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An interview with Sean Connolly (who writes as Roger Canavan), the author of the fantastic book: Adventures in the Real World: The Destruction of Pompeii

by Jeannie Brown

We are delighted to announce that we have a new book coming soon, it’s a fast-paced retelling of the
destruction and rediscovery of Pompeii. AD79: The Destruction of Pompeii explores the famous Roman town of Pompeii in the years before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the timeline of its destruction, and its subsequent rediscovery hundreds of years later. The story is recounted by the plaster casts of a dog and a horse, two victims of the eruption in Pompeii, adding an element of irreverent humour to the retelling. The book includes stunning comic strips which bring the ancient Roman world to life. It also has a map and timeline of Pompeii’s story over the centuries and fact boxes giving historical background. It’s a fantastic learning resource for children!

We interviewed the wonderful author of the book: Sean Connolly (who writes as Roger Canavan) to find out more about his upcoming book!

Your books have great humour but are also very informative and great learning resources. What (in your opinion) are the key ingredients to making an engaging, educational book?

You’ve hit on one ingredient – humour – in your question. Another is holding the reader’s interest from the outset. That could also be using humour, or giving details that put the readers into a particular setting…so they’d almost feel like a girl in nineteenth-century England or part of a family that had crossed the Atlantic in a freezing, creaking boat.

What authors inspire you and why? 

All sorts of authors, from different times and places. To get difficult ideas across, I’d say Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking: both brilliant scientists who knew what it must be like not to be a brilliant scientist. Mark Twain wrote fiction, of course, but the reader comes away learning a lot about life on the Mississippi River (and of course he’s humorous as well). Believe it or not, I’m also going to mention Fyodor Dostoevsky. When I was young, my father read out part of The Brothers Karamazov, which is considered one of the most difficult books ever written. The passage was called “The Boys” and it was about a group of young boys in a Russian village in the nineteenth century. I remember thinking “they could be my school friends” and wondering how a writer could reach across time and space like that. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is another example of transporting the reader to a different era and setting.

You have written a whole range of fantastic books such as Kids in History: Albert Einstein, The Eureka Moment!: Ada Lovelace and Computing and most recently: Adventures in the Real World: AD79 The Destruction of Pompeii. How do you choose a new topic to write about?

A lot of it is really down to collaboration. You’ll note that Salariya has a great track record in producing interesting series’. Sometimes I’ll get a glimpse at possible titles and make a play for one (or two) of them. Other times they’ll think of me as a series emerges and I’ll be approached. I don’t think I’ve ever turned down one of those approaches because I enjoy being part of the team.

How much research do you do before you begin a new book? Where do you begin?

It differs from book to book. With the Mayflower book, I could rely on some of my own experiences. I’m from Massachusetts and have visited the Pilgrims’ original settlement many times. For Pompeii and most other titles I began by looking through some of the books I had as a child (two of my uncles were printers and the house was full of books). Then I’d jump into the modern world and begin using the Web. Sometimes knowing a bit about a foreign language can lead to sites that help me with illustration briefs….even if the text is a bit beyond me.

Who has been your favourite person to write about and why?

Two people born in the nineteenth century (Ada Lovelace and Albert Einstein) were particularly rewarding for me. Why? Probably because I was worried beforehand that I wouldn’t understand their achievements fully. But writing about their lives helped add some real context and I felt that I could grow with them as I did my research and wrote.

What makes you passionate about being a writer?

I love the feeling that I can share interesting things with my readers. And as I said, I come from a printing family, so I know that in a way I’m carrying on that tradition.

Tell me about Adventures in the Real World: AD79 The Destruction of Pompeii. What interested you about making this book?

That’s easy – who isn’t fascinated by one of the most dramatic events in history! But beyond that, I was eager to imagine what life was like in Pompeii – not just during the dreadful eruption but in the peaceful years that led up to it. And then to learn about the natural events that triggered – eruption was really eye opening.

The narrators of the book, the dog and horse statues, are charming characters who set a very friendly and inviting tone in the beginning of the book. How did you create these two characters? 

The excavation of Pompeii has enabled scientists to create statues of those who perished during the eruption – by filling in the cavities where their bodies had been buried in lava and then decomposed. I could have used “re-animated” children to be the central characters but I felt that it would be a constant, creepy reminder of the human loss.

What do you hope children learn from this book?

I hope that they will come away realising that Pompeii and Herculaneum were living, breathing cities….as much as the readers’ own communities are. And that our investigations are a way of revisiting a moment in time. By learning about Pompeii (frozen in time) we can all learn more about life nearly 2,000 years ago.

What is one of your favourite facts in this book? 

Even now my nose wrinkles when I think of what Pompeii must have smelled like. After all, most people worked producing garum, a pungent sauce made from the crushed intestines of fish mixed with salty liquid. Imagine that smell wafting across the city!

And finally…what advice would you give to someone who wants to break into the publishing industry but doesn’t know where to start?

As with many industries, the trick is to “get your foot in the door”. You probably won’t find that you have the experience to apply to be a writer or editor, but keep an eye out for any opening – no matter how junior. Once you’re in, you’ll probably be asked to do odds and ends that will acquaint you with the industry….so you can advance within that company or use the experience to apply with more confidence elsewhere. I started out with a travel publisher, phoning up restaurants to double-check their opening hours! Then one thing led to another….

About the author:

Sean Connolly (who writes as Roger Canavan) is an award-winning author of more than 60 books for young readers, covering history, science and other nonfiction subjects. Regular school visits and science experiments conducted with his three children keep him connected with his wide readership as well as with the latest school curriculum developments.

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