Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Interview with a Debut Author: JANIS MACKAY - Kelpies Prize Winner 2009

Hi Janis, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself.

Hello. I am from Edinburgh, live now in Caithness in the far north in a house next to the beach and have always, in different ways, worked with words. I was a journalist but soon realised that didn’t match the dream I nurtured of ‘being a writer.’ I did the travelling thing – wonderful adventures in Greece, Turkey, Israel and working on a yacht on the Mediterranean. I studied speech and drama, specialised in voice work and taught for a good while. Immersing myself in other people’s words was an excellent apprenticeship. I also became involved with the world of storytelling – so poetry, drama, stories – and speaking poetry, feeling the sounds and rhythms, aiming to bring the images in poems and stories to life – that has been my work for twenty years. I also took an MA in creative writing and personal development from the University of Sussex. I am also lucky to come from an artistic family. My aunt Helen started the Craigmillar Festival Society and as I was growing up that, and the annual inspiration of the Edinburgh Festival, all showed me that creativity and art helps set people free. I live with my lovely partner, our dog Flora and clucking hens.

Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest

There has always been something unusual about Magnus Fin, the school misfit. On his eleventh birthday Magnus throws a message in a bottle out to sea, wishing for a best friend and to be more brave -- and he gets a lot more than he bargained for. Magnus discovers that he is half selkie -- part seal, part human -- and his selkie family urgently need his help.

Can Magnus save his new-found family from the evil force threatening all the ocean’s creatures? And will he find the friend he has always dreamed of?

You recently won the Kelpies Prize 2009 for your novel Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest and the announcement was made at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. How did it feel to win and can you tell us a little more about the competition?

It was of course wonderful to win – and nerve racking. I had a feeling I would win but of course you want to prepare yourself for not winning – so by the time Joan Lingaard announced the winner I was ready to fall on the floor. I had recently come second in a short story competition, and was a runner up in the Mslexia poetry competition – so thought I’d be second again.

The competition runs every year and is for a novel for children aged 8 – 12, set in Scotland. I had written a story inspired by the sea and sent it to Hi-Arts for a critique (a fabulous free service for writers in the highlands) – and back came the critique with helpful suggestions, the last of which was, double the length then send this story to the Kelpies Prize! I did!

There's still time to enter this year's competition.  Follow the link for more details.

What inspired you to write Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest?

Living by the sea. I moved to this village two years ago and you cannot help but be touched and inspired by such a close and mysterious and ever changing neighbour. I was also shocked by the rubbish brought in on the tide – as well as a few treasures. My main key was the mast of a sunken ship. For a long time I didn’t know what it was but at low tide I would see this black stick appear – then I was told it was the mast of a sunken ship. That fired my imagination – thinking what else is unseen, or part seen. And also the curious kind heads of the seals – these creatures that can breathe on land and under water. Before writing the story I drew the images that were in my head – then I told the story to a friend.

Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest is your debut children’s novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a children’s novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

Three years ago I sat down and almost didn’t get up for a year – during that time I wrote a trilogy for children – about a girl who wants to be a highland dancer. I will need to return to it and re-write a lot. But I feel close to that story. It was all intuitive. Since then I’ve learnt more about the craft of novel writing. I also have many short stories about two characters called Willie and Bob and all the adventures they get up to. I wrote these for my nephews.

How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I have been pursuing writing for a long time – sometimes simmering on the back boiler and more recently moving to the forefront on the cooker. I really did always want to be a writer – from about the age of five. Journalism was, thought I, a proper job while at the same time I could ‘be a writer.’ The bad bargain as it turns out. I found the ink to run dry so that set me off on travels and then speech and drama. Probably all a good thing – having a life before writing. To improve my writing I have learnt many poems off by heart and told many traditional folk tales and listening to hundreds of stories. The sharing of the story –as the Scottish travellers say – eye to eye, mouth to mouth, heart to heart – was a rich way to be fed by stories. I also did various writing courses – Arvon, Sussex MA, Roselle Angwin’s novel writing course, and have been in supportive writing groups.

Would you recommend entering competitions, attending a writing course?

Yes – definitely. Having witnesses – being heard – and of course hearing other people’s writing – that, I feel, is part of the path today. And probably in the past too. Wordsworth helped Coleridge, the Brontes helped each other.

What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I have a sense of wonder and sometimes feel I can relate to children easier than to adults. I love to live in the moment and to imagine things. Children too.

Has winning the Kelpies Prize changed the way you approach your writing?

No. But I do have slight trepidation when it comes to writing a sequel. I think – well, it’s all fine to pour your imagination into a story and lo and behold, it does well. But to now conform to an expectation that the next one will also be good. Gulp! What if it’s not? What if it’s terrible? So it’s exciting to be in this part of the writer’s journey. It is a long journey and every step so varied. Honing the craft I feel is needed now.

Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

Ha-ha! Good question. When I wrote ‘The Highland Dancer’ the whole thing unfolded before my eyes like a film and I just wrote it down. With Magnus Fin it was mostly like that – but with a good deal of re-writing and editing to knock it into shape.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much have you had to do throughout the writing of Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest?

From the very first draft to the book the writing has gone through many transformations. It wouldn’t have made it if not and I think that’s another part of the writer’s life that serious writers need to take seriously. I suppose after several books the writing may come out more or less as it needs to. The North American Indians with the medicine wheel say that throughout our lifetime we should travel the different points of the compass – learn to see close up like a mouse, then with the perspective of an eagle. I think writing is like that. While I am doing it I am mouse like. For editing I need to be eagle like – but the real master eagle is the editor. When I first wrote this story the selkies were actually mermaids. But I kept one mermaid in!

Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your novels?

My partner’s daughter is a highland dancer and while I wrote ‘The Highland Dancer’ I read her parts every night. She seemed to like it. With Magnus Fin, because the hero is a boy, I read parts to my nephews. We were on North Ronaldsay – what a place! Seals everywhere. I told parts of the story to a few lads. I knew the story worked when they started to speak about what Magnus Fin would do and how Magnus Fin would like this etc. I was amazed. The characters were real and didn’t only belong to me anymore.

Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s/YA novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

As a storyteller I think storytelling should come first. My nephew Saul used to say – 'tell me a story with your mouth.’ That is immediate. That way there is no paper in between. It really is heart to heart. Then later, when they read themselves, that spirit of story is alive in them.

I read a lot of Jacqueline Wilson to my partner’s daughter which she thoroughly enjoyed. But I also read her the beginning of Great Expectations and I saw her eyes grow wide. She was totally hooked. With young children so much depends on the adult and whether they transfer their love of story and whether they can bring stories to life.

You also write for adults. Is it a market you’d like to continue to write for? Do you see yourself writing for both children and adults?

Yes, my adult novel was awarded a mentor through the Scottish arts council mentoring scheme. This was another great learning curve. I was involved in a four month mentoring process helping to knock my novel into shape. It is called ‘cry wolf’ and I am seeking agent representation. I am also writing a novel called ‘Woman with a letter in her hand’ based on the life of my grandmother. I do see myself writing for adults and children.

You’ve been a writer-in-residence in Caithness and Sutherland. Could you explain what the role of a writer-in-residence entails?

Yes – that’s a great thing. I was a writer-in-residence based in Caithness and I worked together with a glass artist and a visual artist. We went round various community groups giving workshops. I worked with elderly people, helping them write memoirs and with teenagers, who illustrated the stories of the elderly people. I created a book called ‘Caithness Voices’ which is a collection of writing from various community groups.

One man, Johnny Mackay, who was in one such group went on to write his own book. In the writing session I said to the people – write the words I remember – then see where it takes you. Johnny didn’t write anything for a while –then he put pencil to paper and basically carried on for 20,000 words. I edited his writing and helped him create a book. It’s called ‘Changes in a lifetime’ and he sold about 400 copies. These residencies are generally 50% for your own work, 50% to work with the community. For my own work I produced a book of poetry called ‘Facing North.’ I also made some very short poems engraved into glass. One of these, believe it or not, is in the collection of the National Museum of Scotland.

Then I was writer in residence in Sutherland. I shared this post with photographer Catriona Murray. We worked with children and gave them experiences of working with art and writing – in nature. This was really inspiring. Two more books were produced from this – my own poetry ‘A Winter’s Calendar,’ and a book of children’s art work and poetry ‘A field for the heart.’

Words from one of my poems is now engraved on a large glass statue outside Timespan arts centre in Helmsdale.

You perform as a storyteller and you’re registered with the Scottish Storytelling directory. Perhaps you could tell us about being a storyteller and what is involved? Do you think it’s a skill all writers should try to possess?

Storytelling is a marvellous thing. It makes you rich and it means you have something to offer at a ceilidh. Maybe simply all human beings should share in the story telling tradition because surely it is all inclusive and was and still is was everyone. I work sometimes teaching storytelling to business people. We all want more creativity in our lives – more wholeness and sense of meaning. Good stories give this.

As a creative writing tutor, do you have any words of wisdom and advice to give any aspiring writers?

Join a creative writing class or a local group. Practise free-writing – every day or once a week. Listen to what is in you and be curious as to where it leads you. Don’t share your early stage writing with all and sundry. But do try and find a writing pal. They are like gold. I have one and she is a jewel. She lives by a forest and believes in the magic of words.

Magnus Fin and the Ocean Quest

Published by:  Floris Books 22 October 2009.

Janis also blogs - 
Janis Mackay
As I Walked Out

There's still time to enter this year's competition.  Follow the link for more details.

Kelpies Prize 2010: Deadline 26th February 2010

This interview was originally published in the Scottish SCBWI newsletter, Thistleblower.

1 comment:

Miriam Halahmy said...

Lovely words Janis and an inspiring interview Tracy. I will certainly look out the books and keep an eye out for the adult novels. Good luck and happy writing.

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