A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Today I’m very excited to be speaking to Mo O’Hara whose MG novel MY BIG FAT ZOMBIE GOLDFISH, is a New York Times bestseller. The latest in the series, FINS OF FURY, is starting off the New Year with an extra big splash and a hypnotic stare.
Hi Mo, Happy Book birthday!
Thanks Nikki. Hello and Happy New Year!
Congratulations on the publication of My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish, Fins of Fury. It’s the third in the series, but can we go back to the very beginning to find out how you came up with the brilliant idea of Frankie, the zombie goldfish with hypnotic eyes?
It’s strange to say but My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish is based in real life. When my big brother (not an evil mad scientist big brother I might add but a non-evil bookseller big brother) and I were little we resuscitated our goldfish with a battery. It was pretty much the same way that Tom and Pradeep save Frankie except that our fish didn’t come back as a zombie. Well, at least not that we noticed anyway. It seemed to us that he lived a long and happy goldfish life. But the idea stayed with me and eventually I thought,’ Hmmm… what if when we brought our fish back from the brink of death he came back slightly wrong?’ That was a start of My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish.
I love the characters, especially the intrepid Tom and his geeky sidekick Pradeep. But what makes the book so different (apart from the zombified goldfish of course) is their evil big brothers. Is this something written from your own personal experience? (or will you be in mortal danger if you say anything?)
Thanks. I’m glad you like Tom and Pradeep. I would say that they are both based on friends, my own son and my big brother (and also me if I’m honest – especially the geekier traits).
Mark (AKA evil scientist big brother) and Sanj (the evil computer genius big brother) are based on various bullies that I’ve met throughout my life. The idea of sibling relationships though is totally influenced by my own experiences growing up and my own kids’ experiences now.
FINS OF FURY is comprised of two stories. In the first, Frankie Goes Wild, the team find themselves in the great outdoors. I don’t want to give too much away, but, as you are American, did summer camps and hunting big cats feature large in your childhood?
I never actually went away to summer camp. I know it’s a totally American thing, but not so much in my family or in my area. Also, I was a painfully shy kid so I would have curled up in a ball and died if I’d been sent away and had to talk to all new people. It was hard enough with the people I knew.
I guess it’s a ‘what would have happened’ story for me. I did go away to Girl Scout Camp though once for a long weekend so I did use that experience in writing that story. Also, I once got to play with a real baby cougar! Our old neighbours used to volunteer a lot for the local zoo. (We have a very good, and very conservation-based, local zoo only ten minutes from where I grew up.) They were able to let us play with the baby cougar. It soooo wouldn’t have gotten past Health and Safety now.
The second story is entitled Revenge of the Paranormal pets and features, among others, a teleporting tortoise named Boris. Please tell us that you had a teleporting tortoise!
I never had a teleporting tortoise myself but the house I lived in about 15 years ago had a family a few doors down that had a tortoise and he ALWAYS ended up in our back yard. He got past fences and foxes and gosh knows what else to get there so I always suspected that he actually teleported.
This is the third book in less than 12 months. When did you realise that Frankie’s story was going to need a shelf of its own in the bookshops, and how does it feel to see them all there?
Yes, obviously I wrote the original manuscript intending it to be a series. ( Nose grows so long that a condor could nest on it.)
OK, so it was actually my agent Gemma’s idea to perhaps make it into a series and Macmillan were very keen to see what happened to Frankie next as well. So I kick started some ideas and before I knew it, Frankie was out and about doing things I wouldn’t have imagined a few months before.
I still get a HUGE buzz from seeing a ‘school’ of zombie goldfish on a bookstore shelf!! I don’t think that will ever wear off. 🙂
I find even coming up with one story hard enough and am in awe of someone who can write a whole series. But what do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of writing in this way?
The advantage is that you get to revisit characters that you love. I really like being in Tom’s head. (It’s a quirky, fun place to be.) It’s like going on a trip with friends rather that with strangers. It’s still an adventure but there is familiarity too.
The disadvantage is that you might sometimes feel that you can’t possibilly find something new to happen to them. Sometimes I feel like I’ve ‘used up all the funny’ in me and can’t squeak out anything else. It’s weird though, at some point in the process the energy kicks in again and I’m off.
Your books are aimed at kids aged 7+. Do you instinctively know what is going to excite your audience and make them laugh, or do you have a team of tamed young beta readers to run stories by?
I do have a crack team of Beta Readers that I throw manuscripts at in exchange for food and orange squash (ie my kids). At 11 and 9 years old though they are fast outgrowing my readership. My older one has already balked at reading my new ms. I may try reading the next one to the kittens (our latest addition to the family). See what they think… hmmm….
Many of the reviews you get are from real life kids, who are, as we know, well known for their honesty. Of all of the feedback you’ve had what is your favourite?
I LOVE reading kids’ opinions and talking to them about the books at events. They have some fantastic story ideas and really strong opinions on what they like and what they don’t. My favourite comment was from a seven-year-old boy after a school visit. He said something like, ‘I’ve never read a whole big book before but I read your book in two days. All the way to the end!’ I nearly cried. To be some kid’s first book. It doesn’t get better than that.
Were you a big reader as a kid, and what were your favourite books before there were Zombie Goldfish to read about?
I was an early reader but not a very adventurous one. I liked reading a lot of factual stuff. My parents had this series of hardbound Time Life magazines that were amazing to read through. With them I could pretend I was anywhere in the world and make up my own adventures when I got there.
I think my favourite book as a small child was ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ My first ever Sci Fi book (I am a huge Sci Fi fan now) was ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ I remember that my favourite book when I was nine or ten was a book about an Amish girl called ‘Plain Girl.’ I just remember pretending to be Amish and acting out bits of the book on my own. For me that was the test of a good book. It wasn’t about what happend in the book, but about who you met inside. I think I still feel that way about stories actually. It’s all about who you meet in them.
And finally, we have to know, will there be more Frankie adventures? Or are you working on something else (still zombified, though, we hope!)
There are more zombie adventures in the pipeline but I can’t say more than that at the moment. Ideas are flowing and the keyboard is tapping away so watch this space. There’s more life in the old fish yet!
Thank you, Mo and Frankie!
Thanks Nikki for all your questions. It was really fun.
And again… Happy New Year!!!!!!
Mo has worked as an actress and as a storyteller, touring theatres and schools all across the UK and Ireland. As well as her stories for children Mo has also written for radio and theatre and has performed her own comedy material in London and Edinburgh. She also wrote six books in the Ladybird series “Puddle the Naughtiest Puppy.” Mo’s third book in the “My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish” series is published with Macmillan in January 4014.
Nikki Sheehan is the youngest daughter of a rocket scientist and went to a convent school in Cambridge where she was taught by real nuns in habits. Nikki’s first job was subtitling the Simpsons. She then retrained as a journalist and wrote features about child psychology for parenting magazines and the national press. Her debut novel for young teens, WHO FRAMED KLARIS CLIFF? is out on February 6th 2014.