Five minute chat with new children’s book author Julie Cupitt about “Gus the Human Goose”
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- Published on Tuesday, 12 September 2023 19:59
- Last Updated on 14 September 2023
- Monica Costa
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Can you tell us about the inspiration behind “Gus the Human Goose” and how the idea of a goose longing to be a human came to you?
When my eldest child was a toddler, I lived with her and my husband in a London flat with a balcony looking onto Putney River. To entertain ourselves, we used to look out and name all the beautiful birds that we saw – herons, geese etc. We would nickname them and imagine what their lives were like. Then one day, I randomly thought, wouldn’t it be funny if they were observing us and talking about what we get up to? What would they think of what they saw? If I was a goose, I would be quite peeved about having to watch humans eat delicious things like freshly baked cakes, while the goose version of me floated in dirty water eating dead brown grass. The idea kind of grew from there…
The storyline of your book reverses the common trope of a child turning into an animal. What motivated you to take this unique perspective and create a story where Gus wants to become a human?
I grew up devouring classic animal adventure stories from authors like Dick King-Smith and E.B White, which clearly influenced me on a subconscious level. My favourite book as a child was The Witches by Roald Dahl, where the witches turn a boy into a mouse, and he hatches a plan to get revenge! I knew there was a lot of fun to be had with this idea and that it is still proving popular with readers today.
I therefore knew there was a market for the idea, but wanted to standout by doing something different, which is why I reversed the trope. This was also in part influenced by The Little Mermaid who of course wants to be human, and Orwell’s Animal Farm, about animals with ideas above their station!
The setting of your book is in South-West London. How does this location contribute to the atmosphere and themes of the story?
Putney and Fulham are desirable parts of London and I feel privileged to have called it my home for many years. Something that makes London unique is the extent to which some people grow up with great privilege, whereas others live in poverty, and they live radically different lives next door to each other. Of course this happens elsewhere in England, but I feel it is more pronounced in London.
As someone who is very pro social mobility with a belief that someone’s background, or anything for that matter, should never limit them in life, I wanted to explore this theme. I have aimed to do this very subtly in a way that is entertaining and not preachy – children are often smarter than grownups and will see this a mile off!
Another contributing theme is environment and habitat. As the idea originated from seeing all the beautiful birds in their natural home, riverside life and wetlands feature a lot. I often visited the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. A year before I started this novel, I remember two geese there making a huge entrance. They landed amongst a group of visitors, whilst flapping their wings wildly and making aggressive hissing noises. These distinguished creatures stuck in my mind – they had too much going for them not to make them the central characters in my first novel.
The book incorporates creative formats such as a high tea menu and a goose’s life plan. Could you elaborate on how these formats enhance the storytelling experience for young readers?
The book is aimed at 8–11-year-olds, who want something more challenging than a short chapter book, such as the brilliant Isadora Moon or Grimwood books. Equally, they may switch off with longer middle grade novels packed with pages of solid prose and few illustrations. The mixture of creative formats breaks that up to keep children engaged.
I love the comic black and white pictures in other books for this audience, such as Quentin Blake’s illustrations, so wanted to include plenty of traditional artwork. However, whilst going through the book pre-publication on one of my many edits, I started questioning whether there were more creative ways to move the plot along.
For example, instead of describing the thoughts Gus has on what kind of human being he would like to become, I wrote a scene where he steals a school exercise book from one of the children. I then asked the talented illustrator, Gary Johnson, to mock up some silly notes and doodles that looked as if a wild goose on a mission had written them with his beak. I wanted to be as creative as possible with different formats. This resulted in paintings by the school children, jewellery heist plans by the thieves to outsmart that awful goose, random shopping lists of foods that produce foul smelling farts (trust me, it is relevant to the storyline!) and even a goose themed high tea menu…
The characters in your book, including Gus and the Bacon Brothers, are quite distinct. How did you go about creating these characters and their individual personalities?
Most characters are based on people I know, or characters that I love from films and books. Clara, who Gus thinks is his ‘real human mummy’ after hatching into her hands, is based on my daughter. The main influence for the antagonists, Bruce, and Spike, are the ‘Wet Bandits’ from Home Alone – their antics had me howling with laughter as a child. The idea of two baddies thinking they are tough, but constantly getting upstaged by an underling has great mileage for comedic effect.
I remember writing descriptions of each character for my illustrator to help him bring them to life. For Gus’s dad, I even wrote the words ‘Dave Cameron or Tony Blair if they had been a goose’ – I had the idea of him as a smooth orator with an air of self-importance. Lucinda is Emmeline Pankhurst in goose form, Thomasina, I described as ‘Paris Hilton had she been a goose.’
That said, the main character, Gus, is not based on anyone specifically. He represents so many young people who have a dream and are trying to find their way in the world. His character arc teaches us two important lessons. The first being that you do not have to be limited by your surroundings, and that you can achieve amazing things with hard work and determination: even if the journey’s destination is different from the original plan. The second is about self-acceptance, and what it means to be happy whilst remaining true to who you are.
Gus’s journey involves pursuing his dream of becoming a human while facing challenges from his goose community and the Bacon Brothers. How do these challenges contribute to Gus’s character development?
Gus is a typical adolescent at the start of the main story. His heart is in the right place, but his naivety means that he does not always think things through, gets over excited, and has a habit of thinking the world revolves around him! He also has very set ideas about what his own species are like, for example, if someone happens to be a goose, they must lead a very dull life and be boring to talk to!
As the story progresses, he becomes more selfless and open-minded. There is a critical turning point where he finally has an opportunity to meet the magical goose whisperer, Mr Siegfried F. Goosman, his best chance of becoming human. But, at this key moment, realises he must act fast to stop the Bacon Brothers from conducting the jewellery heist. He is highly invested in stopping them because the shop they are planning to burgle is owned by 10-year-old Clara’s mum and dad. He therefore postpones his opportunity to fulfil his dream, to instead focus on saving Clara’s family shop – something that the Gus at the beginning of the story would never have done.
Your background as a digital business consultant seems quite different from writing children’s books. How has your career influenced your writing process or storytelling style?
There are surprisingly many parallels! My role as a consultant involves selling ideas to clients. This involves understanding the client and knowing what is meaningful and relevant to them. Writing a novel is similar. At its core, it requires a great central idea that grabs and sustains the attention of the target audience. In my case, this is 8–11-year-olds. Therefore, knowing what genres and stories have stood the test of time, as well as what is selling in the current market, is crucial.
Also, my specialism in digital technology influenced the scenes where Gus finds himself in a school classroom and sees their virtual reality project. The school children are ‘designing a goose experience.’ Gus mistakenly believes the children are trying to turn themselves into geese, and that if this can be achieved, then surely the reverse can! There are also other references to technology and social media in the book, bringing what would otherwise be a traditional animal adventure into an environment that resonates with children today.
“Gus the Human Goose” seems to blend elements of adventure, humour, and even heist. How did you balance these different aspects to create a cohesive and engaging narrative for young readers?
It was not easy! I am what writers call a ‘pantser’ – someone who starts with a basic idea and sees where it takes them. For me, that is the fun of writing. But, as I have learned through the process of writing my first book, if you want to publish a good, viable novel, there comes a point where you must go back and look at whether it works structurally. For example, is the plotting and pacing right, are the character arcs compelling, how do the key relationships develop etc.
An experienced children’s editor named Antonia Prescott helped guide me through the structural edit. This was the most difficult part of the novel writing process by far. The best analogy I have is…you know when you pull a loose thread on a dress and the whole thing unravels and falls apart. Well – it was like that! I would make a change to a scene or character intent, and this would then mean that other things many chapters ahead no longer made sense and had to be rewritten!
I felt a huge sense of achievement after sorting out all the underlying structural issues in my early drafts. This is what helped me pull all the different strands together to create that cohesive narrative.
The book features engaging illustrations along with the text. How did you collaborate with the illustrator to bring your characters and their world to life visually?
I was lucky to find an incredibly talented illustrator – I had a vision of what I wanted the characters to look like and what the images might show, but he created something better than I could have ever imagined. I did quite a lot of planning around what I wanted the artwork to look like, by writing character and scene descriptions for each illustration. Gary Johnson then brought these to life – the way he achieved this and all the tiny details in his illustrations are so clever.
For other types of art, I was less prescriptive and asked Gary to ‘create something that looks like a life plan drawn by a slightly silly adolescent wild goose.’ I loved his idea to put these on a backdrop of lined paper and to keep building on the original as Gus’s mission progresses.
As a debut novelist, what was the most rewarding aspect of bringing Gus’s story to life? Do you have any advice for aspiring authors who are looking to achieve their own writing ambitions?
Hearing from children about how much they loved the book. My favourite one so far was from a girl who has a new-found appreciation for how cool geese are, and who also enjoyed the aspect of ‘self-acceptance’ in the book – in her words, ‘you can be cool whatever you are!’ My book signing event at Waterstones was also a major highlight.
I have a few pieces of advice for aspiring authors which I will summarise here:
- Buy the latest copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.
Or buy the children’s version if you are writing for a younger audience like I did.
- Read Save The Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
If the idea of planning your novel in this level of detail before writing it horrifies you, do not force it! It is however extremely useful for ideas to tackle your ghastly first draft later down the line (if you are a pantser, like me).
- Do a course to improve your craft.
There is a huge range out there to suit all needs. I did one with Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and I recommend them highly. WriteMentor also do a fantastic range and run competitions that provide feedback.
Monica Costa founded London Mums in September 2006 after her son Diego’s birth together with a group of mothers who felt the need of meeting up regularly to share the challenges and joys of motherhood in metropolitan and multicultural London. London Mums is the FREE and independent peer support group for mums and mumpreneurs based in London https://londonmumsmagazine.com and you can connect on Twitter @londonmums