“Be brave. Take risks. We’ll heal the bruises with love.” (Zoe, Max and the Bicycle Bus)
Steven Herrick is a much-loved Australian writer. He is particularly well known for his verse novels for children and young adults and, although all his books are superb, his verse novel The Spangled Drongo is one of my absolute favourites. Steven’s books have been recognised in many awards. They straddle critical acclaim and popularity.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Steven.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the literary community?
I live in Katoomba, but spend much of my year travelling and visiting schools. If the ‘literary community’ is schools, then I’m heavily involved!
I always associate you and your books with University of Queensland Press. For how long have they published your books? Could you tell us a UQP anecdote or comment on your experience there?
UQP are a wonderful publisher and my first book with them was released in … 1995! Yikes! They took a chance on publishing the first verse-novel for children released in Australia, and the first verse-novel for young adults. They’re a small (ish) press with a huge heart.
Anecdote? A few years ago they published my son’s first book. At the time of accepting his manuscript, they didn’t know he was my son as he uses his Mum’s (my wife’s) surname. And this year, his second book won the Qld Premier’s Literary Award! It’s so special for Joe and I to be at the same publisher.
When writing a new verse novel do you write in this form from the start or write many more words, almost like a novel, and then edit into the verse novel form?
I write it as a verse-novel from the start. It certainly gets cleaned up later. But I find the first draft always quite easy to write as I feel comfortable with the verse-novel format. And I know I have a wonderful editor who won’t let me go too far astray!
How or when do you know if a new book is going to be a novel or verse novel?
As soon as I start writing it. Actually, even before that. When I’m thinking of the characters and plot, I’m usually aware of what format I want to use. Having said that,‘Do-wrong Ron’ started as a weird prose poem manuscript – but very quickly I decided it needed to be a verse-novel.
What is your interest in cycling? Have you written Zoe, Max and the Bicycle Bus, your new verse novel for children, to promote cycling safety – as well as, of course, to put forward an entertaining, thoughtful and engaging read.
I’ve written nine cycling travel books and numerous cycling articles for The Guardian, so I’m heavily invested in cycling safety and awareness. What I aimed for with ‘Bicycle Bus’ was a book that highlighted the joy and independence cycling offers children, and indeed us all. In many ways, this is one of my most personal books.
Could you introduce us to your child characters? How are you able to make distinctions between their voices?
I love writing verse-novels with multiple first-person narrators as it allows me (and hopefully the reader) into the mind and emotions of each character. In ‘Bicycle Bus’, there’s Max who is outwardly confident and capable, but has a swirling inner-world centred around his uncertain relationship with his dad. Zoe is a confident and observant girl who wants to change the world; Dylan has just moved to the city and is mourning the loss of his pet and his uncertainty with fitting in; Jordi has a great relationship with his step-dad who supports him in his desire to ride to school.
I won’t list all the characters, but I find the best way of distinguishing their voices is to create a vivid inner-world for each of them. For example, Lily’s sadness at her, and her mum’s loss, is tempered by her friendship with Dylan, so the voice needs to be restrained, yet hopeful. In short, their circumstance colours their voice. I hope that makes sense?
How did you decide which of your multiple characters to feature in the title?
It was difficult, but in the end UQP and I decided that Zoe and Max were the ones most involved in the symbolic act near the end of the book that ties up many of the themes involved. (Sorry, I don’t want to give away too much of the story!)
Your adult characters are wonderfully portrayed. Could you please tell us about one or more?
Thanks. I admit I always try to put ‘my better self’ in one of the adult characters in each of my books. In this book, it’s definitely Mr Bertoldi, the senior citizen who works as a crossing guard at the school, and quietly and wisely helps Zoe and Max. He’s seen by the parents as a grumpy old man, but the children all like and appreciate him.
[He certainly is a great character]
Max uses a different word from the dictionary each day. Which of these is your favourite and why?
Lugubrious! I remember playing soccer as a child on the weekend, as Max does. And every weekend without fail, one of the parents would yell ‘Come on team, don’t be lugubrious!’ and all the parents would laugh. We kids thought it was funny the first time, but not so much the second, third, fourth …
How have you incorporated difficult circumstances and/or conflicted relationships into this book?
The backbone of all my stories is the relationships between characters. I love trying to broach big issues (love, death, the future of the planet) by focusing on the minute details inherent in every relationship. The best way to approach these issues is with subtlety and, where possible, humour.
How have you included humour in the story?
You’d have to ask the reader that question. But I do quite like the visits to the classroom of Fire Officer Williams, who forgets that when you ask a class a question, you need to be prepared for any answer!
[Oh yes, these visits change the pacing and are very funny]
Which of your literary awards or shortlistings has meant a great deal to you?
I love them all! But I guess the four awards my verse-novel ‘by the river’ won NSW Premier’s Literary Award; Honour Book CBCA Awards; German Catholic Book of the Year; German Youth Literature Book of the Year Award) are those I most treasure, because that book is still the one that means the most to me.
Could you tell us about a response from one of your readers that has particularly resonated with you?
I particularly like it when young people send me their poems – ones they’ve written in response to reading my books. Recently, I received a whole folder of poems written by ESL students based on my YA verse-novel ‘Cold Skin’. The students had all written poems on the characters years after the end of the story – so they’d, in effect, written their own sequels! I loved where they took my characters.
What are you writing now or next?
I’ve just finished a YA prose novel, titled ‘How to repaint a life’ which UQP will publish in 2021. It addresses some of the issues raised in my verse-novel ‘the simple gift’ (written 20 years ago). It’s not a rewrite, but does look at many of the questions young people have raised about the issues in that book.
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
I recently discovered an old acquaintance, who I haven’t seen in 30 years, is actually an author. And she’s brilliant! I’ve read both her novels and I’d highly recommend them. Her name is Kirsten Alexander.
How would you prefer your readers contact you?
Carrier pigeon!!! But, failing that, they’re welcome to email me.
It’s been a pleasure to spend time with the characters in Zoe, Max and the Bicycle Bus, Steven. You have integrated their lives and stories into a highly satisfying and beautifully resolved story.