An Interview with Victoria Griffith

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Victoria Griffith
For last week’s Nonfiction Monday I reviewed a super book by debut author Victoria Griffith, The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont. This week, I’m delighted to bring you an interview with Victoria Griffith, interspersed with a selection of books which inspired her on her path towards becoming a writer.

Playing by the book: Hello Victoria, thank you for joining us here on Playing by the book.

In her review of your debut book, Betsy Bird wrote “I’m having a bit of difficulty believing that this is Victoria Griffith’s first book for children. To my mind, writing nonfiction picture books for young readers is enormously difficult […] Griffith, for her part, takes to the form like a duck to water.” I hadn’t known The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont was your debut when I first read your book, but now I know that writing nonfiction has actually been in your blood for some years, having worked as a journalist at the Financial Times. How did you become a journalist?

Victoria Griffith: I became a journalist almost by default, because I wasn’t very good at anything else. When I was a college-student waitress, I got fired for mixing up orders. And I was way too non-conformist to be a successful banker, my first serious chosen profession. I’m lucky to have been a journalist in the 1990s, when it really was a lot of fun. Before the Internet took over, we had time to work on stories. The Financial Times, my newspaper, let us write about pretty much anything we wanted to, as long as we got out the articles on our regular beats. I did a number of children’s book reviews. I also made lunch for food diva Julia Child, who raved about my Brazilian fish stew, but refused to eat my blackberry dessert, and I spent time with the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon rainforest.

Victoria’s 1st book:

AMELIA AND ELEANOR GO FOR A RIDE by Pam Munoz Ryan, illustrated by Brian Selznick showed me how exciting a slice-of-life non-fiction picture book could be. I love the way it starts off, with Amelia going for a sleepover at the White House. For little girls, the very word “sleepover” implies adventure. In this case, Amelia Earhart takes Eleanor Roosevelt for a midnight ride in her plane.

Playing by the book: Ah! Do I see a theme here? Your own book is about flying, your first choice of book is about flying? Can you fly planes yourself?

Victoria Griffith: No, I don’t have a pilot’s license, but I do love to fly places.

Victoria’s 2nd book:

THE TALKING EGGS by Robert San Souci, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney is one of my favorite books to read to my own children. It’s got a lot of text, but manages to keep even young children engaged in the story, which is a kind of Cajun Cinderella tale, but without the prince!

Playing by the book: How did you find the transition from writing factual pieces for a newspaper to writing nonfiction for children? What’s hardest about each type of writing?

Victoria Griffith: The main thing that the two types of writing have in common is that you need to capture and hold readers’ attention. When I worked for a daily paper, I used to dread the news event that happened late in the day, close to deadline, when I’d have to research and write a story in an hour or less. On the other hand, I got to see the article in the paper the next day, with a guaranteed audience! It was hard for me to get used to the glacial pace of book publishing.

Victoria’s 3rd book:
WITCHES AND FAIRIES by Eva Montanari was reviewed on your blog, so you know how engaging the illustrations are. This book convinced me that Eva is a very talented artist, and I was thrilled when Abrams selected her as the illustrator for my own book.

Playing by the book: Can you share a little about how you went about researching The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont? Did you travel a lot or were you able to do most of the research in your local library?

The Alberto residence plaque in Paris
Victoria Griffith: Because the story takes place more than a hundred years ago, library research was key. But my family travels a lot anyway, and I took advantage of that to visit places Alberto would have spent time in. There’s actually a plaque in Paris that recognizes his former residence on the Champs-Elysees. I tried to get into the Cartier store in Paris, to look at the Santos watch, but I they took a look at me with three young girls in tow and decided I was not their ideal customer.

Victoria’s 4th and 5th book:
THE LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel is one of those brilliant cross-over books between adult and young adult literature. Like THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon, it got me interested in serious literature for younger people. It’s interesting that both are told in first person by young men in life-changing experiences.

Victoria’s 6th and 7th book:

A MOVEABLE FEAST by Ernest Hemingway. What writer hasn’t dreamed of being a bohemian in Paris, penning novels in cafes?

THE WITCHES by Roald Dahl is also one of my favorite books. Dahl never talks down to kids in his writing, and that is part of his great appeal.

Playing by the book: Having been Brazilian correspondent and married to a Brazilian, can you recommend any Brazilian authors/illustrators to me and my blog readers?

Victoria Griffith: Unfortunately, the strength of Brazilian writers is their weakness – they are very language and culture-specific. One of my favorite children’s books is written by the Brazilian singer and songwriter Chico Buarque, CHAPEUZINHO AMARELO. It’s about a girl who’s afraid of just about everything, but eventually gains courage to live her life fully. At the end of the story, the LOBO (wolf) becomes a BOLO (cake). I just wish I were talented enough to effectively translate these works into English. But there are a few Brazilian children’s writers, namely Ana Maria Machado, and Lygia Bojunga Nunes, who have gained international recognition.

Victoria’s 8th book:
by Jorge Amado, is one of the most brilliant Brazilian books ever written, a magic-realism tale that drew me in years ago.

Playing by the book: Have you plans for another children’s book? Can you tell us anything about it?

Victoria Griffith: I’ve just signed with a wonderful new agent, Robert Astle, and I’m working with him on final edits for a couple of new projects. My next published book will probably be a middle grade novel, although I’d love to write another non-fiction picture book.

Playing by the book: That sounds really interesting Victoria! I’ll certainly be on the look out for your next books. Thank you for the wonderful The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos-Dumont and also for you interview today.

2 Responses

  1. Marjorie (PaperTigers)

    Thank you, Zoe and Victoria, for this great interview – The Brazilian Lobo/Bolo sounds great but as you say, it’s hard to translate something like that. Ana Maria Machado gave an excellent paper at the Bologna Book Fair last year about the deplorable lack of books translated into English…

  2. Zoe

    Hi Marjorie, yes, a challenge for a translator for sure! Hopefully a publisher like Gecko Press who have a special interest in translated picture books might pick up on some Brazilian authors/illustrators.

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