‘Most Australian kids live in the city…I was writing for all of us, so we can start to really notice that this is what normal looks like in Australia.’
Ailsa Wild is a circus performer, actor, writing-workshop facilitator – and the author of the wonderful Squishy Taylor series! (Read our Squishy Taylor review here)
We spoke to her about mystery stories, writing for today’s kids, and the books which most influenced her.
BRK: Please tell us how you came to write Squishy Taylor?
AW: I always wanted to write fiction, but got distracted by working for the circus for a while! In 2010 I quit my job at the circus to do a Masters in creative writing. I was writing stories about circus families at the time I met Hilary from Hardie Grant Egmont. She liked them, but said she was interested in something for a younger audience and not necessarily set in the circus.
She gave me an Enid Blyton mystery, an Anastasia Krupnik, a Billie B Brown and a book from their Go Girl series. I read them and then sat down and wrote Squishy. The draft happened really quickly once I started and a lot of it was straight out of my subconscious. I tried to keep the energy of danger and physical play from my previous stories and was always thinking about my female characters being brave and strong.
BRK: Squishy lives in an inner-city apartment and has a diverse, blended family – elements which many of your young readers will relate to. Did you have a particular readership in mind when you created the books? What do you hope kids will get out of reading the series?
AW: Most Australian kids live in the city. I think we have a sense that ‘real Australia’ is in the bush, but actually a lot of real Australian families look like Squishy’s and I wanted to reflect this. I wasn’t just writing for the kids living in diverse, blended families in the inner city, though. I was writing for all of us, so we can start to really notice that this is what normal looks like in Australia and that we can love our cities as part of our identity. I hope this generation grows up seeing diversity as a regular part of the wider culture and that Squishy is a little contribution to this.
AW: The mischief scenes are my favourite parts to write. Maybe it’s a bit mean, but I just love putting Squishy in danger! Any time when something terrible could happen to her – you can bet that’s when I was having the most fun. I love it any time she sneaks out at night; when she climbs across to Mr Hinkenbushel’s balcony in A Question of Trust and in The Bonus Sisters when she does that awful thing with the dog poo which comes back to haunt her…
BRK: Squishy is a genius solver of mysteries. Are you a fan of mystery novels yourself? Any great mysteries in your own life?
AW: I’m a bit old school in my consumption of mystery fiction – I’ve read and loved quite a bit of Agatha Christie and totally adore Miss Marple. I’m pretty sure I read all of Arthur Conan Doyle when I was about eleven. Mostly, though, my exposure to the mystery genre is watching crime/spy TV, like Spooks, Broadchurch, Homeland and Silent Witness. I love thinking about the makers of those shows as I’m watching them, what information are they pointing us towards, when? What clues and red herrings is the director giving us just by cutting from one scene to another? I suppose I watch those shows analytically and that understanding makes its way into my writing.
The biggest mystery in my own life at the moment is how I came to have a publishing contract for an 8 book series and such an amazing publishing team. It all feels like a bit of a dream. As far as I know, there’s skeletons in my closet…
AW: All the shows I’ve made have been a deeply collaborative process, working on the floor with the other performers, directors, set and sound designers. You’re bouncing ideas off each other every few seconds. While there is a fabulous collaborative team working on Squishy (as well as the illustrator, there are the editors and designers who create so much of the end product), we each mostly work alone and then bring what we’ve done to the table.
Some things are the same across the two mediums, though. My understanding of story-structures comes at least partially from making theatre for children – especially because when you’re onstage you get immediate feedback for each moment of the show. You figure out pretty quickly what’s working and what’s not! In a way receiving and working with that kind of instant feedback has been a great apprenticeship for writing fiction.
BRK: You also facilitate writing and illustration workshops for kids. Have you learned anything from your young students?
AW: Yes, I’ve been facilitating workshops with Kids’ Own Publishing for about 5 years. We have a saying at Kids’ Own: ‘Don’t be afraid of imperfection and the empty page!’ I now know I can walk into a classroom of kids with nothing except my respect for them and a sense of fun, and walk out with an amazing story full of all kinds of crazy adventures.
I try to take this attitude with me to my first drafts, and to my story plotting – because the empty page can be intimidating, and wanting to get it perfect straight away can really slow you down. The wild, creative energy of a room full of children is just what’s required.
BRK: There are two Squishy Taylor books coming out in February and one each in March and April. Do you have plans for further Squishy adventures after that?
AW: Yes – the copy edits of Books 5 and 6 are in my inbox right now! And I just signed a contract to write books 7 and 8. I’ve got so many fun ideas, so from there, we’ll see if readers want more.
BRK: Where do you do your writing?
AW: I write all over the place. Sometimes I write from home, sometimes cafes and sometimes on out-of-Melbourne adventures. I have friends with a tiny caravan in Clunes in Central Victoria where I wrote the whole of Book 3. I did the re-write of Book 4 in a hotel in North Carolina. I love writing on long train trips and can write in the passenger seat of the car if I’m working to a deadline!
BRK: Please tell us about the books which influenced you as a child.
AW: I read the Narnia books and the Dark is Rising series over and over again as a child. I loved the magical adventures and how important the child-heroes were in the story. I think that recognising the links to ancient myths and legends woven through these stories was a really important part of my literary growing-up.
The other series I read on repeat was Swallows and Amazons. I just loved them. They’re such a great model for how child heroes can create their own amazing story-world, right bang in the middle of a real world. I definitely draw on that when I’m writing Squishy.
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