We’re delighted to be bringing you today an interesting interview with Jenny Blackford, author of our upcoming(May) title, Fil and Harry. The interview was conducted by our fantastic intern Sharnee Rawson.
Authors often report ‘lightning bolt’ moments of inspiration when developing their work. Was this your experience with Fil and Harry?
I often used to dream of my cat talking to me (in human English, not in Cat). One morning the cat was loudly demanding SOMETHING — maybe he wanted me to feed him, maybe to pick him up, or put him down RIGHT NOW, or…. (He was a very demanding cat.) I said, “Well, why don’t you just tell me what you want in English, like you did last night? I know you can do it when you really want to”.
It took a minute for me to go, Oops, cats don’t really talk. It was just a dream.
Fil and Harry grew out of that Oops moment. In Fil and Harry, Fil’s cat Harry really CAN talk in human English. As I’m sure many of them could, if they really wanted to. Though probably not my current cat, who isn’t the most colourful kitten in the litter box.
You’ve written for young readers before, including the award-winning novel The Girl in the Mirror. How was the experience of writing Fil and Harry compared with your other works?
I was so delighted that The Girl in the Mirror won the 2020 Davitt Award for Best Children’s Crime Novel!
Most of what I write is poems and short stories, many of which have been published in that grand literary institution The School Magazine. And two of those School Magazine short stories have grown into novels with Christmas Press!
The Girl in the Mirror started as “Bertie”, a short story published in The School Magazine in 2005. The situation of the characters in the story demanded to be deepened and widened into a novel. The new book, Fil and Harry, also grew from a story published in The School Magazine, that one in 2006. Fil, her grandmother, her talking cat and her treacherous “best friend” cried out to be expanded.
Fil struggles with friendship and ‘fitting in’ at school throughout the book. Do you have any advice for other kids struggling with this issue?
Fitting in at school and trying to make friends can be terrifying, especially for introverts like me and Fil, and for anyone who is different in some way. I changed schools often as a kid, four different primary schools and two different high schools, and I had to try to fit in and make friends every time. And some kids have a lot more changes than that.
Most grown-ups will tell you not to worry, that making friends and fitting in is easy and everyone can do it. I’d like to tell all the kids out there struggling with fitting in that it might be easy for some people, but it’s really difficult for others. And it can be worse than that. Just as some adults are difficult people, some kids are. Sometimes, people who you think are your friends really aren’t. They’re just using you, and it hurts terribly when you find that out. But a lot of kids are genuinely lovely, and sometimes friends you make at school are still great friends decades later. I dedicated Fil and Harry to one of them, my friend Amanda, who I first met at the start of High School when we were both 11.
Fil and Harry also explores the impact of divorce on children. Do you think the book has a good message for tackling such a difficult event?
We never find out why Fil’s mother left the family in the time before the story starts, though we learn that Fil was understandably miserable back then, but Fil and her brother visit her in Perth regularly, and the current situation seems generally amicable. Fil’s family issues as the novel starts are with her stepmother Elspeth, who tries much too hard about everything, including getting Fil and her brother to eat lovely healthy broccoli. It doesn’t help matters that Fil’s artist grandmother is holidaying with the family, and redecorating the kids’ rooms. Everyone is tense. But all of the adults are doing their best, and everyone benefits from that.
I know that some divorces are horrible, and many books deal with the fallout from that, but my aim was that Fil and Harry should be fun to read, even while it was dealing with some serious issues. I try to deal with divorce, the tightrope-walk of fitting in at school, and the perfidy of Mean Girls with a fairly light touch in Fil and Harry.
So far, no sequel has been planned, but it’s hard to imagine normalcy with a talking cat! What other wacky adventures do you think await the main characters?
Hmmm, this is a question I wasn’t expecting! Harry the clever cat could get Fil into and out of all sorts of trouble! He does have a habit of talking when he shouldn’t.
I’ll have to put my thinking cap on.
And finally—how would you react to discovering your cat could talk?
In a nutshell, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. It was always obvious that he thought he was at least as human as me.
My current cat is a very beautiful Ragdoll with stunning blue eyes, but he’s middle-aged now and he’s never shown any sign of wanting to talk 🙂