Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Gill Lewis

Gill Lewis
Before she could walk, Gill Lewis was discovered force-feeding bread to a sick hedgehog under the rose bushes. Now her stories reflect her passion for wild animals in wild places. She draws inspiration from many of the people she has had the fortune to meet during her work as a vet, both at home and abroad. Her first novel was snapped up for publication within hours of being offered to publishers. She lives in Somerset with her young family and a motley crew of pets. She writes from a shed in the garden, in the company of spiders.

Where does your inspiration come from?

Inspiration comes from anywhere and everywhere. For Sky Hawk, the natural history element came from my childhood fascination with animals and my career as a vet. The settings in Scotland and Africa came from my own travels, and the character inspirations came from people I have known, both in childhood and adulthood. But inspiration also comes from snippets of conversation, magazine articles and television and the internet. Sometimes I don’t even know where it comes from.

What comes first – plot, character or situation?

Often a very general overall arc of a story comes first. I have a rough idea of a beginning and an end scene. Then a plot structure develops in my mind, a little like stations I have to visit on the way. At this point I often have no idea of who the characters will be, and this develops as I write the story. Sometimes when new characters walk in, I know I may have to go back and rewrite the beginning. But I like discovering the story and meeting the characters as I write. I like the surprises. I think this keeps the story fresh in my own mind and hopefully in the reader’s mind too.

Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do about it?

I find such little time to write, that during my non-writing hours I’m busy daydreaming, scene planning and playing with words in my head. By the time I sit at the computer, I’m itching to get started. However, if the words are hard to come by, I draw and paint characters and scenes. I find drawing helps to develop ideas without the pressure of needing to fix them down as words.

Do you have favourite authors or books yourself? Who are they?

Too many to mention really. I discover new authors and books I love all the time. But if I had to list three, it would be;
1) The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
2) The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
3) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

What was your favourite book(s) when you were a child?

I was fascinated by animals and used to pore over a factual book, The Living World of Animals (Reader’s Digest). My favourite children’s book was probably one called Danny and the Dinosaur. For a whole year, it was the only book I would borrow from the library.

How much does your editor change what you write? What relationship do you have with your editor?

I have a fantastic editor who has worked with me on Sky Hawk and White Dolphin. I have never been asked to make major changes, thankfully, but I have been asked to make changes to make characters more believable, or to explain a situation more clearly. I worry about, and look forward to her comments in equal measure; hoping that she will love the story, also knowing that her comments will improve the story further.

Do you feel a tension between writing what you know will sell and writing what you would like to write?

No. I write the stories I want to write, the stories that I feel passionate about. Who really knows what ‘will sell’ anyway? Hopefully a good story ‘will sell’ regardless of the current trends in fiction.
Writing a novel takes a huge amount of time and energy and I think a writer must be committed to the story 100%, because if the story begins to bore the writer, it will bore the reader too.

At what stage in your writing process do you use a computer?

Almost immediately. I use computers for much of my research right from the very smallest seed of an idea of a story. When I start to write, I rarely write in long-hand, because not even I can read my own writing. I love writing directly onto the computer because it allows great flexibility. It is easy to change words and sentences and paragraphs around very quickly. I save drafts of the story as I write on three different memory sticks for security and never print out a hard paper copy of the novel.
I do however keep a plain un-lined notebook for jotting ideas and drawings should the mood take me, when I am away from my computer.

What control do you have over your book cover (and your illustrations)?

Very little. The cover design is driven primarily by what the publishers think ‘will sell’. The cover is the first ‘hook’ for the buyer. A book with a striking cover will be the one picked and examined from a shop bookshelf.
If I really didn’t like a cover, I’m sure the publishers would take my views into account, but fortunately this hasn’t happened yet.

Do you write with a particular age group in mind? How does the target age group affect your writing?

Sky Hawk and White Dolphin are marketed in shops for the 8-12 age group. However, when I write, I don’t consciously think about this target age-group as readers. I write from the perspective of the main character. If the main character is twelve years old, then the story is told through a twelve year old, and a wide range of themes from friendship, life, death, alcoholism and mental illness are seen through his or her eyes.

What do you think you would be if you weren’t an author?

I think I would be doing my last job, being a vet, because it’s a great job and I wish I could do both, but I don’t have the time.

At what stage did you know you wanted to become an author?

As a child I loved making up stories and drawing lots of storyboard ideas, but I never thought of becoming a writer. Back then, all I wanted was to be a vet. The idea of becoming an author crept up on me as an adult. I loved reading to my own children, and found I loved making up stories too. I was fortunate enough to have a picture book published as a result of coming runner-up in a writing competition. I think the writing bug probably started about then.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?

Read, read and read. Write, write and write. Soak up the world around you. Write from your experiences and write about things that interest you. Experiment with writing and don’t feel it has to be perfect straight away. Above all enjoy it.

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