Katrina Roe is a radio presenter and author of picture books Marty’s nut Free Party, Emily Eases her Wheezes and Same, with Wombat Books. I am fortunate to share a book-bond with Katrina, as the illustrator of her first two books is Leigh Hedstrom, who also illustrated my When I See Grandma. Katrina is a dynamo and is incredibly generous, so I feel fortunate to interview her for the JWFK blog.
Katrina, last year was a huge year for you. You launched Emily in February 2015 when you were heavily pregnant with your third baby; just over six months later you launched Same, with that baby on your hip; and in the interim Emily had been nominated as a Notable Book for CBCA Awards! So much joy personally and professionally! Congratulations! So let’s begin with:
Where does your desire to write come from?
I think all humans have an instinct to create. For writers, words are just their building blocks of choice.
At the most basic level the desire to write comes from the pleasure of reading. The desire to write for children specifically comes from remembering the magic and joy of reading as a child.
For me, it also comes from a place of loneliness, and a desire to connect with humanity on a deeper level. I often find everyday interactions frustratingly devoid of real connection, whereas storybooks open doors to discussion of meaningful themes and issues that don’t come up otherwise. I suppose writing is a fun form of therapy.
All of your books have something important to say and are based on experiences you have had within your family (nut allergy, asthma, disability) Do you start with an issue you want to explore, or does a story/character/something else come first?
It’s different every time. Marty’s Nut-Free Party and Emily Eases Her Wheezes started very deliberately with an issue, but Same was less deliberate. It was just a lovely moment, laden with pathos and symbolism, that I wanted to share. Usually my stories start with an experience as the motivation, but they also take on a life of their own in the writing process. The ideas often slosh around in my head for weeks, months or even years, until there is an ‘Aha! moment’, an epiphany where it all comes together in my mind. After that, the writing usually comes quite easily.
How did you learn about and practice the craft of writing to get it to a publishable state? Do you belong to any critique groups, attend courses etc? If so, how did they help?
I haven’t ever studied writing, but I’ve taken small steps to improve. I joined the NSW Writers’ Centre many years ago, which was the first step to getting serious about writing. I started with a one day course on writing for children, and another on submitting to publishers. After that I did a one-on-one manuscript assessment with Mark McLeod, which was a real eye opener. He thought two of my scripts were rubbish, but that one had potential and suggested some improvements. The most important step for me was joining a children’s writer’s group because it taught me how to self-edit and gave me a regular deadline to work to. I highly recommend joining a critique group – it’s a wonderful support through both the rejections and the wins.
Personally I enjoy the face to face contact, but I know other writers have online groups. Two of my friends and I have just started a facebook group called Shut Up and Write with Me. We don’t critique each other’s work, we just commit to sit down and write each Tuesday night for 45 minutes and we set goals for the night, which I find really helpful. Otherwise it’s easy to put off writing.
All these courses, groups, conferences and festivals are useful, but you still have to exercise the discipline of actually writing! I find it helpful to schedule that.
Writing an engaging story around an issue requires a special skill. Have there been any particular influences that have helped you develop this skill?
People learn best from stories, so you need a good story to get them in. And you need a lovable character that they will relate to. Then it’s all about creating empathy for your character by coming on an emotional journey with them. The most important quality is authenticity and truthfulness, even if that truth is confronting. For example, in Same, it is confronting to acknowledge that Ivy is actually afraid of her disabled Uncle. The reader recognises their own fears and concerns in Ivy. The truth is that many adults also feel awkward and uncomfortable around people with disabilities. They can’t run and hide like Ivy does, but they hide on the inside by withdrawing or avoiding an interaction that they may find difficult. This is an emotionally loaded subject to discuss, but when a young child runs away from her Uncle, we can relate to that and see it for what it is, without judgement. If you are going to discuss a difficult issue in a children’s book, then you have to do it with gentleness, kindness and without being too didactic or judgmental.
Writing for children has helped me to transform some of my negative emotions around these issues into something constructive and helpful.
Do you belong to any groups/associations and how have they helped your writing career?
I’ve been a member of the NSW Writers’ Centre for years and it’s probably been the most influential association for me. Way before I was writing for kids, I entered my novel in their Genre Fiction Award and was thrilled to be a finalist. It was the first thing I’d ever written as an adult and also the first success I’d experienced since I was a student. It made me feel that I was getting close!
Most of the courses and festivals I attend, and my children’s writers group, are also run by the NSW Writers’ Centre.
I also joined CBCA when I first started writing for children, mainly just to surround myself with other people who love children’s literature. I’ve enjoyed getting to know many inspiring children’s authors and illustrators through this group. Unfortunately, with two young children and a baby, I just don’t have time to get the most out of these organisations right now, but I hope to become more involved in the future. I also plan to join SCWIBI and ASA when my time and finances allow. Online groups like Just Write for Kids are fantastic for busy author mums like myself because they keep you in touch with the industry.
In the mean time find more about Katrina at her website: http://katrinaroe.com/
Find out more about me at http://www.debratidball.com/