Sunday, 4 July 2010

Interview with a Debut Author: TERESA FLAVIN

Hi Teresa and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m a children’s book illustrator who suddenly got the bug to write novels. I’ve been based in Scotland for many years, though I am American by birth, and living here has provided a lot of inspiration for my visual and written work. I especially love Scotland’s magical landscape and its colourful language and humour.

Photograph: Ian Marshall.


When Sunni Forrest’s stepbrother accidentally transports himself into a Renaissance painting, she and her friend Blaise set out to bring him back.
They find themselves in a strange world of labyrinths, monsters and pirates. 
Can they evade their greedy pursuers? And will they ever find their way home?


What inspired you to write THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA?

A bolt from the blue, actually! It was the melding of two ideas that caught my imagination one day when I was stuck at home with a winter cold. I had just finished reading a book about labyrinths my dad had given me. I wondered: what if someone could be transported someplace upon reaching the centre of a labyrinth? And what if a person could enter one of the complex Renaissance paintings that had intrigued me since I was young? I put the two questions together: what if a labyrinth could transport someone into a painting? The ideas grew from there and I soon had the basic plot of THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA.

Did your fine art training influence your writing of THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA? You obviously have a love of the arts and your writing is highly visual, did any real-life paintings influence the choices you made in creating your world?

My art background definitely influenced this book. At home we had books about medieval and Renaissance art, and I was fascinated with certain pictures when I was little. Hieronymus Bosch’s GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS was one of these, with its weird figures and animals in an otherworldly landscape.

Hieronymus Bosch
Garden of Earthly Delights 1503-1504
Oil-on-wood triptych

I was also intrigued with the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who also painted scenes Netherlandish Proverbs, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and The Tower of Babel.

 Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Netherlandish Proverbs 1559
Oil on panel

I decided that the master painter in THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA, Fausto Corvo, would be an Italian from Venice, so I looked at the works of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, all Venetian painters from the late 1500’s.

Piero di Cosimo
Perseus Rescuing Andromeda, 1513
Oil on canvas

I also love the work of Piero di Cosimo, whose fantastic painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from a horrible monster really inspired me! I could imagine walking into any of these paintings and having a closer look around.

You’ve incorporated Greek mythology and the Renaissance into your book. The Renaissance was a fascinating period of great change for how people viewed the world around them; great strides were taken in science and the arts. How much historical research did you do to help create your world and do you enjoy this part of the writing process?

I did loads of research on everything from Renaissance philosophy to the design of Venetian galley ships – so much so I almost got lost in research for a while! But if I had not done all the hunting and gathering I did, I would not have found the magical hooks that made the story come alive. History is full of so much fantastic raw material for stories.

The magical world of your book is created by using astral magic. Without giving away too much of the plot, is this astral magic an actual belief or theory used by artists and painters?

Astral, or natural magic, was most definitely part of the Renaissance intellectual landscape. It was quite common for people (artists included, I imagine) to believe in a hidden realm of spirits and in the power of the heavens to influence the earthly world. Some of these beliefs went back to the ancient Egyptians and other near Eastern cultures, and were passed down through magical texts. It was believed that a person with this knowledge would be able to work great wonders. I’ll stop there, in fear of giving too much away!

THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA is your début novel. Is it your first attempt at writing a novel or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA was my first attempt at a novel and there aren’t any older manuscripts lurking around in a drawer. I had never, ever imagined writing a novel, though I had decided I wanted to write texts for picture books and illustrate them. I wrote several short texts that are hidden away, waiting to be looked at again someday, but I discovered I wanted to write longer stories with more complex ideas (and to illustrate them).

How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal for THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA?

I began in February 2006 and pretty much had it ready by the end of 2008. It went out for consideration in early 2009 and the very wonderful Templar Publishing acquired it a few months later.

Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA?

I wrote a first draft that, of course, needed a lot of work. I am lucky to have a superb agent who gave it a very constructive critique. I went back to the drawing board and literally restructured the book by cutting up pages and reorganising them, adding bits and subtracting others. I did several redrafts before publication, and once it had been acquired, I worked on further improvements with Templar editors.

Are there any plans to continue Sunni and Blaise’s adventures or is THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA a standalone novel?

I wrote it as a stand-alone, but imagined there could be scope for further stories. And that’s what I am currently up to, creating another Sunni and Blaise adventure!

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

I am a bit of a hermit when I write, which is no surprise really, since I am a hermit when I illustrate, too. I read an early version of THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA aloud for my husband, and he gave me helpful comments, but otherwise I only showed it to my agent. I made a conscious decision, for good or ill, to keep the story to myself. In part, I think I was just a bit shy about it, but I also didn’t want to get too many outside opinions. When I began getting feedback from children who had read advance copies, I was bowled over by their positive response, and glad that at last the story was out there for all to read.

What made you want to write for a younger audience? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

It follows on directly from my work as a children’s book illustrator. I was already immersed in the children’s publishing industry and knew that I wanted to write picture book stories. But things just evolved in such a way that I began writing longer, complex stories for slightly older children than I had been illustrating for.

I hadn’t read many contemporary children’s novels at all, with the exception of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, passed on to me by adult fans of his. I do read children’s novels now, and am a fan of Sally Gardner, FE Higgins, Julia Green and Marcus Sedgwick, to name a few. I tend not to read children’s books when I am writing, though, to keep my head clear.

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?

I was an absolutely mad keen Nancy Drew fan. I devoured them all, plus other girl detective series books with heroines like Trixie Belden. I read anything that had a mystery solved by kids. But I also loved classics like LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott, THE SNOW GOOSE by Paul Gallico and books by Frances Hodgson Burnett, such as THE SECRET GARDEN and A LITTLE PRINCESS.

I think all those books still stand up today, but I observe that children may find them a little old fashioned. Even so, I am pretty certain today’s kids enjoy the same things their grandparents did: a cracking, page-turning read that has characters they care about and dollops of humour to balance any scary stuff.

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

For THE BLACKHOPE ENIGMA, I made screeds of flow charts, or what can also be called “mind maps”. I’d take a sheet of A3 paper and draw a chart of “thought bubbles”, showing how the plot progressed. I like looking at them now, seeing where I started and where I ended up. Having said all that, some events in the story just happened on the page… and then I’d have to go edit the mind map so I wouldn’t get confused.

Before achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way?

Not with this book, but I certainly have experienced rejection in my career. It took me many years to break into the children’s illustration field. I learned how to pick myself up and move on when I didn’t get a project, or, in the case of a picture book idea I pitched several years ago, when I had to accept that a project would never get past the drawing board stage.

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

Aside from an adult education writing class and a stint in a writers’ critique group many years ago, I have attended two Arvon Institute children’s writing course over the past five years. Both have been invaluable. But I have a lot to learn yet!

In 2005 you were selected for the Scottish Book Trust Words@Work mentoring scheme and developed your writing with Kathryn Ross of Fraser Ross Associates. Then in 2006 you were awarded a Scottish Arts Council New Writers Bursary. Could you tell us about these schemes and how they helped you with your writing? Is there any advice you could offer writers interested in applying for these schemes?

Being mentored was a huge turning point for me. I knew I wanted to write and I made the most solid case possible to the Scottish Book Trust for being accepted to the scheme. I already had experience in the publishing industry, so I framed my application tightly and realistically. By that, I mean that I didn’t just say that I vaguely fancied being a writer, but that I was going to be a writer – and here’s how I was planning to do it. I stated my intention to the world. I remember it was a bit scary, but empowering to say, yes, I will see it through.

When I knew I was going to pursue writing a novel, I applied for a New Writers Bursary with Kathryn’s support. I didn’t think I had a chance, but I decided to try for it anyway. Again, my goal was very specific and measurable. I made sure my project came across as worth supporting, and, again, stated that I would see it through. Of course, there were low periods when I wondered whether I would succeed, but I was driven to complete what I had set into motion.

My advice to writers: learn about the publishing industry, set your goal, understand what you will need to achieve it and identify who can help you. Don’t let these opportunities pass you by – have a go!

Scottish Book Trust Mentoring Scheme
Scottish Book Trust New Writers Awards

You’ve illustrated several children’s books. Could you tell us about them?

My two favourites are PUSHING UP THE SKY by Joseph Bruchac, a Native American author and storyteller, and FLY HIGH: THE STORY OF BESSIE COLEMAN, by Louise Borden and Mary Kay Kroeger. PUSHING UP THE SKY is a collection of plays based upon traditional tales from seven tribes, including the Abenaki, Ojibway, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Snohomish, Tlingit and Zuni. It was a delightful challenge to research the lands, customs and histories of all the tribes, and I enjoyed making the illustrations. I think they are some of my best work. FLY HIGH is the true story of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license. Again, I did a lot of research so that my illustrations were as accurate as possible.

PUSHING UP THE SKY: “From acclaimed Native American storyteller Joseph Bruchac comes a collection of seven lively plays for children to perform, each one adapted from a different traditional Native tale. Filled with heroes and tricksters, comedy and drama, these entertaining plays are a wonderful way to bring Native cultures to life for young people. Each play has multiple parts that can be adjusted to suit the size of a particular group and includes simple, informative suggestions for props, scenery, and costumes that children can help to create. Introductory notes and beautiful, detailed illustrations add to young readers' understanding of the seven Native nations whose traditions have inspired the plays.”

FLY HIGH: “Besse Coleman was born in rural Texas in 1892. She loved school, especially learning about numbers, and she was a good reader, too. Yet when it was time to pick cotton she had to work in the fields instead of going to school. Nevertheless, she was determined to be somebody when she grew up.
In her early twenties, Bessie moved to Chicago. Perhaps there she could "find a bigger life." In the city, Bessie heard many tales of World War I from returned veterans. She also heard there were woman airplane pilots in France. From then on, she was determined to become a pilot. But she soon found out that no one would teach a woman -- especially a woman with dark skin -- how to fly. To study in France was her only chance, and by working hard and saving her money, she managed at last to get there. Bessie Coleman became the first African-American to earn a pilot's license. She was somebody.
The inspiring story of her difficult early years, her success as a stunt pilot putting on daring air shows in many states, and her dedication to telling young African-Americans wherever she went, "You can be somebody. You can fly high just like me," is as moving and important today as it was then. Simply told with evocative full-color illustrations, this is a special book for today's young people.”

Do you have a preferred medium for producing your illustrations or do you like to experiment?

For colour work, I usually use gouache paint on paper, or acrylics on paper. My black and white work is usually pen and ink or graphite pencil. For my personal and gallery work, I experiment with mixed media like collage, oil pastels and pastels.

Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer or illustrator?

Persist, persist, persist! Keep your bum in the seat and work your vision through, no matter how hard it can be at times.

As has been mentioned already, Teresa and I met through the Scottish Book Trust mentorship scheme and over the 9 months of the project we worked on developing and strengthening her writing skills. It was clear from the start of the mentoring process that she was a confident writer with a flowing lyrical style, well suited to the picture book texts that she was writing at that time. However, it was also clear that even though, with her wide experience as a children’s book illustrator, picture book texts seemed to be the obvious place to start, she was drawn towards writing for older children and that she had a flair for creating stories on a larger, more complex scale. Teresa proved to have a great voice for this age group and her story ideas are both original and commercial. I thoroughly enjoyed the mentoring process and I knew that once the project was over I wanted to continue working with Teresa and her books, so representation was the natural next step!

The Blackhope Enigma ~ a tall tales & short stories review

Sometimes as an aspiring writer I come across a book where I think - 'I wish I'd thought of that' - and The Blackhope Enigma is definitely one of those books.  When three children are transported into a Renaissance painting the reader is thrown into a world full of possibilities, strange creatures and fantastical worlds.

Teresa Flavin's love of fine art flows from the page and she conjures up a wonderful world within a world.  The painting the children first see is just a doorway to Arcadia and when they first enter the painting there are some strangely disturbing moments, especially when we encounter the some of the painted figures, 'A smear for an eye, a dash for a mouth...' 

The Blackhope Enigma is a fantastical historical adventure mystery that romps along at a fine pace and is populated by several characters who we're never quite sure if they're good or bad - all have an agenda and all are searching for something but this adds to the intrigue of both setting and story.  At its heart this is a traditional adventure story but along the way it offers a fascinating glimpse into the Renaissance world and Greek mythology that adds another dimension to an already enjoyable and engaging read.


Anne M Leone said...

A really interesting interview and Blackhope Enigma sounds fascinating. Can't wait to get a copy!

Clare said...

What a wonderful post - love the accompanying illustrations as well. Another book to add to to-be-read list (Which I am slowly working through!).
Thanks Teresa and Tracy.

Tracy said...

Thank you Anne and Clare - glad you enjoyed the interview and enjoy the book.
Tracy :)

Dwight said...

Congratulations, Teresa, on breaking through from illustrating to writing a novel for older children. I was interested in your route through the Scottish Book Trust and your mentored work with Kathryn. I love to have a plan, partly because it gives you a measurable sense of progress. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

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