Q&A with Jaco Jacobs

We asked Jaco Jacobs, the author of Grandpa Zombie (also available as Oupa Zombie in Afrikaans), a few questions on his writing process...and the zombie apocalypse. Read all about the most difficult part of writing for children, Jaco's favourite characters, and the best hiding places in SA here:

 What is the best part of your job?

Coming up with ideas for stories or poems. I love that first creative spark, when the idea is still fresh and new and exciting, when my head is simply buzzing with possibilities.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Erm … I don’t want to sound like a certain Batman villain, but seriously, why so serious? Relax, have fun. You know this is what you were meant to do, so stop worrying about how you’re going to make a decent living one day, and simply enjoy every moment of this amazing creative journey!

What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?

The first one that springs to mind is André Brink’s Devil's Valley, a wonderful South African novel brimming with grotesque elements and dark humour.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

 Actually, I’m rather terrible at research. I do a certain amount of planning around the plot and characters, but as far as actual factual research goes (Oooh, did I just say actual factual research? How great does that sound?), I tend to just do fact-checking and research as I go along. Writing Grandpa Zombie, for instance, I’ve never been to the Victoria Falls, so when I got to that bit, I called my sister to ask about her visit to the Falls, and checked out lots of YouTube videos showing what the Devil’s Pool looks like and how tourists can safely swim in the pool during guided tours. (As for the camel-chase scene, I have actually ridden a camel on more than one occasion, so I could draw on first-hand experience – and some unpleasant memories concerning a pretty sore bum.)

What’s the most difficult thing about writing for children?

Probably finding the “voice” of your characters, and staying true to that throughout the story. Also, you have to keep up a fast pace – young readers tend to be quite impatient, and boring your readers is, in my opinion, the Number One Deadly Sin of Writing for Kids.

What is the worst part of your job?

Trying to keep my desk more or less organised. I’m usually quite organised, but when I’m writing or translating, stuff somehow manages to pile up on my desk, up to the point where you could probably lose a decent-sized pachyderm among the clutter.
Also, whenever I start writing a new story, there’s always the fear that things aren’t going to work out this time, that I’m going to mess up the story spectacularly. (Which, trust me, I sometimes do.) Writing is not for the faint-hearted!

How do you select the names of your characters?

My publisher of many years will gladly attest to the fact that I am really bad at choosing names for characters. If I like a certain name, that name tends to pop up in more or less every single story that I write. (My kids are called Mia and Emma – and if you read some of my very first books, written way back before they were born, you’ll find quite a few Mia's en Emma's in there. So, obviously, I thought those two names had a nice ring to them.) Sometimes, I browse the phone book or Facebook in search of nice-sounding or funny-sounding or villainous-sounding names. In Grandpa Zombie many of the characters had the letters “z” or “x” in their names, mainly because I thought that would be a cool thing to do in a book about zombies.

What is your survival strategy during a zombie apocalypse?

 I was born and raised in a small Karoo town, so fleeing there with my family is definitely Step #1. Not to boast, but that’s a rather Smart and Calculated Move because the Northern Cape is the province with the lowest population in South Africa – and less people, of course, means less potential zombies. Oh, and every die-hard fan of zombie movies knows for a fact that zombies love shopping malls, and in the Karoo, shopping malls are in seriously short supply. Also, the people in that region are famous for their friendliness and hospitality, so I’m guessing they might make some surprisingly polite and well-behaved zombies.

Secondly, I’m a bit addicted to tomato juice, so that’s one thing I’m going to stockpile if we ever have to resort to looting shops. (And let’s be honest, we’re all secretly looking forward to the looting part, aren’t we?) Whenever I’m forced to go a few days without tomato juice, I tend to display some pretty zombie-like withdrawal symptoms myself (you know, foaming at the mouth, a goldfish-like stare, making bovine-like moaning sounds, that sort of thing), so that’s actually another Smart and Calculated Move on my part, in order to protect my loved ones. So, there you have it. That’s basically my Simple Two-Step Zombie Apocalypse Survival Strategy – a semi-desert region and loads of tomato juice.

Which of the characters you’ve written was the most fun to write?

I really have a soft spot for Zack Berry (in Zack Attack and Zack is Back), the typical kid-next-door who’s always in trouble with the grumpy neighbour and enjoys having all sorts of fun-filled adventures with his best friend and his dog. I’ve written so many stories about Zack and Vincent, that by now they feel like real kids that I know personally. They are the kind of kids who are always in some kind of trouble, but you can’t help rooting for them.

What was your favourite book as a child?

 I was a voracious reader. Nevermind a bookworm, I was a book-T-Rex who devoured more or less any book I could lay my claws on. But if I had to choose just one book, it would probably be Pippi Longstocking. I loved the quirkiness of the adventures, and the rebellious, larger-than-life heroine who could pick up a horse by herself, had an endless supply of money, a pet monkey, very little regard for grownups and their silly rules, and whose dad was a pirate captain.

Thank you Jaco!