You’ve probably heard of Oliver Phommavanh. He’s a young Thai-Australian writer who releases popular, award winning books that tell funny and heartfelt stories.
I first met him when he made a guest appearance on the TV show I work on, Kids’ WB, and we turned him into a human cupcake. Check it out here. He was happy to take part, I swear!
But we have another connection due to the Stuff Happens series. When I was devising an idea for my instalment in the series, I was intrigued by the minor character Dale, who featured in Oliver’s Stuff Happens: Ethan. I took Dale and turned him into the lead character of his own story. And the rest is history!
Oliver’s latest book is The Other Christy. I asked him the following hard-hitting questions to really get to the bottom of things…
AB: First up, the big one: why did you want to tell the story of The Other Christy?
OP: I love giving a voice to the shy and quiet kids out there! I wanted to tell a story of a girl who comes out of her shell and tries to make her first best friend. It’s harder than it sounds, just ask Ethan in Stuff Happens!
AB: Christy loves baking. Are you a good cook? What’s your signature dish? Mine is toast.
OP: Haha mine’s not too far from yours, I can do a mean 2 minute noodles. Seriously, if you taste them, you’d be angry too! I’m no cook but my wife loves to bake, so that makes me her baking assistant. So a lot of those scenes where Christy bakes with Auntie Mayly are lifted from my work beside my wife.
AB: Speaking of food – you’re a burger man, what makes a great burger?
OP: It’s all about those buns! The traditional bun is king, none of this brioche bun stuff haha. It also needs to be a little more on the greasy side. I feel sorry for my heart sometimes.
AB: When we meet Christy she feels like an outsider. Is this based on your own experience of feeling like an outsider, or was this inspired by people you’ve observed?
OP: I was never popular at school. FACT! Pokemon weren’t that cool back then. I was that class clown that people laughed at but that was it. So there is a bit of my weird side reflected in Christy. It was hard to find a real friend, someone who would actually want to hang out with me, outside of school. That’s always a big step. I also based it on my teacher days, I taught a lot of those shy girls in my class who blend in the background.
AB: Did you find it difficult to write from a female character’s perspective?
OP: You know, Christy’s voice came naturally to me. I think it helped that a lot of Christy was based by those shy girls in my class, and then my wife’s baking was just frosting on the top. Boom Tish!
AB: There are some similarities between The Other Christy and Stuff Happens: Dale in terms of an outsider character plotting revenge. Why do you think readers enjoy revenge tales? And does revenge ever work?
OP: Revenge is the best way of living well. Wait, did I get mixed up? Anyway, revenge always sound better in your head, but in reality it’s not all that cracks up to be. But readers enjoy revenge tales from a fantasy point of view because they wouldn’t do it in real life, so it’s nice to see it played out in book form.
AB: Christy describes many of her situations by using a lot of space and planet metaphors, how tempted were you to mention Uranus?
OP: You know, the original title for this book was I am Uranus. (coo coo ka choo!) Instead of Christy Ung, it was Christy Uranus and she was going to be the butt of all jokes. Sadly, Penguin Random House said that bum books trend were behind us now. Ah wells.
AB: I get it ‘behind us’! Ha! Now, plenty of authors have strong links with schools – personally, I was enrolled at uni to become a primary school teacher before I got a job in TV – how do you think an interest or experience with teaching informs your writing?
OP: I got to read lots of kid books as a teacher, so I started to get a fair idea of what of they were like. But the best thing that as teachers, you get so many ideas from your students and the school itself. You couldn’t make up these characters if you tried haha.
AB: Given your teaching past, how did you get your big break into writing? Was it an easy transition? Any advice for kids hoping to get their own big break one day?
OP: I quit full time teaching to do part time and write on the side. It was pretty hard transiting from a teaching job where you had to get up before midday and wear clothes. I got my first break being published in the anthology, Growing Up Asian in Australia. It was a short story that became the first in my Thai-riffic! tales. I also managed to get around to festivals and conferences, networking with other authors and publishers. Eventually, an agent was interested in Thai-riffic! and it went from there.
Kids, in this age of YouTube and X-factor shows, you need to show off your writing! Start a blog, join or make a writers group, enter as many writing competitions as you can for motivation.
AB: Random fact, but did you know that I can play the bagpies*?
OP: Yes, I’ve seen your bagpies videos. I still don’t know why you need to wear the Scottish kilt as well when you play them, but hey I guess it gets you in the mood.
AB: The lead character of Stuff Happens: Ethan is a bookworm, how similar was he to you as a kid? What did you read when you were growing up?
OP: I am a lifelong bookworm. I read lots of books, mostly Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths, Choose your own adventure series, Goosebumps and Roald Dahl too. Oh, and video game character based novels like Sonic and Mario.
AB: Being a comedian, do you find spoken comedy differs from written comedy?
OP: With spoken comedy, you find out very quickly if something is funny or not, so you need to get those laughs out there quick. You can also hide your funny lines too. Written comedy gives you the luxury of setting up characters and plots really well, but I also have a lot of fun with words with pacing and puns. Christy and Christie works a lot better in print. I feel sorry for the guy who does the audiobook.
AB: What’s next for Oliver Phommavanh and do you like the TMNT movie reboots?
OP: I’ve just finished Super Con-nerd, the sequel to Con-nerd. I don’t mind the Michael Bayish reboots. They butchered the origins of the turtles (April names them as a child, bah!) but they get some things right, for example, Bebop and Rocksteady were awesome in TNMT: Out of the Shadows. Honestly, whatever keeps Ninja Turtles hip with the next generation is cool with me. I’m just waiting for cowbabunga to be in again.
AB: (Bonus question, does it surprise you that Leonardo is the highest selling TMNT figure? You strike me as a Donatello man, am I right?)
OP: He’s the leader I suppose, and he does have swords! I’m definitely a Donnie fan because he comes out with the cool machines and vehicles. Yeah, he’s a fellow nerd like me haha.
AB: Thanks Oliver!
AB: The Other Christy is out now. And keep a look out for the likely sequel, The Other Other Christy. **
OP: And don’t forget I am Uranus! The behind the scenes story of The Other Christy. I’ll show myself out.
AB:* This is a lie
AB:** Another lie