Category Archives: An Interview with…

An interview with… Cathy Cassidy

I interviewed Cathy Cassidy for my Writing 4 Children double page spread in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, in 2016. She revealed some of her writing secrets and tips.

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Cathy explained to me writers do not really get to choose the voice or genre they write, it is more of an organic process.

I’m not sure you get to choose your voice or genre… not always, anyway. I have always worked with and for young people, as an art teacher, a teen mag agony aunt, a journalist etc… that age group did and still does fascinate me, perhaps because it was a part of my life I didn’t manage especially well. When I finally did work out how to write a book length story, it turned out to be young teen rather than the YA I had envisaged. 

Cathy Cassidy

Most of Cathy’s readers fall between the ages of nine and fourteen and she calls the genre, ‘real-life, growing up’ books, as she often tackles quite difficult themes. But generally her books are about family, friendship and fitting in.

Cathy told me that she thinks the most important thing for any writer is to find your own voice and find your story, and then stay true to it

Don’t assume that children’s books are somehow less important than those aimed at adults, because that’s not the case. Often, the books we read as children are the ones that shape us, the ones we remember forever… let’s make them awesome!

Cathy Cassidy

Her top tip on writing for children is to write from the heart, and put everything you have into what you’re writing. If this means re-arranging your to-do list for the day, do it – writing has to come first, for the duration of the book at least. Set yourself a challenge to write a certain amount each day – it may just be 1000 words, but if you stick to it, those words will soon mount up. And when you start to doubt yourself and feel like throwing your laptop out of the window, don’t. 

Her message is write because you love it, because you can’t help it, because you love words and stories. Don’t do it for fame, fortune or an easy life, as those things are most unlikely to happen.

I’m lucky enough to write full-time now, but when I say full-time I mean it… sometimes it is seven days a week, and I can’t recall a break where I didn’t bring my laptop with me. If you love something, put all have into it… it’s worth it when you love what you do, I promise.

You can find out more about Cathy Cassidy and her books on her website: www.cathycassidy.com

An interview with… Peter Bunzl

For my Writing 4 Children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum I interview Peter Bunzl about his Cogheart series, published by Usborne.

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Peter told me his inspiration to write the Cogheart ‘steampunk’ Victorian adventure series, was sparked when he was reading about real clockwork robots that existed in Georgian and Victorian times. They were called automatons and were incredible pieces of engineering. Here is an example of some of them from youtube so you can see how amazing they are.

Automatons were built to do simple tasks like write their name or a few lines of poetry, or play an instrument, or a card trick or some of them were clocks with moving figures on. Peter wondered, what would happen if the technology back then had got so good that they could make clockwork robots that could do everything and anything. Robots made of bits of metal that were almost human and alive. Could they feel and think? Could the spark of life ever exist inside them? What would that mean for their inventors and owners? And what kind of world could I set a story be in where all this would take place?

There are four books in the series now, and they all take place over roughly a year. So the characters don’t really age that much physically, although emotionally they go through a lot.

Peter explained the reason his main characters, Robert and Lily, stay the same age is because, at thirteen-fourteen, they are already at the top end of what’s considered a middle-grade hero, and so, if they got much older, they would be more teens and their concerns would probably stray more into teen story lines, which would change the tone and themes of the books considerably.

Though they feature the same heroes in each book, the stories themselves are stand-alone, with different settings and different villains who have different goals in each, so there isn’t necessarily an overarching conflict to the series. Peter told that when writing a series, it is important to get the details consistent because once the series got to the third book, Skycircus, Peter realised everything was getting a little complicated, so he designed a big chart with all the main characters on,which clearly displayed their backstory, when they were born, what they looked like etc. Now he can easily refer to his chart when he needs to check a detail.

To find out more about Peter Bunzl you can check out his website www.peterbunzl.com 

Or follow him on Twitter @peterbunzl

To read the complete feature take a look at #218 Dec 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

An interview with… Juliet Clare Bell

For my latest Research Secrets slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum, I interview picture book writer Juliet Clare Bell. She talked me through her research process and how this has inspired some of the thorough and often unusual research she has done for her picture books.

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In the interview Juliet Clare Bell told me about the psychologist Graham Wallas who published The Art of Thought in 1926. In this book he identified a four-step process of problem-solving, insight or creative breakthroughs. Juliet Clare Bell summarises the four steps as:

“[1] Preparation –where you formulate your problem, then read, sketch, write, research etc., often very intensively. This, he believed, was absolutely necessary in creative thinking. During this intensive stage, you often end up feeling stuck, and to get past this mental block you must move onto phase two:

[2] Incubation where you let it sit whilst doing other things. If the answer you’re looking for feels really close, he argued, don’t force it. Trust that the process will lead to phase three:

[3] Illumination –often thought of as a ‘Eureka!’ moment –when the answer bursts into your consciousness. The final phase is:

[4] Verification –a conscious, formal activity, where you test it out and ensure that the insight is correct, or that the idea for your story fits.”

Juliet Clare Bell on The Art of Thought  by Graham Wallas

All writers love the illumination phase when writing seems to happen without much conscious effort, but Juliet Clare Bell finds it really useful to think of it in these phases. She explains you need to create the environment for it to happen, by preparing well with research and formulating ideas, and then you need to put in the work in phase four with the editing, even if the story does not change much from the original version.

“I’d recommend approaching people who are experts about an area. In my experience they’ve been really helpful and willing to share their interest. For fictional picture books, I like spending time with people whose lives are similar to those I’m writing about, as I did for The Unstoppable Maggie McGee and Benny’s Hat, both illustrated by Dave Gray. You might do loads of research for a book but it’s often one small snippet you read, or hear in an interview, that can really bring the person to life, or change the direction of your story.” Juliet Clare Bell

The Unstoppable Maggie McGee

Juliet Clare Bell told me it’s taken her a long time to really ‘get’ the idea of incubation, to the point where she now factors it into her schedule of writing. She can’t just do the research and then get straight down to writing it. For a week or two, she needs to let it sit whilst her unconscious gets on with making links with everything she has immersed herself in and other things she has learned or experienced.

Her advice to other writers is to trust in the process and treat incubation and illumination as skills which can be practised and improved on. Create an environment where phases 2 and 3 can happen, and that means being active when you’re reading/conducting your research (phase 1): before you start reading, ask yourself specific questions about the person/subject that you’re really interested in and which your readers will be interested in discovering, but also be on the lookout for the little nuggets that illuminate something interesting.

Author picture - Juliet Clare Bell

Juliet Clare Bell is always interested in the human side of things (so the personality of the inventor, explorer, mountaineer, scientist) and there might be one line in a whole autobiography that makes me say wowthat’s the angle I’m looking for.

To find out more about Juliet Clare Bell you can check out her website www.julietclarebell.com or follow her on Twitter @julietclarebell

To read the complete feature take a look at #218 Dec 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

I have also reviewed some of Juliet Clare Bell’s picture books on my blog. Have a look at Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, illustrated by Jess Mikhail and Benny’s Hat, illustrated by Dave Gray.

 

An interview with… Kathleen Duey

I interviewed her in November 2007, as a speaker at the SCBWI Bologna Conference, March 2008.

Kathleen Duey is the author of over 70 children’s and young adult books including historical fiction, nonfiction, picture books and dark fantasy. She was one of the 2007 finalists for the National Book Award for Literature for Young People, with her novel Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic. She writes for adults with a partner; they have a finished novel with an agent and a second work being optioned by HBO. She lives in San Diego County, USA.

Kathleen Duey

This is what Kathleen told me:

I always want to be a writer. My fourth grade teacher encouraged me and got me started writing stories. Then an English teacher in high school made me promise I would keep writing and give it a serious try, which I finally did, in my late thirties. Mrs. Fredericksen and Mr. Doohan. Bless ‘em both.

She explained all the work she has done and all the play, informs her writing. Living off-grid for a long time shaped her, too. She missed a couple of decades of TV. She does a lot of historical research for her books. But, the research never hampers her historical fiction. She uses a lot of primary sources and they always enrich, guide, inform. She told me she has never once felt constrained by facts.

Kathleen said she identifies very closely with all her characters, so in a way, has been all of them. She could live where Heart Avamir lives. (The Unicorn’s Secret) in fact she hinted she did, in a weird way, but that’s a whole story in itself. Her life has been extraordinary – she dropped out of the mainstream and lived off the land for many years. That gave her a rich vein of knowledge to mine.

Her childhood influenced what she writes in every way. She grew up in rural places, was raised by rural parents. She writes historical fiction and fantasy… both usually low tech, in cultures where people are close to the soil. As a child, her parents bought her non-fiction, almost exclusively. The first novel she loved was Molly Make Believe, an old book she found in her great Aunt’s apartment. Then came Black Beauty and then all the Farley books. In middle school she discovered fantasy and SF and was astounded at the created worlds, the possibilities of speculation, the massive intellects of the writers.

Kathleen claims the best books are autobiographical to some degree.

I work alone, almost always, in my office at home. I often play music, quietly. Sometimes I prefer silence. If it is chilly, Rooibos tea is wonderful. The hardest part of writing is sitting still, indoors – I hate it. The shortest time it has taken me to write a book is nine days. the longest was fifteen years.

She told me, people just need to figure out what is comfortable, what works for them when it comes to social media and marketing. She likes travel, she loves schools and speaking has become fun even though she said she began as a nervous, two-puke speaker, she now enjoys it.

Every book presents different obstacles, various areas of clear sailing.

I like every genre I have written in and intend to try more. It’s just the way my brain works; it’s not a conscious business choice or a deliberate artistic decision. It is about the individual project for me, not the genre. Whatever takes my breath away – that’s what I want to write. I like writing for all age groups. I seem to thrive on variety. Writing for kids is an obvious choice for me. I like kids. And I am head over heels in love with the possibility of touching a child’s (or a teen’s) life the way mine was touched by books.

 

An interview with… Moira Butterfield

I have a regular monthly, double-spread feature on writing for children in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, which contain loads of writing tips from successful authors, agents and editors. The focus is on what works for these professionals and how this could benefit other children’s book writers. These features have been running for three years now.

In the #217 November issue I interview children’s non-fiction book writer, Moira Butterfield, about her latest books and why non-fiction books are so important. 

Moira Butterfield1

Moira has been fighting the children’s non-fiction corner for many years and proudly told me:

It’s an exciting time for children’s non-fiction. For years non-fiction was not valued in the trade. This has changed thanks to the influence of the US market, in particular, where non-fiction is highly valued. At last we are being paired with good artists and editors are keen to hear from us. Thank goodness kids who love non-fiction are at last being catered for in the trade.

Moira Butterfield

Her latest books are Welcome To Our World, illustrated by Harriet Lynas and published by Nosy Crow and Home Sweet Home, illustrated by Clair Rossiter and published by Red Shed (part of Egmont UK).

Welcome to our World demonstrates how children all over the world are very different, but they also have much in common – despite different languages, customs and traditions, everyone shares a love of family, friends, food and fun. Home Sweet Home, sets out to explore the familiar features of a home, touching on different cultures and history to encourage children to think about what it is that makes a home.

Moira explained it is important to provide a diverse viewpoint, that all children will find interesting.

When writing non-fiction for children we not only need to get facts right with careful research, we also need to make sure that our work is multicultural. By ‘writing multiculturally’, I mean creating text that has an awareness of the whole world naturally and effortlessly within its fabric.

Moira Butterfield

Her tip for children’s non-fiction writers just starting out, is to go to bookshops to get an idea of the visual styles being published right now. Make a note of the text length being used, the types of illustrations and the layouts of the books. Think carefully about what you like and what you do not like. Buy some of the books you like and study them closely. Note the approach, the word count and how it appeals to the age-group it’s aimed at. Feed this information into your own work.

You can find out more about Moira Butterfield and her books on her website: www.moirabutterfield.com You can follow her on Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor and on Twitter @moiraworld

An interview with… Helen Lipscombe

In the #217 November issue of Writers’ Forum Helen Lipscombe told me all about researching both espionage and ballet for her debut children’s novel, Peril En Pointe.

Peril En Pointe book cover

Her main character, Eva, needed physical strength, mental resilience, the ability to speak several languages and an excuse to travel the world. Helen explained how Natalie Portman from the 2010 movie, The Black Swan was her inspiration for the book.

2010 film, The Black Swan - Natalie Portman

From the moment she saw her dark eyes gazing at her through that mask Helen knew Eva would be a ballerina and her setting would be a ballet school for spies. This lead her to research for accurate accounts of the lives of female spies. On the Imperial war Museum’s website, she read all about a spy called Odette Samson.  Odette was also the name of the White Swan in Swan Lake and inspired Eva’s code-name ‘O’.

“I read that Odette Samson had been awarded a George Cross for her refusal to name her fellow secret agents during the second world war. Despite having three young girls, she had volunteered to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), but in 1944, was captured and brutally tortured. (The Nazis extracted her toenails; a feature I bestowed on Swan House’s battle-worn Spy Craft teacher, the Captain).”

Helen Lipscombe

Odette Samson

Odette Samson

In order to capture the heightened atmosphere of a live performance, Helen revealed she went to see Swan Lake by the Russian State Ballet and the Royal Ballet’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

“I also took part in a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House which proved particularly worthwhile. Walking through the maze of corridors as the dancers do every day; standing amongst the sets and lighting; handling the ballet shoes, headdresses and props, and watching the dancers rehearse gave me a real feel for the setting.”

Helen Lipscombe

To read the complete interview check out the #217 Nov 2019 issue of Writers’ Forum.

You can find out more about Helen Lipscombe you can follow her on Twitter @Helen_Lipscombe or Instagram @helenlipscombe

An interview with… Steve Antony

My Writing 4 Children column was launched in Writers’ Forum in 2016. The first picture book writer I interviewed for this column was the extremely talented writer-illustrator Steve Antony.

me and my Queens Hat inspired Shaun the Sheep in London

He talked about his writing and illustrating process and explained why there is a fine art to writing and illustrating a picture book. Firstly, you’ve normally only got 12-spreads to tell your story. This, in itself, is very challenging. He told me that when he writes a picture book – sometimes an image comes first – sometimes a title or a phrase comes first. But his books almost always begin by forming a visual narrative in the form of a storyboard, which consists of 12 panels (one for each double-page spread).

“At this very early stage in the process I work out where the text will go and I also consider how the information in the text relates to the information in each image. I can spend days, if not weeks, perfecting each page turn. The storyboarding process can sometimes take as long as a month, even for the simplest of stories. In fact, it’s the simplest stories that often take the longest.” Steve Antony

Steve said a great picture book needs humour, heart and a brilliant ending. An educational element can be useful too, especially for teachers looking for new and creative ways to teach young pupils. He explained how he tries to find fun and interesting ways to marry the text with the imagery. The text alone can say one thing and the image alone can say something else, but together they tell the whole story. Once he has struck the perfect balance of words and pictures, he edits out all the unnecessary clutter.

Steve claimed the most difficult part of producing a picture book is perfecting the pace of the story. He revealed it took him around two months to perfect the pacing and rhythm to his first Please Mr Panda: book, about a panda intent on inciting the magic word with a tray of colourful doughnuts, because sometimes a tiny change to an image or a piece of text can knock everything off balance.

Please Mr Panda bookcover

Steve told me:

“I use words in my books that a very young child would struggle to understand and read independently. Words like truce, intrepid or Trafalgar Square. I sometimes include animals that some children won’t recognise. For example, there are several lesser-known animals in the London Zoo spread of The Queen’s Hat. It’s also worth knowing that, in most cases, picture books are read to children by an adult or older sibling.” Steve Antony

He advised aspiring illustrators to consider the market beyond English-speaking countries because some rhyming texts have the potential to sell very well in English-speaking territories but publishers have to also consider how well the book will translate into other languages.

To find out more about Steve take a look at his website: www.steveantony.com or follow him on Twitter @MrSteveAntony and on Instagram @mrsteveantony

You can read the full interview in the #180 Oct 2016 issue of the national writing magazine, Writers Forum.