1. Ishmael is such a wonderful character, is there any secret inspiration behind his creation?
Well he was born one day when a picture I had on my noticeboard made me think of the famous opening sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. That sentence is “Call me Ishmael.” For some reason I imagined a boy saying the opposite, “Don’t call me Ishmael!” So Ishmael as a character just started out as a boy who didn’t like his name. He developed more fully in my mind when I decided to make him a bit like I was at school by (1) he was frightened of speaking in public and (2) he was a grand-master in the painful art of Unrequited Love. Unrequited love was my special subject at school.
2. Did you always intend for the Ishmael books to become a three part series?
No. When I started writing Don’t Call Me Ishmael! I assumed there would be just one book. But by the time I got to the end I’d fallen in love with the characters and I still had them all running around madly in my head. They were still there after Ishmael and the Return of the Dugongs as well. That’s when I knew in order to tell the full story of Ishmael, Razz and the others I had to get to their very last day at St Daniels. Those characters are now as real to me as any of the boys I had in my classes when I was a teacher.
3. The third and final book in the Ishmael Series, Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel, has just been released. Can you explain the significance of the title?
The phrase Hoops of Steel has a couple of connections to the story. One is that one of the boys, Bill Kingsley, takes up Hula-Hooping in order to lose weight. But the main significance of the title comes for Shakespeare’s play Hamlet which Ishmael and his mates have to study for Year 11. In one scene the character Polonius is giving advice to his son Laertes. Among other things he says to him, “Those friends thou hast and their adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.” So the phrase ‘hoops of steel’ is all about holding on to your real friends and the unbreakable bonds of true friendship. This is what the Ishmael books at their heart, have always been about.
4. Your ability to write humour for teens and to connect with them so successfully is inspiring to us emerging YA writers. How do you get your characters to be so realistic?
I threaten them with physical violence! Sorry. Thank you for saying that. I hope they are realistic but to be honest, I’m not really sure how it happens. I don’t think about it that much when I’m writing. Perhaps it comes from being involved so much with teenagers as a parent and a teacher. And really listening to them. Oh, and I think it also helps a lot if you actually like them! One thing I think perhaps you should avoid is trying to make your characters sound young by using too much slang or modern language. After all there’s not only the one kind of teenager ‘voice’. And just as they don’t all speak the same, they don’t all act the same way or like or believe in the same things. There are some teenagers I’ve met who if you actually wrote down exactly what they said and what did in a book, I’m sure some people would criticise them as being totally ‘unrealistic’! So maybe the trick is not so much to write as a ‘real’ teenager, but just to convince your readers that you are. My apologies for that rambling response!
5. For the first time in the series, I can’t help but notice some comparisons between yourself and Ishmael, particularly at the end of the novel. So tell us MGB, what were you like as a teenager?
A super-cool, confident, chick-magnet. Or were you after the truth? Well in that case, I wouldn’t say I was painfully shy, but I certainly didn’t enjoy being the centre of attention. Like Ishmael, I was terrified of speaking in front of an audience and I definitely lacked confidence in myself, particularly when it came to those mysterious alien creatures that weren’t boys. Looking back though, I think I had a really good sense of humour and could be funny, particularly with my friends and people I knew well, but I wasn’t the class clown by any means. My school itself was very much like St Daniels. I enjoyed my time there. I got on well with my classmates and I’m pleased to say I was never bullied in any way.
6. If you could go back in time and give your teenage self one piece of advice, what would it be?
‘Buy mining shares!’ Or possibly, ‘OMG, what are you thinking! Don’t pick those thick, black-rimmed frames for your glasses!’ Ok seriously? I’d say, ‘Teenaged-Self, you’re ok. And you know that corny thing adults always say about how ‘personality’ is more important than ‘looks’? Well, as difficult as it is for you to believe, it’s actually true. So hear this Teenage-Self. You’re a nice person and you’re smart and funny, and people will like you for just that. You really should believe in yourself a hell of lot more and take more chances. Oh and follow your dreams.’ (I know that was more than one piece of advice, but my Teenage-Self really could have done with a good pep talk!)
7. What is your writing life like?
Really it’s a dream come true. These days I’m a full-time writer and I never believed that would be possible. If I’m not at home writing, or thinking about writing, or thinking that I really should be writing, then I’m visiting schools or attending Festivals. A good writing day for me would start with an early morning walk for an hour (clears the head and lets the imagination and ideas flow), then writing most of the day (with breaks to eat of course!) until late in the afternoon. I don’t tend to do too much writing at night. (Some people reading this will be asking: “Yeah sure, and what about the hours you waste mucking around on Facebook everyday?”)
8. What exciting things are coming up for you?
Besides watching the final of The Amazing Race Australia? Well I’m thrilled and honoured that Just a Dog has been short-listed for the CBCA Awards so I’m looking forward to going to Adelaide for the announcements in August. I have a very busy couple of months coming up filled with school visits in Brisbane, Cairns and Melbourne. I’m also looking forward to attending the Ipswich Children’s Literature Festival and the Brisbane CYA Conference in September. As far as the books go, I’m excited that new overseas versions of the first two Ishmael books to be published soon (UK, France, Hebrew) as well as Just a Dog (USA, Norway, Germany, Italy, Hebrew). There is also an English language school edition of Don’t Call Me Ishmael! coming out in Germany. Just imagine, German kids will be practicing their English using the words of Razz as their example!
9. What is the best advice you would give an emerging YA writer?
Read lots of current YA books. It will help your writing and the bonus is they’re fantastic! Write for yourself first and foremost rather than an audience. Write the story you are passionate about – the one that makes you laugh, or cry or moves you in some way, not the one you think you should write just to get published. Also, don’t be daunted by other books and authors you love and start thinking you’re not good enough. Keep in mind that your task is not to write the best YA book ever written. Your task is to make your reader feel that anytime they are reading your story, it is the only one that matters.
10. A lot of authors recommend joining a writers’ group as a way to improve your craft. What’s your opinion on this?
Different things work for different people. I know of many writers who have gained great support, advice and encouragement from being part of a writers’ group. I’ve never been in one and I really don’t think they’re for me. I’d be a bit shy and wary about sharing my work. I also feel that you can get too much advice and too many suggestions too early when you are working out your story. These days I don’t show anyone what I’m writing and rarely talk about it until it’s finished. My wife is then the first person to read it.
11. What’s the best thing about being a full-time writer?
It’s a job where you spend most of your time day dreaming and making up stories and then you eventually get to share them with other people. What’s not to like? Another great thing is I get to meet and talk with lots of beautiful and amazing young people who make me laugh and who reaffirm my faith in humanity. I really do feel blessed and I never take for granted how fortunate I have been to have my dream of being a writer become a reality.
12. How often do you get to connect with your YA audience?
I am very fortunate to have regular contact with the main age groups that read my books. I would normally spend around 70 days a year talking to school students either in schools or on Writing Camps or at Festivals.
13. What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished Book 1 of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins which I really enjoyed. At present I’m reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. After that I’m looking forward to reading Black Painted Fingernails by Steven Herrick. My favourite books of recent times were the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness which I absolutely loved and wished I had written.
14. What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read. Play guitar and pretend I can sing Try to write songs. Daydream about being a rock star, Samurai or Ninja. Support the Brisbane Broncos and the mighty Queensland Maroons in the Rugby League. Have fun on Facebook with my friends and fellow writers. Try to keep my true werewolf nature secret and under control. Visit bookshops and move all my books to more prominent positions on the shelves. Write in my blog. Go for walks. Spend time with my wife. Go to the pictures. Watch TV (including, according to my family, an unhealthy number of Reality Shows and Football matches). The list just goes on and on. As you can clearly see, I am a true action man!
15. How can readers contact you or find out more about your books?
One way is through my blog at http://michaelgerardbauer.wordpress.com. You’ll also find lots of information there about my books, as well as heaps of teacher & student resources, links to interviews, news etc. Another way to contact me is by visiting my public Facebook page at Michael Gerard Bauer Author and clicking on ‘Like’. Apart from that, if you see me walking down the street, you could just shout at me and wave your arms madly about.
16. Any parting comments to the WLYA readers, Michael?
Just a super-sized thanks to you Debbie and all the gang at We Love YA for giving me the opportunity to be part of your wonderful blog. As Razz would say, it’s been totally rigid! Cheers.
Thank you Michael for being such a fabulous interviewee and best of luck with Ishmael and the Hoops of Steel. 🙂