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I quite often express views in this blog – and share them on Facebook and Twitter – that some may not agree with. So far those views have not reached anyone who felt so strongly they felt the need to be hateful in their response. My professional writer friend, Lucinda Clarke, reaches a much larger audience and that comes with the risk of being subjected to hate mail as she explains below. Such behaviour is inexcusable. Like Lucinda, I wonder when people started to forget their manners when engaging in debate and argument. What happened to free speech?
Several things recently got me thinking about the difficulty of creating solid, flesh and blood and sympathetic characters, even when those characters do things that you can never imagine yourself doing.
The first was an interview with John Boyne who has done it time and again in his novels. The next was starting to read Milkman, this year’s Man Booker prize winning book. I have so far only read the first 50 pages, but already it is teaching me things about our recent history and about the craft of writing from deep inside the head of a character. Set in Northern Ireland during the 1970s it appears to be an indictment of the stifling masculinity and the paranoia that drove the violence on both sides of the sectarian divide.
The second thing was this article by a woman film maker about the way men portray women and her admiration for two movies in which women have, in her opinion, successfully portrayed men.
When I think about my own writing I can’t escape the conclusion that too many of my characters are merely poor reflections of aspects of myself. But I also think that the problem of men portraying women, and vice-versa, is just one facet of a much more complex problem: can a heterosexual accurately portray a homosexual? A white middle class person a poor immigrant? Any of us any other person’s deep inner personality and thought processes?
It is important because the narrative arts – theatre, film and literature – are the windows through which the rest of us are enabled to experience the lives of others. If those lives are miss-represented then it creates the cultural attitudes that drive some men to behave inappropriately toward women or certain politicians to spread fear of migrants seeking a better life. And, conversely, it is the way that better life is portrayed in the media that attracts those migrants in the first place.
I’ll say no more, but hand you over to Joey at:
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 ‘date’ this time is Dublin born author Max Power. In his response to my first question he agrees that his Dublin childhood is an important influence, but goes on to say that it is only part of the story.
“The Jesuit maxim of ‘give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’ is not something I buy into. It’s never too late to change direction. Perhaps the greatest influence in my writing has been the deaths of my mother, my father and my elder brother who died all too young aged 53. I struggled with grief when my mother passed in particular and I know in hindsight that I was damaged by not dealing fully with the loss at the time.
Love, loss and death are central themes in all of my books, I suspect largely because of how my life has developed. I have been asked for example, why I write across genre. For me there is no line that divides the twisting paranormal tale of Darkly Wood from the book I wrote about a little boy whose name I never reveal. Both are written in my voice and it is a voice that comes directly from my head to tell the reader a story.
I am a simple story teller, no more, no less.
Other writers will understand the huge effort that goes into writing a book, but I like to think that whoever reads my stories is sitting comfortably and hearing the lilt of my voice with each written word. It is certainly what I like to feel when I read a book and I spend a lot of time when editing, focusing on words that hopefully achieve this. I guess therein lies the craft.”
Like so many indie authors, Max’s writing journey began quite late in life although he had always had stories in his head waiting to be unleashed.
“I have always been a writer I guess and I devoured books as a reader for as long as I can remember. I have a vivid recollection of being beaten by a De La Salle Brother for writing the title of my essay at the top of every page, just like I had seen in books. He ignored the fact that while every other boy in the class barely managed to fill one page for their essay, mine was 12 pages long. The shock of being punished for working so hard was unbearable at the time.
I have worked hard all through my life and part of that involved extensive travel, including a full year living and working in Australia. Along the way my children had to be reared and as you say, life gets in the way. I tend to work on multiple projects at once and one such current rewrite dates back to a book I first wrote in 1990. In short I have always tipped away, but I have finally reached a place in life where I have a little more time to dedicate to my writing and therein lies the answer.”
His first three novels were published in 2014. Subsequent books have appeared at longer intervals in what turns out to have been a deliberate marketing strategy.
“One of my primary degrees is in marketing, so I knew I had to get a batch of books to market to have any chance of developing a profile as a writer.
The first book I published was Darkly Wood, a true labour of love for me. I had already written first drafts of the next two books so in the first year I was working to a very specific plan – 3 books. I always work on multiple projects. Right now for example I am finishing Darkly Wood III, rewriting a book I mentioned earlier, a thriller called Apollo Bay set in Australia, there is a story set during the Irish Famine, and one that has a loose connection to Little Big Boy as well as a couple of other projects in development. I like to move from project to project at different stages as I feel it keeps me interested. I never have writers block and I think my methodology has a lot to do with this.”
A recent reduction in published output is undoubtedly the result of what I chose to refer to as “a brush with ill health”. Turns out that was something of an understatement.
“My ‘brush with ill health’ saw me go to hospital for a relatively routine procedure. Unfortunately on the table things went wrong and to put it simply, my heart stopped and I had to be revived.
I had suffered a heart attack and ended up in a critical care unit for two weeks. It was a wrecking ball through my life. I am still relatively young and I went from being a healthy, fit man, to someone who couldn’t walk up the stairs without stopping for a break.
People asked me what was it like and I do have decent recall of what happened, though not a full memory of course. I was conscious up to the point a nurse climbed onto the table and started to squeeze a bag of fluids to which I was attached. I distinctly remember that the mood in the room changed and another nurse took my hand. She calmly told me that everything would be fine – that I would be fine.
I understood in that moment, I’m not sure why, that I was dying.
My life didn’t flash before my eyes but I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness. I’m melancholic by nature although I cover it up for the greater world. I suspect in those moments, as I briefly crossed over, my natural self took over. I just felt sad for those I was leaving behind, my darling Joanna and my wonderful children. When I came around I was changed.
Bizarrely for a man who is a total sceptic and has no time for ghosts, spirits etc, I discovered that I now have a new dark companion who I have blogged about so I won’t go into detail here. I strongly suspect it is a delusional apparition, but there is a very dark and frightening, portentous element to his visits that make me uncomfortable.
In the last year I have had a run of bad luck health wise, mostly relatively minor things, but they have hugely impacted my writing time. As I type, I am struggling with a shoulder injury and to be honest, I have a serious pain in my backside with the recent list of creaky, old man ailments that have hunted me down one after the other. But on the bright side, my trips through the world of medicine are always good food for my blog.”
Max’s often satirical, and always very funny, blog has a large following. He offers this advice to bloggers wishing to emulate his success:
“I approach my blog very differently than most bloggers – or at least I think I do. It is not a commercial enterprise, nor an exercise in narcissism. I love telling stories. Even in the flesh I never shut up. My blog is an extension of that side of me. I sit at my laptop and have a little wander through my thought process. I will tell a story, usually multi-compartmented, and my goal is either to bring a smile or just to share some often very honest truths about myself.
It’s not a confessional but I know from interactions with readers of my blog, that I often connect with others going through similar experiences. It is a sampler if you will, of my writing. It is my penny dreadful in a way, a teaser of me and a good place to practice being concise, which is important for me as a writer.
The advice I would give for whatever value that might be, is to know what you want to write about.
If you have to struggle each time you sit down to write a blog, then you haven’t discovered what it is you are trying to achieve.
My blog is what it is, it does exactly what it says on the tin. I do use imagery and spend more time choosing my images than I do actually writing the blogs as I understand the importance of the visual impact – again my history in the world of marketing coming out.
Like all my writing advice, I go back to the heart of what writing should be.
Be interesting, be relevant and always think of your audience first.
Some writers think too much of themselves and forget that ultimately they need to engage and entertain their readers.”
He does not (yet) have a special place for his writing:
“I write anywhere. Kitchen table, sofa, office at lunch break, hotel rooms when I travel, there is no special place. We moved to our current house three years ago and there is a space I’ve got my eye on, but with one grown lad, Joanna’s 93year old mother and three dogs, I have yet to find the time to confiscate and decorate. I write every day, if only a small amount it doesn’t matter. I alternate from a first draft, to editing different drafts or rewrites, and it is a slow process but I keep at it.”
Although his books are strongly character driven they are mostly worked out in his head before he begins committing them to paper.
“I write every book in my head, start to finish. It can take months for me to develop a story, my mind is a whirlwind of noise, it never stops and that can be a bad thing. But among the clutter there is always my latest planned project. When I am happy with it, I sit down and write it through start to finish without any edits until I get the story down. My books are entirely character driven and perhaps the best example of this is Wormhold in Darkly Wood II. He changed how the book developed and was entirely responsible for me writing book III.
Originally he was supposed to have a far smaller part in the book, but as I inked him to life, I fell madly in love with his twisted horror and I couldn’t help myself and he became central to the story. I couldn’t end the book without curtailing his wild twisted beauty, so I replotted and realized I would need a huge book to get to where I wanted to go. The upshot is a third book in the series that wasn’t originally planned.
In general I allow my characters to take their natural course, but they ultimately stick to the end goal. I’m a far more technical writer than most people would notice. Writing a book in the first person without ever using the character’s name was an enormous challenge and within Little Big Boy for example, there was a need to write about terrible things that the reader had to understand but the narrator, my Little Big Boy didn’t understand and on occasion had to be oblivious to the events in the story.
It may sound simple, but I literally slaved over words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs, to achieve something that reads like it is falling off the little boy’s tongue, all the while revealing the sometimes unrevealable as my main character was too young to see or understand context and circumstance. I loved writing the book because I think I got into the space I needed to get to write it, the head of a seven year old boy. I also hated writing it, because I was very ill during the process so I struggled a lot getting this one finished.
Larry Flynn drove me to distraction. He is such a simple character in theory, but I understood his secret backstory so he diverted me quite a bit. I think both Larry and James Delaney in Bad Blood, had their own meanders but thrillers are easier to keep in line as they have a much more fixed structure if everything is to work out.”
As I imagine we all know, the standard disclaimer “any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental” is only half true and Max is not afraid to admit it.
“Little Big Boy has my face on the cover. I wanted a little boy on the cover and there were no copyright issues with my own photo. I stole many bits and pieces from people I knew in my childhood, but it was very much a case of taking all the fragments and creating something new.
In Darkly Wood some of the characters despite the strangeness of the tales, have origins in people I have met, but again they are only shadows of real people falling on my invention.
I did use one real name that might surprise people when they hear it. My daughter’s boyfriend has a friend called Zachary Westhelle Hartfiel. He is as Irish as they come despite his name and when I met him I told him that I simply had to steal his wonderful name for my book. I turned him into a swashbuckling chap in the vain of Black Adder’s version of Sir Walter Raleigh. He came to a dark end though. I would say that in general my main characters are pure inventions of my own, created in my mind as I plan my story.”
As you might imagine, Max includes a number of classics among his favourite writers.
“I love Charles Dickens, Henry James, George, Elliot, for example but I have a broad taste beyond the classics. Stephen King’s The girl who loved Tom Gordon is one of my favourite books but most people miss this short little gem in his catalogue of more famous books. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a cracker and I enjoy Flan O Brien.
Perhaps my favourite book, is still The Little Prince for its simplicity and for Alexander du Saint Expurés interesting life, I think I’d have to have him to dinner or a pint. As always with people I meet, I want to learn about them primarily. New people fascinate me and I think we have most to learn by simply listening.”
I always like to end my ‘dates’ by asking the subject to reveal something surprising abut themselves.
“There are things that if I put on paper people literally wouldn’t believe and tempted as I am, I’ll keep the strangest ones to myself. I can tell you that I have an empathic ability to feel the physical pain of others by touch. I can touch someone and from that touch I can literally pinpoint a point of pain on their body. I keep that to my self – until now – only Joanna can back that assertion up. There’s that and the fact that I have no tickles, never had. I used to tell my kids that they all fell out as I snapped back up from the bottom of a bungee jump – a little embellishment I know, but I simply can’t help myself I’m afraid.”
I thanked Max for some fascinating insights into his life and his writing. Do please check out his books, if you have not already done so. Probably the best place is on his website where every blog is ended with a set of links to your local Amazon store. He is also on Facebook.
My latest date with an indie author arrived a bit late, but was well worth waiting for, as I am sure you will agree. I am grateful to Sylva Fae for interrupting her holiday to answer my questions.
Sylva grew up in Lancashire where, “[If] there were hard times for my parents . . . they kept them well hidden from me and my brother. I had a simple but fun childhood, and I look back with fond memories. My parents were artists who had a love of travel and the outdoors. My dad especially loved travelling and would prioritise holidays abroad over buying expensive toys etc – he wanted us to experience new places and learn about other cultures first hand. My mum was the driving force behind buying a farm, which became a sanctuary for injured wildlife and unwanted pets. When not chasing hens and goats out of the house, we often went on adventures around the local moors and would play in the fresh air while my mum sketched the landscape.”
She now lives in Cheshire and owns a woodland in Shropshire. I wondered how that came about and what were the pros and cons.
“When my eldest daughter was a toddler we booked onto a supposedly child-friendly campsite. It turned into a nightmare of rules and regulations with tents regimentally spaced in a crowded field, then there was a horrendous rainstorm! Faced with keeping a rowdy toddler entertained in a tent, we gave up and came home. We had envisaged a relaxing camping experience, sat around the fire as the sun went down, space for our daughter to run wild and have fun, but instead we got the opposite. With a little research, we discovered that there were companies selling plots of woodland. We spent the summer pottering around different sites, until we found our vision of the idyllic woodland camp, hidden in the Shropshire countryside.
Everyone thought we were mad buying a woodland, and they’re probably right but we love it.
We have created a camping area with a fire pit and benches, that is enjoyed by many of our family and friends. Our three girls have the opportunity to experience a little of the childhood we had. They run wild, climb trees, make dens and have learned to cook on a campfire. It’s great to get them playing and learning new skills in the fresh air rather than slaves to technology, like so many other young people nowadays.
Drawbacks? None that I can think of. The woods provide us with a safe place to camp, fuel to heat our house over winter, and as an investment, the value of the land has more than doubled in the nine years we have had it. The only thing I wish was different is that we’d done this years earlier.”
When I asked her about the challenges involved in her past career as a teacher of children and young adults with special needs, she explained how she “fell into this line of work quite by accident, mainly because most of the other teachers were daunted by the challenge the groups presented.
“I never saw disabilities or learning difficulties, I only saw people who approached learning in different ways.
I planned my lessons to enable them to achieve at a rate and in a meaningful way to each individual. It was incredibly rewarding but also frustrating in that the current education system doesn’t fully recognise the achievements these young people make.
The lessons I learned from working with groups of this nature have enhanced my life, and the skills I now carry forward are valuable in many situations.”
Many of Sylva’s books are based on stories she created with her young children very much in mind and contributing to the process. I asked how she thought they compared to traditional children’s fiction like Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” and “Secret Seven” or more recent works like the “Harry Potter” books.
“I grew up as an Enid Blyton fan, I think I read pretty much every one of her books. I do have a few chapter books, aimed at a similar level on the go, but my main focus is producing picture books. My own children loved the rhyming stories by Julia Donaldson, and the repetitive Hairy Maclary books by Lynley Dodd, and I aspire to create stories that will engage children in the same way.
As her children get older she is adapting her style: “I wanted to create the picture books as memories for my girls of the stories we created together, but already they have outgrown them. I have a few middle school chapter books in the works and a young adult book half written. I must say that I do love the picture book style most of all, but maybe that will change as my girls grow.”
Asked when and where she writes, she explains that since taking voluntary redundancy from her teaching job she writes while her girls are in school – and continues:
“Well, that’s always the plan but inspiration seems to come mostly at night, so I often work in the evenings as well. I type ideas on my mobile phone as they come to me so I’m rarely away from writing. I love to ponder story ideas while I’m sat on a log at the campfire.”
Next we talked about the difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing:
“I was offered publishing deals by two small press publishers but I didn’t feel completely happy with either. I’m not sure what it was that held me back, but I decided to publish independently instead, and I’m glad I did as both publishers have since gone out of business.
I did discover a fantastic publisher through my good friend and children’s author Paul Ian Cross. The Little Lights Studio in Vienna has created a bedtime stories app for families, and I’m proud to have been a part of this project from the beginning. I have five stories in the app and I’m in the process of writing five more.
So now I self-publish books but have a modern publisher for online stories – it’s quite a good combination for me.”
Like all the best children’s books hers are prolifically illustrated – by the author:
“I spent a long time trying to find an illustrator to create the pictures I have when I write. I discovered several things – I am very picky about the styles I like, illustrators are justifiably pricey, and I only like the most expensive! Because of this I stalled for a couple of years, unable to afford what I wanted but unwilling to compromise. I then discovered I could create my own illustrations quite by accident. It started just as a bit of fun creating the story characters for my children, but after showing a couple of my writer friends, they gave me the confidence to illustrate my own stories. Cover design is really just an extension of the illustration process so I do that too.”
Editing, however, is something Sylva regards as too important to undertake herself:
“Editing is definitely something I seek support with.
I believe in supporting other authors and have always offered my services as a beta reader and proof reader to anyone who needs it.
Now we have a faithful network of friends who share skills on a pay-it-forward basis. My work is currently being edited by children’s author Millie Slavidou.”
Noting that Sylva’s website has been rather neglected of late, I wondered how much effort she puts into marketing, probably the most difficult aspect of publishing for us independents.
“You are right! I started the blog after advice from experienced author Lesley Hayes, to write every day. She persuaded me to set up the blog and has encouraged me from the start. As soon as I found the way to illustrate and publish my own books, my energies have gone into that, and yes my poor little blog has been neglected. This is something I want to rectify. My next marketing plan is to reinvent the blog and use it as an additional marketing tool.
I think our best marketing tool is interacting within our community. The more we become involved and support one another, the more help we receive with marketing of our own books. You get what you put in.
I particularly enjoy doing live marketing events, reading to children and answering their questions. Young children are my main audience so their feedback is the most valuable.”
When I asked about her reading preferences she produced a long list of independent authors, including some who have, or soon will be, featured in these ‘dates’.
“I love a good psychological thriller, I want to be kept guessing right until the last page. Since I started beta reading for my writer group, I have read around many genres, perhaps ones I wouldn’t have chosen previously but it has been a great experience. Independent authors like Lesley Hayes, Nico Laeser and Val Tobin are current favourites of mine. In expanding my genres I’ve also discovered authors like Susan Faw, Eric Lahti and Melanie Smith. Each has a different style but I have learned so much from each of them. I would love to meet any of my indie author friends, as I feel we have become friends despite never meeting in real life.”
I like to ask my subjects to reveal something about themselves that might surprise their fans – or, in the case of a children’s author, the fans’ parents. Sylva offers three things:
“My debut book Rainbow Monsters won the Chanticleer Little Peeps award for best in category.
Perhaps not surprising given that I own a woodland, but I run a bushcraft and wild camping group when I’m not writing.
I’m a secret geek! I won the US Navy cryptology challenge two years running despite having no prior knowledge of cryptology or related subjects. Russian newspapers speculated that the winners were being recruited into a top-secret government taskforce, and
my local newspaper suggested I might be a spy!
Of course I’m not a spy, I only did the challenge because I enjoy learning new skills and I’m tenacious in pursuing my goals.
I guess I apply this same tenacity and persistence to my writing too. There is no luck in becoming an author, it takes a lot of hard work and a willingness to learn new skills constantly.”