'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 30 April 2010

Author Interview: Helen Ross

Who is this talented person? Helen Ross

What does she do? She's an author.

Where can you check out her stuff? misshelenbooks.com

What’s her story? Where to begin? I’ll keep this brief. Graduating in January 1978 as a Primary teacher, I loved encouraging my primary school students to develop their imagination and creativity through story telling, creative writing, art, music and drama.

However, since my teens, I had always felt that there was something in me trying to get out. A passion - something that I not only enjoyed but was good at (even if I had to work at it). Consequently, in my search for ‘that niche’ I tried most things – silver jewelry making, tap dancing, drama, African dancing and the list goes on……

Thinking I had discovered ‘my niche’, I then spent three years studying drama part time, but little did I know that a poet was soon to be born. More will be revealed as you keep reading.
I also won first prize (Children’s poetry category) in the 1993 OZ waves Award and University of Queensland Press Book Prizes for my humorous poem, Magpie Mania.

How long has she been writing? Over 25 years. However, I used to make up songs on my guitar as a teenager, and used to write stories with my students when I was a primary teacher – many moons ago. So when I think about it, the interest, in one format or another, has always been there.

What genre does she write in? Presently, children’s stories or giggle rhymes.

What other genres has she written in? I completed a Diploma in Writing in 2000 with The Writing School (formerly NSW Writing School) and studied travel writing, script writing, fiction, non-fiction, articles, screen plays, radio scripts, children’s writing, etc. Consequently I have written something in each of these genres, albeit up to four pages.

I enjoyed script writing so plan to develop some story ideas from the above course submissions. Also, I never thought I’d be interested in writing a novel. ‘500 words is a novel’, to quote Clark Gable from the movie, ‘Teacher’s Pet’ with Doris Day. But I was a winner in the 2009 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month ie. writing 50,000 words in a month – yikes!) and I discovered I loved being in the novel writing zone. I wrote a murder thriller. No one will ever get to read it as it WAS THAT bad but I loved being in that zone so I am currently working on some story ideas.

Why does she write? It is addictive and I enjoy it. Also ideas continue to tumble in my head so I have to write them down. I can’t go anywhere these days without seeing a story idea, or a poem, etc. I have pens and notebooks everywhere.

What made her decide to write children’s books? At 29, after breaking up with my first fiancĂ©, and then being occupied with a new found romance, I found myself neglecting my night drama classes and spending time alone writing ‘heart felt’ poetry while waiting for the phone to ring. Yes, pitiful!

I remember one weekend, with some time on my hands, having the urge to write some humorous children’s poems. My cat seemed to be a very attentive audience so I figured they couldn’t have been too bad. Soon after, I sent these poems (in story book format) out to approx six/seven children’s publishers, and although I received rejection slips, I did receive some very positive feedback and decided to keep on writing.

Also, I just love children’s books.

How did she learn to write poetry? As I went. Also, in 2007 I was awarded a local RADF grant (Regional Arts Development Fund) through the Queensland Govt/Arts Qld and my local Council, to undertake further professional development in the area of writing children’s picture books. Thus I was mentored by Dr Virginia Lowe as part of her Create-a-kids’ book e-course - www.createakidsbook.com.au. Manuscripts I wanted to work on, as part of the course, centred around short stories, and rhyming poetry. Virginia and her husband, John have helped me immensely - analysing interpretation, rhyme and metre.

I have also learnt about rhyme and metre and interpretation from Jackie Hosking. She is an Australian writer/poet, children’s writer, and editor, compiler and publisher of PASS IT ON. She also has her own rhyming manuscript editing service which is just wonderful. She is a great rhymer (versatilityrhymeandrhythm.blogspot.com and jackiehoskingpio.wordpress.com).

I have also completed poetry workshops at QWC (Queensland Writers Centre), and read a lot of different types of poetry.

What does she love about writing poetry for children? The variety in styles: lullabies, nursery rhymes, haiku, daimante, cinquain, rhyming poetry, non-rhyming poetry, metrical, free verse, bush ballads, raps, limericks, sound poems, verse novels, to name just a few.

Children’s poetry (like any poetic forms) can take you on a journey (short or long), pull at your heart strings, be pure fun and nonsensical, a mode of teaching through metaphors and similes, used for language development, or be a means of creating artistic pictures. Children also love quirky, as so I, so I love making children laugh, and finding out what tickles their funny bone. Children’s laughter is infectious. When they laugh you know it is genuine.

Tell us a bit about the creative process. When it comes to poems or short stories I generally start with a paper and pen. Generally speaking I first start with an idea – I write the idea, verse or whatever is the seed, as it catapults in my brain. If it is a poem I write it as it flows from my brain onto the page. I don’t edit. If I have time at that moment (ie. I am not in the middle of a shopping aisle) I will then work on creating a story shape.

As my published work to date has been short picture book stories I tend to work on a paragraph or verse at a time, once I have got the essence of it down. If I am stuck for a rhyming word I use rhymezone.com to assist me. I don’t give myself deadlines as sometimes one verse or paragraph can give me trouble for months till I get it right (or years as is the case of my latest children’s book, 10 Yellow Bananas). I also create a story board (using a sheet of A3 paper) and sometimes do a mock up of a book using folded A4 paper, to place the text into a 32 picture book format.

I then can see if there are any weaknesses in development of the story/poem and how it could fit into the expected page format. When I am happy with it, I will then have it appraised by Dr Virginia Lowe or Jackie Hosking. I also like to get children to read it to gear its potential. If I am stuck I ask Virginia to help me.

If I am trying to create a new story where an idea hasn’t first tumbled into my head, I usually ask myself ‘What if?” and take it from there. From working with Dr Virginia Lowe, and undertaking writing workshops I now spend more time on finding out more about the characters, their likes, dislikes, etc. etc. and toss around potential story themes. I use character cards, story line cards, etc. and I place these on a large storyboard to help me. Sometimes I use the mapping technique on a large whiteboard.

What made her decide to self-publish her books? To me, embarking on the self publishing journey was/is about creating choices. When I first started writing I believed I had potential, and as a former primary and kindergarten teacher I had a pretty good idea of what appealed to children, generally speaking.

Also, when I first started writing all those years ago, I didn’t want to spend the possibility of months and years sending manuscripts to publishers and receiving rejection slips in the mail. I knew it was, and still is, very difficult for a first time/unknown author to get published. Nevertheless, I can’t say that I was disillusioned with the publishing industry as back then, I only sent out about six or seven children’s book manuscripts. However, I must add that when I remember the presentation of these cover letters and the manuscripts I sent out, I still cringe a little.

Also I didn’t want to be dependent on a publisher deciding whether my book was marketable or not (when I believed there was a market for my style of writing). So in March 2006 I published my first book, Ten Yellow Bananas and followed up with my second book, Santa is in the Chimney in September of that year. I wanted to prove the books had sale potential.

Self publishing in 2006 gave me the opportunity to get out there, learn about the different facets of the industry (publishing, marketing, distribution, etc.) and the importance of networking.

Starting up my business Miss Helen Books in 2006, and having two books published gave me the opportunity to apply for the abovementioned local RADF grant. I was able to prove that I was a professional writer wishing to undertake further professional development in the area of writing children’s picture books. Self publishing my first two books gave me that opportunity.
In 2009 and 2010 I partnership published with Little Steps Publishing, Division of New Frontier.

New Frontier is a well respected mainstream, albeit a small independent publishing company in NSW. Partnership publishing with Little Steps gave me confidence to prove that there was merit in my work as Little Steps Publishing (an imprint of New Frontier) only publish manuscripts that they would love to publish (under New Frontier) but unfortunately can’t afford to due to their limited budget. So they offer excellent partnership opportunities.

Does she remember the first story or giggly poem she ever wrote? Yes, I do.

‘Mr Whippy
One, two, three
Mr Whippy
You’re not he.’

I was about nine or ten years old when I made this ditty up at home one weekend as part of a tag game I was playing with my sister, and a friend. I was so pleased with myself, thinking I had made up a new tag chant. However, my pleasure soon turned to disappointment. I turned up to school next day to find the exact verse being recited for tag games. Bummer! Years floated by until I wrote my next poem.

I was studying drama part time. As part of a drama assignment I had to write and ‘perform’ a poem, or piece about an animal, as selected by a ‘lucky dip’. My animal was the gorilla and so I penned my first poem, Lulu, the gorgeous gorilla. By this stage I was about 27 years of age.
And I have been hooked on writing ever since. Damn, you can probably work out my approximate age now.

I also did a lot of creative writing at high school, and I used to write stories with the pupils in my primary school classes. I always remember the words that my English teacher in Form 5 often wrote at the end of many of my stories: Helen, great ideas but you need to organise them better.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles she has experienced on her writing journey? Believing in myself, and realising that you can’t please everyone. And Rome was not built in a day.

What does she love most about producing books for children? Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces when they enjoy my story, and also the lovely feedback from teachers and parents. Also, receiving great reviews for my books, and feeling that I am contributing to children’s enjoyment of literature.

What advice would she have on writing children’s stories? It is not as easy as you think. Yes, ideas can flow freely, and there will be writers who will find the process easy. However, order of information and use of the right word is important. You also need to be able to look objectively at your work ie. Does it make sense? What is missing? Do I need to include this or that? Just don’t be too precious about your work if it means that improvements can be made. Get another opinion (or two, or three). Many writers make the mistake of trying to describe everything, but the illustrator is a vital ingredient in adding or supporting the text in a children’s picture book, or even creating a sub plot or story. I definitely recommend reading lots and lots of different types of children’s books, reading books on writing for children, and enrolling in a children’s writing course. It is such a learning curve but extremely enjoyable, and rewarding but also hard work.

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? To date, I have had a variety of careers and occupations and I am of the belief that you are never too old to do or try anything, or embark on a journey of realising a dream. Yes, I realise that there are circumstances preventing this such as age (in some cases), finances, physical and mental health, etc. Also I believe in choices (again there may be some barriers as above.) So, in the life that I have now created, I choose to be a writer because that is where my passion lies.

When I left high school I became a teacher because I didn’t know what else to do, and I forgot to attend an interview for an arts school course. But I don’t have any regrets because I believe it is never too late to become involved in new passions (again bearing in mind the above barriers). And the number of children’s writers/poets who were, or still are teachers, is unbelievable – a rite of passage, so to speak.

If time allowed I would also pursue my other loves – acting, and impressionist painting. I also want to learn French, and the saxophone.

What are her most favourite things to do? Reading (variety of genres); blogging; research; anything arty/crafty; painting in oils; impressionist art; glass painting; movies (love French films, or English speaking films set in Paris, black and white movies, old Australian movies, the classics, etc.); doing coffee with friends, listening or dancing to music (especially French music or salsa); travelling; playing with my beloved animals (two adorable but heavy 17 month old cats, a gorgeous blue heeler, a 16 year of Labrador -just adopted, and one budgie). I don’t like birds in cages but again he was a descendent from two budgies we adopted. I can’t bear to see animals neglected or abandoned, so my husband and I take them in.

What books did she read as a child? I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte’s Web, A A Milne, and read all of Agatha Christie’s novels. I still have my collection. I particularly loved murder mysteries (still do), hence Agatha Christie. I also enjoyed Alice in Wonderland and Dr Suess books.

What are her favourite children’s books of all time? Mmmm. I am still discovering gems. All of the above, and I just love Stephen Michael King’s stories and illustrations. I am immediately attracted to the quirky. Also anything by Shaun Tan and Graeme Base. I know there are lots of others but don’t have room to add all of them, and my memory has gone a little blank.

What did she like to play as a child? Spies, dress-ups and anything make believe. And lots of art and craft. From an early age I have always enjoyed painting, drawing, most art and crafts, the theatre, music and reading. I won my first drawing competition in grade 6 for designing a sausage sizzle poster. I used to spend hours in my bedroom drawing, and making crafts, particularly Salvador Dali like surrealistic sculptures out of old clocks, and witches out of corn of the cob skins from Mum’s home produced corn patch (the latter creations were a bit smelly, especially after sitting in my dresser drawers for months).

What would be her perfect day? I should say, any day that I wake up is a perfect day. So beyond that, my perfect day is when I can just concentrate on writing, letting the creative juices flow. Also perfect days are when I make lots of sales. I currently work full time as an ESL TAFE teacher, so am juggling a number of activities.

So, if I thought beyond my life now, the perfect situation would be me as a successful full time writer who receives regular ‘large royalty cheques’ in the mail (big call but let me dream). I can then organise my own day and have regular time to catch up with my wonderful friends, plus a little time out to enjoy some of my other passions.

What five words best sum her up? Determined, creative, hard-working, compassionate, friendly.

Thanks for playing along, Helen!

Check out our reviews of Helen Ross' books, 10 Yellow Bananas and Bubble Gum Trouble and Other Giggly Poems.