Kiah Thomas is a star on the rise. Her first picture book, Allergic Alpaca was recently released, and she has another picture book, Foothand Elbownose, both illustrated by the quirky Connah Brecon, due out in November this year. But also waiting in the wings are two more books to be published next year. Whilst these books are exploding onto the scene right now, I’m curious as to all the work that has gone before, to get to this place.
I first met Kiah at a Writer’s Unleashed conference a couple of years ago, and she was warm and friendly and enthusiastic about my new book. I liked her right away! I recently caught up with her again at the CBCA NSW Illawarra sub branch’s Literary Lunch, and although heavily pregnant (her third child was born on the weekend!) she agreed to be interviewed! How gracious is that? Kiah (pronounced like the car, she tells me) asks that we excuse her of any ‘baby brain’ influences in the interview, but I’m sure you’ll agree, that she comes across as engaging and intelligent, as well as lots of fun.
Hi Kiah! Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview, especially with so much going on in your personal world.
Thanks so much for having me Debra! Reading these interviews is always such a highlight for me, I’m a bit giddy at answering the questions myself!
Aww – you’re very kind 🙂 Let’s start with the excitement of your new book! What can you tell us about this picture book?
Allergic Alpaca is a fun and slightly bizarre picture book for ages 4+. It’s about an alpaca who lives at the start of the alphabet and is allergic to apples. After an unfortunate archery incident, she finds herself carried down the alphabet on an avalanche. Away from the apples, she finds her allergies clear up and she’s faced with a decision – should she move away from ‘A’?
It is quirky and fun! Congratulations! We all know that the release a book is the end result of a lot of work that’s gone before it. So can you tell us how you started writing for children – what was your inspiration and what got you started?
I’ve always loved writing, and when I was younger I wanted to be an author when I grew up. Then somewhere along the way I forgot that! I went to uni and studied PR, and then I worked in a holiday rental business on the south coast (which I loved – meeting people on holidays, and often not wearing shoes to work).
Then I had kids of my own, and started reading blogs and kids books and it made me feel like writing again. At the same time one of my cousins had just started exploring the idea of illustrating kids books (which he now does! Pete Baldwin – he illustrates the Maxi the Lifeguard books) and he suggested that I try writing a picture book. Eventually I did!
Wow – you have a creative and encouraging family! Having the idea to write is one thing though, and the dedication to work at your craft and improve it until it’s ready for publication is another. How did you learn about and practice the craft of writing to get it to a publishable state?
When I started writing I imagined that everything I wrote would immediately be perfect and everyone would love it (tragically, it’s not, and very sadly, they don’t). The problem is that I’m awful at self-editing. And I’m impatient. Both of which are terrible qualities for writing. I think that for me, the more I write the more I learn. Even when what I write is bad, I feel like the practice of sitting down and writing is good for me. I’ve got a manuscript for a young adult novel sitting on my computer that is about 70,000 words long. It’s not great and it’s so unlikely that it will ever be published. Which would have devastated me when I started writing it. But the process of writing it taught me so much about plotting and voice and persistence.
In terms of outside feedback, I have a couple of writing friends who I send things to, and just over twelve months ago I joined a SCBWI critique group. Feedback is always so helpful (even though sometimes I’m bad at receiving it) – there’s such value in a trusted outside perspective.
I hadn’t had any professional manuscript appraisals or attended any courses prior to my manuscripts being picked up – but I have since, and they’re always really beneficial.
That’s great advice about the process of actually writing is how you learn. And I love your honesty about feelings. The first time I had a critique on my work, I wanted to cry! A few months later I was begging for the feedback!
So how/when did you first put your writing ‘out there’ and how did it feel?
I am way too impulsive and impatient and sent the second picture book manuscript I’d ever written to an agent pretty much days after I’d written it. He was kind enough to get back to me, and sent the manuscript out to a few publishers who gave feedback. That feedback was invaluable – it really helped me to stop and reflect on things I’d never have thought to reflect on. Way too often I start with a concept, and somehow miss having relatable characters, or a real story.
From that first time onwards, I’ve always been strangely excited to send writing out… until it’s then out there and I notice all the things that I should’ve spent more time thinking about and editing before I impulsively pressed send. I should definitely listen more to the voice that says ‘are you sure?’ than to the one that says ‘AHHHHHH, I wonder what will happen!’ before I close my eyes and hit the button.
Ha ha! I can so relate! I find it so hard to wait before sending a ‘brilliant’ concept out. But there’s a bit difference between brilliant concept and brilliant story, as you say!
After I submitted the first story to the agent and it didn’t immediately get published I felt disappointed, which I’m a bit embarrassed about now (the disappointment, not the lack of publication!) I think my expectation of the process was messed up – I just wanted it all to happen immediately! Luckily, the agent suggested I find a writing group and through a series of random connections I met someone called Zoe, who lives locally and also loves writing for children. Connecting with Zoe was invaluable – not only does she give great feedback, but meeting up also inspired me to keep writing. She’s now one of my closest friends.
When I met you the first time, you were with Zoe. She’s great value! And now the Vice President of the Illawarra CBCA sub branch!
By chance, Little Hare was open for submissions not long after that. I submitted two manuscripts to their slush pile and an editor got in touch abo
ut a week later to tell me that she loved them and was thinking of taking them to acquisitions.
I think the truth is probably that at the start I didn’t really know if they were ready for submission. One of them (Foothand Elbownose, which is out in November) is pretty much unchanged from what I first submitted, and the other needed work.
I feel like it really was a case of being lucky enough to have the right manuscript in front of the right person at the right time.
I wonder what you consider the most helpful things – events/skills/moments – that encouraged you to write and made you a better writer?
I think the thing that continually encourages me to write is how much I know I can love doing it… those moments where everything feels like it’s working and you have the right words (even if they don’t necessarily seem right when you look back at them later!).
Sadly, that’s not every time I sit down at a computer. And that’s why conversations with friends, and writing events where authors speak about their own journeys are so encouraging.
I also find it really encouraging when I read back over things I wrote a while ago – either because I’m pleasantly surprised by how I’ve phrased something, or because I’m horrified at what I wrote and know that my most recent project is at least better than that!
Well, thanks for encouraging us today, Kiah!
Next month we’ll delve further into how Kiah’s manuscripts came to be picked up for publication, but in the mean time, I wish her well after the birth of her baby. I’m sure she’s pretty snowed under right now. You can’t visit Kiah’s website, ’cause she doesn’t have one yet! But you can visit mine!
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