Interview by David McDonald.
George Ivanoff is an author and stay-at-home dad residing in Melbourne. He has written more than 100 books for kids and teens, including the RFDS adventures, the You Choose series and the Gamers trilogy. He is thrilled that You Choose: The Treasure of Dead Man’s Cove won the 2015 YABBA for Fiction for Younger Readers and that You Choose: Alien Invaders From Beyond the Stars has been shortlisted this year. George drinks too much coffee, eats too much chocolate and watches too much Doctor Who. Check out his website: http://georgeivanoff.com.au
You recently announced that you are starting work on books Books 11 and 12 of the “You Choose” series—what an achievement! Can you tell us a bit about where the series came from, and how it has evolved? What is the secret of its longevity?
The series came from my love of interactive fiction, particularly the original Choose Your Own Adventure books from the 70s/80s. A number of years ago I wrote a short piece of interactive fiction for a series of school readers. I was working to a brief with a whole bunch of very restrictive requirements. But I loved the process… and it reminded me of how much I loved reading this type of story. I thought it would be a lot of fun to write a full-on interactive book without all the education market restrictions. So I wrote a proposal and pitched it to Random House Australia (I had just written short stories for a couple of their anthologies and had received great feedback, so I thought the time was right.).
The evolution of the series has been interesting. The first four subjects were chosen by my publisher based on ten or so outlines I suggested. From there on, I’ve chosen the subjects/genres, albeit with more input from my readers as of Book 7. Super Sports Spectacular and Trapped in the Games Grid were a direct result of kids asking when I was going to write a sports themed or computer games themed You Choose book. And it’s gone on from there — spies, dragons, spiders and robots have all been popular requests from readers.
The structure of the books has also evolved, with me trying out new things. The first book had a very straightforward structure with one main plotline; a bunch of smaller ones and dead ends around it. I’ve varied that as I’ve gone along. The second book has two plotlines of similar length. Book 7 has five shorter plotlines of similar length.
The first ten books start off with the reader being given all the pertinent information prior to making their first decision. But with Book 11, I decided to withhold information. And it’s been interesting watching reactions during test readings with school groups.
As for the secret of longevity… I think it’s a simple case of the interactive format. Kids like it when they’re given some control over the story. It’s what I loved about the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I think it’s the closest thing to a computer game experience while reading a book.
You’ve also recently worked on a picture book for an ongoing series, titled “Meet… The Flying Doctors”. What was it like working on a picture book? Did you need to change your approach to research or storytelling?
Working on this picture book was a dream come true. I’ve been trying to break into the picture book market for years, so to finally get one was pretty thrilling.
Having said that, it was not an unfamiliar process. I’ve written a lot for the education market over the years, including heavily illustrated non-fiction school readers. The process for this book was similar to those, but without the restrictive word lists and strict reading level requirements. It was a matter of doing the research, choosing a focus for the book and then distilling the information into a simple narrative. But being a picture book rather than an educational reader, I had more freedom with the structure. So I was able to give the non-fiction elements a fictional context — a young boy, featured on the first and last pages, telling the story of the formation of the RFDS.
School visits seem to be a big part of your ongoing routine. What goes into putting something like that together? Who do students respond to meetings authors face to face, and does it feed back into your writing?
When I first started doing school visits I would do a lot of prep for each one. But I’ve done so many of them now, that I don’t need to do much to get ready (unless I’ve been asked for a very specific presentation, such as an upcoming one on researching and writing non-fic). I’ve also found that a certain amount of winging it and responding to the audience works wells.
Kids tend to respond with honesty. Just as they are effusive with their praise, they don’t hold back with criticism. And they are full of suggestions, letting me know what they want me to write next. And as I’ve indicated in my response to the first question… I listen.
Best bit of feedback I ever had was from a primary school boy who came up to me after a presentation, put his hands on his hips and very earnestly told me: “You know, your books would be a whole lot better if they had fart jokes in them.” I ended up putting an entire subplot about farting into my next book, Super Sports Spectacular.
What Australian work have you loved recently?
Grimsdon and its sequel New City, by Deborah Abela. Is it possible for a book to be both a dystopian sci-fi and a charming kids’ story? These two tales certainly manage it. Plus they throw in some environmental messages. A captivating read about kids in a flooded city after an environmental disaster, and their subsequent move to a new city as refugees.
Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?
Terrance Dicks. Because I’m a fan of his writing and I’m a bit of Doctor Who obsessive. He wrote one of the greatest opening lines ever; and I’d like to tell him that I use that sentence in school writing workshops. “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.” You’re gonna have to guess which book that comes from. 🙂