Gill Lewis is a well-known children’s writer and I was delighted last year when she agreed to be on of our Paws judges. I was also delighted when she agreed to take the spotlight on my blog … so nice warm welcome please …
Hi! I’m Gill Lewis. I’m probably best known for my first book, Sky Hawk, a story about an osprey and how its migration connects children in Scotland and The Gambia. My stories reflect my passion for wildlife and wild places, and are influenced by my work in my previous non-writing life as a vet.
Have you always wanted to be a published writer? Tell us something about your path to having your first book/story published.
At primary school, I was a day-dreamer. I loved imagining stories; living in worlds where the margins of the imagined blurred with reality. I loved writing illustrated stories. However, secondary school sounded the death knell of creative writing and focused instead on spelling and grammar and text analysis. Because I struggled with spelling and was constantly criticised for messy handwriting, I never considered being an author. My first love was of animals and so I followed my dream to become a vet. While taking some time off after my children were born, I found the time to tell them stories and write some down. I entered a picture book text competition, and came runner-up. The picture book was published and it felt great to hold a published book in my hand. In the following five years, I tried to find a publisher and an agent, but faced many rejections. I had two near-misses with agents and wanted to see if I could improve my writing and so enrolled on the MA Writing for Young People at Bath Spa. The manuscript I developed on the course became Sky Hawk.
Do you have an agent? If not did you try to get one? Any advice about that?
I do have a lovely agent. There are pros and cons of having an agent. Many publishers will not look at unsolicited submissions, and so for many people, the route to finding a publisher is through an agent. If an agent offers representation, I think it’s important to meet a prospective agent to ensure that the agent feels passionate about your work and will give sufficient time and energy to place your work. A good agent will have a thorough knowledge of the publishing industry and will have a good idea about which editors and publishers to approach with your manuscript. Agents take the hard work out of contract negotiations, payment, foreign and film rights. Agents are also a first port of call for new ideas and first draft of manuscripts.
Do or did you ever belong to a writing group? Crit group? Did you ever have someone professionally critique your work before first submitting? Or do you have friends or anyone else who sees it before you send it off? Has that changed since you became a ‘successful author’?
On the MA in Writing for Young People, all the students critiqued each other’s work on a regular basis. This really helped to see where we were gong right or going wrong. I had a manuscript tutor on the course and this really helped me understand how to edit my own work. I do keep in contact with a small group of writers from the course, but we rarely get time to meet, as we are all too busy writing!
Who did you first tell when you heard your first book had been accepted?
My dog was the only one in the house at the time, so I told him. He didn’t get too excited about it all. But I can remember exactly where I sat and the time that I answered the phone call from my agent. After years of trying to write and find a publisher, everything came together in that one amazing moment.
What happened next? Can you tell us something about working with an editor? How important is that to you now – is there a lot of discussion and does the editor make a real difference to your work?
Working with an editor is such an important part. My editor does a first read, as a reader would and then reads again. This separates the wheat from the chaff, and finds the parts of the story that are irrelevant or do not move the story forward. This is where whole chapters are omitted or inserted, beginnings changed and characters developed and refined. Then comes the fine-tuning, tying up loose ends, strengthening characters etc. The copy editor then goes through it and finds all the little details, for example, in Moon Bear, I hadn’t realised that the boy character as wearing shoes one moment and none the next.
Tell us something about your writing day, routine.
There is never an average day, although I do have to set strict time aside to write or research. I find I’m most creative between 9am and 1pm. If I have a strict deadline looming then I work after lunch until school pick up time. I usually use the afternoons and evenings to catch up on emails and other non-writing stuff.
When I’m working on a new fresh draft, it takes me about an hour to sink back into the story, then another half hour to get a cup of coffee and put some washing on, and then at about 10.30am I start to write. I’ve tried to eliminate this seemingly wasted hour and a half, but have found that I can’t … I think I need it to ‘see’ the story in my head. I’m an incredibly slow writer and find that if I give myself word count deadlines then I tend to panic. Instead, I try to visualise a scene and write that scene. I probably average about 1000 words on a good day. I wish I was the sort of author who can write in cafes and pubs and parks. I need an empty house and peace and quiet.
What or who inspires you most, people, authors, books? Why animals?
People and animals inspire me in equal measure. Often the spark of a story idea begins with something I’ve heard on the news, or from an article that I’ve read. Everyone has an interesting story to tell about their own life. Stories are out there. I write about animals, because I have always had a fascination with them. I was the sort of child who could spend hours in the garden, watching ants and beetles and worms. When I left school I trained to become a vet, and it was the human stories wrapped around the animal stories that became so fascinating. I think animals in real life act as catalysts for change. They bring people together and help us to understand each other.
Why do you write? (Now that’s the question!) What do you want your stories to do?
Yes, that’s a difficult one. I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it’s part of the human condition; wanting to share ideas and knowledge and stories. Although I don’t set out to write a story with a message, I hope child readers will feel empowered that they can do positive things to care for the environment.
How much marketing have you had to do, even with a big publisher? How comfortable are you with self-promotion?
The publishers have done a great job with marketing and promotion, but I think there is more pressure on authors to get themselves ‘out there’ and noticed in a competitive market.
Self promotion comes in different guises. I’m definitely NOT comfortable with direct self-promotion; the sort where you strut about thrusting your book under people’s noses, yelling, ‘BUY MY BOOK! YOU”LL LOVE IT!’ It’s very cringeworthy and I think it probably puts people off.
However, I do think it’s important to be accessible to readers through email, social media and a presence in schools and festivals. I love going into schools to talk about being an author and about the inspiration behind my books. I don’t take books along to buy, but suggest that the school liaise with a local bookseller or with the publishers to give children opportunities to buy the book on the day. If children want to buy a book, that’s great and if they don’t that’s okay too. Many children can’t afford to buy a book, but the school library usually gets a copy for children to borrow.
Tell us about the latest published book …
Moon Bear will be published in May 2013. It is a story about a boy and a bear longing to return to their mountain home. The story first started as an idea when I read an article about the cruel practice of bear bile farming in South East Asia. As I began to research around the subject, the story took a life of its own, exploring deforestation, village clearances for dam building, loss of traditional cultures, urbanisation of populations. It became a story about animal rights and human rights and how individuals can have their voices heard and make great changes.
Moon Bear is available at all good book shops and online! However, if you have independent bookshops near you, then go there. Our indies need our support.
What next? Tell us about work in progress and aspirations. Where do you see yourself in ten years time?
I can’t tell you exactly what the work in progress is about, because it feels as if it jinxes the story! It’s a little different to my other three books.
Ten years time? Crumbs! I don’t know. I try never to think too far ahead, because life has a strange way of taking you off in directions never planned. I hope I’ll have written a few more books and be living by the sea.
Any advice for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Hold the dream. Listen to good advice, ignore bad advice and learn to know the difference. Keep it real and don’t give up the day job…yet!
There are lots of people who have dreams about becoming a writer. Many will turn back at the first obstacle … maybe a rejection, an unkind word or maybe it all just seems too competitive. You’ll hear lots of people say, it’s an overcrowded market, the likelihood of finding an agent or publisher is so small it’s hardly worth the bother of putting all that effort in. If nothing is going to come of it, why waste all that time and effort? If you really feel that, then now is probably the time to give up. But if you really, really want to be a writer, then you probably feel the need to write despite being knocked by rejection. I had a whole drawer full of rejections, but somehow, I kept on writing. A couple of agents became interested in my work, only to decide it wasn’t for them when they read the whole manuscript. However, I felt I was inching a little closer to my dream. I wanted to improve and enrolled on a writing course. It was a steep learning curve, but it was the turning point for me. I learned how to re-write, and how to edit. I am still learning all the time, trying to become a better writer. But that dream of writing and holding a book that I’d written in my hand, actually happened. I didn’t know the ‘right’ people in publishing. I wasn’t a child protégée in English. It happened simply because I had a dream, I worked hard and didn’t give up. It might not make you a millionaire, but to hold your own book in your hand does make you happy.
Tell us something random about you for the pure hell of it
I’ve been told on good authority that we have an inter-dimensional portal in our garden, but I haven’t found it yet.
Can we read an extract of your work?
This is an extract from Moon Bear. Set at the beginning of the book, this extract is in fact a story within a story.
The First Storm
My grandfather and father were Bee Men. They could talk to bees. They understood them and their ways.
On moonless nights, they would climb the smooth bark of the Bee Tree to collect wild honey. The bees told them everything; where to hunt for wild game, when the forest fruits had ripened and when the rains would come.
Grandfather always told me that we could learn much from bees.
On cool winter evenings when the rain would funnel up from the valleys and spit and fizzle in the fire, I’d pull a blanket around me sit close to him.
‘Tell me the story of Nâam-Pèng,’ I’d say.
Grandfather would smile. ‘Nâam-pèng? Who’s he?’
‘Nâam-pèng, the bravest bee.’
‘Pah!’ Grandfather would say. ‘He was only a small bee. Hardly worth a mention.’
‘Please tell me,’ I’d beg. ‘Tell me the story of Nâam-pèng.’
Grandfather would wrap a betel nut in a leaf, and chew it slowly. ‘Ah, well,’ he’d say. ‘Ah well.’
I’d pull my knees up under my chin and stare into the fire and watch the flames leap and dance and tell the story too.
‘Long, long ago,’ Grandfather would begin, ‘when the world was bright and new, a Great River came flowing down from the White Mountains. This river brought forests filled with tigers and elephants, moon bears and sun bears, clouded leopards and marbled cats, mousedeer and macaques and weaverbirds and…’ Grandfather would take a deep breath, ‘…so many animals, I would not live long enough to name them all. These forests reached up to the sky and caught the rain clouds in their branches, and soon there were many rivers flowing into the Great River, all of them teeming with fish.’
‘But a monster came, didn’t it?’ I’d say. I loved this part.
Grandfather frowned and nodded. ‘But one day a monster came. Tám-Láai came in the dark before the dawn, striding through the forests, eating the animals and trees, spitting bones and pith onto the ground. He devoured anything and everything in his path. The animals ran and flew and swam for cover deeper into the forests, but still the monster came, tearing up the ground and drinking up the Great River so it became no more than a trickle, and the fish were left flapping and dying in the mud. By the end of the day, there was only a straggle of trees clinging to one small mountain. “Please leave us this forest,” the animals squawked, and hooted and barked and squeaked. “It is all we have left.” But still, the monster was hungry. He pulled himself up to his full height…’
When Grandfather got to this part, I would stand up and flap my blankets throwing giant shadows out behind me. I’d take a deep breath and roar, ‘ “I am Tám-Láai. I am Tám-Láai and I dare anyone to stop me.”’
Grandfather would pretend to cower. ‘All the animals hid together. Not even the tiger or the bear were a match for this monster. But just as Tám-Láai reached to tear the nearest tree from the ground, a small bee flew out from the forest and buzzed in front of Tám-Láai’s face.
“I am Nâam-pèng,” said the bee, “and I will stop you.”
The monster caught Nâam-pèng in his paw and threw back his head and laughed. “You?” he cried. “You are so small. Your sting would be no more than a pimple on me.”
Nâam-pèng buzzed inside his paw. “I am Nâam-pèng and I will stop you.”
Now when the other forest bees heard Nâam-pèng speak out so bravely, their hearts filled with hope and courage. Could they be as brave as Nâam-pèng too?
Tám-Láai bared his teeth and held Nâam-pèng by the wings. He stared deep into Nâam-pèng’s eyes. The sky darkened all around them. “You are nothing, little bee, nothing. It was not your bravery that brought you here, but your stupidity. Is there anything you wish to say before I crush you with my paw?”
Nâam-pèng quivered in fright but he looked the monster in the eye. “Tám-Láai…” he said.
“Speak up,” roared the monster. “I can hardly hear you.”
“Turn around,” said Nâam-pèng. “You must turn around.”
“Turn around? Me?” snorted Tám-Láai. “As it is your final wish…”
The monster turned.
Before him, swirled a huge black cloud. A storm of angry bees filled the whole sky, from end to end, blotting out the sun.
Tám-Láai crumpled to his knees.
“I may be small,” said Nâam-pèng, “but I am not alone. Did you not hear the bees?”’
© Gill Lewis OUP Oxford, 2013, with kind permission of the publisher. Can not be reproduced without permission
Find our more about Gill Lewis on her website … http://www.gilllewis.com/
Follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/gill_lewis
Many many thanks Gill for sharing some insights into your work and your writing life … and let’s hope it inspires some of my followers. Great interview, many thanks.
There might not be an In The Spotlight next week as I am waiting for some to come back … but will keep you all posted. And on an animal note I wend my way to Hampshire today to meet one of the great literary figures of children’s writing, none other than the author of Watership Down himself, Richard Adams. But at the grand age of 93 I will not be plunging him into the spotlight — just drinking tea and eating cake!
Have a great day all!