Tonight I am delighted to welcome S.E. Durrant to Childtastic Books, to talk about her recent novel, Running on Empty. This is a lovely book that looks at the challenges faced by main character AJ, a young boy who helps look after his parents (both of whom have learning difficulties) and dreams of becoming as good a runner as Usain Bolt. When tragedy hits early on, it seems as if his dreams will be put on hold – possibly forever.
Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by Childtastic Books, and congratulations on your new novel, Running on Empty!
1. How did you first think up the idea for the story? Was there a specific inspiration behind it?
I was inspired to write the book after reading an article about a family in which the parents had learning difficulties and the child didn’t. I thought a lot about how the world might appear to a child in this situation, and the issues the family might have to deal with and gradually the story developed.
2. Why did you create AJ’s parents as both having learning difficulties? Would he, as a child, be considered a young carer because of his responsibilities in helping them? (Despite his insistence that they all help each other.)
I decided AJ’s parents would both have learning difficulties because I wanted AJ to view his life entirely through his own eyes, rather than have another adult perhaps determining how he interpret the world. I also wanted any caring to fall to him. I’m not sure if he would consider himself a carer but life is certainly demanding for him because of his parents’ learning difficulties and he has to face situations he is too young to deal with.
3. Did you meet with or talk to any children in a similar position to AJ before you wrote the book? What sort of research did you do?
Yes, I also spoke with a young man whose parents have learning difficulties so I could understand a little about his experience. I also met with some learning difficulty parents who meet from time to time to give each other support. They kindly let me join one of their meetings and they told me some of the particular issues they and their children face.
4. What is the key message you would like readers to get from this book?
I think there are two key messages:
The first is not to make assumptions about people. Running on Empty is full of characters who turn out to be not quite as they appear – for example, AJ loves running but his circumstances mean he is trapped into appearing to hate sport; his uncle appears to be boring and uncaring but turns out to be quite different.
The second key message is keep persevering, taking one day at a time. AJ has the odds stacked against him but he refuses to be defeated.
5. Is it difficult writing from a boy’s perspective as a female author? How difficult is it to write in a child’s voice?
I didn’t find it too difficult to write as a boy because I have a teenage son and remember him and his friends at that age. It was fun to try to inhabit the head of a twelve year old. It’s such an interesting age because twelve year olds are beginning to imagine who they might be, or think they should be, but are still children. AJ veers between supreme self confidence and utter embarrassment. I enjoy writing from a child’s perspective as it’s nice to view the world in a more simplistic, direct way.
6. How long did it take you to write the book?
It’s hard to say how long it took me to write Running on Empty as I carried the idea in my head for a long time. I think when I got down to it I probably wrote it over a year and a half.
7. Describe your typical writing day (if there is one!)
I don’t have a typical writing day. I tend to carry an idea around in my head for weeks before I put any words down and will then begin to scribble down thoughts on scraps of paper. I type these up later and my characters and story slowly takes shape. On writing days when a project is underway I often work at home for a couple of hours in the morning and then walk down to the library in Brighton and work there on my laptop. It’s helpful to be somewhere with no distractions. I really enjoy fine tuning my writing and will work late into the evenings (back home) when I’m at that stage.
8. Which authors, past and present, have influenced or influence you? Why?
I’ve been inspired by children’s books which are set in real life situations, for instance The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier and Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden. I also really enjoyed Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman because of the wonderful voice of the narrator Harrison.
9. Can you tell us a little about your next project?
I just wrote a short story which will be included in the new edition of Little Bits of Sky, which will be published in July. This story is set in 1947 when Glenda Hyacinth arrives at the orphanage, Skilly House. My next book will be set in Brighton and is about an eleven year old girl and her grandmother, who is losing her memory.
10. Do you like running?
I loved running as a child but don’t run now, though I often think I should!
Many thanks for your time and loads of luck with this lovely book!