Welcome to the ninety-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, directors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. Today’s is with children’s and adult fiction author Teena Raffa-Mulligan. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate the author further. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here.
Morgen: Hello, Teena. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Teena: As a child growing up in a working class suburb near Fremantle, Western Australia, I was surrounded by an extended family of natural storytellers and listened enraptured to their tales. My English grandmother told me how my grandfather fell over on the ice and she helped him back on his feet. They married and came to Australia to start a new life and were pioneers as part of the Group Settlement Scheme in the south west of Western Australia. My Italian grandfather came to Fremantle where he was involved in establishing the crayfishing industry. He returned to Sicily to find a wife and his mother suggested a respectable woman who was a friend of the family. She turned down his proposal but her sister married him instead and left all that was familiar to come to Australia. My parents in their turn told me their stories and I’m sure that rich cultural background has had something to do with me wanting to write my own stories. For me, books have always opened a window to other worlds – both real and imaginary –and I wanted to be able to do this too. I’ve also always had a head full of stories that want to be written. By the time I was about ten I knew I wanted to be an author. At that age, though, I also wanted to become a prima ballerina so the plan was to write my novels in the dressing room between performances.
Morgen: Wow… I’d say you have a few novels in there before you even need to start looking elsewhere. 🙂 What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Teena: I mainly write for children – everything from poems and short stories for magazines to picture books, chapter books and novels. I’ve also tried script writing (unsuccessfully) and adult fiction – I’m waiting for a publisher’s decision on my first attempt at a novel.
Morgen: I did http://scriptfrenzy.org (100 pages of script in 30 days, sister org of NaNoWriMo) in April 2010 and didn’t enjoy the process (that’s what it was to me) but liked the story so have converted it into the beginning of novel no. 4. What have you had published to-date? If applicable, can you remember where you saw your first books on the shelves?
Teena: So far I’ve had four picture books, a short chapter book and a children’s novel published and many of my short stories and poems for children and adults have appeared in anthologies and magazines. During a long career in journalism I’ve also had articles, reviews and columns published in Australian newspapers and magazines.
Morgen: And I bet it’s still lovely to see your name in print. 🙂 How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Teena: Self promotion has never come naturally to me so I’m working on developing my skills in that area. With my earlier publications I left the marketing up to my publishers, though I always agreed to interview requests and accepted invitations to visit schools as a guest author. A few years ago I decided to self publish a new version of my stranger danger picture book – which had been out of print for about a quarter of a century – so of course I had to take responsibility for getting the word out. I prepared press releases, contacted libraries and schools, had brochures printed… and that felt okay because I didn’t actually speak to anyone, it was all via snail mail and email. Probably that’s why it wasn’t as effective as I would have liked. With my new book, a children’s novel called Mad Dad For Sale published by Horizon Publishing Group, I am playing my part. I’ve contacted local papers, sent out emails to all my contacts, approached the local library to organise a book launch, accepted opportunities like this to promote myself as an author.
Morgen: “Stranger Danger” I love that. 🙂 I guess having the journalism background certainly helped with knowing how to market even if it’s still difficult to push yourself. I’m sort of doing it the other way round – building an audience (which I’m really enjoying by the way) while working on getting my books ready (one done, one at my editors, three or four to go through yet), but I’ll still be backwards at coming forwards – I have a friend who’s a natural born seller whereas if someone doesn’t want something I say “OK, thanks anyway” and move on which I think is fine and as far as eBooks are concerned I’ll put them online, mention them in passing every now and then, when appropriate, and see how it goes. Have you won or been shortlisted in any competitions and do you think they help with a writer’s success?
Teena: A few of my stories and poems have placed in competitions but I don’t have any significant awards to add to my publishing credits. I’m sure winning a major prize would help with book sales and also lead to publishers being more interested in subsequent mss.
Morgen: But everything you can put on your CV will help and yes if one of your listings was the Booker or Miles Franklin that would be a bonus. 🙂 Do you write under a pseudonym? If so why and do you think it makes a difference?
Teena: Not so far but I probably will if I ever write in a different genre, such as romance. It would be fun to create a different persona for myself.
Morgen: It would. 🙂 That’s the thing, unless you start writing various genres (as I’ve done / am doing) readers expect the same from you (Martina Cole springs to mind) so the likes of Joanna Trollope writes as Caroline Harvey and Ruth Rendell and Barbara Vine (although these days they have author a ‘writing as’ author b so readers know to expect the quality, I guess). Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Teena: It would be bliss to have an agent to find publishers for my many and varied mss while I just concentrated on writing. Maybe I’ll put the time and energy into finding one at some stage but in talking to fellow writers it sounds like it can be harder to get an agent than a publisher.
Morgen: I’ve heard that a lot too and I’ve struggled, although I’ve only contacted a dozen, so I’m going my own way and will see how that goes. It does give me the freedom of doing what I want (under the guidance of an editor) and putting my multi-genres up. 🙂 Speaking of which, are your books available as eBooks? If so what was your experience of that process? And do you read eBooks?
Teena: The publishers of my latest release will be releasing an e-book version as well as the paperback but I’m not involved in that side of it. I’m interested in seeing the response to it because exciting things seem to be happening with e-publishing. By the end of this year I hope to make one or two titles available in a series of spiritual e-books I’m putting together for my late father. I expect it to be quite a learning process but I’ll have the generous support and guidance of my fellow ANZauthors.
Morgen: I’m on LinkedIn and the support there is great. I’m diverting all the nuggets into an ‘ebook info’ mail folder ready for when I start the process. I’m expecting a steep learning curve as some have said it’s tricky but some breezy so we shall see. 🙂 Going back a bit, what was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Teena: My first professional acceptance was from a women’s magazine for a children’s story. The news came by post (it was a long time ago) about five minutes before I was due to walk to the local kindy to pick up my four-year-old. I was so excited I practically ran all the way there, pushing his two-year-old sister along in the stroller at breakneck speed. She wasn’t too impressed. We didn’t have a phone at the time so I had to wait till my husband came home from work that evening to share the good news I was actually being paid for a story. Acceptance for fiction is still a thrill. I can’t imagine a time when it would seem unexciting.
Morgen: I thought children liked everything at speed. 🙂 Because I’m so rubbish at submitting (I have been a tad busy recently) I’ve been stoked when I’ve been asked to guest blog or submit a short story. It’s for free but that’s not the motivation for me (remind me I said that when I still have the day job in 10 years’ time!) but knowing that my work it out for people to read is what it’s all (OK, 95%) for me. Presumably there been some rejections along the way. If so, how do you deal with them?
Teena: When I first started writing and submitting my work I knew nothing about the industry so inevitably I nothing but rejections. I didn’t know all the encouragement and constructive criticism that accompanied these knockbacks were out of the ordinary so I was devastated. I’d seen myself as being a writer since I was a kid, so if I wasn’t a writer, what was I? I contacted a correspondence writing course, found it was way beyond our budget as young parents with a mortgage and decided to try writing articles for magazines and newspapers. Success was immediate and I began making money from my writing. I’d only ever intended journalism to be a temporary detour from “real” writing but found myself with a demanding career. However I never lost my dream and continued to write fiction. I still get rejections but I don’t fall apart. Once you’ve written a story – or poem – to the best standard you can, finding a publisher is a case of landing on the right desk at the right time. Rejection is part life for anyone who’s serious about writing. Of course it’s disappointing to receive a rejection. That doesn’t change. But I simply take another look at the manuscript, decide whether it needs any revisions and submit it to the next publisher on my list. Besides, having a dozen or more different submissions out at any one time does make it easier if one is rejected because I can still keep my hopes high about all the others that haven’t been returned yet.
Morgen: “right desk at the right time” – absolutely, editors don’t have time or money to buy everything and even if they love the story, sometimes they have something similar (so always send your Christmas stories out at Easter folks!) What are you working on at the moment / next?
Teena: I’m working on a children’s novel about a boy who meets a dragon from the planet Jupiter that no one else can see. He thinks having it for a house guest for seven days will change his life – it does, but not in the way he thought it would.
Morgen: Dragons will always be popular (I loved ‘How to train your dragon’) and have a story called ‘Detective Dan’ that I should do something with – thank you for reminding me. 🙂 You do sound as if you’re always writing something, do you manage to write every day?
Teena: I don’t have a set working routine. It depends what else is going on in my life at the time and what I’m writing. Sometimes I wake up during the night with lines from a poem, part of a picture book or a scene from a novel clear in my mind and get up and write it down. Other times I write fragments of a story or poem in between going about my everyday activities. Then there are days when I do sit down at the computer soon after 8am and keep working until about 4pm. When I’m editing or rewriting I tend to spend longer periods.
Morgen: What is your opinion of writer’s block? Do you ever suffer from it? If so, how do you ‘cure’ it?
Teena: There are definitely times when the writing doesn’t flow easily. I find physical activity helps, so rather than sit at the computer and agonise I go off and do something that takes me out of my head, such as a brisk walk, a bike ride, yoga, weeding the garden. Housework is brilliant for this, too. The minute I start washing the dishes, sweeping the floor or doing the ironing I find the stumbling point in my story will resolve itself and I can head back to the computer.
Morgen: You’re more disciplined than a lot of writers. And yes, sometimes my dog will get an extra walk – I’ve mastered the knack of editing or reading as I walk, writing is a bit more tricky (scrawly). 🙂 Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Morgen: Me too. How do you create your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Teena: No. Again, I start writing and they develop as I go. Usually I know their names from the start but occasionally I will play around with one or two.
Morgen: I’m pretty much the same, sometimes I’ll start with a name but then find the story doesn’t suit him / her but usually it’s the character who takes the story in his / her direction. Who is your first reader – who do you first show your work to?
Teena: I’m lucky enough to be part of a wonderful critique group that meets once a month. There are six of us, all at various stages of our writing life and focused on different genres including children’s books, romantic suspense, historical sagas, modern fiction, medical romance, fantasy and script writing. While our writing interests are diverse, we share a common commitment to practising our craft at the highest level. Each month we email each other a chapter or two of our latest work in progress a week or two before we’re due to meet, which allows plenty of time to consider each submission and prepare feedback. Each one of us brings different skills and a unique perspective to the critiquing process and after five years of meeting regularly a wonderful level of trust and support has developed in the group. It’s helped me tremendously to develop my writing and take it to a new level.
Morgen: Isn’t it great (although sometimes frustrating when you realise how much work is going to be involved) when they spot something that had never occurred to you. You can of course go your own way but for me, they’re usually right. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Teena: It depends what I am writing. Sometimes I will produce a children’s poem or short story in one sitting that will require almost no editing before I submit it. When that happens, it feels like a gift. With longer work, it varies from scene to scene and chapter to chapter.
Morgen: What sort of music do you listen to when you write?
Teena: I usually get involved in my story and don’t think about playing music. When I do remember, it’s New Age / relaxation music.
Morgen: Mine’s classical (which I’ve loved for a few years now – and always used to think “I’ll know I’m old when I like classical music” so I guess I was old before my time). My usual taste (Pink Floyd, Coldplay, Moby) is usually left for when I’m checking emails etc. so the words don’t disturb me creating mine. What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Teena: I’m most comfortable in first person, probably because I feel I can get right into my characters. However I find the story itself usually dictates the point of view.
Morgen: Do you use prologues / epilogues? What do you think of the use of them?
Teena: I did use a prologue and epilogue in my first adult novel but I’m not sure how well it’s worked. It depends on the novel. I think they should be used sparingly. Whether as a reader or writer I prefer to get right into the story.
Morgen: With one exception (a prologue, which used to be chapter 1 and may end up being again), I jump straight in too. What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Teena: I love the opportunity it has given me to talk to kids about writing and encourage them to believe they can write too if they want to. The downside is waiting for decisions from publishers. It can take so long.
Morgen: 😦 If anything, what has been your biggest surprise about writing?
Teena: How difficult it can be to get published. There are so many factors involved aside from the quality of the writing.
Morgen: Sadly that’s true (see aforementioned reference to having something similar). What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Teena: Read and write regularly. That’s the only way to develop your skills as an author. In my workshops and creative writing sessions for adults I talk about the “4D Approach to Writing Success”. Quite simply, that is Desire + Discipline + Dedication + Determination = Publication. If you want to be a published author the first essential is a desire to write. It takes discipline to sit down and produce a manuscript, dedication to stay focused on the task and determination not to give up despite the inevitable rejections and disappointments. It also helps if you’re an optimist and go through life expecting good things to happen!
Morgen: Absolutely – if you don’t have passion it’ll come over in your writing. Bored character = bored writer = bored reader. What do you like to read?
Teena: I like nothing better than to totally immerse myself in a novel and I read in a wide range of genres. My favourite authors include Anita Shreve, Jodi Picoult, Paullina Simons, Barbara Delinsky, Barbara Erskine, Gabriel King, Liz Byrski and Anna Jacobs.
Morgen: Ooh, I interviewed Anna recently. 🙂
Teena: I’ve just discovered Joanna Trollope, which is exciting because it means there’s another selection of books I can add to my reading list.
Morgen: You can… and her Caroline Harvey books. 🙂
Teena: I also have quite a collection of spiritual / new age books. As an author for young people, I read a range of picture books, junior fiction and YA because I need to keep up to date with what’s being published now. Interestingly I haven’t read the Harry Potter books – yet.
Morgen: Nor have I. I have them all (hardback and paperback) but I stuck with the films (and not all of those; the first / last few), only because it’s not what I usually read (crime / chick lit) and they’re so huge (I prefer short stories or novellas – something I can do in one sitting). Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Teena: I’ve found the work of Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way; The Right to Write; The Sound of Paper) and Natalie Goldberg (Long Quiet Highway; Writing Down the Bones) inspirational.
Morgen: Thank you. 🙂 In which country are you based and do you find this a help or hindrance with letting people know about your work?
Teena: I live in a coastal city about 50kms south of Perth, Western Australia. The internet means I have instant access to people and places all over the world so I don’t find it a disadvantage.
Morgen: Isn’t it great? Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Teena: I’m a member of an online group called ANZauthors and I’ve found it a wonderful source of advice and information about the changing publishing industry. The members are so willing to share their experience and expertise.
Morgen: There’s the passion again. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your work?
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Teena: “Possibilities” is the word that comes instantly to mind. The publishing world is in a stage of change so there are exciting times ahead for those who can adapt. “Story” plays an integral role in the human experience and there will always be a place for those who have stories to share.
Morgen: Finally, do you have a piece of your writing you’d like to add here?
Teena: This is from Flash, a children’s story set in the mid 1930s in Western Australia…
NELL could laugh like a kookaburra, leap like a wallaby and swim like a gilgie in the winter creek. She could run so fast Pa said she would win the Melbourne Cup if she were a horse. But Nell couldn’t walk the two miles through the bush to school with her big brother Will and older sisters Em and Jean without crying.
“Sook!” Em danced ahead on the track.
“Don’t be mean,’’ said Jean. “She’s only little.”
Will bent down in front of Nell. “I’ll give you a piggy back.”
Will was nearly a man. Soon he would turn thirteen and leave school to help build roads through the bush with Pa.
Will remembered where they had come from and he told Nell the story to make the long walk seem shorter.
“We lived far across the sea in England,’’ he began. “We had a proper house in a town and Mam loved the shops.”
Nell knew only the tent in the bush, the home that went with them wherever Pa found work. Her bed was a sugar bag stretched between two saplings. The family dinner table was the big bacon tin that had carried their things from England. Mam stood it on jam tins full of water to keep the ants away.
Morgen: Mentioning England in a story will always be a winner on this side of the pond. 🙂 Thank you for taking part Teena.
Teena Raffa-Mulligan is an Australian author who has figured out some unusual remedies for wrinkles, the fuel to launch a grandpa into outer space and a trick to help young elephants remember not to go with strangers. She is the author of six children’s books and many of her short stories and poems for children and adults have appeared in magazines and anthologies. When her first picture book – a stranger danger story called You Don’t Know Me? A Cautionary Tale for Children – was released in 1981 it was used widely in schools around the country. A 21st century version of the story is now available. Teena has also enjoyed a long and interesting career in journalism during which she has written for and edited a diverse range of magazines and newspapers. She shares her enthusiasm for writing by presenting talks, workshops and creative writing sessions at schools and libraries.
UPDATE FROM TEENA JUNE 2012: I have a new picture book out soon. It’s called Who Dresses God? (published by MBS Press) and was inspired by my younger daughter who asked me that question as a child after a conversation with my mum. Mum is no longer with us and my inquisitive four-year-old is now a young mum with two children of her own so this story has a special place in my heart. Told from the child’s perspective, the series of questions and answers in rhyme introduces young children to the idea of a higher being that can see, hear and speak without eyes, ears or tongue, and does not live in a house with roof, walls and locking doors. “For God’s house is the world we share and God is in it everywhere.” The wonderful illustrations are again by my creative friend Veronica Rooke, who also illustrated Jimbo! Don’t go!
In other news I have just created a website for kids which is based on my school visits. It includes writing tips and activities as well as information about my books and my life as a writer. Most importantly, kids are invited to submit their questions about writing and I’ll answer them via email and also select some to feature on the website. The link is www.teenawriter.weebly.com.
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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As I post an interview a day (amongst other things) I can’t unfortunately review books but I have a list of those who do. I welcome critique for the four new writing groups listed below and / or flash fiction (<1000 words) for Flash Fiction Fridays. For other opportunities see (see Opportunities on this blog).
The full details of the new online writing groups, and their associated Facebook groups, are:
- Morgen’s Online Novel Writing Group (http://novelwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/508696639153189)
- Morgen’s Online Poetry Writing Group (http://poetrywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/388850977875934)
- Morgen’s Online Script Writing Group (http://scriptwritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/319941328108017)
- Morgen’s Online Short Story Writing Group (http://shortstorywritinggroup.wordpress.com / http://www.facebook.com/groups/544072635605445)
We look forward to reading your comments.