Today 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?
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 Books — 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.
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, but wrote an essay over why that was a real piece of art.
My parents, obviously, all influenced me when it comes to art and illustration. 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!
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?
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.
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!
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
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!