Welcome to the four hundred and fifth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with middle grade and article author Susan Brocker. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Susan. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Susan: I live on a small farm in New Zealand. I’ve written all my life, both for fun and work. For many years, I worked for an educational publisher based here in New Zealand, writing non-fiction and fiction titles for American schools. But about eight years ago, I broke free and started writing novels for older children about the subjects I love, such as history and animals of all sorts.
Susan is with Barney in this photo.
Morgen: A publisher? Ooh, I’ll have to have you back and talk about publishing. What genre do you generally write?
Susan: I generally write middle grade fiction for ages 8-14 years. Many are historical fiction or adventure stories, and they often feature animals. I’ve also written travel and history-based articles for adults.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date?
Susan: The middle grade novels I’ve had published with HarperCollins NZ recently include: Restless Spirit; Saving Sam; Dreams of Warriors; The Wolf in the Wardrobe and the nonfiction title, Brave Bess and the ANZAC Horses.
Morgen: ‘The Wolf in the Wardrobe’ I love that. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Susan: I’ve had no rejections. But I put that down to the fact that I worked in the publishing industry as an editor for many years and learnt many of the pitfalls and stumbling blocks for first-time writers.
Morgen: Ah yes, being on the other side of the table you must know what is wanted. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions?
Susan: Yes. Here in New Zealand we have a prestigious competition called the LIANZA Children’s Book Awards, which is judged by librarians. My book, Dreams of Warriors, was a finalist in the LIANZA Esther Glen 2011 Award. We also have annual awards run by Storylines, the Children’s Literature Charitable Trust, and all of my books have received their yearly Notable Book Awards.
Morgen: Well done. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Susan: No, I don’t have an agent. They’re not really needed here in New Zealand and Australia, but I think it’s very different in other parts of the world. Finding a suitable agent is the next step in my writing career as I would love my books to succeed offshore too.
Morgen: They’re certainly sought after here in the UK. Are your books available as eBooks? Were you involved in that process at all? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Susan: Yes, all my books are available as eBooks at Amazon’s Kindle Store.
I wasn’t involved in the process as it was organised by my publisher, HarperCollins. And no – I don’t read eBooks – yet!
Morgen: It’s inevitable, I think. I resisted for ages then bought a generic out of curiosity but have since bought a Kindle and now I have my eBooks online I’ve used it more (for reading other people’s of course but it’s handy to have works in progress on it). How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Susan: I visit schools and libraries throughout New Zealand to talk to children about my books. I also have a website and an author fan page on Facebook, but I’m not too hot at internet marketing!
Morgen: Which is partly why you’re here. Most authors have said that marketing is their weakness, which could be why I’m booked out until February 2013. Do you have a favourite of your books or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Susan: I can imagine quite a few of my books as films as they come alive like that in my head as I write. But as animals feature in many of my books, and I know that animal films are notoriously difficult to make, I’m not sure if they’ll ever be tackled! But if I had to pick, one of my favourite characters is Lupa, the wolf from The Wolf in the Wardrobe, and her sidekick, the boy, Finn. Finn is a real character, and I could imagine a Macaulay Caulkin type actor taking on that role!
Morgen: Maybe they could be illustrated / CGId. It does seem to be the way the perhaps more difficult films are going and I love them (the child in me always loved cartoons). Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Susan: Yes. I had a say in all my titles and covers. I think they’re vital to whether or not kids pick the book up in the first place – they’re the first “hook”.
Morgen: I’m a big title fan so I’d agree. I like nice covers but they don’t make or break for me… nor does a title (I bought James Patterson’s The Quickie after all) but a good one certainly helps. I think Restless Spirit is my favourite of yours (the font I think). I write a story a day (mostly flash fiction) for my 5pm Fiction slot and love making up new titles for each one. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Susan: I’m working on another midgrade novel centred on an odd woman who rescues cats. All the kids in the neighbourhood are scared of her because they think she’s a witch, but one girl works up the courage to approach her when she finds an injured cat – and a whole new startling world opens up for her.
Morgen: I love writing odd characters… they’re so much more fun. Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Susan: I write most days unless an emergency comes up, or I’m called away to other projects, such as my research. And yes, at times I do suffer from writer’s block. When that happens I’ve worked out it’s best just to write anything – so long as I get something down on paper.
Morgen: Exactly, you can’t edit a blank page. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Susan: Firstly, I get my idea and let it mull around in my head for weeks. Then, once I think it’s worth running with, I settle down to plot it out more methodically.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Susan: I don’t really have a strict method, but I notice that many of my characters are based around mixes of people I know whom I either liked a lot or didn’t like! I think in order to make your characters totally believable you have to get inside their heads and try to understand why they act in the way they do.
Morgen: Indeed. I often sit moving my arms around recreating what I have them doing. My dog realised long ago how strange I am. Do you write much non-fiction (you mentioned the articles earlier), poetry or short stories?
Susan: I write a great deal of nonfiction. I have a history degree and I enjoy writing about the past, and I often draw this into my fiction writing as well.
Morgen: Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Susan: I plot out my stories then write, write, write. So I always find I need to go back and edit, edit, edit! That way, I hone my story to its very best.
Morgen: You’ve just said that you draw history into your stories, do you have to do much research?
Susan: Yes, especially with my historical novels. Often the research takes much longer than the writing.
Morgen: Hooray for the internet. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Susan: I write mostly in third person. In one book I wrote called Journey to the New World, I wrote in first person, in diary format, and that was fun. But no, I’ve never written in second person – now that would be a challenge!
Morgen: I write a lot of it (some for the 5pm fiction but also for Story a Day May and Tuesday Tales) and whilst I wouldn’t say it’s easy, it certainly becomes easier the more you write. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Susan: Yes, I have stories sitting fully-formed and written on my computer that I’ve stored because I don’t believe they’re quite up to it. Perhaps I’ll go back to them one day.
Morgen: I have loads of those and like you, I’m hoping I can bully them into shape. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Susan: My favourite aspect is that I’m my own boss and I can write about the things I love. My least favourite aspect is the isolation – it’s a very lonely life being a writer! And yes, one thing that has surprised me is that I actually enjoy going out to schools and libraries and chatting to kids about writing. I’m a very shy person and I don’t like making speeches, but I’ve enjoyed meeting the kids (and adults) who read my books.
Morgen: I love the solitude, although I have my dog so still someone to talk to other than my characters. I’m not a confident public-speaker either although I did a talk to one of my writing groups the other day about creating eBooks (which I might turn into a free eBook). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Susan: Write! Don’t let negative thoughts drag you down; just write from your heart, write about what you love; even just write for yourself. Write because you love it, not because you hope one day to get published.
Morgen: Because if you love what you write, readers are (hopefully) likely to. If it bores you it’ll (probably) bore readers. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Susan: Hee, hee, now that’s fun because I hate cooking (though I love eating)! So, I would ask my husband Lionel to cook and the people I would invite are:
* Anne Frank (her diary really moved me when I was teenager); I would ask Lionel to cook the great Dutch dish made of endive, called Witlof
* Paul Gallico (his book, The Snow Goose, is one of my all-time favourites); I’d cook a Kiwi lamb roast (I could actually manage cooking that one myself)
* Martin Luther King; I’d ask Lionel to cook an Indian curry (because many of Martin Luther King’s wonderful ideas were inspired by Mahatma Ghandi)
Morgen: On the rare occasion I do cook, I enjoy it but having someone else to do it would be a bonus because you could then chat to your guests. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Susan: Yes, it’s from Maxim Gorky: “You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better.”
Morgen: I love that. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Susan: Yes; I teach children’s writing here in New Zealand at an institute called the Waiariki Polytechnic
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing? Any hobbies or party tricks?
Susan: I have many hobbies, the top-most I guess would be horse riding. Party tricks include dancing – turn on any music and I’ve got to dance!
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful?
Susan: I’ve been a member of the Children’s Book Insider for as long as I can remember. They offer heaps of useful advice for budding children’s writers at: http://cbiclubhouse.com.
Morgen: Thanks for that, Susan. I don’t have many children’s websites listed on my blog’s links page so I’ve added it there. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Susan: Yes, my publisher HarperCollins set up a Facebook fan page for me, but I’m not very good at marketing it – I hate this part of my job! – so please, please, please pop along to “Like” it!
Morgen: I have. Most authors do dislike marketing, or at least say it takes too much time away from writing (part of the reason why I write and post a story a day so I have to write – which is what I love to do over everything else). What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Susan: I’m really not sure. On my more pessimistic days, I don’t know how writers will ever make a living going forward. I wonder whether the internet will become a place for anybody to write and there will be no way to determine what is good stuff and what is bad. It will just come down to whoever is better at promoting themselves. For those of us who are not great at “getting ourselves out there” we’ll die a slow death. But equally, for writers like me living in far-flung reaches of the globe like New Zealand, at least we can get our books out to the market more easily.
Morgen: I think reviews will split the good from the bad, and would always advise an eBook author having something free so readers can try them out before spending their money on something else (therefore having at least two items online when they first set out – for example I have four free shorts and a $0.99 (Smashwords) collection of shorts – all listed here). Where can we find out about you and your work?
Susan: I have a website at: www.susanbrocker.com and I’m also on Facebook above – please visit!
Morgen: I have. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Susan: Yes, how is it that you’re providing this wonderful service free to writers? It’s fantastic, so thank you.
Morgen: You’re very welcome. It’s a full-time job… literally, I quit my job in March to have more time to write but it’s mostly been spent dealing with emails (I have 202 in my inbox as we speak) and have two lodgers to pay my bills. I still have to do some work (a new blog design service amongst other things) but I love being at home all the time, taking my dog to the park whenever I like. Sorry, off at a tangent (as I do). Why? Because I was / am / striving to be in the same boat as everyone I speak to. I live and breathe writing so love talking about it. Underlying I do it in the hope that it sells more eBooks (a trickle at the moment as I only have a shorts collection and writing guide, but I’m getting my novels ready so hopefully ) plus I occasionally get to be on other people’s blogs so the spotlight’s on me, which I love (so if anyone reading this would like me to be on their site, they can email me ). It’s all about getting your name know. I had an email a little while back from a lady whose story had appeared on my Flash Fiction Fridays slot. I was due to podcast her story on a Monday and the Saturday before she’d been at a party “telling anyone who would listen” that I was going to read and record her story and someone she told said “Morgen Bailey! I love her blog, I love her podcast!”. THAT was amazing, that a random person (if it’s you and you’re reading this – please get in touch!) in the US had heard of me. It still makes me goosebumpy. Also getting emails from readers saying they love what I write is such a thrill. I also get some (well, a couple – on Goodreads) saying they’ll never read anything by me again but even I found that funny… that someone felt strongly enough about my writing to take the time to say that – I clicked the ‘like’ button. Anyway, thank you so much, Susan. Do come back again for something else… a chat about publishing some time would be great.
I then invited Susan to include an extract of her writing and this is from the opening chapter from, Saving Sam, the story of a very special dog and the troubled boy she befriends:
She was terrified, even though she stood her ground and barked bravely. It made no difference. He came at her like a freight train, huge and unstoppable. He slammed into her, his teeth snapping around her throat. As the life drained from her, she remembered a kind voice from another time. The memory gave her courage for one last stand. She braced herself against the powerful dog and tore free from his grip. They locked jaws together and rolled over and over across the bloodstained floor. The men cheered. For a split second, she managed to straddle the white fury beneath her. His throat pulsed in her jaws. But she could not bring herself to slice through his flesh. She could not kill.
“Kill! Kill! Kill!” cried the men.
She could not do it. She released her grip on the pit bull’s neck. He squirmed away and cowered in the corner. Her owner jumped into the pit alongside her. She shrank from him. He was a beast of a man, with a pockmarked face and bulging eyes. His greasy leather jacket displayed his gang patch. His grubby jeans stunk of dog urine and fear. He had never shown her a moment’s kindness. He had half starved her, trying to make fight the other dogs for her food. He had beaten her to shatter her trust in people. Now he jammed a pronged collar around her torn and bloodied neck and hoisted her off her front feet, hanging her by the collar. As she choked and twirled on the end of the chain, he yelled at his mate, “Sell this mutt. She’ll never make a fighter.”
If you are reading this and you write, in whatever genre, and are thinking “ooh, I’d like to do this” then you can… just email me and I’ll send you the information. They do now (January 2013) carry a fee (£10 / €12.50 / $15) for the new interviews on this blog but everything else (see Opportunities on this blog) is free.
If you go for the interview, it’s very simple; I send you a questionnaire (I have them for novelists, short story authors, children’s authors, non-fiction authors, and poets). You complete the questions, and I let you know when it’s going to go live. Before it does so, I add in comments as if we’re chatting, and then they get posted. When that’s done, I email you with the link so you can share it with your corner of the literary world. And if you have a writing-related blog / podcast and would like to interview me… let me know.
Alternatively, if you’d like a free Q&A-only interview, I now have http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com on which I’ve rerun the original interviews posted here then posted new interviews which I then reblog here. These interviews are Q&A only, so I don’t add in my comments but they do get exposure on both sites.
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