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

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Author Interview: Frances Watts

Today, we're joined by the very talented Frances Watts - children's author extraordinaire. Having written a number of beautiful picture books, Frances has just released her latest novel - the first in the Gerander Trilogy, entitled The Song of the Winns. You can read more about Frances' work at franceswatts.com.

Tell us a little about you: what’s your background, your story? I was born in Switzerland to a Swiss father and American mother, and we moved to Australia when I was very young. My parents were both avid readers, my mother in particular. She made sure there was a constant supply of books for me to feast on, with regular trips to the library and secondhand bookstores. Reading always was and still is my favourite thing to do, which probably explains the years at university doing a BA, and then a postgraduate degree, in English literature (while working part time in a bookstore), followed by a move into publishing.

I edited children’s books for about ten years, and am now a freelance editor of adult fiction. I love editing as much as writing; it’s a big part of my relationship with books.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? I do have an exercise book full of stories about bunnies from when I was five, but the first story I remember vividly was written on a holiday in Switzerland to visit my family when I was about ten. We were staying in the mountains and I wrote a very dramatic story called ‘Fire in the Hotel Waldrand’, in which my Grandpapa was the hero. It was much admired – by Grandpapa.

What genre do you now write in? I write for kids in preschool up to upper primary: picture books, humorous junior fiction, adventure stories…

What other genres have you written in? I’ve written academic pieces, book reviews, a bit of educational writing, some journalism. I just like to write, and I’ll give any genre a go (at least once).

What do you love about writing for children? I find that kids’ books are the natural outlet for my humour, my voice. I can give life to the quirky characters that pop into my head, consider questions I have about the world, push my imagination in unexpected directions. It’s very liberating.

What was the inspiration behind your new series, The Gerander Trilogy? My partner David and I were on a walking holiday in the Snowy Mountains, and one evening I saw a news story about a powerful country attacking a less powerful one. When I was a kid I used to be fascinated by books set during wartime. They were very dramatic and compelling, but they were very character-driven too — and the questions they posed, the demands they made of their characters, had an urgency and immediacy that spoke to me then and still speaks to me today; questions about justice and integrity and personal responsibility.

I guess, too, that I was at a point in my writing career where I was ready to challenge myself as a writer: constructing an intricate plot, with extended and nuanced character development, raising quite complex ideas, while keeping the pace taut, the settings vivid and varying the tone.

Tell us about your path to having your books published. I never really imagined this path, oddly. I have always loved writing, and it is something that has always felt like my most natural mode of expressing myself. But I was working as an editor, and I used to joke that I was the only person I knew who didn’t have a book in them — until suddenly I did.

I wrote my first book, Kisses for Daddy, not because I was determined to be a writer, but because I wanted to capture a moment, an idea. And when, after several drafts, I felt that I had captured it, I was elated. I still think the most exciting part of being a writer is when it is just you alone in a room, capturing that idea, that moment, that mood you are striving for.

Kisses for Daddy was published by the publishing house I worked for at the time. (Yes, working in a publishing house does help you get to the top of the unsolicited pile — though it doesn’t automatically result in publication.) When I wrote my second book, Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, I approached a new publisher, so I could keep my writing life and my editing life separate.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book-writing journey? Like many writers, I sometimes struggle to carve out enough writing time while still maintaining another career. That said, I’m fortunate to have established a freelance career that is both stable and flexible — and very rewarding in its own right.

And, of course—again, like many other writers — I have bad writing days, when ideas aren’t working, when the writing seems laboured, when I question my ability…

What’s a typical writing day? The shape of my writing day varies according to where I’m up to in the manuscript. If I can see a clear way ahead, or at least a starting point that will develop momentum, I am at the desk by 8.30 or 9, and will write non-stop for four or five hours. I usually only have a maximum of five hours of good writing in me — after that, I’m depleted, and even if I press on it’s rarely to good effect. At that stage I’ll shift to planning what I hope to achieve the following day. But if I start the day with uncertainty, a walk is in order; I do much of my best thinking and most of my problem-solving while walking.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers? Never submit your first draft. I think quite a few writers feel so thrilled and satisfied when they finish their ms (and rightly so) that they send it straight out to a publisher. As tempting as that is, I think there’s a lot to be gained by letting it sit for a while, even just a few days or a week, then reading it again with fresh eyes. Read it critically, ruthlessly. I see the second draft, the self-editing, as an extremely valuable part of the writing process.

Find yourself a reader/readers you trust. It might be the members of a writing group, it might be a friend who’s not afraid to give it to you straight. A good, critical first reader will give you invaluable feedback. As tough as it is to take criticism, you’ll never improve your ms without it — and no matter how good that first draft is, every ms can be improved.

What books did you read as a child? Anything I could get my hands on. From Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh to Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew. From Penelope Lively to S.E. Hinton. Asterix, I Am David and Bridge to Terabithia. Really, anything — so long as it wasn’t too scary!

What else do you like to do, other than write books? I like to read them! I also love to travel to places with beautiful art and architecture and food. I like cooking (and eating). I like walking, and running.

What would be your perfect day? My perfect everyday kind of day is a lazy sunny Sunday at home with David (who did those gorgeous illustrations for The Song of the Winns). We might stroll to the local market, maybe I’ll be reading a breathtakingly wonderful book that I can’t get out of my head (like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or anything by Colm Toibin or Ann Patchett), and I’ll be trying out a new recipe for dinner that night. (There are other kinds of perfect days which involve, say, being in France and seeing a Matisse retrospective and eating lots of cheese, or being in New York and going for a run in Central Park followed by a dinner of lobster rolls in the West Village.)

What five words best sum you up? Full of quirks and contradictions.

What’s next for Frances Watts? Two more Gerander novels, picture books galore, then… I quite fancy trying something with a historical setting.

Read our review of Kisses for Daddy

Watch this space for our review of The Song of the Winns, the first in the new Gerander Trilogy.