Susanne Gervay OAM is an award-winning author of many novels and YA stories, who found her passion for writing through personal loss, and has spent her career showing the power of stories to help and guide readers young and old.
“Life’s dramas sent me to the writer’s page,” says writer Susanne Gervay OAM. The author of numerous novels, kids books and YA stories, including the I Am Jack series, turns to writing as a release.
“My four I Am Jack books are like a walk through my life and thoughts, written because kids can get lost in an adult world. You’ll find everything there – starting when my son was bullied at school, to racism, inclusion, absent father, bushfires, advocacy for literacy and cancer,” Gervay says.
Finding writing as a way to process life’s events came early to the author, born out of an early tragedy. “My beloved father’s death was so painful to watch that my words exploded onto the page. His dying gift to me was to become a writer,” she says.
“I wrote about him in short stories that were published in literary journals. Later, my father seeped into my books for young people, so they have a friend as they travel through the maze and challenges of life.”
Young Adult (YA) stories have a common thread. “It’s grounded in the search for identity,” she says. “It requires the same commitment as writing for adults. However, the protagonists are young adults. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would be a YA story today.”
Her book The Cave deals with sexual consent, an issue that is at the centre of politics and debate at the moment. “I went into the heart of what it means to be a young male today and the impact on girls. I had seen what happens as my daughter was a teenager. The sexual assault, which had girls crying and voiceless. The boys who felt powerless themselves,” she says
“The issue of consent is flooding media and opening discussion and I hope change.”
“Young people are smart, innovative and searching for answers, but they are vulnerable. They do not have the voice to articulate their deep emotions. They do not have the experience to navigate the challenges of life. At times, the obstacles are so great they make terrible choices such as suicide, alcohol, drugs, negative peer group behaviours, anger or withdrawal. My background is a specialist in child growth and development and I am committed to the power of story to travel with young people, showing them other ways forward and not to lose hope.”
Growing up in Sydney after Gervay’s parents escaped Hungary, coming to Australia as refugees looking for a new home in a safe, democratic country. “My father was a farmer and my mother the daughter of a professor of engineering in Hungary. My parents didn’t speak English when they arrived and worked in factories rebuilding their lives.” The experience has had a lasting impact on the author. “As the child of refugees, growing up with the emotional complexities of parents who had been through war, migration and loss, books were my source of escape, comfort and courage,” she says.
Gervay was Awarded the Order of Australia for children’s literature and nominated for the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award and the Lifetime Literature Award by the International Literacy Association for her body of work on social justice for children. “It has been the driving force in my 20-year immersion in the children’s industry, as a writer, mentor, speaker, advocate for literacy and a voice for young people and their communities,” she says.
Heroes of the Secret Underground is her latest book. It is a cross-over from kids to YA who are reaching the key age of critical thinking. “At a time when racism, war, climate change and bullying is overwhelming, I sought to inspire young people to become advocates of justice. Part autobiography, history, philosophy, with a splash of fantasy it is like a thriller, with young people as heroes. A time slip from Sydney in the International Year of Peace to Nazi Budapest 1944,” she says.
On the question of whether women writers face a harder road to publication and forging a successful career as writer, Gervay says it’s hard for everyone and profile is important first and foremost. “Strong social media and profile is influential in getting published irrespective of gender. However where I see gender bias against women is at festivals, events and speaking engagements,” she says.
“Even in the youth market, where women are around 85% of the authors, the opportunities to present are less available. When you see J K Rowling choosing to not gender specify herself, it is apparent. It means it is a harder to get books by women writers promoted. Without sales, publishers are reluctant to offer new contracts. It is difficult.”