Ulf Stark is an author I only discovered this summer, but what a discovery! I’m very excited that he will be here in the UK next month as part of The Children’s Bookshow, an annual tour of children’s authors and illustrators across the UK.
I recently chatted to Ulf over email about his work and here’s what he had to say…
Playing by the book: Were you a bookworm as a child? What children’s books did you especially enjoy?
Ulf Stark: I was not exactly a bookworm as a child. More like a book elephant – a sleepy one with big ears. My first contact with literature was through my mother’s voice. She sat in a chair below mine and my brother’s bed reading for us, every night. It was Pippi Longstocking, Winnie the Pooh, Biggles, books about poor dogs and the stories about Babar, the elephant. My favourite stories were some by the Swedish writer and illustrator Elsa Beskow, Burroughs’ Tarzan books and – best of all – Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon (which is still a favourite).
Playing by the book: I’ve just started reading The Wind on the Moon – what a lot of mischievous fun! I can certainly see why it’s a favourite. So you listened to lots of stories as a child, but did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Ulf Stark: I never thought about it. I was left handed when I began school – but was forced to use my right hand. So I hated writing. And I understood that a writer has to write. So, not at all, never in my life!
I wanted to be a story listener. Or perhaps a vet, because I loved animals – especially poor dogs (another book I liked very much was Doctor Doolittle). My interest in writing began more as result of normal teenage depression (Who am I?, Why am I?, How can anyone love me?). Writing become a way of escaping from myself. And a way to be / become myself at the same time.
Playing by the book: So what about being an illustrator – you’ve illustrated a few books too. Is that something you wanted to be from an early age? And now, how do you find the process of illustrating different and/or similar to writing?
Ulf Stark: Drawing was my best subject in school. I drew caricatures of my teachers. I drew animals, bats and aeroplanes. And I tried to impress my young friends by drawing nude women, the way I thought they looked.
Playing by the book: [laughing] That sounds like a lot of fun!
On a more serious note, given that your books (at least those which are available in English) deal with themes which don’t often appear in (English) children’s books (death, sex), how do you think writing for children is different from writing for adults (which you’ve also done)?
Ulf Stark: Writing for children doesn’t differ from writing for adults with respect so much to themes. But rather it’s the perspective that’s different. I´m using language as an instrument to approach my childish experiences – my almost forgotten feelings, the way I looked at the world. And when I look back I know that I was definitely thinking a lot about death and sex among thousands of other things. I find it more joyful to write for children. Perhaps because I can write about very serious things without being too pretentious.
Playing by the book: I believe five of your books have been translated into English, Can you whistle, Johanna?, Fruitloops and Dipsticks, My friend Percy’s Magical Gym Shoes, My Friend Percy and the Sheik and My friend Percy and Buffalo Bill. You’ve said in other interviews that Can you whistle, Johanna? is perhaps your personal favourite of all the books you’ve written – you must be pleased it has been translated, but which of your other books (of which there around 50, no less!) would you like to see translated into English?
Ulf Stark: Perhaps: ”A dog named Ajax”. This is a small picture book about a dog (Ajax) who gets given a boy when he is seven years. The dog gives the boy his first sausage (from the dog plate), he teaches him his first word: Woof!, and he’s there for the boy when he takes his first steps. The boy and the dog are the best of friends. As the boy gets older, so does the dog. And now the boy gives the dog his sausages, he’s the support for the dog when the dog has problems walking. And then the dog dies. And the boy goes to the sky, trying to persuade the Master of it all to give him back the dog (who is now a star). But the Master says it’s not possible. He can however have the star’s shadow, so the boy puts this under his bed and one morning he hears the shadow bark.
Playing by the book: To what extent are the books of yours which are available in English representative / typical of your writing? What are we missing out on having so few books translated? Friendship, identity, male relationships, ageing, death, sex, – these are some of the key themes I see in your English books, but what other themes do you like to explore?
Ulf Stark: I think the books which have been translated are representative of my semi-autobiographical works. But I have also written more mythological books, for example The Angel and the blue horse [this was transformed into a play for children in the UK in 2006, and you can listen to the first part of the book (in Swedish) here/PBTB]. This is about God, an Angel and a blue horse, a book about jealousy, for there is a child-god who feels sad and angry when he looks at the angel and the horse playing together. And I have also written a book called Asmodeus about the son of the Devil – a problem child because he all he wants to be is calm, he doesn´t want to be evil at all… You could perhaps categorize it as having a religious theme, but in a very non confessional way. Perhaps another theme could be that about power, a very essential part in the life of children. I have just written a book called The Dictator, about a small dictator and his thirst for power – now conveniently translated into Belarusian.
Playing by the book: Yes, that’s rather good! I hope it does well there
Based on your books which have been translated into English it seems that you weave quite a few autobiographical details into your writing. To what extent is the Ulf in Can you whistle, Johanna?, or the My friend Percy trio of books you? What is enjoyable for you as a writer about including personal stories and details in your books?
Ulf Stark: The Ulf in the books is definitely me. He shares a lot of my feelings and early experiences, we share the same brother and have been brought up in the same house with a bakery and an old people’s home as nearest neighbours. But of course, the autobiographical details are not interesting for the readers because they are true but rather because they are interesting.
Playing by the book: In the UK if you ask someone to name a Swedish children’s author, perhaps the only person many will be able to name is Astrid Lindgren, but who else should we know about? Which other Swedish children’s authors should I be lobbying to be translated?
Ulf Stark: Barbro Lindgren, a wonderful writer. Also Ulf Nilsson and Pia Lindenbaum. In Sweden there are (as in every country) a lot of good writers and a handful of really good ones.
Playing by the book: For The Children’s Bookshow, you’ll be on stage with your English language translator Julia Marshall. Can you describe for us the process of translating your books – for example, do you get any say in how they get translated? Do you and your translator discuss passages, particular words or phrases?
Ulf Stark: Not very often. The translators work in silence. And they don´t want to disturb us unless it’s very urgent.
Playing by the book: Ah, I see! And what do you hope the children and adults attending your Bookshow event will bring with them to your event? And what do you hope they will take away, having heard you and Julia speak?
Ulf Stark: I hope they will bring their good spirits with them, and a lot of questions! And that they walk away in good mood, with a smile on their faces and a lot of more questions in their heads.
Playing by the book: I’m sure they will, Ulf!
And now, for one last question: What are your working on at the moment?
Ulf Stark: A book called The Sister from the Sea. It´s about one of the 7000 children from who were evacuated from Finland to Sweden during the Second World War. Sirrka is evacuated to a family where the daughter is longing for a dog – and is disappointed when instead she gets a ‘sister’. It´s about the way the girls who start out as enemies end up as friends.
Playing by the book: That sounds very interesting. Thank you Ulf, for taking time to answer my questions. I hope you have a a great time as part of this year’s Children’s Bookshow.
The Children’s Bookshow takes place in every autumn and coincides with Children’s Book Week. Its aim is to foster a lifelong love of literature in children by bringing them the best writers and illustrators to inspire and guide them. You can find out more on their website http://www.thechildrensbookshow.com/.