Oliver Phommavanh Brain Freeze

Brain Freeze: 12 Deliciously Wacky Stories by Oliver Phommavanh

Oliver Phommavanh is one of Australia’s most popular writers for young people. He has a backlist of books to be proud of, including The Other Christy, Natural Born Loser and his breakthrough hit Thai-riffic!

Most of Oliver’s novels combine thoughtful scenarios and compassionate characterisation (often of children from an Asian-Australian background) and humour.

He is also incredibly funny live on stage.

Now Oliver dazzles us with his first short story collection, Brain Freeze (Puffin).

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Oliver.

Absolute pleasure!

Where are you based, what is your background and how are you involved in the children’s literature community?

I’m based in Sydney, Thai-Lao background and as well as being as an author, I’m also on the committee on the CBCA Northern Sydney Sub-branch, a proud SCBWI member and an Author Ambassador for Room To Read and the NSW Premier’s Reading Challenge.

You have such a varied career. What are some of the highlights?

Being involved in writing festivals from all over Australia and Asia, including children’s festivals in India and Dubai. Closer to home, performing to over 5000 kids in a week at the Sydney Writers Festival alongside childhood hero Morris Gleitzman was a real joy.

What age-group is Brain Freeze for?

Ages 10-14

What are some of the genres you’ve covered in Brain Freeze?

I’m excited to stray away from my usual contemporary settings for a dash of sci-fi and whimsical fantasy.

What is your favourite story in Brain Freeze? Why?

I have a soft spot for Double Bed Dreams because it is based on something that I thought of when I was a child. I also got to create some imaginative characters such as an unicorncob.

Which character is most or least like you? In what way?

I am most like Amirul, the kid in The Man From Slaughterhouse Road. He has a good heart but he also finds himself in trouble when he tries to impress his friends.

Which story scares you the most?

The Ghost Writer of course! Ghosts are scary on their own, but ghosts who can write their own spooky stories take it to a whole new level.

Your stories ‘Quaranteen’ and ‘Super-Essential Thai-Riffic!’ seem to be set in our current time of pandemic and isolation. You’ve even included panic-buying toilet paper! Was this coincidence or did you somehow write these quickly in time to add to the collection? How are readers reacting to these stories?

I was very fortunate to be editing Brain Freeze during the initial lockdown, and I began to imagine what my other characters would get up to during these crazy times. I told my editor and she was keen to include a story or two to make the book really current and up-to-date. I think it’s probably one of the very first middle grade stories about the pandemic to hit the shelves. The response so far has been genuine surprise that somebody could capture the essence of 2020 so quickly! I’m just glad that I got in first on all the jokes about the pandemic, from panic-buying to awkward zoom meetings.

Most of your stories contain humour. What are some of the types or sources of humour in Brain Freeze?

A lot of my humour is character-based, but I was able to explore another side to my writing through stories such as The First Dog To Mars and The Boy with 1000 Names. These stories explore the fantasy and quirky aspects of humour, something that Paul Jennings does so well.

How have you included yourself as a character?

Danny from Chess Nuts is essentially me as a kid. He’s embarrassed by his parents and at the same time, thinks he’s letting them down too. Plus I also think Chess is a sport.

I noticed another Australian author makes an appearance. Could you please tell us about him?

Ha! You’ll have to tell me because I actually don’t know who it could be on the top of my head. Hmmm who does make a cameo here? Oh…you’re probably referring to Remy Pai, my very loose tribute to one of my favourite Asian Authors, Remy Lai?

(Unless it was a coincidence, I also noticed author Chris Morphew playing a role. Chris wrote the riveting YA Phoenix Files series and some of the Zac Powers series.)

How have you created links between Brain Freeze and some of your other books?

Super Essential Thai-riffic! and Quaranteen continues the adventures of Lengy and Vee from Thai-riffic! and Don’t Follow Vee respectively. Sweet and Sour is a parallel side story to a story in Thai-riffic! that fans will cherish. The last story, Melted Chocolates is a short story with characters to my next book, with the working title, ‘What About Thao?’

(This new book looks intriguing …)

You have a very impressive backlist of awarded and other books for young people. Could you tell us about some of them, please?

One that sticks out is Thai-riffic! being in the KOALA’s Hall of Fame, where the kids choose their favourite books, it really means a lot to me knowing that they enjoy the book. More recently, Natural Born Loser has been recognised across Asia, being shortlisted in the Bangkok Book Awards, as well as winning the Singapore Red Dot Book Award.

What are you writing or working on now?

I am putting the finishing touches to What About Thao? After that, I will be working on the sequel to The Other Christy, called Another Other Christy.

(I am excited to read more about Christy.)

What have you been reading that you would like to recommend?

I am in love with Zana Frallion’s The Lost Soul Atlas. It is something that I will re-reading again and again, because there’s so much going on!

How can your readers contact you?

My website, www.oliverwriter.com is the best place to start. You can also follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @oliverwinfree, Facebook at www.facebook.com/oliverfans or on YouTube at ‘Virtual Oliver P’

It is rare to read a short story collection where all the stories are great. Oliver Phommavanh has achieved this in Brain Freeze. I liked them all but some favourites are ‘The Boy with 1000 Names’, ‘Chess Nuts’, ‘The Ghost Writer’, ‘Double Bed Dreams’ and ‘The Man Who Lives on Slaughterhouse Road’.

Thanks very much for your responses, Oliver, and all the very best with Brain Freeze and your other books.

Thank you so much!

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