Ulf Stark, author of around 30 books for children and young adults, is in town for the New Zealand Festival’s Writers Week. This Swedish author has also written film, TV and theatre scripts and been nominated twice for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
See Ulf live at the Hannah Playhouse (Downstage Theatre) on Sunday March 9th at 12:15pm
We have three of Ulf’s books, including a signed copy, to give away to one lucky individual thanks to Gecko Press. To win please tell us Ulf’s home country by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, Tweet @WCL_LIbrary or comment on the post on our Facebook page. (We will announce a winner on the morning of Thursday March 13th).
Justin from the library Online Services Team meet with Ulf on Saturday morning. Here is their Q & A:
(J) How did you get into making books?
(U)So, I was not very talented in anything. And actually I disliked writing when I was very young because I was left-handed and we were forced to do right-handed in school. So that was the worst thing to have to write things. Then during my teen ages a lot of things changed. When you are a teenager you are looking in the mirror and you don’t recognise your face, you don’t recognise your feelings either. And then I read a lot of books. Not the younger books I had read before, but the real books. I think there is something, when you are in your teenage years you don’t feel confident to talk to your parents, or you don’t want to talk to them about the subjects that are near you – not about sexuality, not about a lot of things. So I had those conversations with the books and that was fine I think. Then we got a teacher in school who I liked very much and she liked my writing as well. I don’t think that teachers are aware of the power they have. So I started writing and then I came in contact with young authors and I was beginning to write. I wrote my first book when I was 18. It was a collection of poems. It was not that good – it was awful I would say.
(J)Did it get published?
(U)Yes it was. I got 500 Swedish Crowns and then I wrote another collection of poems, a little bit better and then a novel for the adults. Then I was 25 and I understood that I hadn’t anything else to write about. So I worked a little bit, for ten years or something. Then I started writing again in 1984 I think with this one [Fruitloops & Dipsticks] and it was a little success in Sweden and the Nordic countries. Suddenly I got money for writing. I had been working in the bureaucracy beforehand for a lot of years, training in education so it was quite good.
(J)Do you think the break helped?
(U)I think what helped with the job was that I was teaching about the differences about the male and the female. I was very interested in this difference, what is it to be a man and what is it to be a female? Why are we so different? So this is [Fruitloops & Dipsticks] sort of an investigation of the differences. An investigation of me being a male writer taking place in a girl.
(J)That would have been quite difficult?
(U)Yeah. It was quite difficult so I decided to let her be a boy after a while. It was much easier that way. It was published in a lot of countries. It is still published in a lot of new countries – in Russia for example. And they do a new edition now because of [Vladimir] Putin’s laws.
(J)Has it been censored?
(U)You cannot write anything about sexuality for young people under 16 years.
(J)Is that frustrating for you, knowing that they’re censoring your work?
(U)A little bit frustrating but on the other hand this edition [uncensored Fruitloops & Dipsticks] still exists in Russia. So I think the interest for the first edition has increased because it is forbidden.
(J)I think that’s a good way to make people interested in something, isn’t it. Tell them they can’t have it.
(U)Yeah. What could there be in this book? I’m not so disturbed by it. I am disturbed by Putin.
(J)Your books are originally written in Swedish aren’t they? Do you feel like they lose something when translated? Is there is a stark difference in the mood or the feel?
(U)There could be. I don’t think it’s because of the translation, it’s more because of the cultural differences.
(J)Yeah, I know that in German for instance there are words for things that would take a sentence to say in English.
(U)Yes – different associations and all this. But when it’s translated into so many countries I think it’s more universal.
(J)Have you ever had any unexpected reactions to your work?
(U)Yeah. Perhaps, take this one for example [Fruitloops & Dipsticks]. I was in Belarus, which is almost a dictatorship.
(J)Ex-Soviet isn’t it?
(U)Yes. I wrote a book called The Dictator and I was there and we had readings. It was translated so a local was reading it. They had to read in Russian [Fruitloops & Dipsticks] and I was astonished by the interest in sexuality. I mean there is not much in that book, I just felt like a sexual therapist or something when I came there. In Sweden now I can be astonished because of how they react. In this one [Can You Whistle, Johanna?] there is a Grandfather smoking a cigar. It could be a problem and that was why it was very hard to get the book into the USA. Just because he was smoking. I told her [literary agent] that he was dyeing at the end.
(J)So there is a health message there?
(U)Yes. If you smoke a cigar you will die. So there are moralistic reactions to the books. Often it is the parents who complain about the books.
(J)What we can we expect to hear or learn in your Writers Week programme?
(U)I just don’t know because I don’t know the questions. Perhaps you could get a clue about Swedish books. I mean, I am not representative of all the authors in Sweden, but I think what is common for us is a view from the child’s perspective. To be loyal with the child’s side, not being a story teller from up high. I think that is important. Some of these books are biographical in some way. In this one [My Friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes] the character Ulf is almost burning up society because he wants his friend Percy to see the fireworks coming. Then he sprays water on the fire and I got applause for that. But they didn’t like that in Spain. They thought the parents would have hit him at least a little bit.
(J)At least you don’t have to live there!
(U)But I think it’s better to hear of us making a lot of crazy things. He has to think about himself, his feeling, and think it was wrong, “I did wrong.” It’s an inner process. He has to think, I have done something stupid and see the consequences already, not that the act itself is punishable.
(J)Do you feel like there is a big difference between Swedish writing when compared to English?
(U)Yes, I think I was in England and they have very few books for the smaller kids that have discussions on things like death. That was a taboo.
(J)Do you find they are for entertainment?
(U)We have a lot of animals dying in Swedish literature. Even here [Can You Whistle, Johanna?] the grandfather is dying at the end. Often when you are writing about death, even in Sweden I would say it is just the rituals that you are writing about. Whether it’s something like putting flowers on or saying something because you are afraid of the reaction of sadness. I think it’s good. I think children have to be confronted with real feelings, so they should be a little bit sorry. They are not dying and hopefully they have their parents to discuss things and say something to. I have no fear of writing about something.
(J)What would be your advice to a young author?
(U)Not taking any advice I think. You have to find your own way but I think reading is a very good way of learning how to write because you could say I don’t like that way of writing. You could find your own way by reading other books, not imitating them but see what you want to do and see how it is made in other books. Start with poems, I think that’s a good short way to see what happens. And then perhaps short stories, I think starting a big novel project when you are thirteen is not good.
(J)It’s one way to pop your self-esteem isn’t it? Do you have any personal author recommendations?
(U)I don’t know if we read the same books here in New Zealand and in Sweden. My mother used to read a lot of Astrid Lindgren and so did I. I think for my own kids I read a lot of Roald Dahl books to my son and more tragic stores for my daughter who just loved tragedy. You could also read a lot of the old books, not just the new ones. These days everything is so up-to-date I think it is good to have a historical perspective as a child. I am writing books now about the 60s and 50s, there are no mobile telephones in this and they don’t want to read it. But it’s just like you could read a book from Sweden, I think it is important to take part of and experience different cultures.
(J)Do you think kids have changed?
(U)Yeah. I think the technique is changing a lot in the daily life of children. When I was coming here on my flight for 40 hours I saw what people were doing. People choose a lot of films and the whole time they were looking at blue screens and they got a blue face. It was reflecting and I was doing the same. I had a lot of good books I thought I would read but it is an easy way just to put my finger on the screen. You have to have dull time I think. Dull time is where you awaken creativeness. I am trying to have a dull life.
(J)Do you have much of a relationship with the internet? Do you use social media or blogs?
(U)No very little actually. My wife does but I really think that I have a need for moral contemplation and not so much being on the net. Perhaps I prefer meeting personally, I’m a bit afraid of being addicted the screen.
(J)We’ve already kind of touched on it – what is your process of writing, how do you turn an idea into a book?
(U)I see it more like an organic process. I have a lot of writing friends who are doing very exact shadows of what they should do in each chapter and also the schools are teaching children how to write and the disposition is so mechanical. I’ve tried that model too. Now I just start a story and see what happens. The more interesting persons are more interesting than the story.
(J)So you focus on the character than the character?
(U)Yes, for instance there are lots of books for the very, very young people but then I was thinking that there are no books for the unborn. So I did a book about a boy having a chat with a mother’s stomach to the child inside giving answers to the child in there about what happens when you come out. That was the theme.
(J)That’s a strange sort of thing to think up, where did an idea like that come from?
(U)I think I saw a stomach somewhere and thought what would I teach a small child or say this the life coming to you.
(J)Do you think you’re quite a curious person by nature?
(U)Yeah. I think so. I’m curious about all the things that haven’t got answers. I think the daily life of children, coming to school and learning things, there are answers. Often education is built on a question and an answer and then they could have the idea that there are answers for everything. But for the very, most important things there are no answers. You have to make up the answers yourself. What is the meaning of life? Okay, this is the meaning of life. Okay there it was. Why are you falling in love with a person and not with another person? Why are we dying? What’s in the universe? There are a lot of things that children from the beginning are very interested in.
(J)But they stop asking?
(J)If you could have a coffee with any human being, either been or alive, who would it be and what would you ask them?
(U)Umm. I think it would be nice to meet god.
(U)Yeah. I have a lot of questions. I wrote a book about god, it was my last book. God created the earth but he was a little bit tired of inventing everything. So he first invented the Darwinist evolution theory so that he only had to do the small things like the fishes and now the creation could go on. But then when he woke up there are human beings, the animals – but he didn’t plan to make the shadows. They are dark so he decided to put them to the other side of earth, the side he couldn’t see. They call this the night. And what happens is you get a sort of Prozac world, no shadows, no darkness, no sadness.
(J)Fake smiles on everybody?
(U)Yes, everyone is going about smiling. So there are no stories, no fairytales, no dreams. It’s a drugged world. I find it quite funny to write about the fear of happiness and that you have a need for the shadows. Then there is a boy and a girl just going to find their shadows again and they found it the god is there to clean it up again. They say no, no don’t do that we need our shadows, even the sorrowness. God is thinking okay, okay you are write and he puts them back again. I think that applies to books also. You need to have the shadow sides and the night sides. I think we will have a lot to discuss over coffee.
Wellington City Libraries has many of Ulf’s books available for loan, check them out here.