I had the honor of meeting Ken Spillman thru the introduction of Serene Wee – our very first featured Storyteller for BehindtheBooks. Ken and I also had the lovely opportunity to exchange a few words during the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) here in Singapore May of this year. There has also been a feature written on Ken published in the Straits Times during his first visit in 2009 which the Illustrator Christine Lim from Singapore has blogged about here. It is truly our privilege to have him for our “Meet the Storyteller” for September/October here in GatheringBooks.
Thank you so much Ken for taking the time to answer most of our questions. We understand how busy you must be doing all these book tours and conferences overseas, so we’d try to keep our Qs to a minimum. I also browsed through your official website to make sure that I don’t ask you questions that you’ve already answered before.
I understand that apart from being a multi-awarded YA author, you are also an academic (an examiner for masters’ and doctoral dissertations) and have been frequently requested to conduct workshops on writing – do enlighten me how different is the process of teaching about writing from the act of writing itself which you also do, if there is a difference at all?
I wouldn’t really call myself an academic. Yes, I’ve tutored at university but I saw that I’d never really be as prolific as I knew I could be if I stayed one. The reason I examine creative writing degrees is that the proliferation of such courses exposed a lack of people with both academic qualifications and a track record in creative writing. As for workshops on writing, I don’t really ‘teach’ – I see myself more as a facilitator. Yes, I do talk about fundamentals. More importantly, though, I try to remove obstacles for those that attend my workshops, and help them to understand more about creativity and the act of writing. I aim to unleash the potential they have as individuals and writers – not to teach.
I am aware how being an academic can zap the creative daylights out of you – how do you keep that balance of discipline and systematic rigour required of an academic and the zany, unpredictable, creative zing of the writer?
Since I’m not really an academic, I would apply this question more to the presentation work that I do. Running sessions and workshops does indeed zap me, and the fuzziness in my brain is the opposite of what I need in my best creative space. The only way to manage this is to keep the roles separate, so that on one day I’m a presenter and on the next I’m a writer.
I could see that you travel a lot on book tours. Do tell us some of your realizations/insights as you move from one cultural context to the next. What are some of your more unforgettable anecdotes and stories?
I’ve seen for myself that kids everywhere are wonderful, magical beings, regardless of cultural context. They are constantly surprising, too. Not so long ago in Bangalore, I was visiting some community libraries run after school hours by a non-profit organization named Akshara Foundation. These kids came from very poor homes, and their English was limited. During question time, I was fooling around a bit (as I often do!) and invited their toughest questions. A boy asked: ‘What is the largest prime number?’ He was asking the wrong guy! And what was really hilarious is that he KNEW he was asking the wrong guy… HE was fooling around too – in a really creative way.
Can you share with our GatheringBooks readers how a typical day for you is like? How do you manage your time?
I usually have a cup of tea and a minimal breakfast, and then begin my writing day at around 9.00am. Whenever possible, I’ll start at a café with a nice latte, and will check my emails while drinking it.
If there’s something urgent – edits from a publisher, for example – I’ll get straight on to that. Otherwise, I’ll pick up where I left off the next day. When I’m all fuelled up with coffee, I like to settle in with my laptop at a public or university library. I drink water and eat nothing but fruit/nuts for as long as possible, usually all day. I like to work until around 7.00pm. After dinner in the evening, I try to catch up on emails and organize my priorities– that helps me to get going quickly when I get back on the laptop next morning.
You are considered as one of the more prolific writers in Australia – do give us some clues about your creative processes and inspiration. What is the writing process for you like? Do you have ‘rituals’ that you follow?
I’m a little unusual in that I don’t really work at my own desk, and when I have a desk it just becomes a place to dump papers and bills. I work at cafes and libraries, and in hotel rooms and airports. Strangely, I think that a level of transience assists me. I like having people around – but only if I don’t know them! I’m at my most creative when the language being spoken around me is not my own. Five of the six books I’ve written in the Jake series were written in Jakarta, on visits to cafes and while staying in hotels there. The first three books of my Daydreamer Dev series (forthcoming from Puffin) have also been written while away from home. I seem to enter a different space when I’m away – there are many stimuli but I’m in a real ‘world of my own’.
You also write poetry. I know you’ve been asked about your favorite book (The Little Prince) and your favorite author (Scot Gardner), but I don’t think you’ve been asked about your influences in poetry. Who are your favorite poets? And who would you say to have influenced your writing in that genre?
For YA, I have many favourite authors, of course. Probably my current favourites in literary fiction are Rohinton Mistry, Vikram Seth and Anita Desai, while other all-time favourites are Marquez and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Most of my poetry was produced when I was quite a young writer, and I see now that it was very helpful in the development of a higher level of awareness about word use and especially word economy. After leaving school I read a lot of the American poets of the 1960s and 1970s, and also contemporary Australian and Irish poetry. I don’t recall having particular favourites, and I never saw poetry as something cerebral – for me it was simply a question of absorbing language, letting it flow over me and into me, at the level of emotion. The last poem I wrote has been uploaded to You Tube – I wrote it after attending the funeral of a 22-month boy.
Ken Spillman’s Poetry (Videoclip)
Among all the books that you’ve written, what would you say to be your personal favorite?
I often say to kids that my favourite is the one I’m working on, because it’s still a baby and needs to be fed and cared for the most. When a book is published, it has a life of its own. You hope it falls into good company, and that people will form nice relationships with it, but it is a little bit ‘removed’. Sometimes you even wonder how a book like that ever sprang from your loins! I’m very excited about my new Daydreamer Dev series, appearing in November from Puffin. For another reason, I’ve got to love Jake, because previously my work was really only being read by Australians. Now Jake is in a dozen or more countries and can even speak such languages as French, Vietnamese and Farsi. And Love is a UFO will always have a special place in my heart, simply because I love the main character like a son.
What are the top three things that you would advice young writers not to do?
First, I would advise all young writers to avoid writing because they want any particular outcome. They should only write if they need to and want to. Second, they should never aim to write like their favourite authors – they should aspire to write only what seems natural and instinctive for them to write. Third, I would advise young writers not to become so focused on writing that they forget to read widely and know their markets.
Thank you so much Ken for taking the time to provide us with such thoughtful responses to our questions. Please watch out for Parts 2 – 4 of our Ken Spillman feature in the coming weeks where we talk about Magpie Madness (Part 2), Jake’s Gigantic List (Part 3) and Love is a UFO (Part 4).