Meet the Author: Sarah Mahfoudh

Sarah’s top tip for aspiring author/illustrators: When you find the time to read, make it count. Sometimes life gets busy, so fitting in a daily writing practice and managing to read every day might not always be possible, but I do believe reading is the key to improving your own writing. You don’t need to read all the time but when you do find the time to open a book, read critically. Notice the things that work and don’t work in the books you are reading; notice what you enjoy and what bores you; notice how an author brings a scene to life. You can then use these observations to improve your own work.

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Sarah Mahfoudh is an author, illustrator and editor from Oxfordshire, England, with a BA in English Literature and Theatre Studies and lifelong love affair with books. Having lived in fairyland for most of her life, Sarah thinks it’s only right she should share her adventures with the rest of the world. Sarah writes children’s books for all ages, as well as YA fiction. She is the founder and creator of www.can-do-kids.co.uk where you can find articles, ideas, resources, and links to inspire children to be confident, compassionate and open-minded individuals. When she is not writing or reading, Sarah loves to dance, exercise and rant about ethical living! You can find out more about her over at www.sarahmahfoudh.com and follow her on Instagram (@mahfoudhsarah) and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/mahfoudhsarah

AUTHOR INSIGHT

What’s the best aspect of your creative life? There are so many things to love about it: the fact that I am always learning and that I am never bored; the fact that I get to lose myself in imagined worlds for so much of the time; the sense of pride I feel when I finish a story or hold a published book in my hands. I really enjoy the editing process too. I know a lot of authors dread editing their own work, but I think the first edit might be my favourite part of writing because I get to read my own story. The second and third edits can get a bit much, though!

—the worst? Never feeling like I have enough time. I always have so many ideas and stories I want to work on and I never feel as though I have enough time to finish them. I also really dislike telling people about my books once they are finished and published. Promoting books and selling them feels like a full-time job in itself and it’s something I naturally shy away from. But I really do want people to read my books so I am trying to get better at being brave!

Where do you draw the inspiration for your books? For a lot of my picture books, I would say I am inspired by my own children. Can-do Kat, for example, was created to help my little girl with some of her confidence issues. For my older children’s books, YA, and adult books, I am often inspired by landscapes and nature. Sometimes a news story will trigger an idea, and I also find fairy tales and old folk tales really intriguing and evocative.

How has your childhood influenced you as an author? I was lucky enough to grow up in a house that was packed full of books, and my sisters and I would often pop to the library across the road after school and stay there for what felt like hours. My parents are both book-lovers, and my dad is a poet so I think stories and books are in my blood. In terms of the sorts of issues and themes I write about, my parents were always very outspoken against any sort of bigotry or injustice, as well as raising us to understand the importance of looking after the planet, so those are things that have always been at the forefront of my mind and naturally influence my writing.

How do you approach a new writing project? Walk us through your creative process. Once you have an idea, what’s the next step? Contrary to much of the advice out there for writers, I do a lot of my writing and planning in my head before putting pen to paper. I will often think about characters and their stories for months or even years before starting to write about them, or I will write an opening chapter and then step back from it for a few weeks or months before continuing. There is a popular opinion in the writing community that to be a ‘real’ writer, you must write every day but I don’t think this is true. If I try to write when I’m not in the mood, it just won’t happen so I have thinking days, note-making days and writing days.

I write long-hand and on the computer depending on how I am feeling on the day. If I am writing on the computer and I find I’m struggling with a section, I will switch to long-hand because it is much freer and boosts my creativity. I usually have an overall view of where the story is going by the time I get to about 25% of the way through but I won’t usually write the structure down until much later because I know it’s going to change. I find it incredible how stories and characters develop and take on a mind of their own once you actually start writing them.

As I already mentioned, I love the editing process so I really look forward to finishing my first draft and then moving on to the first edit, which is when I will take the time to really fine-tune plot and structure, develop my characters and bring the story to life.

What are you working on at the moment? I always have far too many projects on the go but I am trying to be more streamlined these days and focus on one at a time. (It sometimes works!) At the moment, I am desperately trying to finish the final edit (is there ever a final edit?!) of a YA fantasy book. I finished the first draft several years ago but life, work, kids and covid restrictions have delayed things slightly. The book is the first in a trilogy portal fantasy but it does follow on from a book called Faces in the Water that I published quite a while back now. Faces in the Water was my first ever novel and follows a 14-year-old girl, Eshna, as she stumbles into a new world. My writing and my ideas have matured slightly since that first book so this new trilogy can be read with or without prior knowledge of Eshna’s earlier journey, and begins around three years after the end of Faces in the Water.

I also have several children’s books in progress – one picture book, which is written but needs illustrating, and one middle-grade chapter book which is currently being plotted out in my head.

Do you have a daily routine? My daily routine is dictated by children. I wake up before the rest of the house so that I can meditate, shower and get dressed in peace. I only mediate for 10 minutes each morning but I find it helps me to stay calm when I am trying to get the kids up and out in time for school.

Once I have walked the kids to school, it’s time to work. If I have a paid assignment to do, that has to come first but, of course, writing and illustrating days are my favourites. I find the short school days frustrating, especially when I am on a creative roll, but in a way, I think they focus me and make me more productive.

After school, it’s all about kids’ clubs, dinner (my husband does most of the cooking), and I will try to squeeze in an exercise session at least every other day. In the evenings, I will sometimes carry on working and sometimes just flake out depending on energy levels and how inspired I am that day.

What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? Great question! Most of all, I just want readers to enjoy my stories. I want them to come away feeling as though they have been on adventure, experienced a magical world and made new friends. That being said, reading is one of the best ways for people to learn compassion and understanding for other people so I try to make my books inclusive and diverse and to challenge common stereotypes and out-dated attitudes. Many of my protagonists are female because women and girls are still underrepresented and misrepresented in literature, TV, films and the media. I hope my readers, young and old, will come away from my books with a greater tolerance for others, and that they will be inspired to stand up for themselves, be confident in their own abilities, and to speak out against injustice when they see it.

Is there any area of writing that you find challenging? Endings. I find writing endings and knowing when and how to finish a story, difficult. I also find it hard to be around people when I am really into a writing project. I get very annoyed by any interruption, however small.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Being brave enough to put my work out there. I can write and write and write but when it comes to publishing my work or sending it off to agents/publishers, I procrastinate, make excuses, and put up obstacles. This is something I am still working on. I have a few books just sitting around that I know I need to send out into the world to see what comes back, but I keep finding ‘more important’ things to do instead.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? It takes time. Embrace the process and don’t be afraid to take criticism. I was so sensitive to criticism when I was younger and I think it held me back for a while. I wanted to have written a masterpiece straight away and I wanted everyone to acknowledge it, but writing is like any skill, it takes time and patience to learn the craft, and criticism is an essential part of the process.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? Trust your own process. It’s easy to get imposter syndrome as a writer, but writing is a creative process and there are no rules. Different people work in different ways and what works for one person won’t work for another.

How important is social media to you as an author? I’m not really sure. As an author, there is a lot of pressure to be visible on social media and I do try, but it can be hard work and demoralising at times. I think perhaps social media is a good place to connect with other creatives. In terms of selling and promoting books via social media, the jury is still out. For me at least, it seems like I need to put in a lot of time and effort on social media to see any sort of boost in sales.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I am never really sure what ‘writers block’ means. If it refers to running out of ideas and stories to tell, then no, I don’t have this problem. I do sometimes sit down to write or illustrate and find that it just isn’t working, though. When this happens, I have a few methods that work for me:

  1. If I am writing on the computer, I will switch to long-hand and I will give myself permission to write whatever comes out, no matter how rubbish it is;
  2. If I am stuck on a particular chapter or scene, I will just write a note to myself like, “They escape” and then move onto the next scene.
  3. I walk away and give myself space to think about the problem. If I am writing, I will do some art instead or vice versa or do another task on my to-do list until my sub-conscious has had time to figure out what to do.

How do you deal with rejection? As an author, rejection is part of the job but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting. It’s helpful to remember that all authors, even famous ones, will have been rejected at some point in their career. Once I have sent something off, I tell myself I won’t hear back about it and then I just put it out of my mind and get on with trying to make my next project even better. A growth mindset – which I really did not have when I was younger – has really helped me to develop as a writer in recent years, and it also helps me to handle rejection a little better.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Oo, that’s tough! Magical, compelling, fun … (I hope!)

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Another tough one. There are so many good answers for this one but I think I would choose L.M. Montgomery, author of the Anne of Green Gables books. The character of Anne Shirley has been such an inspiration to me throughout my life. At a time when women and girls were expected to be pretty and quiet and obedient, Anne was out-spoken, determined and fiercely intelligent. I would ask the author what inspired her, how the book was received at the time, and how she, as a female author, was treated.

Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why?  Can it be someone who isn’t alive anymore? If so, I’m choosing Gene Kelly. He’s my idol, and I think a lift would be just about big enough for us to dance in. It would be an absolute dream to tap dance with Gene Kelly.

BOOK BYTE

The Twelve Dancing Princesses – the true story

Perhaps you’ve heard the classic fairytale about the twelve dancing princesses; the version told by stuffy old men from the olden days who thought it was okay to lock princesses up in towers and marry them off to strangers. Well, the stuffy old men got it wrong. Here’s what really happened…

Meet the twelve high-spirited princesses of Feather Castle. They enjoy science and magic, motor-bikes and clothes, music and saving the world – oh and they REALLY love to dance. But when spies in the shape of aspiring suitors visit the castle to discover where they go at night, the headstrong sisters won’t stand for it. They soon have their guests outwitted in this hilarious story of royal disasters, pixie-loving dragons, magical gardens, contests and friendship. outwitted in this hilarious story of royal disasters, pixie-loving dragons, magical gardens, contests and friendship.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses – the true story: Signed copies of the book are available in the UK from the Can-do Kids store here: https://etsy.me/3vL6VzZ Alternatively, it can be found in most online bookstores in the UK, from the Dixi Books website (https://dixibooks.com/product/the-twelve-dancing-princesses/) and for people buying from outside the UK, you can order it from www.bookdepository.com, here: https://bit.ly/3zKVz2e

To sign up to Sarah’s mailing list for future updates and lots of free resources, go to https://www.can-do-kids.co.uk/join-our-club For signed copies of Sarah’s book and a selection of children’s greetings cards, visit The Can-do Kids Etsy Store: https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/CandokidsStore

Faces in the Water (mentioned in What are you working on at the moment?): https://amzn.to/3hrcLl3

Meet the Author: Kesta Fleming

Kesta’s top tip for aspiring authors: Join a writers’ group and connect with the writing community – especially with other children’s authors. You learn so much from other writers and it’s such a lovely community. Writing itself is often very solitary, but the writing life doesn’t have to be. Get out there an meet people. That’s where the ideas and stories (and all the hot writing tips) are!

Kesta Fleming headshotKesta Fleming is a writer and poet, and author of the Marlow Brown chapter book series for seven- to ten-year-olds. She was born in England but grew up in the Adelaide Hills in a house full of books, bells and music. With a love of stories and a fascination for words she began writing when young. In addition to Marlow Brown, she has had numerous poems, plays, articles and short stories published in The School Magazine and in anthologies. Kesta is a former teacher and now divides her time between writing for children and her therapeutic work helping people manage stress and anxiety. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, two teenagers and a Brittany Spaniel.

Visit Kesta’s website at Kesta Fleming Children’s Author – Creator of the Marlow Brown Series

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Kesta, you started making up your own rhymes and poems as a six-year-old. What was the inspiration for this early venture into sharing the wonder of words? I grew up in a family where music making and stories were as basic to my existence as food, water and shelter. In fact, stories and music were perhaps even more valued than a permanent home. Many of my early memories involve sleeping in a tent or the back of the car, as my parents were adventurous and we travelled a lot. So, we’d be sung to at bedtime, read to while eating family dinners each evening, and play word games and sing on long car journeys.

Added to this, my mother was the queen of nursery rhymes – there wasn’t one she didn’t know – and she wrote her own stories.  My father was a pianist and played several other instruments including banjo, ukulele and mouth organ, and he composed his own music. It was the ’70s and for my parents that meant crocheted jackets, caftans and regular performances with a folk group they’d formed. And then, the whole family rang bells, but that’s another story … It’s little wonder I was inspired to make up my own poems and rhymes as a six-year-old. Rhythm and rhyme was what life was all about!

How much of an asset is your teaching background when it comes to writing your books for children? I haven’t really thought of it in terms of an asset to the actual writing, but it’s certainly been a big influence on me. Teaching children in lower primary exposed me to lots of lovely picture books and junior fiction stories during my twenties before I had my own children. So, it not only kept alive my love of children’s literature at a time I might typically have moved away from it, but it also kept my knowledge of what was being published current. And it fueled my love of reading stories aloud. Seeing children captivated by a great story and being part of expanding their imagination is inspiring. Helping them to make sense of the words themselves as they learn to read, and having it finally ‘click’ is also inspiring. How much this all helps me when writing my own stories, I couldn’t say. But it certainly gives me purpose.

What’s the story behind the Marlow Brown series? The Marlow Brown series is about a girl exploring interests that don’t fit the female stereotype and that typically lead to professions dominated by men. So, in the first book she’s smitten with the idea of becoming a scientist, and in the second, she’s totally set on becoming a top-class magician. I’m currently working on the third which has an engineering focus.

It might all sound serious and heavy going, but it isn’t at all! Marlow actually started out as a boy, and it was my publisher who suggested we switch her to a girl. After much thought and consideration about how this might change things, all I ended up doing was a simple pronoun switch. Marlow’s character remained exactly the same.

I think the story is all the better for the switch. It means there’s no big deal made of Marlow not fitting the stereotype. She’s totally unaware of such things. She’s simply a kid following her passions, doing what she loves. And getting into scrapes – because that’s the kind of kid she is. It’s a series full of humour.

Where do you find your inspiration? I always struggle with this question! I have an admission: sometimes I feel inspiration-less. But that’s okay … when I finally remember that other times I’m full of it. I think inspiration comes from doing stuff. From talking to people. From watching. From listening. For me it also comes from remembering what it was like to be a child. I have very vivid memories from my own childhood so I tap into those. And I think, most of all, it comes from being curious and asking ‘What if…?’ It comes from playing and being playful.

Who has been the strongest influence on your writing life? Lots of people, but perhaps the steadiest influence has been my writers’ group. We meet monthly and have done for years. Everyone is always so supportive and helpful, but our late friend and fellow writer, John Tyrell, should perhaps take a lion’s share of the credit. John was all encouragement. If I hadn’t brought anything to workshop for a while, or was down in the doldrums with my writing, he’d say he missed reading my stuff. I had several months a few years back of writing nothing, but turning up to writers’ group and facilitating all the same. It was John’s encouragement and belief in me that got me back into it.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? A lack of understanding of just how much tenacity is needed to be successful. I’d give up on manuscripts too soon, thinking that after a certain number of rejections it must mean that there was no point in continuing with that one. I thought I was being tenacious in the way I sent my manuscripts out again and again, but discovered through talking to more experienced writers, that our definitions of perseverance were far from similar! I don’t give up as quickly these days.

What’s the best aspect of your creative life? There are two best aspects – the moments when I’m totally engrossed in the story and everything is flowing, and the moment I finish the first draft. It’s the elation of having created something from start to finish, and there it is in front of me. I enjoy working on subsequent drafts, but it’s getting that first one down in full, and adding the last full stop that does it for me.

—the worst? Being stuck. And then procrastinating too long, and getting totally out of the way of writing, but feeling guilty about not getting back on with it.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t know that I’d call it writer’s block, but, following on from the previous question, I certainly procrastinate when things get hard. And the way to overcome it is to sit down and write anyway. But that’s easier said than done! One technique that I’ve found really helpful is skipping ahead to a different section and writing it in first person, even if the rest of the story is in third person. Getting right into the head of my protagonist and having them write a letter or email to someone about what’s going on for them seems to free things up for me and make the missing bit in between more accessible.

What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? That it’s okay to fail. That what matters most is having fun along the way and having a gritty perseverance when it comes to following your dreams. That’s what Marlow Brown has in spades. And that’s what I’ve learned I need too, to be a successful writer. No surprises there!

How important is social media to you as an author? It’s a blessing and a curse! I wish it weren’t important, but it is. I’m in a number of writing groups on Facebook and have found these to be a great way to connect with others in the writing community, but I don’t like having to promote my work. It’s time consuming trying to pitch things in the right way for the right platform, and promotion isn’t something that comes naturally to me. I’m perfectly happy to promote others’ work on social media, but I have to swallow my own discomfort promoting my own. I know other writers struggle with this too, so I take comfort in not being alone in this!

You’ve written poems, plays, articles and short stories as well as books – what is your ‘sweet spot’ and why? I’m not sure if I have a sweet spot but I do like a challenge. Early on, I challenged myself to get something published in every genre that the NSW School Magazine published (with the exception of the cartoon strip because I can’t draw). I was pretty chuffed when I succeeded. I’ve only written one play so far, but I have to say I loved doing that, so I should probably try another. I like dialogue. My current personal challenge is to have a picture book published. I have many picture book manuscripts, but none have hit the right desk at the right time yet. I will get there. I’m determined!

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Amusing and relatable. (Is using ‘and’ cheating? Not at all!)

What’s the best advice you were ever given? Don’t give up on a story if you really believe in it. Keep sending it out. (After hearing this advice, I entered a story which had had multiple rejections as a rhyming picture book manuscript when I’d first written it thirteen years before hand, into the CJ Dennis Poetry Competition, and it won first prize!)

Now for a little light relief – If you were going to be stuck in a stalled lift for several hours who would you choose to share the experience with you and why? Well, at first I was thinking Harry Potter, Hermione and Ron, because I think a bit of magic in that situation could be handy, and if the magic wasn’t working for some reason, then the balance of the three characters might add some light relief … but then I started wondering about J K Rowling, because I love the world she created and I’m sure I could learn loads from her as a writer. But then there’s Dumbledore. I think I’m going for him. I have loads of questions for him! And who knows, he might have some Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in his pocket we could try our luck with to help us pass the time.

BOOK BYTE

Marlow Brown 2 - Cover ImageMarlow Brown: Magician in the Making

Written by Kesta Fleming

Illustrated by Marjory Gardner

Marlow Brown dreams of becoming a top-class magician but she has two problems: her special talent for creating chaos, and the fact that Dad won’t stop laughing … How can she show them, once and for all, what a serious and spectacular magician she really is?

Buy the book here.

 

Meet the Author: Karyn Sepulveda

Karyn’s top tip for aspiring authors: Be kind to yourself. When you’re on submission, do other things that you love, not only to keep busy, but also to keep your mood uplifted. And, be proud of yourself for following your dream and writing a manuscript – that’s already an amazing feat!

Karyn Sepulveda 3Karyn Sepulveda is an author, podcast producer and creator of short, guided meditations. Through writing about characters triumphing over adversity, interviewing women about their strengths and designing meditations that help the listener tap into their own creativity, Karyn hopes to spread compassion, inspiration and connection. Karyn completed her Masters of Creative Writing in 2011 and published her first novel, Letters To My Yesterday in 2018. When she is not working on her creative projects, Karyn is busy raising her two children and working as a teacher in primary schools.
Social Links Weblink: https://www.karynsepulveda.com/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/karyn_sep/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/karynmsepulveda/

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? I am fascinated by finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. Writing stories allows me to explore the extraordinary aspects of a character’s life and it is also how I make sense of the complexities of this world (or at least try to!)

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I do a lot of other things besides writing so I would stay busy! I’m a primary school teacher and I also create guided meditations and run a creativity course. But if I wasn’t able to write, I think I would have to find some other kind of storytelling to enjoy – maybe I would try painting (I would need some lessons though as I’m not very good).

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My own impatience. In the beginning, I would send out manuscripts that weren’t ready for publication, because I was just so eager to be published. As time went on, I soaked up the advice of the surprisingly nice rejection letters I was receiving and realised that I needed to spend a lot more time developing my manuscripts in the editing and re-writing stage before sending out to anyone. This lesson took quite some years to learn, but I’m happy to say that I am far more patient with my works in progress now.

How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? I did have a little input into the cover. I was asked to send some of my favourite book covers to the designer so they had an understanding of the style I was hoping for. And then I had a choice between five early book covers to work from. But I can’t take any credit for the incredible cover – I never would have imagined something so beautiful!

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Those moments when a scene comes together so vividly that it feels as though I’ve lived the moment and I can’t type fast enough to relay what’s happening. It’s pure magic!

—the worst? The nerves that come with waiting for an agent / publisher / editor / reviewer to read my book. I try not to worry and keep myself busy, but the underlying nerves are never too far away.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would take my time. I understand now that there really is no rush at all. And I would be more aware of how special the drafting process is and try to enjoy each moment of it more fully.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I wish I’d known how helpful it would be to connect with other writers and support each other – I would have started making those connections a lot earlier.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? My creative writing professor told me that reading is like breathing in and writing, like breathing out. I’ve never forgotten this and it’s the best excuse for reading a whole lot of books!

How important is social media to you as an author? I only really use Instagram, but it is very important to me. I love the community of writers and readers I have found there. I’ve developed some terrific friendships and it actually feels like this secret little world of books that I’m part of. I am inspired by the writers that I follow and I get all of my best book recommendations from other readers.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I haven’t experienced writer’s block, but there have been times where I’ve not written for long periods because I have let other commitments take over. When this has happened, I feel the lack of creativity in my life coming through as a type of ‘lost’ feeling. So I use meditation to help me get back in the creativity zone and open up to some new ideas coming through. And then I ensure that I put aside writing time again – even if it’s just a couple of hours a week.

How do you deal with rejection? Now, I deal with it fairly well. I understand that we all have different taste and my writing isn’t going to be enjoyed by everyone who reads it. But when I started out, rejection would devastate me, as I took it personally. Once I developed the ability to separate myself from my manuscripts, I found coping with rejection much easier. As difficult as it can be sometimes, it’s important to remember that it’s not us as a person being rejected, it’s the story we created. And if we persist, that story will find the perfect home at the perfect time.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? (I hope it is…) Engaging, relatable and compassionate.

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? What a great question! I would spend an hour with Khaled Hosseini and I would ask him to explain his writing process and character development to me. I am in awe of the way he can write from multiple perspectives with such depth and invoke such incredible emotion.

BOOK BYTE

The Womens CircleSydney, present day. Anna is released into the world after six years in prison. The entirety of her possessions stuffed into a single plastic bag. The trauma of her past, a much heavier burden to carry. Feeling hopeless, isolated and deeply lonely, Anna attends an alternative support group; The Women’s Circle. But when she touches an ancient crystal, Anna connects to a woman she has never met, in a past she doesn’t recognise.
In 1770, a brutal regime torments the English village of Quarrendon and is determined to keep its women apart. Young villager Aisleen desperately seeks a way to defy the rules, reunite with her sister, and live life on her own terms, without her husband’s permission. The stakes are high and terror of punishment inescapable, but doing nothing comes at an even steeper price…
While separated by generations, Anna finds herself drawn to the spine-chilling and courageous plight of Aisleen and Quarrendon’s women. Can their bond help her to face her past and embrace her second chance at life?
A heart-warming and inspirational portrayal of inner strength and vulnerability, The Women’s Circle shows us the true power of female friendship in all its forms.

BUY THE BOOK HERE.

Meet the Author: Penny Macoun

Penny’s top tip for aspiring authors: Don’t give up, enjoy the process and it will take as long as it takes.

Penny Macoun was born in Sydney, Australia. She has been writing since 1993 when her story about a funnel web spider was printed in a school newsletter.  Ever since, Penny has loved the ‘other worlds’ that words create, and hopes to continue to create these worlds for many years to come.  Rollo’s Wet Surprise is her second book. When she is not writing, teaching or editing, Penny dabbles in various forms of visual arts and enjoys being in the garden.

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? I write because I enjoy creating the ‘other worlds’ you find in stories. It fills me with excitement to create something new. Words are my passion.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I am a trained Primary School teacher. Up until the pandemic I had been a casual teacher for eight years. When I decided to put a hold on teaching, I decided to follow my career dream of being an author.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? As a self-published author my toughest obstacle was learning all the things I had to do as a ‘publisher’ such as getting an ABN, how to purchase ISBNs and understanding the intricacies of getting files ready for producing a book.

How involved have you been in the development of your book/s? I have been involved every step of the way. This is why I decided to self-publish my books, because I wanted to be able to produce the book how I wanted it to be. I thought of the illustrations as I edited the stories, which meant I could give clear guidelines to the illustrator.

What’s the best aspect of your creative life? Being able to set my own working hours and have flexibility to do things during the day if I want to. Oh… and sleep in.

—the worst? Low income. I love what I do, but slow and few book sales makes the balance sheet a bit difficult to look at sometimes.

How has your childhood influenced you as a children’s author? I think my career as a teacher has influenced me as a children’s author, rather than my childhood. I was working on an adult murder mystery for many years but it was my experiences of reading to children in the classroom and using books to educate that made me begin to see that some of my stories could be turned into books for children.

How do you approach a new picture book project? Walk us through your creative process. Once you have an idea, what’s the next step? I don’t really set out to write a picture book. I write a story and as I write I am thinking if pictures can be attached to what I have written. Then I edit the story and create a storyboard to work on layout and illustration ideas. I then send the storyboard and the manuscript to the illustrator, who will begin on the artwork. They start by sending me character sketches and a black and white storyboard layout and then will add colour. We send ideas and illustrations back and forth until I give them the tick of completion. The illustrator then sends me print ready files to upload to Ingram Spark to create my book.

How much time do you spend on creating each picture book? Once I have written a story, I like to leave it alone for a few months before looking at it again and starting the editing process. I then will edit the story and send it to my friend, who is an editor. I also use another editor to have a non-biased look at it. After several reviews and the creation of the storyboard and illustration ideas, I give everything to the illustrator, who will usually take a couple of months. Therefore, I guess the whole process can take about six months minimum.

What are you working on at the moment? I have written a sequel to Gorkle, which was my first children’s book. Now that Rollo’s Wet Surprise is complete, I will begin editing it.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? Yes, I do experience writer’s block. Usually when I have to write something for the writing group I am in. To overcome it, I will either work on a different piece of writing or just do something that isn’t writing, so I can go back to it with a fresh view. Often a few hours or days away from the desk is enough to rejuvenate the writing juices.

What do you hope readers will take away from your stories? Enjoyment and the experience of learning something without even realising it. As an educator, I am always working to link books and my own stories to experiences or things children can learn from.

Is there any area of writing that you still find challenging? Writing chapter books for children. I would love to explore this area more. Five years ago I couldn’t even write a picture book and now I have published two, so there’s hope for me yet.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as an author? Take my time and don’t rush the process. I made this mistake with my first book, which meant there was a lot to fix by a designer before I could publish the book. Rollo’s Wet Surprise went a lot smoother.

How important is social media to you as an author? I find social media is important to get the word out about what I am doing professionally. I also regularly update my website. I find the engagements are becoming fewer as people become disillusioned with social media, which makes me wonder if people are looking at my posts anymore. However, I do feel that an author should use every method they can to spread the word about what they do; someone, somewhere will see the post and hopefully tell someone else and ultimately create a few book sales along the way.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? I don’t really remember ever being given advice but something has stuck with me. I was with my dad at a shop counter after I had been looking at the books on display. It was in a hospital convenience store. I said I wanted to be a published author with lots of books like Bryce Courtenay. My dad scoffed and didn’t think much of this as a career, but the shop attendant said there was no harm in trying. Now most days, Dad asks me if I’ve written another book.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Colourful. Educational. Fun.

Website: www.pennymacoun.com.au

If you look at the Rollo’s Wet Surprise page you will find links to all online stores that have this book. I also sell both of my books through my website.

BOOK BYTE

Rollo is a dog that loves to go to work with his owner, Jim, who is a builder. Jim and his team of builders have been working on a house that Rollo has enjoyed visiting because the family like to give him lots of pats and the garden is nice and big, so he has lots of places to explore.

One day, the builders are moving lots of big, heavy windows to a safe area. Rollo begins to explore this new part of the garden, and sniffs around.

While Rollo is exploring, he tries to walk on a surface that he thinks is hard. Unfortunately, the hard surface is a pool cover and Rollo finds himself falling into a large swimming pool. Jim helps him out and everyone thinks it is very funny, except for Rollo.

This book is ideal for teaching children about being safe around water and remembering to always close pool gates and never go near a pool without an adult.

Meet the Author: Michael Fitzgerald

DominicLorrimerMichael Fitzgerald is a writer and art magazine editor living in Sydney. His first novel, The Pacific Room (2017), was developed through a Varuna Publisher Fellowship; his second, Pietà, is being released in June 2021, also through Transit Lounge Publishing. His literary work has also appeared in magazines such as Kill Your Darlings and Westerly. He is Editor of Art Monthly Australasia.

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? This is something I’ve never really asked myself, and I wonder if it would be dangerous for me to find out at this late stage. Sometimes it’s best just to keep doing what you instinctively feel you need to do. With writing especially, I think there’s a danger in overthinking things. I’ll leave that up to actors to ponder: What’s my motivation?

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? A strange dream of mine would be to be a casting agent.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? Life constantly interrupting and intervening. How dare it! … While my novels have been relatively short (in length) so far, they have taken me SO LONG to write.

How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? Yes. I’m not sure how it is elsewhere, but at Transit Lounge my experience has been especially collaborative and creative.

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Being solitary and alone. It’s thrilling and scary, but very quickly things scribbled into notebooks and onto a computer screen begin to fill the void. And soon stories and characters flood your head and have a life of their own through this strangely mechanical and meditative process of pushing a pen or typing at a keyboard. I also love swimming for the same reason.

—the worst? Not having the time to write.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? To maybe think less about what other people might think, and to not try and second-guess what readers (or publishers) might want – but, at the same, not to ignore them, and to learn to lean into them a little more productively and meaningfully. Sorry if I’ve totally contradicted myself here, but I’m obviously in two minds!

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Nothing in particular, because I think it’s important for everyone to follow and find their own path and to sometimes stumble and grope around in the dark. That’s how I’ve done it, and I can’t imagine anything different.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? To never submit or press ‘send’ until a piece is absolutely finished and ready – though of course knowing when the moment is right is a whole other thing. I’m still not entirely sure … So, on second thoughts, maybe the best advice is something smaller and more technical – like Margaret Atwood saying (in the Paris Review I think) that the key to proofreading is a good ruler, and going through the text line by line.

What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? Embrace the difficulty. It definitely doesn’t get any easier as you get older. I’m 56, but sometimes I feel like I’m still starting out. So, finding a voice, and the best narrative vehicle to express it is something I’m still wrestling with. It’s part of an ongoing process that never stops. Keep wrestling!

How important is social media to you as an author? I haven’t succumbed to Facebook or Twitter (perhaps to my detriment), but I do enjoy Instagram (I’m @mf.novelist). When you’re writing (or editing all day like I am), it’s sometimes nice to do it with images. And I’ve found and friended other writers on Instagram, some of whom use it in interesting ways ‘to share and connect’ (those ubiquitous words). Though it’s sometimes difficult to find the right tone and to avoid appearing gloating and self-obsessed – those ugly hallmarks of social media. Of course, occasional ‘digital detox’ is essential for any writer.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? As I mature and life gets more crowded and noisier, the writing bit of writing is not so much the challenge, but blocking out periods of solitary time is. For me time, and it’s perhaps a cliché to say, time and silence is key. Finding myself up at Varuna, The Writers House late last year, and faced with a week’s residency and with no particular goal in mind – and no distractions – was heavenly. I ended up writing short stories, one of which will be published in Westerly magazine this year. The experience took me back to the two weeks I spent in a convent in Rome, researching Pietà.

How do you deal with rejection? Stoically, and to immediately latch onto another hopeful or positive opportunity – there are so many these days. And to learn to love your ugly ducklings and to keep trying to turn them into swans. I have also been meaning to maintain a special ‘rejections’ notebook, as there have been so many over the years, and to keep this as a badge of honour.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Different each time.

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Patricia Highsmith or Tennessee Williams. They both transgressed conservative convention in postwar America – one through spare, eviscerating psychological thrillers, the other through poetic and transcendent prose and plays. I would just like to hear them speak, look at their quizzical faces, and spend time in their writing studios while perhaps passively inhaling their cigarette smoke – you can always find out so much from the physical spaces writers inhabit.

BOOK BYTE

Pieta

These are the last days of 1999. At St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, as the world waits for the new millennium, Lucy, a young Australian woman looks up at Michelangelo’s Pietà behind its pane of bullet-proof glass; a red kabbalah string circles her wrist. She has come with the mysterious parcel her recently deceased mother asked her to bring to the box marked POSTE VATICANE.

But before Rome there is Saint-Cloud. Here, on the outskirts of Paris, Lucy works as an au pair for Jean-Claude and his wife Mathilde. When Mathilde leaves for Central Australia to research the Aboriginal artist Kumanjayi, Lucy’s circle of contacts becomes smaller and strangely intimate: Jean-Claude, the baby Felix for whom she cares, and the couple’s charismatic friend Sébastien, a marble restorer.

Yet Lucy’s homesickness for Australia and its vastness haunts her world, surfacing in the memories of her mother, the Australian garden at Empress Joséphine’s Malmaison, and Mathilde’s letters from Alice Springs. Lucy’s mother, Jude, who was a nun in the 1970s, once warned her daughter ‘to be careful what she wished for’. It is a caution that marks but rarely alters the choices these characters make.

With lushness and tenderness, and revelation, Fitzgerald’s unforgettable novel Pietà exquisitely captures the glorious and imperfect relationships between parents and children, between art and life.

Buy the book here.

Meet the Author: Angela O’Keeffe

Angela’s top tip for aspiring authors: Read.  Ponder the experience of reading.  Reading as a writer is an art in itself.

Angela O'Keeffe =

Angela O’Keeffe grew up on a farm in South East Queensland and now lives in Sydney. She completed a Master of Arts in Writing at UTS and has had short stories published in literary journals. Night Blue is her first book.

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? We can’t ever get into the head of another human but we can imagine ourselves into anyone and anything, whether fictional or real.  For me, writing is the best and most exhilarating way of doing that.  It’s my prism for experiencing the world.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? As far as having some sort of prism for experiencing the world I can’t imagine being happy with anything that wasn’t related to the arts.  I would pick acting, I think, as there is that similar aspect of inhabiting a character, of stepping beyond the boundary of the self and in some way experiencing the other.

What was the toughest obstacle to becoming published? The toughest obstacle was me.  I wrote probably three or four novels over the years, and a couple of those got initial interest from publishers that then didn’t go anywhere. I really took to heart the adages about writing “what you know” and “showing not telling” and in hindsight I think I let those adages sort of shackle me.  In 2016 I went to Varuna, The National Writers House, for a “Conversations with Writers” workshop with Peter Bishop and he talked about allowing the writing “to breathe” and something just clicked for me.  I realised I could step into a space where I didn’t know “what I knew”, a space where there was not necessarily a distinction between “showing and telling,” and things just got better from there.  I wrote the first pages of Night Blue soon after that.

How involved were you in the development of your book.  Did you have input into the cover? Barry from Transit Lounge really loved the book; from the start there was an openness, a common understanding.  He has this way in his emails of saying little but meaning much, and I just felt really supported. Yet he was ready to push back when he felt he needed to, and I really appreciated that too.  There was a small change I wanted to make in the final edit that he didn’t agree with.  In hindsight he was probably right.  There comes a point where the writer just has to let go of the work.  Barry sent me five or six cover designs by Peter Lo, and asked me to choose my top three.  The decision was never going to be mine alone – it wasn’t my department – but it was wonderful to be invited into that process.  I love the cover that Peter designed for Night Blue; for me it speaks its own exquisite language to what is inside the book.

What is the best aspect of your writing life? The sense of freedom and discovery.

The worst? Being deep in it and knowing I have to break to do the shopping.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? For me, this question is quite useless.  I wouldn’t know what I know now if things had been different.  And I wouldn’t know it in the way I know it.  For me, that’s impressive and I’m unwilling to walk myself back from that.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? I’m tempted to answer same as above, but I do wish I’d been told that it’s best not to write with an open packet of biscuits within reach.  But I stumbled on this pretty quickly on my own.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? In class at UTS Glenda Adams said something about when writing a first draft to let “everything in”; she said it was “like gathering flowers”, and she made these gestures of reaching left and right.  I always loved that.

How important is social media to you as a writer? Right now it plays a role in letting people know about Night Blue.  It also helps me come across writers, artists, podcasts that I find inspiring.  I’ve had lovely connections with other writers on Instagram; it was through Instagram that Favel Parrett kindly agreed to write a commendation for Night Blue.  The downside is that it can be a vacuous time waster.  A bit like sugar, use in moderation.

Do you experience “writer’s block” and if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t experience a block as such; I can always write.  It’s more a matter of whether the writing is any good.  If I’m really not happy with how it’s going I usually stop and go for a walk.  I live near the ocean and just walking by it is an expansive experience.  On the way back I might stop at the shops and buy items for a meal, and often by the time I’m cooking the onions something has shifted in the writing – in the way I see it and feel it – and I’ll know what it needs.

How do you deal with rejection? Cry.  Vow never to write again.  Go for a walk.  Realise I want to keep at it.

In three words how would you describe your writing? Poetic.  Accessible.  Arresting.

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most want them to tell you about living a writing life? Franz Kafka.  He once wrote that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” I’d want to ask him about that.

BOOK BYTE

Night BluePotent, haunting and lyrical, Night Blue is a narrative largely told in the voice of the painting Blue Poles. It is an original and absorbing approach to revisiting Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner as artists and people, as well as a realigning our ideas around the cultural legacy of Whitlam’s purchase of Blue Poles in 1973.
It is also the story of Alyssa, and a contemporary relationship, in which O’Keeffe immerses us in the essential power of art to change our personal lives and, by turns, a nation.
Moving between New York and Australia with fluid ease, Night Blue is intimate and tender, yet surprisingly dramatic. It is a glorious exploration of how art must never be undervalued.

Buy the book here.

Meet the Author: Belinda Lyons-Lee

Belinda’s top tip for aspiring authors: Don’t. Give. Up.

Belinda Lyons-LeeBelinda Lyons-Lee was born in Geelong, Australia and still lives in the region with her husband and son. She has degrees in youth work, education, writing and literature. Belinda has been teaching English and creative writing in high schools for nearly twenty years and the nineteenth century has been an obsession of hers for even longer. Belinda has had various articles published that explore writing, vocation, mental health and creativity. Tussaud is her debut novel. Find out more about Belinda at http://www.blyonslee.com

Author Insight

Why do you write? I write because I love to escape and inhabit the times and places I create, because I want to discover something about what it means to be human, to try and make sense of my own, and other people’s lives. I read for the same reasons.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I’d be drawing, painting or messing around with clay whilst balancing teaching English. The same life I have now but swap out the writing for another form of creative expression!

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? I can’t remember who to attribute the quote to but it goes something like – ‘It’s not what happens to you but what happens within you that defines who you are’. There’s been a lot of ‘stuff’ that has happened to me along my writing journey, the usual culprits of rejections, set-backs and disappointments. However like Marie in my novel, I had to instead concentrate on what was happening within me, my reactions, my self-talk and find a way through it all.

How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? My publisher (Transit Lounge) has been incredibly supportive in terms of opening dialogue about each step in the publishing process. I can say the same about the editing process – Kate Goldsworthy was amazing in the way she connected and understood not only the technical details of the writing itself, but the deeper, richer essence of the novel that shines through now more clearly because of her attentions. Talking through the front and back cover was very exciting. Josh Durham, the designer, is so very clever and physically captured the mood of the novel perfectly. I actually sent the publisher and Josh a Pinterest board of the sort of covers I loved early on in the process to help frame the look I ideally wanted. Josh came up with a few designs that were all equally impressive but in the end the publisher and I both felt that this one, the one that you see now, was the best representation of the mood of the story.

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? The very first draft. So much energy, momentum!

 —the worst? Sometimes the technical details of spelling, grammar, punctuation and then chapter length, refinement of sentences, plot holes, inconsistencies etc. This requires a different sort of energy and headspace. Sometimes it’s hard to balance out the two when one, for me, is much more fun than the other!

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? Celebrate the small accomplishments.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? That writing requires an enormous amount of determination and sheer stubbornness.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? I’ve had this quote by Neil Gaiman as my screen saver for about seven years. That tells you something about how highly I rate this advice! ‘Start telling the stories only you can tell. Because there will always be better writers than you and there will always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this -or doing that – but you are the only you.’

How important is social media to you as an author? It’s wonderful as a way to connect with readers and people in the ‘writing world’ but I guess like anything, it can quickly turn into a time sucking diversion.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? If I feel a piece lagging, losing energy or momentum, I find it’s because, as William Kenower (?) I think has said, I’m no longer curious about it anymore and perhaps have even lost confidence in myself, my idea and my ability. So the moments I ‘drop out’, I switch to writing another scene or chapter or go sideways into historical research and then maybe approach it slyly again the next day or the day after. This seems to have worked so far…

How do you deal with rejection? Generally I deal with rejection by allowing myself time to feel the sting, hours, days, whatever is needed until the ‘noise’ of it begins to dissipate. Then I consciously remember to myself what the vision for that particular piece of work is and I get back in the chair and just keep going.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Fictitious. Historical. Imaginative.

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? The hardest question ever – aside from name your favourite book! At this very moment in time, I would choose Daphne du Maurier. I read one of her biographies and was fascinated by her life and her complexities as a person. I would like to hear her thoughts on balancing the need she felt for solitude, the need to write and the need for intimate and social relationships.

Book Byte

Paris, 1810. Haunted by the French Revolution, Marie Tussaud has locked herself away in her shop with the death masks she was forced to make to avoid the guillotine.
Philidor, a famous magician, offers her the chance to accompany him to London to assist in creating a wax automaton that will bring them both money and success.
Following a disastrous performance on their opening night in which the wax on their prized spectacle melts, the eccentric Duke, William Cavendish, invites them to his rambling estate,
Welbeck, where he suggests they take up residence, use his underground ballroom for a new show and in return create a private commission for him: a wax automaton in the likeness of Elanor, a beautiful girl who mysteriously disappeared from the estate when he was a child.
In this delicious novel of twists and turns, Welbeck, with its locked doors and rooms, is full of secrets and no-one is who they seem. There is the seductive aura of Shelley, Dickens and Du Maurier in Tussaud. Marie must fight for survival in a world dominated by male advantage and power in a mesmerising story filled with wisdom about human behaviour and motivations.

Buy the book here.

Meet the Author: Sandi Scaunich

Sandi ScaunichSandi Scaunich’s career spans the fields of medical anthropology, women’s health, and diversity and inclusion. Her writing has appeared in various blogs, academic reports and The Age. She lives in Melbourne with her husband, three children and a very energetic Kelpie x named Pesca. Chasing the McCubbin is her first novel.

To find out more about Sandi, visit her website at www.sandiscaunich.com.au

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? I’m not a big planner, so for me writing is an exciting and mysterious process of discovery that takes me out of my head and into the minds and bodies of my characters.

 What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I (temporarily) stopped working in my career during the second lockdown. Until then, writing had been a side passion that I squeezed in around working and family. The kids are back at school now, which means I’ve been typing away freely, doing Q&As (ha!) – and gosh, it’s been lovely!

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My career is outside the publishing industry, and therefore I had no comprehension of how it operated. Unsolicited or agent? Bulk submissions or one at a time? These questions, and many more, were complete unknowns to me. So I enrolled in several courses, but the publishing industry still seemed like an exclusive grand palace with guards and huge gates where only a selected few gained access. Eventually I broke through!

How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? When it came to editing and cover design, Transit Lounge were incredibly collaborative. Actually, I loved the first cover proof, so there was little back and forth!

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? The joy of creating a new story filled with unique characters that, in my mind, live and breathe.

 —the worst? Spending long hours at a keyboard isn’t great for the body! At the end of a writing session, I sometimes feel like I’ve aged ten years. And back and neck aches lead to headaches – so not great. I’ve integrated regular exercise and stretching into my weekly routine to counteract this. A must!

 What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? Hmm … Would I have the wisdom and knowledge I have now? If so, I’d ditch the expectation of a publisher responding almost instantly with a big, enthusiastic, accepting YES.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? That the publishing industry moves at glacial speed, and to expect rejections, often in the form of silence. Plus, I’d recommend attending as many pitch sessions as possible.

 What’s the best advice you were ever given? Graeme Simsion told me recently to keep my expectations realistic. This really resonated with me, as it’s about celebrating the wins and avoiding disappointment. An extreme example, but I see it like this: if an author is disappointed their book ‘only’ hit number 2 on the New York Best Sellers list, then said author (the J K Rowlings aside, of course) needs a reality check! It’s made it to the New York Times Best Sellers list! (On a side note, that’s not something I expect to be dealing with!)

What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? I am definitely in the debut writers’ camp of ‘write what you know’. Stick to a subject you’re passionate about and know intimately. And listen to your gut instincts. For instance, there was a moment in the early stages of writing Chasing the McCubbin when I toyed with the idea of changing Ron’s character. By way of background, Ron is meant to represent a modern reincarnation of the man in Frederick McCubbin’s famous painting ‘Down On His Luck’. In the 1800s, impressionist painters, such as McCubbin, were promoting the white male narrative through their works – the white man as explorer, worker, prospector, farmer, etc. In light of contemporary values, I was tempted to carve up this traditional narrative. But Ron was simply too clear in my mind to disregard. I could hear him speak, visualise his walk and see him pottering in the shed. So despite my brain urging me to sever the continuation of the white male narrative, my gut told me to stick with Ron. Likeable or not, progressive or not, he evolved authentically as I saw him. Authentic characters engage readers; if they’re not, they risk feeling more like vehicles. Trust your instincts, I reckon.

How important is social media to you as an author? I’m a bit of a technophobe, really. In fact, I’d avoid social media completely if I could! But, hey, it’s no longer 1991, the year Chasing the McCubbin is set. My most significant tech-related achievement of late was connecting my Instagram to Facebook and Twitter! As much as I’d ideally be happy to avoid social media, I do want to connect with readers, and therefore I’m making an effort to post regularly on Instagram (I rarely check Facebook and Twitter). I’ve even posted a few vids of me chatting to the camera – talk about progress!

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? I don’t really believe in ‘writer’s block’. I think it might be more a crisis of confidence, although, luckily, I haven’t experienced it yet. Until recently, my biggest obstacle was finding the time to write – that was my personal block!

How do you deal with rejection? A Spritz Aperol and a blockbuster-action-type-movie. Like anything Marvel, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Atmospheric. Sensitive. Honest.

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Having a chat over coffee with Helen Garner would be a dream. I’d pick her brains about all-things-writers-life … I’m not fussed about what exactly. In fact, she could tell me her preferred breakfast cereal and I’d be interested. (Is that, um, creepy?!)

BOOK BYTE

Chasing the McCubbin

The Pines, an outer Melbourne suburb down on its luck. A country in the grip of recession.

Experienced collector Ron senses new possibilities: swift evictions provide hard-rubbish to scour and garage-sales have doubled. There’s only one problem: since losing his wife, Ron has struggled to navigate the suburbs alone. Plus, his deteriorating health slows him down.

This all changes through a chance meeting with Joseph, a troubled, withdrawn and unemployed 19-year old who knows nothing about antiques. As Joseph comes to understand and appreciate Ron’s world of eccentric bargain hunters, and hopefulness, his ability to navigate a history of family violence and to see a future for himself grows. Both come to share the wild dream of finding a rare bargain such as an original Frederick McCubbin painting and making their fortune. So begins an exhilarating adventure and an unlikely and beautiful friendship.

Set against the background of the early 1990s, Chasing the McCubbin is funny and sad in equal measure. A story of loneliness and the ageless desire for belonging, it will be the most heartbreaking yet feel-good novel you will read this year.

‘Truly fine writing with a great sense of characters and place, sympathetic and heartfelt without being sentimental, Scaunich pulls us into a fascinating world of low stakes and petty rivalries.’ GRAEME SIMSION, author of The Rosie Project

 ‘Authentic, subtle, evocative and alive.’ KATE RYAN

Buy the book here.

Meet the Author: Mary Garden

 

Mary’s top tip for aspiring authors: Find the best editor you can, and who suits your writing/genre.

Mary Garden has published widely in journals, magazines and newspapers, including The Humanist, The Australian Financial Review, The Guardian, The Northern Times, New Zealand Geographic, and Journalism: theory, practice & criticism.

She is the author of two books: The Serpent Rising: a journey of spiritual seduction, a memoir of her years spent in India in the 1970s entangled with flawed gurus and yoga teachers. It was first published in 1988, and reprinted in 2003 and 2019. Her latest book is Sundowner of the Skies: the story of Oscar Garden, the forgotten aviator, forgotten aviator, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s History Award 2020. She holds a B.Ed. and a PhD in Journalism.

Born in New Zealand, Mary now lives in Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, with her dog Ivy and cat Elsa.  

To find out more, visit

www.marygarden.com.au

AUTHOR INSIGHT

Why do you write? I’m compelled to write. To tell the truth, to shine a light on things.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I did train to be a schoolteacher, and have taught for short periods, but teaching does not suit me. I like the solitariness of writing, so I’d probably be an artist.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? My ignorance and lack of research. I should have read the ‘bible’ – Rhonda Whitton’s A Decent Proposal: How To Sell Your Book To An Australian Publisher. After a string of rejections, I emailed Sean Doyle at Lynk Manuscript Assessment. He rang me and said do you have a marketing proposal, endorsements, etc.? I said, ‘What are they?’ Within a week, I managed to get a marvellous endorsement from Trent Dalton (just before he became a literary celebrity!), as well as a few other authors.

How involved have you been in the development of your books? My first book was self-published, so I was very involved. With my latest book I was also very involved. There was not much editing, although the editor wanted much of the last two chapters left out. I fought back and we reached a compromise, and the result was perfect. I gave feedback for the cover and was given a choice with the photographs: whether to have more in-text or less photos in a glossy section. I spent a month writing a damn blurb, and then they used Trent’s endorsement for the blurb itself!

What’s the best aspect of your writing life? Can I have two? I just love hearing from readers of my books or articles. I never write to authors and am gobsmacked by the letters and emails I receive. In fact, the feedback from readers of an article I wrote, inspired me to write my latest book. And I just love it when words come out of nowhere and they are perfect.

—the worst? My deluded mind. Those times when I think what I have written is great, and it is not. I spent a month working on a creative non-fiction essay and did multiple drafts. I sent it to my editor friend who said it was terrible and that it read like a report. I was crushed. Then, out of nowhere, the first few sentences appeared in my mind. I rewrote it within hours, and re-sent it to my friend, who said that’s more like the Mary I know.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I’d like to think I’d be more disciplined and sit down every day and write. My brother-in-law, Maurice Gee, is a celebrated author, a household name in New Zealand. He went to his den every day to write and my sister went to work! Mind you, they’ve struggled financially, whereas I’ve gone out and done other things. For many years I’ve worked part-time in our family bicycle business.

What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author?  I did not set out to become an author or a freelance journalist. I just felt compelled to write. I can’t honestly think of anything I wish I’d been told. Except, don’t do that creative writing course at university. That, for me, was such a waste of time.

What’s the best advice you were ever given? Just write. Anything. Do a dump.

How important is social media to you as an author? I only use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I did have an author’s page on Facebook but deleted it, as I was not doing regular posts. I prefer Twitter, as I did my PhD thesis, in part, on Twitter. But I’m using Instagram more lately, and just cross-posting to Facebook.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? Yes. I don’t do anything. I just don’t write.

How do you deal with rejection? Pretty good. I pick myself up quickly and try again. If I get good feedback, that is almost as good as acceptance. I was thrilled to bits to get a rejection from Catherine Milne, HarperCollins. She was the first person to read my manuscript, and really enjoyed it – she said it was ‘elegantly written’ – but could not convince the sales team. I knew then that my writing was not crap and it made me determined to find a home for my story.

In three words, how would you describe your writing? Easy to read

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? Helen Garner. I would like to know more about her writing process. How does she know when something is good? How often the muse comes and sits on her shoulder.

BOOK BYTE

Sundowner of the Skies

Mary Garden

In the early morning of 16 October 1930, a young man taxied his tiny Gipsy Moth across the Croydon aerodrome in the grey light and, with a wave of his hand to the only person there to farewell him, took off. On his feet he wore carpet slippers and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia, which was sheer madness as he only had a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.

Miraculously, he survived in spite of several forced landings. When he landed at Wyndham in 18 days later no one was expecting him. The press dubbed him ‘Sundowner of the Skies’. Sundowner describes an Australian swagman who arrives unexpectedly out of nowhere on sundown, and disappears the next morning.

His flight – the third fastest after veteran aviators Bert Hinkler and Charles Kingsford – captured the world’s imagination due to its casualness. With a lack of fanfare, he had given the impression he had just set out on a short pleasure trip, instead of the most formidable feat in aerial navigation.

The casual flyer was Oscar Garden (1903-1997). Remarkably, he was one of the few survivors of those early years of long-distance flying – most died in crashes – and went on to a career in commercial aviation in England. In 1940 he delivered the luxurious Short flying boat Awarua to Auckland for Tasman Empire Airways Limited. In 1943 he became their Chief Pilot, but left suddenly in 1947. He became a tomato grower and never flew a plane again.

Sundowner of the Skies is a deeply personal study told by his daughter Mary Garden. This book is her journey of discovery. Until recently, she knew little about her father’s life as an aviator. As well as digging up his amazing flying adventures, she uncovers his tumultuous childhood in the far north of Scotland, the ghosts of his past, which he could not escape. And shines a light on the intergenerational trauma that impacted her own life.

Follow this link to buy the book:

http://newhollandpublishers.com/skies/

 

 

 

Tea, teamwork and pets of all kinds

Welcome to a new year and an interview with a difference. Penny Reeve and Cecily Anne Paterson write The Pet Sitters series together as Ella Shine and it was my pleasure to chat with them both about why they write, how they came up with the series and some of the challenges involved in their creative collaboration.

Ella Shine LOVES pets of all kinds. She lives in Sydney, Australia with her three cats, four bunnies, parakeet, bearded dragon and an imaginary ant farm for company. When she’s not writing stories for children she can be found dreaming up adventures and hunting for the unexpected with at least one of her pets in tow!

When she’s not writing as Ella Shine, Penny writes as Penny Reeve or Penny Jaye and is the author of more than 20 books for children and older readers. She’s an experienced writing workshop leader, conference presenter and writing coach with a particular interest in equipping children’s writers. You can learn more about Penny at www.pennyjaye.com and www.pennyreeve.com

Award-winning novelist Cecily Anne Paterson writes ‘braveheart’ fiction for girls aged 9-14. She grew up in Pakistan where she went to boarding school in the Himalayan mountains, and now lives with her family on Sydney’s beautiful Northern Beaches. She’s a freelance editor and writer, an engaging speaker and presenter, a reluctant housekeeper, and an aspiring, but average cellist. See www.cecilypaterson.com

AUTHOR INSIGHTS

Why do you write?

Penny: Writing is how I explore ideas and issues, but I also love the joy and power of story and finding ways to communicate to an audience through words.

Cecily: It’s annoying, but I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion I’ve had my whole life since I was eight and sat down and wrote newspapers about what was going on in our family. (They weren’t very interesting.)

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

Penny: I’d probably be doing what I already do when I’m not writing: being a stay-at-home mum trying to find ways to make a living with my creativity. Or I’d find myself in a teaching role of some sort, but probably not full-time classroom teaching. I love working with kids.

Cecily: I have very inferior skills, but I’d like to be a full-time musician. Failing that, I wouldn’t mind running a fancy op shop. Being realistic, I suppose I’d probably settle down to being a teacher or working in administration.

What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published?

Penny: When I first started out, I struggled to find a publisher who published the genre I wrote in. Plus, my writing wasn’t that great. So I needed to improve my craft while at the same time getting creative about finding the right publisher.

Cecily: Same as Penny. Craft, creativity and finding ways to get past rejection. I was encouraged early on by an editor from Penguin Books who liked my first novel and suggested ways to make it better, so I rewrote it with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, they didn’t take it in the end, but it gave me some assurance that I wasn’t simply a deluded, talentless hack.

The Pet Sitters junior fiction series is a collaborative project. How did that come about?

Cecily: We were talking about children’s books, as we are prone to do, and one, particular, massively successful series for eight-year olds. I think I may have uttered the words, ‘We could write those,’ and the vision grew legs.

Penny: It was also a great project to have on the go during 2020 as it required us to work together and have a sense of writing connection even when many other writing opportunities were slowing down.

Walk us through the process, please. How did that work? Were there specific challenges?

Penny: We decided early on that we wanted to write the books together with both of us having equal creative input. We began with a planning day where we sat and drank tea and plotted the stories. Then we took turns to write the first draft chapters, using our plan as a guide. It was immensely fun but was also quite challenging, especially at the beginning as we have very different natural writing styles.

Cecily: To be fair, we drank a lot of tea. And even before we started on the story plans, we did a lot of work on intended audience, the length of the books, and the different elements we wanted to include. We created the characters in detail before they even set foot in a story. We also created the author character of ‘Ella Shine’. It seemed too cumbersome to have both our names on the front cover, so we made up something far more memorable. You can read more about us here: https://puddledogpress.com/about

How involved have you both been in the development of your books? Did you have input into the cover and illustrations?

Penny: Because we decided to independently publish these books, we took ownership of the entire project. This meant we needed to source and contract an illustrator for the project. Thankfully, Lisa Flanagan was interested, and her style really complements the stories.

Cecily: Penny and I are both honest enough to know where our talents and experience lie and there was a neat, natural division of labour in creating this series. It’s a great example of the  whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Working together, we’ve achieved more than we thought we could. (For example, Penny was smart enough to apply for government funding for audiobooks, which we received. Adding the amazing voice narration skills of Suzanne Ellis to the project has made it even better. Check out our audiobooks here. https://puddledogpress.com/pet-sitters-news/cot8kp5zvuay7fkq1m8ignczlzfeq5 )

What’s the best aspect of your writing life?

Penny: I love the creative stage of writing; the freedom of the first draft. But I also love the final product and being able to interact with students and readers when the book is finished. I suppose because audience is always my focus, I love seeing how people response to the books I write.

Cecily: Finishing. I get to the middle of a book and feel like poking my eyes out, it’s so hard. I like ending, and editing, and then later, reading what I wrote. (Also, I like fan mail. Especially the emails where they tell you that my books made them cry… in a good way.)

—the worst?

Penny: Rejections are never fun. One of my books (Our of the Cages) was rejected 11 times before it found a publisher, but it went on to win an award so the extra time and effort probably paid off.

Cecily: Yeah. Same as Penny. Rejection by publishers, and rejection by readers in the form of bad reviews. My skin is thickish, but it still hurts.

What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer?

Penny: I’d tell myself to relax and take my time, to learn as much as I could, but also to have realistic expectations. Being a writer in Australia is hard work and statistically doesn’t pay well. I’d probably also tell myself to go do a basic marketing course!

Cecily: I’d study genre, figure out what’s selling and write that! (Money to pay the bills does help in life…) Also, I’d work hard on my craft and join a critique group sooner than I did.

What’s the best advice you were ever given?

Penny: Don’t send your manuscript to all the publishers at the same time. Suzanne Gervay once said this to me after I admitted I admitted I’d sent my story to five publishers. She advised me to send out sparingly to allow time and space to rework in between. And she was right. I’ve been doing that ever since.

Cecily: I’m not sure if this was said to me, or if I made it up myself, but it’s this: you can’t expect most people around you to care about the books you write. Your audience is out there somewhere, but it probably isn’t your family or even your friends. If you live or die by the praise of the people immediately around you, you won’t keep living as a writer.

What’s your top tip for aspiring authors?

Penny: Learn, read and write. Never think you’ve learned or read everything you need to. We can always learn more both about our craft and the work of others. But at the same time, don’t stop writing!

Cecily: Start a blog. Write and publish something small every day. Read other people’s work and pull it apart. Why did they do it this way? What makes this good or bad? If you grew up reading anything written before the 1980s, know that writing has changed. You can’t write something in the style that you loved as a kid: it doesn’t work anymore. Get a handle on close third person point of view, or your work will never even get looked at.

How important is social media to you as an author?

Penny: Social media is probably quite important for authors, but I’ll admit it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m active on Facebook but not on many other platforms as I find it too much to keep up with. For the Pet Sitters stories, we use Facebook quite a lot because it’s a useful took for interacting with our readers’ parents and teachers.  https://www.facebook.com/puddledogpress

Cecily:  Facebook = my alternate existence. Instagram = I do it because the cool kids are there. Linked In = boring, but I’m there because, you know… Twitter = runs screaming from the room. Everything else: I’m too old to know what it is or how to use it.

Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it?

Penny: I very rarely experience the blank page writers block, but I do sometimes face the editing version of writers’ block where I don’t know what or how to improve my manuscript. If this happens I might go back to my planning stage, do some mind mapping on my characters or seek the advice of a trusted writing friend or writing ‘how-to’ book. I also try to get back to the fun, or the heart, of the project I’m working on as that seems to help break through the ‘stuck’ stage.

Cecily: Extremely rarely. If I’ve planned my story properly, I just write what’s in the plan. Occasionally I get scared of my characters and can’t write them. Sometimes I get discouraged and think, ‘this is rubbish, I’m rubbish, and no one is going to read it,’ but I force myself to write two thousand words anyway. I figure I can always fix it later. You can’t fix a blank page.

How do you deal with rejection?

Penny: I get really down, eat lots of chocolate, wonder why I’m writing and consider giving up altogether. But a couple of days later I pick myself up, remember how much I love the story I’ve been working on and get back to it!

Cecily: Chocolate.

In three words, how would you describe your writing?

Penny: I’d probably describe my writing as topical, relatable and fun. Ella Shine is possibly more playful and less serious than my other writing!

Cecily: Character-driven, dialogue-rich, lots of sub-text. Like Penny, Ella Shine is more light-hearted and fun than my usual middle grade and YA novels.

If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life?

Penny: I’d love to have a chat with Kate Dicamillo. I’d like to hear how she holds and weighs the hard parts of her writing with the lightness and hope of children’s literature. I’d be interested in it technically (her writing process) but also emotionally (how she processes the balance).

Cecily: I’d like to hang with a literary legend like Anne Tyler and find out if truly exceptional writing (the sort I get jealous of) can only happen for introverted, thoughtful, eccentric types who don’t have to keep ahead of the schedules of four children and who have someone else doing the washing and the cooking and the cleaning. Can you be a great writer/artist if you’re also a regular parent-at-home without long periods of reflection and solitude? It doesn’t seem to happen for me.

BOOK BYTE

Need a pet sitter? Cassie and Lina are the girls for the task… as long as Gus the talking cat can keep out of trouble!

Best friends Cassie and Lina would love to take a pet to the Pet Parade but it’s not possible… until they’re asked to pet sit Gus the cat next door. The girls might be ‘ready for anything’ but Gus isn’t quite the cat they were expecting.

Looking for an engaging, fun junior series with great values, gorgeous characters and hilarious action, with a sprinkling of the unexpected? Welcome to the Pet Sitters.

Pet Sitters Website: www.puddledogpress.com

Store site: https://puddledogpress.com/store