Author Interview: Rosanne Tolin
Teen Council employee, Blair Mushala, interviews Rosanne Tolin, the author of More Than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the Story of Paddington Bear. Blair talks to Ms. Tolin about what inspired her to become a writer, to write about Michael Bond and Paddington Bear, and how to handle criticism. You can place a hold More Than Marmalade and the Paddington books with your library card.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
As a young child, like many writers are I was a big reader. Stories that featured anthropomorphic animals were always my favorites. Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Rabbit and especially Paddington Bear were all dear to me! Even as I advanced, Aslan—of the Chronicles of Narnia fame—would also become one of my favorite characters.
When I was in high school, I was editor of our school creative writing magazine. After studying English Literature and graduating from law school, I eventually circled back to writing as a journalist for the kids section of a newspaper. Next I took a transformative job as the managing editor of a kids magazine. That was when I really decided I wanted to write for children!
Having been a journalist for a number of years, I found that I enjoyed the “truth is stranger than fiction” aspect of biographies in particular. I often find myself sucked into articles and books that feature aspects of famous people’s (as well as unsung figures’) lives.
What is the best part of your writing process?
I actually quite enjoy the revision process! Some writers dread revisions—because they often feel never-ending—but for me, the magic of the story happens then. When rewriting, the story truly takes shape and becomes its best self. There are often all these small “aha” moments, when scenes and characters are rearranged and tweaked to truly bring them into better focus.
What do you think makes a good story?
I think a good story is any story that makes you feel something, a range of emotions. One that whisks you away for a bit, into another world. True stories, in real settings, can do that just as well as fantastical fiction can!
Which scene has stuck with you the most?
I think it would be the day he stumbled, quite accidentally, upon the idea for Paddington. Michael initially found himself with a bad case of writer’s block. He called his literary agent, who told him to look around the room and write about something—anything—that he saw. Michael’s eyes happened to fall upon Paddington. And the rest, as they say, is (literary) history.
What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
For me, the most difficult part is probably deciding what pieces of my research (and random thoughts) are the most relevant. It’s the time spent deliberately, putting the pieces of the puzzle together so that there is a real purpose to the writing. To create a full-fledged story of any kind – short story, novel, picture book – takes a great deal of critical thought. Otherwise, one is just sort of flailing around without direction. The work is hard, but so worth it!
On a typical day, how much time do you spend writing?
I spend anywhere from one to three hours writing. Sometimes at my kitchen island, sometimes in a comfy chair, sometimes at the park. That’s a ballpark figure—some days it might be more, and some less.
How do you handle literary criticism?
I try not to get too caught up in criticism. To be a writer, you’re inevitably going to experience a lot of rejection. Once your story is actually published, a number of people have already vetted it as “worthy” of being out in the world. I think that is gift enough. I’ve also been fortunate to have generally very good reviews, and those that aren’t as favorable typically lie in the “I’m more of a Winnie the Pooh fan” variety. There’s little I can do about that!
As an author, it’s important to keep in mind that what I like to read might not be the same types of things that you like. And that’s okay! There are books out there for everyone’s unique, individual tastes; that’s what makes the world go ‘round, isn’t it?
What was the inspiration for the story?
About three years ago I came across an article in Tablet magazine titled “Paddington Jewish Roots.” The article told about Michael Bond’s inspiration for Paddington Bear, and the fact that he based his iconic character on children arriving in London on the Kindertransport. Like Paddington famously waited for a family to adopt him with nothing but a suitcase by his side, these World War II refugee children had little in their possession other than a knapsack full of clothes. These sad and lonely kids made a huge impression on young Bond, and really impacted his sensibilities. I was so intrigued to dive deeper into his story, since it was clear there was much more than what appeared on the surface.
What is the key theme and/or message of More than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the story of Paddington Bear?
One of my favorite parts of the book is also an important theme: that is, when Michael says, “Unless an author believes in his character, no one else is going to. Paddington isn’t me, but I wouldn’t mind being him.” I love this. It says so much about the relationship between Michael Bond the man, and his beloved Paddington bear.
What do you hope your readers take away from More than Marmalade: Michael Bond and the story of Paddington Bear?
One of the things I loved most about working on this book was that it brought me back to London for a while. I feel a nostalgic connection to this city, having spent several months there in my mid-20s. Those were some of the best times I’ve had traveling alone, during a really formative time. Paddington really embodies all things British, which I—maybe in an idealistic and even nostalgic sort of way—totally adore.
What is the significance of the title?
The title encapsulates the fact that there is more to Michael Bond and his eponymous bear than meets the eye. Paddington is much more than a simple storybook character. To know his backstory is to understand how deeply Michael felt for refugees, including his imaginary friend.
Tell us about the process for coming up with the cover.
My publisher, Chicago Review Press, did a fantastic job with the bright, engaging cover. Sadie Teper and Preston Pisellini collaborated to create the end result. I received a mock-up that was close to the final design, and my publisher was kind enough to ask for my input on that. I did make a few small suggestions, most of which were implemented. I absolutely love what they did with it!
How would you describe Michael Bond in three words?
Humble, brilliant, principled (and, if I may add one more…funny)!