Katie Stewart

Author and Illustrator. 

This is the final part of my interview with Katie.  In this segment we talk more about her books and writing. I’ve scattered Katie’s lovely artwork throughout – just for fun.  Take a look!
(All images copyright Katie Stewart)

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I loved reading, so I suppose that was the start. I went to a little English village school which encouraged writing. We used to go on a ‘school trip’ once a year and there was always a competition afterwards to see who could write the longest recall! I think, though, that I didn’t really seriously think about writing until I was in Year 7 (in Australia), when I found that I kept getting stories in my head that would annoy me until I wrote them down. They were nearly always historical and probably hysterical as well.

Tell us a little bit about Treespeaker and the series.  How many books will there be?
Treespeaker was the first book I finished. It’s the story of a forest tribe, survivors of a much larger population long ago almost annihilated by invaders who destroyed their habitat. In the end, what was left of the forest itself fought back and protected itself and its people with a ‘veil’. This invisible dome was impenetrable by anyone intent on destruction. That is until one man, a sorcerer, finds a way to break through. The novel is the story of the Treespeaker’s journey to save his people and the forest from this man. It’s also the story of his son’s journey into becoming a Treespeaker.
It’s followed by Song of the Jikhoshi and I’ve a third book planned loosely in my head, but I haven’t thought of a name for it yet.
Can you tell us about your main character?
Jakanash is a Treespeaker – a seer and healer – closely in touch with the spirit of the forest. He knows from visions he has experienced that the visitor to his tribe has evil intentions, despite being ‘allowed’ into the forest. He’s a man of deep faith and goes on a journey to find a way to save his people with no real idea of what it is he’s looking for and at great cost to himself, simply because Arrakesh, the forest spirit, tells him that is what he must do.
What inspired you to write Treespeaker?
It actually started with a dream I had (I have some really strange dreams sometimes) about a huge tree that housed a whole community of people and provided them with everything they needed. That got me thinking, but I came to the conclusion that a tree community wasn’t a very unique idea, so I played about with it a bit and decided that maybe it would be better if the whole forest cared for its people and the big tree was simply a centre for worship by the people. Shortly after that, I was watching a programme on TV and saw an actor I’d never seen before. I was really taken by his face and general demeanour and gradually he morphed in my mind into the Treespeaker, the man who could communicate with the forest.  
How much research did you have to do for this book?
I didn’t do a lot of research for this one, mainly because having written a major essay at University on life in a temperate forest during the Late Mesolithic period, I had a pretty good idea of how they might have lived. Being fantasy, too, it wasn’t imperative that I got every single detail right, as long as it all made sense within the community I was creating. I did have to look up some details like hunting techniques and herbal remedies, but I enjoy that sort of research. I had to do a bit of research on rats, too, as one features in the story and I had to be sure it could do what I wanted it to. I found out all sorts of interesting things I didn’t know, like – did you know that rats can be trained to look for landmines and people lost in earthquakes?
Did you base any of your characters on real life people?
As I said, I based the look of Jakanash on an actor, as I have other characters, but no, I’ve never consciously used any person I know personally in a book. They tend to be a conglomeration of tiny bits of characters I’ve known, read or viewed, mixed with a whole lot of imagination.
How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?
Again, I’m not consciously aware of adding anything of myself to my books, but I don’t think you can really help your personality and ideas seeping into a story. It’s coming out of your head after all. I didn’t consciously set out to write Treespeaker thinking, ‘I’m going to write something about the destruction of the environment and of societies by greed and the importance of having faith in what you believe’, but that’s what came through. Hopefully not too blatantly, but it’s there.
My prior knowledge of archaeology, history and anthropology helps, too, because I can create societies and have some idea of how they work without having to do a huge amount of research first.
You write for many age groups – MG through to adults?  How easy is it to switch between writing for children and writing for adults?  Are there some things you won’t write about in either age bracket?
I apparently have a very simple writing style, so even when I write for adults, people tell me it reads more like YA. That annoys me a bit, but I write how I write and what I want to write and at least it means that anyone can read my books, from children through to adults. As for writing children’s books; being a teacher and having worked in a school library, I don’t find it too hard to change gear…and if my writing comes across as YA anyway, it’s only a small shift after all.
I’m not aware of avoiding anything in writing for children and some of my reviewers have mentioned that I don’t skirt issues. I like to write about things that children find difficult, like bullying or peer pressure, to try to help them, but subtly.
With my adult writing, I’d never write erotica. It’s just not my ‘thing’. When I first saw this question, I thought I’d say politics as well, but that’s not true, because in my fantasy worlds, there is politics, but couched in terms of my imaginary worlds. There’s a lot of the real world that can be portrayed through fantasy. I’d never write about real world politics though.

Does reader feedback affect your writing process?  For instance when writing a sequel, have you found feedback or comments from readers on the first has caused you to change a part of your sequel?
Yes, definitely. I’ve belonged to a site called Critique Circle for a long time. You post chapters of your work in progress and people can tell you what they think. There have been times when I’ve rewritten whole sections of the book because someone has made a remark about an event or a character and sent my mind spinning in a completely new and, to me, better direction. I’ve had a couple of people who read and edited my books before I publish, too, and their comments have made me rewrite things. When you’re writing, you can get so involved in your characters that you may not notice their peccadillos or even their lack of peccadillos which is just as much of a problem. It’s good to have a reader pull you up on it.
Can you tell us about your next project?
I have two projects on the go at the moment, one writing, one artistic.
The novel I’m writing is a rewrite of a short story, Orlando’s Gift, I published a couple of years ago.Orlando’s Gift was about Willem, a young boy put in charge of caring for a singer kidnapped by the boy’s wizard masters in hope of capturing the magic of the man’s voice. Larkspell, the current novel, is the story of Danjel, an Abikon, or low-ranked priest, in charge of an orphanage in the slums of the city. He’s working against time and the church hierarchy to save the boys in his care from being sent out to work to save the church money, but he has another enemy, too, that he’s not told anyone about. Willem’s and Danjel’s stories have a link that becomes clearer as the novel goes along.
The art project I’m working on is a book of portraits of famous historical figures portrayed as animals. So there’s Lionardo da Vinci, Cleopanther and Joan Aardvark, just to mention a few. I’m torn between leaving it as a pure picture book and trying to write a humorous biography of each one. I’ll decide on that when I’ve finished, I think.
Do you set yourself a writing routine and a daily word limit?
No, I’m afraid I don’t, which is why Larkspell is taking so long to finish. I went through a patch where I wrote lots and did little in the way of art and now it’s the opposite; I find I get distracted with doing book covers and illustrations and writing is getting neglected. I need to find a better balance.
How do you write: lap top, pen, and paper, in bed, at a desk?  Do you have a favourite writing spot?
Missy Beagle Nose by Max O’Grady
I write on my laptop, using Scrivener for the first draft and Word for editing. Occasionally, if I’m out somewhere and I get inspired by something, I might write a little on my iPad or a notebook (a paper one, that is), but usually it’s straight onto my laptop at my desk in ‘Mum’s room’ – a side verandah of the house that we did up just for me (though I usually share it with at least a dog and a cat).
Do you outline your books from start to finish or just start writing or a bit of both?
I’m a terrible planner and that’s partly why I use Scrivener, which allows you to make notes for each chapter or segment to remind you where you’re going when you open that file and then lets you rearrange them however you like. Even so, I often find myself going off in a completely different direction and having to rewrite all the chapter notes. With Treespeaker I actually wrote the story with only a vague plan in my head and I did it in scenes as they came to me. So it was a huge jigsaw to put together at the end, because the story is told in two different viewpoints and each scene had to correspond in time to another scene in the other thread. Then I had to rewrite the whole lot to make it seamless. I can tell you, it’s not the best way to write a book!
How do you deal with juggling your writing and all your other commitments?
I gave up my job in the school library at the end of last year, so now I work for myself and can plan things as I want to – sort of. I’ve been trying to do ‘work’ things (i.e. things for other people that I get paid for) during school time and ‘my’ things (i.e. writing and my own art) in the evenings and on weekends, but it doesn’t always work that way. I think if I’m going to get more writing done, I’m going to have to include that as ‘work’ and set aside a certain time of my work day for it.
How do you feel about self-publishing vs traditional publishing?
I used to think there was no way I would ever self-publish, but after a few near misses with publishers I became thoroughly disillusioned and decided I had nothing to lose by self-publishing. I don’t regret it, except when I join an author association and they accept your money as a ‘published author’, but only give certain perks to authors published by ‘real’ publishers.  I do still sometimes wonder if it would be easier to get noticed as a traditionally published author and I’d certainly prefer to have my work formatted by someone else. That’s the part I really hate – setting it up for publishing. I love doing my own covers though, which I don’t suppose I could do with a traditional publisher. So there’s pros and cons on both sides.