Kathryn Lefroy, author of Alex and the Alpacas Save the World, answers some questions about her book. We thank her and Fremantle Press for this interview.
Congratulations on the publication of your first novel Kathryn. Tell us, was there any particular inspiration for the story, how did it come together?
Back in 2010 I took a weekend trip to Tasmania to visit a friend who was housesitting a small hobby farm in the Huon Valley. The property was next to this creepy forest (that I was embarrassingly too scared to go into!) and it had the most picturesque olive grove (that would not have been out of place in the south of Italy). But best of all, it had four pet alpacas who wandered around as though they owned the place.
These were the first alpacas I’d met up close and personal and I immediately fell in love with them. They were so skittish and bumbling and dopey, and had this expression like they were all sharing a hilarious joke that you weren’t in on — and never would be. Basically the least likely animals you’d ever want on your team if you had to save the world… which made them such fun to write.
I was only supposed to stay on the farm for a weekend, but I ended up staying for two weeks. I never wanted to leave! I didn’t start actually writing Alex until a couple of years later when I was living in San Francisco.
Having previously written for the screen as well as short articles, what did you find the most different/challenging when writing a novel?
The biggest and most obvious difference is the length — the short articles I do are about a thousand words each. A screenplay is roughly twenty thousand. The draft of my most recent novel is currently sitting at eighty-eight thousand words…
Another huge difference is the collaborative nature of the formats. The current feature film I’m working on has two directors and three producers attached. That’s five sets of feedback I have to incorporate every time I do a new draft. But, it’s also five people to bounce ideas off. The articles I write are commissioned pieces for large technology clients, so multiple editors are involved. Then there’s the novel, which is just me and my computer (we have a love/hate relationship!!). Once it goes to an agent and publisher then I’ll have to start incorporating feedback, but until then I’m ploughing forward pretty much on my own (aside from my brilliant writers group — but more about them later).
I think that the combination of these formats makes me a better storyteller, because each helps me hone a very specific skill. Screenplays are very focussed on structure and story. Novels, on the crafting of language. Short articles are about communicating ideas in a concise and engaging way. All critically important skills if you want to make it as a writer!
Was there anything you tried to keep in mind when writing a novel for primary school aged children?
Of course there were things that I knew couldn’t go in a primary book (a tonne of swearing, for example) but I was actually very conscious of not trying to write a story “for children”. Kids are smart. If you hold out on them, they can tell. I just went into this wanting to write a really fun, fast-paced and engaging story — something that I would want to read.
Your novel incorporates a lot of themes; mythology, magic, bravery, family, friendship and nature to name a few. Was this intentional to cover a wide range and not produce a set genre story? Or did it occur more naturally?
I should probably say that it was totally intentional so it seems like I knew what I was doing… but it wasn’t at all! I just knew I wanted to write an adventure story with fantastical elements, and the themes emerged as the story developed. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t start any of my creative projects with a specific theme in mind. My story ideas are usually sparked by a character or location. Often I’ll get several drafts in and think, “is this even about anything?” Usually it takes an external reader to point out the themes to me!
Your novel is set in Tasmania, and includes alpacas, Tasmanian tigers and a white eagle – what are your thoughts about the younger generation and the environment?
It is heartening to see how much the younger generation care about the world we live in. The recent climate march is just one example. Seeing all those kids, all around the world, standing up for what they believe in was pretty much the best thing ever. Thank you for caring — never lose that passion and conviction!
Finally, any advice for those seeking to write their first novel, what have you learnt from your experiences?
I could write a novel about the mistakes I’ve made and learned from but, for now, here are my top three pieces of advice for aspiring novelists:
1: There’s no such thing as a creative genius. Virtually no one sits down and produces a work of staggering genius straight off the bat (and, hey, if you did do that, I am insanely envious). You should have seen my first draft of Alex. Absolute disaster! But writing is like any other skill. To become good at it, you have to do a lot of it. Have the mindset that you’ll always be learning, that each day you’ll become a little bit better (because you will!). Writing a novel is often less about the words and more the about the dogged perseverance.
2: Find yourself a writers group or critique partner you trust. You’ll recognize the right person (or people) because they will be able to tread the fine line between encouraging you to persevere when all hope seems lost and being brutally honest about where your story needs work. I tried out a bunch of writers groups before I found the right one, and we’ve since been meeting every week for three years (via Skype because we all now live in different cities!).
3: It helps to know people. I’m not saying you have to be JK Rowling’s cousin to get a book published, but if people know and respect you, they’re more likely to help you get your manuscript in front of agents and publishers when it’s ready. Go to writers festivals, conferences, and book launches — not only can you network with fabulous people, you’ll also learn skills to improve your craft. I’ve met some of my dearest writing friends and mentors standing in bathroom or coffee queues at writing conferences! Now, just because you know people doesn’t mean you will get published — you still have to have a really fantastic product. But, it helps to have a great product and some great connections.
Thanks Kathryn for sharing those insights.
Read Julie Bertola’s review of Alex and the Alpacas Save the World