Of Ninjas and Robot Pandas (T. E. Waters interviews C. S. Kay)

In which the snaky mecha scribe interviews C. S. Kay, the creator of nine-year-old Suzy, whose life and misadventures are detailed over at Suzy’s Box: The Journal of a Disturbed Girl.

You’ve mentioned that you wrote this for your niece as sort of a “Wimpy Kid” for girls. Did you/are you drawing on any other particular influences when writing this? Alternatively, what kinds of things did you like to read when you were your niece’s age?

To be honest, I don’t know very much about the contemporary “older kids/young adult” fiction world, besides what existed when I was a kid. Namely, Gary Paulson and his iconic Hatchet, which I hated, the Rats of Nimh stories that were interesting but didn’t stick, C. S. Lewis which I found terribly boring (and whom my teacher kept forcing me to read), and the American Girl books, which amused but were noticeably lacking in substance. Thinking back to my childhood, the book I remember as a “discovery” was The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, which might very well have hinted at my future as a deeply feminist person. The female protagonist is all lady on a ship of rough men, but as mutiny and human cruelty come to a head, Charlotte cuts her hair and joins the crew. I also still have fuzzy fond memories of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, and for pure zany fun, I really loved the Wayside School books by Louis Sachar. Normal didn’t exist in that world and it was often grown-ups vs. kids, which resonated.

In terms of drawing upon other works for Suzy…I’ve never actually read the Wimpy Kid series! I’ve paged through one of the books and asked the kids questions about it, but wouldn’t really know in what ways Suzy is similar or different from it. I have to assume it’s not much different from other diary-type stories, and SgL has likened the concept to the Griffin and Sabine (a letters/postcards back and forth) series, but I haven’t read it either. So the major influences? LIFE! Recalling my childhood and comparing it with my niece’s is the biggest factor. Suzy’s drawing style is also based on my own at her age. If I had to name a character Suzy bears the most resemblance to, I would have to say Anne Shirley (whom my niece has not yet had the pleasure of meeting), because of her devotion to imagination and her ability to be unapologetically herself.

Later in the series, influences from other mixed media artists might become more apparent, but not yet. :3

I know that for me and our fellow Wenches one of the most entertaining things about your updates so far is the creative choice of writing materials for Suzy. Not only is it adorable, it says so much about her family circumstances. Did you plan for this unusual format from the start? And I think you’ve elaborated a little bit on it already, but I’m curious as to what inspired you to do so!

In short, yes, Suzy’s Box was always meant to be a mixed media project from the start. I had vague ideas about different materials she might use and implement as well as very concrete ones that will be unveiled in time. The idea was both to “expose” her family and her circumstances and to explore the realization that simple pen and paper and words are too small for Suzy. Her world is bigger than that and cannot be contained on the page.

If you want to psychoanalyze, it’s also a more focused picture into my own childhood. The story was meant to be for my niece, but the truth is that although her parents won’t buy her drawing journals or art supplies, her aunties do that for her. I never thought it was strange to write/draw on junk envelopes and the backs of fliers. The strangeness was only pointed out when other kids with notebooks would comment on it. To me, every disposable surface was fair game and my own personal playground. I was also reprimanded for “wasting” computer paper (except for the box of old, yellowed stuff that was connected with perforated edges and had the punched out holes running lengthwise on the paper), so maybe there’s a little bit of revenge involved, too.

For Suzy’s entries, I have the text written out, but usually don’t know exactly what she’s going to be writing on until I sit down to “create” her journal for that day (unless the entry calls for something very specific). So I’m just as surprised as the rest of you as I go “hunting” for something for her to write on!

Do you plan at any point to make a physical compilation of Suzy’s entries? Given the nature of the project it would probably be hard to pull off, but it sure would be fun to flip through. (I ask because I’m tutoring a few kids around this age right now, and I think it would make a great gift. XD)

LOL! The only feasible way to mass produce it would be to go through an actual publisher who does those kids books with all the cute inserts where you get to open the envelopes and pull out “authentic letters” and photos — and I get the feeling Suzy would be a tough sell. I COULD technically hand-craft each book, each copy unique (as it would not be possible to recreate the same materials every time), but with the amount of time it takes to write out every entry (with my LEFT — non-dominant — hand!), each book would be like $100 or something. >____<

…unless, the book itself is just a series of photos/scans (the way the website is)…I suppose that might be doable. But no, no plans for a physical compilation at the moment. Some of Suzy’s creations might be available at some point, but I don’t know yet.

Life at Suzy’s age is pretty much divided between school and family. We’ve gotten some pretty vivid glimpses of her home life so far, but since we’re still in summer break, there hasn’t been much about her school life yet (I look forward to finding out more about “the incident”). I’m curious about how she feels about school in general. Any subjects she enjoys? Any that she hates?

Ohhh, “the incident” will be fun. It took me a very long time to figure out what it was going to be, and when I had it, I tested it on my sisters and got very positive feedback. So if the story disappoints, (shrugs) oh well, I did my best. 🙂

Suzy’s a pretty well-rounded individual. School’s easy for her. The “humanities” are her domain: reading, interpretation, writing, creating — those are her strong points. She’s not crazy about math, but doesn’t struggle with it. The subject she has to put in a little extra effort would be “social studies.” The things that are just rote memorization of names, dates, capitals, government, she doesn’t see the point of, although history sometimes provides some interesting bits for her to think on, it’s also filled with more rote memorization that disinterests her.

If history class involved writing historical fiction, Suzy would be all over that. I don’t think she would mind researching the period and the events that took place if it meant she got to “live there” in her headspace for awhile.

There’s been a lot of debate over the years about how much responsibility schools and families hold, respectively, in terms of raising children. How much or what aspects of a kid’s upbringing do you think should be provided by schools? Is there any overlap? What shaped you the most while you were growing up?

Schools definitely have a role in a child’s life in instilling facts, life skills, habits, and at times, morals. A kid spends half their life in a classroom. Teachers are stand-in parents and have to set a good example, effectively lead a class, and dish out proper punishment.

However, families are number one. If the family can’t control their child, a teacher with twenty other kids can’t be expected to do it. We all have a stake in our children. And even if the methods of the family and school differ, children are adept at code-switching and know that certain behaviors might be acceptable in one place and not the other.

For me, my life was full of contradictions. I’m deeply invested in family and we (as adults) still live communally together in a house and live by the old-school adage of “it takes a village to raise a child.” We all pitch in and what results is that a child doesn’t have just two parents, but instead, four or five, as well as other family surrounding them.

But as “close” as my family is, we are also detached, likely for the self-preservation of our sanity, living in such close quarters. My mother is very loving, but when I was a kid, she was busy supporting our large family and wasn’t around much. My father was neglective and eventually left to be a politician/humanitarian in a third world country when I was about six, returning about once a year for a visit. I was raised (mostly) by my two older sisters, one of whom dropped out of college to help support the family. What I know of self-sacrifice, I learned from the women in my life.

I was also passed around a bit, spending lots of nights at “cousins” houses and family friends’ places, even spending some nights being babysat by a bunch of frat boys at my brother’s fraternity.

I liked school, mostly. Got along with my teachers. Although, I recall very vividly a “fight” I had with a teacher who tried to tell me I had used a word incorrectly when I KNEW my usage was right and she was wrong. It was a creative writing special course where I was taken out of regular class to write stories and I just fought and fought her, and ultimately, kept my usage in the final draft. Prelude to my rebellious years, I suppose.

School provided me with adult figures I didn’t have. High school is when I really came into my own, largely under the guidance of a teacher who played every role: confidant, coach, director, friend, surrogate father. He took risks and broke some rules to be there for me (just like in the movies). If I ever manage to convince myself to make a life-commitment to someone, I will definitely ask him to be the one to give me away.

HOWEVER, I’m not naive enough to believe it was school that gave me these things. It was an individual I was able to connect with who I happened to meet at school. If anything, school reinforced my disdain for authority in its narrow-minded scope.

How long do you envision Suzy’s journal lasting? Not necessarily as a web serial, but in her own reality — right now she’s only keeping it because she has to, but do you think it’s something she’ll end up maintaining even as she gets older?

At least until the end of the school year. However, in her world, I don’t think she will ever stop creating things. So her journal will continue on in its own way, but may not be recognizable to you or me. If she’s anything like me (haha, and we’ve established that she is), her imaginative nature makes it very difficult for her to be organized and stick to a regiment of “the same” (words on paper), so as she gets older, the things that make up her life and tell its story become a collection of things that might fit in a box and not in a notebook.

Is that revealing too much? LOL. It’s obvious to me, so hopefully I didn’t go and ruin it for you. XD

Okay, and because I can’t resist asking: Say Suzy comes across a giant robot panda one day. How does she react? What does she do?

Is this robot panda operational? Is it talking to her in a language she understands? Is it benevolent and curious?

If it is all these things, and Suzy is traipsing along a wooded area and comes across said giant robot panda, who offers her a metallic bow before going back to chewing on a tree branch, Suzy might stare for a long while before spying on it from behind cover. If the robot panda were to beckon to her or call out for her, she might (perhaps foolishly) trustingly walk slowly towards it, curious and wide-eyed. She might place a tiny hand on the giant metal panda’s foot and ask if he’s a computer or if he used to be a real panda but had to get metal parts to stay alive.

And: ninjas or pirates? (Answer for both you and Suzy.)

Ninjas absolutely. They’ve finesse and skill and can work alone. I’ve never particularly liked pirates — they lack style and are all brute force in roughshod gangs. It might be my introverted personality, but the quiet and deadly spy/assassin holds more appeal.

Okay, Suzy, now you.

It would be cool to see a whale, but I wouldn’t want to be a pirate. I just want treasure? What for? I live on a ship. That’s kind of stupid. I don’t know about killing people, but I like that ninjas can hide in shadows. If I could sneak anywhere I want, it would be so much fun!!!

Many thanks to both C. S. Kay and Suzy for putting up with my silly questions! 😀

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: The January 2011 collaborations continue: Of Ninjas and Robot Pandas « creativewenches
  2. SgL
    Feb 01, 2011 @ 03:43:31

    I think I need to buy you a copy of Griffin and Sabine so you can see how they tackled the whole letter/postcard thing. (And that was years ago!) MOre or less, I think maybe what you might consider is turning what you have into an ebook. I don’t think there’s enough funny stuff for kids to read out there and there’s a bajillion of them growing up now with iPads in their hands just dying for stuff. I guess the idea of putting “reading content” on electronic devices might horrify progressive folks, but I believe in this day and age we need to bring content to the people, not drive people to the content 🙂 Anyhoo, a discussion for another time! Oh. If I send you stationary, will Suzy use it? xD

    Reply

    • C. S. Kay
      Feb 03, 2011 @ 02:12:31

      Yeah…Griffin and Sabine are on my list of things to get eventually, but like everything on that list, has been pushed back and pushed back…

      If you want to be a RL benefactor/Ms. Fellgood, you certainly can. Suzy would never turn her back on stuff to play with. XD

      Reply

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