Monday, 15 November 2010

Interview with an Author: D A NELSON

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

I was born in Glasgow and grew up in Neilston, a former mill village south-west of Glasgow. I lived there with my parents, two youngers sisters and a menagerie of birds, rodents and our beloved Yorkie.

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I was a bookworm from very early on and read everything I could, particularly fantasy and fairy stories. When I left school, I was lucky enough to be taken on by a local newspaper to train as a journalist. I worked in both local and national newspapers until the mid-90s when I ‘jumped ship’ to work as a press officer for a political party. I’m not very political, but it was a great job and I met a lot of nice people, most of whom I still count as close friends today. Since then, I’ve held a few posts as a Public Relations officer or manager for both a local authority and the NHS. I still work part-time for the NHS to this day…mainly because writing novels does not pay the bills!

I met my husband, Ian, at Bellahouston Ski Club in Glasgow where I was a member for many years and we now have a young daughter and son. We live in Argyll, close to the River Clyde and about ten minutes drive from Loch Lomond. It’s a great place to live.

I have been writing since I was a child and still have a folder full of little books I wrote and illustrated. I have been writing ‘seriously’ for about 15 years, although started and abandoned several novels before then, including what was to become DarkIsle.

Apart from writing, I love to cook, knit, sew, embroider and anything else crafty that I fancy trying out.


It’s a magical world if you know where to look.
For 10-year-old Morag, there’s nothing magical about the cellar of her cruel foster parents’ home. But that’s where she meets Aldiss, a talking rat, and his resourceful companion, Bertie the dodo. She jumps at the chance to run away and join them on their race against time to save their homeland from an evil warlock named Devlish, who is intent on destroying it. But first, Bertie and Aldiss will need to stock bickering long enough to free the only guide who knows where to find Devlish: Shona, a dragon who’s been turned to stone.
Together, these four friends begin their journey to a mysterious dark island beyond the horizon, where danger and glory await - along with clues to the disappearance of Morag’s parents, whose destiny seems somehow linked to her own…


Two months after she saved The Eye of Lornish, Morag is adjusting to life in the secret Northern kingdom of Marnoch Mor. But dark dreams are troubling her and a spate of unexplained events prove that even with the protection of her friends - Shona the dragon, Bertie the dodo and Aldiss the rat - Morag is still not safe from harm…


* What inspired you to write the Dark Isle trilogy?

DarkIsle was inspired by a childhood memory of going to Irvine Beach. Neilston is about an half hour drive from Irvine in Ayrshire and my parents took us down there a lot when I was a child. The beach overlooks the beautiful island of Arran. It’s lovely and sandy and perfect for walking along, picking up seashells or jumping the waves that lap the shore. When I was about 13 or 14, a lovely big sandstone dragon appeared on one of the hills overlooking the beach. It’s a great piece of artwork and I’ve always loved it.

When I was in my early 20s, I began to write a story about that dragon coming alive and meeting a young child. The story only ran to a couple of pages, I never got any further, but I never forgot it. Years later, I went back to it and the result was DarkIsle.

* Dark Isle was your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

Oh, no, definitely not my first attempt at novel writing! I have written about five-and-a-half novels for adults. I wrote these books over a period of about ten years, sent them off to publishers and agents and was overwhelmed with rejection letters.

It was devastating.

Of course, people tell you that you should expect these types of letters, but that doesn’t make you feel any better when you receive them. In fact, it got to me so badly (I had been receiving them for years!) that I ‘gave up’ writing twice… much to my husband’s amusement because he knew I would be back to it within a week and he was right!

Anyway, fed up with all this rejection, I decided to write a book that I would have liked as a child, so I went back to a story I had started writing years before, which was provisionally called ‘The Dragon on Irvine Beach’. Next thing I know the story that became DarkIsle started to appear.

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

Around 15 years if you take it back to when I was in my early 20s! However, if you take it from when I was writing DarkIsle, it was about six months writing time, a further four or five months at the editing stage and a period following that where it was getting typeset and the cover created by artist Shona Grant (I love her work). It probably took between 18 months and two years to actually get my hands on a copy of the published book.

How I got it published was that I joined the Society of Authors. Although I had been writing as a PR manager or journalist for years, I didn’t actually consider myself to be a writer. I know that sounds strange, but I saw myself as a journalist or PR professional not ‘writer’. I applied thinking they wouldn’t take me because I’d never published a book, but because of my years of writing background, I got in. Then I attended one of their events in Glasgow, met Keith Charters, who was to become my publisher, and things started happening from there. Keith’s company, Strident Publishing, were looking for children’s books and he had sent round an email to all the members of the Society of Authors in Scotland asking if anyone had a book that he might be interested in. At that point, I had given up writing for adults and was enjoying the process of writing DarkIsle. When I saw his email, I immediately sent him the first three chapters and, luckily, he loved it.

DarkIsle was the first book Strident Publishing published and went on to win a Royal Mail Award for Scottish Children’s Books in 2008.

* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

No, not really. I have to write around my working and family life. I’ve always had to do that, so that didn’t change. The only difference, I suppose, is that I now have contracts to honour, which adds a little bit of pressure. The other thing that adds pressure is coming up with a book to equal or surpass DarkIsle. Hopefully, I’ve managed to do that with DarkIsle Resurrection.

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

I am a planner and list writer by nature, so I do plan my books. I start with the basic idea and think about the basic story. For DarkIsle I knew that I wanted to have a girl meet a group of unusual friends who go on a journey to rescue a magical stone from an evil warlock. Once I knew that, I started planning the book chapter by chapter.

One good thing about planning is that I know if I have written down a rough overview of the dialogue and the action (I do this in a notebook, longhand), I will sit at my computer later that day and actually write it. If I don’t plan, I don’t write…something else will distract me like the kids or housework or something on the telly.

The other thing I do is always carry my ‘ideas book’ with me. That’s usually a small notebook in which I scribble down ideas for stories. Ideas come to me in the strangest of places and if I don’t write them down, I usually forget them. The idea for the Klapp demons came to me as I was walking along North Street in Glasgow watching the cars go by and I suddenly wondered what would happen if there were creatures who could cling on to the underside of cars: what would they look like and why would they be there? I developed the characters from there.

* How long had you been pursuing your writing ambitions before achieving publication and did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the publishing deal?

It took around 15 years before I was finally published. As I said before, I received loads of rejection letters. Some companies didn’t even both to do that.

Rejection is hard to deal with, but I think that if you know in your heart of hearts that you can’t ‘not’ write, then even rejection won’t stop you doing it. I love to write, I live to write. I can’t imagine not doing it, not making up stories. I’m a terrible daydreamer, especially when bored (not a good thing when I’m supposed to be listening to someone at a meeting at work!), so ideas pop into my head all the time.

When I finally secured a publishing deal, it was fantastic. Although I was scared to enjoy the moment just in case it was somehow taken away. I’m not one of those people who punch the air and whoop with delight. My joy at being published was quieter, more an internal ‘yes!’ and when I saw DarkIsle as a book for the first time, I didn’t say anything, just smiled.

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

I didn’t think that. DarkIsle was written because I wanted to write something I would have read as a child and, if I’m perfectly honest, I did it because it amused me. I wasn’t looking to particularly write for children, I just wanted to write a good story. I love children’s books, they are fantastic, often better than those written for adults. I suppose you could say I kind of stumbled into writing for children, but I’m glad I did. This is definitely where I want to be.

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

No. I just think about what kind of story would I like to read now and what kind of story would I have enjoyed as a child, and I take it for there. Does that mean that deep down I’m still a bit of a kid? Probably!

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

Oh God, that’s probably one of the hardest questions you could ask because I just loved reading as a child. Here are just some of the books I really enjoyed:
The Chronicles of Narnia by C S Lewis
What Katy Did and What Katy Did Next by Susan Coolidge
• All the Mary Poppins books by P L Travers
• All the Heidi books by Johanna Spyri
The Chronicles of Prydain books by Llloyd Alexander
The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton
• Anything by Roald Dahl, although I particularly love The Witches.
101 Dalmations by Dodi Smith. I also love her I Capture the Castle.
The Fox Busters by Dick King Smith
Peter Pan by J M Barrie.
• All the Beatrix Potter and AA Milne stories
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
• All the books by E Nesbitt
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
• The Asterix the Gaul books

I’m also a big fan of J K Rowling (I think her books are great) and Philip Pullman who wrote His Dark Materials trilogy (his books are fantastic). Michael Morpurgo is also a favourite, I really loved Private Peaceful and I think he’s a really talented writer. I aspire to write like him.

How do the books I read as a child compare to books nowadays? Hmmm, I think they are as good as children’s books today. They are packed full of adventure, comedy and fantastic characters. If I were advising children about what to read today, I would tell them to try them all, old and new. In fact, I’ve made sure that our house is stocked with older as well as newer books so that my children can enjoy the stories I loved when I was wee. At the moment, I’m reading The Wishing Chair to my daughter and she is loving it. We’ve also read Milly Molly Mandy and Naughty Amelia Jane. Even though they are old fashioned in some ways, they are still good books.

* Dark Isle won the 8-11 category in the 2008 Royal Mail Scottish Children’s Book Awards. Of major importance is the fact that this was a competition voted for by children, so did your readers give you any feedback on your book and what do you think children of today want to read?

First of all, can I say what a fantastic feeling it is to actually be nominated by children for the competition. It means more than being nominated by adults, because it’s the kids who actually read the books and I’m really grateful to all of those who voted for me. I was really chuffed to even get a nomination for the award and totally speechless on the day when my name was read out as the winner. Am still enjoying that moment!

Feedback on the book has been really positive. The children seemed to like all the characters and enjoyed the adventure. I think children of today want to read the same things as children of yesteryear did: a good adventure where you care about what happens to your character. There should be comedy or danger or exciting things happen, and I think the best books are the ones where you can get right inside the story and feel that you are there. I used to get so engrossed in books as a child that I would not hear my mum calling on me for dinner. She could be standing right next to me and I still wouldn’t hear her.

* With the publication of the sequel to Dark Isle what do you think are the most important things you’ve learnt on your writing journey? What, if anything, do you wish you’d known back when you were still an aspiring writer?

I wish I had known that I could do it, write I mean. I think most writers feel worried that they are ‘rubbish’ or that they can’t write or what they write won’t be taken seriously. When you get loads of rejection letters, this just adds to it so that eventually you feel: “Oh, what’s the point?” It does put you off writing.

However, I suppose it was good in a way because it made me strive to improve. I joined writing classes at Glasgow University, I read everything I could and I thought about how I was writing, how to make every word count. I’m also lucky because I’m obsessed with writing, so always went back to it… the rejections didn’t put me off for long.

I’m doubly lucky that Strident liked DarkIsle and published it. The publishing industry is a hard one to break into and I wish all inspiring writers the best of luck with getting their novels published.

One of the most important things I’ve learnt as a writer is that once your book is published, that’s not the end of it. There is a lot of hard work after that from promoting the book, to signing copies, talking to fans, organising the website (I am getting my website sorted out…promise!) and tonnes of other stuff.

I’ve also learned that writing is a vocation, not a get-rich-quick scheme. There are some people who believe that once you get published that you will make lots of money. Most writers don’t. It’s hard work writing a novel, so you’ve got to really be into it in order to do it. Don’t do it for the money or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

* As an award winning children’s author what words of wisdom and advice could you give to any aspiring children’s writer?

Keep doing it, don’t give up.

My motto in life is: persistence pays and it certainly has for me. I’d been trying for years to get published and it eventually happened for me.

Join a writing class and hone your skills; read lots of books of different genres, find out what you like, what interests you and write about it; and keep writing and writing and writing. The best sportsmen and women didn’t get to the top of their game by sitting doing nothing, neither should prospective writers!

Don’t tell yourself ‘I don’t have time to write’. This is piffle. I work part-time, I have a young family and I run a house… I make time to write and it’s worked for me!

* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

I would love to have something mind-blowing to impart to your readers, it would make me more interesting. All I have is common sense advice and that is: to keep writing.

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