|Photo Credit: Louise Llewelyn|
Hi Cathy, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to Words & Pictures. I very much enjoyed your keynote speech at SCBWI Conference last week and I’m looking forward to hearing more in this interview!
As an emerging writer, I’m particularly interested in learning about the realities of the job in these changing times. You’re an established and respected author with many books under your belt (something I’m sure all of us at SCBWI aspire to be) and I’d love to find out what that really means for you on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, we’re not able to meet face to face for this interview, but maybe we could pretend...?
If I was interviewing you in person at your home in Merseyside where would we be sitting? What would I be sitting on? What would I see out the window?
I think we’d sit upstairs in my writing room, because I am still excited enough at actually having one (instead of the chilly shed I had in Scotland) to want to show it off. We’d be sitting on armchairs by the window, art deco style… they used to be part of a suite but the sofa kind of collapsed and died a few years back. The window looks out over a park, and sometimes you can see ducks, geese or even swans swishing about on the lake. This view pretty much made me fall in love with the house!
What would you make me to drink or would your publicist do that ;0)?
Haha… my publicist is in London at Puffin HQ and I’d never dream of asking her to make drinks for us even if she were here… that would just be weird! I’d make you whatever you wanted to drink, within reason… coffee, tea, herbies, even chai could be possible if my daughter is home, she makes the best chai in the world.
What would I smell (!) and hear? And who would I see wandering around the house? Set the scene for us.
The house has a faint smell of coconut because we are having a phase of burning coconut joss sticks just now. They’re gorgeous and they mask the smell of wet dogs and cooking! If I’d been vaguely domesticated before you arrived, you might smell almonds from the wood polish I occasionally use… I didn’t buy it because I’m houseproud but because it makes things smell of marzipan! We have two dogs, slightly unhinged rescue lurchers, who would probably come in to see what was going on. Kelpie, who’s a deerhound cross, would just shoot you sad-eyed glances while looking like a spindly grey toilet brush; Finn, a whippet/collie cross, would almost certainly attempt to sneak up onto the daybed.
You might see my husband, if he’s about, cooking or making something or gardening; or my ageing mum who wanders slightly aimlessly about downstairs watering plants and prodding things with her walking stick and checking over and over whether she’s got post. Occasionally carers come in to take her out, and they’re lovely. My daughter is still living at home and if she’s around the sound of her playing guitar and writing/ singing songs will almost certainly drift down from the floor above; if my son is home too, or my daughter’s friends are about, you’ll probably be treated to a full-on folk gig. Possibly in the kitchen, which apparently has great acoustics. Who knew?
Okay, so now I’m all comfy with my feet tucked up on your armchair, could you tell us when you started writing and what sort of things you wrote.
I feel as though I’ve been writing since forever, but the story writing probably started seriously when I was eleven or twelve. Every summer, I’d attempt to write a novel. By the time I hit thirteen, the stories morphed from adventures and historical/ fantasy themes into romance and from that point on I’d be churning out endless short stories to send to Jackie magazine. It was great practice. I ‘borrowed’ my dad’s manual typewriter (which he used to type the invoices for his car repair business) and rapidly became the fastest two-finger typist in the western hemisphere. Or in Fir Tree Avenue, Coventry, anyway…
You went to Art College in Liverpool and then worked in Dundee at Jackie Magazine as a fiction editor *sighs and remembers Photo Love fondly*. Tell us about how you landed the job and whether it still impacts your writing and reader interaction today.
Jackie mag was awesome. It was ironic that they gave me a job after the years I’d spent bombarding them with stories (we are talking HUNDREDS). Even more ironic that I became their Fiction Editor. The Jackie years were wonderful – creative, free and lots of fun. I learned so much that has been invaluable to what I do now – both about what makes a story work and also how to work to a deadline, be flexible and find inspiration anywhere and everywhere. The reader interaction part of things is even more important now – you have to know your reader, listen to them, understand them. You have to care.
|Jackie Photo Love - Cathy is on the right-hand side.|
After Jackie, you went back to college and qualified as an art teacher (in fact you illustrate your own Daizy Star books). Did you ever lose sight of your dream to become a writer? And were you constantly writing during those teaching years?
It was a one year PGCE and I loved it. By then I was writing and illustrating for Jackie and a whole raft of other mags, as a freelance… so life was very busy but I loved it. I was writing short stories, and found that working with teens kept me very much in the loop of what was important to them, what they cared about, what interested them. I was also writing features, illustrating stories, educational books and posters and basically doing anything mag/publishing-related I could think of.
Could you tell us your ‘discovered story’? Were you a slushpiler or did your connections at Jackie and (later) Shout magazine help you in any way?
Over the years I must have started writing forty or fifty teen books and fizzled after chapter two or three… so perhaps training myself to write the short story format backfired in a way! When my kids were toddlers I wrote a picture book and it was rejected (I only sent it to one publisher, but still…). Later I wrote a short chapter book aimed at early readers… this one I never even dared send out. Then, finally, egged on by a friend who told me I was all talk when it came to the ‘I want to be a writer one day’ dreams, I finished my first ‘big’ book, aimed at the tween/ early teen age group. I loved writing Dizzy – I knew I’d found the right ‘voice’ and thought I had a good story, too. Still, I was so scared that this one would be rejected I hid the finished book in a drawer for months until the same pushy friend demanded to know where it was and who had seen it.
By then, a friend from the long-gone Jackie days had had a chick-lit book published and I asked her for advice – she told me to send it to ‘every agent in the Writer’s Handbook.’ I was too scared to do that, but sent three chapters and a synopsis to three agents… a big one in London, a small one in the sticks, and one with a funny name. The one with the funny name called a few days later and asked to see the rest… and a month after that, six children’s publishers were offering for the book. I cried when my agent rang to tell me, and my husband came in with a cup of tea to cheer me up, as he assumed it had all fallen through. It was the opposite. Total dream come true.
So no help from connections at Jackie/Shout except from my friend and fellow writer; but that advice to get an agent was life changing. My editor later told me that if the book had gone onto the slush pile, she’d probably never have seen it. And the agent with the funny name? Darley Anderson. It was the first children’s book he’d ever sold (he didn’t tell me that until afterwards!) but he now has a thriving children’s list.
So now you’re a successful full-time author with 25 books under your belt in 10 years. It’d be great to give the Words & Pictures readers an idea of what you do on a day-to-day basis and how you split your time between writing and promotional requirements.
If I’m at home, I get up pretty early, check emails, sort Mum out with breakfast and meds and take the dogs for a walk in the park. Then I write through the day, with a break for lunch… and maybe a shopping trip or a bit of gardening in the afternoon if it’s sunny. I work on after tea if I’m on a deadline or working on an edit; if not, I’ll do website or bloggy stuff. I am not very good at keeping work to strictly work hours, especially now my kids are older. It has kind of expanded to fill every corner. Yikes.
If I’m on tour or at a book festival, I am living out of a suitcase and hopping on and off trains. It’s a very different lifestyle and tours can be exhausting; I try to prepare for them now, because if I’m run down or too stressed, the tour can push me over the edge. And trust me, nobody wants to get ill on tour. People think it’s all fancy hotels and posh dinners, but often it’s M&S salads eaten in your room. Doing two big multi-school events and signings every day and bookstore signings at weekends, I am usually so tired once I reach my destination that I just want to sleep. No posh dinners for me!
Your web presence is pretty awesome: a daily blog, a YouTube channel, a gorgeous website, Instagram, frequent updates on Facebook and Twitter. Do you manage your own social media, is this something Puffin do for you or do you work in creative partnership?
I do my most of my own social media, although Puffin did help me to redesign my website about six years ago. Before that it was very patchwork and homemade… an art college pal had made it for me, but Puffin wanted it to be more complex and more polished. I run most of the website, but anything techy like changing skins and adding links, they do. I do all the content, though. The YouTube Channel (CCTV) is Puffin’s creation and grew out of the video book reviews and dramatizations readers were sending to me. They’ve brought the Choc Box sisters to life and they do video blogs with lots of extra content… the kids love it. I love the Facebook fanpage and run that myself; same with Twitter, which I am less keen on; and Instagram, which I am addicted to.
In February I launched a blog-zine, DREAMCATCHER, which was entirely my own idea and initiative. It’s written by my readers, for my readers… I am mostly the enabler, though I do chip in myself sometimes. I love that it covers everything from light, fun stuff to serious topics like bullying, mental health, feminism and more… my readers are so, so inspiring. I think I am probably mad trying to answer every email and respond to every message, and then add in a daily blog-zine too, but I love that interaction and connection with my readers.
Have you consciously developed your brand yourself?
I never feel like it’s a brand, though I know Puffin see it that way. I think I am still in denial. I am just being me…
And how much do you feel the visuals and cover art have been important in strengthening that?
The visuals are very much a part of that. My designer Sara is amazing and creates covers that balance the cool and quirky with the polished, bright look Puffin love. I don’t have total control over cover looks, but Puffin are good at listening to my concerns and we manage to work together to find something everyone is happy with.
Are there other things that you are expected to do to promote your work?
Sometimes Puffin suggest I link up with a specific project, initiative or charity that links well with what I do, or with a particular book. Other times, I make links myself because I care about something… examples of that are being the patron/ supporter of the wonderful children’s cancer charity It’sGood2Give; and fighting the closure of eleven libraries in Liverpool at the moment… but those links have nothing to do with promoting my work. I suppose doing TV and radio are examples of things Puffin ask me to do… I am happy to do radio, but TV scares me. Once on an Aussie tour I was interviewed for a children’s TV show while whirling around on the Brisbane Eye… I am terrified of heights but the two fears seemed to cancel each other out and it was all surprisingly painless…
How long was it before you could give up the day job and support yourself financially through writing alone?
It was about four years in that I gave up being freelance agony aunt for Shout. I’d cut down on the teaching by then too and was just doing one day a week, and in the end that went too. It took me a while to trust that the books thing was real… although I’m not stupid; I know that in this world it can be all over very quickly. That’s OK. I’ve been freelance most of my life and I’m used to things being unpredictable, but I am massively grateful to be earning a good living from something I love so much.
Do you support yourself through book sales or is finance supplemented by things other than writing (e.g. school visits, appearances, etc?)?
I do some school visits outside of Puffin tours, but not too many. I do book festivals too, and some of them are paid, some not. The school visits circuit is a valuable source of income for many authors, though. It’s not a profession that makes people rich; or not often, anyway.
Thank you so much for making us at home, Cathy, and giving us an insight into the life of a full-time author. Before I drain my imaginary tea cup and leave you to your writing, I wonder whether you’d give the Words & Pictures readers Cathy’s Top Tips for managing a successful writing/social media balance to help them as they set out on their own journey to ride the waves of change.
Um. I am not the person to offer advice on work/life balance or on how to manage/limit social media. I am a self-confessed workaholic who is addicted to Facebook, Instagram, chocolate, cake, reading, Baileys, collecting stray animals and assorted vintage books/ toys/ clothes. I am very disorganised and chaotic and I allow work to seep into time that should be reserved for friends/ family. I am bad at boundaries. I am bad at saying no. I always think I can do much more than I really can, much faster than I really can. I am probably a nightmare to work with… but Puffin know all this and put up with me anyway. And my family and friends are amazing, and understand that I need to take my laptop away on holidays (although there haven’t been any of those this year…) so I can keep up with emails and social media as well as fitting in a sneaky bit of writing. I am a bad example of life/work balance… I am a control freak with a talent for mayhem. I am passionate about my writing, and this is what works for me… but if you ever find those top tips on managing a healthy writing/ social media balance, let me know. I’ll read them… and then probably ignore them!