Erica's Elephant, or, The Interview

Sylvia Bishop is a recent graduate who is as surprised as anyone to find herself a published author already! Her friend Alice Winn interviewed her about her book Erica's Elephant, which has just come out.

This partly happened because of a SCBWI retreat where Alice's mother met Bryony Woods, who became Sylvia's agent.

When 10-year-old Erica Perkins wakes up on the morning of her tenth birthday, the last thing she expects is to find a very confused elephant sitting on her doorstep.... 

Do you feel more like Erica, or like the Elephant? 
Definitely more like the Elephant! The Elephant is alone and confused in a new place. I was writing this shortly after getting back from Memphis, Tennessee, where I was maximally confused. I was so confused that I couldn't even buy milk for my tea there without help, because the bus journey home from the grocery store was so hot and long that the milk curdled. (You will be relieved to know that I was staying with a wonderful woman who took pity on me and drove me to the store the next day, so there is a happy ending). In the story, the Elephant tries to make Erica dinner but can't work out how to do it right, and that's when she realises how powerless he must be feeling. 

There is a lot of sitting-by-myself, and not-writing-very-well-so-getting-lost-in-thoughts-instead, and despairing-of-everything-I've-written, etc. It took a while to find routines and processes that were productive.

What do you think is the hardest thing about writing? 
I think the hardest thing is to avoid your own personal brand of writer blues, whatever that might be. I love the actual writing. But there is also a lot of sitting-by-myself, and not-writing-very-well-so-getting-lost-in-thoughts-instead, and despairing-of-everything-I've-written, etc. It took a while to find routines and processes that were productive, but didn't push all the wrong buttons. 

What book are you reading now? 
The New Odyssey by Patrick Kingsley. It's a fantastic account of the refugee crisis that I recommend with alarming vim. 

As a children's book author, do you find yourself reading more children's books or grown-up books for pleasure? 
I definitely read more children's books, but I don't know if I spend more time reading children's books; I just get through so many more of them. There is a joyful point in the middle of the Venn diagram where the two groups overlap, and that's where I'm happiest. Sure, Secret Garden is billed as a children's book, but I think it's a grown-up's book too. 

Do you ever get writer's block? Any tips? 
At the risk of Horrendous Cheating, here is a link to an article on writer's block.  The author makes the point that there are multiple kinds of writer's block. I suffer mostly from number 2: I have lots of ideas but can't commit to any and let them all peter out. The most useful tip I have been given for this is to avoid sharing the story out loud with people (which lessens your enthusiasm for telling it). I also try and avoid working on a story between 2pm - 6pm if I can help it. Literally nothing seems worth writing at this time of day. 

If you could spend time with one of the characters in Erica's Elephant, who would it be, and why? 
I would spend time with Erica's Uncle Jeff. We never actually meet him in the story, because he is in India hunting for the Lesser Pip-Footed Woob (and from there he sends Erica the Elephant). I'd like to meet him, because he's a bit of an enigma. And I'd like to go Woob-spotting with him. 

What character would you have the least fun with, bearing in mind that villains can often be delightful in person? 
Amy Avis, the representative of the local council. She is self-important and narrow-minded and patronising and altogether No Fun. 

You can't avoid implying something 'moral', in the broadest sense.... I didn't set out to write a book 'about' that. They are just things that matter to me, so they ended up mattering to the characters.

Does Erica's Elephant have a moral message? How do you feel about moral messages in children's books?

I feel like you can't avoid implying something 'moral', in the broadest sense. For your story to have stakes, you have to make a distinction between good states of affairs and bad states of affairs; and the way that your characters behave and feel will suggest possible world views. Erica's Elephant has ended up extolling kindness and friendship, quite blatantly, but I didn't set out to write a book 'about' that. They are just things that matter to me, so they ended up mattering to the characters.  

Do you spend much time with children? 
There aren't really any children in my daily life. None of my friends has children, and I don't have any myself. But this year I spent two months volunteering at my local school, so I was suddenly with children from 9am - 3pm three days a week, working on literacy. It was one of the best things I've ever done. It turns out, guys, that children are GREAT. Who knew? 

Would 7-year-old Sylvia Bishop like Erica's Elephant? 
Oh I hope so! I was reading above my age so I was about to discover fantasy, and consume nothing else for a long time. I think this is the kind of book that my parents would have read to me, doing all the voices and making the best of all the jokes.

Sylvia (left) and Alice (right)
Sylvia Bishop is 23 years old and has recently graduated from Oxford. She is one half of the brilliant improvised comedy duo Peablossom Cabaret. Erica’s Elephant is her first book, and she intends it to be the first of many quirky stories for young readers.

Sylvia's website

Alice Winn is also 23 years old also recently graduated from Oxford, having read English despite having been told by everyone not to in this economy. She is writing a novel and performs improvised comedy with the Oxford Imps (where she met Sylvia), the Improvised Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the Chrysalids.

Alice's website

Ashley King illustrated Erica's Elephant. He is a passionate illustrator who hand draws, paints, creates, doodles, scribbles and loves coffee and cake.

He graduated from Coventry University with a 1st Class Honours Degree in Illustration and Animation. After Erica's Elephant, he is working on a collaborative picture book for children, to be published in 2017.

Ashley's website


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