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My ‘date’ today is with a multi-talented woman from the York Region of Ontario, Canada. Kim McDougall started off in Montreal, then moved to Ontario, then Long Island, NY. Next was Pennsylvania, and then back to Ontario.
“And I’m glad to be back. York Region is a cultural hub. There is always something going on – festivals, concerts, fairs. I love that. The only thing I dislike about this area is the snow. That was hard to come back to.”
I was curious about a gap in her publishing history. It turns out this was to do with parenthood:
“My daughter was born in 2000. I thought I could write and take care of a toddler at the same time. That didn’t work out so well. I kept writing during this time, but I didn’t attempt to publish much. This was when I developed my love of picture books. We read so many, and a few stuck with me. My first picture book, Rainbow Sheep, came out of a story my daughter and I made up at bedtime. She asked me to tell it to her over and over again (the way kids do), until I finally decided to write it down.”
Kim has also written non-fiction, sharing her knowledge of fibre art, writing and marketing. I asked which, in terms of personal satisfaction, she found most rewarding.
“My current non-fiction book, Revise to Write, has been one of my most rewarding writing journeys. It is a guide to self-editing for novel writers. It came about because this was something I struggled with over several manuscripts. I researched the topic and found little real help in existing books. Revision became my topic of choice whenever I went to writers’ conferences and I was fascinated by other authors’ editing routines. Eventually, I developed a routine of my own and it has markedly improved my writing. I wanted to share that experience with my local writing group (the Writers’ Community of York Region), and I did a presentation on the topic.
I like to give cheat-sheets at my presentations, but this cheat-sheet kept growing and growing, until it became a book.
One that I am very proud of. In fact, I will be teaching a class based on this book next year. And that is the really fun part. Writing is a solitary endeavor. So I like to be part of a community.”
We talked about how the places in which she has lived inspired the settings for her fiction – Kim’s most recent work is a series of novels about a secret coven hidden away in the hills of Pennsylvania.
“I’ve never been a fan of the ‘write what you know’ philosophy, except when it comes to settings. Many of my stories take place in Montreal or Nice, France (where I spent my first year of college). When I wanted a small U.S. town, I had the pick of memories from all the little towns surrounding Allentown, PA. Though my story takes place in an imaginary town called Ashlet, it is based on the beautiful, rugged terrain of this area.
I find memories of places I know are best at evoking the moods I’m looking for in my fiction.
This part of PA, with the hills, forests and streams, was exactly the right spot to hide an entire coven.”
How does someone with such a varied and busy lifestyle fit it all in?
“I have to budget my time wisely because I wear a lot of hats. I try to write in the mornings because this is when my muse is the freshest. I do book design and promo videos through my business, Castelane, and I work on these every afternoon. I also love doing craft fairs. I illustrated Rainbow Sheep with fibre art and I make little needle-felted critters to go along with it. This is my busy holiday fair season and I have at least one every weekend until Christmas. Then, as the program coordinator for the Writers’ Community of York Region, I spend much of my free time organizing guest speakers and events. I am pleased to say that we are hosting our first one-day writers’ conference next October. This is a new project that I will have to fit into my schedule.”
Kim ends this section of our conversation: “Phew. Just looking at all that stuff makes me a little dizzy.” Words which I can only echo in admiration.
When I ask Kim to describe her favourite writing space, she tells me she shares it with two cats:
“Mostly I write in my office. It’s small, but bright. I have two cat beds on either end of my desk that are usually filled with sleeping cats.
The formality of sitting at a desk, rather than curled up in a chair, seems to kick my creative brain into gear.
I never listen to music when I write. I like silence. And a lot of coffee. I usually only write for 2 hours a day. But on a good day I can get out 1500 words during that time.”
Among her many favourite authors, Kim singles out two:
“Ilona Andrews is my paranormal bar of excellence. She (they, actually. It’s a husband and wife team.) write the kind of fiction I aspire to. Neil Gaiman is another. He inspires me for the way he uses such simple language to convey really complex emotions. I would love to sit around a campfire with all these writers and swap stories. I can’t think of anything more fun.”
Outside of writing and all her other creative activities, Kim enjoys most of the things we all love to do when time permits:
“I love to see shows, musicals, plays, whatever. I don’t do it that often, but for special occasions that would be my choice. I also love to be outside (in the summer). My favourite memories are on the water or camping. Even just a hike in the woods recharges me.”
I always end by asking my dates to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their readers. Her reply tells me that she is very like me in at least one respect – and I suspect it is something that would apply to most writers:
“Until they get to know me well, most people don’t realize that I’m an introvert. I’m not shy. I can get up in front of hundreds of people to give a presentation (and actually enjoy it). But mostly, I prefer to be alone or with my family. I would rather spend time in a barn with the horses than at a mall.
Parties, shopping and concerts are among my least favorite things to do.
Which might seem odd, since I like craft fairs. But I like being on the other side of the table at the fairs. I meet people and get to chat, but I don’t have to deal with the crowds. Thankfully, writing and working from home are the ideal businesses for an introvert.”
I certainly enjoyed discovering so much about another independent author and I hope you did, too. Here is where you can find out more about the 3 strands of her professional life:
Natalie Meraki is a writer and illustrator of children’s books. She lives on the West Coast of the USA but has moved around quite a bit. What does she like about where she is now, and is there anything she misses about any of the other places she has lived in?
Yes, I have moved around quite a bit! My mom liked to move about every two years. I’ve lived all over the California Central Valley, and all over Montana!
When I was 12 we lived in a tent in Montana in the middle of the bitter-cold winter while we attempted to build a log home from our 20 acres.
We chopped the straightest trees, and hacked the still freshly sap-glued bark from their bodies, through a solid four months of miserable, blizzarding weather.
Eventually the neighbors came and informed us that trees need to dry and shrink and twist for a year before you can build a home with them, and that we’d basically wasted all of our efforts. We were about one-third of the way done, and scrapped the whole project. It’s ghost probably still sits there, in the Bull Mountains, near Roundup, MT. I wonder if it ever thinks of me…
And that is why I HATE snow!
So, yes, I would say that I like where I live in the Pacific Northwest now very much. It’s basically a rain forest. A green on, on green, on green, lush, woodland dream. It snows for only 1 week a year, and all of the businesses and schools close, so we can stay home, safe from the extremely minor winter peril. I LOVE rain.
My home is covered by complete tree-canopy, and stays shady and cool all summer. My wonderful cat, Myra, brings me the heads of any poor mice that dare trespass our boundary. She also guards the family from malevolent energy beings, and ushers in the fairies and Bigfoot for my 3 year old son, Maxwell, to enjoy tea parties with. The Pacific Northwest is home of the Bigfoot. They visit our place for the Cherpumple ( 3 pies; apple, cherry and pumpkin, stacked on each other and then baked inside a massive spice-cake.) Bigfoot love Cherpumple.
Maybe I’m being stubborn, but I do not miss anything about any place I’ve lived before, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else in the future. Not in this reality, at least.
On her Amazon author page, Natalie describes herself as a ‘weirdo’. What does she mean by that?
Many people may not like it, but a weirdo is true first to themselves. Now, I believe it is the responsibility of each human being, including a weirdo, to always be conscious of their relationship to the individuals one perceives around them, and to make some attempt to understand and empathize with these other positions, and our relationships to one another; but ultimately, everything in each of our lives begins and ends within each of us. I am the creator of my universe and I owe it to myself to live by my codes, and so do each of us, to form a healthy and well balanced collective around us. Change starts from within. It starts with pure authenticity and emanates outward. Weirdos change the world. I respect them for it, and I try to live in my own weirdness every day.
In my children’s book, The Shiny Bee, the main character isn’t sure what she is or where she belongs, until a kindred spirit shows her some cute micro-macro connections between herself and the universe, and she realizes that she is truly at home, wherever, as whatever she is. A weirdo is at home in themselves. I wanted to say they’re at home in their skin, but that makes it sound like a suit humans wear. A skin-suit. Weird.
I wondered what inspired her to write her latest book for children, ChehalemValley Children’s Play. Is it purely entertainment or does it carry an important message?
Chehalem Valley Children’s Play is a kid’s picture-book about kindness. I feel like kindness is almost a controversial issue these days. Kindness knows no gender, politics, religion, race, borders…it is a basic human trait within each of us. But you hear people saying “Cut these people out of your life.” And “They get what they deserve.” Pretty easy things to say when you’re “on top.”
I was considering the plot of The Little Red Hen. The hen does all the work, so she keeps all the profit. Sure, it’s a simple connection to make. Cause and effect, but what are the consequences of the consequences we impose? If the wheel is to reverse into a positive direction we should work towards acceptance of those around us, and the struggles we are all going through.
Chehalem Valley Children’s Play takes a classic story idea a step further. What can we accomplish together? When people aren’t pulling their weight, should we cut them off from the rest of the group, or hold them closer, setting an example of love and support?
In the book, the main character is a real “spoiled brat”. When she falls from glory, her victims definitely could have told her to get lost, but they show her how kindness is done, and what we can accomplish with it, together, as loving and supportive individuals.
It’s something to consider. The book also features; bright and beautiful, fall, watercolor art, giggle-worthy instances of tragedy, and strange looking people with non-definable hands and feet.
The book’s “N’ Hair” experience is a true story from high-school! I lost my eyebrows to a well-known-hair-removal cream incident. I drew them on every day, but I was on the swim team, so everyone always made fun of me with my swim cap head and no eye-brows. Haha!
Chehalem Valley is the beautiful Pacific Northwest Valley that I am very thankful to be living in. The book’s artwork is inspired by the valley’s vivid color and thick foliage.
Does she, like Emma Donohue, test her juvenile writing on her own children?
The test for any children’s book is if the child exclaims “Again!” after reading. All of my books must pass at least 9 out of 10 “Again” tests, bonus points for parental requests.
My son’s “Again!” books (besides mine) are:
Think a Thank, by Trisha DeGrave Fontaine
Rainbow Monsters by Sylva Fae, and
Night-Night Portland by Katherine Sully
My “Again!” book is The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Skieszka
Natalie has illustrated at least one children’s book for another author. Was that something she enjoyed? Would she do it again?
Illustration is my favorite part of the children’s book creation process at the moment. I also just went digital. After 33 years of strictly pen and paint on paper, alas, the Apple Pencil and it’s pressure sensitivity was created, finally giving me what I needed to make the switch. Thanks to the combined forces of the iPad, Apple Pencil, and Procreate artist’s app I am now strictly a digital artist!
Digital art has really blown my artistic possibilities world wide open! Maybe a little too open with Chehalem Valley Children’s Play, but I’m honing that in for the next book, still perfecting my style. I’m completely self-taught, in true weirdo fashion.
That being said, I believe there are no certifications in creativity. It is a subjective, and life long growth process. If someone loved my work and requested that I work with them, I would be absolutely thrilled to do so!
I wondered if she has any plans to write for adults? Or maybe teens/young adults as her own children mature?
I absolutely plan to write for adults and young adults! Sci-fi is in my soul.
I wake up in the morning with full movies, complete with music score, playing in my dreams. I’ve recorded many of them in my journal and am brimming with ideas!
They’re sure to escape into our reality soon.
Asked where she sees herself in ten years time she says – with, I think, her tongue placed firmly in her cheek:
I see myself napping in front of a crackling fireplace, covered in my unsold books used as blankets. I’m fine with this. This is fine.
How does she fit her writing and illustrating into her daily routine?
Usually I do my writing and illustrating during my son’s nap time. That’s two hours of creativity therapy that keeps me sane.
She describes her favorite place for working, pictured here, and her work process:
During the summer I get out my artist’s tent in the backyard. I love working closer to nature, and the wind whispers her ideas to me through the trees, when she’s feeling opinionated. My cat lounges in the netting above, shedding a hair on my nose now and then.
In both my writing and illustration processes, I just start with whatever comes to mind. Then I go through and make notes about what I’ve created, and the micro-macro balance of my work. The big picture of it all, and then how that concept is represented in the details.
I will have more information on this method, and other creativity starters in my upcoming publication Life is Magic: A Metaphysical Activity Book for the Young at Heart, which gives a quick, fun overview of esoterica via lesson pages, journal prompts, coloring pages, quotes, tips and more. A taste of all the things that make life magical. Be sure to subscribe to my website if this interests you and I’ll let you know when the book is released!
Some of her young readers and their parents might be surprised to know that sometimes she performs rap songs at karaoke.
My latest author date is with Paul Ian Cross. Paul is originally from Redditch in the English Midlands but now lives in London.
“ I left Redditch in 1999 to go to university. I was eager to move to a city as I’d been in Redditch all my life, and I was ready for a change! It was nice to move away, but I do enjoy going back there to see my sister, brother-in-law and nephew who still live there. I moved to Nottingham for my studies and later moved to London for work, where I’ve been living ever since. I love London as we always discover something new there, whether it be a café, restaurant, art event or bar. However, the craziness of the capital can sometimes be too much. It’s nice to have a balance, and get away from the city sometimes.”
Paul is a research scientist. His first books were an attempt to introduce science in a lively and entertaining way to young children which he believes is an important mission.
“I’ve always had a passion for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, fp), so I always knew I’d go into a science career. I believe it’s very important for children to be introduced to STEM early on, as the concepts will be much easier to digest when they eventually study the subjects at school. We also need more people to go into the sciences, so I hope by introducing STEM concepts to children in a creative way it’ll inspire them to follow a similar career path.”
Paul has also explored family relationships, teamwork, and the idea that children can “achieve whatever they set their mind to”. In a world where adults sometimes seem to be beset by anxieties, does he think it important to give children and young adults a positive message?
“Yes, most definitely. I never felt good enough as a teenager and when I entered my twenties, I didn’t believe I’d ever make it as a writer. I was lucky to meet people who helped build up my confidence in both myself and my writing, and the rest is history. That’s why I want to share the message with children and young adults: you can achieve those dreams you’ve always had, you just have to try and work as hard as possible. It may not work out how you expect, but at least giving it a try is better than having regrets.”
He regularly collaborates with other writers and/or illustrators. I wanted to know how these relationships work? How were any disagreements resolved?
“Yes, as a children’s author the books we create are most definitely a team effort.
I’ve been lucky to work with artists, designers and illustrators who have captured my characters perfectly, so we haven’t really had any disagreements.
We start off by writing a contract together, so we know exactly how we will work together, so I believe that’s the reason why the collaborations have been so successful.”
At least one of his books is listed at Waterstones, something that is beyond the reach of many independently published authors. I wondered how Paul achieved that.
“When I started out as an independent author, I researched the industry as much as possible. I treated it like a job and I did so much work I almost forgot to write! I discovered that the best chance I had of getting into bookshops was to set up a small publishing house, and that’s when Farrow Children’s Books came to be. I named my publishing company after my Grandparents, Dennis and Vicky Farrow. At the moment, Farrow Children’s Books only publishes my own work, but with time I plan to open for submissions from other authors. It’s relatively easy to set yourself up as an independent publisher, you just need to register with Nielsen and purchase some ISBNs.
Now, all of my books are listed on Waterstones.com and they’re also available to order in over 500 independent bookstores around the world.
However, getting your books a place on the shelf is far more difficult, and it’s something I have only recently achieved. My first novel aimed at teens and young adults – The Lights of Time – launches on 27th November and I’ll have my first proper book launch at Moon Lane Books in South London, who will also be stocking copies. It will be incredibly exciting to see my book on their shelves! It’s an amazing children’s book shop managed by Tamara and Clare who also run Tales on Moon Lane in Herne Hill. I’m in the process of approaching Waterstones and Foyles and I’ll be pitching to them too, in the hope that they’ll stock a few copies on the shelves.”
Paul still works as a freelance scientific researcher as well as writing.
“I left my full-time job in the NHS in 2017, and set up my own consultancy. My business has two brands: my clinical research consultancy and my writing, under Farrow Children’s Books. I’m now able to spend half the month as a clinical research consultant, and the rest of the month working on my writing projects. It was a big change for me, with a great amount of risk, but I haven’t looked back since. It was the best decision I ever made!”
Paul would love to meet Andy Weir who wrote The Martian.
“I plan to follow in his footsteps and have my independently published novel developed into a movie! I’d ask him exactly how he agreed his movie contract, as I would like advice with this aspect! I’m currently working on a film treatment (basically a summary of the book) which could potentially be developed into a screenplay. My plan will be to pitch it to producers, to see if they’d be interested in taking on the project. Again, I did lots of research before starting this work, and the process is not as complex as it first appears – finding someone to take on your project is the difficult part. As I always say though, what’s the worst that can happen? They may say no, or they may completely ignore me. But at least I can say I’ve given it a go!”
Paul was kind enough to take time out from a holiday to answer my questions.
“I’m currently in French Polynesia on an atoll called Tikehau. We swam with humpback whales last week and we’ll be meeting a group of manta rays tomorrow! We’re on a two-month tour of the South Pacific, Australia and New Zealand. You can check out my holiday snaps on Instagram: @pauliancross.author”
My latest date is with a former head teacher who has written children’s stories, a young adult novel, poems, and short stories for adults. She is a resident of Cheshire and a member of her local writers’ group. I began by asking her to tell me about the town and its environs.
“I taught in Nantwich and Delamere in Cheshire and have lived in this area for twenty five years. It is a beautiful place to live. There are lots of amazing places to visit; lakes, castles, canals and cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, not to mention Chester. The people here are so friendly and the children I taught were great fun. Originally though I came from Kent, which is also a lovely part of the country. I visit often because I still have family there.”
She loves writing poetry and goes to a monthly class with John Lindley, who is a former Cheshire Poet Laureate.
“He sets interesting tasks and gives us examples and then we share our efforts as a group. I have two poetry books out and a third one is on the way. The new book will be called, ‘The Shadows of Love’. It explores all the different forms of love, including some of the negative implications.
I enjoy doing all forms of writing and I usually have about three or four projects on the go at once. Then I swap from one to the other.”
She considers that her teaching experience is not always of help with her writing for children:
“In some ways it is but in other ways it’s a hindrance. It helps in that I have a good knowledge about what children can appreciate at specific ages, which is good. As a teacher you have to be careful to always have a formal attitude to children but children enjoy snotty and slapstick jokes, which
I often find difficult to do. What has helped me with writing for children is that each of my books so far has been written for one of my grandchildren. Writing for a specific audience works well. Although the books are complete fiction I’ve included something relevant to each grandchild.”
Her creativity does not stop at writing:
“I have studied fine art at what was Mid-Cheshire College. It was a brilliant place to study. I wasn’t too good at ceramics, but I loved textiles, all forms of painting and graphics. I enjoy portraits and figurative drawing and painting the most, but I’ve painted landscapes, seascapes, flowers and still life. At the moment I’m studying with the Open College of Arts. I’m very committed to my art projects and find they often contribute to or enhance my writing. Art like writing takes me to another place.
I play the piano only for my own pleasure. I never perform for others. I particularly like the music of the 1970s and some classical music, but I’ll play anything as long as there’s an easy version. It’s very relaxing to play, though perhaps not to listen to.”
Her Author page on Amazon tells us she also plays ukulele. Intrigued, I wanted to know more about that.
“The ukulele has taken a bit of a back seat lately. It’s a great instrument being portable and easy to learn to play. I’m more interested in finger style playing than strumming, but I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to play music as an inexpensive and enjoyable first step. It should be brought in to primary schools.
Playing music makes people happier and in this stressful world we should help our children find ways to relax and communicate.”
She likes being independently published because it gives her complete control of the process, except publicity.
“For Desdemona: the dragon without any friends, I drew all the pictures and designed the front cover as well as writing the story. A friend of mine was picked up by a traditional publisher and her cover was produced by them. It wasn’t consistent with the story. That would have really annoyed me.”
She has worked in the past, on a voluntary basis, for a website exclusively for women writers. With all women short lists for parliamentary candidates being in the news recently in England I donned my ‘devil’s advocate’ hat and asked if she thinks women creatives and politicians need the protection of an exclusive space. It provoked a long and passionate response.
“You’ve reminded me to update my website. Thank you. I started working for All Things Girl because a friend introduced me to it. It was a great magazine to work for, encouraging new writers and getting their work published online. Due to time commitments I don’t work or contribute to the Modern Creative Life, but wish them all well. I liked All Things Girl in spite of the fact that it was all female. They wanted to promote women’s writing because women had a harder time getting published in the US. I’m not sure if that’s still the case.
I do think that men and women read and write differently. If I buy a magazine to read, it will probably be a woman’s magazine. They do of course have stories written by men but they’re probably gentler stories. All of the novelists I’ve chosen below are women. I didn’t think about gender when I chose them. Obviously I do like some male authors and probably most of the artists I like are male. I’m not a fan of erotica or extreme horror, which perhaps appeal more to the male reader, however when we make generalisations like this there will always be lots of exceptions.
I think we need more women in parliament as I think it is still unfairly weighted towards men but I strongly disagree with all female shortlists.
What we need is people who are up to the job and I would suggest that many who are in post are not good enough. In the recent UK referendum both pro and anti Brexit MPs lied to the British Public and we knew we weren’t being told the truth. Why should we be led by such incompetence and dishonesty?
We should stop worrying about who is sleeping with who (I really don’t care) and sack all MPs who are caught out in policy lies. I think women tend to lead in a different way than men and we need both in parliament, but it should roughly reflect the community that it represents and we have a long way to go to achieve that.
I believe the way to increase the number of women MPs and leaders is to broaden our concept of what makes a good leader so that it recognises female personality traits more. As a head teacher I always tried to take all of my staff with me when I wanted to make changes. This required listening carefully to their concerns and what problems they thought might arise. Sometimes this made me amend or tweak my ideas. At the end of the day I was still responsible for the children and staff and would have to make a decision, but because the staff were involved and listened to, they had a commitment to making the change work.
I must be clear though that I am not saying women are better than men at being leaders, just they may approach leadership differently and at the moment some of their good qualities are not appreciated. Some of the women MP at the moment are so tough they make me wince.”
She has an office in the house and a writing shed in the garden . . .
“. . . but I write anywhere. The office in my home is very untidy as all my art is stacked up in there. The one in the garden is neat and tidy. I love to work there on a warm day with the doors wide open. I write on the laptop most of the time and I write at any time of the day. Life is busy so I grab time when I can. I book a night or two away occasionally, so I can have a concentrated time to write.”
Asked about her favourite writers and what she would hope to learn were she fortunate enough to meet them she tells me:
“I’m lucky enough to have met John Lindley, Jo Bell and Alison Chisholm, all excellent poets. They’ve taught me how to take the ‘usual’ and look at it from an unusual angle. Regarding novels I’ve always been a fan of P.D.James, Elizabeth George, J.K. Rowling and Trudi Canavan. P.D.James had expertise in forensics, which would be interesting to know about. With the other writers I’d be interested to know how they manage to be so prolific and how they keep track of their complex plots and numerous characters.”
Responding to my final question, she would have loved to have been able to reveal something that “would make me look mysterious and interesting,” as if what we have already discovered has not achieved that.
“But I’m a very ordinary person. I didn’t really discover how much I enjoy doing creative things until I retired, but when I was clearing out all my teaching papers I found poems written inside covers, in diaries and on scraps of paper all over the place. I often wrote stories for individual classes although I’m not sure where they went. I even wrote a Christmas play once!”