Felice Arena talks about his new novel ‘Whippersnapper’

Would most people know what Whippersnapper means?

Anyone over 35 – probably, yes. You don’t hear it a lot these days. Generally older folk use it to refer to younger people. It’s an old English word that originally referred to lazy young men who would waste away their time by snapping whips.

 Tell us a bit about your new book, Whippersnapper?

 It’s a tale about a teen boy, Gus, who after a horrible bus accident wakes up to find himself in the body of George, a 71-year-old man. His quest is to find his way back into his own body and how he copes with his new life – with a little bit of basketball action.

Was writing it a big change after Specky?

With a successful series like Specky, it’s ultimately the die-hard fans that end up dictating the direction and style of the writing. But with this book I wanted the freedom to take a few risks. It was liberating.

What inspired the idea of a book about the young and the old?

At a farewell party I sat at a table with some people where the average age was around 70. There was a couple who’d been together for 50 years and just watching them interact, and joke with each other, reminded me of a couple of school kids. It got me thinking: Does that youthful spirit ever really leave us?

Anything else prompt Whippersnapper?

I go to a gym where a few senior citizens workout. I call them my ‘Cocoon’ posse. I’ve gotten to know these guys pretty well and we all get along as if we’re teen mates hanging out in the schoolyard. Their bodies may be letting them down a little, but their spirits suggest otherwise. And this is at the core of Whippersnapper.

With basketball featuring in Whippersnapper, you clearly see sport as way to relate to young readers?

Definitely. Sports lingo – it’s a language that many kids can relate to. But as in Specky, the sport scenes in my new book are used to tell a bigger, deeper story.

Was your childhood sports-dominated?

Yes. I grew up in a country town where a lot of your socialising and growing took place in sporting clubs – I know that world intimately.

How would you classify Whippersnapper?

A sports fantasy – perhaps I’ve invented a new genre?

What made you feature basketball?

I played basketball more than football and I’m more comfortable writing about it than footy. I have a huge connection with America. I was once an exchange student there – and one of the ways of fitting was to play one-on-one basketball games with my host families and friends. I love the theatre and cool-factor of basketball. 

You have said that to write for children you need a good sense of your child’s self – what did you mean?

It’s not about what you did as a child, it’s about how you felt. How you felt when someone called you a bad name or how you felt when you won something – I try to capture the essence of that feeling in my writing.   

But how do you remember a feeling so well?

My first love was swimming. I was a competitive swimmer and every summer’s day between the ages of 12 and 18, I’d swim laps. During these times I’d review the events, the conversations, the feelings I had had that day. While I didn’t know it at the time, swimming became my time to reflect – like forced meditation. It helped me to absorb and in a way “record” my childhood. 

What does Gus learn by the end of Whippersnapper?

I think he learns that we’re all connected.  We all continue to have hopes, and dreams, and fears no matter what stage of life we’re in. Regardless of whether we’re 14 or 71, we all want to be acknowledged, to be heard, to be loved.

How did you choose the name Gus?

I’ve always liked the name. I even thought at one stage it might have been easier to be called Gus rather than Felice.

How do you pronounce Felice?

In your best Italian accent say: Feh-LEE-che. Bravo!

Did growing up with that name cause you problems?

Yes. I got called everything from Felicky to Felly, even Felicity. Nowadays most of my friends or family just call me Fleech for short. Although the other day my five-year-old niece called me Uncle Peachy, which has a nice ring to it!

I’ve read you grew up surrounded by a lively Italian family – does that mean everyone all talking at once, sitting around a table laden with food?

Exactly. Looking at all the cooking shows on TV at the moment and I can’t help but think that’s nothing new. I’ve been surrounded by food all my life – feasts involving a whole pig, having salami hanging in the garage, and making homemade sauce and wine.

Any more Specky books or are you leaving him behind for a while?

At the moment, no more Specky books. Although Garry and I have said, in the spirit of a John Farnham farewell tour, you just never know when he might return….

We know you are a former actor and schoolteacher, any other pursuits outside of writing?

Travel and photography. Writing is all about the process. It’s great to capture that instant moment with a camera.

How many books have you written?

Around 30 in total. I was first published in theUK15 years ago.

Felice likes…

Walking cities –New York, Paris, Geneva. Kindness in others. And peppermint dark chocolate frogs from Haigh’s.

Felice dislikes…

So-called experts. Commercial TV. Rude people.

Describe yourself in 3 words.

Restless, optimistic, and playful.

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