Australian writer and historian Ken Spillman, 60, may be based in Perth but he shares a special relationship with India. His first book with an Indian character and setting, Advaita The Writer, in 2011, ended up on CBSE’s recommendation list, and subsequent visits gave rise to other stories for children and young adults such as Daydreamer Dev, The Auto That Flew, Rahul and the Dream Bat and No Fear, Jiyaa! With more than 70 books, the writer has also engaged with Australian social history, sports writing, poetry and literary criticism. Back home, he is regarded for writing history in a lucid fashion and fitting it in a broader context. His first major solo publication, Identity Prized (1985), was on the history of Subiaco in Western Australia, a region whose history and institutions he had widely documented in the last three decades. He received international recognition in 2009 for his Jake series of books for early readers that has been published in over 20 countries. He was in Delhi recently for children’s literature festival, Bookaroo. Excerpts from an interview:
Many of your stories and characters are set in India.
I had teachers of Anglo-Indian descent who spoke lovingly of India. When I came here in 2006, it was just casual, but I knew within 24 hours that I would keep coming back. But setting my stories here was unplanned. It wasn’t until 2008 when I was at a residency here at Sanskriti Kendra that a story came to me which had an Indian character (Advaita the Writer). I thought I’ll just write it but it will never be published, but then it did. It gave me the confidence to write more Indian characters.
Who are your favourite Indian writers?
That’s another way I’ve familiarised myself with this country. Literary fiction from India is my favourite. In the last 13 years, probably two-thirds of my reading has been Indian authors, and it really takes me inside Indian families and different cultures across the country. Some of the writers who made me love India are Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, and I’ve enjoyed works by newer writers like Anuradha Roy and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.
And Ruskin Bond?
Oh, absolutely. When I first came to India, I went to the children’s section at the bookstores. I wanted to see what writers in India were writing and I saw so many books by Ruskin Bond. They were so wonderfully constructed and the writing was so crystal clear. I met him very briefly in Mussoorie. Since then I’ve come to know so many Indian writers. The writing for children and young adults — that market has changed so much and more quality work is being produced. Initially, there was a domination of authors from the US and the UK, but now, we see so many Indian writers.
Authors these days are writing more about difficult issues.
That’s true, especially for the 12+ readership. It’s really necessary because it’s one of the ways you can build resilience by exposure, and a safe place to do so is through books. In Advaita, I took her into a place of such pain of homesickness. She’s in a residential school and missing home, family, friends, her bookshelves, and Delhi. I take the reader to a place of home through imagination. That’s one of the reasons I’m so enthusiastic about the series Daydreamer Dev, because in the stories he can go anywhere through the wings of imagination. For me, as an author, it’s wonderful because I haven’t been to those places.
Do you think children are reading enough these days?
I actually do think that books are being read pretty much as good as ever. Ten to 15 years ago, people didn’t expect that would happen and thought kids would be reading on devices. But they are still in love with the physical book. I also think children should be given options with books, instead of saying they must read a particular one. This way they will enjoy it and read more.
What are the new issues, and the kind of characters you want to write about?
What I’ve discovered with Daydreamer Dev is that I’ve always loved travelling, and these are places I’ve haven’t been to — the Mt Everest, Sahara and Amazon — I can virtually go there with the power of imagination. I would like to do more of that. I’ve been asking children about where they would like Dev to go, and some suggested the space. The other place popular with them is the volcano. I would also like to write about the environment. Dev may go to Antarctica, may be the North Pole, where global warming will become a part of his learning.
What is your next book about?
I’m working on a picture book to be published by Pickle Yolk, called My Upside Down World. It’s about a girl and her family, who is handed down an old map. Her brother, who is a bit of a nuisance, has turned the map upside down and it seems like her own world is upside down. It’s ultimately about how families live in their own little worlds but come back together when it really matters.