Interview | Russ Brown Talks Teaching, Writing And Bringing Mechanicsville To Life
For Mechanicsville author Russ Brown writing is a passion, an escape and a chance to change the world. An acclaimed children’s author with a New York Times ‘Best Seller’ under his belt, a father and an experienced school teacher, he has been able to strike a chord with kids all over the world with his stories.
Russ’ work first came to our attention with The Field Feud and Matthew James Publishing is incredibly happy be working with him once again on his latest book, The Mechanics Of Mechanicsville. Mechanicsville sees Russ reunited with friend and illustrator Jamie Cosley, with whom he had worked on Monsters In My Math Book and Poppy’s Planet!, and it is certainly their best collaboration to date.
I chatted to Russ earlier this week to discuss Mechanicsville, the folklore behind his story, his previous work and how he balances such a busy schedule.
As a teacher and a parent with a pretty hectic schedule how do you find time to write?
As a teacher and dad of two young girls, time is very precious! However, I write constantly. I have a notebook with me all the time and jot down ideas and things that stick in my head or I find funny. I also love the notes function on my phone! I try to write every day although that can be tricky. I love writing so see it as an opportunity to get away from the real world and not a chore. Even if I get five minutes of writing done in a day I see it as an achievement.
Does your teaching experience affect your writing and are the kids you teach an influence at all?
I am constantly influenced by the children I work with they have a great insight into the world around them; they are a great source of ideas. Teaching is a great profession and I am lucky to love the jobs I do. However what motivates me to write for primary age is that I see lots of reading materials that don’t engage children at the right level and hope to achieve that with my books. One child, many years ago, influenced an entire book of mine by stating the reason he struggled so much at school was that he had “monsters in his head” that didn’t let him work like the other children did. This stuck with me and then the Monsters In My Math Book story came to life.
Do the children you teach know that you’re an author too? If so, do your books go down well with them? Do you test any new material out on them?
I tend to keep both roles separate as I want the children to stumble upon my books in the school library. However, due to local publicity many children do know and, sweetly, have purchased many of my titles. The children genuinely seem to enjoy my stories and The Field Feud is used as part of our assembly and R.E focus across school. This often generates great work from them. The children in some of the younger classes still don’t believe it’s me until I show them some of the ways in which my books come to life. The children in my class are my greatest critics and I love them for that. I test all stories on them and ask them for edit ideas. Often what they suggest is perfect they really know what makes a story “work”.
What’s your writing process like and how does writing in rhyme – as you did in Mechanics, affect that?
I have a rather sporadic writing process. I keep a structure in my head but often don’t actually stick to it! I can often write an entire story outline in a number of hours if I have the initial arc in place. I write lots of post-it’s and move them around to develop those ideas and get the “flow” of the story. I love writing in rhyme but it does get quite restrictive. I find if it works, it works well and can move the story forward quickly. I love the pace that rhyme brings and hope people see the the tip of the hat to one of my all time favourite authors Dr. Suess.
What was it that inspired you to turn the Virginia folklore of The Mechanics Of Mechanicsville into a children’s story?
Well, it all came about with Jamie mentioning he lived in a place called Mechanicsville and it was almost like a lightbulb went on in my head. I love the names given to places and enjoy the backstory that often come with them. So straight away I could see the tinkers who helped make the town the great place to live that it is. I saw the Mechanicsville story as a modern day elves and the shoemaker, where a group of magical beings help us just for the sake of being helpful. I like that idea, to be helpful for being helpfuls sake or paying goodness forward. I love basing my work on actual places or events.
You have worked with, Mechanicsville illustrator, Jamie Cosley in the past. How did you and he first meet?
Up to this point we have only ever met virtually. Social media brought us together as a working partnership and it has gone from strength to strength. We both have a great love of Disney, cartoons, comic books and Star Wars. We are very similar in many ways and I feel he can climb inside my head and see the characters I want brought to life in his illustrations.
One of those books, Poppy’s Planet!, made it on to the New York Times’ ‘Best Seller’ list. How did it feel to when that happened?
I am truly humbled by that and it is still very very surreal, I wrote Poppy’s Planet! as a way of raising awareness of global warming and recycling without it being too preachy. It was first attempt at rhyme in a book and was even more restrictive by only allowing words that rhymed with fly. That got very difficult at times. I love that in one format or another so many people have managed to see my work and hopefully enjoy it. Poppy’s Planet! is the book I am most asked about and one that I would like to re-edit and re-release the most as its message is still relevant today.
Outside of writing and teaching, what are your other passions?
I love listening to music and have an extensive collection; mostly 70’s & 80’s. I enjoy films of all types. I enjoy spending holiday time at Disney with my family and truly believe it is a great place for everyone to visit. I am a Star Wars addict and couldn’t wait to see the latest instalment – it did not disappoint. I love spending time with my family and two dogs, love reading children’s books and perhaps last but not least, I am a Lego collector! I can’t help it and have far too much of it – we are running out of display room!
Do you think we’ll see more adventures from The Mechanics after this book?
I have loads of ideas in the pipeline and The Mechanics are at the forefront of them. Those little guys have hundreds of stories in them and I hope I get the opportunity to share them.
You can check out The Mechanics Of Mechanicsville here and for more on The Field Feud you can head here. You can also follow along with #MechanicsMonday by clicking ‘Like’ on The Mechanics Of Mechanicsville Facebook page here.
For more information on Russ Brown, click here to visit his personal website.
Photo: © North West Evening Mail