Bethany Walker, debut author
Matilde Sazio interviews Bethany Walker, debut author of Chocolate Milk, X-Ray Specs and Me, a laugh-out-loud, high energy book for young readers.
Tell me a bit about your background, what made you become a writer and why children's writing? I remember creating little magazines, with quizzes and articles, when I was young by stapling together sheets of paper. I’ve always loved writing, from thank you cards to history essays, but I never imagined working in creative writing. I studied History at university and then worked in museum education (first training as a teacher and working in primary schools for several years before achieving my goal) so I have worked with children for a long time. As Head of Education at Sir John Soane’s Museum, I really wanted to write a children’s guide to the museum, but time never allowed as my days were so full of working with groups (of all ages) and introducing them to stories hidden in the museum. I think that, opening special secret doors to children or describing a candle-lit party held 200 years ago to celebrate the installation of an Egyptian sarcophagus on a nearly-daily basis, helped me hone my story-telling skills, albeit verbally. When I left the museum (when I started having kids) suddenly all of these ideas for stories started coming to me and I decided to pursue them, starting with doing a children’s writing course.
What has the road to publication been like? I feel so lucky in lots of ways with how my road to publication has been. Firstly, I landed on what was the most incredible Writing for Children course with the most inspiring and supportive tutor (Lou Kuenzler) purely because City Lit was somewhere I’d partnered with through my work in museums. Then (after a child-focused hiatus) when I started sending my manuscripts around, my now-agent signed me up quite quickly. The wonderful Jo Williamson (of Antony Harwood Ltd.) set to work straight away, sending out manuscripts to publishers, and I had a picture book contract after about 6 months. Most of the following year was spent trying to write something for older children, which developed into Chocolate Milk, X-Ray Specs and Me – and here we are! It has been exciting and incredible and I still can’t quite believe it. But, while the whole things feels to have happened really fast, I first did the course in 2015 so, in reality, it’s taken a fair amount of time.
As a debut author, what is your favourite part of the writing/publishing process? Least favourite? I can’t believe how much I enjoy working on edits and receiving notes from my editors. I think I am, at heart, still a school pupil, wanting a gold star for my work and to please the teacher. I love getting suggestions for how to improve my work or which character to bring out more – it really helps spark ideas. Editors have a special skill in pin-pointing what is needed to make the magic happen!
My least favourite thing is probably the waiting. I am learning about myself that I am rather impatient and am possibly a control freak, so waiting for responses from people drives me a bit nuts.
Is there anything that has surprised you about being an author? I think I’m surprised at how lovely and generous the sector is in general. People are very supportive and I guess I thought it would feel more competitive. I have made some great friends through the writing course and now there’s a little group of us who work as each others’ writing buddies. It’s so nice having people to bat ideas around with. We know what this all means to us so we can really celebrate the successes. One of my writing buddies just won the Times Chicken House competition – how amazing is that?
Do you test out your writing on your children and what's been your favourite reaction of theirs? My children are currently 7 and 4, which means that my eldest was 5 when I started writing Chocolate Milk, X-Ray Specs and Me – definitely too young for it! I’m delighted that, by quirk of fate and the timings of publication, she is now old enough for the book and has developed an appreciation for funny books. I have tried to read my picture book manuscripts to my children but there’s a very good reason why these books are called picture books. Audio-describing what should be seen alongside my text was not met with great joy or excitement. The message I got from my kids was “Show me again when there’s pictures for me to see, Mummy”. They are nothing if not honest!
What do they think about mummy being a writer? I’m not sure my 4 year old really knows what I exist for, other than to provide him with food and listen to him talk endlessly about Pokémon! My daughter is very proud and is my biggest cheerleader, which is lovely. As a generally self-effacing person, I’m struggling to start calling myself a writer. A couple of months ago, I heard Elsie telling someone I was an author, which should have been a really special moment – however, I misheard and thought she was telling that person I was AWFUL.
You started out writing picture books, why did you choose them as a genre and what made you transition to chapter books? My first picture book will be published by Walker in July 2021, which is really exciting. That has been three years in the making and just shows what a long process it is. The end result should be totally worth it, though – picture books are like precious jewels!
I thought I would always write picture books but a combination of factors helped change my mind. The course I did covered the whole of children’s publishing and this was a great start. Even though, for the entire time I was doing the course, I was still adamant my heart was in PBs, I learnt about other age groups and other genres and, importantly, we were encouraged to read widely from all areas of children’s books. The subsequent workshops involved critiquing each other’s work and that was a brilliant way of learning more about writing longer books and seeing theory put into practice. My lovely agent signed me on the strength of three picture book manuscripts I’d sent her, but from day one she encouraged me to think about writing for older age ranges. Having someone believe in you and push you to do more than you think you’re capable of is an amazing thing – as is having a great agent!
What are the challenges for writing picture books v chapter books and do you have a preference? That’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! I enjoy writing both types of books. Picture books are indescribably hard to get right – they are the ultimate head-scratchers to work out. But, at c.500 words, they’re the kind of thing that you can fiddle with in your head until you land on the right solution, which is why they particularly suited me when my children were younger.
I have massively enjoyed the whole process of writing Chocolate Milk – writing funny books is such a joy (and hopefully, if the book is making me happy, it will make others happy too) – so I’m definitely keen to continue with both types of books, please!
You’re a mum of two. What does a typical workday look like for you? Back at the time when I wrote most of Chocolate Milk, I was still looking after Lonnie full time so our days would consist of taking Elsie to school, doing some kind of toddler activity and then picking Elsie up. School days seem long for children but they’re mega-short for adults! My book was written during nap times and, crucially, in the cafe of the local leisure centre while Lonnie was in the crèche there (and when I was supposed to be swimming).
Since lockdown, I’m not sure I’ve had a typical workday but I hope to settle into some kind of pattern soon! In September, my youngest started school so my days (between 9am and 2.30pm) are largely my own and that’s been great but I suspect I was more efficient when I could only snatch an hour here or there.
Describe your work process as a writer? Crikey! I’m not sure I’m experienced enough to really have my ‘process’ down yet. The main thing, of course, is having a workable idea and I feel to spend endless hours with my brain essentially acting as a squirrel in Willy Wonka’s Nut Room, tapping each fresh ‘nut’ (idea) all over as it comes to me, to see whether it is good or bad. Sadly, a lot of my ideas turn out to be Veruca Salts and get discarded. But when I do get a nut my brain deems worthy, that’s a good day indeed! When I came up with the concept for Chocolate Milk, my brain was fizzing for days. That’s always a great sign.
I definitely think in a visual way and this has helped with pinpointing the concepts both for writing picture books and for Chocolate Milk. With Chocolate Milk, I started off thinking of key events I wanted to include in the book and used them as the building blocks for the plot, before layering up other aspects, like Freddy’s school life and the other characters. As a person, I’m generally very organised and it frustrates me that I haven’t yet organised how to keep my work/planning/thought processes in a sensible way. I have scrappy notebooks and even random documents on my phone, which say things like ‘Briefcase swap?’ and ‘NIGHT VISION GOGGLES!’ Thankfully, the act of just writing these things down normally helps me remember them, so even if I can never locate my notes, the ideas come back to me.
What has it been like debuting a book under lockdown and how has it impacted your writing? I feel incredibly lucky that the timescales for both of my books were not affected by lockdown. The publishing world has done a fantastic job of trying to respond to the difficult times we’re in and adapting accordingly. The main impact will be in the PR for my book. Before March, virtual events were very much the exception and now they have been developed into a fine art, so I’m very glad that I’ve benefited hugely from what lessons have been learnt since March and am grateful to all the other brave authors who have blazed trails for the rest of us!
What’s it like having to navigate social media? Do you feel pressure to use it as an author? I’d have to say that social media is not my natural habitat! My publishers are being fantastic at encouraging me to get out there and I’m starting to make contacts and connections but I do keep having to remind myself to use it. Thankfully, some friends have my back and are doing sterling work including me in comments etc. I will get better but it’s a slow process, which can be helped by lovely people reading this following me! I promise I will start posting more (sprout-related stuff) soon.
Are there any nuggets of wisdom you can impart to aspiring writers? Can I just say do Lou Kuenzler’s City Lit course? If not that, it is definitely worth finding a writing group, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above.
There are so many nuggets, it’s difficult to choose. Everyone says it – and everyone is correct – you need to read as much children’s fiction as possible, as recently published as possible.
And, specific to writing, I think it’s important to really enjoy the story you’re trying to tell. On the whole, you should be having a great time putting your characters through the worst time imaginable!