SCBWI FACES Candy Gourlay


SCBWI Faces goes behind the scenes to meet our volunteers! This month Stephanie Cotela chats to Candy Gourlay, Pulse Coordinator, with Mo O'Hara.

Candy Gourlay was born in the Philippines, grew up under a dictatorship and met her husband during a revolution. Her books range from Greenaway-nominated Is It a Mermaid, illustrated by Francesca Chessa to Carnegie-shortlisted novel, Bone Talk. The sequel, Wild Song, transports its characters to the 1904 World Fair in America. 

Wild Song is a stunning achievement

The Bookseller.

What do you write?

Over the past ten years I've written for every age group in KidLit which is handy for school visits. Most recently I've found myself wanting to write stories in a historical setting. My latest novel is Wild Song, published in March. It is told through the eyes of indigenous people from the Philippines who were exhibited at the 1904 World's Fair in St Louis, Missouri.


Do you have a ‘day job’ as well as volunteering and writing?

My day job is being an author which often has more to do with speaking engagements than writing. I also rather badly manage a holiday cottage.


Describe your writing space.

I've come up in the world since the days when I wrote on the dining room table while babies gnawed on my ankles. I now sit in a room with dark green walls clad in post-its, random cards, a fabulous portrait of a pregnant Southeast Asian woman and my favourite art, including early felt-tip sketches of the characters from Monsters Inc. and rabbits and goats having tea, painted by my friend Sarah McIntyre on a junk shop tea tray she bought for a pound. There are towers of books everywhere because I'm dipping into them all the time and can't bear to return them to their bookshelves.

Candy in her office

How long have you been a SCBWI volunteer?

I first started volunteering in 2004 designing the newsletter of SCBWI France. Later I volunteered to create a website for SCBWI British Isles. Social media was just beginning and there was a platform called the Ning where I helped set up a SCBWI network. When Facebook arose I started up the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group and was the SCBWI BI webmaster. As the years passed I helped organise the Professional Series, the Conference and, when I eventually got published thirteen years ago, I selfishly came up with the idea of a mass book launch party which has gotten better year after year. As SCBWI evolved and more members became published, I partnered up with my great friend Mo O'Hara under the Pulse banner to create events that would appeal to this now burgeoning SCBWI demographic.

SCBWI 2008

2011 with Natascha Biebow when Candy won the Crystal Kite Award for Tall Story

2018 Mass Book Launch

Describe the main tasks of your role as a SCBWI volunteer.

The work Mo and I do is called Pulse – we are constantly trying to think of ways to support members who are published, whether traditionally or independently. Our regional advisor Natascha Biebow will often consult us about how particular events can better serve published members. One big event on the Pulse calendar is Boot Camp – a two day seminar in which I teach everything I know about digital opportunity, (from websites to social media), Mo, (who has had a life as a stand-up comedian), teaches school visits and performance and SCBWI stalwart Sara Grant, (who has a background in publicity), teaches launch strategy. It's hugely popular with debut and midlist authors alike! We are also deeply involved in the conference creating a strand of events that would be useful to published members. This year we have got an agent to deliver the industry keynote, have organised a panel on how authors and illustrators can be more inclusive, recruited a brilliant speaker on managing and making money and ourselves will run a hands on workshop on making author videos.

Do you do any other volunteering?

I am a bit of a compulsive volunteer. I used to be a member of the Society of Authors Children's Writers and Illustrators Group. This year I got involved with a group of East and Southeast Asian authors creating a mini literary festival in September for East and Southeast Asian Heritage Month. I have also been involved in an exhibition of indigenous objects being returned by a collector to the Philippines.


Has volunteering influenced your writing life in any way?

Volunteering has been a doorway to many worlds. Working with people whose company you enjoy alleviates the inevitable loneliness of the writing life. You meet your best friends while volunteering – there's nothing like a project and like-minded people by your side. When I started writing I felt very isolated and alone. When I began volunteering I realised that this was it, this was the life I was aspiring to with my writing... and I did not have to wait to be published to live it!


What are the advantages of being a volunteer?

The biggest advantage is the friendship. I love working with Mo and Sara and other SCBWI volunteers. At the beginning, when I wasn't published, volunteering gave me a chance to be on the inside, sitting right next to the agents and editors who came to speak at our events. Anyone who's spent any time subbing and getting rejected will know that this kind of access is precious and invaluable. I never got a book deal out of this proximity but it sure made the rollercoaster journey to publication more bearable to realise that they were just human beings. Another advantage is that people get to know you. When I was webmaster every single member who wanted to access Facebook or use the SCBWI website went through me and, when I finally got published, I was gratified by the joy of people who were strangers to me but whom I had helped in some way. I also love making things happen. When we start some projects it can sometimes feel like an uphill battle. But the satisfaction when you get to the end! A lot of preparation goes into organising Boot Camp – sometimes it feels like an impossible task. But we always get through! Years later random authors tell us they went to Boot Camp and it changed their lives. I get a real kick out of knowing we've really made a difference.


How many hours per week do you spend volunteering? Do the boundaries between volunteering get blurred or do you have clearly demarcated writing/volunteering times/space?

In the past I had no boundaries, I was always in volunteer mode. It became a way of procrastinating. I told myself at least you're being useful while procrastinating! But now I am another level of busy with my authoring and I try to stick to a checklist of tasks and not be drawn into wormholes of volunteering. I know from experience now that there are peak and off-peak times with volunteering and I am careful to make plenty of space around the peak times. It's a privilege to be self-employed and plan your own time.


Favourite children’s book?

AUTHOR not book! Patrice Lawrence, Katya Balen, Geraldine McCaughrean, David Almond, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Philip Reeve, though I love and admire many, many authors!

*Header image is an in-house collaboration between Tita Beredo and Ell Rose

**All other images courtesy of Candy Gourlay


Stephanie Cotela writes across genres from children’s picture books to adult crime fiction and is particularly fond of ghost stories. Originally from New York she has been living in and around London for nearly two decades. Her debut middle-grade novel The Ghosts of Hawkthorn will be released in December.


Anne Boyere is one of Words & Pictures Feature Editors and runs the #SCBWIchat X (formerly Twitter) chat about books for all ages @SCBWI_BI. You can find her on X (formerly Twitter).

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