Interview with Margot Finke
Children's author Margot Finke writes midgrade adventure fiction and rhyming picture books. Her six series of rhyming picture books are fun and educational, and bring kids closer to the many animals in the US and Australia. "Musings," her monthly column for children's writers, can be read in The Purple Crayon and the SCBWI NewsWorthy magazine. She's also a freelance editor, offering a Critique Service to writers. A native of Australia, Finke now resides in Oregon.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I’m an Aussie who has lived in Oregon with my husband and family for many years. Three kids all grown and now doing well on their own.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
The idea grew on me. I have always scribbled. When we came to the US my kids were small, and I didn’t want them to forget their Down-under roots. Every night I told them a story, off the top of my head, about a different Aussie critter. I did the same at schools when I became a Teacher’s Aid. Some kids complained that didn’t always tell the same story the same way – little rascals had better memories than I. A teacher friend said, “For goodness sake write the stories down. Then you’ll remember the endings!” I did, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I bought a computer, joined a few wonderful online writing lists, and proceeded to learn the craft of writing for kids from the basement UP.
Do you have another job besides writing?
Not any more. Since my husband retired, I have the luxury of spending more time writing. He has taken over our huge garden and the cooking – does a terrific job of both, too. Unfortunately, he does not do windows, laundry or dusting. Guess you can’t have everything.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
Oh yes. I read everything with print on it – including jam jar labels. I became so immersed in Tale of two Cities one Saturday afternoon, on the train home, that I went three stops past my own. I had to walk five miles home in over 100-degree heat. WHEW!
I would read in bed under the covers, with the help of a flashlight. I was always is trouble for sneaking off to read up in the huge mango tree in our back yard, chores completely forgotten.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Rattlesnake Jam is just published. The idea popped into my head late one night, as I tossed sleepless in bed. The longer I thought about the fun combo of Gran, Pa and rattlers, the more verses I wrote in my head. It is a romp of a rhyming picture book, featuring crazy old Gran and Pa, rattlesnakes, and how to cook them. Gran is determined to have them made into her cure every ailment known to man jam, while Pa yearns for rattlesnake pie or fritters – just once.
How did you come up with the wacky idea of snake jam?
The name, “Rattlesnake Jam,” seemed perfect. For me, it holds all the unlikely, wild and wooly elements that make up Gran, Pa, and their love of rattlers.
The illustrations are grossly funny. Who came up with the physical traits for Gran? You or your illustrator?
Kevin Scott Collier came up with all their grossly funny charms, plus the wonderful rattlesnakes. I think my characters, plus the rhyming verses that bring them to life, appealed to the hidden kid in Kevin. Originally, Kevin sent me a sample drawing of Gran and Pa, and I knew we were on the same crazy wavelength. He has imagination, energy, and talent by the cartload. His “Rattlesnake Jam” illustrations are brilliant.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
As often happens to me with rhyming stories, the plot, rhyme and meter, simply flowed out of me. Then I put it aside for a week or two. After that, it was a process of tweaking here and there, to make sure the meter was smooth, the rhyme integrated with the wild and wacky doings of Gran and Pa, and everything worked to move the action along.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Not a lot - just enough to make sure that rattler details were accurate. Rattlesnake Jam is all wacky fun. However, my other picture books, a series of fun stories about animals from the US and Australia, was another matter. These were written in rhyme, yet they have educational content. My research for these 6 books was more in-depth.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
Hmmm. . . I guess I’m the sort of writer who gets crazy ideas, and then weaves them into rhyming stories, or maybe non-rhyming stories. Several of my mid-grades are definitely in the wild side: A ghost mystery, with my Mother in the title role, and two Aussie outback adventures for boys, with lots of aboriginal Dreamtime doings.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
I have Down-under Syndrome. As soon as my head hits the pillow at night, my bran leaps into action. Rhymes, characters, and plots for books, beg me to go put them in a computer file, so they won’t become lost in my sleep cycle. Why this happens is an absolute mystery. Having spent half my live as an Aussie, at the bottom of the globe, maybe my brain still hasn’t adjusted to the time change? “Sleep Deprivation” is the name of my muse.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
I must confess that my muse sticks around - a LOT. She loves to see me tiptoe downstairs to my computer at 2 AM, and pound out the words she generates in me. I really love the huge BUZZ a new rhyme or plot idea pumps through me: even in the early AM. However at 2 PM, when my eyelids droop known near my chin, I have a crazed urge to e-mail that #$% Muse, and give her a piece of my (yaw) mind.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
About six months.
Describe your working environment.
My writing den is our old family room: just off the kitchen. I started with a small table that had a much larger piece on marine plywood on top, so all my writing gear would fit on it. Later, dear husband put together a large U shaped desk, with cubbies, drawers, and lots of top shelves – pure heaven! Here, my computer reigns supreme. There’s a cozy wood fire, plus a comfortable sofa and chairs. Two windows onto the back gardens, and GroLux lights over wall shelves, for when I bring in tender plants to winter over.
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
Tweak as I go along.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I have had negative critiques that gave me a queasy stomach, plus a yen to bop someone on the nose. Fortunately, I resisted this urge. On second thoughts, the offending critique often proved right. So far, reviews for all of my books have been good to terrific. I would HATE a bad review. If we had a basement, I would probably lock myself down there and sulk.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
Never getting another book published.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
The theme of whatever book I am writing at the moment.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
No agent yet. So far, my agent search is a bust. It’s a toss up what’s the hardest – finding the right publisher, or finding the right agent. At the moment, I am going it alone.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
Only the fact that I write for a living – LIVING? ?? This is a living? Thank God for my supportive husband, and my many wonderful clients needing professional critiques.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most when writing? How do you tackle it?
My first page is always the hardest. I rework and rewrite that sucker umpteen times.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
Research to find a publisher. Visit their website and check out their current book list – does your book fit their list? Check their submission guidelines with care. Gather publishing information and editor news from sources like The Purple Crayon, The yearly
CWIM (Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market), and news that flows through the online lists you are on.
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
I am still learning the promotional ropes. Press Releases. My Blog, friend’s Blogs, interviews, and newspaper, TV, and radio interviews. School visits have proved a great income source, even when book sales are poor. I contact those whose business or themes fit with my book, and ask for reciprocal links, or even a book sales slot on their website, blog or store. Local stores. I am considering a Blog Tour. I look for new ways to promote my books every day.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Learn the craft of writing and stick with it.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Yes, I do: Margot Finke’s World of Writing for Children; “Rattlesnake Jam”; “Gran’s Kitchen – Rattlesnake Recipes to make Mom faint; Rattlesnake POLL – have you eaten rattlesnake? When, where, and why?
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
All are mid grades almost ready to go out and earn their keep:
Survival by Walkabout – 2 boy’s have adventures in the Aussie outback. The aboriginal Dreamtime plays a big part in this.
Taconi and Claude – Double Trouble – Aboriginal boy and his cockatoo have fun and dangerous times on an outback cattle station. The Dreamtime looms.
The Revenge of Thelma Hill – ghost mystery. A skeleton in the basement, and a ghost who wants someone to PAY!
Down-under Calling – a reluctant grandson is hooked by his grandmother’s letters from Australia. A mix of both their daily lives, plus letters back and forth between a grandmother and a grandson.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
A huge “thank you” to Mayra Calvani, for thinking up these awesome questions. She really made me stop and think.
Thanks, Margot! It was a pleasure to have you here!