Interview: Dawn McMillan, author of Mister Spears and his Hairy Ears
Author Dawn McMillan writes children’s fiction and non-fiction books. She has published over 15 picture books and over 140 educational readers, which are used in schools in New Zealand, Australia, the United States and Canada.
McMillan’s book Why Do Dogs Sniff Bottoms? won the Children’s Choice Award at the 2003 New Zealand Post Book Awards. Her books always have wonderful titles such as I Need a New Bum! And Doctor Grundy’s Undies. She lives on the Thames Coast, where she writes from her studio in her garden. Mr Spears and His Hairy Ears, illustrated by her long-time collaborator Ross Kinnaird, is her latest book.
Who’s your favourite writer for children and why?
I love Emily Gravett’s work. She is an author/illustrator. She uses so few words to say so much and her text and art work together perfectly. My favourite book of Emily’s is Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears.
Elizabeth Pulford, from here in New Zealand, is one of my favourite people as well as a favourite author. She writes pictures books, junior and middle fiction, and young adult books as well. I admire her writing energy and her versatility, and she’s always trying something different.
There is a great deal of fun in your stories, where do your ideas come from?
The funny stories just seem to pop up unexpectedly. Something triggers an idea, maybe something someone has said, or something I’ve seen in my environment or in my travels. Sometimes the idea has to wait for the rest of the story. Mr Spears and his Hairy Ears was a year between idea and story. But once the humorous stories start they are very impatient and they drive me crazy until the first draft is done.
One story can lead to another … the children’s response to Ross’s drawing of the boxer undies in I need a NEW BUM! triggered the follow up story, Doctor Grundy’s Undies.
I do write serious stories too, and most of these are relationship stories with a strong environmental content.
The relationship between illustrations and words is a special partnership in children’s books. How do you decide who will be your illustrator?
The publisher has the final decision re the illustrator.
What’s your process when working with an illustrator? Do you have a strong preconceived idea of what the characters look like?
Some illustrators like to have detailed illustration briefs so for them I do describe the characters I have in my head. I see these characters clearly and they come into my story with their names and even what they’re wearing. I feel as if I know them. Of course an illustrator can interpret the characters as he or she sees them.
With my partnership with illustrator Ross Kinnaird I provide no briefs or character outlines. We seem to be on the same ‘wave length’ and what he draws is usually what’s in my head. Any differences are sorted when the first roughs are done.
Do you test your stories on anyone before as you go?
On school visits I have read some stories from script but more to show the process than to test the story. Of course a good response is encouraging and can sometimes lead to a submission. But my usual testing process is a ‘read aloud’ drama, here at home in my studio. I act the story out. If it works and the voices of the characters are real I then cut and paste the text into a mock book and read the story aloud to an imaginary audience. Finally I read it to my husband. He’s very honest!
What does your writing day look like? Do you have any quirks or rituals?
My writing routine is variable, depending on what tasks are at hand. Sometimes, if I have a deadline to meet, I work full days and into the nights. Other times I might work half a day, or even take a day off for other things like to do the garden or to spend a day at the beach. I try to exercise each day, go to the gym or go for a walk. Friends and family come first so I like to make time for them.
I’m planning study time for the next few months. I’ll be spending two days each week at the library with a reading project to explore a new genre.
I don’t think I have any particular rituals other than a constant supply of cups of tea!
What would you be doing in another universe if you weren’t a writer?
I’d quite like to be a rock star! But I’d settle for farming goats and making the most amazing cheeses.
What made you want to write for children?
I guess my teaching career led me into writing for children, but I think the main influence is that I still feel eight years old so I’m my own audience.
What do you say to people who say writing for children is easy because there aren’t many words?
‘Have a go!’
What advice do you have for aspiring Children’s book writers?
Check out some children’s books to see how they work.
Listen … there’ll be some characters trying to tell you their story.
Watch your world for ideas.
Write! Rewrite. Experiment – you never know what might happen.