Katrina McKelvey is going places because she has gone places – in a fearless way that makes me awestruck. Doing this interview with Katrina made me laugh at the way she throws herself in, boots and all, and makes me jealous for even a little bit of her fearlessness. The great thing is, it’s all paid off! After kicking off with her first picture book, Dandelions (EK Books), illustrated by Kirrili Lonergan, Katrina has three more on the way – one due out in October this year and two more in 2019.
I first met Katrina at a CBCA Lunch With The Stars event and since then I’ve run into her often, the most recent being at a writing workshop. She is warm, big-hearted and incredibly generous, as you’ll discover as you read this interview – the things she gets up to and the way she has not held anything back, but let us into her vulnerabilities as well as her success. Katrina also has that quality that I think is gold in this industry – the ability to laugh at herself.
Thank you so much, Katrina for agreeing to this interview! Let’s jump in with the idea of writing – Where did your interest in writing for children come from? Did it arise from your teaching background or before (or is it unrelated?)
I truly fell in love with books after I had my own children. They were being given books as gifts and the bookshelves started to fill. I was a reluctant reader as a child so I was discovering books I’d heard of but never read in my childhood. It was like winning the lottery.
It was not long after this I decided to write for children as I could blend my teaching experience with raising a family. I began devouring books with my daughter at the local public library each week after her toddler ballet class. We were carrying piles of them home after reading piles before we left. I started noticing some books were better than others and began to work out who made the better ones and what had made them wonderful. I believed I could make these wonderful books too.
I set myself a challenge: to write picture books after I’d had an a-ha moment at 3am one morning. I think it helped I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’m the type of person who jumps in the deep end and swims like crazy – no room for failure. I didn’t realise at the time I was going to have to completely re-identify myself and build a new career from scratch.
I also believed I could make it work around being a mum, supporting my husband’s busy career, participating as a helper at my children’s school, while tapping into the ten years of amazing experiences I had as a primary school teacher. My husband completely supported my crazy idea and so did my kids. I also had two very supportive sets of grandparents I could lean on for babysitting while I travelled up and down the east coast to learn.
So, I took the plunge and started writing my first manuscript early 2011 (my kids were 2 and 4). Then I attended the Sydney Writers Festival for the first time in the May. It was glorious – perfect weather in Walsh Bay. I had the privilege of listening to children’s authors and illustrators such as Shamani Flint, Ursula Dubosarsky and Andrew Joyner. I was inspired and hooked!
I did the most outrageous thing while there. I was randomly picked to pitch my manuscript (my first attempt at writing for children) to a panel of overseas publishers called, Do You Think You Can Write?. I had never pitched before, had nothing prepared on paper, so I made it up as I went along. Oh the horror looking back now! Did I tell you it was a rhyming picture book? To an overseas publishing panel? Hmm …
I also attended a workshop with Jacqueline Harvey as part of the festival. I remember getting very lost in the city trying to get there as roads were closed due to a marathon near the State Library. It was quite distressing for a country girl!
I still have all my notes and I’ll never forget Jacqueline talking about many things including the four Ps – passion, practise, persistence, and patience.
How did you learn about and practice the craft of writing to get it to a publishable state?
Once I had attended my first formal workshop I was hooked. I enjoyed being a student again and I was a sponge. I couldn’t get enough!
I attended courses and workshops presented by Frances Watts and Libby Gleeson. I attended author talks by Morris Gleitzman, Leigh Hobbs and Alison Lester. I also participated in festivals and conferences such as the Byron Bay Writers Festival, CYA Conference in Brisbane, Writers Unleased Conference in Gymea (Sydney), and local WEA writing courses. I started entering writing competitions and joined organisations such as the CBCA, ASA, AWC, NSW Writers Centre, and my local writers centre. All of this happened before then end of 2012.
Along the way I started learning how to submit to publishers, write cover letters, and I was formally submitting by July, 2011. Gosh, that was too early looking back now!
Did you belong to any critique groups, attend courses and association events? If so, how did they help?
I was doing a lot of traveling to Sydney in the early days and I enjoyed it but I wanted to meet other local authors and illustrators. So I asked the Hunter Writers Centre if they had any children’s writing groups. They didn’t at that time but started taking down names to begin one soon. I think it was only a few months before one formed in October, 2012. I’m proud to say this group is full to the brim now and I’ve been its facilitator since March, 2013. Last year I also joined a SCBWI online critique group.
I also jumped in and started learning how to run a CBCA NSW Branch sub-branch in February 2013. We had it up and running by June. I was the president for nearly 4 years. I stood down and became the vice president last year as my writing was taking over. And now I’ve handed it over to a brand new committee who is keen to see it continue to grow and thrive.
Kirrili Lonergan and I flew to Melbourne March, 2013 to attend the ‘Children’s Book Festival’ professional development day hosted by Sophie Laguna. Kirrili and I met people such as Bronwyn Bancroft, Mark Wilson, Leigh Hobbs, Lynley Dodd, Freya Blackwood, Gus Gordon, Doug MaCleod, Michael Pryor, Sally Rippin, Jane Godwin, Jackie French, and Terry Denton.
[With Freya Blackwood, Terry Dentons, Mark Wilson and Leigh Hobbs
With Sofie Laguna, Kirrili and Jackie French, Lynley Dodd and Kirrili]
Around the same time I had a website made which went live May, 2013. I remember feeling extremely weird about having one. I got business cards printed too. And I stared blogging in 2014. I was certainly out there – building a digital platform.
Soon after I became heavily involved in the Newcastle Writers Festival. I became a board member the following year. By doing this, I’ve met the most amazing people.
All of this inspiration, education and these experiences made me set tough goals and dream big.
[With Matt Ottley, Deb Abela, Michael Gerard Bauer and Tony Flowers
Kids with Selena Geddes, With Jackie French, with Louise Park]
Wow! Are you exhausted reading this? Talk about a go-getter! Next month we’ll learn about the nuts and bolts of submitting to publishers and how Katrina’s first book, Dandelions, was picked up by EK books.
Until then, you can find Katrina here:
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgfVHAHyIHP14oeEkGl2jtA
And me here: