Saturday, December 31, 2016

North Melbourne Books January Newsletter - featuring Simone Lia

In the January edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to illustrator and children's author Simone Lia about her hilarious novel, They Didn't Teach THIS in Worm School.

It's the story of an unlikely friendship. Laurence is a rather large sized bird who often gets mistaken for a chicken. In his mind, however, Laurence sees himself as a graceful flamingo. He clearly has identity issues! When he meets Marcus, who happens to be a worm, the two go on an adventure. Laurence wants to go to Africa to meet his fellow flamingos.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Simone Lia

North Melbourne books: They Didn’t Teach THIS in Worm School is an adventure story about a worm called Marcus and a fuller-figured bird named Laurence. They have many weird and wonderful experiences along the way. What inspired you to write about such an unlikely friendship?

Simone Lia: Ha ha, Laurence is indeed a fuller-figured bird, he very much enjoys the odd cheese sandwich or three. The pairing of Laurence and Marcus came about because my editor at Walker books suggested that I create a fiction children’s book about exactly that subject of an unlikely friendship. This idea appealed to me as much of my previous work had been focused on relationships of some kind. Writing a fiction novel for the first time was  daunting but having the book being centred on friendship was a helpful starting point.  This little red worm had been living in my head for a long time before They Didn’t Teach THIS in Worm School, I was keen to breathe life into the character, giving him a fuller personality and discovering more about him as the story developed.  Given the brief of an unusual friendship, it seemed fitting that his best friend would be a bird.

NMB: We learn a few interesting things about worms as the story progresses, like how they travel to the surface when it rains. Have you always been very interested in the life of worms?

SL: As a child I was quite interested in worms but nothing that would be particularly out of the ordinary.  In the last ten years or so I have been repeatedly working with worm characters in paintings for various exhibitions and personal work.  The fascination seems to lie with an imagined idea of what the worm represents,  they’re not the most beautiful of creatures and there’s nothing about them that says ‘look at me’.  They're hidden creatures that are content digging holes everyday underground without any praise, they’re literally down to earth.  I enjoy the idea that they’re humble creatures and without a tough skin or shell they’re unable to protect themselves, leaving them vulnerable to prey.  Marcus was borne from those ideas of what it is to be a worm and his personality defects such as his incessant lying come from his vulnerability.  The story is more about the anthropomorphic qualities rather than their biological functions.  Biologically they are fascinating, for instance, did you know that a worm has five hearts?

NMB: Your novel is a buddy story about being true to yourself and finding friendship in unusual circumstances. What does the book mean to you?

SL: I like that both Laurence and Marcus are open minded and able to see beyond their pre-conceived narrow perceptions of each other and because of this they discover each others true identity.  Their friendship helps them to also see themselves in a new light and bring forth qualities in themselves that may have been buried or undiscovered.

Whilst writing the story it did make me question how much I take the easier route of mentally categorising people with pre-conceived ideas rather than looking for commonalities. When people are fearful this way of thinking - labelling groups of people, becomes even more apparent.  It’s  not very helpful.

NMB: Laurence experiences a bit of personality crisis during the story: he seriously thinks he’s a flamingo. Is Laurence based on any real birds or perhaps other animals you know who have suffered confusion about their identity?

SL: Ha ha, I don’t currently know any birds or animals with an identity confusion.One of the fun things of getting to know my little characters when working with them is that I’m often surprised at the different aspects of their personalities, it was a genuine surprise to me that Laurence had such a magnified level of self-delusion happening.  He somehow manages to still be endearing despite this.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

SL: I seem to be reading a lot about babies and baby names at the moment as I’ll be having a baby in the early Spring. But apart from that I’ve got my mitts on a beautifully designed Penguin Vintage edition of  A Town Like Alice by Nevile Shute. I’ll enjoy re-reading that one, it’s a classic.

They Didn't Teach THIS at Worm School, by Simone Lia. Published by Walker Books. RRP: $19.99