Friday, 18 September 2009

Interview with an Author: TOMMY DONBAVAND

Tommy Donbavand is the author of the very successful children’s series SCREAM STREET.

Hi Tommy and welcome. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Thank you for inviting me!

I was born and brought up in Liverpool, England. At school, I decided I wanted to be an actor and became very involved with drama classes and my local amateur theatre company. That's what first got me writing - I was penning scripts so that I would have strong parts for myself to play!

After training at college to work as a serious, Shakespearean actor - I immediately made the obvious move and became a clown called Wobblebottom (no, really!) I toured the UK and later worked on cruise liners, entertaining children. When I eventually came back to dry land, I got a part in a musical in London's West End called Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, where I played the MC at Buddy's last performance. I stayed with the show for eight years and, by then, the writing bug had really got hold of me.

I had the idea of compiling all the games and activities I'd created whilst working with children, and had four boredom busting books published - each of which quickly went out of print without making much impact at all.

When Buddy finished, I joined a children's theatre company as a writer, actor and director and was back to writing for the stage. By now, the joy of writing was easily over-taking that of performing and - three years ago - I quit my job to write full time.


Scream Street 1: Fang of the Vampire

After Luke Watson transforms into a werewolf for the third time, he and his parents are moved to Scream Street - a secure location for unusual people just like him. However, while Luke quickly fits in and makes friends with wannabe vampire, Resus Negative and tomboy mummy, Cleo Farr - his parents are terrified of their new neighbours. Luke discovers there are six relics - each left by one of the community's founding fathers - which, when gathered together, would give him the power to open a doorway home. With the help of Resus and Cleo, he sets out to find the first - an ancient vampire's fang.

Scream Street 2: Blood of the Witch

Scream Street's wicked landlord wants the book that Luke is using to locate the founding father's relics, so he disconnects the blood supply to the vampires' homes - forcing them to go out and bite for their food for the first time in years. Luke, Resus and Cleo are searching for the second relic - a bottle of witch's blood - while trying to avoid a plague of vampire rats, and a cute kitten with deadly fangs!

Scream Street 3: Heart of the Mummy

Scream Street has been shrouded in constant night for as long as anyone can remember - but the community grows even darker when Luke, Resus and Cleo inadvertently release millions of spiders while searching for the third relic - a mummy's heart. The spiders coat everything with their suffocating webbing, and it's up to our heroes to put everything right if they're to succeed in their quest.

Scream Street 4: Flesh of the Zombie

The world's greatest zombie rock festival - Deadstock - has arrived in Scream Street! Thousands of zombies tunnel in to listen to their favourite band, Brain Drain, but only one of them has the piece of flesh that Luke needs. Matters take a turn for the worse when the trio have to chase the relic's owner to the terrifying Underlands...

Scream Street 5: Skull of the Skeleton

The Headless Horseman returns to his former home in Scream Street to launch his new range of aftershave - Decapitation Pour L'Homme. His fans are delighted to see him - but horrified when his head is stolen! Sir Otto Sneer is the culprit - and he's used the head to complete a home-made demon with which he plans to terrorise Scream Street's residents. Luke is the only one who can stand up to him - and it's the only way he'll get the skull he needs.

Street 6: Claw of the Werewolf

Luke, Resus and Cleo are on the trail of the final relic - a werewolf's claw. It's not going to be easy to find, however, as the last founding father is close to home, but almost impossible to reach. The trail leads Luke to discover some revelations about his own family, the people who banished him to Scream Street - and results in him and his friends becoming trapped in the real world!

What inspired you to write the SCREAM STREET series and how long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

I visit lots of schools to run creative writing workshops and, on the drive home from one such event in October 2006, it occurred to me that, no matter where I go, children all love spooky haunted house stories. I wanted to write a spooky tale of my own and wondered what would happen if there were two haunted houses, side by side or - even better - a whole street of haunted houses. The name Scream Street popped into my head and I hurried home to start writing. The deal was done with Walker Books in mid 2007 and the series launched exactly two years after I'd first had the idea, in October 2008.

SCREAM STREET is a comedy-horror series. Do you find humour easy to write? Do you think it’s something a writer needs to have a natural gift for?

I'm not sure writers need a natural gift for comedy - but I do know that it should never be forced into a book. Children will very quickly spot unnatural humour and close the book to search for something else to read.

I do put plenty of humour in my books - it's a useful balance to the creepy horror scenes - and I find that, now I know my characters so well, all the laughs come naturally from them. I'm still careful not to include something in the book purely to get a giggle, however. That never works!

Were your publishers open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself and tone down some of the horror elements because of your target audience?

I always try to over-write the horror scenes and let my editor pull me back a bit. That way, the spooky stuff ends up pitched at just the right level. If I were to make things too bland, I'd run out of readers very quickly indeed!

My editor and I are very much on the same wavelength and agree on almost everything - but we occasionally have discussions over certain elements. There's a bouquet of dead flowers in a vase of blood in the first book that nearly didn't make the cut - I really had to fight for that to stay in!

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

It's funny you should ask that because, only last week, I found my 2 year old son and 10 year old son engaged in a rousing game of 'werewolves and zombies'! The sight of a toddler lurching around, shouting "Brains!" is something to behold!

My boys see scary stories as a natural part of life and they often inspire elements in the Scream Street books. They're both in there as characters, too - one as Samuel Skipstone, a talking book and the other as Twonk, the drummer with zombie rock band, Brain Drain.

Was SCREAM STREET always intended as a series and therefore did you have further ideas in mind, or did you have to think about the sequels from scratch?
What would your advice be for anyone writing sequels without having achieved a deal for book one?

Scream Street was always planned as a six-book series as I wanted Luke to have to work hard to take his mum and dad away from their nightmare neighbours. I make sure that each books can be read as a standalone novel, while there is an overall arc to the series which regular readers can follow.

If your books have to be a series, I would recommend writing and pitching them as such - but don't just think up a new adventure for the characters who survive book one. Make sure there is a genuine reason the story has to be told in segments.

How many books do you plan to write for the SCREAM STREET series?

Shortly before the first books were published, the series was doubled to become 12 titles and it wasn't long before my editor pointed out that we were only one number away from the magic and creepy 13! What we did was keep the original six books as they were, invented a second set of six stories - and dropped a standalone 'hinge' book in the middle to link both quests.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I'm an obsessive planner! One wall of my office is covered with whiteboards and I spend days, if not weeks, scribbling on them, making sure I have all the elements in place before I begin the first chapter. Of course, things still happen that take me by surprise as I'm writing - but I need to have that road map to steer myself back on course, not only for the plot of that book but for the series, too.

SCREAM STREET has recently been published in the US. How does it make you feel having your work reach even more children? And did you have to make any alterations for the US market?

Candlewick Press have just published the first two Scream Street books in the US - and I couldn't be more excited! I'm really hoping the series will catch on over there and find itself a loyal audience.

My American editor made a handful of UK to US tweaks (Mum to Mom, for example) but on the whole, the books are identical to those published in Britain.

ZOMBIE! A book you’ve written for struggling and dyslexic readers is released on the 24th September. Is it a one off or part of a series?

Zombie! is a standalone book written especially for children who have reading problems. It tells the story of Nathan who, when visiting his grandfather's grave with younger sister, Olivia, finds himself faced with a real life (or should that be 'real dead'?) zombie. However, the walking corpse - Jake - has only risen to buy supplies for a cemetery wide party, and the children end up helping their undead friend shop at a local supermarket!

Could you explain how writing for struggling and dyslexic readers perhaps differs from writing for the more fluent reader? As someone with no experience of dyslexia it would be interesting to know what rules, if any, may apply?

My 10 year old son has learning difficulties, so working with struggling readers has always been a passion of mine. I remember him being given very childish books to read while his friends were reading popular authors - and he felt very embarrassed about it. By writing books such as Zombie! for specialist publishers like Barrington Stoke, I'm able to make sure no child is embarrassed about what they are given to read.

From a writer's point of view, it is very important not to try and write down to a struggling reader. Yes, you have to keep sentences shorter and less complex, but the publisher - Barrington Stoke - have wonderful language editors to help authors fine tune their books for this challenging audience.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I've always worked with children - so it made sense that I would write for them, too. I read a lot of kids books, so I knew what sort of thing was out there - then it was just a case of submitting, being rejected and submitting again!

I love having children as my audience as they are always honest - and will just as quickly tell me if they haven't enjoyed a book as when they have.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

As a child, I mainly read Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton - but, while those books provided comedy and adventure, there was nothing around to satisfy my desire for something spooky! So, by the time I was a teenager, I was reading adult horror writers, such as Stephen King and James Herbert.

Children have a much wider choice of books these days - from the brilliant fantasy of Eoin Colfer to the absurd adventures written by Andy Stanton. I'd love to be a young reader with a library card now!

I don't think the type of books that children want to read has changed very much over the years - action and adventure are still the order of the day. After all, the Famous Five and Harry Potter books both feature a group of friends trying to solve a mystery - it's simply good, old-fashioned story telling.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

The writing happened to me almost by accident, as it was always my goal to become an actor. However, the journey to the stage meant that I wrote plenty of scripts, monologues and sketches - and I suddenly began to enjoy the writing more than performing. One day the balance simply tipped and I started to write full time.

As for improving my writing - there is no substitute for writing every single day, whether you feel like it or not. There's no shortcut to being published - writing, writing, writing is the only route.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

I have filing cabinets filled with rejection letters - including several from my current publishers, Walker Books! Rejection can be hard, but you have to remember that publishing is a business and so that 'No' isn't personal - it's simply that your work isn't of a standard or style that will earn the publisher money. Take it on the chin, improve your writing, and try somewhere else.

With your books being aimed at a younger audience, what kind of publicity and marketing do you undertake? You have a flair for entertaining your readers in public situations. Do you think it’s important for a children’s author to be able to really engage with their readers, become something of an entertainer?

I work hard to publicise my books - running school, bookshop and library events - but I also make use of new media as a way of reaching my readers. I make video trailers to post on YouTube, run my own websites and even post snippets of forthcoming tales to Twitter.

I don't know if it's important for all authors to be able to entertain, it's just that my background means I can. I get a far stronger reaction from readers at my school visits when I run something like my 'Vampires vs Werewolves Game Show' than if I just sit and read from my books. Many children see reading as school work and, by bringing my stories to life with props and gags, I can hopefully convince some of those kids to try reading for fun.

Getting yourself out there really helps to get you and your work noticed. Since I've been writing full time, I've been lucky enough to work as writer-in-residence at Seven Stories, the centre for children's books in Newcastle Upon Tyne - and become the first RIF Ambassador for reading Is Fundamental, attached to a primary school in Middlesbrough. None of that would have happened if I'd stayed hidden behind my keyboard.

There seems no end to your talents as you’ve also written some non-fiction books for children and their parents, and you write for several magazines. What came first - The non-fiction or fiction?

For books and magazines, the non-fiction came first. The articles I wrote for parenting magazines were simply games, activities and party themes I had developed during my work with children. This gave me a leg-up to writing fiction - something I'd done for the stage, but now wanted to do in novel form.

Could you tell us about your website Trapped by Monsters?

I get a lot of emails from readers asking when the next Scream Street book is due out and, in some cases, I have to reply that there is a wait of six months or more. I decided I would love to be able to 'hand over' my readers to another author while they waited, and get them back when the time was right! So - with seven other like-minded writers, we created Trapped By Monsters. Now we can not only recommend each other's books - but great children's writing in general. We also recently ran our first Trapped By Monsters joint event - where six of us took to the stage to play embarrassing activities for the benefit of the audience. Great fun!

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Don't give up. It's as simple as that. You WILL be rejected at first - quite possibly for a long time - but, so long as you keep writing and improving your work, you will get there. It's not easy but, if I can do it, so can you.

Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

Thank you for the interview!

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