Running with Ivan by Suzanne Leal


Published by Angus & Robertson (HarperCollins Australia)

Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen you can do almost everything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.” (Running with Ivan)

Suzanne and I first met while judging the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and – in our role as panel chairs – also judged overall book of the year together a few times. Suzanne impressed with her intelligence, passion, work ethic and honesty.

I have enjoyed Suzanne’s novels for adults, and she has now changed tack and written a middle-fiction book, Running with Ivan.

In 2002 in Running with Ivan, Leo is grieving the death of his mother and trying to cope with sharing a bedroom with Cooper, his obnoxious stepbrother. A room off the garage becomes his sanctuary. There he finds his mother’s music box and, when he winds it, time-slips to a volatile Europe before and during World War 11.

Suzanne Leal weaves a fine mix of action and thoughtfulness between Leo’s new home-life, his slipping into the past and his running into a rich whole.

Suzanne Leal (HarperCollins)

Author Interview

Thank you for speaking about Running with Ivan with PaperbarkWords, Suzanne.

You have written successful books for adults. How have your other books led to this?

I had the idea to write Running with Ivan well before I published my first novel, Border Street.  I wrote a couple of chapters of Running with Ivan then popped it into a drawer, then wrote a bit more before returning it to the drawer. I came back to it during Covid.  The Deceptions (my third novel for adults) had been released on 31 March 2020, when Sydney was in lockdown and all the bookshops were closed.  It was a sobering time: I had a lot of events, launches and festivals lined up to introduce The Deceptions to readers and suddenly everything was gone.

To escape the grim reality of Covid, I lost myself in time travel as I returned to my story of two boys from different times who become friends in the midst of the Second World War.

Why did you decide to write this book for younger readers?

I have four children – three boys and a girl – and I’ve spent many years reading with them, buying books for them, taking them to the library and listening to countless audiobooks on road trips.  I was an avid reader as a child and many of the books I read have formed me and stayed with me over the years.   So perhaps it isn’t altogether surprising that I found myself writing for younger readers.

I wanted to explore the world of a thirteen-year-old boy whose world is turned upside down when he finds himself in a new family he doesn’t much like.  Thirteen has (so far) been a pivotal time for my children and I was drawn to trying to imagine just how it must feel to be in Leo’s position.

You explain in your author notes that much information for the story came from your former neighbour. What, if anything, came from your own background or interests.

I was a runner when I was at school, with a focus on 800m and 400m.  I never made it past the NSW State championships but I was committed to the sport and loved the freedom that came from pounding down the track. 

I speak German and was interested in writing about a bilingual boy who sometimes finds himself unable to reconcile his background as a German-Australian.

Did being a runner influence your title, Running with Ivan?

I can take absolutely no credit for the title – that was the brainchild of my publisher, Lisa Berryman.  It’s a great title, I think, in the way it conveys movement and adventure and intrigue.

The book’s cover suits its contents well. What in the cover illustration do you think captures the essence of your story?

I love the movement in the cover: the way it depicts the emerging friendship between Ivan and Leo and the retro style that gives a nod to the element of time-travel. Hope McConnell designed the cover with input from the Harper Collins design team. I provided a brief and Hope and the team used this to come up with the cover.  I love it so much I’ve had it made into a poster and framed.

There is a lot in this story (in a good way!), with nothing superfluous. How did you decide on its style and tone? How did you blend the fast pace with the depth of historical insight and the characterisation?

The novel was originally written in the third person and early in the process, my publisher, Lisa Berryman, asked me how I’d feel about changing the novel to the first person. It was an initially daunting but ultimately inspired suggestion and once I started rewriting the novel in the first person – from Leo’s perspective – the story really came to life. 

My novel, The Deceptions, is partly historical fiction and it taught me how to wear the research lightly.  I wanted to use the historical setting to propel Ivan and Leo’s story forward rather than using it as an opportunity to give a history lesson.  I try very hard not to be didactic in my writing.

There are strong emotions in this novel. How did you craft them?

I try to write the emotional scenes in my novels during a time when I am feeling the way my character is feeling.  If I’m feeling sad, I focus on a scene requiring sadness.  If furious, I try to use the emotion to bring a character’s anger to the fore.

Leo is a memorable protagonist. How does he grow and change?

When we first meet Leo, he is still reeling from the death of his mother, his father’s subsequent marriage and the move to both a new house and a new school.  He goes from being an only child who has enjoyed a lot of space to being forced to share a room with his new stepbrother.  Over the course of the book, he learns resilience and confidence and courage.   I have a real soft spot for Leo.

Is there any hope for his insufferable stepbrother Cooper?

I think there is always hope for children to grow and develop.  Some of the most obnoxious kids I’ve known have grown into very impressive young adults.  Things haven’t been easy for Cooper either and whereas Leo’s response is to disappear into himself, Cooper lashes out. It’s my prediction that Cooper will learn to regulate his emotions and grow in maturity. 

How do Olinda and Sandy balance the story?

I love Olinda.  She is a teenager who has been forced to learn self-sufficiency in difficult times.  She is dry and kind and funny and loving.  For a novel that is essentially a boys’ adventure story, Olinda adds a spark to the dynamic between Ivan and Leo.

Sandy is a champion runner whose skill pushes Leo to run harder and become more ambitious.  She and Mr Livingston (their running coach) provide a haven for Leo from the difficulties he has both at home and school. 

Which character would you have liked to showcase more? What would you add?

I’d have liked to explore Olinda more.  I would have added more about her post-war life.

I found the music box and unpredictable winding mechanism fascinating. Time-slips are notoriously difficult to write but yours is seamless. How much trouble did your crafting and refining the time slip mechanism give you?

The time-slip element of the story was very tricky.  At first, I didn’t really understand the perimeters of time travel and how time slip devices work.  So I read a lot.  The music box offered what I needed – a mechanism to wind up to give some control over the process, but not complete control.  It was my son, Alex, who suggested that the winding of the music box should relate to the amount of time Leo spends in another time zone.

No doubt you did an enormous amount of research. What is something you had to leave out?

I had to leave out the details of what happened to Ivan and Leo immediately after the war, which was, in itself, fascinating. 

Why have you included some poets in the book?

I wanted to show the importance of education during the war even when Jewish children like Ivan were prevented from attending school.  Rainer Maria Rilke is the most beautiful German poet and I wanted to show the despite the horror of the war and the behaviour of many Germans, the German language itself is one of great beauty that has been used to create extraordinary poetry.

The book is only just published. It may be too early, but what reception has it received that gladdens your heart?

Cameron Woodhead chose Running with Ivan as Fiction Pick of the Week for the Sydney Morning Herald.  In his review, he wrote:

Suzanne Leal’s debut children’s book is a time-slip novel.  It’s as fully imagined an adventure as Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow,with the same timeless potential. 

I love Ruth Park and this review so gladdened my heart.

Who do you see getting the most from this book?

I see children between the ages of 9 and 13 years getting most from it.

I’m also hoping that adults will become immersed in this story of friendship and risk and resilience.

Are you planning to write another book for younger readers? If so, please give a teaser.

Yes, I’m writing another novel for middle-grade readers, set in France.

Please tell us a little about one or more of your other books.

The Deceptions is a novel for adult readers that moves between contemporary Sydney and wartime Europe.

In 1943, a young woman is taken to a Jewish ghetto outside Prague where one of the guards – a Czech gendarme –  is quickly drawn to her.  Believing he will offer her protection, she reluctantly accepts his advances only to find herself alone and abandoned in Auschwitz.  Decades later, the gendarme carries his regrets to Sydney where he and his family try to make a new life for themselves.  But theirs is a life built on lies and deception, and one that may completely unravel.

What are you writing now or next?

I’m doing the final edits on my new novel for adults, The Watchful Wife, which is coming out with Allen & Unwin in July 2023.

Running with Ivan at HarperCollins

Suzanne Leal’s website

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