Paul’s top writing tip: Be honest. Your stories are yours alone, find what it is that makes you unique and use that to make your stories the same.
Paul Russell is a primary teacher, artist, playwright and children’s author with five previous titles including Grandma Forgets, which made the CBCA list of notable picture books in 2018. He is passionate about the place of imagination and daydreaming in children’s learning. He has a daughter who would rather be a princess or a dragon than a regular school student and he is grateful to teachers who embrace this in her education.
Why do you write? I can’t help it. When I was younger I always claimed it was the only way I could get to sleep, if I didn’t write stories down they would keep me awake all night playing in my mind.
I think I have finally accepted now that I am just never going to fully grow up. I still have the imagination of an eight-year-old child and still see the world for what it could be, might be or will never be, making stories such an important part of my life.
How has your childhood influenced you as a children’s author? Every day and in every way. I had a joyous childhood filled with great adventures and the freedom to play. We never had a lot of money but my parents always had time for me. I had school holidays with notepads filled with stories, games and visits to local libraries.
I still see one of the greatest joys of parenthood is being able to have a second childhood through my own children.
You teach in a primary school. How much inspiration do you draw from your students? Do you test your early drafts on them? I hate coming up with character names and often steal student names, especially in first drafts but I don’t always find more inspiration in them than anywhere else. I think as an author you have to always be on the lookout for ideas. Sometimes they come in a student but other times it is an odd fact, a piece of rubbish on the side of the road or a comment a passerby says (or should have said). Inspiration is weird, it is the noting down when inspired that is important because you will never be inspired the same way twice and it is very easy to dismiss and too easy to forget.
I’ve tried running drafts past students but found they were always reluctant to be brutally honest, which is often what drafts need. My first novel I lied and told a student that one of my friends wrote it and I didn’t like it, to try to get some better feedback. Didn’t help, she still loved it.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? When you think you have something amazing but you can’t convince anyone to even read it. I submitted my first manuscript to a publisher when I was 17 and continued to send manuscripts regularly and wasn’t published till my mid-thirties. Half a lifetime of rejection makes you resilient and a better author.
However, I still think that some of those early works are really good and with the right timing would have made great published works. Timing is always out of your control. The greatest manuscript on the same topic or in the same style as a book a publisher just signed isn’t going to be signed and sometimes a not so great manuscript is going to hit the right desk on the right day.
How involved have you been in the development of your books? Did you have input into the illustrations? Different illustrators work differently. With my first picture book Nicky Johnston was incredibly generous with her artworks, she shared roughs, asked for input and showed me everything. Most of my input was just WOW! but I was still very involved, I even got to choose the number plate on the blue car.
Aśka on the other hand was completely independent, she tells her own story with the artworks and they work independently and totally harmoniously but I didn’t really see anything until big sections were completed. We did chat a lot back and forth about colour palettes in The Incurable Imagination but in the end you just have to learn to trust the experts in their area.
I have learned that words are my skill and although I have an art degree and am prone to a bit of doodling, I could never be an illustrator.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? The last full stop in a piece. Signing a contract or seeing a finished book is great but finishing a piece of work, regardless if anyone else will ever see it, love it or publish it, is the greatest feeling in the world.
—the worst? When you know you have a great idea but you can’t quite get it to work. Or a rejection letter on a script you really like.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I would join writing groups and talk to other writers. When I started my writing, and honestly too much now, I just live in my own bubble and write. I have found writers incredibly generous with their time, knowledge and experiences and always willing to share. I wish I had learnt this earlier.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Do it. I always thought it was an impossible goal, even now I pinch myself just to make sure. The more you write the better you get. Don’t write to be published, write to be a writer and to bring your stories to life, the rest will happen eventually if you don’t stop.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? “You really have a talent, you know if you get good enough you can pay someone to fix your spelling.”
How important is social media to you as an author? I only started social media five years ago when my publisher told me I had to get onto Facebook. I use my Facebook page and Instagram account like a scrap book of photos and reviews of my books and am really quite poor at adding rich content to my page.
However, it’s the best way to meet other people like yourself. I have loads of people I only know thorough Social Media, I watch people who I want to be or people who want to be like me. I see ideas for launches or get to experience them. Social Media creates networks of authors and illustrators that was impossible only a short time ago and honestly makes everyone so approachable, I love it.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? No. Never. Only a lack of time in my life to write. In my mind writer’s block only occurs if you are trying to force something. I will always be working on a number of different writing ideas at any one time. If I get a bit stuck for one or feel like it is getting sluggish and forced I will move to something else.
Writer’s block is a thing for people who are not busy enough with the rest of their life. I’ve never sat in front of a page or screen and not known what to write, my life is busy enough that when I have the ideas I try to find the screen or page.
How do you deal with rejection? I don’t think anyone is immune to rejection, nothing hurts more than when you put your heart totally into a script and no one else can see what you can.
Take a day. Eat a block of chocolate. Start the next one.
I am still convinced that one day I will be able to pass all those rejected scripts onto someone who will see what I saw in them but until that day you just keep going. Rejection is the building blocks for success, and rejection is only ever final if you give up.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Imaginative, childish, passionate.
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? I grew up on English television and I think Ben Elton is the writer I would most like to sit down with. I would want to just sit there and hear him talk Young Ones, Blackadder and novels.
I think the greatest thing I have discovered in the past couple of years is lots of the children’s authors and illustrators who I thought I would never have a chance to meet or spend any time with I have met. I have met so many amazing and generous authors who share their time and stories with such passion.
It really is the most incredible community to belong to.
Written by Paul Russell, Illustrated by Aśka
Audrey has the worst case of ‘imaginitis’ her teachers have ever seen! While other children paint their families, Audrey paints the ogre who lives under her bed drinking tea. Instead of singing about a black sheep, she writes her own song about a desk with legs that runs away. Her alphabet turns into soup. It’s clear that her ‘imaginitis’ is incurable. What’s worse, her condition is contagious and soon the other kids in her class start showing symptoms of an equally incurable imagination! As ‘imaginitis’ spreads, the teachers are horrified and the parents begin to protest too. But perhaps imagination isn’t such a bad disease after all? It might even be useful if it makes learning more fun.
Buy the book: