Aleesah Darlison answers some questions about her new book series League of Llamas. Thank you to Aleesah and Reading Time reviewer Maura Pierlot for this interview
Maura Pierlot: I had the pleasure of walking Raffy the llama – a zen-like lesson in patience and endurance – with animal lover and award-winning author, Aleesah Darlison. What better opportunity to chat about her exciting new junior fiction series, League of Llamas, and also about creativity, inspiration, the writing process and more.
Maura: Why llamas and not aardvarks (or another animal)?
Aleesah: Haha! Yes, perhaps I should have started with the As and gone from there! Honestly, there are so many amazing and fascinating animals I could have written about (and often do write about) but llamas struck me as being hilarious in the role of secret agents, so I just went with it.
Maura: Do you road test your story ideas on children (whether your own or others) and how does this shape what ends up on the page?
Aleesah: I’ll often test my ideas and initial stories on my own kids or children at school. It does help to do a bit of market research!
Maura: Do the creative and business sides of your (writer’s) brain peacefully coexist or are they often in tension? If the latter, how do you get them to cooperate?
Aleesah: I’m a Gemini, so I have at least two personalities, which is perfect for the creative and business roles that are needed as an author. I like both aspects of being an author and when I get tired or stumped with my writing, it means I can flick to the marketing or admin side of the author business. It usually works well for me.
Maura: Plotter or pantser?
Aleesah: Definitely a plotter. I learned that lesson early on!
Maura: For budding children’s book writers, what’s the biggest ‘do’ and ‘don’t’?
Aleesah: Do read widely, attend every workshop, festival, course, and conference you can, to learn the craft of being an author. Don’t badger the witness, I mean, publisher! Give them time in their busy schedule to read your manuscript and respond accordingly. Not every story you write is going to be solid (publication) gold so be prepared for those rejections when they come.
Maura: If you had an opportunity to travel anywhere to write your next book, where would it be and why?
Aleesah: What a great question! I really would love the world to be my oyster for my next writing adventure. So many places in Europe appeal to me, but for now, I think I’ll actually choose Colorado in the US. I’d love to be inspired by the landscape there and somehow bring it into a story.
Maura: How do you keep your creativity flowing?
Aleesah: For me, planning helps avoid nasty surprises like writer’s block. Brainstorming my way through a problem also helps.
Maura: Describe what’s on your desk when you write.
Aleesah: Laptop, large screen, keyboard, mouse. Perhaps a notebook and pen for brainstorming. Sometimes photos of what I’m writing about to provide atmosphere and inspiration. That’s about it – everything else gets visualised or mapped out inside my head or on the screen.
Maura: How do you define success as a writer?
Aleesah: That might differ for each stage you’re at as a writer. A great start is to get your name on your very first book – that’s a huge success milestone. To be truly successful in my eyes, it would then be nice to have people reading that book. Some people might believe that money is a sign of success, and it sure can be. But having kids know your name, read your work, and be able to talk to you about the imaginary characters you’ve dreamed up from somewhere inside your imagination … that’s one of the most rewarding success factors I can think of.
Maura: Do story ideas pop in your head at odd times or do they usually result from a planned (brainstorming) process?
Aleesah: Both. I’m often inspired by the people and the world around me. At other times, you might have to think more deeply about concepts, which involves a bit of brainstorming.
Maura: Do you prefer total silence or some background noise when you write? What’s your favourite song (if any) to write to?
Aleesah: Total silence. It’s the same when I sleep. My husband laughingly calls it the ‘delicate genius’, which is a reference from Seinfeld. I’m far from a genius, but the reference (and the show) does make me laugh. Sometimes we can be very precious about the creative process!
Maura: Emerging writers often participate in critique groups. Do established authors do the same, and how does peer feedback inform and influence your writing?
Aleesah: When I started out, I set up two critique groups and they were a lifeline for story development for myself and the aspiring and emerging authors who came along regularly. Seriously, I’d highly recommend critique groups when you’re starting out as a writer. Now that I’m more established, I have a better feel for my own work and can recognise the mistakes in it. I also work closely with an editor at Penguin Random House who advises me where I’m going wrong or where I need more … or sometimes less. So, I am less likely to need the critique groups, but I still actively seek feedback. As I mentioned in Q2, I also test my writing with my own kids as they’re in the age range for my target market. My twelve-year-old daughter is a valuable beta reader and my editor and the publishing team at Penguin Random House help me lift my stories to a higher standard. It’s still critiquing, just from a different source.
Maura: What’s a surprising fact about you that most people don’t know?
Aleesah: Hmmm … what’s a surprising fact about me that’s still fit for public consumption … thinking … oh, here’s a few actually: I’ve never broken a bone, I used to have a horse called Trixie, my favourite colour is red, and my favourite track event when I was a kid was the 100 metres sprint (I hated the 800 metres with a vengeance!).
Maura: If you had a pet unicorn, what would be her name and where would she sleep?
Aleesah: Oh, gee, do you know how many years I’ve spent wishing this were true? She’d have to have a really pretty name like Cashmere, Stardust, or Rubyheart, I reckon – and she’d be stunningly beautiful of course with a flowing mane and tail. She’d be incredibly valuable so I couldn’t let her sleep outside or in a stable – I’d probably make her a special unicorn castle to sleep in, one that had plenty of clover and hay for her to eat.
Maura: What is the one thing you would tell your teenage self?
Aleesah: Be kinder to yourself.
Maura: List five adjectives to describe yourself.
Aleesah: Loving. Driven. Loyal. Dedicated. Honest.
Maura: What would be the title of your autobiography?
Aleesah: Another great question. So many options spring to mind, but I think I’ll go with something simple: Aleesah.
Maura: What’s your motto in life?
Aleesah: Never give up.
Maura: If you could have an unlimited supply of one thing (other than money) what would it be, and why?
Aleesah: Back massages.
Maura: Pen, pencil or keyboard?
Aleesah: Keyboard. I can’t write fast enough to keep up with my story flow sometimes, so it has to be keyboard.
Maura: How do you channel your inner child? (What childish things do you still do as an adult?)
Aleesah: Besides dressing up in llama or unicorn onesies and using my imagination or recalling happy memories … I play with my own kids and try to see the world through their eyes. Memories, empathy, understanding, connection – they all help channel that inner child.
Maura: How do you overcome writer’s block and other obstacles when writing?
Aleesah: Sometimes, you’ve just got to push through, especially if you have a deadline. Stand up, leave the computer and the writing, make a sandwich, play with the dog, then come back and sit down and keep working at the problem. Brainstorming can help too.
Maura: Character and plot development are crucially important for any story. Which comes more naturally to you?
Aleesah: Ah, tricky! It depends on what genesis of an idea I’m working with. Sometimes characters come to me. Sometimes it’s plot. It’s a mix really and I’m not fussy, I’ll take either.
Maura: What next?
Aleesah: More animal stories, of course! I’m going back to the As, so look out for that aardvark story!
Read Julie Murphy’s review of the first two LOL titles here