The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

Simon Bartolo is back with new children’s book

Tuesday, 13 October 2020, 13:06 Last update: about 3 months ago

Thirteen years after the bestselling sensation that was Sqaq l-Infern and its sequels (co-written with Loranne Vella), author SIMON BARTOLO is back on children’s bookshelves with Il-Kreatura tal-Bir, the first book in a new trilogy. Keenly anticipated by the droves of fans of Bartolo’s magical work, we met up with the author to talk books, monsters and cakes.

You had burst onto the Maltese children's literature scene with Sqaq l-Infern and its sequels in the Il-Fiddien trilogy, co-authored with Loranne Vella. Thirteen years later, what are your memories of that phenomenon, which had smashed all sorts of local records?

We'd been working on the first book for a couple of years before we finally decided that the story was going to be too big for one book so the natural course of action was to make it a trilogy. Mostly I worked on it after my father died, it was a good distraction. By the time we finished and submitted it to Merlin Publishers for their consideration we were in the process of moving to another country. And then, we came back for the launch and after lots of school visits in Malta and Gozo, plus numerous television appearances, we started being recognised in restaurants and on the beach. That was quite shocking, for me especially. I'm quite shy and hadn't imagined that publishing a book would make me recognizable! At first it wasn't easy but when I got used to it, I actually found it flattering and pleasing to have readers coming up and saying how much they loved the book and urging us to publish the second volume ASAP. That's when I made the reluctant choice to give up working on my Ph.D to concentrate fully on my creative writing. I've not regretted my decision yet.



Il-Kreatura tal-Bir marks your return to children's fantasy. It is another fantasy novel for children and the start of another trilogy. What similarities are there to Il-Fiddien, and what differentiates it?

It is similar in the way that it's about a Maltese family dealing with fantastical beings but this time round it's less concerned with family details and more focused on action. I'd say that it's a faster read. Scary with a good dose of comedy. And there are cakes.


Scary monsters are a staple of children's literature, but aren't that common in Maltese children's writing. Why do you think that is and what led you to experiment with monsters?

I remember a bookseller in 2008 telling us that a book like Wied Wirdien wouldn't sell well because it was going to scare children off. I asked him if something like Il-Wied tal-Fjuri would have been more appropriate. He smiled and nodded, missing the irony completely. And yet Wied Wirdien sold like pastizzi. Why play safe when we can be exciting? Maltese folklore is rife with monsters of all shapes and sizes. Let's revive them and create new ones too.


The story, while a dark adventure, has strong doses of humour throughout. Is it hard, as a writer, to blend adventure, magic and humour?

Not at all. It's fun. When I feel myself getting too scared of something I'm writing, I comfort myself with a piece of humour or a recipe. When I start getting bored with characters discussing stuff, I throw in a monster so they have to run. If there's one thing I hate, it's being bored so I work hard to keep boredom at bay for my readers too.


You write for children, adults and the theatre. Does each of these forms inform the other, or are there different Simon Bartolos writing each?

I haven't been diagnosed with split personality disorder but different sides of me seem to manifest when I'm writing different things. This used to be a problem because I'd only be able to work on one specific project, but at the moment I'm working on multiple narratives in different genres and for different age groups; so I think I'm starting to manage to be able to harness my changing moods to make them work for whatever I'm currently writing.


Illustrations are an important part of a children's story. In Il-Kreatura tal-Bir you've worked with Spanish illustrator José Luís Ocaña. How was that experience?

I love José's work so much. We clicked immediately and I think he's doing great work for this series. Although we never actually met, if you were to read our messages you'd think we were two young children with overactive brains.


Maltese or English? You've written, and continue to write, in both ...

Maltese. With English as a close runner-up. It used to be the opposite but I've come to love our beautiful language and its charming rules. The basics of Maltese grammar are not difficult to grasp and it's a very expressive language. English is of course a great language, incredibly rich with literature. I don't think we can compare the two really.


What other projects are in the pipeline for Simon Bartolo?

There are the next books in the Ruxxmata Kreaturi series for starters, and also theatrical work for next year like NSFW for Culture Venture in collaboration with MGRM in January and Nouveau Riche for Teatru Malta and Moveo Dance Company in April.



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