A first novel in rhyming couplets?
Robert Paul Weston never imagined he could make a living as a writer. But he may have to rethink that notion now that Zorgamazoo, now that his first novel, has been hailed as one of the best young adult books of 2008.
Author Robert Paul Weston, Artsci’98, erstwhile trampolinist, lifeguard, computer programer, English teacher, and editor-turned writer has some interesting advice for other budding authors. “Floss your teeth, because you’ll never have a dental plan,” he laughs.
Robert may still want to floss his teeth, but the kind of attention he’s getting these days is what’s bound to make his smile a whole lot brighter. His first children’s novel, Zorgamazoo (Razorbill/Penguin), which tells the tale of the fantastical journey of a girl named Katrina Katrell, is written entirely in rhyming couplets that, according to many reviewers, are “nearly impossible not to read aloud.”
Booklist Magazine named Zorgamazoo one of its Top Ten First Novels for Youth in 2008 and the book has been hailed as a Notable Book for 2009 by the Children’s Literature Assembly U.S. Globe and Mail reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner was even inspired to rhyme her review: “There’s something infectious, contagious, sublime, about a 280-plus page novel written completely in rhyme,” she explained.
I don’t think I’d have kept writing it if I’d known what I know now ...
Born in Dover, England, in 1975 to a British-Turkish father and an Indian-Grenadian mother, Robert spent most of his childhood in Georgetown, Ontario. He wrote his first “novel” for his grade five teacher, but even when he took some creative writing courses at Queen’s and then earned an MFA in creative writing at UBC, Robert never thought writing would become his career. “I always thought it was something people did part-time on the side, and I certainly never thought of myself as a children’s writer,” he says.
Robert dove into children’s writing in 2003 when some verse – the beginnings of Zorgamazoo – came to him while he was living in Japan and teaching English in Japan. “I thought what I was writing was a slightly longer picture book, but I didn’t know picture books are only 32 pages. I don’t think I’d have kept writing it if I’d known what I know now [how difficult it is to write extended rhyming verse.] You might say the secret of my success was a complete ignorance of poetic form!” he laughs.
Robert ended up finishing the novel for his MFA, and then trying to pitch it to publishing firms at Vancouver’s Word on the Street Festival.
As the author of short fiction stories he’d had his share of rejection as well as well-deserved success (he’s submitted fiction to more than 80 to magazines but has had seven stories published), but he’d never endured anything quite as unnerving as pitching his novel to publishers in the bottom floor pub of the Vancouver Public Library.
“Everyone who applied to pitch but wasn’t accepted was invited to observe. So 200 of my peers, who were kind of angry at me because I’d been chosen, were drinking beer and watching me pitch my story to publishers,” he recalls.
He didn’t manage to sell the novel then, but one publisher did tell him that while it wasn’t for them he shouldn’t give up.
Now that Zorgamazoo has been published, he’s receiving fan mail from far and wide, and soon the book will be published in China. Robert finds that wonderfully odd, like the book itself.
“This morning, I signed the contracts with the very cool Hong Kong publisher, Guan Pin Hong Cultural Company,” Robert wrote in his blog in Nov. 2008. “My agent tells me selling rights to China as your first foreign territory is somewhat odd. But hey, I’ve always maintained that Zorgamazoo’s an odd kind of book, so it’s fine by me…And finally, get this: Guan Pin Hong is getting the Chinese translator of Dr. Seuss to do Zorgamazoo. Understandable, maybe…but still hard to believe.”
Robert’s next project is Grimm City, a novel for young adults that will be published in the fall of 2010. He blogs almost daily about his projects, and continues to tour schools across Canada, interacting with his young fans. And of course, he has more advice for aspiring writers besides his dental plan wisdom. “Don’t give up, and do it for the love of the game,” he says. “There are no guarantees, so if you don’t love it, you’re in trouble.”