Today my friend Angela and I had the good fortune of hearing four wonderful children’s authors talk at the Oxford Literary Festival: Jonathan Stroud, Tamsyn Murray, SF Said and Lauren St John. As writers ourselves, we were super-excited to hear any gems of advice the quartet could pass our way and we were relieved that they had all made it here despite the snow and Arctic winds.
Jonathan Stroud Tamsyn Murray SF Said Lauren St John
A few years back, Jonathan Stroud started up a ‘Freedom to Think’ Campaign in order to address a worrying realisation that children, nowadays, perhaps did not have the time they need to be creative. Pressures from school (increasing homework demands) and from technology (tablets, smart phones, etc) mean that children perhaps don’t have the necessary downtime to dream and just be.
Today’s talk, entitled ‘Get Creative’, was an opportunity for Stroud and the others to treat the audience to anecdotes about what first inspired them to become creative.
Jonathan told us that ill health during his childhood meant he spent a lot of time sketching and creating his own games (which were recently unearthed in his parents’ attic when they were having a clear-out).
Tamsyn talked about one of her friends, with whom she would exchange crazy letters, and also designed her own ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book (I LOVED those when I was younger).
SF Said treated us to a picture of his younger self dressed in a homemade superhero costume, comprising shorts, T shirt, a shield and prescription swimming goggles. He devoured Marvel comics and created his own superhero Black Cat, who, judging by the accompany illustration, was extremely muscular. It is no surprise that Said’s first book, Varjak Paw, is about a cat with amazing martial arts skills (I’d like to say my two share the same abilities but they really don’t – they are even too frightened to open the cat flap and poke at it pathetically until one of us opens the door).
Lauren St John grew up in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and spent much of her childhood on a kind of game farm that her parents ran. This enabled her to watch creatures such as a baby giraffe and pythons at close range and she entertained herself by spending hours sketching them and reading (and rereading) any books that they had in the house.
At this point there was a brief pause in the session to challenge the four’s drawing ability. Jonathan took suggestions from the audience with just two stipulations: it had to be an animal and it had to be wearing something. Lauren and SF faired better – the suggestions were kinder and more, er, normal from earlier participants. Lauren was asked to draw a giraffe wearing wellies and SF had to draw a dog … wearing a cat costume.
Now the audience had started giggling, the requests were becoming more daring. Poor Tamsyn was asked to draw a pangolin wearing an aqua-lung. My friend Angela and I didn’t even KNOW what a pangolin was (I thought it was a mix between a penguin and a violin, don’t ask me why. In fact, I just asked my husband and he thought it was a musical instrument too). FYI this is a picture of a pangolin (but not wearing an aqua-lung).
Finally, Jonathan Stroud had to draw a platypus duck wearing a top hat, which luckily didn’t seem to faze him.
After this, the authors returned to their current writing situation and we learned some fascinating facts:
- SF Said writes LOTS of drafts. Varjak Paw went through 17 before it was published and one key part of the book (at the beginning, with the famous pair of black cats) only appeared in the 16th draft.
- Lauren St John describes herself as a valet to her much-loved Bengal cat Max. Every morning, she and Max go for an early-morning walk (Max on a lead) and then she comes back home to write. She tends to work from home because Max loves her to be there and happily sits with her while she’s at her desk.
- Tamsyn Murray likes to have a very general structure in place when she starts a book – at least the ending, a few key points in the middle too. What happens around that can be experimental but she likes to have a few anchors in there to have a rough map of where she’s going.
- Jonathan Stroud admitted that he’s very secretive about his first draft(s) until he’s feeling a little more secure in the story and what’s happening. He also encouraged writers to jump in anywhere – not to feel dictated to by a linear narrative. Why not write a scene near the end if it’s in your mind, even if you’re still at the beginning?
- SF Said revealed that he does most of his writing at his local library. This doesn’t totally surprise me as he is such a devoted and passionate advocate for libraries (YAY!) but I was amazed to hear that he does two fairly long tranches in there – from around 9am till midday and then late afternoon till closing time.
And then we were out of time. It really was a fantastic opportunity to learn more about these writers’ creativity and work patterns and just to put real faces to names (instead of virtual!). If you get the opportunity to see any of these authors at events, I urge you to do so; you never know where it may lead! (I’m off to learn more about pangolins…)
If you’re in or near Oxford in the next week or so, why not check out the Literary Festival? http://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/
- Jonathan Stroud is the author of many children’s books, including the Bartimaeus and Lockwood & Co series (personal favourites of mine, as a fan of ghost stories!). http://www.jonathanstroud.com/
- Tamsyn Murray has written stories for a wide range of ages, from the Stunt Bunny series for younger readers, Completely Cassidy (for middle readers) and more recently the YA novel Instructions for a Second-Hand Heart. http://www.tamsynmurray.co.uk/
- SF Said is the award-winning author of Varjak Paw, its sequel The Outlaw Varjak Paw and the fantasy novel Phoenix. http://www.sfsaid.com/
- Lauren St John has written various series, including the White Giraffe, Laura Marlin mysteries and One Dollar Horse. http://laurenstjohn.com/