In Conversation with Writer in Residence, Swapna Haddow

By International Friendship Day | Posted: Friday July 29, 2022

Dunedin Public Libraries’ Reading Promotion Coordinator, Jackie McMillan, interviews Swapna Haddow, the award-winning children’s author of the Dave Pigeon series, about her books and her working life in Ōtepoti Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature.

Swapna Haddow loves writing about boisterous animals and madcap adventures and works with publishers, Faber & Faber, Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Scholastic, to bring stories to young readers around the world.

Originally from London, Swapna moved to New Zealand with her husband, her son and their dog, Archie in 2018. After settling in Dunedin in late 2019, Swapna arrived in time to run a workshop on writing junior fiction series at WILD Imaginings, a national hui for New Zealand children’s writers and illustrators. When not writing Swapna is usually reading, taking in the stunning Otago vistas, or heading down to Granny Annie’s Sweet Shop for a supply of Jaffa Cakes.

Swapna's workshop at WILD Imaginings, November 2019

Jackie put some questions to Swapna about her books and her working life.

Q. Were the Dave Pigeon stories your first published books, or had you had stories published before?

A: I had been writing and sending out work to publishers and agents for a couple of years when I entered the Greenhouse Funny Prize in 2012. My work was shortlisted, and I took the next couple of years to hone my craft and work on my voice before I entered again in 2014 and won with Dave Pigeon.

Q. How important was winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize in your journey to publication?

A. That win landed me my first book deal with Faber & Faber. Winning awards is a real boost to a writer’s confidence. Before winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize, I had little input from professionals in the industry about my writing. Many writers will be able to understand this, as it often feels like you are trying to climb a mountain in the dark without a guide or a flashlight. A shortlisting, or a win, can finally feel like you have seen a signpost indicating you are heading in the right direction.

Dave Pigeon has gone on to win awards selected by teachers, librarians and children and I couldn’t be more proud to have this support for my books. It is a privilege to wake up each morning and do the job I love, so when my books win awards it feels like validation that I’m doing my job well.

Dave Pigeon, Faber & Faber, 2016

Q. The Dave Pigeon series is very funny. What attracts you to humorous stories, and are there times when you find it difficult to write humour?

A. We are living in tumultuous times and it can be hard to write funny stories right now, but we need the laughs, so I try to plough on. Humour has got me through many difficult times and when I’m writing it, I get to remove myself from the world for a bit and spend time with delightful characters, which is why I love writing funny.

Q. Dave Pigeon has a sidekick called Skipper. Which character do you relate to more?

A. Skipper is our reliable narrator—he’s key to the story. Dave is so arrogant and self-involved; he doesn’t have the insight to be a reliable narrator. When you write characters, it’s important to have balance and it is Skipper who balances out Dave.  I definitely relate to Skipper as a writer, but when it comes to biscuits, Dave and I are soul twins.

Q. Anthropomorphisma big word I learned at library schooldescribes when animals and toys, etc., are given human characteristics, and it features often in children's books. Why have you chosen to make animals your main characters?

A. I love writing from an animal’s perspective. It’s good fun to give them voices and try and figure out what goes on in their heads. I don’t intentionally choose animals as my main characters—it seems they come to me more than I seek them out!

Q. Were your favourite books about animals when you were a child?

A. I loved Charlotte’s Web as a child, but I read very broadly, and I loved humans as main characters as much as animals. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on and I loved going to the library. The librarians soon got to know me and would put aside books by Roald Dahl and Nancy Drew mysteries, knowing how much I loved those books.

Q. Children's fiction series are currently particularly popular, and there seem to be lots written for new readers. What do you think makes them so appealing?

A. I think this area of fiction has been overlooked for some time. The gap between picture books and chapter books was bridged primarily by phonics and learn-to-read schemes, but children still want exciting, highly illustrated stories at this age. It’s an exciting time for this age group with so many brilliant books now available to fill that void.

I am still growing as a writer and experimenting with my voice. In 2021, Scholastic UK published my story Torn Apart: The Partition of India, 1947, which follows two boys and their journey during the time of India’s independence. This book differs from my usual style of writing, but it was a very important story to me as an Indian.

Torn Apart: The Partition of India, 1947, Scholastic, 2021

Q. Dave Pigeon is a series of four books. Are there more Dave books coming?

A. Illustrator Sheena Dempsey and I are having a little break from the Dave Pigeon books as we work on a brand-new young series called Bad Panda; the first in the series published in 2021 with Faber & Faber and Bad Panda: The Cake Escape was published in August 2022.

Bad Panda, The Cake Escape, Faber & Faber, 2022

I also have a young series called Ballet Bunnies published with Oxford University Press which came out under my pseudonym Swapna Reddy and is illustrated by Binny Talib. It’s a gorgeous ballerina series that was originally created in-house and I am super chuffed to have been able to write the series for them.

Ballet Bunnies, The New Class, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2021

Q. What age group is your favourite age group to write for?

A. I love writing for younger children. My ego is out of control and I crave seeing my text illustrated, so I am always pulled to young fiction and picture books. I am thrilled that my debut picture books, illustrated by Dapo Adeola are now published with Macmillan.

My Dad is a Grizzly Bear, Pan Macmillan 2021
My Mum is a Lioness, Pan Macmillan 2022

Q. What advice would you like to share with young writers?

A. My best advice would be to read and read lots. Read everything, even books that don’t normally appeal to you. You might be pleasantly surprised. Or you might prove yourself right. Either way, reading helps you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. So, read widely.

Q. Tell us about any writers for children or young adults that you have discovered as an adult.

A. I have been trying to immerse myself in New Zealand writing since I arrived here, and I have loved what I’ve discovered. Some of my favourite children’s and young adult writers include Ella West, Elizabeth Knox, Vasanti Unka, Gavin Bishop, Emma Wood and Sacha Cotter, to name a few. I adore The Bomb by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan—it’s so visually stunning.

Q. Your publishers are mostly based on the other side of the world and you have now been in Aotearoa New Zealand for nearly four years – how has this affected the way you work?

A. I’ve been so lucky to have super supportive publishers. The pandemic forced the world online, and this proves that you don’t have to live in the same country as your publisher to make books. Because of the time difference I have had some early morning and late night meetings, but I sleep funny hours anyway so it’s all good.

Q. Half of your life in Aotearoa New Zealand has been during the Covid-19 pandemic. What difference has the pandemic made to how you’d normally promote your books?

A. Normally, I would be in schools and at festivals talking about my books – living through a pandemic has made this tricky. I’ve had to think more about how I can use online platforms. Twitter is a great way to connect with teachers, librarians and parents of children who like my books.

Most of my events have been adapted to Zoom and Skype and it has made them more accessible to me – I’m able to get around the world without leaving my home office!

Q. What has living in Ōtepoti Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature meant for you and your writing life?

A. Dunedin is buzzing with creative energy. It has been so wonderful to connect with the children’s book community here and it’s been thoroughly inspiring for my work. I love that there are so many literary events going on throughout the year for all age groups so I can get my family involved in the literary buzz too.

Q. This year, 2022, you have been awarded the fellowship with the longest title: The University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children’s Writer in Residence, which is based here in Ōtepoti. What has this fellowship meant to you?

A. It's been an incredible experience. There are not many chances in a writer’s life to be able to fully indulge a passion project fulltime whilst not worrying about an income – the fellowship has allowed me to do this. I’m so excited about the book I’m writing as Children’s Writer in Residence and absolutely honoured to be part of such a prestigious programme. I’m going to be so sad when it’s over, but I can’t wait to see who steps into the fellowship next.

Q. Did you have a plan for your fellowship? If so, can you tell us a little about it?

A. I did have a plan! I wanted to write a middle grade book about a heist. At the heart of the story, I wanted to focus on sisterhood, family, and mental health – all things that are deeply part my own life. So far, I’ve stuck to it! Some parts have changed slightly but the idea was so fully formed when it came to me, I haven’t strayed too far from it.

Q. Have you had any new inspiration because of the fellowship?

A. I have had some other ideas for stories that have only sprouted since starting the fellowship but I’m trying hard not to be too distracted by them. Hopefully I will have a bit of time towards the end to play around with these ideas.

Little Rabbit’s Big Surprise, Stripes Publishing, 2019

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