Q&A: Adeline Foo on Amos Lee, writing for TV, and being a “laissez-faire parent”

Image credits: Adeline Foo

In our ‘Local Authors’ series, we speak to local writers to shed some insight on their works, thoughts, and process.

As one of the most well-known local children’s authors, Adeline Foo needs no introduction. Her bestselling series, The Diary of Amos Lee, captured the imagination of young readers since it was released in 2009, with the first book I Sit, I Write, I Flush! winning the inaugural Red Dot award for Best Junior Fiction the same year. A 10-part okto TV show based on The Diary of Amos Lee followed, and the series has been published in India, China, Indonesia, and the Slovak Republic. We chat with Adeline on how her writing has grown since, the difficulties of adapting books for television, and juggling writing with motherhood.

It’s been 8 years since The Diary of Amos Lee came out. How have you evolved as a writer?
When I decided to become a full time writer in 2009, I took the plunge and signed up for a Master’s programme in screenwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Asia. I learnt to write for feature films and TV. After I graduated in 2011, an opportunity arose to adapt The Diary of Amos Lee. I seized it, and have not looked back since. I’ve written for okto and Channel 5, with The Diary of Amos Lee in 2012, followed by Whoopie’s World this year. Two Boys and A Mermaid, which came out in 2015, is an adaptation of a young adult novel I wrote which was published in India.

The Diary of Amos Lee has won and been shortlisted for several awards, been translated into multiple languages and turned into a television series. How do you feel about all the attention and accolades?
It has been a humbling experience! When I first started out, I merely wanted to write a book to inspire boys to read! I have three kids, two boys and a girl. It was my boys who weren’t reading so confidently. The Diary of Amos Lee was meant to be a funny book that could hook the reluctant reader. I never imagined the accolades it garnered. I write my stories with heart and honesty; the jokes, the struggles, the growing pains, they are all true to my three kids’ own experiences, and even my own, as a child! That is probably the reason why the books have continued to resonate with readers.

Apart from the spin-offs The Travel Diary of Amos Lee and Whoopie Lee, are there any plans to continue expanding the Amos Lee universe?
I am gauging the response to Whoopie’s World, which will determine if I can reboot the book series. When I first started the Whoopie Lee: Almost Famous series, I was distracted with writing both Whoopie and still running with Amos. One has to suffer, and unfortunately it was the less “popular” character, a younger child who is constantly overshadowed by an older, more famous brother. Now with her own TV show, I’m eager to see if Whoopie’s World, the TV show, will renew interest in a follow-up fan book series.

What was the scriptwriting process like for Whoopie’s World and what challenges did you face adapting your book for television?
A writers’ room was set up to develop the scripts. I headed it, together with K. Rajagopal, the TV director. Four writers and one director brainstormed ideas over two months, beating out stories to trace the struggle of a girl’s quest to carve an identity for herself; we wrote 14 episodes eventually over two additional months. The stories were still being refined right up to the eve of the shoot. What was tough was that members of the cast took turns to fall sick, one kid even fell and had to go to the hospital for stitches! That set filming back by one week. Filming wrapped in six weeks; it was a real challenge for the cast, the crew and also the post-production team, as okto scheduled a two-episode per week telecast. This led to a gruelling, hastened post editing timeline.

On the set of Whoopie's World
Amirul and Simorrah, who play Hafiz and Whoopie on Whoopie’s World

It was a challenge writing the character of Whoopie. In the book, Whoopie has this insatiable quest to try everything, so long as she gets a stab at fame. She’d do anything, even eat cockroaches brewed in herbal soup, but of course Mum won’t allow her. In the TV story, I had to make her a lot more mature as TV has a wider audience, and seeing a child try so hard to be ‘infamous’ makes it a vain plot device. I had to give the character more depth, so not everything is done for fame, but with a social conscience. I wrote the book in 2012. When I started work on the script in 2016, I was a lot older, and more experienced. I realised that Whoopie could be a role model for other kids to follow. That set the tone for the TV series.

In the course of your work, are there any themes that you keep coming back to?
The child has to learn to be true to himself or herself.

Growing pains are something that all children can, and will, overcome.

Of all the characters you’ve created, which one do you identify with the most?
Probably Amos Lee! He was inspired by my son, Benjamin. He was nine when I first started writing – he’s going to be 17 this year!

Writing, doing book signings, giving talks, and attending events overseas while raising three children is no mean feat. Tell us how you do it.
The writing is the easiest bit. Every writer loves to hide in the house, or “report for work” at Starbucks, as I tell kids in my school talks. Unfortunately, talking to kids, selling books, and appearing for events are things we are expected to do, to help move books. I find the school talks a struggle. In Singapore, assembly talks start mostly at 7.30am, after the singing of the National Anthem. But you really have to be in school by 7.15am to set up your presentation, because if you are late, you can’t walk in during the singing of the anthem. Or worse, imagine 1,000 kids watching you intently as you boot up your laptop, plug in your thumb drive and smile idiotically as you wait for your screen to come to life. I can understand why most authors reject doing assembly talks! It’s nerve-racking. I usually say no to overseas events unless I am travelling with other writer friends, as more people make greater company.

As for raising kids, I always tell mine, call me only when blood is involved. I’m a laissez faire parent. My kids are independent because we never had a live-in maid; not having help around the house means they have to take care of themselves. My mother and my in-laws are all around to help when I need to step out, so the raising of children bit is the least of the problems in this writing as a career equation; what’s more jarring is how tough it is to make a living from royalties. So your question should really be, can you survive as an author? The answer is no, which is why I am writing scripts, and also teaching in a polytechnic to supplement my income.

What advice do you have for parents on choosing children’s books?
Start reading to your kids from young. I started my kids as young as nine months, or as soon as they could sit up! They may not understand what you are saying, but they will come to respect the time put aside for reading. As they grow older, make going to the bookshop or library a weekly affair. Always have books in the house. I let my kids read anything they fancy. From picture books, the boys moved on to non-fiction and humour. My girl started with fairy books, moving very quickly into fantasy and then dystopia. My oldest child reads realistic fiction, coming-of-age novels and Marvel comics. My kids are 17, 14 and 12.

 

Whoopie’s World currently airs every Tuesday and Wednesday at 8.30pm on okto.

Browse Adeline Foo’s books here.

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