Hello! I’m Josh and I’ve suddenly now found myself another place to shout about books online! Every so often I’ll be blogging here on the Chicken & Frog’s website about great children’s books you should be looking out for, but today I start off with an interview I conducted earlier this year at the Brentwood Children’s Literary Festival with Dreamsnatcher author Abi Elphinstone!
What inspired you to become a writer?
“I think that it was partly growing up where I did, in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, and I think seeing all that rugged landscape around me, instilled a sense of wonder in my soul, and I think at the heart of the best children’s books is a sense of wonder and adventure, and because I grew up having a lot of that in my life inspired me to go on and write. I loved reading as a kid, so I think that was a part of it, but I wasn’t one of those kids that was always inside reading all the time, I was out and about and I think what I saw when I was out with my siblings climbing trees and building dens and about made me want to write about adventure made me want to write about adventure and kids that explored the outside world.”
Where did the inspiration for Moll & Gryff come from?
“I love child-animal bonds, but not in the domestic sense, I like a feral or wild bond; the animal and character and child have to grow in trust. I love that idea that there might be a wild animal that’s bonded with you in some way, and a wildcat fit with that story, because I knew the third book was going to be set in the Northern Wilderness, which is my take on Scotland, and one of Scotland’s animals that they’re really proud of, but is becoming increasingly rare, is the wildcat.”
What was it about fantasy that drew you to it?
“When I first wrote The Dreamsnatcher, I thought I’d written straight up adventure, but then in my first interview someone asked me how it felt to be writing fantasy and I was shocked! And I have tree ghouls and witch doctors, and yes there are witch doctors that do exist around the world, but I felt that my kind of magic could verge on being true. The more writing that I’ve done, the more magical I’ve become and more into the fantasy world. Shadow Keeper is more magical than The Dreamsnatcher. I loved reading fantasy when I was little, but fantasy that might be real. I like full blown fantasy too, but I like stories rooted in our world and include magic too.”
How excited were you when you got your second book deal?
“When I got my first book deal, I just assumed that was it and you were a writer for life, I had no idea that if your first book didn’t sell you got let go! When I found out the first two needed to sell, I did lots of events and got and started promoting them, and I was really nervous that I wouldn’t get to write again. I worked incredibly hard, and thankfully the momentum for the first two books picked up, and I got a second deal. The second deal was just as exciting as it cemented that idea that you were a writer and it wasn’t all just a fluke!”
Did anyone tell you that you may find it difficult to get published because of the groups of people you wrote about?
“A few publishers told me that they liked the story and the characters, but they were nervous about taking a book on Romany Gypsies, perhaps because it may have been difficult to sell foreign rights in areas where anti-Romany Gypsy feelings might be high. Some publishers turned it down on that front, and some others have said that they may take this series on but they are interested in anything I write in the future. The characters in terms of feisty and a bit silly but fun underneath females are fine, but I think it was the culture I drew in. Upsettingly too, you’d like to think we lived in an accepting world, but apparently not…”
Which is easier; character or plot?
“Characters sometimes come instinctively; Moll is basically with brown hair. Plot you have to really work to conjure up something original, but I do enjoy crafting plot, because especially for the MG market, that’s where you can really go wild with adventure and wonder. Although it’s really strenuous coming up with ideas, but once you’ve come up with that original twist, it’s really satisfying. The reward of seeing it all shaped out is really fun.”
Do you have a specific writing process?
“I do a lot of events, so often I write on trains or buses on the way to events, but if I have a day off, I have a little writing shed in my back garden. I just get up at 6:15am and I treat it as if I was doing an office job. I think that’s how you’ve got to be, because I’ve got so many deadlines, and if you fall behind deadlines publishers may get annoyed but you feel out of control. I get up, I write through until lunch, have a sandwich, then write through until 7pm, plus it’s quite trancelike when you’re writing. I kind of get lost in it all.”
“Usually I start off by reading a fairy tale because I find that there’s some really strong motifs in fairy tales that you can lift and do something of your own with. I go on a lot of adventures, which could be me walking through an antiques market, but when I’ve got my collection of ideas, I draw out bubbles, I write the stages of the book in those bubbles, plus I make a map of locations in my book and imagine my characters visiting them.”
How long did it take you from starting off writing to getting published?
“I started writing at 22 years old. My first book was published at 29. I had 96 rejections from literary agents on the books I wrote before Dreamsnatcher, so it took a long time for things to happen and for me to write anything half decent. Even know, I’m proud of what I’ve written, but I can still see things to improve. But I think that’s really good as a writer that you can find areas on which you can hone in.”
“96 rejections is a bit of a battering, and usually they’re self addressed envelopes with generic notes, so there’s only so many of them you can get before you start thinking you’re terrible at writing. It was really discouraging, but for some reason I had this innate sense of grit, my mum’s told me never to give up, so I just kept going. Ironically, when I first sent The Dreamsnatcher out, I did think to myself that this was the best it was going to get and if this doesn’t work maybe it’s not meant to be. But who knows? Perhaps if that got rejected, I would’ve tried again!”
“It definitely gave me a really hollow, empty feeling, but I think I learnt so much from being rejected. I learnt so much about perseverance and humility and courage in regards to publishing and in life, so actually every good bit of luck that comes my way now I’m very grateful. You tend to get the impression these days that people jump to fame in 5 seconds. It was quite a humbling thing for me to learn that you’ve got to try hard, you’ve got to work to it.”
What’s next for you?
“I’ve got another book signed with S&S that is an Arctic adventure, with narwhals, killer whales, possibly inspired by my travels to Mongolia, trying to shift the Eagle Hunters I met north. I’m wondering whether I might write that as a standalone, then launch into my next series. I’d like to do a portal book. I loved worlds that could be really close to our own as a child, so I’d like to experiment with a modern contemporary setting opening up a portal and going somewhere. I don’t like time travel too much though…”
What tips do you have for any aspiring writers?
“Focus. It’s becoming increasingly hard, especially with social media, to focus. I came off Twitter for the end of June and all of July because I couldn’t focus. I wasn’t even on Facebook before I got a book deal, but I think you’ve got to turn off all your apps and just write. Don’t think that because you’re on Twitter mixing with other writers that you’re writing. When you’re alone at your laptop writing, that’s when you’re writing!”
“Just work hard and don’t give up.”
You can find Abi online at abielphinstone.com or on Twitter @moontrug. Plus, her books are available to buy at the Chicken And Frog Bookshop too!