Today I have an interview that is a little bit different. I’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Poulter, better known as J.R. Poulter. She is the author of Mending Lucille which won the Crichton Award. J.R writes poetry, stories for children, and is interested in illustration and photography. Clearly her artistic tendencies have led her on a fascinating journey through the world of writing, publishing and working with artists, and here in this interview she offers valuable advice to new authors and illustrators alike. She tells us of her creative process, her inspirations and the many projects she has up her sleeves!
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I write and I want to write full time. I enjoy being an observer of the illustrative process – it fascinates me and leaves me in awe, the way an illustrator can climb into a story’s universe, explore and then draw it, often with delightful complimentary illustrative subtexts!
I also poeticise, play around with camera, pencil, paint and digital illustration, among other stuff. I once worked in a circus, was a rare books librarian, wrote education packages, taught English expression to Indonesian postgraduates and was a film/book/music reviewer.
Now I live near a large park with spouse, have 5 children, 2 pet cats, wildlife and juggle time to do all I want to do! Relaxation – three ways – I play word games online, write poems or stories to images that inspire and stand under a beautiful tree and breathe it in!
What first made you want to become a writer/author and how did you get started?
I think it is all I have ever wanted to do – write … I can’t remember a point in time when I said ‘okay – this is what I am doing!’ It was just always there, sparked by my father and maternal grandfather’s recitation of narrative and humorous verse [ Mrs Hemans, Lewis Carroll, Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson]. Early on, I received little encouragement, I think because my first writings were poetry and my mother saw it as bohemian, unladylike. I recall my paternal grandfather telling me I should write songs and advertising jingles, as there was money in that. When I had my first children’s book accepted, that wasn’t seen as so bad, writing children’s stories was somehow more acceptable. [I’ve never showed my mother any of my nonsense poetry!] Perhaps as a result, I kept my writing to myself and just did what I could, time and studies allowing. My first literary poem was anthologized whilst I was still at school. My first story was published in 1995, many years later.
Please describe your creative thinking process.
I’m a right brain creative. I get a phrase in my head or an idea and once pencil touches paper or fingers keyboard, the story or poem flows till it is finished.
“Mending Lucille” started with the phrase “A raging and roaring and rolling in the sky like a storm…” . About 15 minutes later I had finished the story. It is as if the writing issues forth from the end of the pen and then I read it and edit it and think – oh – did I write that – well that is interesting! I don’t often sit down, take a subject and deliberately write something.
Do you ever get writers block, and how do you overcome it?
Not so much writer’s block as a need to put something aside for a while and come back to it. I think it is what you call – letting the ideas simmer on the back burner. Mulling is another word that would describe the process well!
You are keen on working with different illustrators. Do you have advice for illustrators who are looking to work in children’s book illustration?
For some reason, publishers have been traditionally very loath to allow illustrators and writers to connect on a project – at least an ocean in between has been the policy. The publisher has contracted the story and then gone about contracting an illustrator separately. The writer does any edits and sends to the publisher. The illustrator does his/her work and sends to the publisher. Each creative works in a vacuum independent of the other. I was blessed with the opportunity to choose my own illustrator for my book “Mending Lucille”. You can read the story about that on my blogs – Making a Picture Book and Creating a Picture Book, “Mending Lucille”.
And for the illustrative side of the process, go to Sarah Davis’ blog. Sarah won Australia’s most prestigious award for a new illustrator with her wonderful work on “Mending Lucille”!
I had the most wonderful, amazing time working with Sarah – it was a perfect match! That experience gave me a yen to do more of the same.
So I started ‘looking out’ for illustrators online and making contact. Were they interested in collaborating on a picture book or illustrated book or graphic novel? Would they be interested in providing concept art to submit to publishers alongside my text? Would they be interested [especially with the advent of digital publishing] in working on a collaboration in their spare time that we could then submit complete to a publisher? I have an agent in the USA and she is happy to promote joint projects and to submit collaborations to publishers on behalf of self and illustrator as a package.
Advice: do get your head around digital image creation; do consider making a book of your sketches and artwork available via Createspace or Lightningsource or Lulu [eg Touched by Magic by Aaron Lee Pocock]; Programs to use on such things as tablets are more cost effective than InDesign – I recommend – SketchBook Pro and ArtRage Studio Pro [both have free trial versions]; do find authors you like and approach them re potential collaborations.
Where do you find your illustrators and what do you look for?
Where: Browsing sites that feature illustrator’s portfolios, introductions from others online e.g. via facebook, linkedin, JacketFlap, MySpace, Google+ and sites like Utales. JacketFlap, Linkedin Groups, Utales.com’s facebook group and Google+ are the most amenable sites.
What do I look for: a style I like [my tastes are varied and different stories suit different styles], whether the illustrator can layer meaning into the images [Sarah did this to perfection with our “Mending Lucille”], whether the illustrator is interested in developing an illustrative subtext [not applicable to all works] and whether they are able to cope with a manuscript in English or not. [I’m not multi-lingual…]
I love collaborating! To get an email + attachment from an illustrator is like getting a beautiful surprise gift – open and see how they have let the butterflies of imagination free!
Please tell us a little of your experience with the publishing industry, if you were just starting out, what things would you have liked to have known, that you know now?
I sometimes think the reading public and those involved in creating the physical book imagine authors and illustrators are kept by wealthy patrons, or by wealthy families or have these extremely lucrative part time jobs. And so – well you know authors/illustrators can indulge themselves in their creative efforts guilt free of the need to feed and shelter family – ambling happily from languid lunch to decadent bistro and scribbling bits and pieces in between and then – to keep in touch – jetting off to this launch or that conference and hobnob bobbing their carefully coiffed coiffure amidst the literary glitterati …
Reality is – most of us aren’t in that exclusive category. We work hard, long hours to pay bills, eat and other mundane stuff and somewhere at the end of long days or in skerrick moments on scavenged scraps we create…
Keeping yourself positive and energised to create is paramount during the interminable waiting whilst most of your material is sitting…. This can be weeks, months, even years of your life blowing down the hollow road whilst your work – tho’ lauded and praised – still sits… waiting on a decision…
Once the contract arrives – check it thoroughly. If you belong to an organisation like the Australian Society of Authors, they will give it a check over for you. This site also has some wonderfully useful free info downloads. Check out the publisher – are they reputable?
Would you recommend having an agent?
Yes, but you have to have the right agent. Someone who clicks with you and how you work and ‘sees’ where your work ‘fits’. I believe your agent should be prepared to be a lateral thinker and not just focus on print books but have an eye to digital, script and merchandising. I have a wonderful agent whose vision parallels my own!
The antithesis of this scenario is that described by this blogger – “Why I Self Publish” – series of 5 blogs by Macaulay Hunter – first one:
I don’t want to be a wet blanket but this tale of woe is a reality check. I had an agent once who asked to take me on without ‘believing’ in what I did. Australian author, Allison Rushby has been through 5 agents before finding a person who ‘worked’ with her. It has to be a working partnership of folk who respect each other. If the agent brings in the contracts you get paid, they get paid and everyone thrives! Otherwise you are probably better off fending for yourself. Do check the ‘Predators and Editors’ site. They have up-to-date entries on most agents and warnings re any predatory types.
How do you promote your work?
I’m not by nature a bombastic self-promoter. But I try to do my bit. I’m on FaceBook [a me page and two dedicated author pages], I’m on Twitter under both writing names. I’m on Google+, Linkedin [both names], JacketFlap, BranchOut etc etc etc… Social media is a mixed blessing – it can be an awful time waster. Interview offers from friends are huge! These should be posted to FaceBook, Google+, Linkedin, Twitter, your blog, linked to your website, linked to a footer/signature on your email, quoted from on your business card or promo postcard. [I recommend http://www.Vistaprint.com as an excellent source of customised diy – business cards, postcards, banners, brochures, flyers etc.] Don’t forget your local newspapers/magazines if you have an achievement to announce. Twitter is your ‘billboard to the world’ – share things of use there to others like yourself, promote the achievements of others – these sorts of activities attract a following. Then, when you have your own achievements to trumpet, you will have someone reading and re-tweeting it.
I also create Poster Poems and innovation I developed to give visual appeal to poetry and vignettes/micro stories. You can see my own illustrative work on SCRIBD, my wordpress blog and ABC Pool. I also seek to give new illustrators a chance to collaborate with me and get something on their resume! These projects are a lot of fun as they do not just incorporate illustrative skills, but layout, design and other skills important in book illustrating.
You are interested in publishing with ipad and phone platforms as well as ebooks, what are your thoughts on this technology as opposed to real books?
I think you have to be interested in these new technologies as a creative in the area of writing and illustration. My passion is the book I can hold in my hand but I also recognise that most kids these days are seemingly born with an iphone, mobile, play-station etc firmly wedged in their chubby little hands. Trust me, RSI of the thumbs [especially] and fingers is going to be big for GenZ. If you want to prosper in this day and age you have to get your head around as much of the new tech as you can. Modern children will be reading apps as much as they will traditional books. Apps are already invading the classroom. Libraries are getting their heads around digital book loans.
You have also been very involved in publishing online for non profit organisations, do you think that systems like this can work, especially if the target audience does not have access to internet or printers. What have been your observations of the process?
I did some work for a couple of ‘not for profit‘ organisations but found that, whilst their initial request for help sounded like a win-win for all concerned [our work helping attract attention to their site with free downloads and/or merchandise; families, teachers, libraries in under resourced areas benefiting from the free material], the ‘agreement’ covering work loaded to site changed without warning to something that was anything but a win-win for the creatives concerned. I offered material to another organisation but found they wanted me to go to the expense of doing the publishing and then wanted all the profits. Mmm.
I recommend putting material, promo pieces etc on http://www.scribd.com – there are no nasty surprises with changing conditions, copyright and rights to do whatever remain yours. You can charge a fee for downloads and donate that anywhere you wish in total or part or pocket the lot! You do get attention on the site, which is part owned by and trawled by Simon & Schuster.
Do you have advice for writers who are looking to be published?
Take on writing, writing/illustrating as a career only if it is the only thing you want to do, the thing you are most passionate about. Few have a dream run – best seller from word go. J.K. Rowling had over 30 rejections for Harry Potter, Tolkien had over 40 for Lord of the Rings. If you must write then ‘stickability’ is the keyword.
Never ever go anywhere without a notebook/sketchbook and reliable writing/drawing implement! Keep them by your bed as well. Inspiration is everywhere attune your senses to it! I get inspiration in the weirdest places – on buses, going up stairs, looking out a train window, inadvertently listening in on the conversation of the pair in the queue in front of me. Photos, paintings, news headlines, old artifacts, interesting curios, stimuli are everywhere!
Make the most of time you have. Lunch hours, train, bus journeys, between meal breaks are all vital creative time. Keep notebooks beside the bed – inspiration isn’t always considerate of the need to sleep but if you don’t get it down, morning will come with only a vestige of the idea in tact…
That said, if you go it full time the work of getting work – liaising, networking, sending out material, keeping up the profile etc etc just about crams your waking hours. Set goals and do your utmost to keep to them by way of researching and submitting as well as actually creating.
Research where you are submitting – does your work ‘fit’ their company? Don’t submit an environmental story to a fantasy publisher or a speculative story to an education publisher. Do invest in a copy of The Writer’s Market, Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market, Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook or Christian Writer’s Market Guide. Join a society like ASA, FAW, SCBWI or your local writer’s centre like QWC. Send your best, presented without typos, clearly set out. And be prepared to wait…
Treehouse or Igloo?
Treehouse! Absolutely definitely!
Typewriter or Computer?
Computer – it is easier to fix typos and gaffs.
Fiction or Nonfiction?
Fiction but I also do like nonfiction.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Some picture book collaborations, an illustrated book of poetry, some short stories [again illustrated] and a couple of novels. And I’m looking out for opportunities in other areas. Never make the mistake of limiting yourself and caging your creativity. I have a new picture book, Fox Shadows, coming out with Windy Hollow Books in September!
Inspiration for projects comes all the time. I have reams of notes waiting development and stories and poetry in various stages of revision. Some, I finish the work fairly quickly, others I put aside as I can be more constructively critical of my own work once there is a time gap between writing and re-working. A critique group can help here as it is not always easy to distance yourself from your work to critique it thoroughly and a fresh, constructive pair of eyes will pick up things you miss. Some agents will work with you this way. Publisher’s editors will ‘edit’ your work even though you might feel it is exactly as you want it!
I would like to suggest some sites for ‘inspiration’.
Google images – I love trees and treehouses, castles and interesting architecture and architectural features like gargoyles!
Google maps – Google Earth – allows you to walk down the streets of strange lands! Find an address via a real estate site in the country of interest, browse then locate interesting locales on Google Earth. Hover over a country in Google Earth and pinpoint a spot, go in and explore.
In 5 years, where do you see yourself?
With at least one movie deal! A pile of merchandising to go with successful books and at least one more big award! How’s that for ‘positive’!
Thanks so much JR!