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Interview with award-winning New Zealand author, Gavin Bishop

Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commissioner’s residence. Photographer: Satadru Mukherjee 


In December 2018, award-winning New Zealand children’s writer Gavin Bishop was invited to India by the New Zealand High Commission for an author tour. Gavin Bishop is an award winning children’s picture book writer and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. As author and illustrator of nearly 60 books his work ranges from original stories to retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes. Gavin Bishop participated in the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival as well as travelled with his publisher’s, Scholastic India, to various schools for exciting interactions. I met Mr Bishop and his wife, Vivien, at the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner’s, Suzannah Jessep, residence. It was a lovely evening of freewheeling conversation about books and publishing, children’s literature, creating picture books and the power of stories. Excerpts of an interview are given below.  

Here is a picture taken at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence along with Gavin Bishop. It has been uploaded on the Facebook page of the New Zealand High Commission to India
  1. How would you define a children’sbook especially a picture book as you make them the most often? 

A children’s book is one that speaks honestly to childrenwithout pretentions. The worst kind of books are those that pretendto be for children but are really aimed at the parent or adult reading the bookto the child. 

 Apicture-book is one where the pictures and words tell a story, ‘hand-in-hand’.Neither the pictures nor the text are ’top-dog’, neither one is moreimportant than the other. Both parts have separate jobs to do to tell thestory. The picture book is my passion. It offers so many artistic and literarychallenges that I could never exhaust them all in a single lifetime. Manypublishers, mostly in the USA, have said to me that picture-books arequite simply for children who can’t read yet. I can’t think of anything furtherfrom the truth. There are lots of examples of picture books that work at manylevels and can be re-read over and over again by children of all ages.  Ithink my version of The House that Jack Built that looks atthe colonisation of New Zealand by the British in the early 19th century, is a picture book that appeals to older children, children who can certainly read. Many New Zealand schools use this book at upper levels to talkabout the history of this country.

2. How do you select the stories you choose to write about?  Where did you hear the stories that you write about in your books?   

For stories, I constantly revisit all the terrific folktales, myths and legends ofthe New Zealand Maori as well those from Europe. When I rewrite a story, I tryas much as possible not the change the plot or the outcome. If it isa little frightening, I leave it like that. But if I think aparticular story is more suited to adults, as many traditional storiesare, then I don’t choose it. There are lots of adventures for example, that the Maori demi-god Maui has, that I think are extremely interesting but theycontain adult elements that a child does not to be confronted with yet.

My childhood is another very deep pool full of memories and stories that I diveinto from time to time.

Most of my books take a long time to produce. My pictures are often full of detailand are drawn by hand on paper as opposed to beingcomputer-generated. If I am to live with a creation for most of a year, Ihave to be convinced from the start that the story is worthwhile and willadd something to a child’s life. I know that sounds lofty, but I really believe that as a writer for children my obligation is to present a young reader with stories and ideas that they will find interesting and perhaps have not heard of. 

Another huge source of inspiration is reading. I try to read a lot of fiction. Movies are a good source of ideas too. In fact a movie is rather like a picture book except instead of text as in a book, you have dialogue. Some of the movies I seen over the years have never left me. I have beenparticularly inspired by movies I saw as a young adult. Films by Fellini, Bergman, Pasolini and Altman showed me how stories can be told using vivid imagery and characters.

3. Did you consciously choose the style of writing for children as you do in your longer pieces of fiction –simple sentences, very short chapters, precise descriptions with few polysyllabic words? 

When I write I do keep in mind that I am writing for children. But this is onlyreflected in the style and format. I try not to modify the story or the humour which can result in ‘talking-down’ to the reader. Although I usesimple sentences and short chapters I don’t shy away from difficult words if I think they are the right ones for the job. When I wrote Piano Rock I probably had 7 or 8-year-old readers in mind. I have been heartened by thenumber of young boys who have written to me to say Piano Rock is the first book they have read right through. I would like to think that thiswas because of the content, but I suspect it had something to do with thefact the book is full of short sentences and quite a few pictures. It is very non-threatening to a reluctant reader. No sooner have you started a chapter than you find yourself finishing it.

4. Piano Rock and Teddy One-Eye focus a bit on the stories narrated to you by your mother and grandmother but your repertoire indicates that this love for stories go fardeeper. When did this love for stories begin and do you still collectstories? 

These two books are about me. They are my autobiographies, even though the second one waswritten by my 68-year-old teddy bear. I vividly remember sitting with my grandmother by the fire listening to her reading me stories and singing strange little songs that she plucked out of her memories of when she was a child. One I remember more than all the others, and one I included in Piano  Rock was – “Old Mrs Bumblebee said to me the other day, comeand have a cup of tea on the back veranda.” That’s all there is to it, but at the age of 3 or 4 I found it for some reason, intriguing. I can remember trying to make sense of it byputting it into the context of our neighbourhood. “Did Mrs McQuirter overthe back fence invite us over for a cup of tea?” I wondered quietly to myself. 

This little ditty has been with me all of my life and I have, in my quest to find itsorigin, mentioned it to lots of people. All have replied they had never heardof it until one day at a talk I was giving an Indian woman stood up in theaudience and said she had heard it in India when she was child.Perhaps the word ‘veranda’ is a clue? The mystery deepens……,

5. How would you define a compelling story? 

The best stories are the ones that become part of you for the rest of your life. I think this happens more often in childhood, therefore it is even more important for a children’s writer to put everything they have into producing the best story they can. 

6. The imagery in your books is fantastic. It’s almost as if the imagery used complements the illustration. Was that deliberate or an unconscious act? 

 I am a very visual person and when I’m writing I see everything that is happening in my mind’s eye. I plan my text and illustrations carefully to begin with but after that, when it comes to painting and writing, I rely a great deal on my subconscious. I follow my gut-instinct and often cannot tell whether a picture or a piece of writing has worked until I distance myself from it by leaving itfor some time and not looking at it. 

7. How do you conceptualise a book?Is it taking into account the text and the illustration? How does the illustration process evolve? 

To beginwith I am directed by format. If it is a picture book, then I know from thebeginning it will most likely have 32 pages. I generally begin with the storyand write it with the length of the book in mind. I have now developed a spare writing style for this sort of book where I deliberately keep description for example, to a minimum so as to allow plenty of room for the illustrations to tell their parts of the story. Sometimes I jot down little ideas for the pictures in the margin as I write. The process at this stage of the book is quite measured. Once the text reaches a stage that I thinkis workable, I draw up a storyboard, a page by page plan from cover to cover ofthe whole book. I usually keep this small, drawing the whole thing onto a single A2 sheet of paper, so that when it comes to putting images into place on the miniature pages I cannot get into too much detail. This results in stronger compositions when these little pictures are increased tofull size later, when I make a dummy. I work in pencil which I go overwith ink. The dummy is based on the page size supplied by the publisher afterreceiving a quote from the printer. I make a dummy with 10 sheets of paperfolded in half. That gives you 32 pages plus endpapers and cover. Next I print off the text and glue it into place throughout the book. This instantly showsme how much space is left for the illustrations. The next couple of months arespent enlarging and drawing the pictures from the storyboard into the dummy. This is really where all the hard work begins. If it is a historical story I do most of my research at this stage.

A completed dummy is useful for showing your publisher what you have in mind for the book it also provides a detailed guide for the next process of producing the finished art work. From the start to publication a picture book usually takes a year.

8. How does your Maori ancestry inform your art of storytelling and fascination of folk tales?

My Maori ancestry tells me who I am and where I belong. Aotearoa/New Zealand is myturangawaewae, my place to stand in the world. I have European ancestry as well and that has given me literature and language but to know that some of my tupuna/ancestors have lived in the South Pacific for thousands of years and I live here now, gives me a great sense of belonging. My mother’s name was Irihapeti Hinepau and her father gave her those names because they areancestral names. I have a large number of relatives in Aotearoa who trace theirancestry back to people in the past who have these names too. Maori myths and legends are as rich and profound as any in the world, yet when I was a child we were told more about the myths and legends from Greece and Rome than the stories from our part of the world. New Zealand has for too long suffered from a cultural cringe, always looking North to the rest of the world for affirmation. As a re-teller of Maori myths for children I want to help the next generation become proud of being part of this country. I want them to know their stories and be made strong by them. 

9. How did you get into bookmaking?  Have you collaborated with other writers and illustrators?  

In the 1960s I went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts  and studied painting. While I was there I was fortunate to be taught by Russell Clark, a well-known New Zealand artist with a particular interest inillustration. He saw I was interested in children’s picture books and he encouraged me to pursue that interest. It was not until the late 1970s that I did something about this interest and tried writing my first book, Bidibidi.

My ideal project is one where I write and illustrate my own book, but I have, from time to time, worked with others. Some years ago  I wrote about 30 or 40 ‘readers’. Because a lack of time these were illustrated by a series of international artists and published all over the world. 

I have also illustrated books for other writers. I have done quite a few with Joy Cowley, the most successful being the Snake and Lizard series. And Margaret Mahy and I worked on what was probably her last book before she died —  Mister Whistler .

10. Do your books travel to other book markets in English and have they been translated? 

My books have been sold all over the world, particularly in England, Australia and the USA. Some of my books have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Danish and other European languages. Recently my books have become very popular in Asia and several of my recent publications appearin Korean, Mandarin and Japanese editions.

Some ofmy books, such as Kiwi Moon and Hinepau have been adapted for the stage.   Kiwi Moon travelled nationally as puppet theatre and the third adaption of Hinepau was performed entirely in Maori. 

But oneof my biggest creative challenges was writing the story and designing the sets and costumes for two ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Although they were pitched at an audience of children they were performed by the regular company of dancers with whom I got to work. Original music was composed by a musician friend and the choreography was designed by one of New Zealand’s top dancers. Attending the opening performances of these ballets that were created in consecutive years, were two of the most exciting experiences of my life.

Watch Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India interview Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commission. 

In Conversation with Gavin Bishop

We met author Gavin Bishop and discussed books, writings and much more!Big Thanks to: New Zealand High Commission to India, Bangladesh, Nepal & Sri Lanka Scholastic New Zealand

Posted by Scholastic India on Monday, December 10, 2018

14 December 2018 

Freda Bedi, “Rhymes for Ranga”

Rhymes for Ranga_coverSarah and I discovered a fabulous book of poems for children — Rhymes for Ranga by Freda Bedi. These were written in the 1930s and 40s by an Englishwoman for her eldest son, Ranga. These are simply told, easily understood by children and stupendous to recite. They may have been written many  years ago but do not sound dated. There are rhymes echoing the pride of the birth of a new nation, Mahatma Gandhi, about cattle, seasons, the national flag, pets, a lovely one on the birth of Jesus ( “Mariam’s song”), festivals of India like Basant and Diwali. Some describe India so well — “Sherbets in thumbs_ranga-7Summer”, “The Kite Song”, “Gulairee”, “Pir Panchal”, “Kashmir Birthday”, “The Land of Nowhere” and “The End of the World”.  The charming watercolour illustrations by Anna Bhushan accompanying the poems are perfect. Each page has been well designed with the illustration matching the text.

Freda Bedi was born in Derbyshire, England and met her husband Baba Bedi at the University of Oxford in 1931.thumbs_ranga-17 Her eldest son Ranga, for whom these poems were written, was born in Berlin, Germany and six months later, in 1934, the family came home to India. ( She had two more children – a daughter, Gulhima, and a son, Kabir Bedi, the actor.) Freda took active part in India’s freedom movement and was the first British woman to serve a six-month internment in Lahore jail in 1943. She remained in India all her life, and went on to work with Tibetan refugees in the 1960s, and converted to Buddhism. In 1965, Freda became the first European woman to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun, Sister Palmo, or Gelongma Karma Kechog Palmo. She died in 1977. When the book was published in 2010, Mid Day published an article containing some black and white photographs from the family album: http://www.mid-day.com/articles/a-bedi-good-rhyme/91679 ( Fiona Fernandez, “A Bedi good rhyme”, 15 August 2010 ).

While creating a rich imaginative space for Indian children especially through poetry that is closely linked to their reality is sadly lacking. Rhymes for Ranga is one big step in filling that vacuum.

Freda Bedi Rhymes for Ranga Random House India, New Delhi, 2010. Hb. pp. 90. Rs 399. 

 

When I was interviewed by Samit Basu (3 July 2006)

When I was interviewed by Samit Basu (3 July 2006)

 

July 3, 2006
Jaya Bhattacharji Interview
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Jaya Bhattacharji edits books for Zubaan, an imprint of Kali for Women. Young Zubaan is Zubaan’s children’s/young adult imprint. Jaya is also guest editor, children’s and young adult literature, at The Book Review.

Q: You recently published a fantasy novel aimed at children/young adults. What was the crucial factor in deciding to publish this now? Is there a market for speculative fiction already, or is it a potential market?

A: During the World Book Fair, New Delhi 2006, Young Zubaan released A Shadow in Eternity. It was not a “crucial” decision, but I guess the time was right to publish something like this. By time, I mean that the market was ready to receive a book of this genre.
Pottermania has contributed a great deal to the surge in this form of writing. Given that the Rowling phenomena has been pivotal in encouraging reading, irrespective of the size of the book, I think, a lot of children’s writers, feel that since this is probably the genre that is selling, it is the one to emulate.
There certainly is a market in India for this kind of fiction. I am certainly all for any genre that encourages reading and releasing the imagination. But the Indian market has to evolve its own signature/stamp of fantasy fiction. We cannot rely totally on imitating fiction that is necessarily based on a Western/Christian tradition or of even trying to yoke the two systems together. A lot of the fantasy fiction that comes from the West is in the classic form of Good vs Evil; or in the Romance tradition of being on a Quest; or in search of the Holy Grail, whatever it may be; or reliance on Greek mythology. In India, we have a huge amount of influences to rely upon, which don’t necessarily encompass the idea of a quest or the Holy Grail. Sure, we do have a strong sense of Right and Wrong; Good vs Evil, but it is tempered by the cultural melting pot that we live in, where a lot of traditions are being intermingled. So, if fantasy has to emerge in India, it has to develop its own distinctive identity.
The other kind of fantasy could be good Science Fiction, but I am not sure whether we have a strong tradition in this, except for maybe in Bengali literature.

Q: Do you feel SF/fantasy (speculative fiction) has a future in India? Why, either way?

A: Well, personally speaking, I think speculative/imaginative/slipstream/fantastic/science-fiction or what-you-will-genre has huge potential in India. But, it has to be a story well told and not necessarily a mish mash of all that is to offer. Sure, it can be a genre that transports one into an imaginative world, but it has to be a world that is well created, detailed and to some extent logical. It may not be logic as we know it, but it is perfectly rational in the parallel world that is being created.

Q: Internationally, a lot of speculative fiction aimed at the age group you’re looking at ends up being part of a cross-media franchise – TV, books, merchandise. There’s no history of this in India, but do you think it’s possible eventually, or are the worlds of TV/film and books in India too isolated for this to happen unless something fundamental changes about the markets in question?

A: I don’t think you should consider the marketing blitzkrieg surrounding some of the recent Hollywood blockbusters based upon books/comic characters like Harry Potter, Superman, Spideman, as being a model that needs to be emulated lock, stock and barrel in India. This cross-media franchise is marketing gimmickry and sure, to some extent brings in the money, but except for a few in India, I don’t think most people will be able to afford it even if the youngsters fall for it. There may not be any history of this, but there is only a very thin line between the film and the book world in India. It has seen some cross-pollination, but maybe not in the same way as is evident in the West. (Or in the East? I don’t know!)
Having said this, it maybe possible some way in the near future, but such a huge market control depends upon a great deal of accurate monitoring of IPR, and ensuring that there is no piracy of the products. At the moment, even if it were possible, financially speaking, to hire spin-doctors in India for a film based on a book or a good film rights agent to hawk a good book to a film-maker, it would prove near impossible to stem the leaks in the system. It is a very tough call to monitor cross-media franchise. It requires a lot of efficient and corruption free systems to be installed. Funnily enough, India may not have a history of cross-media franchise, but many of our garment sweatshops/factories in Coimbatore are mass producing “movie” franchise clothes for kids solely for the export market! And these are sold at the exclusive retail stores of movie giants like Disney, Time and Warner. Surprisingly poor imitations of these garments have not necessarily entered the local market in the numbers expected, so may be there is hope for cross-media franchise in the Indian future.
The only fundamental thing that has to change in both the industries, in order for such cross-media franchise to be viable is a close monitoring of the © and stemming the leaks in the piracy market. Also, the Indian market is not one, homogenised market as is noticed in most countries abroad. So, a marketing model that may have been adopted and at least cost applied across the country may not work in India. We are many markets in one, in terms of languages, communities, literature, regional characteristics and tastes. So, in order for cross-media franchise to be successful, it would require huge amounts of direct investment and I don’t think any publisher or film distributor or literary/film agency or even the creator/author would be willing to take such a risk!

Q: Do you get a large number of SF/fantasy submissions, given the overwhelming popularity of crossover/YA speculative fiction abroad?

A: Well strangely enough not too many. But the trickle that we get is talented. Yet, I have my reservations about it. Indian fantasy has to break its shackles from the West and really learn to come into its own, otherwise it is going to just generate a great deal of confusion in the young reader’s mind.

Q: In fiction aimed at adults, SF/fantasy tend to be seen as low-caste, but in the world of children’s publishing, the most popular books in recent times always seem to contain speculative elements. Do you think this is because children are seen to be more accepting of non-identifiably-real-world situations, or because the children’s’ book market is now large enough for it to have its own rules – or is it something different entirely?

A: Speculative fiction is such a convenient and oh, so modern a term for the plain and simple use of imagination in literature for children. The number of categories or kind of titles that this category subsumes is of those books that are very difficult to categorise in any other way. Also, this kind of fiction has existed from whenever literature began to be written down with the young reader in mind. It is not necessarily a recent fashion.
It is not a case of being low-caste, as SF/Fantasy has always had a steady following. It is just that it is now clearly visible as it has been dominating markets recently. Also visibility of this genre has to be linked to the access to information. Today, more and more of the children and young adults have a direct say in their reading tastes and to some extent have the purchasing power as well. So, it is not being mediated by the parent/educationist/teacher. There is direct marketing of books in schools. Spaces have opened for youngsters to hang out, like coffee shops which also have bookstores in them. There is also the Internet where it gives one access to blogs, author websites, online bookstores, reviews, fan fiction sites etc. Children/YA are better informed and to a large extent know what they want.
Children’s publishing has always accommodated a variety of genres, I believe it is the only place where one has the space to experiment and fine tune different genres. So, if you are interested in SF, then you have the freedom to explore the limits of technology, science, etc. Sure, this reader audience is far more discerning than an adult reader, but they can be equally critical and damning.
The book market for children is completely unpredictable, so the current flavour of the decade is fantasy as it has a reading public, hence sales. Given the huge investments required in children’s publishing, most publishers, authors, literary agents will want/ten to be conservative and capitalise on a winning formula rather than take a risk. It is pure economic sense to promote fantasy and hence, its noticeable dominance of the market.
Children and young adults are actually reading a wide-range of stuff. A visit to any local bookshop will confirm that. In fact, as I said earlier, there is a sense of inverted snobbery being noticed in the younger generation today of what and how much they have read. Interestingly enough, it is a greed/thirst for anything that can be read. They will devour anything but very honest in their opinions. Most of the time, it seems that their opinions are not necessarily formed by what is dominating the review pages of newspapers, but their gut feel. Hence, an extremely difficult market to gauge and monitor. It is quite unpredictable.

Q: What sort of children’s fantasy/SF would you like to see coming out of India? And what do you think writers in the genre in this country would do best to avoid?

A: Fantasy for children in India, can be set in any context, time zone etc, but it has to be well written. In the sense, that there should be good, cohesive logic to the universe that is being created. There should be details of the environment and the people and certainly not a cacophony of voices, which really don’t do much for the characters. Each character should have a distinct voice. If different traditions are to be mixed (and frankly, I am all for experimentation in literature), then it has to be done cleverly, treated lightly and presented in an interesting manner. By clever, I mean that the author should not be “showing off” their immense reading and familiarity with these other traditions, but create multi-layers and echoes in the story, that will prompt the young reader to submerge, discover and be totally entranced by the new literary creation. At the end of the day, it has to be a GOOD STORY. Also, a story well told will live for a very long time to come and not necessarily be written and created with “a” single market, fixed in time. In fact, it will then be read for many generations to come.