Bestselling children’s author Sarah Webb was ideally placed to grab the fabulous Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick moments after she won the Childen’s Books Ireland Award recently. Here Sarah gets the info on Marie Louise’s latest picture book The New Kid, finding out how the book came together and getting some invaluable advice for new writers. Marie-Louise has also given us some fabulous illustrations so you can see how the story developed.
First Sarah asked what the book was all about? Marie-Louise explained, “It’s about a little girl called Ellie; she’s the new kid in town. The other kids on her street are told to go ask her out to play. Ellie’s mum makes her wear her coat out; the other kids aren’t wearing coats. They begin to tease Ellie. They’re being mean but that’s because they are worried. A new kid means change. What if it’s not good change?
They circle each other a little but it all comes good in the end. Because Ellie has a big imagination and her coat has special powers!”
Sarah: Picture books are an incredible blend of words and pictures and new writers often wonder where they should start. Tell us a little about the making of the book. Do you sketch first? Write first? How does it work?
Marie-Louise: It’s all a bit mixed up. The idea starts and I scribble down words and images on whatever comes to hand. I continue to work up the idea through rough sketches and rewrites until I’m ready to produce a pencil dummy to show publishers. Once someone takes the idea and gives me feedback, I do a finished pencil dummy so we can discuss and make any final changes before I go to colour. The finished art takes me about six months.
Sarah: Is this your first book with Hodder? How have you found working with different publishers?
Marie-Louise: Like a lot of author/illustrators I hop around publishers all the time. This is my first with Hodder. Publishers differ a little in the way they approach things – different editors have different editing styles. Some are more hands off, some more hands on. As long as an editor is clear and straight-forward about what they want and doesn’t mind me being clear and straight-forward right back, it’s fine!
Sarah: Who/what influences your writing and illustrating style? Do you have any picture book heroes?
Marie-Louise: I’m not conscious of direct influences though I know I’ve been unconsciously soaking up stuff right through my career! I have been influenced quite a bit by travel – the colors of Australia and Spain have seeped into my work.
There are a ton of illustrators I admire – all sorts of styles appeal to me – but Shaun Tan, Helen Oxenbury, Rebecca Dautremer, Lisbeth Zwerger and Anthony Browne would be on my ‘I wish I could draw/paint like that’ list. Martin Waddell and Mary Murphy are Irish writers whose work I admire very much.
Sarah: Do you think the market is difficult at the moment for picture book writers/makers?
Marie-Louise: Yup. The market seems to be in turmoil. It’s very hard to place ideas. I’ve seen this cycle several times before – the market is down, it starts to rise, publishers publish more and more books, market gets saturated, bubble bursts, cycle begins again. I’ve learnt to just put my head down, grit my teeth, wait for it to pass over and hope I’m still in there when things settle!
Marie-Louise: Yes, I’ve had an agent since 1999. I was flailing at that point. I managed to clock up eight publishers over ten years working on my first four books – they kept imploding and going under. I was working on Izzy and Skunk and began to wonder if the UK publisher I was working with was in some sort of trouble – I’d developed a nose for it! I decided I needed help and rang a friend’s agent who told me to get my book out of there, quick! She took me on and I’ve been with her ever since.
Sarah: Do you ever get ideas or books turned down?
Marie-Louise: Yup. Every now and then I have an idea which doesn’t appeal to anyone but me. Sore subject at the moment, actually!
Sarah: Children’s writers (and all writers in fact) are encouraged by their publishers to reach out to their audience (in the case of picture books, parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers) via social media. Do you use Facebook or Twitter? Do you have a blog or a website?
Marie-Louise: Facebook, yes; blogging, yes (www.thebelugasarewatching.com); Twitter, haven’t got around to it yet. I enjoy Facebook, and I’ve found a type of blogging which I enjoy too. I think that’s important, otherwise it would become a real chore and I’m pretty sure no one would much like reading it!
I also have a website – www.marielouisefitzpatrick.com. I definitely think illustrators need a visual platform for their work, whether it’s a website or Behance or whatever.
Sarah: Do you do school events and festivals?
Marie-Louise: I do quite a bit but not so much that it becomes a fog. I enjoy doing workshops and talks with kids but I have had years when I took on too much and couldn’t get the books done! I’m not a great multi-tasker. Doing lots of different stuff throws me completely out of whack.
Sarah: How important is it for children’s writers to be able to connect with their audience?
Marie-Louise: I think it’s possibly more important for novelists than for picture book folk. The tiny tots love being read to, love the interaction, but they don’t really connect you with the actual book. A favourite book is like a teddy bear to them – it’s inconceivable that someone actually made it.
Sarah: How can people build their platform as emerging writers? And do you think a platform is important?
Marie-Louise: I think the most important thing if you are an unpublished writer is to concentrate on developing as a writer. Don’t worry about building platforms; put your energy into honing your writing skills and finishing that book!
Sarah: What are you working on at present?
Marie-Louise: I have a novel on the go, one on a shelf waiting for a rewrite, another idea queuing for attention, plus two picture book ideas. That’s normal for me, juggling ideas all at different stages of development. My brain doesn’t do orderly queues…
Sarah: You are also involved in the Beyond the Stars short story collection, published in October in aid of Fighting Words (which I compiled), tell us about your work for that.
Marie-Louise: I was very excited to be illustrating Eoin Colfer short story’s. It’s a gritty story set in 1950s Ireland so I responded with realistic pencil drawings – a style I haven’t worked in for a while.
Sarah: You’ve recently had great success writing for older children and teenagers. How did you find this transition from picture books to novels? Will you continue to do both in the future?
Marie-Louise: I hope so. The ideas for both are there and I can’t imagine not drawing and painting, since it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. Writing novels has been a very steep learning curve. I resisted it for a long time because I knew it would be just that. It’s taken years to build the skills for making picture books and I knew it would take a lot of time and work to build the skills for creating novels. Some of my picture book skills translate – I usually have to add several thousand words in drafts two and three rather than cut them – but mostly it’s been learn, learn, learn. Probably the biggest advantage I had over another first-time novelist is that I knew how hard it would be. I knew I’d hit walls, I knew that one minute I’d think my work was genius, the next I’d think it was a pile of crap. I understood this was part of the process. And I was already accustomed to working with editors and taking criticism.
Sarah: What are your ambitions for the future as a writer and an artist?
Marie-Louise: To go on doing it into deep old age!
Advice and Tips from Marie-Louise
For picture book writers
Read. Read. Read. Read every wonderful picture book you can get your hands on. Read them ALOUD. Your ear for rhythm and tension and humour and tight writing will develop through exposing it to good stuff.
Look, look, look at other people’s work. Then work at developing your own visual voice. Don’t get hung up on what’s cutting edge or fashionable now – that trend will pass. Look inside you and figure out what you have to say visually.
For children’s novelists
Same as for illustrators! Your voice is all important. Your voice and your ability to create and develop characters who hook people and make them want to read more.
To find out more about Marie-Louise’s work, check out:
Marie-Louise’s website: http://www.marielouisefitzpatrick.com/
Marie-Louise’s blog: http://thebelugasarewatching.
Marie-Louise’s facebook: https://www.facebook.com/marielouise.fitzpatrick?ref=ts&fref=ts
(c) Sarah Webb
Sarah Webb is a writer for both children and adults. She is the Children’s Curator of the Mountains to Sea Book Festival. The first book in her new series for children: The Song Bird Café Girls (age 9+) will be published in March 2015 with Walker Books (UK) and Candlewick Books (US). www.sarahwebb.ie