Interview: Barry Cunningham

In line with the Scholastic Asian Book Award’s manuscript critique initiative, “You Write to Me, I’ll Write to You,” I was given the opportunity (squeeeee!!!) for a quick email interview with Barry Cunningham (who paved the way for the publication of Harry Potter).

Here it is in its entirety, with a tip or two for Filipino writers looking to submit their manuscripts for a chance to be read by Barry Cunningham.

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Q: You’ve been credited as the ‘discoverer’ of Harry Potter. What is the story behind this? How did you come across the manuscript for Philosopher’s Stone and what made you decide to pursue it? 

BC: It was submitted to me by Christopher Little — Jo’s agent, then. I didn’t know it had been turned down by most other publishers — and I adored it right away — actually it was the children’s friendship that most attracted me — and I believe that’s the real magic of Harry Potter (although of course I loved Hogwarts, owls, and magic too) so I was able to [be] ‘the one’ [to] choose it.

Q: Author J.K. Rowling has said that if it weren’t for you, ‘Harry Potter might still be languishing in his cupboard under the stairs…’ How was it like working with J.K. Rowling, and do you still keep in touch?

BC: It was an easy edit — and we just speeded up a few things and tried to work out the rules of magic and quidditch — although maybe we could have been a bit more specific in the rules there. I’m not regularly in touch with Jo anymore, just occasionally.

Q: With Harry Potter, did you foresee setting off a worldwide phenomenon? How do you feel about it now, with several generations of Harry Potter fans, and an entire universe that successfully grown across various media?

BC: I always knew that children would love it — but never predicted the mass adult phenomenon that is Harry Potter. But I’m delighted that so many parents have found common cause with their children — and their children’s children! I’m proud to have made reading cool again!

Q: You’ve also worked alongside greats such as Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan and Cornelia Funke. What do you think is the common factor among the successful children’s book writers that you’ve worked with?

BC: I think they all remember the emotions I of childhood — and feel those emotions till — so [they] are able to write with passion and vulnerability!

Q: What to you are the elements of a good manuscript? What will make a publisher like you sit up and take notice of a submission?

BC: A great story and a great villain — it’s important for readers to see the heroes struggling against a bad situation or a bad person! Humour is very important, too — kids love to laugh at fearful situations, which helps make the danger more real, but more survivable — and of course makes the plots more amusing!

Q: What emerging trends are you seeing in children’s literature these days?

BC: Real life problems of physical or mental disability that have to be faced up to, and challenges in home or family that have to be met.

Q: Have you had the opportunity to read any Filipino authors?

BC: Not yet, apart from the Scholastic anthologies, so really looking forward to it.

Q: We’ve seen an enormous push for diversity in literature in the last few years. How can Filipino writers make the most out of the opportunity this movement presents?

BC: I think by writing with passion and imagination — showing the diverse nature of individuals and beliefs but in situations that can easily be understood. Fantasy is a good place to start!

Q: What is the most important piece of advice you can give to an aspiring author?

BC: Find your ‘voice for children’ in your writing — think back to the time and age when you were most passionate, and write from that perspective.

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Thank you Mr. Cunningham, for taking the time to answer questions, and special thanks to Scholastic Asia for facilitating this interview.

Click for the complete mechanics of “You Write to Me, I’ll Write to You” — deadline is on April 2.

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