The Writer’s Life. www.thewriterslife.blogspot.com
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
A: I discovered my passion for creative writing whilst living in a small village in Cameroon in 1999. It was my first oversees posting and I was a lone volunteer managing the construction of a water supply project. There was no television, telephone, or indeed electricity for that matter. I had been writing a lot of letters home about my experiences and found that I really enjoyed putting pen to paper. As a result I decided to write a short story about the pop band that I had played in at college. I wrote it on scraps of paper, and found myself cutting out paragraphs from different pages and sticking them to the sides of others with duct-tape. The resulting collage of scribbling needed instructions to navigate. After discovering the pleasures of this creative process I went on to write longer stories about my adventures in Cameroon, and the subsequent places I’ve worked in over the past ten years. A lot of my travels have since influenced the characters and adventures that I write about in The lighthouse of Mr. Tinfish as well as the rest of the Mr. Tinfish Series.
Q. Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?
A: The lighthouse of Mr. Tinfish is the first in a series of children's books which follows the humorous adventures of Mr. Tinfish the penguin and his friends as they try to cope with the impact of climatic change in their community. A sudden rise in the sea level is just the start of the problems that the ever-changing climate will bring. Luckily for Mr. Tinfish, the other animals and birds all try to support each other, and Mr. Vinegar the walrus organizes the first of many expeditions led by Mr. Choli the cat to help the colony adapt to the changing conditions.
The initial idea for the Mr. Tinfish series came from the invention of two characters called Mr. Tinfish and Mrs. Cat-biscuit (who were based on what I was trying to get my very fussy cat to eat at the time in order to wean it off roast chicken – unsuccessfully I might add). When my wife asked me what Mr. Tinfish and Mrs. Cat-biscuit did, I told her that they would have exciting adventures and live in a lighthouse. I then faced the challenge of developing this idea into a gripping story, which took considerably longer. However, the concept gradually fell into place, and it inevitably ended up as a humorous children’s book. In the process, Mr. Choli the eccentric and slight difficult cat also joined the cast.
Q. If money was no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?
A: A few years ago I travelled up the coast in Queensland, Australia. Along the coast, north of Brisbane, is the ‘Big Pineapple’ which is a giant plastic pineapple and pineapple farm, with a small theme park based on pineapples. As I continued my travels northwards I passed the Big Mango, and a Big Peanut wearing a hat. My wife and I eventually plan to settle in Queensland, so the obvious promotion for us would be a ‘Big Mr. Tinfish’. Essentially this would be the world’s biggest plastic penguin with a theme park at the back. Rides would relate to his adventures, and the restaurant’s menu would be based on the culinary skills of Mr. Ginger (one of the characters). His cooking becomes a feature in later books and extends to ‘Mackerel Supreme a l’Orange’ and ‘Griddled Mackerel with a lightly peppered rhubarb and orange sauce’, none of which he as the right ingredients for. Just how popular this would be amongst the diners remains to be seen, but I could imagine myself being greatly entertained by setting it up. Almost as much as writing the book in the first place.
nterview with Tania at http://kids-book-review.blogspot.com
Q. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? What was it?
I remember that in English lessons at primary school we would often be given an old postcard from a pile of them that the teacher had accumulated, and told to write a story about the picture for an hour to fill in the time, although unsurprisingly I have no recollection of what my stories were about. However, in my first Christmas at a new school when I was nine I remember (largely due to the fear of doing it) standing up in a concert and reading out my story about all the ingredients that wanted to be allowed to be part of the Christmas pudding – including ‘raisins that had been raised in California’, which was an advert at the time, and for which I also tried to do the accent as I recall. Fortunately parents didn’t have video cameras back in those days…
Q. What inspired you to write for young readers?
The Tinfish series is my first set of books for young readers. The initial idea came from the invention of two characters called Mr. Tinfish and Mrs. Cat-biscuit (who were based on what I was trying to get my very fussy Ugandan cat to eat at the time in order to wean it off roast chicken – unsuccessfully I might add). When my wife asked me what Mr. Tinfish and Mrs. Cat-biscuit did, I told her that they would have exciting adventures and live in a lighthouse. I think this starting point for the plot called on my inner-child to develop it, and inevitably it evolved into stories for younger readers.
Q. Tell us a bit more about Mr Choli.
Mr. Choli is a chicken-eating Northern Ugandan Cat (or an ‘East-African Grey’ if you’re trying to get your mother to take care of him and need to make up a more exotic description). My wife and I were working in Northern Uganda, and Choli and his sister arrived at our doorstep, having been found by some local kids. They were both tiny, about one week old and could fit in the palm of my hand. A doctor living nearby kindly took in the quiet and well behaved one, and we eventually took on the less sought after noisy kitten. His adventures in the first few months included being put in a plaster-cast at the local hospital to mend the leg he broke falling down a small step, and also starting the process for his emigration to the UK. This is a book in itself, and included rabies shots, blood samples being sent to Europe, export consultants (none of which is straight forward in rural Uganda), and a foster family in France for six months. However, he is now with my mother in England, and very happy with his VIP status there.
Q. How did you get your first book published?
I use a self-publishing website called Lulu.com, having seen a documentary about online publishing options. The process is fairly straight forward and has been a good way to make the books available. However, I am always looking at other options as I’m sure that with Children’s books the best way to sell them is to get them on the bookshop’s shelves.
Q. What other genres have you written in?
Over the past ten years or so I have been writing a detailed journal of my travels and my work in African and Asia, although this is for my own pleasure rather than with an aim to publish. I have also penned a fictional novel, although have yet to take the plunge and try to publish it.
Q. What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey?
I have self-published which is great in terms of get a book out there. However, I am aware that I am very limited with regard to the audience that I reach, and so I hope that eventually publishers or agents may become interested in my work.
Q. How did the idea for your current book come about and what are you hoping your readers glean from it?
My current book is called “Mr. Vinegar and Frozen Sea” in which the climatic changes cause the sea near to the coast to freeze, and the animals go on an expedition to help organise the fishing at the edge of the ice shelf. Inevitably there are lots of adventures and mishaps on the way, along with two rather disgruntled and cold detective cats. The initial inspiration for it came from a visit I made to the sea at Nampo in Korea during the winter. The ocean was frozen over and I was quite shocked at how uneven, angular and un-white the ice was, having expected to see the flat fluffy arctic ice that polar bears wander across in documentaries. The theme of this story, and all of the books in the series, is climate and environmental change and so generating interest in these issues amongst readers would be great. Equally, I have tried to make the stories entertaining and so hope that readers find the stories enjoyable and funny.
Q. What do you love most about writing for children?
I love being involved in a creative process. The Tinfish series in particular has allowed my imagination to take hold, as once you’re in a future world with talking penguins living in lighthouse and cats with detective kits, there aren’t too many limits on where the stories can go. Mostly I’ve enjoyed trying to bring humour to the stories and am particularly satisfied if I’ve written a scene which amuses me.
Q. What books did you read as a child?
Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner were high on the reading list. My copy of The Bears Almanac (Berenstain) fell apart from over reading, and I had a lot of snoopy books. I also enjoyed Roald Dahl, and Dr. Seuss (including Yertle the Turtle).
Interview with 'Book in with Bingo' http://bookinwithbingo.blogspot.com
Q. What is the next or current book/project you are working on?
I am just completing the fourth book in the Mr. Tinfish Series call “Mrs. Cat-biscuit and the downward land.” In the story, tectonic movement brings with it a number of problems, as the land at the coast rises upwards. Mrs. Chutney the wallaby suggests that things that go up also go down. Therefore they should find out where the land has also gone down, in order to assess the problems it has caused. Mr. Choli the cat feels that he’s led enough expeditions recently, particularly ones which involved getting wet, as getting wet is his least favourite thing. Fortunately Mrs. Cat-biscuit the goat steps up to the challenge and decides to lead the team along the coast to find out the full impact of the problem for herself. Mr. Choli, meanwhile, offers to lead a small expedition inland to inspect drier places. I’ve really enjoyed writing it and there are some very funny moments in there.
Q. What books would you say have made the biggest impression on you, especially starting out?
About ten years ago I was living in a small village in Cameroon. It was my first oversees posting and I was a lone volunteer managing the construction of a water supply project. The village was remote so there was no televison, telephone, or electricity. At weekends, or in the evening by candlelight, I started to do a lot of reading, as slouching in front of the TV was no longer an option in my life. I soon discovered that in rural Cameroon it was very difficult to get hold of literature, other than second-hand copies of the English A-level syllabus. Consequently, in my desperation I found I was reading Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, and Charlotte Brontë for the first time. Something I would have never done if it had not been for the circumstances. However, I discovered that I really appreciated this expanding of my horizons, and by the time I left Cameroon I was almost tempted to go and sit the exam.
Q. What is something about you that you would want people to know about you that we probably don’t know?
I am the inventor of the game called ‘Mouse Wedges’. When Mr. Choli the cat moved in with my family, he needed someone to help him play with his toy mice. At the same time my mum needed someone to practice her golf with. Therefore the game of ‘mouse wedges’ was invented and involves my mum using a sand-wedge golf club to chip small rubber mice down the garden. Meanwhile, Choli hides behind a tree and then pounces on the mice as they go past. It’s also a bit like lawn bowls, in that once mum runs out of mice she goes to the other end of the garden and chips the mice back towards the house. Meanwhile, Choli also swaps sides and hides behind a different tree. I recommend this game for anyone who finds themselves with a similar golf-mouse predicament.
Q. What is something you would like to share with us about writing your favorite genre in general?
The Mr. Tinfish books fall, amongst other things, within the genre of humour. Something I’ve really enjoyed is developing the comical banter between the characters, particularly between Mr. Vinegar the walrus and Mr. Choli the cat. Mr. Choli has a very dead-pan approach to dealing with Mr. Vinegar, who is always trying to exert his authority on him. As the series progresses the two of them develop a very interesting relationship which combines a mutual respect and genuine friendship with frustration, niggling, and a general divergence in how they think problems should be tackled. It’s worked as a great platform for humorous conversations and I’ve got a lot of fun out of writing their ‘scripts’
Interview questions for the Examiner www.examiner.com
Q. You’ve met an old friend from high school and you want to pitch your book to him/her in five minutes or less. What would you say?
A: I recently sent a copy of the The lighthouse of Mr. Tinfish to a colleague of mine who said that he enjoyed the tone of the stories. It reminded him of times when we were sitting around of an evening in Uganda, and I was trying to entertain him with funny anecdotes. Most of the people I hung around with while I was at high school shared a similar sense of humour to me, and so that would be the angle I would take to get them interested.
Q. Who is your intended audience? Have you been able to crossover into other audiences as well?
A: The target audience for the Mr. Tinfish series are seven year olds and upwards. Admittedly, I started out writing the stories for my own entertainment, and I believe that this means they also have a broader family appeal. I hope that they are the sort of books that dads would read a chapter of each night as a bedtime story, and it would entertain them, as well as get the kids to settle in. The chapters’ lengths and structure are designed with that in mind.
Q. Where do you write? Do you have a favorite place?
A: Anywhere quiet! I currently live in a street in Phnom Penh where the people opposite have been constantly grinding tiles to cover their apartment floor for more than three months now. How they have anything remaining in there but dust at this point is beyond me. However, as a result of permanent grinding, our apartment is not the most conducive place for working. A number of rural places where I’ve worked have had limited or no electricity and little traffic, which provided a very peaceful environment for being creative in my spare time.
Pump Up Your Book www.pumpupyourbook.com
Q. If you could be anywhere in the world for one hour right now, where would that place be and why?
A: There are many places I’d love to visit, and many people it would be great to meet up with. Unfortunately, an hour isn’t very long, and for most of these possibilities I’d need much more time. Having said that, I’ve always fancied visiting the desert in Utah to see for myself all of the dramatic and towering rocks that John Wayne used to gallop past on his horse in between shooting people. According to the Westerns, the place is very beautiful and dramatic. However, it’s also very hot, and dusty, and evidently it’s impossible for even the most seasoned cowboy to walk past a cactus without tripping over a bad-tempered rattlesnake. So on that basis, whilst being a place I’d love to go, I should think about an hour would be plenty.
Q. Do you have any pets?
A: Choli the cat is currently staying with my parents in the UK. He was an abandoned kitten that we rescued in Uganda. Despite many attempts to find him an appropriate diet, he refused to eat anything but freshly roasted chicken. We were therefore obliged to help him emigrate, as finding someone in Northern Uganda that would look after a cat was challenging, but someone who would feed him roasted chicken was never going to happen. However, Choli has helped us to understand the challenges of vaccinating, micro-chipping, and exporting a cat from rural Africa with the right paperwork, as well as the system for cat fostering in France to get European status. Ironically, he has gone off roast chicken lately, and now refuses to eat anything but mini-tins of tuna and shrimp – presumably as he knows it is more expensive.
Q. Tell us a secret no one else knows.
A. As a student I volunteered to be part of a police identity parade. The sergeant in charge made me wear a false mustache on my chin to represent a goatee beard so that I looked more like the man they were investigating!
The Hot Author Review Interview. http://www.thehotauthorreport.blogalogues.com/
Q: Do you have a favourite character? Why is he your favourite?
Mr. Choli the cat has developed into my favourite character over the course of writing the Tinfish series. This has surprised me a little, as he is not as obviously comical as some of the other characters. However, particularly in the later books, he increasingly struggles to balance is natural selfishness, with his need to be respected in the community and his desire to help out. Deep down Mr. Choli is quite a frustrated little soul, rather eccentric, and a bit more complicated than some of his companions, which makes him all the more intriguing.
Q: If you could live in one of your books, which one would you live in? (If you’re promoting your first publication, feel free to talk about an unpublished piece.)
It’s a tough decision, but I’m not sure that I would want to live in the world of Mr. Tinfish and his friends in Daphne Wood, which is the setting for my current book. Of course, the characters are delightful, and it would be good fun to hang out with such quirky personalities. However, the place does suffer from wave after wave of climatic and environmental problems, which would take the edge of the experience somewhat. Also, a large section of the community seems to focus all of its attention on the catching and roasting of copious amount of fish to eat. I’m sure I would prefer to settle somewhere with a slightly more varied diet. Maybe I could just go there for my holidays…
Q: The main characters of your stories - do you find that you put a little of yourself into each of them or do you create them to be completely different from you?
I have lived in a number of countries and have observed that the same social stereotypes crop up in different communities: the busy-body, the village idiot, a wheeler and dealer, the man who considered himself to be the ‘lord of the manor’, the person who actually does hold the power, and so.
However, for the Tinfish series I think I’ve unwittingly drawn on some slightly more obscure character traits, which are still recognizable in most communities. For example, there is a character called Mrs. Chutney who has a habit of stating something really obvious, then going on to explain it in detail, with the misguided assumption that what she first said had gone over people’s heads. This was something that I picked up from a friend when I was at college, and is one of the few things that I have purposely lifted directed from my experiences. However, when a colleague of mine from Uganda read the book, to my surprise he assumed that the Mrs. Chutney character traits were based on him. Other bit-part characters in the book include the Hooverbags where the wife is the alpha-male and the husband is the quivering bag of nerves who takes cover every time that she speaks (or screeches). Again, a number of different people have quietly enquired about who I was thinking of at the time.
The joy of these bit-part characters comes from two directions. Firstly they have a funny or memorable line and then exit the stage, to allow the lead characters to continue, rather than dragging out their joke in to a full play. Perhaps more importantly, we all know these characters for real, and probably bits of them lurk within ourselves as well.
Q: Where you have lived and what you have experienced can influence your writing in many ways. Are there any specific locations or experiences that have popped up in your books?
A. My travels have greatly influenced the settings for my work. For example, I spent several years living and working in Cambodia. The first job I had was as manager of a flood response program in an area called Kampong Cham, which amongst other things, involved travelling on the vast Mekong river to visit my field teams who were cleaning and repairing wells in flood-affected communities. Later on I worked in the far north of the country for a community water supply program. Part of our journey to access remote villages in the forests included hiring small river canoes to negotiate the rocky and braided upper reaches of the Mekong on the Lao border, beyond where the larger boats could go. Due to these experiences the Mekong and its tributaries are definitely part of the setting I have in my mind for ‘Mr. Choli’s river trip’ which is the sequel to ‘The lighthouse of Mr. Tinfish’.
Whilst I was working as a water program manager in North Korea I was kindly taken by our liaison officer on a trip to the coast during the winter so that I could experience where the sea had frozen. I was amazed, as the sight was not at all what I was expecting. I probably expected a nice glassy surface but found that it was a grubby maze of angular blocks of ice which had been thrown upwards and molded by the movement of the waves and tides. It was this incredible sight which certainly inspired me as I was writing the book ‘Mr. Vinegar and the frozen sea’.