Geoffrey McSkimming is the author of the bestselling Cairo Jim chronicles and Jocelyn Osgood jaunts, and a book of verse, Ogre in a Toga and Other Perverse Verses. In addition to the Cairo Jim series and Ogre in a Toga, Geoffrey McSkimming has contributed to magazines and poetry anthologies and also narrates the award-winning Cairo Jim Chronicles audio books for Bolinda Publishing. He has written five character tours which take place regularly through the galleries at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney and a popular performance work, “The Startling Tale of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare), a monologue in verse. Geoffrey’s Cairo Jim and Jocelyn Osgood books are published around the world including UK, Japan, Korea, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia and Hungary.
- I always think the beginning is a terrific place to start, so perhaps you could tell us how you first became interested in writing. Did you write as a child or did that come later in life?
I always liked writing at school, and I wrote many stories and plays when I was at primary and high school. Writing was the thing I felt most comfortable with and I enjoyed it—I found I loved the way a story would emerge, little by little, as I wrote the words across the page. There was a certain sort of magic in that for me, and there still is.
- When did you first think you might be a professional writer? What was your first published piece of work?
I went to university and then worked for five years as a professional actor (I was a very bad actor, and fell off the stage more than once!) before realising, thanks to the expert guidance of the Director of the Queensland Theatre Company, that I was more of a writer than an actor. So I gave up the thespian ways and got a “normal” job and saved up my money and travelled to Africa, where I ended up getting sunstroke in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. From that came my first novel, Cairo Jim and Doris in Search of Martenarten, which became my first published work, and the first in the 19 volume Cairo Jim chronicles, which have been translated into more than a dozen languages and which people are still reading somewhere or other.
- What do you think has had the most influence on your writing (genres, experiences, interests, authors etc)?
That’s a hard question. I suppose if there was a simple answer it would have to be life and what you put into it and get out of it. I have a sharp sense of humour and I’m lucky in that I can more often than not see the funny side of things (though not all the time). I also love history, which shaped the Cairo Jim chronicles and also, now, is shaping the Phyllis Wong mysteries (I relished discovering all those Shakespeare facts and quirks in Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror). And I love story, and I’m always reading something or other. Sometimes when I read a beautifully crafted sentence or phrase it pulls me up and makes me think how wonderful the gift of language and literature is.
- In your persona of Cairo Jim and more lately, in your Shakespearean guise, you seem to enjoy some character play. You are a poet, author and performer. Which do you see as your primary occupation? How do they relate to each other?
I’m a writer of stories—whether they be told as novels, short stories, poems or plays. I guess my semi-theatrical background has influenced all that I write; I love things that are a bit larger-than-life, and that have mystery to them (hence Phyllis Wong and her magical world/s). I can never write about backyard stories—they’re just not in me.
- Your characters are quirky and often eccentric, are they entirely fictional or do you draw on real-life for inspiration?
A mixture of both—all the characters I’ve written are a hybrid of characteristics I’ve thrown together, some of which come from my imagination, some of which are loosely based on people I’ve known or have met or whom I’ve heard about. If some of the eccentric characters I’ve created really existed, then I think one would want to steer well clear of them!
- One of the things I most enjoyed about the Cairo Jim books was the word play (I can’t see a Nescafe ad without thinking of Mustapha!). Are you naturally punny in real life?
Not really … but I do joke around a lot, rather than do a lot of puns. I think puns are funnier on the page than spoken out loud. I love humour that comes out of situations in the stories, or from characters’ personalities. And of course the unexpected.
- Given that Doris was well known for her Shakespearean quotes and your latest Phyllis Wong book also features Shakespeare, can we assume an interest in the Bard on your part?
Shakespeare was the greatest writer we’ve ever seen. His language and wordplay and invention have never been surpassed. If you want a short and lesser-known example, go and read aloud Gloucester’s account of his dream of being drowned in Richard III. It’s breathtakingly wonderful!
- Animals are clearly an integral part of your character’s lives. Brenda the Wonder Camel is possibly the most inspired beast I have ever encountered in a novel. What role do animals play in your own life?
I’m so glad you admire Brenda; she’s a camel to be reckoned with. I’m of the staunch belief that animals have just as much right to inhabit this world as human beings, and I bristle whenever humans kill animals for sport or for their tusks or for whatever stupid reason they kill them. I used to have a dog named Daisy and I loved her very much.
- What values and beliefs do you think you bring to your writing?
I think it’s important for people to show respect: respect for each other; respect for the past; respect for concepts such as copyright and free speech; respect for others’ religions or ways of thinking. I like to think that in the Phyllis Wong mysteries, there are different elements of respect underlying the friendships and relationships between the characters. And I think humour in stories is extremely important—not lavatory-style humour, but truly clever and witty fun. I try to present that sort of thing. I don’t ever want to treat my readers like they’re dumb, because they’re not.
- Who are your favourite writers (for adults and for children)? What are you reading now?
I’m reading a lot of vintage crime fiction at the moment—writers like Agatha Christie, ECR Lorac, Ngaio Marsh and I’m almost finished reading all of the detective novels by Nicholas Blake (Cecil Day Lewis). I also like Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Catherine Jinks, Steven Herrick, Jen Storer, Martin Ed Chatterton, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, Kirsty Murray and … oh, goodness, lots more. I read a lot; I never watch TV (really) and I go to the pictures at least once a week, so I’ve plenty of time to read. When I’m not writing, that is.
11 Tell us about Phyllis Wong. How did she come into being? And please tell us about the magic in your life.
Phyllis is marvellous. I love writing her stories and finding out more about her personality as each mystery unfolds. She’s a superb young magician with a shrewd and clever way of thinking and approaching problems and mysteries.
She initially came about when my publisher at Allen & Unwin, Anna McFarlane, got in touch with my agent and asked whether I’d like to write a novel for A&U. I hadn’t written a novel for a while, after having completed the Cairo Jim chronicles; I’d been writing other things—character-based tours for the Art Gallery of NSW and a performance piece based on Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. At about this time I’d come into contact with Australia’s leading female magician, Sue-Anne Webster, and I was publishing, in a magazine, a regular series of magic tricks she’d written. I’d also been using stage magic in the Hamlet presentation, which I performed for a while. Anna McFarlane became aware of all of this and when she asked whether I’d like to write a novel, the idea of a young girl magician came slowly to mind. The character of Phyllis has developed (and is developing) with the more I learn about magic from Sue-Anne (I don’t know the secrets behind the tricks; I don’t want to!) … it’s so true that magicians think in ways very different to most other folk, and I’ve learnt that from knowing Sue-Anne as well. It’s this way of thinking that propels Phyllis through the amazing mysteries she encounters.
There’s a lot of magic in my life, and I’m blessed to have it.
12 What next for Phyllis Wong?
I’ve just finished the final polish of Phyllis’s third mystery and it’ll be with my publisher very shortly. It’s even bigger than Phyllis Wong and the Return of the Conjuror, and in it Phyllis has to try to tackle a potentially catastrophic situation that harkens back to a time when the ages were dark, and which could happen again today, plunging the world into a chaos it hasn’t seen the likes of in over a thousand years. Luckily Phyllis has Clement and Chief Inspector Inglis at hand to try to help her, as well as other familiar characters like Mrs Lowerblast, and some new and mysterious figures as well. It’s an enormous story with a lot of surprises, suspense and a dash of silliness here and there … and now I’m starting on the fourth Phyllis Wong mystery too.
13 What advice would you give would-be writers?
- Read lots.
- Always carry a notebook around with you and jot every idea down, no matter how silly or unimportant it might seem at the time. You never know when one of those little ideas will become a gem!
- Listen and watch and soak up the atmosphere around you all the time.
- Try to write a little bit every day (or a lot if you can manage it), in a special place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Enjoy the wonderful craft of scribbling *smile* . Have fun with it, and feel good about writing … never let negative people try to dampen your enthusiasm!
14 What has been your greatest achievement or given you the greatest pride in your career thus far?
When I’m writing and I manage to get a sentence or a phrase or even a coupling of words just right. And it’s a rare thing, I think, when it happens. That sounds like nothing much, perhaps, but to me it’s more wonderful than winning awards or getting good reviews. Awards and reviews and writers’ festivals is not what being a writer is about, for me; it’s about telling the story the best way I possibly can. And entertaining my readers—that’s hugely satisfying.
15 What would you like your epitaph to say?
Thanks so much for interviewing me; it was a swell experience!
Geoffrey McSkimming, it’s been an absolutely spiffing experience to interview you – thank you so much for your time!