Interview with author Victoria Mackinlay

Oz Lit Teacher author interview

It’s been a while since I’ve had an author in my interview chair, so I was very excited when award-winning, Sydney based writer, Victoria Mackinlay recently agreed to come on the blog.

Victoria’s first picture story book, Ribbit Rabbit Robot was shortlisted in this year’s Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year awards (and any wonder- there’s plenty of phonetic play in there). Earlier this year, while I was using all my lockdown time to learn how to slow cook food, Victoria was busy publishing not one but TWO books: The Bark Book and The Lion Who Came to Stay.

She shares some great insights into her life and processes as a writer in this interview- it’s one I would certainly consider sharing with your students. (Especially when she talks about how many drafts she does…yikes!)

Where do you get your ideas for your books?

Everywhere!

I get ideas from things I hear and see that are funny or curious.

Often I’m asked an interesting question (like the time my daughter asked me, “Why do dogs bark and trees have bark?” The result of this question = The idea for The Bark Book).

The Lion Who Came to Stay is a story I was told hundreds of times by my grandparents when I was growing up as it’s the true story of my grandfather who was given a lion cub as a pet when he was 8 years old. That’s a pretty unusual gift and a gift of a story!

Interview with Australian author Victoria Mackinlay

Where do you store your ideas?

I am a papyrophiliac (I LOVE paper). I have *a lot* of notebooks but, ridiculously, *never* have one with me when inspiration strikes, so I have jotted down stories on parking tickets, receipts and cafe serviettes – whatever is available.

I also have a whiteboard in my office where I collect words and things that catch my attention. I pin things to it that inspire me (e.g., an odd-shaped leaf, a newspaper cutting, a striking piece of art on a postcard).

Because I have wild and vivid dreams, I keep a notebook beside my bed, and I’ve also written stories in the shower by using bath crayons on the tiles!

Writer's Notebook example Victoria Mackinlay
Scribbly notes for Ribbit Rabbit Robot. I love writing on squared paper from time spent at French schools and universities.

How do you decide which idea you want to turn into a book?

I’m not great at storing my ideas in an orderly fashion, but I find that the best ideas niggle at me and demand to be written.

What is the process you use to write your books?

I write at least one draft (sometimes several) and then share it with my two critique groups. They return written feedback which I absorb, consider and then continue to edit my text over a period of months.

Writer's notebook example first draft
An early version of The Bark Book. Writing is a messy process!

As the story starts to solidify, I create dummy books to check the pacing and page turns (which are so critical in picture books).

Author process when creating new picture story books
A dummy version of Ribbit Rabbit Robot. Thank goodness I wasn’t asked to illustrate the real book!

I also love my Storyboard Notebook, which lays out the 32 spreads of a picture book.

Writer's notebook example Ribbit Rabbit Robot
A late version of Ribbit Rabbit Robot laid out in my Storyboard Notebook

How do you get feedback on your ideas and your writing?

Ribbit Rabbit Robot author interview

My critique groups are an integral part of my story-writing process. Each member is a picture book creator, many are published, and all are very educated and passionate about picture books. I have also paid for/won critiques from publishers/professional editors.

I don’t always agree with the feedback, but I LOVE feedback as I find it so helpful for flagging potential issues in my stories.

Sometimes the feedback may be over a specific word (e.g., they might suggest a particular word is too sophisticated for the audience), or it may be about something larger. For example, with Ribbit Rabbit Robot I received several bits of feedback that the story’s resolution wouldn’t be satisfactory for younger readers because Frog and Rabbit end up miserable (with all of their wishes being undone).

However, this was very deliberate on my part, and I felt crucial to the story, as I love stories where the meanies get their comeuppance (like they do in Roald Dahl’s book, The Twits).

I listened to the feedback and even tried creating a version of the story that concluded with all the characters having a happy ending. I discussed it with my publisher as well, but I’m pleased I stuck to my original intention. What do you think? Is the resolution satisfactory for you?

Revising the ending of a book
Ruined it! Wrecked it!
Do you think meanies get their comeuppance for breaking the rules in picture books?

What things do you think about when writing your books?

I think about keeping the reader hooked and entertained. As I’m writing picture books, I’m conscious about word choice and level (so that it’s appropriate for children) but I never write down or patronise.

I write professionally for adults as well, but writing for kids is so liberating. I love the opportunity to play with words, be silly, have fun and experiment.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Where do authors get their ideas
A family photo of Singh the lion cub.

Several years. It’s important to leave time between drafts for stories to marinate and then it takes at least a year for a book to be illustrated and published. It’s not a quick process!

I wrote the first draft of The Lion Who Came to Stay in 2017 and it was published in 2021. I had been thinking about this story since my early childhood though.

When writing, students often only like to do one draft. How many drafts do you do when writing your books?

It depends on the story, but many. In my folders, I’ve counted:

  • 38 versions of Ribbit Rabbit Robot,
  • 49 versions of The Bark Book and
  • 40 versions of The Lion Who Came to Stay.

When I feel a story is finally ‘finished’, I go back to the first few drafts. Although they can be very rough, they contain the magic and excitement that comes with starting a story, which can sometimes be edited out throughout the story-writing process and needs to be put back in.

Have you had a book rejected from a publisher?

Yes. Rejection is a big part of the writing process. The chances of getting a book published by a traditional publisher are, sadly, very slim. So many things have to align for you to get a ‘yes’. I don’t take rejection personally. If a publisher provides me feedback with a rejection, I find it very helpful and I definitely take it on board. In most cases authors don’t receive feedback, in which case I’ll submit to another publisher who I think could be a match.

Who influenced you to become a writer?

My favourite childhood authors and illustrators: Roald Dahl, Beatrix Potter, Judith Kerr and Enid Blyton.

What advice do you have for young writers?

Write for fun/comfort. Keep your eyes and ears open to inspiration. And read widely – not just books and magazines. Read street signs, cereal packets, toy catalogues. Think about the word choices the writers have made and wonder why.

Author interview Victoria Mackinlay
Victoria Mackinlay in her ‘book nook’.

Victoria’s contact details:

Keen to learn more about Victoria? You can find out all her latest adventures on her social media accounts:

Also, you can find activities, videos and teaching notes on her books here: https://www.victoriamackinlay.com/


What takeaways did you gain from Victoria’s interview? Share your thought sin the comments below or over on the Oz Lit teacher Facebook group.


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