Under the Surface with Sherwin Tjia

Most of us have imagined what it would be like to be Alice in Wonderland–but has anyone ever considered what it would be like to be Alice’s mum? In Sherwin Tjia’s latest Pick-a-Plot book, You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum!, readers get to experience that very thing. And believe us, parenting Alice is no easy task.

In our latest exclusive Under the Surface interview, Tjia talks timelines, felines, and plotlines.

Photo by Roger Lemoyne
Photo by Roger Lemoyne


Conundrum Press: Neil Gaiman talks about how most creative projects come from a “confluence of ideas.” What ideas contribute to the creation of your Pick-a-Plot books?

Sherwin Tjia: Every Pick-a-Plot book emerges from empathy. Every book is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Or in the case of the You Are a Cat! trilogy – someone else’s paws. You see it in the way the books are written – they’re all written in the second person, and the illustrations are in the first person.

So for me, each book stems from me wondering what it would be like to be someone with a particular problem. And I just found that the choice-based branching narrative format was the best delivery system for these particular stories.


CP: We know your love for cats knows no bounds. Tell us about your first cat. And your fluffiest cat. And your snobbiest cat. We want all the catty details.

ST: Haha. I’ve known so many lovely cats over the years. The problem with being a human who loves cats is the difference in our lifespans. Often I see vampire stories where a vampire will love a human, but a vampire is immortal. It’s actually kind of creepy to me to see that love story. Wouldn’t a vampire see a human being as a kind of child? When you’ve lived that long, regular humans are kind of age-inappropriate.

And cats to humans are similar. You can love them as much as you can as long as they’re here, but you have to live with the knowledge that you’re going to outlive them. But that doesn’t dilute the love you have for them.


CP: You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum is your first non-feline Pick-a-Plot. What made you decide to switch it up?

ST: Well, I felt that after writing a sequel and a prequel to You Are a Cat! that I had kind of run out of cat narratives. Or rather, I told all the cat stories in that format I wanted to tell. The great thing about writing from the POV of a human is suddenly how much agency I’m allowed to give the reader.

While cats are very active, they’re still only cats. And the choices they have are quite circumscribed. Whereas with humans, there are much wider avenues for expression. And this was the idea that grabbed me, and haunted me. I know I have to turn an idea into a book when it bothers me and is constantly saying, “Hey. Put some time into me. Make me real.”


CP: What kind of research did you do in order to write You Are Alice in Wonderland’s Mum?

ST: Actually quite a bit. I read a bunch of books to acclimatize myself to the period, as well as watching a lot of movies and looking through old photos. Of course the danger with any period work is the desire of the author to show off all the research they did, which I had to resist. I think it’s important to know everything you can about the time period, the state of society, technology, that sort of thing, but not to get bogged down in it. You want all the research you do to serve the story.

I think of it like recipes. The instructions and quantities are guidelines. But when you’re actually putting ingredients in the pot, you have to go with the taste, with how hot your stove is getting. The recipe isn’t real. The stew is. And it’s the same with writing the book, and the research that supports it.


CP: Do you ever get your plot-lines mixed up? How do you keep it all straight?

ST: I have very elaborate maps for keeping all the narratives straight. Occasionally I will have a few timelines funnel down into one particular path, and I have to check back to see that there isn’t any conflicts in how I phrase things. I have to walk a precise tightrope between giving the reader many choices that make sense, but also with telling a compelling narrative.


CP: What’s next for you and Pick-a-Plot?

ST: Right now there’s discussion of You Are a Dog! which I have a great idea for. The dog book I never thought I could do, because dogs spend most of their lives either in enclosed rooms, or on leashes, and that’s not very compelling if you’re trying to give a dog choices, but I’ve concocted a scheme that would allow you to make meaningful choices in a great story. It shocks and amazes me that I’m actually thinking about the fifth Pick-a-Plot book. I never thought I would get this far.

Still not ready to come up for air? Go Under the Surface with Kris Bertin.


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