03 Aug Natural Born Legend – An Interview with Oliver Phommavanh
Today on the blog, I’m thrilled to have friend and fellow kid-lit creator, Oliver Phommavanh, discuss his latest book, Natural Born Loser. Oliver is an extremely popular presenter, weaving hilarity into everything he does. But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to his books. As you’ll find out below, he’s a bit of a legend when it comes to getting kids thinking about more than just laughs.
Oliver in hilarious presentation mode
What first inspired the idea behind Natural Born Loser?
It was based on my desire to be school captain at my primary school, but realising that I wasn’t leader material. Then I wrote a story called Nobody’s Prefect, which was about a bunch of prefects at a rough school, which eventually morphed into Natural Born Loser.
Tell us about your quirky main character, Raymond. Is there any Oliver Phommavanh in him? Were you a prefect at school?
All of my main characters have a little Oliver P DNA haha. Raymond’s really creative with loads of crazy ideas, and he’s in fine form when it came to brainstorming for his school’s fundraisers. I was actually a prefect in high school, when I was in Grade 11. Sadly, I think I only got picked because from Grade 10 to 11, all the smarter kids left and there was nobody else haha. So when I got my badge, I was a little confused, kinda like Raymond when was chosen to be a prefect.
Oliver’s latest book, and the pair of us hanging out at a CBCA event in Sydney
You’re a naturally funny person, Oliver. How do you craft humour into your stories? Who are your comedic influences?
For me, comedy is the opposite of normal, so I always try to look at an everyday situation and try to flip it on top its head. I love writing observation comedy, because anything and everything can be funny. I also try to work on my characters, giving them flaws or quirks that can be highlighted for laughs. My comedy influences come all angles. In TV world, its classic shows like Seinfeld, Father Ted, The Fast Show and South Park. On the stage, it’s Jerry Seinfeld (of course), Akmal, Jimeoin and Carl Barron. When it comes to my own writing, Andy Griffiths, Paul Jennings and Morris Gleitzman are my heroes.
Why did you choose to set the story in a school?
Schools are ripe for comedy and hijinks. When I used to be a primary school teacher, I gathered so many ideas and notes from being around my class and out around in the playground. I actually looked forward to playground duty haha. So naturally, I wanted to have my books set around school, so I can use all of my observations and one-liners. I love writing about school life, since I’ve been going in and out of them most of my life hehe.
Oliver’s books on display at Byron Writers’ Festival, 2018
The concept of school morale plays an important role in the book. Why is this something you chose to write about?
School morale usually flies under the radar. You’ll have kids who say they hate schoolwork and all, but for a kid to feel ashamed of their school is a totally different thing. Raymond’s teased for going to Barryjong Primary, which frustrates him because there’s nothing he can do about it. Regardless of school size, location or even how much resources they have, it is hard to recreate a positive vibe
I’ve taught at a few rough schools in my time, and they all had one thing in common. Low morale. Kids didn’t care. Teachers did their best but were defeated. While not every kid was a troublemaker, there was a sense of hopelessness. But then I returned to a few of these schools and there was a complete turnaround. I wondered how did this happen? Natural Born Loser takes place at the start of this makeover, and it was an enjoyable journey to see Raymond and his friends change the kids’ minds and being united.
What five words best describe Natural Born Loser?
Daring. Soccer-lovers. Chaotic. Creative. United.
Oliver is a young Thai-Australian writer for children. He has featured on panels at the Sydney Writers’ Festival among many other appearances at festivals and writing events as well as in blogs. He has worked as a primary school teacher and now spends his time writing and sharing his writing passion with kids and engaging them with humour. He’s also a stand-up comedian and has appeared on national TV and radio as well as a number of well-known comedy venues such as the Comedy Store in Sydney. His first book, Thai-riffic!, was published to critical acclaim, followed by Con-nerd, Punchlines, Thai-no-mite, Ethan in the Stuff Happens series in 2015, The Other Christy and, most recently, Super Con-nerd.
You can find out more about Oliver at www.oliverwriter.com