Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gems from the lips of Odo Hirsch

On Tuesday I had the great fortune to meet the highly acclaimed and prolific children’s and YA writer Odo Hirsch. The Melbourne-born writer lives in London, so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to hear him speak.

Odo’s first novel for children, Antonio S and the Mystery of Theodore Guzman, was published in 1997 and is still in print. Since then, he has published twenty books, and is still producing quality fiction at an impressive rate.

He began his talk by explaining that ‘Odo Hirsch’ is his pen name, and he chose it because he thought it sounded quirky yet believable. His real name is David Kausman, and he was still a practising doctor when he started writing. He wanted to keep his two careers completely separate; hence the pseudonym.

As he rarely speaks to groups about his writing, he said he hoped we would interrupt him with questions as often as possible; that way he’d tell us things we wanted to know. Here are some of the questions people asked him, along with his answers:

When you want to write a new novel, where do you start?
Sometimes I start with a character, sometimes with a concept or an idea. Regardless of where you start, you must have a sympathetic character with whom readers can identify… It’s the resonance that creates the affection. Readers must care about the character, and for that to happen they need be able to imagine themselves in the character’s position… You can have an anti-hero as the main character, but it’s much harder to do.

The Hazel Green books started with the character. You need an endearing and consistent character. But sometimes I start with a theme. One theme that is very important to me is exploration. So I create a world in which the character can explore.

What’s the hardest part of the book to write?
The beginning. You have to know where you’re going to go, because the beginning is the set up and lays the groundwork. When you’re just starting, it can be hard to know where the story will take you.

Why do you write?
Stories are a way of trying to work out something in your own life. Writing is a kind of wish fulfilment.

Do you have any advice to writers?
Write something you really believe in, something that is meaningful to you.

Where do you get your ideas?
You have lots of ideas, but you end up writing about the ones that really grab you and maintain your interest over time.

Do your novels have common themes?
Yes. Some of my books are quite similar on the surface, but if you look deeper, you’ll find they are really quite different. There may be themes that overlap, but each book will also have something that makes it unique.

How do you structure your day?
I just sit down and do it. People who want to write sometimes ask me for tips, and I tell them to create a space. That’s what you need. A quiet space where you can shut the door and immerse yourself into the world you’ve created. Your characters live there, so that place really has to be there in your head.

What makes a writer?
It’s all about creating that space. Everyone can write one book – no, that’s not true, you need a certain command of language and mastery of craft – but everyone has a story in them. It’s when you can write more than one that you make the transition from someone with an interesting story to someone who’s a writer.

Is it difficult?
I don’t regard it as work, but it is – it’s very hard work. But it’s a wonderful feeling when it all comes together in the end.

Do you read a lot?
Yes, but I don’t read much fiction. I read mostly history and politics, and that’s where I get most of my ideas. People are often surprised when I say that, but it’s true.

How do you decide what age you’ll write for?
Your ideas naturally gravitate towards a certain age group.

Some books are really easy to read, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, where the language is very, very simple, and every kid can read it, but yours are not. Do you have a particular type of child in mind?
No, I write for children generally, but the child has to be reader.

Has this proven problematic with publishers?
Only when I was first trying to get my work seen by a publisher. Sometimes people in the publishing industry love to put you down. An agent who read my first book sent the manuscript back with the comment: "No child would read this book unless they were physically restrained." But the first publisher who saw it wanted it.

Courses in writing for children teach that the main character should be 2 or 3 years older than the target reader, but I read one of your children’s book where the main character was an old man. How did you get away with that? Was it because you were already successful and respected in the field?
The book you’re referring to is Pincus Corbett’s Strange Adventure, and it worked because the main character, the old man, was actually very childlike and childish, so children could identify with him. But yes, you do have more leverage once you’ve already had some success.

Could you comment on what it’s like working with an editor?
The editor always comes up with something worthwhile. You do have to be discriminating in what you accept because the editor doesn’t have your vision of the book, but a good editor really does improve the book. A good editor identifies problems and inconsistencies, but they have to ‘get’ the book; they have to understand your vision.

Do you have any advice on self-editing?
The age-old “Murder your darlings” really is the best advice. You need to keep the big picture in mind. It’s the big picture stuff that really matters. If you find yourself insisting on a particular sentence, or detail, that’s probably the bit that will have to go. Also, you never really finish. Your book is not a final product – it's a snapshot – a frozen picture of where it was at the time it had to go to print – and at that point you let it go.

How does your own personality impact on your writing?
I’m very analytical, and this is not necessarily a strength. If you’re too analytical, your writing can become quite dry. There has to be an emotional, intuitive element to writing, so I have to be careful not to over-analyse.

You’ve won a lot of awards. What effect does winning an award have?
It increases sales.

What are you working on at the moment?
I’m currently writing a sequel to Darius Bell.

Would you ever consider writing for adults?
Yes, I have considered it, and I think at some point I probably will.

And that’s it, folks. Hope you found something useful in what this wonderful and successful writer had to say.


  1. thanks robyn
    that was great. i definitely agree with the 'finding a space' thing ...

  2. Good reportage, Robyn. He sounds like a lovely fellow. jx

  3. Glad you both enjoyed it, and yes, he did seem like a lovely fellow.

  4. im doing work about him for school right now