Welcome Chris to Just So Stories!
Awesomely excellent … thanks heaps!
From primary school teacher to professional writer, via Taronga Zoo and Purdue University, yours has been an interesting journey. In what ways have your various experiences shaped both your writing and your approach to life?
In many situations I write from experiences that have happened to me – or from things that intrigue me: the inspirations for Sounds Spooky were the strange noises one night in my house; for One child, the zoo and discussions with students there; and Python – well my LOVE for that lovely slithering creature.
Of course not all books are that inspired … Amazing Inventions and Innovations came about because I adore museums and I just knew there were stories to be told about the exhibits there!
As for how my experiences have shared my writing and my life – well I feel that I am exceptionally blessed to live the way I live and to do the work (is it really work?) that I do. Life is beautiful and precious and worthy of celebration and yes there are some very not pleasant things that happen in the world that I have seen but maybe a little bit of what I do can make things better for the kids and maybe I can make things a little better for them – and I am especially talking about the kids here.
And my experience in the USA and at Purdue University … I worked in a science laboratory watching the most amazing talented scientists and their assistants do the most phenomenal things with bits of skin and nose hairs and toe nails and all manner of cells. I love how those folk play!
You write across a range of genres: picture books, junior fiction, fiction for older readers, nonfiction. Can you tell us a little about the process of writing each from conception or initial idea? Do you find that some ideas/inspirations just naturally lend themselves to one genre or another?
Each of the books that I write lends itself to one particular genre, sometimes maybe two. The idea comes to me maybe from a picture I have seen, or something that I remember, or something that is written down in my ideas books (and I have a lot of those filled with ideas) or occasionally it is someone asking me to write about an animal.
When I was writing my first historical fiction novel New Gold Mountain (a genre I love working on) I knew I was writing about the Lambing Flat Riots and the Chinese in Australia in the gold rush but I needed to do heaps of research (I loved the research). I made great friends with the librarians who supplied me with lots of reference material. But eventually you have to stop researching and start writing. Thankfully all through the research the story was being formulated and so it came quite quickly – but then I had to do the redrafting! My office was filled with note and papers and stuck on my walls were pictures too … all to add additional inspiration. I also drove down to the goldfields with my wife to see where I was writing about!
For picture books I play with words over and over and over again until they are right, and until I have the barest story there. After all, the joy of creating a picture book text is that an illustrator is going to take my text and create gorgeous art works from my limited words!
Nonfiction text often requires lots of research and then chatting with curators or keepers to get those additional snippets of information that are not recorded in any reference material. And of course with my animal books it is often also experience – and when I was working at the zoo I had dwelling in my house a rather eclectic collection of animals at various times.
What does a typical Chris Cheng working day look like? What does the typical Chris Cheng workspace look like?
I send my wife off to work with a kiss and a wave and then sit down to the computer to do the ‘business’ of writing, answering overnight emails (I get a lot from folks overseas), creating emails, creating a list for the day / week. Once about 9am hits it is creating time – which might involve researching, drafting, editing, creating questions that require specialist answers, and … more rewriting. A mid morning breaks invokes brewing a pot of tea, (tea leaves not the bag version – I think it is ask the process of making tea that I enjoy too). Then more creating till lunchtime. After lunch it would be a check of the email and then sorting through the piles of material on my desk. I also review books so have a lot of reading to do too. Once my wife returns from school it is time for another pot brewing and then a little more business work and then making dinner.
… But NO day is typical!
The workspace – my office has three walls lined with books (4500), a window facing desk (so that I can also see who is in the neighbourhood) with computer and phone and printer. My desk is also decorated and bordered with various figurines from movies, toyshops, books and even museums.
That is Workspace #1.
When I am writing and require lots of room Workspace #2 is the dining room table (which is supposed to be a cleared at the end of every day but never is). I often need to spread out the papers and work on the first draft there …. I write into a book in PENCIL. Computer is never ever for the first draft.
I know that you are an active member of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). What are your thoughts on being part of one’s own professional organisation/s and how does your membership add value to your life and career?
The SCBWI is a global organisation. I am co chair of the international advisory board and I was regional advisor for Australia and New Zealand. I am passionate in sharing the joy of children’s books with kids and as well with adults and also with sharing my journey. In some ways it is now about sharing my experiences as a children’s author with folk who are just starting their journey as well. It can be a very lonely profession with just the walls of my house (and my wife) for company but with SCBWI there are creators all over the globe doing what I do. And it has also opened countless doors for publishing, speaking and presenting worldwide. I also get to hang out with some of the most wonderful and fun filled people ever (and kids’ book people can be really run and they are oodles of fun!!!) And of course when I travel internationally I get to see them (and sometimes stay with them) as well. I have photos with some amazing book creators in my photo gallery!
Water, published in 2013, is your most recent picture book. Can you tell us about its inception?
I was asked to write WATER for the Asian Festival of Children’s’ Content (AFCC) I am also on that board too. The theme in 2013 was of course Water – which was also the United National Year of Water Cooperation. From that a wonderful talented Singapore illustrator created the images and now that books is published in Singapore, India (in Hindi and Tamil) and about to be published in China.
Water is also important. It is what water is for me, where it comes from, how it is formed, what it can do, how it is utilised by life. And it is a resource that we do not value enough.
What are you currently working on?
LOTS … I have many books in various stages of being cooked (did I say that I love cooking too) … picture books, narrative non-fiction, fiction, digital books, A quick calculation tells me that I have 7 titles in various stages of creation (some of which I am already contracted for). And a few years ago I also wrote a kids musical which I am hoping to get online in the next few weeks. Specifically … well you shall just have to wait and see.
What are your own personal favourite genres and authors? What are you reading at the moment?
I guess I don’t have any personal favorite genres to create. I just love writing and I also don’t like just staying in one genre. I am privileged enough to be able to write across a number of genres.
As I also review children’s books (and thus read a lot), there are three piles of books here in the office to be devoured … if I like them!
It is clear you do a lot of travelling and visiting schools and conferences and so on. What do you enjoy about these interactions? What are the downsides?
I adore meeting the kids. Just last school holidays I was in India and speaking to hundreds and hundreds of kids. Some of these students have never encountered a person like me – let alone a western children’s author. In one school I was supposed to speak to one small group and I ended up visiting all the classes the next morning – I had a ‘free’ morning! Their teachers all teach from a text book at the front of the room, standing on a plinth. I rocked into the room and started telling stories walking around the room or sitting with the students at their desks. Tthe desks were in rows, with lids and chairs attached! You can see some of my India time on the posts at:
(lots of photos there too). Those kids were amazing and so inspiring to me! I adore seeing different cultures and ways of life. And all those smiles – I am in a very blessed to do what I do!!
And the downside – when I have to leave my wife … I try to have trips overseas when she can travel with me but that only happens sometimes!
On a lighter note, I know that kids are often fascinated with your hair (and plait). Is it simply a personal choice or is there a significance that preserves its length?
I love my long hair. I don’t think there is a day in the last umpteen years that I have had my hair this length when I wanted to cut it. During winter it can be a bit of a pain when it takes all day to dry but that is a minor issue. Of course I do so adore and am passionate about my cultural and proud of my heritage (again I am very blessed) and in ages past Chinese gentlemen would have drown long hair – and be very proud of it too! I also have notes of my family’s early life in China – watch this space!
Of course, our Q&A is timed to herald the imminent arrival of Picture Book Month. Can you tell us about your involvement and why you think this is such an important initiative?
Picture Book Month is fantastic. I am the International Liaison for PBM.
A picture book crosses all ages – it is a story in words but also a story in picture you read the words and the picture, and picture books allow for so much imagination for the creators and the readers. And of course Picture Books are so important because they are usually the FIRST books that children read – all others come after the picture book!
You can read my short piece for Picture Book Month here: http://picturebookmonth.com/2011/11/why-picture-books-are-important-by-christopher-cheng/
Finally, what would you like your epitaph to be?
I have never thought about that much … but maybe
… or simply READ!
Chris Cheng, I thank you so much for your generous sharing and your valuable time.
My pleasure. Cheers!