I was recently lucky enough to interview Australian children’s author Stef Gemmill. Stef’s recently published book, “A Home for Luna’ was featured in last week’s Oz Lit Teacher reviews. (Download the bookplate here). I asked Stef a few questions related to her writing journey and any advice she has for teachers and students.
This interview with Stef provides valuable insight into what goes on behind the scenes in the real world of writing (outside of school). The more we, as teachers, learn about and from the experiences of published writers, the better and more informed teachers of writing we will be.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? What was it that got you into writing in the first place?
As I child, I didn’t feel the need to follow the crowd and was happy doing my ‘own thing’. I’d lose myself in books and drawings – my imagination carrying me away to magical places, where animals talked and children ruled the world. My parents didn’t have much money to buy books, so I’d sneak my teenage sibling’s books and read those. I read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings at age nine and read our home encyclopaedia from cover to cover. I also loved watching Doctor Who, Star Trek and fantasy type children’s television. (Not animation, but real children saving the world kind of stuff). I paid a lot of attention to the story lines and the role each character played. At the time I didn’t realise how much this helped my writing but now understand that a good plot line and cast of characters is crucial to a good story.
Can you recall your experiences of writing at school?
At age eleven, I wrote a play called ‘Drag-On’, about an isolated, feminist dragon on a quest to save the dragon race, discovering her nuclear-powered flame breath on the journey. She enlists Kermit the Frog and Michael Jackson to save the world. (The eighties were crazy times!) Someone saw the play’s potential as it was performed at a local theatre by my school and published in an edition of a national school journal. After that experience, my Year 7 teacher wholeheartedly encouraged me to become a journalist as I must have had a lick of talent. I loved her encouragement and did try to pursue this career, but I was good at other subjects like maths and science that my parents thought would be better for me to focus on. I went on to study business and finance at a prestigious international university. Mrs Hartley’s words echoed in my mind for years though, and I became a music journalist by sending in music gig reviews to magazines whilst studying in London. Deep inside, I still did not want to follow the crowd. It gave me so much pleasure to see my words sing across the pages and for other people to read them and feel like they were there with me at the gig.
Many students struggle to develop ideas for writing, can you give the teachers in the Oz Lit Community insight into how you developed the idea for your books?
I always know what theme I want to write to from the start of a story and I find that the writing children do has more focus and comes more easily once they know if they are writing adventure, mystery, fantasy or something funny.
The theme for my book ‘A Home for Luna’ is change and homelessness, but much, much deeper it is a story of migration. It reflects my own personal story. I’ve always been adventurous and have lived in many countries around the globe. I find it inspiring how people embrace new ways of life by learning new languages, adapting to different climates, careers, cuisines and cultures. Not everyone chooses this path, and some are forced to relocate to new countries, yet they are still resilient and embracing of change.
My new book, ‘In My Dreams,’ drew on the theme of staying positive during the hard times we all experience from time to time. The story seed came from a song called ‘Only In Dreams’ and then I listened to a lot of songs about following your dreams that also inspired me.
Do you plan your writing out before you start writing or do you just start writing? What is your process?
I’ve tried plotting stories in detail, and they end up sounding flat and forced. Generally, I like to have an ‘idea’ of what happens in the middle and climax of the story, perhaps the ending before I start writing. The start of any story is the hardest part for me. I rewrite my beginnings so many times! But that’s okay as all the initial drafts of story beginnings help me understand and get to know the main character. I understand what the character is feeling, seeing, hearing and smelling by writing how the character arrives where they’re at several times. If only I knew this when I first started writing seriously, I wouldn’t have thought I was so terrible at writing first drafts! I now always write first drafts quickly then go back and change my story opening and make sure it’s interesting and there’s not too much back story.
Do you use a writer’s notebook at all? If so, how do you use it?
I do have a notebook for story and character ideas. I carry it with me most of the time. If I don’t have it, I will use a phone to jot down notes. Sometimes stories come to me as a song in my head and I need to write them down quickly before the words are gone. I will stop what I am doing or wake in the night and quickly write them down. The notebook is full of my terrible drawings and some poems and early drafts of story seeds. My early drafts are often rambling lines that make sense to me and no one else. My notebook is very private and only for me to read as in my mind some of these ideas are quite crazy!
Did you get any feedback about your writing along the way? Who did you get it from and when in the process (eg. Feedback after you developed the idea or only after you wrote the first draft?)
Artists are always striving to improve their craft. We suffer from so much self-doubt. I love wanting to please a reader so enjoy receiving feedback. I am in several writing groups. One is a regular online critique group where we share a story or chapter of a book each month and provide feedback that is respectful but also helpful. The other writing group I’m in is a group of seasoned authors and we work through final drafts discussing where they can be pitched for submission to publishers. Both groups are for feedback for different aspects of writing and both are about give and take.
How many drafts did you do before you had finished your book? (Lots of our young writers think their first draft is their final draft).
Some stories have been drafted only 5 to 10 times. However, I’ve spent weeks and maybe months mapping things out in my head in between drafts to ensure the character and plot are right. And we are talking about a 400-word picture book text here! The most drafts I’ve completed on a picture book is 20 redrafts for a picture book called ‘Toy Mountain’ which will be out in 2021. After 5 drafts I changed its setting to a fantasy world which required a lot of thought and feedback whilst still holding onto the theme of sustainability. I’m so glad I stuck with this story as I know when it’s published it will be well received and the best work I can have published.
What advice do you have for teachers who are trying to get students hooked on writing?
My advice for a teacher of a classroom of children with various interests and writing and reading abilities would be to focus on ‘story’, not just the writing component. What I mean by this is, I often establish a story through writing a response to a picture or just drawing a picture of a scene. If children cannot articulate their imagination in writing easily, a picture can be used to spark children’s imagination to create a story and then their writing can take the story to another level. I often use this technique when I run writing workshops with primary school children. This way every child feels part of the activity and ends up with a piece of work they can be proud of.
What advice do you have for students wanting to become better writers?
Write what you want to write about, not what you think you should write to get good comments or a good grade. If you write something you’re passionate about, something that gets you really excited and you portray that feeling in your writing, it will be a piece of work that will get others excited too.
Can you give us a sneaky bit of info about your new books?
I have two picture books in the pipeline, and both are very special projects with illustrators and publishing houses. ‘In My Dreams’ is a picture book about a child’s imagination that takes him on wild journey as he sleeps soundly at night. It’s about being positive in your dreams and is illustrated by the talented Swiss illustrator Tanja Stephanie and published by New Frontier Publishing. ‘Toy Mountain’ will be published by EK Books in 2021 and is a story of a boy who becomes a toy tester and is overwhelmed with the pile of plastic junk that he accumulates. It’s a story of sustainability and our war on waste that will empower children to take action.
Wow thankyou Stef! There are so many great takeaways for teachers from your comments:
- The amount of reading you did as a child and how that helped shape you as a writer.
- The way you develop ideas that are connected to your own life.
- The flexibility of your planning process.
- The way you have changed over time as a writer and constantly reflect on how your knowledge about writing has changed.
- The way you welcome and value feedback on your writing as something that can help you please your reader and make you a better writer.
- Your honesty about the reality of the persistence required to write well (20 redrafts is well beyond the imagination of many of our students).
- You advice to students to write about things they are passionate about (the implications for this on how we teach writing are critical- i.e we need to teach students to learn their passions and then write about them.)
Thanks again for sharing your insights into writing, I am sure the Oz Lit Teacher community will really appreciate your thoughts. I’m really looking forward to reading your upcoming books (I only wish they were coming out sooner!
What takeaways did you gain from Stef’s interview? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or over on the Oz Lit teacher Facebook group. What are some of the implications from Stef’s journey on the teaching of writing in your classroom?
If you wish to know more about Steg Gemmil or get in contact with her to organise a school visit etc- you can visit her website here: https://www.stefgemmill.com/