This month, we’re ringing the changes (with Christmas bells of course) with a writer interview rather than an illustrator interview. Dom Conlon’s uniquely wonderful story The Hairy Snowman features in our festive Storytime Issue 40 with illustrations by Fabiola Colavecchio.
We loved Dom’s story for many reasons. It’s funny, unexpected, clever and it breaks a boring writing ‘rule’, which you can read about below. For that reason, it appealed to our sense of mischief, but also our hope that kids might be liberated from some of the writing rules they pick up along the way. Finally, The Hairy Snowman is a masterclass in character naming. Just hearing the names Albert and Philippe makes us smile. We hope the story has made you smile too. Without further ado, let’s share a cuppa with its author…
Writer Interview: 11 Questions with Dom Conlon
1. When did your passion for writing begin?
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write and I’m glad that I’ve always been encouraged. Giving impromptu poetry readings to my mum and dad are amongst my happiest memories. Teacher after teacher also encouraged me. Some of them even let me use their offices during break time or fed me with books as I sat on my own in the classroom when the other children went swimming.
2. How does your day job inform your writing and does your writing influence your work?
I work as a copywriter for many different businesses from egg production to video games. This helps in surprising ways because part of my job is to find an exciting and succinct way to talk about so many things. When I write the words for a website or radio advertisement I need to get to the point quickly. It’s the same for a story or poem. Being clear about what I want to say is key to writing.
3. What advice can you offer to writers on keeping the creative mojo going, especially after a tough day at work?
Well it’s not easy but a few years ago I noticed that I was falling asleep on trains and buses and thought it would be more useful to use that time to write. I began setting myself the challenge of writing flash fiction – stories which would take only the time of my journey to complete. I missed my stop a lot in the early days, but eventually I began to get the timings right. The approach helped me do what I think is probably the most important thing in writing: FINISH SOMETHING. Once I finish a piece of writing I can see how to improve it. I get so much energy from finishing something, even as a first, very rough draft. That encourages me to get stuck into editing it and then sharing it with readers. It’s all part of the process of learning to write in a professional manner. Don’t wait for inspiration, go in search of it!
4. Which children’s writers and poets have influenced your work and why?
Oh so many. Mervyn Peake, Ursula Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien were the mainstays of my upbringing. Then as I grew old (not older, just old) I revelled in Jonathan Stroud, S.F. Said, Garth Nix and many more. Poets such as Spike Milligan, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Brian Moses and more recently Joseph Coehlo, Nicola Davies (I’m calling her a poet because – well just read her books and you’ll see!), Chrissie Gittens and A.F. Harrold have broadened my understanding of what words can do.
5. What’s your favourite children’s short story and is there one you’d love to refresh and rewrite?
You featured it in Storytime! It’s The Magic Porridge Pot. (In Issue 8 get it here‚ Ed.) You did such a beautiful retelling that it tugged my brain for a long time afterwards and I began wondering what I’d do to make it different. I would also love to take a new look at The Tin Soldier or The Fir Tree in the way Sally Gardner and David Roberts did in their marvellous Tinder.
6. In The Hairy Snowman, you broke a writing ‘rule’ by telling the story only in dialogue. What inspired you to do this?
Two things: a book by Chris Wormell called Two Frogs, and an old British Rail advert featuring Spike Milligan. Both use dialogue to tell beautiful stories. I was lucky enough to have Chris comment on an early draft of the story. He gave me some feedback which brought it all together. There are so many rules in storytelling, but the only real measure of whether you’ve written something good is in the reaction of people. If it makes someone smile then it doesn’t matter how many rules you’ve broken.
7. Are there any favourite projects you’re working on at the moment?
I’m writing a book of poetry which probably breaks a whole bunch of rules. It might well prove to be too difficult for me to write, but I’m giving it my best shot. I’ve also written a book called Badtime Stories, which is a collection of creepy short stories about twins called Jacob and Jacob who find bedtimes to be more than a little scary. The future of that book is something I’ll be talking about soon along with a super lovely picture book project I’ve just completed. So I have lots of things going on right now!
8. Is there any work you’re particularly proud of?
I LOVE my short stories about two characters called Fish and Drift. Drift is a shambling, shapeshifting snowman who tries hard but just seems to cause problems. And Fish is a girl with a determined streak, which leads them into all sorts of adventures. I’ve written two short stories – both free to read on my website – but I would very much like to write a longer book for them.
9. What’s your process for writing?
I carry my phone with me everywhere. I use this less and less for talking to people and more and more for this very simple notepad application on it. Poetry, stories, thoughts all get jotted down wherever I am. I’ll sometimes write thousands of words in it and then use those when I sit at my desk for a more formal writing time. Making the most of every moment is really important so finding the simplest tool which suits you best is key here. If it’s a jotter and pen then use that. It takes longer to open a laptop and jot down a note than it does to tap a few words on a phone or into a pad and I find any obstacle to getting something down is another reason to stop writing.
10. What would be your dream writing project? Any illustrators you’d love to work with?
Every story or poem I write is a dream project. I love writing about space and I have a collection of poetry called Astro Poetica which many, much more able writers than myself have praised. One day I’ll write more stories about the legends behind the constellations, but I want this to be more diverse than I can do alone. The names I know for the constellations (Orion, Scorpius, etc…) are rooted in Greek mythology. Move around the world and back in time and the stories change. I’d love to edit a book of stories from writers of all different backgrounds to show just how the stars have inspired and shaped our world today. I’d make it illustrated too and would love to work with people such as Catherine Hyde, Jeffrey Alan Love, Daniel Egneus, my friend Carl Pugh, David Roberts, David Litchfield and absolutely absolutely Viviane Schwartz who is simply extraordinary. (We also recommend Watcher of the Skies. It’s a poetry anthology for kids themed around space and aliens from The Emma Press and featuring Dom’s poetry, Ed.)
11. Are there any additional nuggets of advice you can give to anyone who wants to get into writing for children?
Finish something! Finish a story or poem and then put it to one side and start something new. After a few weeks, return to the first piece. You’ll see it in a new way which will help you improve it. I’d teach this in schools if I could. That’s my first bit of advice. The second would be ‘READ IT OUT LOUD’. Not in a whisper but properly out loud. Do it in private if you feel a bit shy but read it OUT LOUD because that will teach you so much about the rhythm of your writing. You’ll spot so many ways to improve your story or poem too. Finally, if you want to write for children do two things – READ lots of books for children, and join the SCBWI. This is an organisation of writers and illustrators who will support and guide you even when you say you want to terrify children with your stories.
Lots of sterling advice, inspiration and food for thought there in our writer interview with Dom. Do check out his brilliant site Inkology to read more of his stories and poems, and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram too.
Remember, a Hairy Snowman is not just for Christmas…