Ana Salote is an author of children’s fiction whose debut novel, Oy Yew, published by Mother’s Milk Books, is out now.
Ana regularly blogs on her website about creativity and writing.
Tell us a little bit about Oy Yew. What’s it about?
It’s set in Affland, a pseudo-Victorian world, where Master Jeopardine, the deranged bone-collecting waif-master, exploits children from neighbouring Poria.
The shy hero, Oy, lives in hiding behind a bakery. He doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from until one day he is caught and taken to work for the Master. Oy quickly finds himself at the heart of a mystery. It’s a search for identity, a tale of separated soulmates and a battle for survival.
How did you come up with the idea for it?
I think some things are intrinsically magical. Acorns, seahorses, teapots and owls are magical. Carrots, house flies, coffee pots and pigeons are not. Chimneys are on my magical list. Chimneys seeded the central mystery of Oy Yew. My sweep, Alas Ringworm, quickly introduced himself. I knew that he was scared of something. I began writing to find out what it was.
The character of Oy is based on a real person: a shy, sensitive character with a voice you strain to hear. It’s difficult to get to know someone like that. Others force their worlds down your throat. I’m more interested in the inner worlds of the shy. What qualities are they hiding? Another thing that fascinates me is nature and nurture. At the start of the book Oy is all nature. He recalls no human interactions. His only connection with the people he observes has been through empathy. I took the unformed Oy and dropped him into the middle of a life-threatening mystery. I waited to see what inner qualities would emerge to help him deal with it.
What/who inspires you?
Quirk of any kind in people, places, objects or art. I especially love quirky characters. My grandma had a Becket meets Alan Bennet turn of phrase. In Oy Yew the line ‘He shot up like rhubarb under a bucket’ comes from my grandma.
Two types of writer inspire me: the furiously creative like Dylan Thomas – his writing is like the slam of heart paddles; as a counterpoint there’s the translucent delicacy of Katherine Mansfield.
What’s the best writing-related advice you’ve ever been given?
For me the hardest part of writing is promotion. Teika Bellamy, my publisher at Mother’s Milk suggested a helpful way of thinking. Candy Gourlay reiterates in Notes from the Slushpile: ‘One of the most important lessons a self promoting author needs to learn is: successful promotion is not about you. Never. The best kind of promotion is when you give your audience something they really, really want. So think hard. What do readers, teachers, librarians, booksellers really, really want?’
I find promotion easier if I think of it as giving rather than taking.
What are your favourite scenes to write?
Reveal scenes: the ones where characters discover something about themselves or their situation. Here’s the start of a reveal scene that was fun to write:
Mrs Midden knocked on the study door. She arranged her golden rolling pin medal on her chest, and smoothed her apron as she waited.
‘Come,’ said the Master turning from his desk. ‘Mrs Midden.’ His eye twitched nervously.
‘There,’ said Mrs Midden. She placed the pie on a side table, the circle of fish heads staring glassily upwards. ‘A little message from me to you. Your boyhood favourite and no hard feelings.’
‘Very nice thank you. Mrs Midden, let us speak calmly. You know better than anyone how important the Ossiquarians dinner is to me. Tastes have changed since my father’s day. Have you thought a little more about… about resting.’
Mrs Midden’s face tightened again. ‘Sir, there’s been a misunderstanding.’
The reveal follows. It’s a scene that functions on many levels. It reveals a plot point, it deepens characterisation, it’s comedic relief in a dark story and it’s juicy: by that I mean it satisfies reader expectations after a build up.
What about your least favourite?
Transitions. I get all the inspired stuff down in the first draft. Page breaks or rough notes connect one scene to another. Sometimes transitions can be inferred, other times they need to be made explicit. Transitions can slow the pace, so it’s about adding economical amounts of mortar and smoothing it so it doesn’t show.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a short story collection by Richard Yates set in 1950s New York. It’s like buffing the window of a train and surprising the private melancholy in the eyes of a stranger. There’s recognition of a shared condition if not a shared story. Yates elaborates on the solitary stories.
What’s your writing routine?
As in life, I throw things in the air and catch the ones that drop first. A perfect writing day is 1000 words in two sessions. 10:30 to 12 and 1:30 to 3, sandwiched with fresh air and reading. That might happen twice a week. On work days I scribble character sketches and scenes in the lulls (I’m my own boss). I’m strict with distractions. I limit housework to 20mins per day. If I can’t cook something in one pan it doesn’t get cooked. The internet is the worst time gobbler. That’s the thing I sacrifice to a deadline.
What do you do when you’re stuck in a funk?
Feed the muse some raw steak. Anything new will do, the quirkier the better. It might be a visit to a gallery or museum, people-listening, researching other cultures, eras and ideas, or new sensory experiences.
How do you cope with negative criticism?
If it’s reasoned and constructive, learn from it. If it’s politely subjective, balance it with the positive critiques and let it go. If it’s borderline trolling start making an effigy.
How do your friends and family feel about your writing? Are they supportive?
Non-writing friends are polite. Family are macro-supportive. Writing friends are micro-supportive. Writing friends dive into the details; they feel with and for you.
What advice would you give to other writers?
Read, sleep, rave, repeat. In any order. Read: along with writing it’s the best way to learn the craft. Sleep: nourish your mental faculties and subconscious. Rave: imaginatively onto the page. Repeat: keep doing it.
When you have something genuinely fresh there’s plenty of nuts and bolts advice on what to do next.