1. What is your debut book and what inspired its story?
My debut book is a picture book titled ‘Hide & Seek Hippo’. It’s a story about how we can always find things in common and about the importance of friendship.
The idea was sparked back when I was teaching in Kenya and helping out occasionally at an orphanage. One day I was tickling a little boy who’d had a pretty traumatic life so far and yet he was giggling in exactly the same way that any child does – carefree and lit up. It got me thinking – we are all the same in so many ways, no matter our backgrounds. That, combined with many of the very human sounds of the wildlife in the African bush, sowed the seeds. (It’s so worth googling the sound of a hippo, a zebra or a hyena – they aren’t laughing, but they really sound as though they are!)
2. Do you write one specific genre or are you a multi genre author?
I write children’s stories, but not just picture books and not in any one genre. Right now I am about to start working very hard to re-write a YA novel that was longlisted for Undiscovered Voices in 2016 and has been in a drawer ever since! I also have a completed MG manuscript and at least a dozen picture books on the go – one of which is hitting the planning table next month as the second story to be illustrated and published (probably out in early 2020 given the rate this year is disappearing!). It’s all about a little boy who is afraid of his own shadow!
3. Do you have a favourite character that you have penned to life and why is this your favourite character?
From my picture book? Well, it has to be Hippo, of course!
In my novel, Sas – one of the sisters who are the protagonists of my dystopian future set in the midst of an African peace experiment. She is a fabulously feisty and layered character who is so full of conflicts and yet so brave. I love being her as I write.
4. Are there any close friends/ family who have proven to be a pillar of support to you in your writing?
Far too many to mention! My amazing sister and brother, Damien, super supportive friend, Emily, Sue and Rosie from back when I first started, plus countless published writers who’ve given me their time and expertise (Sara Grant, Sarah Alexander, PM Freetsone to name a few) and of course, most recently, Lauren Patterson! I’ve been so lucky – from old friends and family members who are prepared to read and comment, through to new contacts from writing events or retreats and even friends of friends. It’s amazing how many people will reach out a hand of support if you ask. I’m also stunned by how generous people have been in their support since the book has been published.
5. What are you currently working on?
We’ve just turned Hide & Seek Hippo into a musical and put it on at a local theatre complete with Maasai narrator, a ‘Hippopotamus where did you go’ rap, African drumming and a giant elephant!
It was so much fun and was sold out every night. Actually we launched a video promo on our Facebook page so that a nominated school can win a package that includes the script (there’s still time to enter! ).
Our next picture book is currently being thumbnailed ready for next stage edits and artworking. I love the whole process, it is absolutely magical to see your words brought to life by a talented artist.
And then there’s the YA novel which I’m really excited about working on again. It’s taken me three years to wrangle with some of the plot knots and problems, but I think I am ready.
Oh, and my little family of four is also moving country, again, so that’s going to take up a bit of time!
6. What has been your greatest challenge as an author thus far and how are you dealing/have dealt with it?
Self belief. No question. It’s so hard when there are so many talented people out there doing so many amazing things. But the thing about writing, for me, is that no matter how many times I get knocked down, I just can’t help coming back for more. I am constantly learning and it consistently fills me with joy to play with words, to weave a story, but also to talk to readers, to talk about reading and writing and the psychology of stories. I am an addict!
7. How do you deal with criticism and how has it helped you as a writer?
Actually, I have learned to love it. It either forces me to stand up for something I feel strongly about, or (far more frequently) something chimes its truth in my head and I think ‘oh my goodness, how did I not see this before and how can I fix it now?’. The only time I hate it is when I know someone is right but cannot see the way to fixing it – that’s partly why my YA novel has stayed in a drawer for so long, but after so long I think I may have the answer and now I’m itching to write again!
8. How has social media helped in promoting and marketing your books?
I struggle a little with social media as I hate the possibility that people are judging you as this or that and not realizing that you are essentially a good person doing your best! When you try to take on a public persona there is an inevitably fake element that I find awkward, however I am doing it bravely! And there is definitely part of the process I have really enjoyed. I read a great book on building writer platform and that helped me get started so now I have my website (www.melissakay.co.uk ) where the book can be bought (it’s also on amazon.co.uk), a regular blog (https://beingmelissakay.wordpress.com ), and then, for now, the focus is on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/yawnsandgiggles/) and Instagram (melissakayvalente). I really need to get onto Twitter, but I think right now @yawnsandgiggles has all of three followers!
As a result of all the support and activity I have been invited to various schools in Africa and also in Hong Kong and China where I was guest author for literary week which was an incredible experience. Also, thanks to social media, we have very nearly sold out of our first edition and are looking at a second print run to fulfill orders for next month!
9. When writing your novel which aspect of the writing process do you find to be the most challenging?
Editing. But I now recognize its value and am improving my skills. It turns out the first draft is NEVER a masterpiece, no matter how good you feel when you type that last full stop!
10. How do you measure success as a writer/ author?
In so many ways. I guess for me it’s a balance of business and heart. If I can pay my way to spending my time doing what I love then it’s successful. But I do hold an image to work towards in my head – that of one day being invited to talk about one of my books (notethe plural!) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival (as that’s where I grew up) and the Hay Festival (just because its so cool). It’s good to have dreams and goals!
11. What short term and/or long term goals have you set?
Oh, whoops, I just answered that I suppose – clearly these questions are well constructed in their flow! Other goals are definitely to find an agent I can build a long term relationship with and get the next books out there.
12. Do you have any upcoming book releases or events?
I am speaking at a Story club next week, visiting schools within Tanzania including going back to one where I use to work for their Prize night and also working on book 2, but no more big events for now (thank goodness – last month was China and the theatre show all in the space of three weeks, so I’m due a brief respite!) but lots more big things to come I hope.
13. What are your favourite book(s) and/or author(s)?
Louis Sachar’s Holes is just wonderful, as is Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses. And I love Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful too. I think that Jon Klassen and Rachel Bright are picture book geniuses (and of course the amazing Julia Donaldson, that goes without saying), but I also love the classics – old leather bound versions of Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Black Beauty are on the shelf in front of me right now!
14. What advice would you give to other Indie Authors or those who are thinking of writing?
Go for it. But don’t rush. Enjoy the journey. Learn all you can and make sure that what you finally commit to print is something you are truly proud of. Also, think carefully about what you want to do yourself and what you want your publisher to do on your behalf, where you need advice and where you can lead the way. I am writing a series on my blog right now about publishing your own picture book – if that’s you, part 3 (of at least 12 planned posts) is due to go out soon, while 2 are there. Go to beingmelissakay/wordpress.com and check out the ‘for writers’ section.
In the meantime, thanks for reading.
Oh and let me leave you with a laugh…
Connect with Author Melissa Kay:
And there’s more…!
Have a look at some more Amazing photos shared by Author Melissa Kay. To see more, why not connect with her by clicking the links above.
The next four pics show Melissa Kay doing/about to do a series of presentations – from preschool discussions on how friendship can cross borders through to guidance for 18 year olds on how to get their stories published and tips for parents on encouraging reading and making bedtime stories a magical part of their daily routine (as opposed to another chore!)