I visit schools and libraries from time to time to read my books to children like you. Many of the children I read to have questions. Here are some of them, with my answers.
If you have questions for me, click here to go to the contact page and fill in the boxes.
When did you start reading, and what did you like to read as a kid?
I started reading very early, around age three. I remember reading Winnie the Pooh and the Jungle Books and Beatrix Potter.
When you were growing up did you have books in your home?
My parents used to buy my sister and me a book each month. We'd read them and then we'd read each other's book and then re-read everything we had. We lived in Brazil and I don't ever remember going to a library there. I don't suppose they would have had English language books in them anyway, and so the books at home and at school were all the books we had.
When did you think about becoming a writer? Was there someone who got you interested in writing?
I used to write stories when I was a child, but I never thought about being a writer until a friend who was an illustrator asked me to write some nature books for him. So I wrote three stories and he illustrated them and we tried to find a publisher, but we had no luck. Eventually I broke into publishing not as a writer, but as an illustrator.
Amazingly, I never thought of myself as a writer until I read the book reviews of my first children’s book, Wolf Island, and the reviewers said some nice things about my writing. I had always seen myself as an illustrator, not a writer.
When did you think about becoming an illustrator?
I’ve always loved drawing and painting, but I also loved animals wanted to study them. I chose to major in biology at university because it seemed like a better way to make a living than working as an artist. But I when I found myself in a dead-end job working for the Reptile Breeding Foundation, where I spent half my time cleaning out animal cages and the other half feeding rats and mice to the snakes, I decided it was time for a career change. I signed up at the art college, with the aim of becoming a scientific illustrator. That’s an artist who draws and paints plants and animals. This career allowed me to combine both my interests.
It began with a book I illustrated called Endangered Species, Canada's Disappearing Wildlife written by Clive Roots, who was the Zoo Director for the Winnipeg Zoo. I'd done work for the zoo, illustrating their signs, and I was interested in doing a book on endangered species. It turned out that Clive had an unpublished manuscript on the subject. I sent a form letter to about 50 Canadian publishers, asking if they would be interested in such a book. I received about ten requests to see the manuscript and sample illustrations and three publishers were interested. I chose Fitzhenry & Whiteside because they offered me the best deal. I have since learned that this is not the recommended way of approaching a publisher. But hey, it worked!
After publishing Endangered Species I prepared illustrations to go with one of the stories I’d written many years earlier, and showed the story and pictures to my publisher. This time I was accepted. The story was Wolf Island and it has been so successful that Fitzhenry & Whiteside issued a second edition to celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2006.
Where did you get the idea for the story of Wolf Island?
When an illustrator friend asked me to write some nature stories for him, I knew I wanted to write about ecology, as that was what I was most interested in. The most important thing that ecology teaches us is that everything is connected. I thought if I could find some examples of situations where an animal was removed from its environment and show how this affected the other animals, I would have a good story that would teach that lesson.
I found several examples of places where wolves had been exterminated by hunters, and the result was there were too many deer. That gave me the idea for Wolf Island. Then I found an example of wolves crossing the ice to an island where there were too many moose (Isle Royale in Lake Superior), which gave me the idea for how to end the story. I wanted to bring the island back into balance at the end by returning the wolves.
I wrote Ladybug Garden at the same time as Wolf Island, and later on I wrote Sea Otter Inlet. All three stories have the same plot but with different animals and in a different habitat.
Why do you give your stories happy endings?
There are two reasons for my choice of happy endings. One is that most everything in nature is a cycle, and I want to show this by completing the cycle, bringing the reader back to the state of balance with which the story begins. The other reason is because we need to have faith that the balance of nature can be restored. The natural world has a tremendous ability to regenerate itself when not interfered with by human activities.
What has you experience with your publisher been like?
Publishing is an extraordinarily complex industry and I learn more about it with each book. Like most novice authors, I was very naive and starry-eyed when I started. I didn't realize the extent to which publishing is a business or the degree of team work that would be required.
What’s the best part and the worst part of being a writer?
The hardest part of being a writer is finding a publisher. That’s because publishing a book, especially a picture book, is an expensive business. Publishers won’t accept a story unless they think they can sell enough copies to recover their costs.
What I like best about the work I do is being able to turn children on to the things that I enjoyed as a child; a good story with beautiful pictures. I also love educating children about nature. And I love the work itself - writing stories and drawing pictures. You have to love the work because this is not a good way to make money. Unfortunately, most Canadian authors and illustrators need a supporting spouse or a second job to keep the bills paid.
How do you write? Do you have a daily routine?
Every book starts with an idea. It’s usually my idea, but sometimes my editor suggests the topic to me. I’ll think about the story line often for weeks or months before I start to write. I read about the subject and make notes, but I don't begin to write until the whole concept is in my head and I know what the first line of the story will be. Once I have that first line, I know I'm ready to start. Then I write the first draft in a couple of sessions. I may go back and check some of the facts. I'll put it aside for a week or more and, after that time, I can come back to it with fresh eyes that can see what changes are needed. I'll write a second draft, often a third or fourth, until I'm happy with it. Then I send it to my publisher.
I don't have a daily writing routine. It just takes however long it takes. The publisher accepts or rejects a book based on the text, so I take however long I need to get it right. Once the text is accepted and I have a contract, then I'm working to deadlines for the illustrations. I do get into a routine with the illustration part of the book because I can spend as many hours on one illustration as I do in writing the entire book, so for a picture book this is the bulk of the work. If I don't work steadily, then I don't have a sense of whether or not I can meet the deadline. I generally work no more than 6 hours a day on illustrations, usually 5 days a week, but when a deadline is looming I will work as long as my stamina permits.
What's good about a daily routine is that it makes it easier to assess whether or not the deadline will be met at the current rate of work. If not, then I have to put in more hours. Deadlines are both good and bad. They help to keep the work on track, but they can be very stressful.
What’s some good advice that you've received concerning writing? What's some advice that you could offer young writers?
It's hard for me to give advice about writing because I don't remember how I learned to write, or any advice I had along the way. I would encourage young writers to only write about topics that they really care about. To produce good creative material, you must work hard at it and be prepared to go through many revisions. If you don't feel strongly about what you are doing, you won't have the energy to sustain you through a long process.
What is your favourite animal?
I met some birds of prey when I was researching my book, Skydiver, on the peregrine falcon. They are certainly very impressive, but they aren’t affectionate like a dog or cat. So my favourite animal will always be my cat. My current cat is called Rufus.
What is your favourite colour?
As a child my favourite colour was red. Now I like variety, but if I have to pick one colour it would be leaf green.