Mr. Tony Abbott has been writing books for 20 years and have written more than 105 books. His publishers include HarperCollins, Hyperion, Scholastic, Random House, Little Brown, Egmont, and Farrar Straus Giroux.
Over 12 million of Mr. Tony Abbott’s books have been sold worldwide, and his series and novels have been translated into Italian, Spanish, Korean, French, Japanese, Polish, Turkish, Chinese, and Russian. Several of his books were named Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club selections and Junior Library Guild selections and have appeared on state reading lists, including the Texas Bluebonnet list, and the Great Lakes Great Award Master List, and Choose to Read Ohio. The Postcard was honored with the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award for best mystery in the juvenile category in 2009. Firegirl won the Golden Kite Award for Fiction from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Mr. Tony Abbott’s journey as a children’s author began when he was reading bedtime stories to his children. His first published book, Danger Guys, was written while taking a writing class with renowned children’s author, Patricia Reilly Giff.
He is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Yale Center for British Art, and other esteemed arts organizations. With his wife, two daughters, and two dogs, he lives and works happily in Connecticut, USA.
I am very excited to have a chat with Mr. Tony Abbott about his new books, writing and asked him a couple fun questions.
J.J. Gow: Let’s talk about your new book “The Summer of Owen Todd”. I can’t wait to read it. First of all, when is the book available in bookstores?
Tony Abbott: The publication date is October 17, 2017. I do wish it were out now, but there are publishing seasons and schedules that are planned months and even years in advance.
J.J. Gow: How did you come up with the book idea and what inspired you to write in this topic?
Tony Abbott: It’s a difficult topic, certainly. Sexual abuse involving an older male and a boy is not often discussed in middle-grade literature, if at all. Certainly, if there are books that treat this issue as part of the plot, the fact that they are rare means there should be more. I heard from a friend of my wife a bit about the story of that woman’s son, a story that ended unhappily. This mother wanted her son’s story to be known in a way that might help. I began to think about how it might be rendered, or parts of it, or threads of it, in a novel. Naturally, as any writer will tell you, when you take a real story or incident and begin to work that story into a fictional treatment, what emerges is something quite different, bigger, perhaps, maybe smaller, but certainly the “rules” that govern fiction are not those that work in real life. From that germ, the story of a pair of boys developed, as well as a fully described setting, a host of other characters, families, etc. The novelist feels the responsibility to create a fully three-dimensional story that must live on its own: the reader requires that. This has happened before to me, and probably to every writer—you begin with a morsel and you work that into a satisfying experience that works on levels that are different from that original idea.
J.J. Gow: What are the message that you want your readers to grasp from your writings?
Tony Abbott: This is a question that seems easy to answer, but it’s not. A story, to be successful, I think, should be absent of messages. Messages or morals or arguments come from a different part of the brain from creative art. Certainly, art is political. Everything is political in some way. Art that doesn’t anchor itself in real life in some way is probably impossible to create. But to go into a creative project to say that “I want children to learn empathy” or “I want children to learn the value of nature” is to stifle it, bind it in handcuffs. It will fail. No, what I think must happen for me is that the characters become real people. They simply are, with all the complexities we have. If the reader accepts that, say, Owen is a real person, that reader will draw something from the way that Owen acts and thinks and feels. Readers find messages, perhaps. Maybe we all do all the time, because that’s the way we learn to move through the world. But to “install” messages in fiction is to crush it. Put another way: all I want readers to find in my books is real people.
J.J. Gow: How did do your research for books such as “Firegirl” and “Summer of Owen Todd”?
Tony Abbott: Oh, yes. There’s always research, even in books that come from memory I wrote a book some years back called Lunch-Box Dream. It was, essentially, a fictionalized memoir of a driving trip my family took in the summer of 1959, from Ohio to Florida. It was, of course, deep in the Jim Crow era, in both North and South. I read a lot of literature about race relations in both halves of the country. I read interviews with Jim Crow survivors and lots of fiction written by African American writers of the period—to get a sense of tone and mood, naturally, but also because I needed a voice for some of the black characters in the book. I decided, after all, to make the words of the black people in the story appear to be the responses to interview questions. In those sections of the book, the greatest research was in those oral histories of the era. Also, my mother saved and gave me the maps we used for that 1959 journey, and when I was writing the book, my wife and drove those roads (all superseded now by interstate highways), where I made notes of what we passed, the geography, and so on. That was delightful. What happens in research, as writers will likely tell you, is that you discover wonderful things doing research that you hadn’t known about but which find a perfectly resonant home in your book. This happened several times. I also went to Florida to research large portions of The Postcard, which takes place on the Gulf coast.
J.J. Gow: What are some of your other work in progress?
Tony Abbott: I’m writing a novel now—revision due a month from now—about twin brothers, one of whom has passed on, but who is drawn back into this life by his surviving twin to solve the death. It’s a murder mystery, essentially, but a family drama most of all. With some significant humor. There’s a bit of noir going on as well, which is a genre I love. If it sounds rather high concept, I suppose it is, but what is resulting is something quite different for me, and complex in terms of family dynamics.
Tony Abbott: Good question. There are all sorts of allusions, I suppose, and words taken from my favorite books and films that I can’t expect anyone to know, not even my editors. That’s all the fun of writing. You pour yourself into a book—after all, it can consume years of your life!—and whether anyone gets it doesn’t matter as much as you knowing it’s there. Copernicus is filled with such things, mainly because I was able to dive into historical sources to develop some of the characters.
J.J. Gow: What was your hardest scene and the most fun scene to write?
Tony Abbott: About The Summer of Owen Todd, let me say that it was hard to write for very long at a sitting. The story is intense in a way that marks a new level for me. I would have to take breaks almost every hour or so, walk away from my desk, do something else, read, walk, nap, before returning. I’ve never experienced that sort of difficulty in progress. I’m thankful the book is rather short, so I was able to finish it. Speaking of particular hard scenes, I suppose the final chapters, when Owen finally moves and does what he’s been rolling over in his mind for so long, were the hardest to get right. It had to move both slowly and quickly at the same time. Fun? The go-kart scenes were fun to write.
J.J. Gow: What other authors and editors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer? Did you have a mentor when you started your writing career?
Tony Abbott: My mentor was and is Patricia Reilly Giff. The writing classes she gave, which I attended at the beginning of my career, were instrumental in my getting my first books published. She’s a wonderful author and teacher, and friend. I know some authors, meeting mostly at conferences and book festivals, but I suppose I’m essentially a recluse. I learned a great word for this the other day, one that apparently comes from Herman Melville: “isolato.” I am an isolato. I like to be alone with my books—not my books, but my library of books by others. I am happiest when I’m reading in solitude.
J.J. Gow: If you could tell your younger writing-self anything, what would it be?
Tony Abbott: This is something I don’t think about. Everything that’s happened to me in my writing life has brought me here. I don’t mind being “here” at all. Clearly, I’m not the person to ask to write a letter to my younger self. In many ways, I feel I’m still my younger self.
J.J. Gow: What are some important/helpful books or magazines you would recommend for writers?
Tony Abbott: I read book reviews and essays in the newspapers and journals. I like these above all. There are a couple of good books for writers, I think. Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction are two that I go back to. Also David Lodge’s book where he takes bits of literature and dissects them. When I was teaching writing, I advised my students (forced them?) to write in different genres: they had to write nonfiction, no matter how much of a fantasy novelist they wished to be. That still seems a sane way to teach one how to write: know all styles.
J.J. Gow: For young and aspiring writers out there, what are your top 3 advices for them?
Tony Abbott: Read everything. That’s one, two, and three. For writers who want to write for children or young adults, read some of that literature, sure, but read adult literature at least three quarters of the time. You’ll learn to write from the great writers, not from the people doing what you want to do. It’s rather like the idea that you’ll be a better tennis player by playing against someone better than you. My favorite authors are John Updike, John Cheever, James M. Cain, James Agee, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Strout, Faulkner, Capote, Seamus Heaney, Zadie Smith.
J.J. Gow: Which was your favorite book when you were a child? What memory do you have associating with it?
Tony Abbott: By far The Wind in the Willows. It contains worlds in it, and the language is Mozartian in its beauty. I will always remember reading a picture book version of this that my mother gave me (my first edition of this great story), struggling over the Britishisms, the multi-syllabic words, but loving the adventure and humor and the excitement of the tremendous battle at the end. Particularly, I remember mispronouncing the word “startled,” thinking it was “start—led” and being corrected—gently, always gently—by my mom.
J.J. Gow: What do you like to do when you are not writing?
Tony Abbott: Read, almost always read. I play guitar a little bit. I play violin a little bit less. I know one song on the piano.
J.J. Gow: If you can have dinner with a famous person (dead or alive), who would that be and what question would you like to ask him/her?
Tony Abbott: I might have said Faulkner, but he is known not to speak to people, so it might not work so well. I’ll fall back on Charles Dickens, to get a feel for how he managed his tremendous prolificity, and speed. How he would write chapters that were published serially and then was able to gather them together into a coherent—and very long—whole novel. Astounding. Also, how he worked his public self, including his charitable projects, into his writing life. He remains for me a sort of ideal of great writer-slash-humanitarian.
J.J. Gow: What is your favorite snack and beverage?
Tony Abbott: Single malt scotch and Frito’s Scoops. Well, you asked. Otherwise, I like coffee. And Frito’s Scoops. Suddenly, I’m hungry.
J.J. Gow: Thank you for giving me the privilege to interview you!
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