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Interview with Author Karen Collum

I had the pleasure of interviewing Australian author Karen Collum recently, who's first three picture books come out this year, and I'm really excited to share it with you. Karen was very generous with her time and answers. What a sweetheart!

Hi Karen! Could you start things off by telling us a little about yourself?

Hi Casey. Firstly, thanks so much for having me as a guest on your blog. I've been a regular reader of yours for quite a while now so it's very exciting for me to have the opportunity to talk about my work.

OK, a little about myself... I live in Brisbane, Australia and I'm a stay-at-home mum to three gorgeous, active and mischievous pre-school boys, including a set of identical twins. Before I had my boys I was a primary school teacher (equivalent to elementary school). I grew up in the beautiful island state of Tasmania and I married a guy all the way from Alabama. (He came to Australia to do a year's volunteering as a Youth Worker and 16 years later, he's still here!) It was a case of a truly southern girl (Tassie is pretty close to Antarctica) marrying a good ol' southern boy.

Apart from writing, I'm passionate about my kids, intentional parenting and optimism. I have a real interest in optimistic thinking skills and admire the work of American psychologist, Dr Martin Seligman. The more I read, the more I'm convinced that our experience of the world is largely to do with the sorts of thoughts we entertain. Although some people are by nature more optimistic than others, we can all learn skills that can enhance our quality of life. I'm really concerned about the level of depression and negativity in young people and would love to see more money and time invested into developing optimistic thinking skills in kids. I love the concept of learning to be optimistic, yet realistic. All of us can benefit from challenging our own thinking patterns and looking for ways to develop new, healthier patterns. It's not easy, but I'm living proof that it's possible.

What a great thing to be passionate about! We could certainly use more positivity and optimism in the world. You have three picture books coming out in 2010: Fish Don't Need Snorkels, When I Look at You: A book about my feelings, and Samuel's Kisses. Can you tell us a little about each of them, and where they'll be available for purchase?

Fish Don't Need Snorkels and When I Look at You are books for the Christian market. They are published by a small publisher in the UK, Stanborough Press, which is the publisher affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They produce wonderful books and I'm very excited to be working with them. The books are available for order from Adventist Book Centre online - http://www.adventistbookcenter.com/.

Samuel's Kisses is my first trade publication and is published by New Frontier Publishing. New Frontier have an amazing range of picture books with optimistic themes which suits me beautifully. I feel very privileged to be part of the New Frontier family and work with people who care so much about producing quality books for kids. You can order Samuel's Kisses from http://www.newfrontier.com.au/home.htm and I suggest you pick up some of their other titles while you're there.

All three of your picture books sound fabulous, and it looks like you're in good company with both publishers. You must be thrilled! Are you doing anything fun for the release of your books? What do you have up your sleeve for promotion?

I'm still brainstorming, but I like the idea of having a kid-friendly event such as a book birthday party. I'm not sophisticated in any way, shape or form, so the whole cocktail party thing with lots of milling around and chatting terrifies me! I'd much rather have a bunch of rowdy kids and their parents in a hall for an afternoon of food, fun and festivities, with a book launch thrown in, of course. I still can't believe I'm actually going to be launching three books this year. It's so exciting :)

I'm all about the kid-friendly launch myself, as well. You're going to have so much fun! Now, what was it like seeing the illustrations for Fish Don't Need Snorkels for the first time? From the illustrations on your website, it looks like your illustrator, Chiara Vercesi, did an amazing job.

I was thrilled when my editor decided to go with Chiara for Fish Don't Need Snorkels, as this is her first picture book too. It was a nice synchronicity for both of us to be launching our careers at the same time. Chiara has done an amazing job and kindly allowed me to use the images from the book for my website. I am always stunned when I see how an illustrator interprets my work. As a non-artistically talented writer, I have an image in my head of what the illustrations might look like, but no way of bringing them to life. Illustrators bring so much depth to the text and the end product always seems to surpass the image in my head by a mile. Chiara is no exception. She's created something much more beautiful and meaningful than I could have ever imagined. It's a real privilege to work with illustrators and on the whole, I don't think they get the credit they deserve.

I can't wait to see the rest of the illustrations. They're just darling. I especially love the turtle featured on the bottom of your site. What did your journey from aspiring author to published author entail? What were the key milestones along the way?

Like most people, mine has been a long journey. When I was just a little girl I dreamed of being an author, but I had no concept that I could actually become one. I thought authors were this special, elusive group of people who were somehow magical and ethereal. I was ordinary, so I thought that ruled me out. I didn't grow up in a particularly cultured or artistic family. Mum and Dad were (and still are) very supportive of my creative endeavours, and both of them are quite wordy people, however it was always an expectation that I would have a 'real' job. Being an author didn't fall into that category. And although I excelled at school, especially in English, no teacher ever said, "Hey, Karen. Have you thought about being a writer?" Instead, I was channelled into the Sciences because I was a really good student and that's where really good students with good marks go. The funny thing was, nothing made my heart sing like writing.

A major stumbling block was when I finally took a gamble and enrolled in a Creative Writing course in Year 12. It was my all-time favourite subject and I did exceptionally well. However, when our work was marked by an external examiner, I barely passed. To this day I'm still not sure how there could have been such a great disparity, but it knocked my confidence for a six. It was almost the nail in the coffin for my dream and literally took me years to get over.

I've always been a writer, but didn't ever have the confidence to show my work to anyone or take my own work seriously. I wrote my first picture book 13 years ago in my first year of teaching and I think I've still got it hidden in a box somewhere. I also had no clue about how the industry worked. Being an author was this lofty dream that I had but I lacked the knowledge
and skills to bring it to fruition.

When I was teaching, I always looked for picture books that I could use in my classroom. I was an upper primary teacher (grades 5 & 6) and felt that picture books could be extremely powerful for this age group, even though most picture books aren't written for 10-12 year olds. I think the value of picture books for older childreorn is underestimated. Through reading to my class, I gathered a lot of knowledge - albeit unwittingly - about what makes a great picture book.

Fast forward almost 10 years and I was a stay-at-home mum to my oldest son. When he was about 18 months old, I finally decided I couldn't ignore the desire to write any longer. I'd started (but not finished) at least three novels that could be classed as Christian chicklit. Writing was vitally important to me and yet I had never explored it fully. Why? Because I was scared. I was just as scared of success as I was of failure. What if I was hopeless? And what if I wrote a best-seller? Both of those extremes terrified me.

I decided that being a writer wasn't something that I did - it was who I was. It was part of a process of self-discovery that took me many years. I then decided I knew nothing about the industry so I set about educating myself as quickly as possible. I researched online, discovered blogging and joined the Queensland Writer's Centre. I took my first writing course in July, 2007, just before I fell pregnant with my twins. I started writing regularly (mainly picture books) and that's when I wrote Samuel's Kisses. My son, Samuel, was a huge source of inspiration and gave me many ideas to write about as I developed my confidence.

The real turning point came, however, when I went to a workshop with a Canadian Christian author, Trudy J Morgan-Cole in March, 2008. It was a day-long workshop and I was 34 weeks pregnant with my twins at the time. Everyone thought I was going to go into labour at any moment! What struck me about Trudy was that in spite of her talent with words and impressive publishing resume, she was ordinary. She was an ordinary wife, mum and teacher who also happened to be a writer. There wasn't anything magical or ethereal about her. For the first time ever, I honestly believed that I could be a writer.

I went home that day and decided that I was going to submit something to a publisher the following day. So what if I got a rejection? My goal was to plaster my wall with rejection letters as that was living proof that I was putting myself out there and taking a risk. I was ready to do that.

I had written a therapeutic picture book for kids whose parents suffer some sort of addiction issue such as gambling or drinking or drugs. I knew which publisher it would suit and I decided then and there that I would write my very first query and email them. I did just that, and lo and behold, within 2 hours I had my very first acceptance! My story is surreal, in that sense, but unfortunately it doesn't have a happy ending. Although the editor loved my work, the publisher was a very small boutique publisher attached to a non-profit organisation. Their primary business was printing therapeutic card sets, not books. And when the Global Financial Crisis hit, they had to make some tough decisions and revert back to their core business, thus closing their entire book publishing division. I was really disappointed, of course, but didn't have any regrets. The fact THERE'S AN ELEPHANT IN MY LOUNGEROOM never went to print didn't negate the fact that my work was good enough to publish. I had been given such a confidence boost that it enabled me to carry on submitting. Shortly after I submitted SAMUEL'S KISSES to a number of publishers, including New Frontier. That was accepted in April 2009. Shortly afterwards, a Christian editor I know from Signs Publishing here in Australia was contacted by the editor from Stanborough Press asking if he could recommend any Australian children's authors. He suggested my name and thus my relationship with Stanborough Press began.

You've certainly had quite the writing journey. Discovering how human authors are has been a real eye opener for me as well, so I totally relate. Do you have a literary agent? If so, how did you come to work with him/her? If not, feel free to tell us about your publishers instead!

I would love an agent, however there are very few literary agents in Australia and even fewer who take on children's authors. I'm continuing to submit to agents, including those based overseas, but as I've had reasonable success on my own I'm going to keep on plugging away myself in the meantime. A literary agent is another dream of mine, but I'm all too aware of how competitive the industry is. I probably need to get a few more contracts under my belt before I become an attractive proposition in this tough market.

My contract with New Frontier came about through the good old slush pile. I am living proof that it's worth your while to go through the unsolicited submissions process. My manuscript jumped out at the editor there and she was really excited about the story. SAMUEL'S KISSES has undergone some minor editing, but essentially it is exactly the same as when I submitted. It's currently being illustrated by the talented Australian artist, Janine Dawson. I haven't seen any illustrations yet, but it shouldn't be too long! I can't wait.

As I said above (sorry! I jumped the gun!), Stanborough Press actually approached me. They had a few ideas for books they wanted written, and during our discussions I mentioned that I already had some picture books ready to go. They wanted to see them and before I knew it, I had two more contracts. I'm working on a few other manuscripts with Stanborough at the moment and I hope it's just the start of a long and productive relationship on both sides.

I love to hear a good ol' slush story! I definitely think you have a long career ahead of you. Is there anything that you've learned or experienced during the publishing process that's surprised you?

The publishing process is so sloooooooooow! I hadn't realised how much waiting there is when you're an author. Waiting to hear back from a publisher or an agent can drive me crazy, so I always have multiple projects on the go at once. Even once you get that long-awaited acceptance, it's often a long wait until you get the contract, then another long wait to publication. I can't wait to hold a book with my name on it in my hands!!

Something else that has been a pleasant surprise is just how supportive the children's writing community is. I have gotten to know all sorts of wonderful people through Twitter, Facebook and Yahoo Groups who have long and amazing publishing histories. People like Wendy Orr, Sally Odgers and Gabrielle Wang are stalwarts of the children's literature industry in Australia. They, along with many, many other authors, have been so willing to offer support, advice and encouragement. It really is worthwhile getting out there and networking. I've made some great friends as well and have found a place where I can share the ups and downs of the writing journey with people who truly understand.

I can already see readers nodding; publishing is definitely slow. And the children's writing community is absolutely priceless, yes! What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Educate yourself about how the industry works. Like any industry, there are protocols and unwritten rules. If you understand these before you start submitting you'll be in a good position to get your work noticed. Follow blogs from agents and editors and published authors. My favourite blog at the moment is by literary agent, Mary Kole (http://kidlit.com). Mary provides awesome advice on what agents want as well as an overview of the industry as a whole. You can't put a price on advice like hers.

Also, join SCBWI or your local writer's centre. It's really important that you keep growing and challenging yourself as a writer. It's also very important to surround yourself with people who understand what it's like to put your heart and soul into a manuscript only to have it rejected. I'm an optimist at heart, but some days it's really nice to have people to help me pick myself up and keep on going!

Finally, there's only one way to finish a book: Write your way to the end. For a long time I was fine writing picture books or short stories, but a full-length novel overwhelmed me. I used to hit the wall at around the 30,000 word mark. NaNoWriMo 2008 introduced me to the concept of writing with word counts in mind rather than quality. My inner editor was vicious and would cut me off before I really got started. NaNo banished my editor temporarily, and along with discovering a planning tool called the Snowflake Method which helped me plan my novel, I managed to write 65,000 words in a month. I've since finished the first draft of a full-length adult novel for the Christian market and am using that manuscript for my Year of the Edit course. The feeling when I got the end of my first draft (85,000 words all up) was indescribable. It was such an achievement and something I wondered if I'd ever experience.

I also write the first drafts of anything longer than a picture book on my Alphasmart NEO. A NEO is a simple word-processor with a very small screen and no bells and whistles. All you can do on it is type. When I write on my NEO, my inner critic can't come out to play because there's only four lines of text visible at any one time. It turns out my editor has a short memory; she doesn't critique what she can't see. Using the NEO has allowed me to go with the flow and write my way to the end of my first draft and leave the editing until later. NEO is also very portable and sturdy and has instant on/off and instant save features. I can take it anywhere and easily sit and write. Once I've finished a writing session, I upload it to my laptop for editing sometime in the future. It really has been a fantastic investment for me and enabled me to get to the end of the first draft. And as someone once said, you can't edit what you haven't written.

I've never heard of a NEO but it sounds like something I need to go out and buy today. You must be working on something new. Can you divulge anything about your current work(s)-in-progress?

I'm not at all superstitious so I'm more than happy to talk about what I'm working on. Although I am passionate about picture books, I also write junior novels and middle grade novels. Right now I'm working on a middle grade novel called EMMA DELANEY. It's about a girl who wants to learn to fly but her mum is dead-set against the idea. She has no idea why, until a series of coincidences lead her to clues about the identity of her absent father, who just happens to be a pilot. It's great fun to write and I'm about 1/3 of the way in. I started it in NaNoWriMo 2009 but abandoned it because it wasn't working (I wrote something else for NaNo instead). I've reworked the plot, changed it significantly and am much happier with the concept at a whole. Emma is a great character to write and I'm really enjoying getting inside her head.

I've also got a number of picture books in various stage of editing, and of course I'm submitting everything that's finished wherever I can.

Your middle grade sounds like a lot of fun just from your description. I'll be looking forward to seeing it published someday. ; ) You're managing a writing career alongside a family. What's your writing
process like? Do you have any tips on writing while raising children?

For me, it's about finding time to write that doesn't impact on my family. I have chosen to be a stay-at-home mum (and consider it a real privilege) so my priorities need to reflect that. My husband works from home which means he has more flexibility in his job than a lot of dads, however I rarely have child-free time during the day. Just this year I've started a new habit which is working really well. My boys are late risers so they don't get up until about 7:30am. I've been getting up at 5:30am and going for a walk/jog and then writing for an hour or more before they get up. When the boys wake up I put my 'mum' hat back on and am free to meet their ever-changing needs during the day. I used to write late at night when the kids were in bed, but I found it was affecting my sleep too much. My brain would be buzzing from the creative process and I would lie in bed for hours trying to come down from the writing high. The next morning I would be grumpy and irritable with the kids and it wasn't fair to any of us. Writing in the morning seems to be working better for me on that front.

I also think a big key to balancing family and writing is organisation. I have a roster on my fridge that tells me what cleaning jobs I'm doing on a given day. With a 4-year-old and 20-month-old twins, it's hard to keep up with the cooking and cleaning. By rostering the cleaning I only have a couple of jobs to do each day. I'm very goal oriented so it works for me to have little goals to work towards each day. Otherwise I can feel like I'm forever chasing my tail, the house is always a disaster and I'm never on top of things.

Although sometimes I'm inevitably frustrated by how little time I get to write, I also know that this high-dependency stage in my children's lives won't last forever. My oldest son started Kinder this week and it will only be two more years and the twins will be going to pre-school too. I don't want to miss out on this precious stage in my kids' lives by wishing they were older or lamenting the fact I'm too busy to write. Ultimately, I can't find time to write - I have to MAKE time to write. Getting up early is the way that works best for me. I accept the fact that right now my output is lower than I would like it to be, but that is balanced by the knowledge that I'm intimately involved in my kids' lives. I wouldn't choose to be anywhere else right now.

I've also negotiated with my husband for a few Sundays here and there to work on my writing. I'm still coming to terms with the editing process on larger manuscripts, so I've enrolled in a Year of the Edit course at the Queensland Writer's Centre. The course runs on six Sundays across six months so is manageable for us as a family. I can't wait to gain the skills I need to feel confident in editing.

And, every second Monday night I'm part of a critique book using Google Wave. Two other Aussie authors and I get together online and critique picture books. It's really helpful being part of a regular group and I look forward to those nights, although it's a bit of a rush getting everyone into bed on time!

I love how clearly you've defined your priorities and schedule. I feel like I'm always struggling to manage mine. Inspiring! Where can readers stay up-to-date on the latest and greatest on you and
your books?

I am delighted to show the world my brand new website, http://www.karencollum.com.au. I have wanted a website for a long time and last November finally decided to take the plunge and engage the services of a great web designer. My website also includes my blog, which I update regularly. I write about the writing process, things I've learned plus general thoughts on what it's like to be a writer. It's only when I talk to a writer who is at the beginning of their journey, like I was just a few years ago, that I realise how much I've actually learned. I'd like to think I can help someone else by sharing the little bit of knowledge I have.

Well, I certianly love your new website. I think it will be a great success. To close, what's one interview question you haven't been asked and wish you would be? And please, answer it!

This is my very first interview (yay! Thanks again, Casey), so I guess there are a lot of questions that haven't been asked of me yet. Perhaps the most important one to me is, "Why do you write?" For me, the answer is that I believe that kids need top quality, optimistic, hope-filled books that inspire, encourage and challenge them to dream big and reach their potential. Kids have a lot of burdens today and I think that while there's a place to address those burdens, we also need to give them hope. Without hope, life becomes shades of grey rather than the vibrant, wonderful, colourful experience it can be. If I can have a positive impact on even one child through my writing, then I will have fulfilled my calling. Being a writer is not something I do, it's who I am, and I feel the responsibility to use my gifts to make a positive contribution to the world. It sounds big, I know, but I do believe each one of us can be an agent for good, even in
small ways.

You're writing for all the right reasons, Karen. What a beautiful person you are! Thanks so much for your time. It was such a pleasure getting to know you and your books better!

10 comments:

  1. Casey, thank you so much for interviewing me (and I apologise for being TOO generous with my answers - I need to remember less is more!). You will forever be remembered by me as the person who interviewed me first.

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  2. Three books coming out this year? Amazing! Great interview, Karen, and I love your website. The illustrations are adorable. Congratulations on your success, and good luck with the book birthday party!

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  3. ^Hi other Beth!

    I really like the concept of a kid-friendly book launch. I'd not really thought of that before, but it sounds pretty terrific.

    Also: love the picture with the dog!

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  4. Casey and Karen-what a wonderful interview! I checked out Seligman, and am looking into his Optimistic Child book. Thanks for the reference. This is so exciting that you have three books coming out! Congratulations. I can't wait to see them!

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  5. You're welcome, Karen. It was such a pleasure. I can't wait to say I knew you when!

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  6. Great interview, Casey and Karen. It's always fun to hear from new authors who are making it even without agents. Thanks for the inspiration!

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  7. I really admire PB writers--a genre that I love and absolutely cannot write. Great interview.

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  8. Whoa! Quite an interview!! Thanks for sharing!! yay for first interviews!!

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  9. What a fascinating interview. I especially like the part about being able to learn optimism. I could use a little more of that! :)

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  10. Karen's words in this interview bubble with the same fun and optimism we see in her work. Hot Tip: we will be reading lots more from this very talented writer!

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