Saturday, June 12, 2010

Interview with Melanie Schwapp

Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Melanie, I really appreciate it.

It’s an honor and a great pleasure.

So tell us a little bit about yourself. What makes Melanie Schwapp interesting?

I don’t think I’m all that interesting (smile). I think I’m just a typical mother trying to juggle work and looking after her family. If anything makes me interesting it’s how much I enjoy it all, how much I love being with my family and watching my children discover more and more of their world and the part they play in it.

Let's talk about your book, Lally-May's Farm Suss. As far as I know, to "suss" something is to figure something out, to finally grasp something difficult and elusive of understanding. Who is Lally-May and what does she figure out in this book?

Well, that was not the exact interpretation of ‘suss’ according to Lally-May. The book uses the Jamaican dialect interpretation, which is ‘to gossip’. Lally-May is quite a precocious child, and loves to use words that she hears other people use, especially adults. It makes her feel quite ‘grown up’. So she uses the word ‘suss’ to tell her story since she feels that in speaking about herself, she is ‘sussing’. However, Lally-May does very much discover something in the book, a lesson which many children sometimes learn the ‘hard way’ (as we say in Jamaica), and that is, ‘to do as you are told’.

Well you learn something new every day! Here's something else I don't know: the book is based on a Jamaican myth. I’m not Jamaican so forgive my ignorance, but what myth is the book based on?

Ahhh - the dreaded ‘Rolling Calf’! The creature that every child growing up in the country areas of Jamaica fears! According to Jamaican folklore, the rolling calf is the embodiment of evil spirits that roam the countryside at night, wearing a bell around its neck and searching with fiery eyes for some helpless mortal to destroy. It is a myth used many a time to control rambunctious children – ‘if you don’t behave yourself, the rolling calf is going to come for you!’

Many authors speak of a personal relationship with their characters. Is there any behind-the-scenes gossip -or insights- about Lally-May or any of the other characters that you'd like to share?

People often ask me who Lally-May is, and I really can’t answer, because she is such a mix of all the children in my life – my own kids along with my nieces and nephews, and also a little of myself as a child. I also used to spend summers at my grandparents’ farm in St. James, and as much as Lally-May does, thought the world revolved around me :). Then in watching my own children grow, I realized that it really is a blessing to be happy in your own skin as a child, since it makes the world so much less threatening. I realized how important it was for my children to know their heritage, how important it was in giving them a proud, solid base so that wherever they ventured in the world, they would always have a foundation beneath their feet. And so, Lally-May was born, from bedtime stories to my children about Jamaican myths and culture, and also from anecdotes to help them deal with difficult situations in their lives.

Kojovi Dawes illustrated Lally-May's Farm Suss. How did his vision of the story coincide with the one in your mind as the author?

Completely! I remember when Kojovi and I first spoke about Lally-May and he laughed at her escapades as if she were as real to him as she was to me. And then when I saw his first sketch, I screamed – it was awesome to see this person that I’d pictured in my mind actually appear right before me. Kojovi was on the exact same page in his interpretation of ALL the characters as I was.

Publishing outlets for Caribbean children's writers are not as numerous as I, personally, think they should be. Please tell us a bit about how you got Lally-May's Farm Suss published.

I must admit, it was a struggle. Not many publishers liked the concept of Lally-May – the voice of a child as exactly a child would speak, with the mistakes in grammar and the way she described people with child-like abandon - the teacher with the very sweet perfume and the housekeeper with the missing teeth. Publishers felt that these factors would be offensive. However, just as I was about to give up, a publisher who’d lived in Japan fell in love with the book, and set me on the path to publishing. Unfortunately, our arrangement fell through, and I continued the process on my own.

Please share with us your creative process. Do you work from an outline or is it a stream of writing? 

My creative process differs according to what I’m writing. When I write for my children, I know what I want to say, and I know where I want the story to end up, so I just make my outline and add the ‘meat’ to the bones. However, when I write my short stories or the novel I’ve just completed, it’s a different process – the characters lead me. Sometimes I find the story going in a totally different direction from where I’d intended, and I catch myself saying “where is this coming from?” It’s from the characters as they grow from flat, one-dimensional figures to three-dimensional PEOPLE, with personalities so strong that they guide the plot. 

What inspired you to write for children?

My three little angels. Bedtimes were an exciting time for us as a family as we looked forward to hearing about another of Lally-May’s escapades, and when they said, “Mom, you should write these down”, I did.

Last month you did a book reading at the Bookland bookstore in New Kingston (Jamaica.) How did that come about and what was the experience like?

Bookland, as a contribution to Literacy Month in Jamaica, has enlisted a number of authors to conduct readings at their New Kingston store. They asked me if I would be one of the contributors and I was excited to do it. It always remains a great honor to me when other people enjoy Lally-May. She was such a personal icon in our family, that to see her appreciated by others is a fulfilling experience. The event was an absolute pleasure. 

Do you have any more readings or book signings lined up and if so, where and when can we see you read?

I have been asked to do another reading at a literacy festival in October.

What sorts of books did you enjoy as a girl? What are some of your favorite books today?

Oh gosh, the Bobbsey Twins, without a doubt were my favourite childhood books. I loved the closeness of the Bobbsey family, and the intelligence and independence of the children to actually solve mysteries. I actually formed a detective club with my friends to try to solve crimes in our neighborhood. We had lots of meetings, but to date, no crimes solved :).

It’s difficult to pinpoint favorite books today, because I love so many different styles of writing. I love that we are all so different, yet all so human, and that writing expresses this. I really enjoy books that are deeply cultural, like ‘The Kite Runner’, ‘Ancestor Stones’, and all of Andrea Levy and Edwidge Danticat’s novels.

Please share with us your latest project and where we can learn more about your exciting career. Can you tell us anything about your upcoming books?

The novel “The Dew Angels” that I’ve just completed took me nearly six years to write. It is truly a piece of my heart on paper, because it has been my outlet for sadness, happiness and self-actualization for the last six years. It is about a girl growing up in Jamaica and dealing with many of the color and class prejudices that exist silently in our culture. I enjoyed disappearing into the novel, and when I’d finished I felt as if a best friend had just departed from my life. I am now in the process of negotiating its publishing with some agencies.

My ‘career’ however, is still very much being ‘mummy’ and landscaper, and not much to learn about unless you speak to my children :). Hopefully, as my children spread their wings, I will find more time to pursue publishing more of my stories.

Where/how can we purchase Lally-May's Farm Suss?

The book is available at most local bookstores (distributed by Novelty Trading Co.) and on the website ‘’

Melanie, thank you so much for sharing your time and insights with us. I wish you all the best in your future career.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to have spoken about my love of writing.