Author Interview with Anna Southwell, writer of the Oliver Gruffle series

Author Website Photo - Anna Southwell

Interview by writer and publisher, Philip Bell, with author Anna Southwell in November 2020 on the eve of the publication of the first book in her Oliver Gruffle – Secrets of Harmony Haven series, called The Runaways all set on the Isle of Wight. The book is published on Beachy Books Partner Publishing imprint and out 4th December 2020.

Bold text (Philip), plain text (Anna)…

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been concentrating on the Oliver Gruffle – Harmony Haven books and updating them for years. I first came up with the idea 24 years ago. It was before the Harry Potter books. I never actually read any of those as I didn’t want them to influence my stories. 

I’ve been evolving the books all along, adding different ones. I’m up to twelve so far. I just can’t stop inventing stories. I’m obsessed with it now! *laughs* To tell you the truth, with this coronavirus, I was kept busy and I didn’t go into depression or anything like that from being alone, because I was in my magical world, typing away and thinking of new stories. 

What was the inspiration for the Oliver Gruffle series?

I lived in the Far East for two and a half years, and outside the flats, where we lived, I would see animals and wild dogs running around with tin cans on their heads, because they were scavenging for food. An awful thing happened: we had a ginger cat that we found under a palm tree and took him in. He was beautiful and got on well, but he decided he preferred eating out and he started going around the villages, raiding the chicken coops, and often he would come home with a chicken! And then one day there was a group of people outside with machetes. They asked me who the ginger cat belongs to and I knew they would get him eventually and they hurt him really badly. 

I am a bit sensitive where animals are concerned. When I see them on TV, if they are being cruelly treated I feel sadness. And, of course, I had my lovely Border collie dog called Kim, and she was very wise, and she seemed to know every emotion you felt. As I mention in the book’s introduction, I was never allowed any animals as a child. I was always wanting a pet. I remember riding a bike on the Island and discovering some wild feral kittens and it was a hard lesson to learn that I could not keep them. My last cat I owned as an adult was from a rescue home. So that was how the animal stories all evolved. 

And I wanted to write a story for the grandkids!

Did you have a writing background in your day job?

No. I used to work for an Island builders’ merchants in Ryde. I was just an office girl, a typist, that sort of thing. 

How did you write the book?

On a typewriter! *laughs* I got through so many typewriters because I just bash away at them, but to be quite honest, because I’m visually impaired now, I know exactly where the keys are now – from my touch-typing days – so it’s been a lifeline for me to be able to continue to write new stories and correct ones I’ve written in the past and bring them up to date. 

How did your sight impairment affect the writing of the books?

My eye trouble started with me developing macular in my left eye, like a hole in the eye. One day my eyesight suddenly got very bad, but I could drive because I passed all the driving examinations and doctors said yes, you can still drive. I woke up one morning and I had completely lost sight apart from vision in my right eye that was good. Then I woke up one morning with blurred vision, so I had to go straight up the hospital, and they diagnosed macular vision in the right eye and there’s something else wrong with it as well now, but I have still got a small amount of vision in the right eye.

Now, I’ve got this wonderful light and magnifier from the hospital that’s very good for me so I can hold that over the typing and put it on. It’s been a godsend!

How have you adapted to write and edit your stories now?

I use a very bright LED light to shine it on the paper, so I get by. I don’t feel as if it’s deteriorated too much over the last couple of months. I think it’s stationary at the moment so I’m working hard! I’m working like mad to get all the Oliver Gruffle books written and published.

What support have you got on the Isle of Wight with your sight impairment?

Sight for Wight has been a club that has been an inspiration to me, because I joined the club and when I first went there I thought everybody was going be so morbid and I didn’t think it would be for me. Well, I had the shock my life when I went there – it was hilarious! It was a wonderful, wonderful group! I was so inspired by all the people; there was one chap who had written a story, you know, and there was another lady who could write poetry, someone knitting, and a lady crocheting. And I thought, hello, how can they do all this! And then there were two ladies in their 90s who actually both still lived alone and looked after themselves. And there’s a lady in Shanklin who rings me up, because we all keep in touch, and she’s been an inspiration to me. If she can cope, then I can cope! It’s a wonderful group. We used to go out for lunch and coffee breaks, but at the moment all this has closed down, but everybody is still all keeping in touch, so that’s lovely. They have wonderful volunteers that come in to look after us and help us walk without crashing into lampposts – which is my nightmare of a thing I keep doing! *laughs*

Are you born ‘n’ bred Isle of Wight?

I’ve lived on the Isle of Wight all my life. The one thing I’ve always loved is the Island and that’s why I wanted to base the stories in Oliver Gruffle on the Island.

What do you love about the Isle of Wight?

Everything! *laughs* I just love everything about the Island. I find it quite amazing we have people coming over here, then, all of a sudden, they are creating things themselves, putting their input into the island and I think it’s wonderful. What I’m saying is, the Island is magical. It seems to affect people. People seem to be kinder. 

When I was young, I mean really young, I was given a bike and I used to cycle round the island, 50-odd miles, in a day, taking my picnic. That was how I came across the colony of wild cats, which I couldn’t catch! *laughs*

What was the inspiration for the animal characters in the book? 

I haven’t ever owned a pig *laughs* but I have a pig statue that I call Pickle. And when I look around my room there are so many animal statues. Anybody would think I’m a bit animal mad! *laughs* I’ve got three new stories that I’ve thought of this week, writing them down best I can. I lay in bed, super active at night, trying to think up stories. It’s a great joy to me to be able to do this. I just love it! I love writing. I hope when children read these books, they can come to my little world and enjoy them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

That really comes across when I first read the story. Your stories are very imaginative, there’s lots of kindness in them, and also mischief and a nice warmth about them, which is different I think. Where does that come from?

It’s not all sweetness you know! *laughs* We go through different stages in different books, but nothing really, really horrible happens that would frighten a child. 

So, what are your favourite books or books that inspired you as a child?

I used to love Victorian era; I’m absolutely besotted with them. Life around the 18th and 19th century, how the way of life was, and the hardships people had to endure, because I had it hard when I was young, coming from a poor family. To tell you the truth I wanted to be a vet. But now it’s a different matter because I can’t read so well and I’m concentrating on writing the Oliver Gruffle series so that my grandkids have something to remember me by! 

What part of the writing of the Oliver Gruffle stories do you enjoy the most?

I quite like the conversations between the animals. I do admit I did find the first chapter very hard to do though. I went over and over it until I got it how I wanted it. I find it quite hard to have two animals speaking together, so I used to put a toy in front of me and pretend that was the animal in the book and talk to it, and imagine how he would look, what he would say back, and gradually it just began to develop. I think I am a bit crazy! *laughs*

Yes, I know what you mean. As a writer I know what it’s like to have your own invented characters speaking to you in your head. So, what other techniques do you use in writing and editing?

I always read my books out loud as if I’m speaking to a child. Now, I’ll tell you another little interesting story: My husband had dementia and it was quite a hard time for me, you know, looking after him, but luckily he did still know me, but he didn’t know the family. We always used to sing together. But the one thing he loved in the afternoon, when he came waddling in, was to listen to me read my books. I would read to him and do all the voices and he would sit there, thrilled to bits. And he said to me, ‘The one thing I want you to do, Anna, is try and get this into print for children to enjoy!’ That’s his words, so you have helped me keep my promise to my late husband and publish my book, and I’m thrilled!

Have you enjoyed the publishing process?

What you’ve done and all the editing, I think it’s really, really turned out a lovely book.

You know what’s show nice for me though, I was getting all these phone calls last night from my family, saying things like ‘Nan, we’re so-so proud of you!’ you know, and you wouldn’t normally say that to somebody, you know, you might be taken for granted normally, so it was so nice to just actually hear them say those words, because we haven’t got anybody in the family who does this sort of thing, it’s quite different, to actually get published.

Have you got any inspiring thoughts for anybody who wants to write their own stories?

I would say, if you’ve got a dream, follow it.

Philip Bell would like to thank Anna Southwell for her time in the interview. If you like the sound of Anna’s Oliver Gruffle series and want to read the first one then find out more here: Oliver Gruffle – Secrets of Harmony Haven – Book 1: The Runaways.

Beachy Books Author Interview – Thingamanose Author/Illustrator Lynne Hudson

Beachy Books publisher, Philip Bell, interviewed his recently signed author/illustrator Lynne Hudson on their newly rebranded traditional imprint, about her longer children’s book called Thingamanose, her writing process and how she got into illustrating.

Bold text (Philip), plain text (Lynne)…

Do you write full time?

I work part time at a hospital to bring in money while I work on my writing and drawing.

How did you get into writing and illustrating?

Well, I was actually applying for a job and I had to write a cover letter, and I just sat down writing these cover letters and I just really enjoyed it. (At this point, Lynne’s cat, Tiger enters the room and she shoos it out! -Ed) So, I thought I would have a go at writing a story, because I never really thought that I could write anything before. I just sat down and started writing things. I think the first things I wrote were pretty rubbish then I started writing things that were ok, so I sent them off to the Literary Consultancy for them to edit for me and they gave me a lot or really positive feedback. Things went from there really. The first book I had published was called Sniff by Hogs Back Books and then they asked me to illustrate one of their other books called Big Dog and Squiz. I’ve just been plodding on from then.

How long have you been writing and illustrating for?

I’ve have been writing for about 10 years, but I have been doing the illustrations for quite a long time. I trained as a Potter at Bath Academy of Art and when I left there, I taught night classes for a few years, but it wasn’t really me. But my pots were very plain pots that were covered in illustrations, and I realised that that was the part I really liked — the design and decoration on the pots. And then I cut out making the pots and concentrated on illustration.

I noticed when you sent your first submission, I really loved your illustrative, cartoon style. Is that something you are particularly into, or was it something that just came out and became your style?

I think it has basically been my style, but I did do a correspondence course with the College of Cartoon Art, that was over about a year, the professional cartoonist Dave Fellows, who was the chap that mentored me, sort of pushed me in the way or children’s illustration as he said that it was the best thing for my style of drawing. Sadly, he passed away in 2003, but I fondly remember he especially liked my caricatures of soap characters like Dot Cotton [see below].

So, what would you say is the difference between an artist that can do one set scene, and an illustrator of a children’s book? What skills do you think are needed for children’s book illustration and even comics?

I think probably, I observe people and go around and have a little sketch book and go into town sometimes or other places and sketch people. I think you get a feel for how people are really, and their character.

I saw Shirley Hughes on the BBC 4 documentary What Do Artists Do All Day? Have you seen that? She sits in playgrounds observing people and drawing in her sketch book – actually, maybe that sounds a bit weird… *laughs*

*laughs* That’s basically what I do!

I see so much movement in your illustrations. It’s crazy really, it’s only a static image but yet there’s so much movement in it. I always like that kind of feeling. I think people are quite fascinated by the process and think it’s magic.

Yeah, *laughs* there is quite a lot of imagination goes in it, but I am also a bit of a people watcher.

So, does what inspires you to write and draw? What is your muse?

I think things just seem to jump into my head really. For this story, I was just walking into town one day and a phrase just popped into my head. Something about a girl called Rose, picking her nose. I just started writing it down and it became ‘Don’t Pick Your Nose Rose!’ (which was the original name of the story when Lynne submitted it to Beachy Books – Ed). I didn’t really know where it was going to go at first, it just kind of evolved as I sat down at the computer and wrote and built up the idea.

Rose is quite a feisty heroine in the Thingamanose story. What’s the inspiration behind her?

I think it’s probably me, actually.  *laughs* I have always been a bit of a nose picker! *laughs*

I was afraid to ask if you picked your nose! *laughs*

Yeah, quite a lot of my old school friends have commented about that! 

Going back to my inspiration from Rose, I think that she also came from having quite strict parents, who just kind of dismiss things you say, things like that. At work, quite a lot of the doctors are very dismissive and that really gets my back up. They don’t believe what you’re saying half the time.

So, are saying that your writing process is quite cathartic? *laughs*

*laughs* Just a bit, sometimes. I’m quite rebellious as well, like Rose! 

So, from Rose picking her nose… how did Thingamanose pop into your head? *laughs*

I think it’s probably just something that just popped into my head literally. I think it was just something that happened when I was sat down writing. I kind of go into my own subconscious; in my head it’s a video and I write down the film in my head. It’s like dreaming or daydreaming really. You are sat there writing but you are daydreaming at the same time and all these weird things just come out!

*laughs* I love it. That’s great! So, obviously when I read your story it was very funny. So, what do you enjoy about humorous writing? Is that your default writing style, you go for something funny?

I suppose so. I sometimes think it’s quite serious really, but I’m quite happy people think it’s funny. I think it’s just the way I am really.

So, do you mean Thingamanose is more of a serious story than a humorous one?

I can’t really put my finger on what it is. I think that a lot of people are laugh when they read it, but I think I’s quite serious *laughs*

*laughs* Erm, that’s quite interesting to hear that.

When I had it [the early draft] edited, the comments said it was quite revolting at some points! *laughs*

So, the early drafts were edited by the literacy consultancy?

Yeah, I sent that off last year for them to do it, but it’s obviously now changed quite a bit since then editing with Beachy Books.

And talking of Beachy Books, why did you decide to send your story to us?

They [The Literary Consultancy] did say it was a longer picture book and they weren’t sure what kind of genre it would fit into, because it sort of sits between a picture book and a chapter book. I used to get this quarterly magazine called Carousel and I noticed they were advertising some books and it mentioned that it filled the gap between the picture book and chapter book market, so I went on the computer and looked if they were taking any submissions and they weren’t, so after some research on the computer I came across your blog post [https://beachybooks.com/bridging-the-gap-longer-picture-books] about longer picture books and I emailed you and sent you off a manuscript, just by chance really.

I remember writing that blog it was quite a long time ago now and it was inspired by my frustration of how my daughter, who used to really like picture books, would end up feeling as if she could not read them, as they were associated with a much younger audience. She is a teenager now but still appreciates picture books, but at school she would be teased by other children for choosing to read a picture book when they were reading longer story books with little or no illustrations, which she wasn’t really inspired by in the same way. I also remember that feeling as a child of how wonderful picture books and comics were compared to books full of text. I love them now of course, all books.

Thingamanose is written in rhyme. Is that a writing style you enjoy?

Yeah, I think it comes a bit more naturally to me than prose, but it takes a lot longer to write. I just feel more comfortable with rhyme.

Do you have a favourite children’s book?

My favourite is Dr Seuss. You can probably see that from what I write. I love the Lorax with its environmental message. From childhood, I used to really love the Miffy books, the style and the simplicity.

Have you got any inspiring advice for budding writers or illustrators?

My advice is just to try it. Don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m not a writer…’. You never know until you try! It was when I enjoyed it, trying and trying and keeping at it. It was how I developed my own style and got better and better. With drawing, it’s the same really. Just pick up the pencil and have a go. My grandma was a painter and I used to sit next to her as a little kid. She used to give me old envelopes and a biro and I used to just sit there doodling all the time.

Is there a message in Thingamanose?

The story is just about parents listening to their children and not dismissing what they say. If they’ve got problems or a niggle then listen to them, don’t brush them off. The frustration of people in power just not listening to the small people.

Thank you Lynne Hudson!

Philip Bell would like to thank Lynne Hudson for her time in the interview. If you like the sound of Lynne’s writing and want to see her ilustrations, you can read more about the book, take a peek inside and buy a copy to support the author and publisher here: Thingamanose.