After reading the astounding ‘How to Fly with Broken Wings’ I was delighted to be asked to interview the author, Jane Elson. How to Fly with Broken Wings tells the story of twelve-year-old Willem, who has Aspergers Syndrome and a piece of homework – to make two friends of his own age. All Willem really wants to do is fly. Trying to achieve this while avoiding the bullying of the gangs on his estate brings him into contact with Sasha, who in her own way wants to fly, and with Archie, someone who wants to heal the gang violence tearing the estate in two. It’s a fabulous story about how, with our friends, we can take a stand in the world and bring about peace, and I loved it, so I had lots of questions buzzing for Jane, and she was kind enough to answer them
You were an actress and comedy improviser before you were a writer. Do you find that those experiences feed into how you approach your writing?
Yes definitely – I feel it has been a natural progression from acting and improvisation into writing. I write in the first person, which is very similar to writing monologues for the theatre, and, as I write the characters, I become them. My neighbours must think I am mad, as they will hear all these different voices coming through the walls!
I actually started off by writing plays. Two of my short plays, Butterfly and Matching Clothes, were put on at the Soho Theatre in London, and it was very exciting seeing the actors bring it to life. I approach writing my novels in the same way, and try to think about my characters with the same visualisation that an actor brings to a play.
My training in comedy improvisation enables me to think on my feet and explore various paths for my characters to travel down. Also, it gives me the ability to see humour in any situation. A Room Full Of Chocolate, How To Fly With Broken Wings and my latest novel, Swimming To the Moon, all explore serious issues but are also injected with humour.
You say that A Room Full of Chocolate was inspired by your childhood. That must have made it a very personal book to write?
Yes it was but also a very beautiful journey. My mum had breast cancer when I was six. They didn’t believe in telling children in those days and I was sent to live on my granddad’s farm, where there were a lot of hushed conversations that would stop the minute I walked into a room. I didn’t realise how ill my mum was until Easter Sunday, when I walked into the kitchen and there were Easter eggs from everyone, including people I didn’t know. It was at that moment that I realised that people were feeling sorry for me and that my Mum must be very ill. I decided that Grace in A Room Full of Chocolate should be ten years old and not six, like I was when my mum was ill, because I was too young to express my feelings. It was very therapeutic writing Grace for this reason. My mum survived cancer and it was really special for us both that I turned what was a traumatic event into a beautiful story that children all over the world are reading and enjoying.
Looking at your website, you’re clearly an animal lover. I loved the stories about Claude the pig. He’s quite a character. Is your love of animals where the idea for including a staff in How to Fly with Broken Wings came from?
Animals are very important to me, and I am hugely proud of Buster, the lovable, loyal Staffie in How to Fly with Broken Wings. When I was writing How To Fly With Broken Wings, I pulled out the books I read between the age of eight and twelve. I realised that all the dogs in these books were either Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Collies or a lovable-but-scruffy mongrel. And, I hadn’t read a single book with a Staffie character. So I researched further and discovered that they used to be known as ‘the nanny dog’ as they are so good with children. Nowadays, Staffies have a bad reputation thanks to people using them to make themselves look hard.
I was also horrified to learn of the large percentage of Staffies in rescue centres. I connected with Dogs Trust in Harefield and was so impressed with the amazing work that Richard Moore, the manager there, and his team are doing. I was lucky enough to have a photograph taken with Shireen, one of their Staffies, for the inside cover of How to Fly while I was there on a visit. Then, a week after the photograph was taken, I had the wonderful news that Shireen had found her forever home and is now living with a lovely family in Chiswick.
How to Fly with Broken Wings deals with the issue of bullying, and shows how even those who are apparently in the ‘in’ crowd can be subject to it. How important do you think fiction is in helping children to deal with issues such as bullying?
I think it’s vital that bullying is dealt with in children’s books. It helps those who are being bullied to not feel so alone. Also, the children who are being bullied in my books are usually the heroes and heroines of the story, so hopefully it will help children find the hero strength within themselves and tell an adult what is happening.
I think How to Fly with Broken Wings is the only MG I’ve read that deals head-on with the topic of riots and gang-culture. Where did you get the inspiration for the book?
I live in Kentish Town in London, which is a very urban area. I know gangs often use young children to run errands for them, so I felt it important to address this in books for the eight to twelve age group.
I remember coming out of Kentish Town Station in 2011 during the time of the riots and there was this terrifying silence everywhere. All the metal shutters at the front of the shops were pulled down and the shopkeepers were standing out the front, just waiting for something to happen. I had been frightened of pictures I’d seen in the news of rioters breaking into peoples’ houses and I remember randomly thinking ‘I must have tea’ and running into a shop where the shutter was only half-closed to buy some tea bags. How very British of me! I’ve still got my emergency stash of riot tea bags somewhere in the back of a cupboard …
Another specific moment of inspiration sticks in my head – when I was doing research in youth court for a play I was writing, a young girl was in trouble and the judge gave her a list of people she wasn’t allowed to associate with. I remember thinking, ‘How is she going to keep away from them when they all live on the same estate?’
I looked at the girl and felt so sad as she had no role model in her life and no good friends to guide her in the right direction.
Several months later, I watched a documentary on the women who had flown Spitfires in World War Two. It made me think back to the young girl in court and wonder how different her life would have been if she’d had a female Spitfire pilot as a role model. And what if she’d had a good friend like Willem? Willem happens to have Aspergers and views the world in a completely different way, but Sasha, the heroine of How to Fly With Broken Wings, shares his dream of flying.
And so the seeds for How To Fly With Broken Wings were sown.
I loved the writing exercises for schools on your website. How inspiring do you find it to work with young people on creative writing workshops?
I love doing events in schools and my workshops are a mixture of drama and creative writing. I am always inspired by the vivid imaginations of the young people I work with. I am dyslexic and never thought I could be a writer in a million years –
I work in a very visual way and have an ideas scrapbook into which I stick images that inspire me. At every event I have done, there is usually at least one young person who comes up to me afterwards to talk about their dyslexia and say they have been inspired by the way I work. Teachers often tell me that I managed to get the shyest child up performing, and the child who hates writing is suddenly eager to tell stories. The collective imagination is even more powerful than the individual imagination, so author events are always inspiring for me.
What was your favourite genre of fiction when you were young?
I loved Noel Streatfeild’s books Ballet Shoes and the Gemma series – they were a big influence and lead to my working in the theatre as an adult. I had to pinch myself the first time I met my editor Naomi from Hodder Children’s Books and realised that Hodder published Ballet Shoes.
I also loved horse books – Black Beauty made a huge impression on me as a child, as did the My Friend Flicka series by Mary O’ Hara.
What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
Deadlines! Sometimes I want to be out with my friends and I can’t be because I have a book to finish. But deadlines are also a good thing as they teach you how to be professional and push you to achieve. Also, writing is the best way to teach yourself that when something isn’t working, keep trying until it does.
What’s the absolute best thing about being a writer?
That a tiny seed of an idea can grow into a novel which gets sent out into the world, reaching children from so many different cultures and backgrounds. It has been a really exciting six months as How To Fly With Broken Wings won Peters Book of The Year, The Shrewsbury Book Award, The Calderdale Book of the Year and the Hillingdon Book of The Year. It was especially lovely that so many children from rural backgrounds connected with and voted for How To Fly, as it is a very urban story.
Also, I find there’s something so magical in meeting your readers, which is why I love events and literature festivals so much.
You can find more about Jane on her website at http://www.janeelson.com, where you will also find links to all her gorgeous books.
That’s all for today -but the blog tour continues to the end of the month on the sites below.