Kids take over! It was such a pleasure to talk all things writing and MAGNOLIA MOON with students in Year 3 and 4.
Who are your favourite children’s authors?
Oh, this is tough…there are so many. But as a start:
Norman Lindsay (The Magic Pudding)
Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad)
A.A. Milne (Winnie the Pooh)
E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web)
J.M Barrie (Peter Pan)
David Almond (Skellig)
Kate Di Camillo (The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tullane)
Katherine Applegate (Crenshaw)
What did you do for a living before you started writing novels?
So far, I have worked: at a fruit shop; washing dishes at a nursing home, as an assistant nurse; as a waitress; as a phlebotomist in pathology – otherwise known as “a blood collecter” (ew!) where I not only gave people needles, I also had to clip their toenails (double-ew!) Most recently, I have worked as a high school teacher, and a lawyer (for people and animals!)
But mostly, I just love to write stories, play with my chickens, and drink banana smoothies.
What did you do to become a writer? How did you start?
To be a writer, you need to do three very simple things. They might seem obvious, but some people don’t think to do them: you need to read. You need to write. You need to stay curious.
Funnily enough, lots of people say that they dream of becoming a writer. But they don’t actually write. They don’t think they have time. They don’t think they have the skills. They are afraid of it being terrible.
But writing is like anything else – you just need to practise. You can learn how to do it. So I started by being curious. I rewrote a picture book that I liked at the kitchen table. To see how it looked without the pictures. To see how long it was. To see how it all hung together. Then I tried to write one myself.
Did someone inspire you to be an author?
I would say in the beginning, that my creative spirit – the thing that all humans have – was so bruised and battered from not being used, that it just fought its way to be heard. I had stopped being creative. But later, when I was already an author of picture books, I was very inspired by my editor, Nancy, who suggested that I might try to write novels.
What are your favourite things about being an author?
Meeting people like you! Having a sense of belonging – I feel like I have found my tribe. Also having a place to go whenever I want – my very own world to escape into.
How many books have you written?
About 10, I think.
How long have you been writing for?
For 10 years.
How do you get your ideas?
Ideas are everywhere, but I would say from words. Most of my books have just come from one word. Sometimes Cake is an example of this. I keep lists of words that I like, and on one very ordinary day, I couldn’t think of anything to write and was feeling a bit sorry for myself. So, I opened up my book of words, I found the word ‘confetti’. I wrote it down as a title, without even having a story. And it attracted other words. Words like: balloon, hat, cake, celebrations, purple and orange. All of which are words that appear in the book. But interestingly, the word ‘confetti’ is not there, rather it features in the illustrations. And it is a book all about celebrating ordinary days, written on an especially ordinary day.
So, you don’t need to wait for inspiration to strike. You don’t need to be feeling creative and excited. You just need to make a start and play, even if it is just starting with one word.
There is an expression that there are no wasted words: that every word you write leads you closer to the writer that you want to be.
Is THE SECRETS OF MAGNOLIA MOON the best book you have ever written?
I want my writing to improve and get better with each book I write, so I usually feel that the best book I have written, is the most recent one that I am working on.
So, I don’t know about the best – but it is certainly the book that I am most proud of. Because I had to work my hardest to bring it to life. It also feels the truest to my natural writing voice – I was not trying to make it sound like another author that I like. And in some ways, it is the best, because without it – I wouldn’t have written the books that I have written since.
What inspired you to write your first junior fiction book?
That wonderful editor, Nancy, who suggested that I try something different and take a chance. At first I was very afraid; picture books were what I knew, what I had spent years learning about. But I am so glad that I took a chance.
What made you want to write this book with such a strange girl as the main character?
I think that people are strange. That feelings are strange. That we are all strange in the very best way. And that life can feel strange sometimes. The gift of fiction, is that we get to see inside a character’s head and heart. So, for the book to feel true, and for the reader to feel like they were really getting to see inside Magnolia’s mind, then things needed to get a little strange! And I hope that my characters just get stranger and stranger.
Is the book about someone you know?
No. But I wish I knew Magnolia Moon!
Do you know someone named Magnolia Moon?
No. But I wish that was my name!
Why did you choose to have a character with such a big imagination?
Can I tell you a secret? Your imagination is the most precious thing that you own. It helps us to understand how someone else might be feeling – so it makes us kinder and more accepting and therefore happier. It helps us to feel hopeful. It helps us understand things.
So, I wanted to write a character that really uses and appreciates her imagination.
How did you think of the name Magnolia Moon? And other names in the book?
I started by looking up names beginning with M and went from there. Matlida….Maudie….Miriam…. But then I found Magnolia. Perfect. Magnolia flowers represent love for nature, beauty, perseverance, longevity, nobility and feminine sweetness. Magnolias also remind me of my family and favourite gardens. One of my very first paintings at school was of a magnolia – my mum still has it framed on her wall. The surname of ‘Moon’ was also a deliberate choice (and was why I was looking for names beginning with ‘M’ in the first place for some lovely alliteration) since I wanted my main character to have lunar, ‘moonish’ qualities. I had a lot of fun playing with those comparative passages in the book – they were some of my favourite passages to write.
When auditioning character names for the secondary characters, much of it came down to how it sounded when read aloud. I spent a lot of time reading the book out loud to my dog, to make sure the rhythm was right. For example, I had to add the “May” onto “Imogen”, as the name alone didn’t have enough syllables to sound right when said in combination with Magnolia.
“Magnolia Moon and Imogen May” just sounded so much better than: “Magnolia Moon and Imogen.” Bonkers! I know.
Why does Magnolia lie a lot in the story?
Well, everybody lies sometimes, do they not? But the important thing is that Magnolia tells the truth in the end. It seems like she lies a lot, but all of those lies started with just one teensy lie about her name. And lies have a way of snowballing. Because to keep it going, and cover your tracks, you have to tell more lies until they get out of control. There is an old expression: the truth will set you free. And in Magnolia’s case, it really does, because it’s only when she tells the truth that she can fly with Reuben.
Where did you get the idea of Magnolia talking to the moon and stairs?
I have a bit of an obsession with the moon. It is so magical. I also didn’t want Magnolia to feel alone and burdened with all her secrets. By sharing her feelings and problems with something so big, it allows her to step back and get some perspective. In this sense, the moon plays an important role as the ultimate secret keeper – keeping the secrets of the universe and representing the things beyond Magnolia’s control.
And I got the idea for the talking stairs because of the creaking floorboards in our old house. When I had my first baby, he was a very bad sleeper. And I would spend what seemed like hours walking him up the hallway. And as soon as he would drop off to sleep, and I put him in his cot, the floorboards would squeak and creak and wake him up! And they only ever seemed to do it, when I didn’t want them to – when I was trying to be quiet. So I spent a lot of time getting cross with them, and telling them to “shush!”. So I think there is a bit of that in there.
Does Magnolia think about talking to the stairs? Or does she actually talk to the stairs?
What do you think? I will leave that one up to your imagination. But I will say, that in Book 2: The Magic of Magnolia Moon –out next October, there is a talking Grandfather clock, that is always nagging her and telling her off for being late.
Why does Magnolia like the moon and Greek Myths?
These parts were such fun to write. The Greek myths arm Magnolia with the language and mental machinery to understand some of the situations she finds herself in. Viewing the world this way gives her courage and bravery, transforms the mundane into something magical and allows her travel in style when she would rather fly on a winged-horse than walk home from school. The drama and high-stakes of Greek myths also helped display the brevity of Magnolia’s feelings. As whilst she is experiencing small, ordinary moments, to her they seem like great triumphs or tragedies as she feels things on such a grand scale.
Why do the stairs creak when she is sneaking around?
Because they are trying to give her away and get her into trouble. Because they are sick of being walked on.
Why did you use the line:
“That’s a lifetime if you’re a cake in an oven”?
I wanted to play with time in this book. There is a line in the story that says that time is tricky, because it can feel long and short all at once. There are a couple of ways you can interpret this – both are equally silly. The first is to say, well, a cake only lives for an hour – because in an hour, it can be made, baked and eaten (if you like cake as much as my family does). Or it could mean, that when you are waiting for a cake to bake, and you are hungry, and hour feels like a lifetime. I did all sorts of experiments at home to see how long things took, and learned all sorts of facts about mayflies (that only live for a day) and giant jellyfish!
Will Magnolia fly again?
I think she will. What do you think? And best of all, in Book 2, she helps somebody else to find their wings and fly through their secret sky.
Are Magnolia Moon and Imogen May friends because they argue over fruit?
Sometimes, Magnolia and Imogen May use their fruit game to talk about the things that are worrying them – speak the things on their mind without ever saying them. So, I think that whilst they both enjoying playing the same games, and they have a lot in common, they are really friends because they share their true feelings with each other and trust the other person with their fears and thoughts. In this sense, the fruit is a metaphor. Like when Imogen May is moving house, and she wishes she could be a grapefruit, because they are too sour – nobody wants a grapefruit – so she could stay in the fruit bowl forever and ever.
What did Magnolia tell her little brother?
I think she said, that they are going to have lots of fun together. And that she loves him.
Why did Magnolia like looking for the ghost?
One of my favourite FROG & TOAD stories is ‘The Shivers’ byArnold Lobel. In that story, they feel ‘the shivers’ and delight in being scared. “It was a good, warm feeling.” So, I wanted you to get the shivers; for the chapter to feel deliciously spooky, but also fun and safe because it all turns out ok in the end. I always wanted the reader to see Magnolia being brave, because then it has more impact when she helps Ernest to be brave.
When did you write this book?
In 2018. Lots of it I wrote on the floor, surrounded by kids playing.
Did you hand write the book or type it?
A mix of both! I write it on a keyboard, print it out, then add handwritten notes which I then type back in.
Of all the books you’ve written, who is your favourite character that you have created?
I do adore Magnolia. In that I have a lot of fun writing about her. But I have just finished a novel which is coming out next April about a character called Tish. And I am especially fond of him.
Were you naughty when you were younger?
What do you reckon? Of course! Nah… I truly don’t think there is any such thing as a naughty kid. Just kids that make good and bad choices. And I certainly made a lot of bad choices… And just like Magnolia, I loved sneaking into rooms – crawling on my hands and knees, to overhear important conversations.
Did you ever go through similar problems to Magnolia when you were her age?
Magnolia’s life is changing: her family is growing, there is an angel at school, and her best friend is moving away. On top of that, people are sharing their secrets with her: problems or challenges they are facing. Magnolia has to come up with a way to help others solve their problems whilst maintaining their trust, all the while having her own secrets and big feelings to deal with. And whilst those things haven’t all happened to me – I have felt every emotion that Magnolia has felt, even if it is indirectly or vicariously. So, there is an emotional truth to the book, even though the stories are made up. There is a lovely expression that writing fiction is a radical act of empathy, and that resonates with me.
What advice would you give other writers who want to be published authors?
Focus on the parts that you can control. That’s the story, the work, your effort. Don’t worry about the things that you can’t control. That’s what people might think about it. Whether it’s any good. Whether it will ultimately be a published book.
Where attention goes, energy flows. So don’t worry about things that you can’t control.
Just stay curious. About the world. About yourself.
Practise empathy – think about how it might feel to be in the situations that others find themselves in. And give yourself permission to write. A writer is someone who writes. Simple. You don’t need anything else but yourself, to become a writer.
When you were a kid did you guess what the letter of the day was?
No, but I wish I had! I think that game is in there, because I wanted to put some food into the book. I love reading about food in stories, and so I invented this game as a way of getting some food in there! My favourite ‘foodie’ moments in literature, is the picnic scene on the riverbank in THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS between Rat and Mole. And, also, in THE MAGIC PUDDING by Norman Lindsay.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
Have you ever seen a chicken that’s scared? It drops to the ground. That’s what I do when I am scared. And my kids and husband know this and think it is very funny. So, they have formed a gang called the MTC: The Mummy Tricking Club. And it’s their mission to jump out of cupboards, or sneak up behind me and watch me drop to the ground. It happens ALL the time, and I never get used to it.