Friday, 28 September 2012

Interview #9: Julie Fulton

Julie Fulton has Mersey Sound poet Brian Patten to thank for setting her on the path to becoming a published author.

In 1974 when she was ten he chose a poem she'd written for inclusion in a small anthology of children's poems for the Little Missenden Festival, in Buckinghamshire, where she lived.

Julie Fulton with a protective arm around her first
book, Mrs MacCready Was Ever So Greedy

"It was called I Like... and I got to read it out at a big presentation and meet the famous Mr Patten himself. I have had a love of poetry ever since and still tinker with the odd ode to this day."

These days, Julie is the recently published author of rhyming picture book Mrs MacCready Was Ever So Greedy. Her publishers, Maverick Books, are so pleased with her work they've asked her to create a series of 'Ever So' books, all set in the fictional village of Hamilton Shady. Tabitha Posy Was Ever So Nosy is the next one, due to be published on January 28 next year. Julie hopes she will write one a year.

Although she is these days known to the world as a writer, Julie's background is in music and teaching.

She studied music at university, became a school teacher and eventually became a self-employed music teacher.

She had always loved writing and stories, and took great pleasure in reading to the children in her class when she was a school teacher.

Julie's first book
Once you realise this it's easy to see why she's drawn to rhymes and rhythms. Her influences are timeless rhymesters Edward Lear, Dr Seuss, Ogden Nash, Hilaire Belloc and Spike Milligan.

"I've been told my stories are like Belloc's - they have a subtle, underlying moral. I always loved rhymes and poetry and I've always written rhyming poetry. I really enjoy rhythm."

Of Mrs MacCready and her breakthrough as a published author, she said: "I thought it was just a nonsense poem. I wrote it for a writers' group homework. I don't know where it came from, it all tumbled out in an hour. But someone said it's a picture book."

She decided to send it to publishers and was picked up by the second one on her list - Maverick Books.

...and the second in her 'Ever So' series, which will be available next January
The publisher commissioned Jona Jung, a Polish artist, to do the illustrations. It has proved a remarkable collaboration as Jona does not speak English. "She uses Google Translator when she emails me, which makes for some interesting emails! I don't know whether she translates my stories the same way or not. But her illustrations are wonderful and she adds something extra of her own, too."

The book is aimed at children aged four-plus. It's the tale of Mrs MacCready, of Hamilton Shady, who likes to eat. And eat. And eat. Until, eventually, she... well that would be giving the end away. But it's certainly unexpected.

Julie entertains her young fans
One of the things Julie loves more than anything is going into schools to give readings to children and help them to do their own writing. She has a ready-made audience, too, at her local village primary school where she frequently pops in to 'road-test' works in progress.

"It's really useful to be able to do that," she told me. "I always try to put a long word in. In Mrs MacCready it was 'succulent'. The editor wanted to take it out, but I put my foot down."

And so the word remains in the text...

Mrs MacCready was ever so greedy
she did nothing else but eat.
Fish fingers and chips, apples with pips,
plates full of succulent meat.

Julie has narrated Mrs MacCready for the Nook, an e-book reader for the North American market. "I absolutely loved doing it!"

A page spread from Tabitha Posy

I asked Julie if she wanted to write novels for children and, sure enough, she told me she was currently editing a book for children aged eight and over. It's set during the Second World War and is the tale of an 11-year-old evacuee named Susan. Julie has not been able to place it with a publisher yet and she's even considering self-publishing.

Whatever direction Julie Fulton's writing takes in the future I'm sure it will succeed as she's 'Ever So' talented.

* Many thanks to Julie for talking to Bookengine about her work. Her website is here. Visit the website of her publisher, Maverick Books, here.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Interview #8: Sarah McIntyre

Sarah McIntyre
Growing up in Seattle, Sarah McIntyre was obsessed with Egyptian tomb paintings and wanted to be an archaeologist.

"I chose my university because it had a good archaeology programme. But at the first lecture I went to, we spent an hour and a half discussing some fireplace lintel, and I thought, hmm, I'm not sure this is what I want to do for a living. It's not exactly Indiana Jones."

Finding herself at a crossroads, Sarah decided she wanted to travel instead and signed up for a degree in Russian.

It would prove a momentous decision for someone for whom serendipity has played a major part in her life and career path.

Today Sarah is one of the most exciting picture book illustrators, comic strip artists and authors around. She has collaborated with the likes of Giles Andreae and Philip Reeve (more of which later) and is the creator of the brilliant Vern and Lettuce strip cartoon in DFC, now Phoenix, comic.

Sarah's collaboration with Giles Andreae

I was hugely excited when she agreed to speak to me, following my interview with Gillian Rogerson, one of Sarah's collaborators.

So how did throwing down her archaeology trowel in favour of a plane ticket to Russia lead to such an illustrious career?

She spent a year living in Russia as part of her course and stayed for a further year afterwards. It was here that she met her British husband, who was working at the British Embassy.

After her studies she worked on a newspaper as a copy editor, writing headlines and captions. 

Sarah provided the illustrations for
Gillian Rogerson's brilliant
Princess Spaghetti books

But while she loved the newsroom buzz, she was put off by the way the editor would shame people in front of their colleagues, once making someone cry, and when she tried her hand at journalism, one of her first articles divided the expatriate community, filled the editor's inbox with letters of complaint, and a banker sent a courier around to the office with threats of a lawsuit.

"I thought, I don't want to do the sort of job that just makes people angry with me."

She and her husband decided to move to the UK, London to be precise. "I always thought it would be cool to live in London."

Here she and some friends ran an art gallery for six years. Again, Sarah didn't feel she fitted in.

"I didn't find fine artists to be terribly friendly people, and I was always feeling back-footed, not having enough grasp of art theory. And then I just got bored by fashionable people being obsessed with their image, and minimalism, all this fuss over exhibitions where there was almost nothing to look at.

"Children's books was such a welcoming harbour. People who make picture books are genuinely nice people, and I think it's just as complicated making something that's understandable to both children and adult, and far more fun."

Her Vern and Lettuce comic
strips are now a book

She took evening illustration classes with children's book illustrator Elizabeth Harbour. "Her teaching was so, so good, and even after the classes ended, a bunch of us would still meet up to talk about and critique each other's work. I felt THIS is what I should be doing."

Drawing and painting had always been a passion, but she never considered it as a possible career, always believing she would get a 'proper' job.

At an early career low point, she interviewed to become a rigger on the Cutty Sark, although the contract was for 12 years and if she quit before then, she'd have to pay back all the training fee. Perhaps fortunately for children's books, Sarah didn't get the job, but the Cutty Sark hired her instead to work as Ship's Illustrator. 

Her true path was beginning to open up for her. She went back to art college and did a part-time MA over two years studying under Janet Woolley.

"I guess it was round that time I finally figured out what I wanted to do."

 With a few US-published children's picture books under her belt, Sarah took a fateful step when she went with her portfolio to see children's publishing supremo David Fickling, whom she'd heard was looking for comic strips. She was signed on the spot to do a weekly strip cartoon for the David Fickling Comic (now recast as the Phoenix). "They said, while you're here, would you like to illustrate a picture book for us?"

The strip cartoon became Vern and Lettuce about animals living together in a tower block. The picture book was Morris the Mankiest Monster by Giles Andreae.

A peek behind the scenes!
Her dual career in children's picture books and comics was well and truly under way.

She has also illustrated books by Anne Cottinger and the Princess Spaghetti books by the wonderful Gillian Rogerson (see my Bookengine interview with her here).

"Working with Gillian Rogerson on the Princess Spaghetti books has been great fun. She's rather quiet as a person, but then she's bursting with this rollicking sense of humour."

These days Sarah makes comics and picture books in a former police station in Deptford, sharing the studio with three other artists. "It still has the police cells and is haunted," she laughed.

On the day I spoke to her, Sarah was working on illustrations for a really exciting new project - collaborating with Mortal Engines author Philip Reeve.
An early rough for Oliver and the Seawigs,
a collaboration with Philip Reeve

They met at the Edinburgh Festival where they chatted about drawing (Philip studied art before he became a writer and earned a living initially doing illustrations for Terry Deary's Horrible Histories books).

They kept in touch, encouraging each other to post a daily picture on their respective blogs - Philip of Dartmoor where he lives, Sarah of Greenwich Park. They became good friends and, being creative people, naturally were drawn to collaborate with one another.

Sarah has illustrated a four-page story for Philip's website and a short story of his, In the Bleak Midwinter.

But it was when they had an idea for a sea adventure story that they landed a four-book deal with Oxford University Press. Oliver and the Seawigs will come out next autumn. They've allowed themselves room for more play, as each book will be a completely different story with its own set of characters, but collected together as a sort of McIntyre-Reeve library.

I asked Sarah if she harboured ambitions to work in film or television. But she said she was keen to continue creating beautifully crafted books.

"I like to leave the future open. I love printmaking and like to see where it takes me. 
A more worked-up version of the
scene from Oliver and the Seawigs
"I am excited about e-books. They're something different. I think they will be awesome in the future. These are early days. Some of the apps for e-books are not well developed yet. But whatever e-books are, they are different from books.

"Having said that. If you drop a Kindle in the bath... well, that's not a problem with a traditional book!

"I'm not sure how children's picture books will adapt as e-books. Picture books are like a theatre opening up in front of a child. They are a world of wonder that a parent can share with a child."

So what is next for Sarah?

"I've illustrated Superkid by Claire Freedman, author of the Aliens Love Underpants books. It's about a kid who's a superhero. That's done and is being printed.

An inked up illustration from
Oliver and the Seawigs
"I also have other contracts with David Fickling for books I've written myself and ones written by my friend David O'Connell."

Although she professes not to want to get too busy, she may have to get used to having a very full diary as demand for her work intensifies.

* Many thanks to Sarah for chatting to me. Her fabulous website, Jabberworks, is here. Her equally wonderful blog is here. If you are interested in drawing, illustration, comics and good old artistic craftsmanship, scratchy metal nibs and jet-black ink, then both these sites are veritable gold mines. Once you've visited them, you'll be there for hours! Enjoy.

Do you plot or are you seat-of-the-pants?

Please take a look at my guest post at The Edge, the blog of the brilliant collective of writers of the same name who write cutting edge teen fiction.

Thanks to Bryony Pearce and Dave Cousins who invited me to write a contribution. It just goes to show what a welcoming and encouraging bunch children's authors are!

Click here to read the blog.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Interview #7: Kim Donovan

It seems the world of mainstream publishing is in a panic over the advent of e-books and the power of social media to reach readers.

Author Kim Donovan, publishing pioneer
Many publishers and literary agents are worried their days are numbered, fearing a similar fate to record label bosses who are now shaking their heads wondering how on earth they allowed the music business to slip through their fingers.

Writers now have a golden opportunity to go it alone. And to make it big in a way that was not previously possible. No longer is there a gatekeeper barring their entry to the world of publishing.

We’ve heard about Amanda Hocking, John Locke, Kerry Wilkinson and, most famously, E L James’ Fifty Shades series, and their go-it-alone gold rush stories.

Well, let me tell you a story about another publishing pioneer. Someone who is bravely hacking her way through the jungle of children’s book publishing and whose path may well be the one in which others follow in the future.

Let me introduce Kim Donovan, author of St Viper’s School for Super Villains and one of the creative minds behind the independent publishing collective Electrik Inc.

She told me: "I’m one of the co-founders. We’re a collective of children’s writers who have joined forces to publish our own books to a professional standard. We all have MAs in creative writing from Bath Spa University.

"Author co-operatives are brand new in self-publishing and as far as we know there is no other group like our one specialising in children’s fiction in the UK."

Brave new publishing
collective Electrik Inc
(note the switched
'k' and 'c' in the spelling...
 now that's neat!)
St Viper’s is the first book to be published with an Electrik Inc logo. It is aimed at seven- to nine-year-olds.

"One of the reasons I wrote St Viper’s was that I couldn’t find enough good books at the right level for my son when he was between seven and eight years old.

"It’s a hot topic at the moment."

She quotes from the latest issue of mslexia, which says teachers in three quarters of the UK’s schools worry about boys’ reading. Apparently, last year 60,000 boys failed to reach the expected reading level at age 11. The National Literacy Trust’s Boys’ Reading Commission found 62 per cent of boys would rather watch TV than read, compared with 45 per cent of girls. And nearly a third of boys said they couldn’t find books that interested them.

Mmm, worrying indeed.

Kim's son Christopher was an advanced reader when he was seven or eight. He soon found Horrid Henry, Astrosaurs and Jeremy Strong's books too easy, but the Michael Morpurgo books his friends were reading to bridge the gap proved too sad for him. Kim wasn't keen on formulaic, team-written books like BeastQuest. If they helped reluctant readers to pick up a book, then fine, but she found other parents agreed with her that booksellers could fill their shelves with much better stories.

It was this insight that led her to write the first St Viper's book, inspired by her son's love of super heroes, which she turned on its head to come up a school for super villains.

The book has had a great response from children, parents, teachers and booksellers who all shared her misgivings that this crucial age group was poorly served. Kim thinks the market has improved since she first wrote St Viper's.

Kim’s journey to become a crusading children’s author and publishing maverick is an interesting one.

Her background is in the health service. She has worked as a midwife, a nurse and as a hospital manager, where part of her time involved writing health strategies.

Although she always wanted to be a writer, this wasn’t quite what she had in mind. She signed up for an MA in creative writing for young people at Bath Spa University. She also did work at publishers Chicken House, reading the manuscripts from the slush pile. During her studies she was encouraged to write realistic teen fiction and she was signed by an agent at PFD on the strength of her MA work. Sadly, she never saw any of her work published. Her hopes and dreams were dashed when PFD closed its children’s list.

Many people would have been crushed. Not Kim. She began to consider doing things herself.

Meeting like-minded writers Janine Amos, Jenny Landor and Kay Leitch led eventually to Electrik Inc.

"We are not self-publishing, here," she told me. "We edit in-house - no one ever edits their own book - and we pay for illustrators, graphic designers, ebook formatting and printing ourselves.

St Viper's School for Super Villains by Kim Donovan
 "We then do the publicity and distribution ourselves. It’s hard work, but it’s exhilarating because we keep 100 per cent control."

They plan to publish their books both as print versions and e-books.

Kim believes Electrik Inc is a taste of the future for writers. She doesn’t think mainstream traditional publishing houses will disappear altogether as their distribution power will always be needed. But she thinks authors will be expected to do most of their own publicity via social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.

I wish Kim and Electrik Inc the very best of luck. I think children’s authors of the future will one day look back and thank them.

And I can confirm St Viper’s is a great read and a beautifully produced book. I look forward to reading more in the series.

* Thanks to Kim and Electrik Inc for speaking to me and sending me a review copy of St Viper’s. Please visit their website, which is absolutely jam-packed with information about their venture. There are some great blog posts about the trials and tribulations of setting up and running an independent publishing collective.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Congratulations to Bryony Pearce!

Congratulations to Bryony Pearce - her second novel, The Weight of Souls, is to be published by Strange Chemistry in October next year.

Bryony very kindly gave an interview to Bookengine in July and has generously promoted my humble postings ever since.

Rather than me rabbiting on, I'll simply direct you to Bryony's own announcement at her blog, here.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Interview #6: Gillian Rogerson

Gillian Rogerson
Gillian Rogerson loves being a writer. Her passion is infectious and inspiring. She's also extremely modest.

While she might not shout from the rooftops about her achievements, let me do so on her behalf.

She has published three picture books in the past seven years, Happy Birthday Santa, The Teddy Bear Scare and The Smallest Hero, a non-fiction title, Children's History of Leeds, and two titles in a series of Scholastic children's books about Princess Spaghetti,  You Can't Eat a Princess and You Can't Scare A Princess.
TV and film people are circling Princess Spaghetti, perhaps sensing the next big thing. The character is already a runaway success with young readers.

She always wanted to be a writer - Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree books were her favourite as a child.

Yet it took Gillian a long time to believe she could be a writer. She thought it was something other people did.

Her attitude began to change after a chance encounter.

Gillian, who works as a teaching assistant and lives in Leeds with teenage daughters Rosie and Eve, said: "I once saw Terry Pratchett from afar in a Leeds bookshop about 20 years ago and I thought, he looks just like an ordinary person. If he can write a book, then so can I.

So, when IS Santa's birthday?
"I'd always imagined famous authors to be superhuman and ten feet tall."

She always wanted to write, but because she believed it was an "impossible dream" she didn't pursue it. She forgot about it and went to work in insurance and sold children's shoes.

It was only when she became a mother that she began to think that, yes, she could try to write a book. This was 15 years ago, when her elder daughter was two and she loved sharing picture books with her.

She had a go herself and found that she absolutely loved it. She found she had a gift for storytelling. Her mind proved adept at sparking idea after idea, triggered by the famous writing provocation - 'what if?'.

Over the next five years she wrote and sent off picture book ideas to publishers, without success.

But she was learning her craft and wrote more than 200 in the process.

She would take a simple thought like 'when is Santa's birthday?' and explore it logically until she had fleshed out the idea into a picture book. That particular one became Happy Birthday, Santa!

Her other method of working (and which she still uses) was to deploy a 'story bag'. She would pull out a random character type - a princess, say - along with a random setting - outer space - and put the two together to, hopefully, come up with something fresh. That particular combination resulted in the first Princess Spaghetti book.

"I met Curtis Jobling at a Leeds comic festival last year. And he told me that he uses story dice. Each face of the dice has a different word, like 'volcano', to help you come up with ideas for your story," she said.
Let's hope Princess Spaghetti is soon a major TV series

After toiling hard at her craft, Gillian was signed up for two picture books by Gullane Books. "Like buses, you wait for one for ages then two come along at once!" she laughed.
It was on the strength of this that Gillian was taken on by agent Eve White.

"It was the same time that Eve was considering signing up Andy Stanton, author of the Mr Gum books. Lucky that she decided to go ahead, isn't it?" she laughed.

Gillian can't speak highly enough of the support Eve has shown her. Indeed, she is thrilled with all her collaborators in the publishing industry. She's been lucky enough to have her picture books illustrated by such great artists as Sarah McIntyre and Ingela Peterson.

She harbours ambitions to illustrate her own work. Indeed, she has turned some of her rejected picture book ideas into Kindle e-books, accompanied by her own drawings.

So, with so much going on at the moment, does Gillian have any other writing ambitions?

"I'd love to write a murder mystery. Not a gory one, something more like Agatha Christie," she confides.

I suspect that whatever Gillian Rogerson turns her hand to will be a success.

* Thanks to Gillian for being such a lovely interviewee (and fellow Laurel and Hardy fan, too - it's always great to meet a kindred spirit).

Her website is here. Her page on Eve White's website is here.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Once Upon A Wartime

On the way into Imperial War Museum North

It's a bit after the fact now, but I'd like to say what a fabulous exhibition Once Upon A Wartime was at the Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays.

A fabulous exhibition
 It's been on since February and finished on September 2, so I'm a bit late to the party. I took my family on the penultimate day and we were all completely swept up by it all.

It was an exhibition about war as explored by children's literature, using five different books to examine a different face of the subject.

Different rooms looked at a book at a time, with recreations of scenes, complemented by personal effects of the associated writers.

I'd read four of the five books - Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners and Ian Serraillier's The Silver Sword, but was not familiar with the final book, Bernard Ashley's Little Soldier.

Not a great picture - the original
handwritten opening of Michael Morpurgo's
War Horse and first page of the typescript
 The show covered the First World War (War Horse), Second World War (Carrie's War, The Machine Gunners and The Silver Sword)  and a fictional African war of the 1990s (Little Soldier). The themes represented were 'loyalty', 'separation', 'excitement', 'survival' and 'identity'.

Fabulous to be able to see first-hand the original manuscript pages of the opening to War Horse, notes scrawled by Serraillier on the backs of envelopes, Ashley's chapter notes and a paperweight belonging to Bawden.

There was the original painting of a horse called Topthorn that inspired Morpurgo to create the character of the same name which is Joey's closest friend in War Horse.

School exercise book in which Westall wrote The Machine Gunners
 Of particular interest to me was the school exercise book in which Westall wrote The Machine Gunners for his son, Christopher. Westall wrote on the inside cover '£1 reward for anyone returning this book to Westall, 20, Winnington Lane, Northwich'. Also fascinating to see his typewriter and his first Carnegie Medal, for The Machine Gunners.

Coincidentally, the day before our visit I'd spent the day in Northwich with work and took a picture of 20 Winnington Lane, the house where Westall wrote The Machine Gunners. (Surely worthy of a plaque, eh?)

Robert Westall's typewriter with picture on top of him and
a cat at home in Lymm, Cheshire
 What was particularly great about the exhibition was that children could really get involved. For The Machine Gunners, they'd recreated an Anderson shelter and decked it out as Chas and his pals did in the book. My daughter and son loved crawling through a tunnel to get to the shelter.

Once Upon A Wartime was on at the Imperial War Museum in London in 2011 prior to its relocation to Salford. Not sure that it's going on anywhere else now, which is a pity.

If you are passing, it's definitely worth popping into the Imperial War Museum North - they have an excellent shop stocked with all the children's books from the exhibition.
Robert Westall's first Carnegie Medal, for The Machine Gunners, 1975

The original painting of Topthorn, which usually hangs in Michael Morpurgo's kitchen

Nina Bawden's teddy bear
20 Winnington Lane, Northwich, the house where Robert Westall wrote The Machine Gunners