew up to be a lawyer just like Atticus Finch.
What inspired you to become a writer? How did you find the transition coming from corporate law?
Actually, I quit my job as a lawyer to becomea stay-at-home mom. Unfortunately, it soon became evident that I was the worst stay-at-home mom. I decided to try to find some part-time work, and eventually turned to writing.
As the author of books for adults and children, what are the biggest differences in catering to the two audiences?
In many ways, writing children’s and adult novels is quite similar. You still need convincing characters, a sense of time and place and, of course, a plot. The hardest thing I find is maintaining an appropriate "voice" for the age group.
How do you balance being a mother and a full-time writer?
In terms of hours spent with the kids, it works very well because I write when they’re in school or in bed. Unfortunately, even when I am with them, they often notice that my mind is elsewhere, wrestling with a plot twist. It’s become easier now that they are older because I can involve them more in the writing process.
What role do your children play in your writing process?
I’m currently writing the sequel to The Seeds of Time, my environmental fantasy. Every evening at bedtime, I tell the kids the latest developments in the plot I’ve written and listen to their feedback. It’s very useful – although they’re much more bloodthirsty than I would be!
As an environmental activist, what issues interest you most?
Individual issues like species extinction, air and water quality, that are subsumed by the general crisis of global warming.
Where do you find ideas for your Inspector Singh crime fiction series?
As I like to write about racial and religious issues, terrorism and drugs, there’s no shortage of source material in Asia. The difficulty is finding the time to write!
Do you have advice for aspiring writers, both young and old?
Don’t give up even when it seems hard. Read a lot of books. Practice!
What’s next for you?
The fourth Inspector Singh novel, A Deadly Cambodian Crime Spree, and a new children’s novel, Diary of a Cricket God, are both out soon. I’ve just finished a draft of Singh in India and am now beavering away at The Seeds of Time, Part 2.
Best-selling children’s author Yang Hongying is frequently referred to as China’s J.K. Rowling,due to her success and popularity among young Chinese readers. Previously a teacher and currently an editor at a children’s literary magazine, Hongying writes from her experience with children. In fact, it was her daughter who inspired her to write Girl’s Diary, the novel that first brought her fame. Hongying continues to charm millions with mischievousMa Xiaotiao from the Mo’s Mischief series.
Tell us about your family.
I have a daughter studying abroad in graduate school. She inspired me to write one of the first books that made me famous, called Girl’s Diary (女生日记).
What were your favorite books as a child?At the time, there weren’t a lot of books available[in China]and people weren’t allowed to read a lot. So, I didn’t read a lot of books when I was young, but the books I read, I read thoroughly. These three are my favorite children’s books and have influenced my writing: Grimm’s fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, and Journey to the West.
How do you feel about being compared to the author of the Harry Potter series?The media started calling me the Chinese J.K. Rowling ten years ago. I think the reason is that we were both best-sellers, but there is really nothing comparable between myself and J.K. Rowling.
Your books have been translated into many languages. What do you think gives your books such universal appeal?My books are available in Chinese, English, French, German, Korean and Japanese. We’re talking about translating them into Italian. The imagination, humor, and appreciation for beauty in my books make them universal.
What inspired you to become a writer?
My writing has a lot to do with my experience. I started teaching at 18, and writing at 19. I’ve mostly worked with children, so that really inspired me to write for them.
How has your experience as a teacher, a children’s book editor and working with a children’s newspaper affected your writing?
Being a teacher helped me learn and understand how children feel and think. Working as an editor and with a newspaper helped me understand what they like to read.
What influence do Chinese children have on your writing?
The unique aspect about Chinese children is that they are only children. There are more expectations and pressure [placed on]them than in other countries. So, making sure they have a happy childhood is a theme in my writing.
Do you have advice for other children’s writers?
Be devoted to writing. Spend a lot of time learning about kids – how they think and feel.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on The Diary of a Smiling Cat (笑猫日记). I’ve published 13 books in this series and feel it’s the most important of all my writing.
Interview translated by Amy Wang