Creative pleasures: an interview with Beattie Alvarez

Beattie AlvarezToday it’s my great pleasure to feature an interview with Beattie Alvarez, a brilliantly creative and dynamic young woman whose talents lie in many different directions. Beattie and I work together at Christmas Press, but she’s also juggling many other creative and professional roles, as you’ll soon discover in this fascinating interview.  (Oh and by the way, she’s also the mother of two young and very lively daughters!)

Beattie, you are involved in many creative pursuits–writing, illustration and toymaking. How did it all begin?

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There are actually a few answers to this! I have always loved all of the above; my parents (Mum, Dad, and Carl, my stepdad) are all talented artists. I grew up at Julian Ashton’s art school, entertaining myself by shoving rolled up tissue paper in my nose while they drew naked people.

When I was four… or five… I saw Coppélia performed at the Opera House. I went home and wrote, illustrated and ‘published’ my own version of it while Mum sewed toys. By the time I was ten I had a whole shelf of self-published books!

I started writing as an adult when my favourite TV show ended abruptly, with a very dissatisfying ending. I was heartbroken! So I went out, sold my soul for a loan to get my first computer, and wrote my own ending. Then I discovered that it was actually called Fan Fiction and there was a website I could upload it to! The response from other fans was overwhelming. As of 2015 those stories have been read almost 100,000 times!

After that I was hooked!

Tell us about your writing. What have you had published, and what are you working on now? Do you write in particular genres only or do you like to try your hand at many things?

I’m new to being published and it’s so exciting! My first published story was in Reader’s Digest magazine… and it paid! Almost $1 per word! I thought I’d be rich in no time.

Since then I’ve had a few short stories, poems and illustrations published in anthologies and in November I was one of three authors with a story in ‘Three Dragons for Christmas’ by Christmas Press Picture Dragons Front Cover MediumBooks — I got to fully illustrate my story as well, which was a lot of fun.

I write anything and everything! Fantasy is my preferred genre, having lived in a fantasy world for most of my life. I’ve got one fantasy novel about the Queen of the Universe that will probably take the rest of my life to finish. I keep going back to add or change or edit.

When my brain is being stubborn I write, what I call, ‘mini murders’.  I write them to kick-start my brain — or when I’m in a particularly bad mood! They’re short stories where one — or many — people are murdered, ranging from twenty words to five thousand! One day I hope to be able to publish them in a book called ‘Murder on the Run’, the idea being that you can read one on your lunch break or between train/bus stops.

Then there’s the series of picture books I’ve written about Marguerite MacDougall… and my ‘magical murder’ novel that I’m working on!  I’m also waiting for responses from agents and publishers over a non magical, non fantasy YA novel that I finished earlier this year. It was my first attempt at something with no murder and no magic.

You are also an experienced editor of other people’s work. What effect do you think this has had on your own writing?

It gets me writing! I like editing for two reasons: the first is to help other writers out there polish their work and get the best manuscript they possibly can. The other is because sometimes it’s a hard job and I all I want to do is write my own stuff after weeks of writer’s block! Working on someone else’s manuscript that really needed a good edit BEFORE they sent it to me is the best way to get over an imagination blockage.

Tell us about your illustration work, and who has influenced you as an artist.

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From Three Dragons for Christmas

For years and years I refused to do art. Partly due to growing up at gallery openings and falling asleep under the food table when they went on too long and partly due to school. I hated art — and English — in high school. They tried to force me to see things that weren’t there and make assumptions about the artist. A curtain is allowed to just be blue! It doesn’t have to mean that the artist was depressed and in an unhappy marriage. It MIGHT mean that blue looked best there or that they wanted to open a new bottle of paint. So I butted heads with both my art teachers and my English teacher (who didn’t pass me once, for the record in year 12!) a few times over that. I became really disheartened when people with talent got lower grades than those who put a black spot on white canvas, twelve dancing princessesbut wrote an essay over why that was a real piece of art.

My parents, obviously, all influenced me when it comes to art and brambly hedgeillustration. But so did books! I love Ruth Sanderson’s ‘Twelve Dancing Princesses’ and the ‘Brambly Hedge’ books by Jill Barklem, where you can see the full story in the pictures, but there are also other side stories going on, only visible in the illustrations.

As well as being a writer, editor and illustrator, you have also worked as a book designer and lay-out artist. How did you learn those crafts, and what are the challenges in those aspects of book production?

It turns out that I LOVE book designing! Carefully choosing where the words go to make the pictures stand out (and vice-versa!) is very therapeutic and rewarding.

I learnt on the job with David Allan from Christmas Press Picture Books when we were working on ‘Once Upon a Christmas’. Thankfully I picked it up quickly or we might have been in front of the computer UNTIL Christmas! Since then I’ve helped design several books for Christmas Press and can’t wait for the next book so I can do it again!

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A forthcoming book co-designed by Beattie Alvarez and David Allan

Seeing the finished book is the best part of that and knowing that I had a hand in bringing someone’s words to life is very satisfying.

That said, it requires a fair bit of coffee and chocolate, and maybe some naughty words slip out when Adobe and I disagree!

You also run a number of Facebook pages for businesses and organisations, including the New England Writers’ Centre, for which you also run the website. What is your key advice for businesses and organisations wanting to get the most out of social media and the Internet?

Do it! That’s my main piece of advice. So many creative types out there don’t use social media and I don’t know why! They say they don’t know how and what’s the point? There’s a saying from before the digital age ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Social media is free (unless you choose to pay for their ads). Your friends see it and like it. Then their friends see it and like it… etc! It’s about getting your work/business/organisation seen, the more people who see it, then the more sales/contacts you make. It’s simple!

The other piece of advice I have is to keep with the times. A website made ten years ago will probably not look as professional as one built now. There are a lot more options for web design now than there used to be. Buttons so that the user can interact with you and your business, so they can buy things, so that the site is user friendly. People are busy these days! They don’t bother with hard-to-use sites, they’ll just go somewhere easier and faster. So much is digital in this world that you have to keep up.

You are the deputy Chair of the New England Writers’ Centre, a non profit arts organisation. How do you view the issue of successfully steering a small arts organisation through challenging times?

Being willing to change with the times!  It’s very similar to what I wrote above, in that you have to keep up with what people want and need. This year the New England Writers’ Centre branched out and tried some new things, updated their website and Facebook pages and we did brilliantly! We’ve received several grants (yay!) this year to ensure that we can keep operating. That’s because we’ve had great grant writers, but also because we’ve changed and can prove that we’re willing to try new things.

 

You work with your mother, Fiona McDonald, to create unique hand made soft toys. Can you tell us something about that? beattie with toys

Mum and I work at everything together! And we work well. She decided to open a toy shop a few years ago and so we did! I didn’t really do any sewing before that, but now I do a lot! We felt there was a gap in the market for good quality toys that aren’t just for playing with, but for being companions for life. We like toys that can go into battle with you, have tea parties, sit quietly and read a book on a rainy day, toys that inspire play and friendship.

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And we’re doing so well that I’ve got calluses on my fingers from sewing so much!

You also help to run the shop, Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard. What are the challenges and pleasures of running such a unique business in a regional town?

The pleasures far outweigh the challenges! Having a shop filled with beautiful, handcrafted toys, books, hats and all the like make going to work a treat! We’ve also branched out into some merchandise, having spotted yet another gap in the local market. We are now known as either ‘the dragon shop’ or ‘the nerd shop’! We have a great selection of Harry Potter, Doctor Who and Star Wars (to name a few!) merchandise that appeals to the ‘grown ups’ that come into the shop. Although, to be fair, those ‘grown ups’ also buy the toys!granny-fi-toy-cupboard-logo

It is hard in a small town to get a lot of walk by trade. The main pedestrian mall is sadly very empty of shops, mainly due to the exorbitant rents that the landlords are asking. Words that I don’t completely understand have been thrown around like ‘negative gearing’. Places like Centro, which was built off the main drag, have severely damaged the shopping strip due to its air-conditioning and under cover parking. People like the ‘one stop shop’.

And of course, there are people who just don’t understand us. We get questions like ‘but you just made this yourself, shouldn’t it be cheaper?’ and ‘but it’s not a real toy, it has no packaging’. Times like that are disheartening, but (after the first few times!) I no longer want to cry when people like that come in. Our toys deserve to go to homes that will love

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them!

What I have found very interesting is the response from tourists. Those that come from cities really DO understand us and our toys! They can’t believe how cheap our prices are and suggest that we open a shop in Melbourne or Newtown in Sydney.

But for all the hard times there are always more people that love what we’re trying to do in Armidale. They love our toys and the fact that 90% of what we stock is handmade in the area and that their money is going to support the local economy.

 

Maybe one day we will open shops in cities, but we will always be based in Armidale. It is our home and we love it.

Beattie's older daughter Isobel, with a hand-made friend!

Beattie’s older daughter Isobel, with a hand-made friend!

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Interview with Yangsze Choo, author of The Ghost Bride

ghost bride coverRecently, I read an extraordinary novel called The Ghost Bride. Set in 1890’s Malacca, in old Malaya, it is the story of Li Lan, a young Chinese girl whose once-prosperous family has fallen on hard times: her mother is dead, her father has become an opium addict, and the little money there is in the family is dwindling fast, and will soon not be enough to support the household, including the few servants who are left. As a result of this, Li Lan’s father makes her agree to a terrible bargain: his only daughter will be betrothed to a dead man, the only son of the rich Lim family, who died some time before. Li Lan is desperate to escape this fate, and she tries every means to stop it from happening, especially as she has fallen in love with the new heir of the Lim family, their handsome nephew, Tian Bai. But in so doing, she must venture into the shadowy reaches of the afterlife–and soon places herself in terrible danger, as she plunges into an adventure like no other, from which there might be no return..

It’s one of the most beautiful and magical books I’ve read in a long time. In character, setting and story, it is rich, vivid and totally absorbing, and it ends very satisfyingly, as well. I’m not the only one who thinks so–first published in 2013, the book was a Carnegie Medal nominee, a New York Times bestseller, a favourite of Oprah Winfrey, and garnered all kinds of other acclaim and honours.

Enthralled by the novel, I wanted to know more about its author, first-time novelist Yangsze Choo, and so I went to her website, which is a most engaging blend of posts on books and posts on food: clearly an author after my own heart! After that, I contacted Yangsze and asked her if she’d be interested in an interview. I was very pleased when she agreed. And so, today, I am delighted to present this interview. Enjoy!yangsze choo colour

Your first novel, The Ghost Bride, is a remarkably accomplished and assured debut, and was a stunning success, garnering great acclaim.  Can you tell us about the first steps towards the novel? How did you begin your career as a writer? And what was the journey towards publication like?

 

That’s very kind of you – I’m so grateful and appreciative to be a novelist, though sometimes I still pinch myself in disbelief! I’d been writing bits and pieces ever since I was a child, but always thought of it as a hobby, one which gave me private satisfaction and which occasionally amused friends and family. The whole journey towards publication was really thanks to my husband, who started circulating part of The Ghost Bride to friends, and a lovely writer friend who encouraged me to look for an agent. So I googled “how to find an agent” and starting looking things up on a couple of websites. I think agentquery.com was one of them and querytracker as well.

Perhaps it was good to be ignorant, because I didn’t realize how daunting the whole cold-querying process sounds like – if I’d known, I might have given up before I started! However, I’d like to encourage aspiring writers to keep writing and submit your work. In fact, you don’t need any special contacts. I didn’t have any, and there are plenty of authors who came from the slush pile, just like me – it happens surprisingly often and you mustn’t give up!

The idea of the ‘ghost bride’–of a living girl being promised in marriage to a dead man– is both intensely creepy and arrestingly strange. How did you first come across the notion, and was it the initial inspiration for the book? How did you develop or vary it for the purposes of your novel?

Before I wrote The Ghost Bride, I spent 8 years working on a long and terrible novel about an elephant detective. In the course of writing this disaster, I happened to be digging around in the local newspaper archives (those were the days of scrolling around in microfiche) in search of elephant trivia when I happened to read a line about how spirit marriages had declined amongst the Chinese. At first I was confused. Then I realized “Ohh… this is the marriage of the dead” which I’d heard about before. And right away, I saw this scene in my head. This girl writing in her diary, in a dark room lit by a flickering oil lamp, about how she was going to be married to a ghost. I went home and pretty much wrote the first chapter of The Ghost Bride as is. Then I tried to shoehorn it into a subplot for my elephant novel (a bad, bad idea). And eventually, it became the novel that it is.

Li Lan, the main character and first-person narrator, is an attractive and very believable character. How did she first come to you?

I’m so glad you enjoyed her! It really was a scene and a narrative voice that suddenly appeared, so that I felt that I was recording what was unfolding. I think that’s important for characters, when you feel that they’re talking and making decisions by themselves. I tend to write by the seat of my pants, without planning, which is awful when things go badly and you’re stuck (I once got stuck for more than a year!), but wonderful when things really start to move and it feels like you’re watching a movie unwind. And then I also had to try to keep her in historical character. I think there’s a penchant for kick-ass heroines now who can do kungfu and break doors down, but I tried to give Li Lan experiences in keeping with what a young lady in 1890s colonial Malaya might have known and done. So sometimes she sat down and cried, which wasn’t always the most exciting thing, but I felt was probably accurate for someone who was going to be dismally married off to a dead man.

Er Lang is a wonderfully enigmatic and romantic character, with that disturbing yet playful and earthy quality of fairytale, too. How did he come to life?

Oh dear! Er Lang started off as a minor character who then started taking over various scenes, dispensing advice, and generally trampling all over my vague plans for Someone Else, but he was very fun to write. I realized that I looked forward to whenever he appeared because events always took an unexpected turn, and so he got to stay. By the way, initially the book had less romance and a lot more food, and my agent and editor both said that it could do with a romantic boost and, um, fewer nine-course banquets… I have to say they were probably right!

hell bank noteThe evocation of the afterlife and the afterworld in The Ghost Bride is extraordinary, and in your afterword, you mention that it’s a mix both of traditional Chinese beliefs, and your own imaginative creation. Yet it feels completely seamless to the reader, with the logic of dreams as well. How did you go about combining all those elements?

There’s a long tradition of strange, ghostly stories in Chinese literature, such as Pu Songling’s classic “Tales of Liaozhai”, which I was fascinated with when I was younger. It’s a rich and marvelous world, where beautiful women turn into foxes and palaces into beehives, and I was always deeply curious about what happened in these stories, which were often presented as actual histories. When I was writing The Ghost Bride, I wanted to bring the reader to that colourful world, where dreams and reality mix and you’re no longer sure exactly where you’ve wandered.

You know modern Malaysia well, but how did you go about recreating the rich texture of the atmosphere of 1890’s Malaya, specifically Malacca, which is the this-world setting of the novel?

My uncle used to live in Malacca, and we’d go and visit him when I was a child. It’s a port city with a fascinating past, especially since it changed hands so often. There are old houses and lots of ghost stories associated with it, which together with the ruins of the fort and the open grave where St. Francis Xavier was temporarily buried, gave me all sorts of lurid ideas when I was younger. In addition, my dad liked to collect old books, and growing up our house was filled with history books and old malacca 2accounts of British travelers in SE Asia. When we’d run out of things to read on rainy days and were feeling absolutely desperate, we kids would start on the history books. In retrospect, that was very helpful in establishing the time and setting! Later, when I was writing the book I also went to the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, which was having a fantastic exhibition on old batik sarong. Harvard’s Widener and Yen Ching libraries were also troves of information.

What are you working on next?

I think the challenge of writing a book for the first time is that one is so tempted to put everything and the kitchen sink into it. In fact, the current novel that I’m working on is also derived from a subplot of my ill-fated elephant detective novel (it’s rather horrifying how many things I tried to squeeze into it!) but I’m grateful because it’s subject matter that I’m interested in. I wonder whether you’ve ever felt like that yourself: if in some ways we’re all writing one enormously long, complicated book, even if it jumps through time and settings? I get that feeling, for example, from authors like Haruki Murakami and Isak Dinesen.

In any case, my new book is another strange tale of colonial Malaya, this time set in 1931, but still full of ghosts and murders and bizarre superstitions. I’ve always wanted to write a murder mystery, so that’s part of it, though I’ve learned my lesson and there are no pachyderm detectives in it. Ahem!

And anything else you’d like to add!

Thank you so much for having me – it’s been a pleasure and an honour! 🙂

Yangsze’s website is here.

Follow her on Facebook.

Buy signed print copies of the two Trinity books!

Trinity - The False PrinceThe print edition of Trinity: The False Prince has just been released–hurrah! And as it’s not always easy for Australian readers to get the Trinity books (Booktopia have the first one, but not the second so far, and Amazon will have it in both UK and US), I’ve decided to offer both it and the first one directly to Australian readers only (as postage is too high for overseas )from this blog. There’ll be a discount of 15 percent on RRP offered(making the books $21.20 instead of $24.95, with postage additional). And I’ll sign all copies purchased that Trinity Koldun Code coverway and dedicate them to your nominated person too if you want. A perfect Christmas gift!

 

 

 

 

If you’re interested, get in touch with me via contact@sophiemasson.org, and I’ll let you know full details including payment options.

 

My post on mentoring, on Writer Unboxed

Today, I have a post on mentoring, from both sides of the fence–the mentor and the mentoree–on Writer Unboxed.

Here’s a short extract:

Nobody writes in isolation. Writers experience mentoring in one way or the other at every stage in their careers. Early writing mentors are usually teachers, family and friends. Later, as we take our first steps towards trying to build a career as a writer, other, more professional mentors can improve our understanding of craft, as well as give us the confidence to take those first tentative steps.

You can read the whole thing here.

Double Act 5: Kathy and Peter Creamer

pink dog Choc LogoA new interview in my Double Act series of interviews with author/publishers, this time with Kathy Creamer, who with her husband Peter has just launched into the creation of their second publishing house, but first in Australia, Little Pink Dog Books. Some years earlier, while living in Singapore, Kathy and Peter had started their first publishing house, Creative Characters Partnership, and continued with that later in the UK, before coming to Australia. It’s a fascinating story Kathy has to tell. Read on!

How did you get into publishing?

My first venture into publishing came about in 1998, when I was working as an illustrator and writer for Oxford University Press and Reed International in Singapore. At that time, I had become concerned about the massive fires in Indonesia, and the destruction of the rainforest to Ah Meng Launchmake way for palm oil crops. Together with Singapore Zoological Gardens and sponsorship from HSBC, I produced a picture book about orangutans and their diminishing habitat. It sold over thirty thousand copies and raised funds for orangutan Ah Mengconservation. Unfortunately,  the star of the book, the zoo’s much-loved Ah Meng, died a few years later at the grand old age of forty-eight. A good innings for an orangutan!

Shortly after the success of the book, My Cousin, Ah Meng, I set up Creative Characters Partnership with my husband, Peter. It began as a children’s book publishing business to help raise awareness, and funding for animal conservation projects. We enjoyed the whole end to end creative ahmengprocess and felt that it was something we could both work on as a team as follows:

*Peter: upfront Marketing, Research, Negotiation and contract management.

*Kathy: all the creative elements of concept, storyboards, layout, words and illustration.

*Peter: preparing all materials for production, sourcing and negotiating with printers, proofing copy with Kathy, taking delivery of stock, and final delivery of the stock to the client.

We published over twenty children’s picture book titles for zoos, nature reserves, country clubs and historic houses, to hopefully interest children in conservation, heritage and history.

Parrots, Pythons and Pots of Paint for Longleat House, was our first picture book in England, and meeting Lord Bath, who is such an interesting and charmingly eccentric character, was quite the highlight of this project.Lord Bath001

 Have your aims and strategies as a publisher changed from the beginning? How?

We have always concentrated on high quality, small to medium volume book production. As a two person business we feel that we need to bring more resources to help deliver the products, and with people who are comfortable working within the business model – as there are no royalties, just a flat fee payment for work done. With Little Pink Dog Books, however, we hope to eventually to be able to pay royalties some day.

Has working as a publisher impacted on your own career as an author and illustrator-whether that be positive or negative?

Working as a publisher did, unfortunately, have a negative impact on my career as a children’s illustrator and author, as running the end-to-end production process, with just two people, there wasn’t much time to be innovative, especially with the artwork. Once you have your working model it was too tempting to continue with the same, rather than experiment. My artwork and writing suffered, so we decided to close Creative Characters Partnership in order to refresh my work by studying for a Masters in children’s illustration, together with a BA degree, and some other courses in literature and creative writing at Dinosaur Discovery001university.

Little Pink Dog Books came into being when we moved to Armidale from Melbourne. We had been meaning to restart our children’s publishing business for some time, as we both enjoyed the challenge. It will be a different model than before, in that we are not looking to publish for clients or any organizations, but will be self funded. We also want to help new writers and illustrators to get their work published and will be actively looking for new picture book manuscripts and illustration.

We have three picture book titles on our list for 2016; a refresh of Mr Mr Ming001Ming and the Mooncake Dragon, one of my first ever picture books; a new fairy story, and a rather naughty rhyming tale from a very talented emerging writer.

The new website for Little Pink Dog Books (www.littlepinkdogbooks.com) will be up shortly.

How do you market your books-do you sell direct to booksellers and readers, or do you have a distributor?

The marketing component for Creative Characters Partnership was about finding someone or some organisation where our concept worked for the client and fulfilled their need.

This concept is based around niche market publication and holding zero stock i.e. the client commits to take all stock and pays in full upfront.

In addition small quantities were offered for sale either directly or through online companies such as Amazon etc.Rear End Papers v2

We may now change the model for Little Pink Dog Books, and go to direct marketing, but keeping full end-to-end production under our direct control.

What are the challenges and pleasures of small-press publishing, in your experience so far? Any memorable anecdotes?

The challenges have been mainly financial ones, in that the cost of colour printing and other production costs require careful management to ensure you end up with a surplus to re-invest in the business. In the Namecard Picturebeginning we learned the hard way, but soon made adjustments to our own pricing and then eventually we began to make a profit.

kathy creamer 2Managing a reasonable workload can also be challenging and very stressful.

Contracts for books did not come on a regular basis or cycle – the client wants the product when they want the product, and hence there can be very high workload pressure when multiple contracts arrive simultaneously, with only two people in the partnership.

 Any advice for aspiring author-publishers?

Start small; build a reputation for online delivery and a high quality product. Ensure all contracts are tight and don’t be afraid to resort to legal means to protect your work and enforce any contracts.

Make sure you have time to be creative.The Bad Tooth Fairy by Kathy Creamer

Recognize that there are many types of skills in the whole end-to-end book production process and an individual is unlikely to be good at all of them.

Some skills are creative, some technical, some legal, and always work with partners who look after their part of the workload and are committed to work to the deadlines required by the clients.

Ensure that it remains fun and enjoyable and does not become over burdening.

Be brave and just do it! Whether you choose to publish hard copy or ebook, it’s all about editing, attention to detail, an eye for design, clever marketing, working all hours, but having fun and enjoying what you do. Learn by your mistakes, but most of all, believe in yourself.

 

Kathy PhotoMore about Kathy

As a toddler, I first started drawing pictures as soon as I could hold a crayon, and I quickly learned that bedroom walls were much more fun to draw on than paper.

I’ve always been interested in conservation and decided that I would try writing and illustrating books for children about conservation issues related to animals and historical buildings.

My first four children’s books were published by Oxford University Press in Singapore, and I went on to illustrate over 70 books for OUP and a few written by Joy Cowley, for Reed International.

Since that time I have written and illustrated over 20 books for a variety of clients and have published these via our own company – Creative Characters Partnership, now known as Little Pink Dog Books.

I work mostly in watercolor, colour pencil and ink.

Website: http://kathycreamer.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kathycreamerillustration/

Peter Creamer APU1More about Peter 

I was trained as a mechanical engineer in aerospace and admit that until I met Kathy I had never even thought about children’s books, let alone running a publishing business.

As Kathy began her work in Children’s book creation, I found that I had an interest in the production of creating a book from a process point of view.

I have always been interested in computers since my early days and enjoyed learning to use tools such as Pagemaker, Photoshop and InDesign, and I found it natural to help Kathy create books. We then naturally worked in our own areas as a team, and found it both enjoyable and rewarding, but also quite stressful in terms of meeting client demands and having the overall responsibility for the quality of the final product.

We now look forward to restarting the business as Little Pink Dog Books and to seeing the excitement such books bring to children who read them.kathy creamer 3

Omnimystery interview on The False Prince

Falseprincequotes11I was interviewed recently about The False Prince for the Omnimystery site which focuses on crime, mystery and thriller novels.

Here’s a short extract:

OMN: How does the title of The False Prince relate to the story?

SM: The idea of “falsity”, betrayal, masks, secrets, are at the heart of the book. People pretending to be who they’re not. Enigmas hidden in plain sight. Hope placed in the wrong people. But also, it’s a reference back both to Russian history, and to something in the first Trinity book, The Koldun Code. Don’t want to say any more for fear of spoilers!

You can read the whole interview here.

Not Just a Piece of Cake: an interview with Hazel Edwards

hazel portraitHazel Edwards OAM is one of the most distinguished and popular authors of Australian children’s literature today, with a long and brilliant career spanning many decades–and many books! Today, I’m delighted to be featuring an interview I did with her to mark the release of her long-awaited memoir, Not Just A Piece of Cake: Being An Author, which is published this week.  

First of all, Hazel, congratulations on the publication of Not Just a Piece of Cake! Can you tell readers how it came about? And what was it like, as a writing experience? Did you find it difficult to get your life down on paper?

In a memoir, it’s acceptable to write only a slice of life. And that slice also fits the cake imagery. I’ve always preferred short, multi-layered pieces, with sub-text . ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’ is 404 words and one less when ‘smack’ was censored out a few years ago.

But I prefer the term Questory (Quest + Story) rather than the more old –fashioned ‘memoir’. However, memoir is the genre convention for booksellers and makes the book easier for readers to find.

hazel in antarctica

Hazel in Antarctica

Health issues meant I couldn’t fly for a year, so I decided to ‘de-clutter’ stuff from my literary life. My other aim was to capture book-ish memories before they vanished from my hippocampus , the part of our brain where we store experiences. The recent dementia of some older writers worried me. And I’d been at funerals recently where some eulogies were works of fiction. I wanted a ‘real’ record with the flaws, doubts and candid dilemmas.

Originally I wasn’t sure whether I’d offer it for publication. It’s not a family history although it contains some of mine. It isn’t a how- to- write. It’s really a serendipitous map of the lifestyle process of writing longterm when you also have a family. Plus some ironic humour.

Until now I’ve avoided autobiography except when I was beset in the Antarctic polar ice  with 38 expeditioners (34  blokes and 4 other women )and it looked like we’d be there all year. ‘Antarctic Writer on Ice’ was the serendipitous result, based on e-mails sent under extreme expedition conditions. So the Map of Serendipity was a concept which appealed.

In ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake’  I’ve experimented in styling via anecdultery rather than chronological boredom. Anecdultery is my term of choice:crafted storytelling based on quirky incidents and characters. The extra-ordinary behind the ordinary. But not linear.

Having run workshops on ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’ for decades, I’m wary of listing only significant birth and death dates which have readers yawning and shelving my book, forever.

I took on a different kind of intellectual challenge by experimenting with the structure of ideas. I’ve always dreamed in fractals. I wanted to explore the process of the process of longterm creativity. Honestly. Plus the specific creative time challenges when you also have a family. And to explore what sustains a writer. Issues like mentoring and being mentored. Fan mail.The thrill of creating a story which wasn’t there before.

I wanted to evaluate…what had been the most inspirational experiences…and which books & stories  had been personally most worth writing, instead of racing on with the next project as I generally do. Filing is not my strong point.  Neither is formatting.So this memoir was a change of pace and of style but also meant re-visiting articles as often I had written about experiences soon after, and these had an immediacy and details I had forgotten.

Thumb Cover Not Just a Piece of Cake jpgThis memoir is probably more candid than my earlier writing. Usually I write for a specific audience. This time I wrote for myself and in the beginning I was unsure whether anyone else would read it.

As a long term author, there’s a danger of answering in the same way to predictable questions–and by the way, Sophie, yours are NOT predictable :-). But after a few embellishments, the writer forgets what was true and what was value- added dramatised faction or even fiction.

So I decided to indirectly answer the most common queries about an author’s work style but also explore the diversity of experiences. Writers need to take risks, whether physically adventurous or intellectual risks. And often readers like to know ‘behind the book’.

In the original table of contents I had a conversational tone with sub-headings like  ( ‘Come and Meet My Camel’   ) and chose the chapter titles to indicate the diversity of an author work style.

The title is a playful reference both to the fact an author’s life is one of hard work as well as fun, and the title of your famous picture book, There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake. What’s it like, having written a book that has become such a popular classic?

Recently a Twitter fan complimented my ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake’ book cover, saying ‘The hippo was the elephant in the room’. That could be taken a couple of ways.

I believe a book belongs to the reader not the writer, so a ‘classic’ is owned by the audience. ‘Hippo’ has a life of its own, with fan mail too. Plus a film , Braille and Auslan versions and even a touring production.

But being known as the author of the Hippo series has enabled other projects.

hippoposterFirst published in my late twenties, I had a baby and a first book in the same year, so there were many memories across 200 books ( 194 are non-hippo-ist). I wanted to explore some non-hippo experiences too, like crime or mystery writing or even scripting. I don’t always sit at a computer and ask What if?’  Nor do I eat cake, well, just occasionally.

In the original table of contents I had a conversational tone with sub-headings like and chose the chapter titles to indicate the diversity of an author work style.hazel with kids hippo party

Children’s authors are often under-valued. I struggled with an earlier W.I.P. title; ‘Let Hippos Eat Cake; Being a Children’s Author or Not?  I wanted to convey the dilemma of always having to defend writing for children because others assume that audience is less important. It isn’t. And the skills required to retain reader interest are greater.  Often I stop myself from adding the disclaimer, I write non fiction and crime & mystery for adults too.

But there is joy in some of the answers included in the 100 Hippo History incidents and also in the Literary Speed Dating chapter where I interview my own character.

Authors can also have fun. And are permitted to be a little eccentric. It comes with the job.

You have maintained a long and distinguished writing career over several decades, with hundreds of titles published. How do you keep your writing fresh and relevant? And what strategies do you employ, career-wise, to stay on top of the many changes in the publishing industry?

Diverse interests. Deliberately learn new things so I can write freshly with the response of an amateur. Become the naïve participant. And interview intriguing personalities or workers with unusual occupations like wedding-dove releaser, forensic pathologist or Antarctic station leader.Participant-observation is an important part of remaining relevant and also an excuse for visiting places as diverse as a fireworks farm, wholesale flower market or the pokies when I was investigating addiction and discovered I was an ideas addict.

Each year I research a new area and also collaborate with an expert in a field which is new for me. ‘f2m;the boy within’ the YA novel about transitioning gender was co-written on Skype between NZ and Australia. So the method as well as the gender content was new. Ryan Kennedy , my co-author is a family friend and also an ftm ( female to male).f2m_cover_big

Now I describe myself as Authorpreneur on my business card. Great talking point. And I pay credit to my marketing manager daughter Kim for upskilling me into this digital century, especially via website, online bookstore and social media.  For a format challenged author who thinks in abstract not pictures, this has been BIG. (It’s her real day job elsewhere luckily) Recently I’ve become a speaker-author and intend writing fewer works, but sharing them more, in different formats.

You are not only a distinguished writer but also an inspirational teacher of writing. Can you tell us something about the courses and workshops you are involved in running?

These days I mentor more than teach.

Hazelnuts is the self-adopted name for those I’ve mentored and they continue to help each other via workshopping and launches for their finally published books.  I’m told that a cultured hazelnut is called a Philbert.  70% reach publication or performance.

HazelandThePhilberts

a light-hearted interpretation by Felicity Marshall

My workshops on ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History; and Authorpreneurship;The Business of Creativity’ are popular. I enjoy being a panelist at Literary festivals and occasionally give keynotes. Next year I’ll talk about my memoir and the techniques involved for ‘family history ‘genies’,  Year 11/12 students looking at careers and also small business groups as well as new writers.

You’ve been an early experimenter in such things as e-publishing and app creation. What is your view of the challenges and opportunities in those fields?

I have an e-book store of my established  fiction, script, literacy and adult titles on my website. But the most successful have been the adult non-fiction How To…’ titles.

E-books and the implications of digital changes have been the greatest learning curve. There are new opportunities for beginning creators  and for those with backlists, but the e-administrivia is time consuming and detracts from original work. I try to list things once and make my website the focus of my literary information with FAQs,  an archived newsletter and links to publishers, bios and events.

When I was first published in my late twenties with a traditional, mainstream publisher, they did the PR, the marketing , acted as ‘minder’ and expected to ‘nurse’  an author’s next book via editorial input. These days, authors do 90% of the marketing and being media-worthy with a web presence is vital.

Having a mixed portfolio of skills helps retain freshness. The versatility of writing for all ages and in different formats  as well as a teaching background helps. But there are still times when doubts occur. I talk about ‘The Plateau of Boredom’ in my memoir. And also about Story Stealing and who owns which idea.authorpreneurship_cover_front_low_res

You have been a great contributor over the years to author and children’s literature organisations. How important do you think it is for authors to be involved in that kind of thing?

Vital. Give not just take. ‘Networking’ should be a mutual support.

How do you see the publishing industry, and specifically the children’s books world, today, as compared with what it was like when you started out as an author? And do you have any thoughts on what the future for the industry might look like?

Today, it’s  instantly possible to call yourself an author, but NOT easier to have long term quality work available to readers in multi-formats which return sufficient for the intellectual property which the artist has created.

Hazel’s fantastic website, where you can also order some of her books, is here.

Hazel’s Facebook page is here.