Browser Interviews: Sylvia Bishop

Baiqu: Welcome back to The Browser Interviews. Today I’m with Sylvia Bishop, who is a children's book writer with nine titles translation into 16 languages, and is a part of a musical duo by the name of Peablossom Cabaret. Welcome Sylvia.

Sylvia: Thank you. It's lovely to be here.

How to sound smart in a conversation

Baiqu: So today I really want to just get a list of recommendations from you for our readers. If you’re ready, we can just jump right in.

Question number one, what would you recommend if I wanted to come across as being smart in a conversation?

Sylvia:Probably not saying very much, you're far safer that way. This is maybe a personal prejudice that I tend to think the longer someone talks, the less they probably know about it. But also if I was being more cynical, the odd cutting remark would probably give an impression of intelligence without needing to reveal any depth. But no, more seriously, I think intelligent people know what they don't know.

Baiqu: That's very true.

Sylvia: I think if you have strong opinions on more than two things in any given night, then I start to lose faith that you have reasoning behind those strong opinions, I'm like no one has time to be sure about all these things.

I guess, a more constructive recommendation would maybe be asking thoughtful questions. If there is someone there who does know about that thing, or if not, putting sort of theoretical questions to the group... if you wanted to win my heart, that's what would work.

How to become a children's book writer

Baiqu: I agree. No one has all the time in the world to have very strongly opinionated thoughts on every topic under the sun. So yeah, two is a good cutoff point.

All right. Next one. What would you recommend if someone wants to know more about writing children's books, your area of expertise?

Sylvia: Ooh interesting. I mean, it's really boring to say reading children’s books. Although, more important than that, and I don't know how you go about acquiring this, is I think remembering being a child. One shortcut for that I've learned, from other children's writers is to have a child, so I guess... reproduce.

But failing that, if you can remember your own childhood, not just the facts, but re-evoke what it was like to be in a large bed in a dark room when you were six. Can you remember what would upset you at lunchtime when you were nine? Can you remember why you built dens and what games you played. What adventures you went on in your own head? And I think that can probably be rediscovered, through different memory exercises and journaling about that kind of thing.

I think the, the finer skills of a children's writer to me is the point of view of their prose, whether it's third or first. That it's faithful to that childhood experience, and that they can remember the difference between a six year old and an 11 year old, because they're wildly different, and they will feel patronised if you get it wrong.

So yeah. Some memory exercises, or have a baby. One or the other.

Baiqu: Nice. I think I will go for the first.

I feel like once you’ve past the point of childhood, and if you don't have kids around you, it's really hard for me to distinguish how old a child is just by looking at them. I mean I remember that being six versus being 11, was hugely different, but as an adult, it must be so hard to put that into words and to sort of step into the shoes of someone who's that age.

Do you talk to children often for your work?

Sylvia: I mean, I do now, I go to schools and things for the job, and that's wonderful. I went and volunteered three days a week at my local school for a couple of months when my first book was under contract, because I hadn't spoken to a child at that stage, no one in my family has had a child in my generation, there was just no reason to in my life. Which I guess is another way of saying, I don't think you have to talk to children to re-access this because in a way, then you're an adult interpreting children, unless you're really intimately close to their thoughts - you're not.

It's not quite what I mean, to just sort of observe children. I mean, I looked into some studies on this to run a workshop with adults where they did memory lane stuff, because basically I just remember my life up to the age of about 11 with a weird amount of detail, and that it gets very hazy from teenager and my twenties - I've got no idea what happened. But what happened when I was seven, I can tell you. What was interesting looking at the research is that there are some real commonalities that have been found by play researchers and child development psychologists, about how children see the world at different ages. So I kind of used that as a starting point with my workshop-ees. I got them all remembering the first place they were allowed to go by themselves, private spaces that they made for them and their friends, doing maps of the home according to what belongs to who, and what the meaning of all the different rooms were. So I think there are certain starting points that can tap you back into that part of yourself. Building dens, everybody hides behind furniture until at some point they get too big for it and they create somewhere that's a den. That's a really nice starting point I think for remembering that gradation through time.

Baiqu: I guess I can ask that like a lot of writers, but do you feel like there's a lot of you in your books and in the characters that you create?

Sylvia: Yeah and it's so weird because you don't mean there to be, and then you read it back over a couple of years later and like, oh, okay, this is just Sylvia's anxieties in a book. It's fascinating seeing what themes you go back to over and over again because it’s never been deliberate, but it's overwhelmingly obvious with a bit of distance.

Baiqu: Hmm and have your parents or your family read your books?

Sylvia: The interesting thing about sharing with my family is that in children's books, you have to get the parents out of the way. That's a standing joke, like how are you going to kill off the parents? In James and the Giant Peach, they get stampeded by a rhinoceros in the first page and we just move on. So parents tend to be either absent for tragic reasons that are just not dealt with, or neglectful. At best, they're sort of benignly indifferent, or they need to be rescued, and that's the point of the story. So with every book I do have to be like, sorry, they're rubbish parents again, but none of this is a reflection.

Best Amazon Purchase

Baiqu: I never thought of it that way. The parents are kind of the obstacle to the child having an adventure, right, or embarking on a journey. That's really interesting.

Okay. Next question. What is the one thing that you would recommend from all of your Amazon on purchases over the last year / during the pandemic?

Sylvia: Oh, that's tricky. I mean, I wish I could, at this point, say I haven't made a single Amazon purchase, purchased only from good local stores, but that's not the case. I'm pretty happy with my resistance bands. I looked into getting weights along with apparently everyone else in the world because they now cost 9 million pounds. I ended up getting resistance band instead, which are in the region of around 20 pounds, they are stretchy bits of rubber for anyone who's not to use them and you can replicate all the exercises you would do with dumbbells. Cannot stress it enough that this is a complete personality change. I was not previously in possession of arm muscles to my knowledge, I'm now in possession of superficial arm muscles, but, I can feel that I'm less ridiculously the weak than I was. That's quite nice.

I think that is related to writing, just to stay on topic. One of my big pieces of advice for a writer is work out when it is that you are going to do some exercise, you can't just sit and have a think all day or your brain will stop functioning and you'll have new ideas again after your exercise routine. So as a really, really, exercise-adverse person, this has been one of the most important things I've done for my writing career... run, even though I hate it. Because when I come back, I know what I want to write. Yeah.

Do kids have existential crises?

Baiqu: That's awesome. I'm very happy for you that you've discovered resistant bands and running. Very good.

Okay, next question. And I'm curious about this one, especially with your profession, what would you recommend as the best cure to an existential crisis?

Sylvia: Ooh that's a big question and quite close to home in current times. Well, I mean, at the risk of being pedantic, but, you know, in keeping with my advice in the first question, I would say that I don't know enough to answer your question yet.

I would want to know what kind of existential crisis you're having. I think it's very important to be clear about our emotions, use good vocabulary for our emotions. If someone tells me they're having an existential crisis, I'm like you're gonna need to specify. What's the broadest thing I could say that I think is generally true?

Don't think about it so much. Like if you have any kind of big question that feels unanswerable, that's dominating your thoughts, dial it down to a smaller question and deal with that for today, and keep doing that until the big question has lost its emotional weight.

Baiqu: That's a very good broad thing to say about the topic. Break it down.

So, do you think children have existential crisis?

Sylvia: Yes.

Baiqu: Interesting.

Sylvia: I'm not a child psychologist. But I think I'm fairly safe in saying the really basic project of the child’s developing mind is to work out if they are safe and under what circumstances they are safe. The things that would make you feel unsafe as a child can then become very problematic. So just yes, I think they can, and maybe more justifiably than adults, right?  I mean, this is not some personal experience, but if your home situation is unsafe or anything like that, it is existential. And you have very little handle on metaphysical questions - like children are very prone to magical thinking, they think things are their fault that aren't, they see patterns where there aren't any, because they're still trying to work out world. So on a kind of metaphysical way, the world can seem like a very scary place. I think they can have a very real belief in things that don't exist but are terrifying.

Baiqu: Yeah

Sylvia: Probably not quite as much, "what's the point of life I'm bored and sad." There's probably less of that.

Baiqu: I also feel like with children's books, when I read them as an adult, they're still so relevant sometimes and they bring up a lot of thoughts and feelings. I mean, differently to when you read as a child, but I always find it amazing how children's books have that ability to transcend age and still touch upon something that's pretty deep and kind of philosophical.

Sylvia: Yeah, I agree. I think childhood fears are really fundamental and they stay a very core part of our adult personality. So there can be a real moment of recognition, when a children's book suddenly lays out for you, in the sort of barest terms. Like, yeah god that is what it is.

Baiqu: Is there a lot of philosophising for you during your writing process or are you just kind of having fun with the story and the character?

Sylvia: Yeah, I mean, I'm just having fun, having said all this, I should add that my books are very whimsical and silly. I'm not sure you'd see much evidence of what I've just been saying. But I think in general, this is probably true of adult writing as well. If you're going to start from philosophising and then try and re-express that philosophy in a novel, instead of in an essay on philosophy, you'd better be really exceptionally wise, because very few people have something to say that's so earth shattering that that's the reason there are novelist. I think instead, most people are good at something else that makes their novels enjoyable and along the way, that humanity comes through, because we all share the same emotional palette and we can connect to each other rather than that authors are sort of dispensers of great wisdom on how to live.

Favourite book, podcast, and app

Baiqu: Very true.  

Okay, last recommendation. I'm going to be cheeky and add three in one. So can you recommend the last good book that you read, and it can be a children's book or an adult novel. One podcast, and one app or website.

Sylvia: I've got the first two in my head, Bad reasons, Good Feelings by a guy called Randolph M. Nesse. It's just a wonderful psychology book - evolutionary psychology. What his basic premise is, is that what the field of mental health often lacks is an understanding of what the physical emotional system is doing when it functions correctly. Like it doesn't have what physiology is to medicine. And he sets about trying to provide an account of the evolutionary usefulness of negative emotions so that we can classify states as like, this is evolutionary useful, but harmful for me as a person, this is actually useful, or this is not useful. My mood is that, equals it has gone wrong. He says all of those can come under the umbrella of what we treat as a mental health crisis, but we should be aware of the differentiation. It's just really interesting.

Podcasts. I'm not a big podcaster, but I go back time and time again to one called Writing Excuses which is 15 minutes long and has a lovely tagline, "because you're in a hurry. and we're not that smart" which is how I feel about podcasts. It's like the people with three strong opinions in a night. They're all superb writer educators, they are excellent writers as well, but they really know how to figure out what they're doing instinctively, conceptualise it, and pass it on. I can't recommend highly enough to anybody writing.

The third was an app. Wasn't it? You know what, I'm going to go back to being smug about exercise. Couch to 5k. I think that might be a UK based version of a more common concept, where a comedian called Sarah Millican narrates rates my runs every day and gets you up from being a non-runner to doing a 5K. And it works.

Baiqu: So how does that work? Does she talk to you whilst you run? Does she soget you off the couch and does she put on your exercise outfit with you and come outside with you? Where does it start?

Sylvia: She doesn't start talking until she has assumes you're on your five minute warm up walk. But I would like that optional extra "come on love put on a cardigan," at the end of it she tells me to have a banana, which I would just find comforting. It's like having someone holding your hand and making sure you look after yourself.

Baiqu: That was nice. Well, thank you so much for your time.

Sylvia Bishop:

Good Reasons for Bad Feelings - Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry

Resistance Bands:

Writing Excuses

Couch to 5k

Not yet a subscriber? Every day, The Browser Newsletters sends you five fascinating pieces of writing to subscribe and delight you, each one hand-picked and beautifully capsuled by our editors Caroline Crampton and Robert Cottrell. In a world consumed by bots, noise and breaking-news, The Browser gives you carefully-curated writing of lasting value.

Join the Browser

Join 150,000+ curious readers who grow with us every day

No spam. No nonsense. Unsubscribe anytime.

Great! Check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription
Please enter a valid email address!
You've successfully subscribed to The Browser
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in
Could not sign in! Login link expired. Click here to retry
Cookies must be enabled in your browser to sign in