Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Interview with Jim Gownley

Children's Literature reviewer Kathie Josephs interviewed Jimmy Gownley, author of the popular Amelia Rules! series. Below are excerpts from that interview. For the full feature visit http://www.childrenslit.com/childrenslit/mai_gownley_jimmy_qa.html.

Kathie Josephs: When I was growing up I lived at the library. Did you go there much?
Jimmy Gownley: No, we didn't have one and we didn't have a bookstore either. There was a library in Ashlyn and that's about 3 ½ miles from Girardville. You couldn't even ride a bike to it because it was too dangerous a route. So I never went to the library. Sometime I could go to a bookstore that was even further away, but that was in the mall. In Girardville there was a very small convenience store. When I was really little, there were some candy stores and a newsstand, but essentially when I was growing up we had only the one store and that is where I bought all the comic books, but my parents were always hugely interested in getting me to read and to read early. When I was only 3 years old, my Mom was teaching me to read. And one of the first things she read to me was Charles Schultz's, "Peanuts." My whole life I remember those things. Another way she would teach me to read was by making flash cards. It was hilarious because that was in the 1970's which I know sounds like a million years ago. She could have gone to the store to purchase them, but she made her own for some reason. She can't draw, but she made little stick figures and stuff like that. One day when I couldn't have even been four, because I know we were still living in the apartment that we moved out of when I was four, I started taping the flash cards to the door of the apartment. I was making a story out of it. Boy got in his car – drove to his house. You know, I was just a little kid and I made my first comic strip by using my Mom's flash cards. What's nice about that is whenever people ask me, "How did you ever become a cartoonist," I can say, "I blame my Mother."

KJ: There you go, a perfect answer.
JG: Our school had a library and I could take books out. I remember that I was obsessed with one called Harriet the Spy.

KJ: That is a great book! You know kids still read Harriet.
JG: Yeah! Yeah! They have made a few attempts at sequels but they are sort of sad. The original Harriet the Spy was absolutely mind blowing; I just took it out again and again. For all I knew, this was a lost, forgotten book, because I had never heard anyone mention it... ever. I couldn't find a copy to buy, so I took my notebook and I was trying to copy it so I could have a copy to read. Of course I gave that up after the first charter. There was a Scholastic Book Fair at my school and that was where I was able to buy my own copy. You know, I still have that copy today.

KJ: My next question you have already answered, because I was going to ask when you realized you wanted to be a writer. I am going to assume it was when you put the flashcards on the door.
JG: It wasn't just writing; it was being a cartoonist. That was what I wanted to be from as early as Kindergarten. There was a brief time when I thought I wanted to be Jedi Knight, but it turned out when I would stare at items across the room and try to will to come into my hand nothing happened. I went back to cartooning. In fifth grade I had a teacher named Miss Klinger, and she was the first person that said that I had writing ability. I remember very clearly. She was a very good teacher. We would read stories from our readers and there were a couple of instances when we were assigned to write sequels. And I wrote one for a story called The House of Dies Drear, but I can't remember what it was about now. It was some kind of ghost story, and when I wrote my sequel, I can remember my teacher saying, "You could be a writer someday." And she actually gave me some extra assignments to foster that talent. It was fun, and kind of weird because it was fun, but didn't count toward my grade. I was thrilled that somebody thought that I could possibly write stories.

KJ: How did you decide to have Amelia face real things in her life? Your books give good messages to young people.
JG: I think it goes back to that conversation I had with my friend Tony back in high school. My initial intention when I started writing "Amelia"...the first thing I did was write a really, really short story called "Freeze Tag". It's in the first chapter of The Whole World's Crazy. It was to be unbelievably light-hearted and nothing serious, but it just didn't feel like that was my voice and what I was best at doing. I had written a number of stories and it was more humorous than having anything serious in them.

Then the September 11th attack happened in 2001. I was having dinner with a friend named John Trogner and he said, " What are you going to do about this? In the book, how are you going to address this?" I told him I wasn't going to address it. And he said, "You have to." I wanted to know what he meant by I had to. He said, "Your audience is kids and kids will read this; they relate to Amelia and they are going to be thinking about this and it is your responsibility to write about this." And I thought, "Wow, that's farther that I ever thought I'd go."

But I wrote the Christmas story called, Amelia and the Other Side of Yuletide. Mostly it's about Amelia's trying to scam her parents. Using their divorce guilt to give her more presents. At the end of the story Amelia gives a monologue. If you read them now, it seems like she is talking about people who have difficulties and then there are people who have great difficulties and we should be grateful. At the time it was very obviously a reference of what happened because she is from New York and her dad still lived in New York. Once I did that, then all bets were off and it became a real world. Amelia had always felt like a real character to me, a real little girl.

KJ: What is the most interesting activity that you do other than writing?
JG: You know what I like to do? I like to play the guitar. I've been playing since I was in 4th grade and I don't think I have gotten any better, but I like doing it.

KJ: What is your favorite food?
JG: That's easy. Cake! I wish I could say something more sophisticated like I have developed this great pallet. Oh, escargot is wonderful, but I like cake...most any kind of cake.

KJ: What's the best movie you have ever seen?
JG: You know, when I was very little, I would have thought the best movie was the Muppet Movie, and then Star Wars, and then it would have been Annie Hall, and then Pulp Fiction and now it is the Muppet Movie again.

(photo via http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2008/04/comiccon_amelia_rules_creator.html)

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