Interview with Kellie BYRNES


JAN 2 2019



Photo taken by Lance Balchin

Photo taken by Lance Balchin

To kick off the new year on my blog, and in keeping with my interview series with creatives around the world, in particular authors and illustrators, I’m today chatting with the lovely and talented Sunshine Coast local, Caroline Magerl.

Caroline is both an illustrator and author, and late last year launched her newest picture book, Maya and Cat (published by Walker Books), which has been getting rave reviews.

Read on to find out more about Caroline and her work and creative life…

Welcome, Caroline! I’d love to know, what got you into creating books?

In a sense, I can thank my Oma for getting me into books. I loved the picture books she sent from East Germany when I was a child living in Sydney.

Those books, five in total, were remarkable in that they were illustrated by Eastern Block artists and of course were written in German. The stories with their tender pastels and watercolours not only made a bridge to my grandmother, who I had never seen, but also to a world we had left behind by coming to Australia; literally a picture book world in my head.

I taught myself watercolour as a teenager, and in my twenties I began to submit samples to publishers. It was another ten years before I was given Libby Hathorn’s picture book, Grandma’s Shoes to illustrate. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the CBCA Crichton Award for that book.

Maya and Cat.jpeg

Can you tell us a bit about your latest book, and the themes/issues it explore?

Maya and Cat begins with the appearance of an apparently homeless Cat, which precipitates an adventure for Maya.

I wanted to write a story which touches on the beautiful, perplexing and even heart breaking encounters between children and animals. I’ve had plenty of those to invoke. The desire to bring every stray creature home is of course understandable in a child.

In this story, Maya must put that impulse aside and follow this mysterious Cat in order to understand what she wants, and has an adventure in the process. The message is that Maya made way for what Cat was trying to tell her, and in turn she was well rewarded for doing so.

What was the inspiration behind writing this particular story, and did it change much as you were writing it?

The inspiration was in fact a very real cat, a tabby stray who I fed but could not keep, and then felt very responsible for.

I was in my twenties and living on a yacht in a marina surrounded by prawn trawlers. Most of the fishermen were not fond of cats and would joke about making crab bait of the moggy. The only thing that saved the cat was ridiculous name I had given it… but something more long term had to be done for Cooking Fat.

It occurred to me that a wealthy local identity who lived with his wife and family in a large and wonderful old home might take the stray cat in. So I asked him and to my delight, he said he would. A deal was struck that I would contain the cat somehow, and the gentleman would arrive at an agreed time to take it home. I hit on a plan to entrap Cooking Fat by placing some mullet in, ironically, a crab pot. The cat’s new owner cruised in to the marina gates driving his Rolls Royce, pulled up and the crab pot was loaded onto the back seat. I expect that life was much sweeter for Cooking Fat from then on … a moggy’s ‘rags to riches’ story.

Years later I had decided there was a story here, the difficulty came when I pitched the idea to my agent Ronnie Herman, a very pragmatic New Yorker. “You want to write a story about a Cooking Fat? The cat is in a crab pot? How is that appropriate for children?” And so on  and on…anyway, the process of writing yielded the story of ‘Maya and Cat’, and I learned not to tell Ronnie any more stories in the raw.

Plainly, Maya and Cat went through quite a lot of rewriting from this anecdote to become a picture book. But there are echoes, the fish, boats, the wet weather and the oddball folks are all relics of real memories on which the story is based.

How do you hope readers will connect with the book, and/or what do you want them to take away from it?

My first hope is that the book will be a pleasure to read for children and for adults, and that it will give that special moment of connection when read.

One reason I work hard at creating a world visually for the story to happen in, is that I hope the adventure will engage the senses; mentally and emotionally. I hope it will be a rich experience, which will encourage a child to gain insight, and feel welcome in the world of books. A very rewarding world to visit for sure!

Do you have any suggestions on ways parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers can get more out of the book?

Maya and Cat’ is written with two point of view characters. It isn’t necessarily obvious at first, but my hope is that both a child and a parent/carer can relate to a perspective offered when reading the book.

I am also fortunate that Walker Classroom have put together teacher’s notes, which I have added with a link to the bottom of this page.

Biggest challenges in writing this story, or in getting it published? Any tips for authors who want to work with the same publisher? 

The bulk of time spent on Maya and Cat was the writing of drafts to slowly let go of  the real events behind the story, to the quite fictional final draft. The problem being that I clung to the actual memories because of their natural emotional value. I had to keep that value in rebuilding the story so that it would make a viable children’s picture book.

Working with Walker Books on this project was a pleasure, in that Maya and Cat was in a final draft form when I submitted it and therefore I had a good idea as to how I would lay out the visuals. The publisher, Linsay Knight, and the art Director, Donna Rawlins, knew what they were getting to a reasonable degree, so there was little angst.

As for advice, make strong submissions, that way at least there is something very concrete to discuss. Donna Rawlins once said to me that most stories fail simply because they are undercooked and I took that advice to heart.

Are there any tidbits from the publishing process of this book that you could share with regards to working with the publisher and/or the illustrator?!

I would have to say I did not enjoy working with the illustrator of ‘Maya and Cat’. She is the worst kind of diva.

What influences do you think shape your writing?

The books I read as a younger person shaped my ideas as to what I want to achieve in writing.

Not being a native English speaker had an impact. It is rhythmically different and genuinely feels different to English, I almost don’t take speaking English for granted. This makes me slow and cautious in word choices, but that is a good thing as regards picture books.

Where do you do your writing and illustrating, and do you have any particular rituals in your creative process?

I try to keep a story loosely in my mind when writing, whatever I am doing during the day and certainly in the evenings. My journal also goes everywhere with me, to note words, sentences, any changes that may advance the story. Once I begin to work in earnest, I type away in the loungeroom because it is comfortable and my books are there for company.

Additionally, as I also illustrate my stories, and therefore conceive ideas visually, I also spend a lot of time in my studio drawing many roughs of characters and scenes. It is my ritual to stick these rough drawings to every surface of my studio in an effort to invoke a path to the story’s conclusion. Not quite like a Sherlock Holmes diagramme…but you get the drift.

Do you have a favourite children’s book (or top three) that you can never get enough of? What about a favourite character?

If I really had to choose….

It is probably cheating to say I enjoy the ‘Brothers Grimm’, that is a lot of stories…but that can count as one book?

I love ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine Saint Exupery.

And ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lewis Carroll.

Roald Dahl’s Matilda is a wonderful character.

Can you let us in on any sneak peeks into your next books or other projects?

I am very happy to say that there will be a new picture book out in November 2019 with Walker Australia.

I can say that this story has been with me for some years. It began when our daughter, Jen, presented her father with a very quirky homemade gift some years back. The thing had such character; an odd little story began to grow in my mind, drawings followed and then a process of many drafts. I am delighted that the effort has finally resulted in a picture book I am proud of. Jen has demanded royalties but she has Buckley’s chance.

Can you tell us something not a lot of people know about you?

I am very short sighted. Once, when I was much younger, I was a little lost in a large department store and so approached a very well dressed gentleman to ask for the way out.  It was of course a store dummy…and I went off to get myself some glasses.

Do you have some tips for other creatives?

I write down my stray thoughts, and give them a chance to grow.

It is alarming how quickly those little ideas we all get through the day slip under the surface and disappear but for that scrap of paper .

I always work, whether I feel like it or not.

What about a favourite word or quote?

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Groucho Marx

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