Observational humour: Remy Lai on ‘Fly on the Wall’
Remy Lai’s middle-grade graphic novel Fly on the Wall (Walker, September) follows 12-year-old Henry Khoo, who goes on a solo international flight to Singapore without the knowledge of his overprotective family. Reviewer Phil Lesnie said Lai’s ‘highly enjoyable’ take on the well-trod illustrated diary trope is perfect for fans of ‘Wimpy Kid’ and ‘Dork Diaries’—and is in many ways easy to recommend over them. He spoke to the author.
Would you tell us your thoughts about the hybrid style of graphic novel and prose you’ve employed on your last two books? How do you select which moments will be told visually?
I love the hybrid format. I tend to think very visually, so I think a combination of prose and images is my natural ‘voice’. But for me, the story has to be right for a hybrid book. There has to be a reason why part of it is told in images.
I’m a pretty intuitive writer. I read craft books, attend classes and webinars, but when I’m writing early drafts, I tend to just vomit everything out and I don’t analyse things too deeply. Later, during revision, my Relentless Editor Brian plays a very key role. He questions all the choices I make—I curse him! He has a knack for picking out things that my subconscious is trying to achieve but that I’m not very aware of. His editorial notes always make me look at the choices that my intuition has made—usually, it’s pacing or that some ideas are just better conveyed through images. My intuition is right a lot of the time, but now that I’m aware why my intuition made those choices, I can actively dive back in and strengthen those points.
The portrayals of Henry’s family are so detailed and so specific that I couldn’t help but wonder: are you a fly on the wall of your own family? And if so, has anyone taken umbrage at their portrayal in any of your books?
Henry is overprotected by his family, and that is the complete opposite of my situation. My parents gave me a lot of freedom as a kid. As for being a fly on the wall, I have felt that quite a number of times in my life. Most of the time, I’m okay with it. I do love observing people.
I don’t think I’ve ever written anyone in my books who’s so close to someone real in my life that they’d take umbrage. The characters are amalgams of many people I know.
Henry’s plan to assert his independence is, objectively, not a good plan. Can you recall the last plan in your own life that was objectively not good?
Hmm … Probably when I planned Ice Cream Sunday and had nothing but ice cream for all my meals. Delicious, but I felt sick later. Not recommended.
Nothing is easy in this book—the hero is often a bully and a jerk himself, damaged relationships aren’t perfectly mended, nobody fits neatly into the roles they’ve been cast in. Were there particular tropes in children’s fiction that you set out to subvert?
For realistic fiction, I try to write stories where not everything is wrapped up neatly with a pretty bow, because real life isn’t perfect.
I didn’t write Fly on the Wall with a plan to subvert tropes. But I think because I read a lot, I’m aware of tropes that have been used very often, and then my subconscious has to rebel and write something that doesn’t fall too neatly within the parameters of those tropes.
Something I particularly enjoyed about Fly on the Wall was the way it dealt with the end of a friendship that has run its course. Do you have any advice for young people about ending relationships? Or, for that matter, maintaining better ones?
Not that I always succeed at heeding my own advice, but I try to remember to be kind and not get all huffy and indignant. And talking things out helps.
And lastly, Henry’s nan is obsessed with wuxia dramas. To my mind, this is a correct thing to be obsessed with. Where would you recommend someone start if they wanted to try some great martial arts adventures?
I don’t know any English-language martial arts books that are suitable for kids, and one of my dreams is to one day write and publish an wuxia novel for kids. If you’re an adult, you can start by reading Jin Yong’s novels or watching TV dramas based on his novels.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I’m going to give four because it’s impossible to pick just one:
- The last adult book I read and loved was Dragon Republic by R F Kuang
- The last YA book I read and loved was The Beast Player by Naoko Uehashi
- The last MG book I read and loved was Ghost Squad by Claribel A Ortega
- The last graphic novel I read and loved was Snapdragon by Kat Leyh.