Raincoast Books offered me the opportunity to interview British Columbia resident Gerry Swallow, a stand-up comedian turned screenwriter and author, about his latest middle grade book Long Live the Queen ($22.99, Bloomsbury Children’s Books), a sequel to last year’s Blue in the Face A Story of Risk, Rhyme and Rebellion ($19.99, Bloomsbury Children’s Books).
The books follow the story of Elspeth Pule, who can throw a tantrum the way a pro quarterback can throw a football. In other words, she’s very good at it. So when her parents refuse to buy her a pet alpaca, she screams, hollers, and holds her breath until she passes out cold. When she wakes she finds herself in a magical kingdom inhabited by characters she only thought she knew. Humpty Dumpty is a 007-type spy, Bo-Peep is highly trained in the art of Shaolin stick fighting, and Old King Cole is really Old King Krool, an evil tyrant who has banished Dumpty, Bo-Peep, and their friends to the forest – and to a life of poverty and oppression.
The books are laugh-out-loud funny with nursery rhyme characters you’ll see in a whole new light.
Book Time: Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me. Congrats on your latest book.
Gerry Swallow: My pleasure. And thank you.
Q. Blue in the Face, A Story of Risk, Rhyme and Rebellion and Long Live the Queen came out about a year apart. When you wrote Blue in the Face, did you know you were going to write a sequel?
A. I wish I had. But because I didn’t, I used up just about every known nursery rhyme on the first book, creating quite a challenge in finding an additional 20 to parody for the second book.
Q. Why did you bring Elspeth Pule and her friends back?
I felt that, at the end of Book 1, things were really just getting started. Though I don’t generally enjoy writing sequels, there was so much potential for the characters and so much fun to be had that, in this case, writing one proved irresistible.
Q. What do you like best about these characters? Who is your favourite? Why? Who is your least favourite? Why?
A. My favourite characters are always those that are extremely funny or incredibly evil. And there’s nothing quite like writing for a character with a unique perspective, like a slightly annoying talking stick, or a giant wheel of cheese, fond of referring to himself in the third person. Or third cheese, as it were. As far as least favourite, if I ever feel that way toward a character I’ve created, I’ll usually go back and either make them more interesting or cut them out entirely.
Q. Is Elspeth’s character based on anyone? Are any of the others?
A. Though I’m sure it’s common practice among many writers, I don’t recall ever having based a character on a real live person. As for Elspeth, to be perfectly honest, when I first came up with the idea of a brat holding her breath until she passes out as the means of transporting her to a magical world, I referred to the project as “Veruca Salt in Wonderland.” Of course, as I developed the idea further, Elspeth quickly became her own person, though I certainly don’t mind giving a shout out to the great Roald Dahl.
Q. Your first three books were written by Dr. Cuthbert Soup. Why did you write them under a different name? Why use your own for these two books?
A. Dr. Cuthbert Soup is such an omnipresent narrator that he tends to become a character unto himself. In fact, in the final book of the series, he actually inserts himself into the story, ala Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions. He has a very specific and forceful point of view and, ultimately, I decided that he was not the one to tell this particular story. Another reason for leaving the nom de plume behind is that I have books in the works that are aimed at a much older audience that would probably be reluctant to read something written by a guy named Soup. Although, now that I think about it, my real name doesn’t exactly sound any less like a pseudonym.
Q. Your last series of books was a trilogy, will we see Elspeth again?
A. Book 2 is intentionally open-ended should there be a call for a third instalment. Now that Elspeth has had two adventures in New Winkieland, I would love to bring those characters into our world (the Deadlands) and see what happens.
Q. I laughed out loud during many parts of your book, particularly the “real” nursery rhymes at the end of each chapter, and the “inside” jokes within the pages. Do you think today’s children will understand the humour in your books? When you wrote the stories, did you write it for the children themselves or where the jokes intended for the reading parents?
A. Much of what’s written for kids these days in the way of movies and books includes a healthy dose of humour for adults. While past generations subsisted on a steady diet of obvious physical comedy and easy jokes about underpants, today’s kids are constantly exposed to a more sophisticated level of humour. As a result, I’m continually impressed with just how much they understand. Sometimes jokes I include just to amuse myself end up being personal favourites of my young readers.
Q. You have a varied creative background – stand-up comedian, movie writer, creative consultant, actor, author. Do you have a favourite medium? What does each offer you in terms of fulfilling your personal desires and goals? Who do you most enjoy writing for?
A. While it can take years to see the results of your work with books and movies, stand-up comedy can be exhilarating in that if offers instant gratification. Though alluring to be sure, I think that that instant and frequent exhilaration can be very harmful to one’s mental health. It’s often said that people who suffer from depression or bipolar disorder are more likely to gravitate toward stand-up comedy. I sometimes wonder if it’s not the emotional ups and downs of the job that are creating or, at the very least, contributing to these conditions.
These days, I’m happy to leave those highs and lows behind for the steadiness and delayed gratification of writing books and movies; books in particular. With movies, the only words I write that the audience will experience directly are those that make up the dialogue. With books, however, each and every one of them will pass directly through the reader’s brain, thus each is important and must be chosen with great care. It’s like sculpting with words; taking away, adding, pushing and pulling until it looks just right. Another reason I prefer writing books to movies is the creative leeway it affords. If, for example, I want to drop in a few political statements, as I did with Long Live the Queen, I have the freedom to do so.
Q. Do you have a dream job? What? Why?
A. I’m one of the lucky few who can’t imagine wanting to do anything but what I’m doing right now.
Q. What is next for you?
A. I’ve yet to dabble in live theater, and would love to write and direct a play.
Q. You grew up in the U.S., but now call Canada home. When did you come to Canada? Why?
A. I came to Canada in the early 1990s to avoid the draft. By the time I realized that the draft hadn’t been in effect since the late ’70s, I had grown to love it here. I’ve always felt incredibly fortunate to be living in this great country, and especially so since the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Q. May I ask where you live? How many children do you have? Do they inspire your writing?
A. I live in beautiful Victoria, B.C., with my son (7) and my daughter (5). I also have a grown daughter who lives in Montreal where, I’m happy to say, she is pursuing her own writing career. As to whether they inspire my writing, I suppose they do indirectly because they tend to inspire me in every other way.
Updated: You can read my review of these books here.