Sunday, 11 March 2012

Interview with a Debut Author: Wendy Meddour

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

Hi – and thanks for asking me back!
Hmmm. Myself. OK. I grew up in a wacky little seaside town called Aberystwyth – where I rode to school on a motorbike and loved wearing stripy tights. Oh, and I also loved books – big books, small books, silly books, sensible books, dusty books and shiny books. (At this point, I must tell you all that I am indebted to my mother for leaving me in bookshops whenever she did any shopping).

Anyway, having discovered that my ‘hobby’ was actually a recognised educational route, I went and got myself a First Class English Degree (from Exeter University) and an MA and PhD in Critical and Cultural Theory (from Cardiff University). I quite fancied being a cartoonist but I wasn’t sure if that was a proper job – so I became a lecturer instead – Feminist Theory, World Literature, Post-structuralism ... that sort of thing. And then I took up a lovely research post at Oxford University – where I stayed for over 8 years – teaching charming students in beautiful rooms full of oil paintings and watching people punting from my office. Nice.


Strange things are happening at night in Cinnamon Grove! Someone in pyjamas has been chasing frogs in the pantry, climbing trees like a leopard, and even looking for a hen in Ramzi’s wardrobe. . . Who could it be? Surely not Ramzi’s dad?

Yes. Poor Dad’s sleepwalking again! Why? Because he’s homesick and the only solution is for the whole family to visit Dad’s Berber village in Algeria. But can the Spider in the woods, the Wise Man of the mountains or the Tuareg in the desert find a ‘cure’?
And what about Ramzi’s secret plan. . . ?


* What inspired you to write A Hen in the Wardrobe? I wondered if any real life incidents had helped inspire your delightful story?

That’s a bit of naughty question. Of course, like all first novels, it is pretty much entirely autobiographical – something I would vigorously deny in a court of law! (However, between us, I did find a sheep in the kitchen. I do have a farm in the Berber mountains. My mother-in-law does call me her ‘English bride’. And my little family desperately miss their other ‘home’). Enough. I have said too much!

* A Hen in the Wardrobe is your debut children’s book. Was it your first attempt at writing a children’s book or do you have other manuscripts hiding away?

A Hen was the first chapter book I ever finished. I started a ‘heavy novel’ in Algeria once, but my shampoo leaked in to my laptop and I hadn’t saved a copy. So that was the end of that.

And anyway, I hadn’t really planned on being a writer. I was actually trying to be an illustrator when I became a children’s writer. You see, after I left my job at Oxford (to look after my brood), I began to write lots of rhyming picture books – with accompanying dummies - and they were received by numerous publishers quite well. There were even deals afoot. But 3 (yes, 3!) got dropped at the last minute – and that was really quite painful.

Looking back, I was an amateur. I didn’t know what I was doing. My artwork was fine(ish), but I had none of the technical skills required to change things on request. One particular conversation sticks in my mind:
Publisher: We love your illustrations. But we want some changes. Could you tell us what you work in? (Correct answer: photoshop)
Me: Oh, mainly paper and glue.

A pattern began to emerge. Again and again, I was being told that the accompanying ‘text’ was great but ‘would I be willing to let it go to another illustrator?’ It took me a couple of years before I could bring myself to say: ‘yes’.

So, in answer to your question: A Hen in the Wardrobe was the first chapter book I’ve ever written, but I’ve got LOADS of picture books tucked away in the ‘Idea Box’ by my bed – many of which are currently being ‘matched’ with someone who has more talent. (Note the lack of bitterness in my tone).

* You illustrated A Hen in the Wardrobe with some lovely images. A bit like the chicken and the egg - which comes first? (See what I did there!)  Do you write the story first or do your drawings inspire ideas for your story?

With that particular book, the story came first. But pictures are very important to me – my plot plans are often cartoon diagrams and I was the only lecturer who used to teach ‘post-structuralism’ with the help of a handy chart!

* Do you have any formal training in creative writing and illustration or are you self-taught?

None whatsoever. I am completely unqualified in that department.

* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal for A Hen in the Wardrobe?

Three years *gasp*!!!!
Let me break it down for the curious.
1) Saw the Diverse Voices Competition in 2009. With 3 weeks to the deadline, I began to write A Hen in the Wardrobe
2) I entered. I didn’t win. (Of course I didn’t win. It was rubbish –it was a rushed first draft!)
3) I got some really detailed feedback from the judges. Some rather lovely praise. And also some criticism.
4) I sulked.
5) I reread the judge’s comments. They were right.
6) I rewrote A Hen in the Wardrobe at a more leisurely speed, taking all the criticisms on board.
7) I submitted it to Frances Lincoln in 2010.
8) They thought it was ‘a lot of fun’!
9) We met. I was offered a 2 book deal.
10) I asked if I could illustrate it and do the front cover? My wonderful publishers, Frances Lincoln, said ‘Yes’.
11) The book was published in Feb 2012. Yay!!!!

* Did achieving a book deal change the way you approach your writing? And if there are any important lessons you think you’ve learned on your writing journey what do you think they are?

I feel like the last few years have been an apprenticeship. I didn’t know what I was doing, and now I slightly do. I sort of fell into being a writer when I was trying to be something else - but I love it and have really found ‘my voice’. (That might sound pretentious, but when you’ve been writing academic stuff for years, it’s sooooo refreshing to write in a style that is slightly more you! Or should that be me?)

* I believe you achieved a book deal without an agent? Have you signed with an agent now? And if so, would you recommend an aspiring author to try and get an agent first or to try a two-pronged approach and to try submitting to publishers directly?

I’m probably the last person to ask for advice on this one. I didn’t really know that agents existed so I just submitted work to lots of publishers. I got my fair share of rejections but then I got into a spot of bother. A couple of publishers wanted the same thing and I didn’t know what to do. Two rather lovely writers (Liz Kessler and Joanne Cotterill) told me I needed to get an agent NOW! But not many agents are interested in picture books, and I’d already sold my Cinnamon Grove series, so I submitted another unfinished book to some recommended agents and found myself in the lucky position of choosing my favourite!

I am now with Penny Holroyde of the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency – and she’s fab. (Oh, and I’ve finished the book now).

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

No! Not until they’re really polished. It is a well known fact that children tell the truth.

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

The answer is simple: children are my favourite people. They are funny and kind and lacking in prejudice. They think in amazing ways and are ready for anything new. Also, because I’m an English lecturer (on a break) - grown up books tend to be ‘work’ but children’s books have always been ‘pleasure’. And I absolutely have to have children’s books near my bed at all times. It’s the only way I can get to sleep.

* A Hen in the Wardrobe is the first book in the Cinnamon Grove series. Does the next book The Black Cat Detectives also feature Ramzi and his friends and family?

Indeed it does, although the second book centres more on Ramzi’s best-friend, a little Pakistani child-genius called Shaima Stalk. (And her lonely, beetle-loving Aunty Urooj).

It’s not out until August 2012, but here’s a sneak preview of the cover. It took me a few attempts before I drew a cat that didn’t look like a dog:

* And I believe congratulations are in order as you’ve also agreed a series with OUP, which is fabulous news! Can you tell us anything about this?

Not really. It’s all a bit hush hush. So I shall be vague. There was an auction in December somewhere. And the aforementioned publisher put in a jolly bid and sent me home-made biscuits and hand written scrolls! (And I’d always loved their books so how could I resist?) This series is aimed at the same age group as my Cinnamon Grove books – but it’s quite different.

I'm doing a (I quote) 'hilarious' series for the OUP (for ages 8-10) with illustrations by my hugely talented 11 year old daughter - Mina May (big yay!)

Can't give any details away but I can reveal that when I write in the voice of this character, my fingers tingle with excitement the whole time! (Which, I admit, might not be completely normal!)

* And finally… Do you have any words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Yes. I do. And no one warned me...

To all aspiring writers: approach writing with great caution. It is highly addictive. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop!

Wendy also visited tall tales & short stories as part of the Diversity Matters series. You can read her post here

A HEN IN THE WARDROBE ~ a tall tales & short stories review

A Hen in the Wardrobe is quite simply a delightful book - it's fun, charming, subtly educational and touching.  There are mysteries to be solved and problems to overcome but Wendy Meddour handles the subject with a light and humorous touch.  There's a real sense of a warm-hearted familiarity that made this reader wonder if the author had been inspired by experience in real life.

This is truly a multi-cultural book, but one that also highlights the difficulties people can sometimes face when trying to fit into other cultures, or when you're homesick for the country and culture you know and grew up with.  No matter who you are or where you end up, feelings are the same the world over and it can be strange when you're outside of your comfort zone and trying to fit in, but also deeply rewarding too. Too learn about other cultures and traditions in such a child-friendly way can only help promote greater understanding of different cultures, and the book also includes a small dictionary of word definitions and a rather yummy sounding recipe that I really must try myself.

A Hen in the Wardrobe is a fun, light-hearted book perfect for younger readers and with some great illustrations thrown in there's plenty to entertain the young reader as they join Ramzi and his family on their adventures in North Africa.



Sue Hyams said...

Lovely interview. I can't wait to read these books! Wishing Wendy lots of luck with these and the hilarious series. How fantastic that Mina May is illustrating them!

Na'ima said...

Loved this interview - Wendy's warmth and humour come shining through as I am sure they do in her books. Can't wait to read A Hen in the Wardrobe! So pleased to share a publisher with her :)

jaylen watkins said...

Interesting short stories. Children delighted.

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