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 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
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.
Marlow 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.