When did you discover you had a “sense of fiction?”
Many years ago I fiddled with a series of short stories for adults, based on experience that, at the time, was sharply felt—funny how time dulls the edge of experience. The stories were—quite rightly—put in a drawer, where they’ve gathered a venerable veneer of dust. I’ve been writing and editing nonfiction as part of making a living for decades, but it was just five years ago that I started to write fiction in earnest, only this time, for children. I’ve always loved the humor and escapism that bubbles out of children’s literature, and I wanted to see if I could add my two cents’ worth to it, especially if I could motivate reluctant readers to turn a page or two. Besides, calling myself a children’s writer means I can sneak into the children’s library and borrow great reads by masters of the craft and not have to explain to myself, or anyone else for that matter, why I read children’s literature. I only have to brave the suspicious stares of children, wandering the same stacks and not being taken in by my grandmotherly smile.
What was your favorite book as a child? As an adult? How did those influence you as a writer?
I loved the classics, but the one book I remember adoring when I was very small is Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, a perennial classic. I don’t think the ducklings influenced my writing in any way, but I loved the sentimentality of the tale. As an adult, I still read a lot of children’s books—more children’s books than adult literature, in fact. My current favorite reads for children are Jerry Spinelli’s Maniac Magee and The Wringer, and for adults, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. They are favorites and inspirational for the same reasons: the authors are masters of the English language, and they write well-crafted stories.
What inspired you to write your books?
Vin and the Dorky Duet was born from my love of music and challenges. I was trained as a classical pianist and my love of music has never diminished. The main character, Vin, is a seventh-grade trumpet player. His sister sets him a challenge, which he reluctantly sets out to meet, with all the concomitant surprises, disasters, and ultimate benefits that any quester can expect to confront. Dewi and the Seeds of Doom is my small contribution to putting Wales on the global map. Most people know a few things about Scotland and Ireland, but far fewer folks know much about the other Celtic region in the British trio: Wales. Dewi is a Welsh dragon, the red dragon, or y ddraig goch, as he’s called in Welsh. The red dragon is a symbol of national pride, so Dewi can’t go around toasting everything in sight. He has to do good deeds, and since he’s young, he’s got to have fun doing them. All of that gave me the perfect excuse to write a lighthearted, rambunctious romp around the countryside in a historically dubious Wales.
How would you describe your writing process? What must you always have while writing?
Fits and starts. I have fits trying to think how to fill a blank page and starts when I realize I’ve actually written a few words. And of course, I have to swing on a vine across the creek while eating blood pudding before inspiration shuffles up. Seriously? I don’t have a process. I write when I have moments in between editing projects and trying—desperately—to keep up with social media and promoting my books. The only thing I must have while writing is a stable flow of electricity to keep the old computer chugging.
What has proven to be your most successful marketing tool?
I wish I knew the answer to that. My books were published this year, one at the end of June and one at the end of October. I think it’s too soon to know what works best. I’ve written several guest blogs, done a number of author interviews, taken out a couple of inexpensive ads, and gone on a virtual book tour with World of Ink Network. My next venture is to approach regional libraries and schedule book signings and Meet the Author programs. I have a feeling that legwork—meeting my readers and their parents face to face—will prove to be the best way to go. Next weekend I’m off to sit next to Santa Claus and wave my books at the kids in the line.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?
There’s no one magic piece of advice I can give. I’d love to hear from anybody who can come up with one sentence that encapsulates the best advice. I’ve read a great deal of useful material about writing for children, which is not hard to find online. I belong to a marvelous critique group that has helped enormously, and I’ve learned quite a bit from my publisher’s editors. Children’s author Dan Gutman gave some of the best in-a-nutshell advice in his foreword to the 2012 edition of the Renaissance Learning report, What Kids Are Reading. The element of humor should be added to this advice. It’s incredibly important. You can download the report at http://www.renlearn.com/whatkidsarereading/.
Please provide a favorite excerpt from your book.
Here’s an excerpt from Dewi and the Seeds of Doom:
Peering from side to side and looking over his shoulder every now and then, Dewi trotted on tiptoes down a corn row to the back of the greenhouse, where he found two boxes of corn kernels. One box was labeled “Cornus normalus picked today” and the other was labeled “Cornus ghastly messus picked today.” Dewi scooped up a few kernels from each box and put them in his knapsack. He was halfway back to the door when he heard footsteps coming toward the greenhouse. One foot dragged along the ground and the other clunked in a weird tango: sch—schlep—schlep—clunk, sch—schlep—schlep—clunk. Dewi crouched behind the corn. A lopsided shape lurched through the doorway. It belonged to a hunchbacked dwarf who was talking to himself.
“Peegor, fetch that test tube. Peegor, did you throw that dead rat out? Peegor, did you fan the corn? I swear that old fart will be the death of me. I’ve a good mind to quit right now. I don’t care if his royal pain-in-the-neckness threatens to stuff me full of rat tails. I wish you’d rot, Baron Snot. Ha-de-ha-ha!” The dwarf raised a leg as if he were about to kick someone in the rear end, or worse. Then he wobbled and fell over.
After muttering a few fantastically rude words, he picked himself up, limped to a faucet, and filled a watering can. He began to water the first row of corn, hobbling down one side and up the next. Still crouching behind the second row of corn, Dewi breathed in to make himself thinner. The dwarf was getting closer. Dewi held his breath. This wasn’t easy, because a bee had landed on his nose. He crossed his claws and tried not to sneeze.
The dwarf was only seconds away when the bee flew off the dragon’s nose. As he followed the bee out of the corner of his eye, Dewi noticed a plant pot right behind his tail. Quiet as a snowflake, he picked up the pot and threw it as far from the greenhouse door as he could. It smashed through a pane of glass at the end of the building. The dwarf dropped his watering can and schlep-clunked at top speed down the corn row toward the broken glass. He was so close when he rushed by that Dewi could smell three-day-old blood pudding and onions on his breath.
Where can readers find you and your book?
I love that book excerpt--what fun! Thanks so much for joining me today, Maggie!