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

Saturday 30 April 2011

Interview: Margaret Wild

Kids Book Review is truly to thrilled to welcome the lovely Margaret Wild - esteemed and award-winning author - with this fascinating interview. I met Margaret in Canberra last year when she released her Itsy Bitsy Babies (see our review here) and it was so lovely to hear her read in person, along with author/illustrator Jan Ormerod. Enjoy!

Welcome, Margaret! Tell us a little bit about you.
I grew up in South Africa and came to Australia in the early 1970s. I have worked as a journalist and a book editor, but I now write full-time. I have two children, both grown up, and two grandchildren. Jack is three years old, and it’s wonderful to see his joy in the smallest things in life.

How long have you been writing?
My first books, including There’s a Sea in My Bedroom, illustrated by Jane Tanner, was published in 1984 – and I’ve been writing for children ever since. As long as I have ideas and something to say I’ll just keep on going.

I love writing picture books. When I get the germ of a new idea, I feel a little shiver of anticipation or recognition. I don’t do anything immediately about the idea. I just keep it there at the back of my mind and think about it now and again and let it ‘brew’, sometimes jotting down bits of the story. Once I’ve got the whole story in my head – I especially need to know how it starts and ends – I sit down at my computer and write the first draft. Then I keep rewriting – draft after draft – until I feel it’s as good as I can make it, which is often not nearly good enough. 

What made you decide to write children’s books?
Apart from writing for newspaper and magazines, I’d always pottered about with bits of stories and poems, but I really had no idea what kind of things I wanted to write. When my children were small, I read to them every day and loved picture books such as Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Two of my all-time favourite books are Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak and John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat by Jenny Wagner. These two books made me want to try to write my own stories. I felt as if I’d found my niche. 

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I actually wrote three stories, one after the other, and sent them off to different publishers. They were Something Absolutely Enormous, One Shoe On and There’s a Sea in My Bedroom. To my amazement, all three were accepted and were published in 1984.
I was very lucky that There’s a Sea in My Bedroom got shortlisted for the CBC Awards because it meant that the book got a certain amount of attention and that publishers were receptive when I sent them more stories. 

What do you love most about producing books for children?
Because children are so imaginative and open about the world, it gives me the freedom to make up stories that interest me – and that I hope will interest children. Provided that the story and characters are believable, children are willing to accept old pigs (that die), little dogs that can fit into a pocket and a sea in a bedroom. 

Why do you write?
Basically, I think I write because if I don’t, I feel restless, unhappy and dissatisfied. I need to make something, create something – when I have a new idea, a new story, I feel contented, cheerful, absorbed, engaged and reasonably nice to live with. 

Last year you released Itsy Bitsy Babies, illustrated by Jan Ormerod. What was the process like working with another well-known author/illustrator?
Jan and I didn’t meet until after the book was published which can often happen if writers and illustrators live in different states or countries. When I was writing the story I had her pictures in mind, so I was delighted and amazed when she agreed to illustrate the book.

We met up once the book had been published and I wasn’t surprised to find that she is as lovely as the characters she creates. We are doing another book together, Itsy-Bitsy Animals, and again we’ve had little contact. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get together once the book has been published.

You have written a large amount of beautiful and award-winning books for children. Can you tell us your favourite books (your own) and why you love them?
To be honest, my favourite book is either the one I’ve just finished or am still working on.
Of my published books, I’m fond of a number of them for different reasons e.g. There’s a Sea in My Bedroom because it was my ‘lucky’ book – it helped to get me established and it’s still in print today. Fox, because Ron Brooks’ pictures, typography and design are so incredibly original, beautiful and groundbreaking. Old Pig (also illustrated by Ron) because the pictures are so warm and tender. Harry and Hopper because the illustrator Freya Blackwood approached the story so subtly and sensitively. The Very Best of Friends, illustrated by Julie Vivas.

But it’s not fair to highlight these books only. I’ve been privileged to work with so many talented illustrators – people like Julie Vivas, Ann James, Terry Denton, Donna Rawlins, Wayne Harris, Ann Spudvilas, Stephen Michael King, Deborah Niland and Kerry Argent. 

Which book was your most difficult to write?
I think the most difficult were my verse novels, Jinx and One Night. Because each piece is so short – just like a snapshot – each word has to count. The wrong word or jarring rhythm will stand out right away. 

Which three components make a great picture book?
I think you need more than three: Afresh idea (or an original slant on an old idea), appealing characters, a good little story which moves along, a satisfying resolution, and, of course, the best words teamed up with the best pictures. Because a picture book is only thirty-two pages, there is no room for sub-plots or too many characters. I think you need one strong idea – it’s like the backbone of the story. 

Which picture book do you wish you had written?
I have to mention at least eight! Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. John Brown, Rose and Midnight Cat by Jenny Wagner. Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag. Owl Babies by Martin Waddell. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. 

What are the greatest obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey?
My biggest obstacle has actually been my own lack of endurance – I’ve started many novels over the years, but have finished very few of them. To me, writing a novel is like running a marathon – as I’m small and light I think I make a better sprinter! But I’m determined to try to do better…

How has the children’s literary scene in Australia changed in the past decade and where is it headed? I think it’s getting harder to get picture books accepted because they’re increasingly expensive to produce, and I don’t think many publishers are too keen on publishing ‘difficult’ texts. On the other hand, there seems to be an insatiable market for fantasy novels and series novels. So my advice to new authors would be to write some novels for younger readers because they’re more likely to be accepted readily. 

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
If I had the talent (which I don’t have) I would love to be a painter. I can’t think of anything better than messing about with charcoal, pencils and paint. I love the work of Joy Hester – it’s so expressive and emotional. Child psychology interests me a lot, as does art history. 

What books did you read and love as a child?
As soon as I discovered I could read easily and fluently, I devoured every book I could lay my hands on. All of Enid Blyton’s books, the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, Seven Little Australians and other books by Ethel Turner, Little Women and other books by Louisa May Alcott, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, Greek myths and endless collections of fairy tales (My favourites were The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and The Selfish Giant). 

Describe your typical daily writing process.
First of all, coffee! I don’t actually work any set hours. If I’m engrossed in a book, I’ll think about it constantly and will probably be at my computer for a few hours at a time. When I get stuck, I simply go and have a good lie-down for a while. Somehow just by relaxing, I find that problems seem to sort themselves out. A fresh idea gives me renewed impetus to go back to the story. I often work on several projects at a time. If I get bored or fed-up with one, I can have a break by doing some work on another one. 

Do you have any words of wisdom for budding children’s authors and illustrators?
Really, just do it. Many people I speak to say they want to write or illustrate, but they actually haven’t completed anything. Write it, send it off to a publisher and while you’re waiting for a response, get on with the next story. Be determined and resilient, accept rejection and criticism. The publisher and editor are there to help you make the best book possible. 

Describe yourself in five words.
An optimistic work in progress. 

What’s next for Margaret Wild?
A couple of fantasy novels for children 9-12, a verse novel for the same age-group, a novel for older readers (if I ever finish it) and several picture books. 

Don't miss Margaret's beautiful new book, illustrated by Ron Brooks - The Dream of the Thylacine - and look out for her picture book for older readers, Vampyre, with an amazingly talented new illustrator, Andrew Yeo nad her new book with Jan Ormerod, Itsy-Bity Animals.

Learn a little more about Margaret here