How did The Red Poppy come about?
I was actually semi-commissioned by the publisher to write THE RP. Scholastic NZ had heard of Rob Kennedy’s song, and felt it could be the kernel of a picture book. Since I’d never done a picture book before, they naturally asked me! (Actually, Penny Scown was aware of my interest in WW1). Luckily, they liked my story enough to go ahead. Then in came Fifi and her brilliant illustrations.
It is books like The Red Poppy that help us understand what it was like for our ancestors fighting in Europe during World War I and II. How did you go about researching the book?
I’ve read a great deal re WW1 in the past. For this, I didn’t so much read more as look at photos, especially battlefield photos. I wanted to render the landscape accurately. But usually for a project, I do A LOT of reading and note-taking beforehand.
Were you able to draw on any experiences of your own when telling this story?
Older relatives of mine had talked to me in varying degrees re their involvement in WW1, WW2, Korea and Malaysia. That all affected my treatment of the two soldiers’ feelings and relationship. And I did spend 2 years in our Territorial Army, after National Service, so I did know certain things re military structure and terminology, etc.
At the back of The Red Poppy you mention honouring your great-uncle. How much of Jim’s story is his story?
I did have my great-uncle Fred in mind a lot as I wrote the story. It was his (imagined) youthful voice I heard. But I also kept thinking of all the young men exposed to such terrors. I’d like to think that both Jim and Karl are a form of Everyman, in a very small way.
This is your first picture book. How hard was it to move from writing novels to writing a picture book?
Economy is the great demand of a picture book – trying to convey as much as possible in a restricted number of words. Usually I take 40,000 words or so to tell a story; here I had 1200! I also needed to strip down my style a lot, keep the language straightforward but non-patronising, since I was writing for a younger audience than usual.
What would be your top tip for writing students?
Tips for young writers? Read, read, READ! Keep all your writing – you never know when you may be able to develop / reshape it in a different way. And do write about moments of change in your life or someone else’s: moments when things became different, moments you wish to go back to for any reason.
What writing project are you working on in 2012?
I’m partway though a novel for teenagers. And I hope to write a series of adult short stories for Radio NZ. I’ve done a number of such series, and enjoyed them hugely.
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