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On sounds, syllables and a savoury something

When speaking with Kyle Mewburn you’d better learned to stick to the subject. It might come in handy, too, if you have no personality whatsoever, nothing to distract you from the man you are supposed to be interviewing. And no, don’t let yourself like him. Be objective. Clear-headed. Don’t be inspired, or -heaven forbid -inspiring! Nothing whatsobloodyever. Stick to the business at hand, what is it you need to know? Find out. Go home. Nod if need be.

But that wouldn’t have been much fun. Not for him, not for me anyway. And I suppose you wouldn’t have much fun with it either. So we didn’t do that, we chatted, threw questions and remarks at one another as in the best of ping-pong games asked things and laughed a lot. However, before I present you the portrait of this (lovely) encounter, here are some facts:

Kyle Mewburn, born 1963 in Brisbane, Australia, travelled in Europe and the Middle East before he settled down in New Zealand in 1990. He told me that he had always wanted to write. It was his need and strong desire to use words. But it took a career as a journalist and time spent in advertising, plus seven years of writing various kinds of fiction (without any success) before he finally came across the genre that has since made him happy and, above all, very successful: children’s books. Picture books that is, because, as he told me, he is kind of lazy. (But before you start judging, sit down and try it yourself: write words for a picture book that adults love to read out to their little ones even loooong after they have gone to sleep…. So… there you go! Be quiet!)

Since 1997 he’s been a full-time writer, and in recent years he has received numerous awards for his children’s books. For example, in 2010 he won the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Award for his wonderful book “Old Hu Hu” with its more than amazing and lovely illustrations by Rachel Driscoll. In an article about  the ceremony, it says, that Kyle Mewburn was “almost speechless”. Not having been there, but having met Mr. Mewburn, I dare say the emphasis lies on “almost”. But apart from the fact he’s not exactly taciturn (@Kyle: here finally the correct translation for the word I was looking for when I told you we were both rather less than “wortkarg”), I can imagine he was overjoyed that a book of his had yet again won such appreciation and recognition.

I met Mr. Mewburn at the Leipzig Book Fair in March, where he was one of ten New Zealand authors who accepted the invitation of the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Guest of Honour programme 2012. You will have read here about the press conference, the happenings at our stand, how great the atmosphere was, how tasty the New Zealand wine (but not enough! not enough!). And you will have gotten a taste of what we are looking forward to in October. Yes, New Zealand is a truly exciting and inspiring Guest of Honour. I personally hope that Germany and especially my home town of Frankfurt, shows  itself to be as open-hearted and open-minded – AND fun  – as the place I experienced during my little glimpse of the New Zealanders in Leipzig.  But I’m drifting off course.

So, after these twists and baroque off-we-gos, back to “Old Hu-Hu” and its creator.

He had wanted to write about death for some time; his cat had died and he had been thinking about his grandfather. But what moved him in the end was a sound. He told me that sounds get him going, that he is not at all a visual man. he jumps at sounds, rolls them around in his head, loves playing with rhythm in language, mixes rhymes with “normal” text, likes to hear language and the music it can create. So one thing’s for sure: if it hadn’t been for the ”huhu” in a particular beetle, there would have been no Huhu-book. Yes, you heard right. If the bug in “Old Hu-Hu” had been a plain beetle, Mr. Mewburn surely would not have written about it. But he couldn’t resist the huhu (But who could? Could youhu?). The huhu is New Zealand’s largest endemic beetle. The Maori call its larval stage huhu. When it matures it sheds his skin, grows wings and legs. After it dies it leaves behind an empty shell: the perfect image of death. And beautifully enough it is edible (aaaaah, I luv me food!) and Wikipedia claims it tastes like buttery chicken. Now, isn’t that nice?

So. The huhu. But Kylw Mewburn’s interest in sounds started much earlier. Yes, he’s been always into them. (Come to think of it…. Maybe, just maybe, he subconsciously found his genre and his approach to writing by having to deal with this particular last name:  M E W B U R N. First part reminds one of a CAT, second part rings of PASSION. Because passion it is which makes him write. So far, I have not come across a cat in his books (@Kyle: !!Off you go! People love cats, I do, for sure!) But at least there has been – among many other lovely creatures – a beautiful and moon-struck cow.)

And, above all, the man loves to make himself laugh. A good combination, I find: SOUNDS & LAUGHTER. “The Hoppleplop”, Kyle Mewburn’s first book, was published in 2004, and it started wonderfully with this tradition. Its name alone is pure pleasure: Hoppleplop (say it aloud…, yes, and do it once again a little louder, yeees, HOPPLEPLOP … theeere you go!)  gives you a good idea of what he enjoys: apart from the sounding of sounds, the tingling that certain letter-combinations might give you, up and down your spine or round and round your mouth and head.

How great that the man amuses not only children with his particular style, but also the adults reading to these kids. Apart from the ringing and tinkling of words, Kyle Mewburn focuses on the unexpected, the unusual in the supposedly normal. With him, a tiny, seemingly harmless idea might form into something quite spectacular. Suddenly you find various dimensions where you might have suggested only a single one. For what happens if a hill and a hole are friends and even think about swapping places? It’s playing, juggling with different angles for looking at things, and what we think we can make of them. Kyle Mewburn loves to surprise, and he’s not interested at all in the serious business of being pedagogical. Nay, there is no finger raised, no preaching. Rather, it’s a step over the boundaries, a slight naughtiness here and there – language that winks at you.

I like that. And I liked him. He really is a nice guy. Modest, enthusiastic, very friendly, relaxed, open-minded and funnyfunny. Yet, down to earth and realistic. He says as a writer you need to know what’s out there, what the other writers in your genre are doing. No, no, not to copy, but rather to get the feeling of what is missing. And as a writer you need to write. And write. And keep on writing. (Note from Ms. Blogger: read, read. And read some more) Approach life with open eyes, be observant and a good listener. Stories are there. Sounds are there. And there are many more ideas. Kyle Mewburn has written a bunch of great picture books so far. But one thing’s for sure: sounds lead on to other sounds. Yes, and as much as you, as a parent, might feel  lucky to have discovered this Mr. Mewburn, don’t relax too soon, don’t feel safe. Because your lovely, little, darling-child, with his rosy cheeks gawking adoringly up at you, hanging on your lips and giggling at the Hoppleplops, Melus and Moon Cows,no doubt  counting himself as the eleventh sheep, will grow up and discover sounds of his own. Not only funy sounds, I can tell you.

(What in the world is this woman talking about? I hear you, I do. Let me explain: )

It was only to be expected. Kyle Mewburn couldn’ t stop himself. And I cannot blame him. After the sounds of words, of letters and of language, you come back to the sounds of …well, life. Plainly spoken: snot, burp and fart. Yes, there is no polite way of saying it (well, there is, but curiously enough, it is not appropriate now): in his “Dinosaur Rescues”-series, Kyle Mewburn approacheschildren who are (a little) older. But he remains true to himself: playful, prick-eared, slightly naughty, funny and entertaining.

I like Kyle Mewburn’s approach: an idea, a certain sound, a ringing in one’s head and being brave (or maybe simply cheeky) enough to make something unusual of it.

Yes, I liked it. And when I talked to Damien Wilkins the day after, he said something quite like Kyle. Damien Wilkins is a very successful writer of fiction (for adults) and he says that you need to be sincere about what you do and about what you write. Damien is interested in stepping from the public side to the unofficial side of things. He also lifts covers and unfolds things. He says: “There is no narrative to your life. It forms itself along the way. A novel is a container to put in what it is you need to tell.”

Two different writers with a completely different target group. And yet, their interests are close.

Kyle Mewburn has surely found his container. Unfortunately only one of his books has been published in German so far: “Kein Platz im Haus für eine Maus” so far (original title: “No Room for a Mouse”) . There’s obviously one publishing house with good taste, but it needs to find copycats. Yes, yes, I am talking to you!

Since I couldn’t provide Mr. Mewburn with an “edible” huhu beetle, and also finding that a bit impious, I gave him a different kind of savoury something at the end of this so-called interview: a bulette. Why that? Surely, to smooth over the strange way this interview had gone. And what is a bulette anyway? A bulette is a meatball eaten cold. Originally a French word (boulette de viande), the people of Berlin took it over in their own special way, “straightening out” the elegant pronunciation. In Hesse (Frankfurt is a Hessian town) they’re called frikadelle. But that always reminds me of fish, and, nay, the idea of carrying around some old fish around doesn’t exactly get my mouth watering. And…oops, I’m drifting again. Yes, the bulette. Kyle looked a little hungry. His German wife Marion has probably introduced him to buletten before, and I like feeding people. Even writers. No, especially writers. For they do such nice things. Play with words and sounds, write them down and help us all to “hoppleplop” into all kinds of different worlds and realities.

It would do us all loads of good if we did much more hoppleplopping, I am sure. Leave the burping and farting to dinosaurs and their little fans.

Are you hoppling along?

  • Kyle Mewburn

    Hi Pia! Great article. Very funny and interesting. Makes me want to meet myself. I definitely had a wonderful time chatting to you. Getting free food as well was a bonus. (No interviewer has ever given me food before. I might insist on it from now on though. “If you want to talk to me, you must first feed me.” Good motto, I think.) Hopefully we’ll get a chance to meet up again later in the year on your home territory. xx

    (Kyle posted this on my facebook-page and allowed me to put it here as well. Cheers!)