Warrior Wednesday Interview Nicky Schmidt
I have been very excited to have this particular writer in my studio for a good ol’ natter. One of the reasons is that I have been following her interviews on her blog where she interviews writers on writing exceptionally well. So it was a real treat to put the interviewer in the hot seat so to speak. Another reason I have been excited about this interview is that Nicky has become a good online friend with the craziest and quirkiest sense of humour I know. With her photographer’s eye and a childlike imagination, she has a unique perspective on writing. She brought along her two writing friends, her beaded sheep and flying space duck, for the interview and as always packed her quirky sense of humour that never fails to have one smiling. Join us as we discuss squirrels, guinea fowl, photography and writing. Be warned your sense of humour will be tickled.
girl with a quill: Hi Nicky…Tell us a little about Nicky Schmidt and what made you into a writer. Well you answer, I will pour us a glass of lovely Merlot. I also have a slab of dark chocolate. I have heard you have a taste for these. Great minds think alike…
Nicky: Hi Kim, thanks for inviting me to be interviewed as a Wednesday Warrior on DragonFly Scrolls!
About me? Well, I’m a mongrel of decidedly mixed European heritage and live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, near the southern tip of the African continent, in a garden full of trees, squirrels and an abundance of guinea fowl!
girl with a quill: Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer? Do you remember your first story?
Nicky: I’ve written for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first play when I was about nine (called Little Girl Lost), set it on roller skates (thus predating Starlight Express by a more than a decade…!) and charged the neighbourhood kids five cents to watch it! I’m an only child and I spent my childhood living in my imagination with an assortment of imaginary friends. I think writing was an obvious outlet for too much imagination – though I do recall my mother complaining that I always killed my characters at the end of all the stories I wrote! I wrote (and illustrated) my first children’s story when I was an art student, as part of a calligraphy project. I was in my mid twenties when I first realised that one day, if I ever grew up, I wanted to write for children. That’s what I do now, though I’m not sure about having grown up…
girl with a quill: Your blog is called Absolute Vanilla. What inspired that name? Is it a creative philosophy or a favourite treat?
Nicky: Absolute Vanilla is the second blog I created and having learned some lessons from the first blog (a fictional blog written by an acerbic 5’4” alien chicken…), I wanted a name that was high up the alphabetic order so when it is listed it’s near the top of people’s blog rolls. (You can put this down to over 15 spent in marketing and communications!) That aside, I love vanilla. So a bit of juggling and Absolute Vanilla was born.
girl with a quill: You mention photography as another creative passion. Do you find your photography to be an inspiration for your writing and vice versa?
Nicky: For me photography provides a different way of seeing the world. When you look at life through the lens of a camera you see things in a purer and freer form, you see the beauty or the wonder of the thing you’re looking at in a highly focused way. I find photography to be an incredibly healing art form. Does it influence my writing? Only insofar as I guess one could say I look at the blank page with the same kind of focus with which I see through the camera lens, and that photography has taught me to look at the world in a different way.
girl with a quill: On your blog, you have done quite a bit of interviewing yourself. What 3 lessons have you learnt from Writers on writing?
Nicky: Read a lot!
Accept the voices living in your head and give them voice.
Be true to yourself and write the story you’re meant to write.
And a fourth one – accept that it’s very tough out there and you must have persistence and determination to succeed.
girl with a quill: Speaking of your blog, do you believe that blogging and having a social presence on the web is important to building a platform for your writing?
Nicky: Unquestionably! Social media is fundamental to the times in which we live. I would not be where I am if it weren’t for social media. I started with yahoo groups, then blogging, and then moved onto Facebook, Ning groups and Twitter. All these platforms have given me access to people and ideas without which I would not be where I am today – for example, being interviewed on your blog, or interviewing other authors with whom I’ve connected via Facebook and Twitter on my blog. So, social media has helped me get where I am, it’s helped me create a global network of contacts and it’s got me “out there” – where I’m told I have a persona which is somewhat larger than life…. “But you’re so small!” a group of online friends exclaimed when they met me at a conference last year. “We thought you’d be so much taller!” There you go, that’s part of the power of social networking!
girl with a quill: When you are not writing, which writers do you love to read? Why?
Nicky: I read mostly Young Adult fiction because that’s what I write. My favourite authors include Meg Rosoff, Kevin Brooks, Marcus Sedgwick and Gillian Philip – to name just a few. They stand out for me because a) they write superbly well b) they’re unafraid to tackle tough issues c) they write with strong and honest voices. For me a good story, well told, is deepened by a very real emotional voice with rich characterisation. It’s authors like these – and others like Candy Gourlay and Keren David – who inspire my writing and my writing journey.
girl with a quill: Who is your biggest influence in writing and why?
Nicky: Aside from what I’ve said above, I think I was inspired to write in the first instance my grandmother who was a wonderful storyteller. Sitting with her in her Austrian-themed dining room, with a pot of Ceylon tea and a pile of anchovy toast, she would weave the most wonderful tales of her life. In many ways, one might say she opened up the world of storytelling to me.
girl with a quill: Did you know what genre you wanted to write in from the beginning of your writing career? Or did you experiment with a few genres?
Nicky: I’ve always leant towards the fantasy genres, though I find that more recently I’ve moved from pure fantasy to something which is based in urban reality but has fantasy, magical realism or supernatural/paranormal elements. I guess it’s about weaving together the real with the mysterious – which is, I think, a reflection of life per se.
girl with a quill: Many writers use writing workshops and writing competitions to hone their craft. Have you attended any writing workshops / entered any writing competitions?
Nicky: In a nutshell, no – but only because they’re not accessible to me. I would need to travel to the US or the UK to attend the kind of courses I want to do – though, to that end, I do try to get the SCBWI-BI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – British Isles) annual conference whenever I can and, if I lived in the UK or US, I would unquestionably attend writing workshops and seminars. The one thing I have done (because I could do it via email) is to have a manuscript assessed by a literary consultancy. That was an incredible (and steep) learning curve and I would heartily advocate it.
girl with a quill: Tell us about the publishing process in South Africa. Do you need an agent or can you approach the publisher directly?
Nicky: I can’t tell you a huge amount about the publishing process in South Africa as I’m not looking to be published here. This is primarily because the South African publishing industry is small – representative of the reading population – and this is especially for children’s literature (remember the vast majority of South African children are impoverished, and books, sadly, are a luxury). Moreover, I’ve been told by the local publishers with whom I’ve been in contact that I write for an age group and in a genre and about subjects which are of no interest to South African publishers – they prefer novels that are South African based and which contain an African theme. I suppose this is driven by the fact that local booksellers would sooner import foreign books that already have a proven sales record and are guaranteed to sell, so publishers won’t take the risk of putting money into unknown local talent. That said, there is a reasonable market in children’s picture books and educational literature (provided it has an African theme). As for agents, there aren’t any here that I know of – mostly because local publishers prefer not to work with an agent – they would rather deal directly with an author.
girl with a quill: Tell us a little about your writing process…How do you start a story?
Nicky: With a blank page – or a blank computer screen! Usually I have a vague idea of what I want to write about, an idea will have come to me in some way and I will spend time letting it “compost” in my head. When I feel I and the story and the main character are ready (which is usually when the character starts prodding my brain a little over-eagerly) – then I just sit down and write. I often think of it as a “channelling” experience!
girl with a quill: Are you a panster or a plotter?
Nicky: I’m unquestionably a pantser! I love the adventure of seeing where a story will take me. I find plotting removes some of the “magic” of the creative process. I will acknowledge, however, that this approach does mean that I have to do lots of rewrites and edits and I do keep telling myself that I really should have a go at plotting, sort of, anyway!
girl with a quill: Writers can be superstitious people. Are you superstitious when it comes to your writing? Can you give us some examples if you are?
Nicky: Nope, not at all superstitious! But then I also don’t believe in things like writer’s block – which I know several of my author friends will argue with me about!
girl with a quill: Many published authors say that writing needs to be treated like any other job where you work for a set time every day. Do you have a set routine for your writing? Do you have a favourite time of day for your writing?
Nicky: I would like to see it that way, but it doesn’t always work like that – sometimes life just gets in the way. I find I write best in the morning and early evening. Unless I’m really on a roll with a story, I’m useless after lunch – so I use that time for doing other stuff – you know, all the admin related nonsense that so clutters our lives. I don’t really have a set routine, I just try to go with the flow. I believe that writing, like everything else, has rhythms and I try to respect those. If I don’t feel like writing, I don’t. If I need a break I take it. If I want to write for seven hours flat out, I do that (though this may mean that my lovely husband doesn’t get fed!). I’m not inclined to be rule bound but I do discipline myself. I set myself deadlines and I meet them. I try to go to the gym two to three times a week, I try to meditate daily. I make a point of getting away from my writing when it becomes too intense. It’s all about balance, being kind to and respecting yourself and the story and your characters. If I go too long without moving on with a story, my characters can become downright invasive and bullying!
girl with a quill: Describe your writing space for us.
Nicky: I have a study which I designed myself with a built in desk and bookshelves. It’s painted orange (it’s supposed to be a colour that inspires and motivates!) though the walls not covered in books are covered in pinboards and paintings and photographs. I’d describe it as a very vivid and friendly space. That said, I’m about to build a new house on the side of the mountain and in that the study will be a bit of an eyrie with big windows looking out over valley, mountains and sea.
girl with a quill: Do you belong to any writing groups and do you have a critique partner? Do you think writing groups or critique partners are important for writers? Why?
Nicky: I lead an online critique group which forms part of an initiative started by the SCBWI–BI chapter. There are eight of us and we support, encourage and nurture each other on our writing journeys. Take a look at my latest blog post by way of example! HYPERLINK “http://absolutevanilla.blogspot.com/2011/02/thank-you-ya-critique.html” http://absolutevanilla.blogspot.com/2011/02/thank-you-ya-critique.html
Although I’ve been involved with critique groups for several years, I initially fought joining one for a long time, but I have to say it was one of the best things I ever did. What I will say is that it is critical to find yourself the right group critique group – writers who are at the same level and better than you, people you can trust and for whom you have respect. And if a critique group isn’t right for you, leave it and find another, there is no point in being in a group in which you are not comfortable or in which you are not learning. A good critique group will do two things – one, you will learn why your own story is or isn’t working and how to address problems, and two, in critiquing the work of your peers you will develop your critical faculties, which you can then apply to your own work. It’s very much a two-way street and what people put into a critique group is what they will get out of it. But, and I can’t overstate this point; critique groups must be dominated by mutual trust and respect, and a good critique is kindly done and constructively critical – a critique should never demoralise or embarrass or hurt someone.
girl with a quill: What is more important to you: Story or Character? Why?
Nicky: Hmm, good question… I’m not really sure you can separate the two, I think both elements are critical in writing a good novel. I like to start with a strong character, as I believe my character often drives and informs the story. But the two work in tandem – and together with that other critical element, voice.
girl with a quill: I know that it is a bit like asking a mother who her favourite child is but, Do you have a favourite story from those you have written and can you tell us a little bit about it?
Nicky: Every story I work on is my favourite story, I genuinely can’t say I have one that stands out from the others, though, inevitably, whatever I’m working on at the moment is the “current” favourite.
girl with a quill: Who is your favourite character that you have created and why?
Nicky: I’m afraid the same sort of answer applies as above, though I did write a novel for younger children (9 – 12 years) several years ago that I’d really like to go back to because I so enjoyed the characters. It’s a fantasy, set largely in a fantasy world which gave scope for all sorts of weird and wonderful characters including a dragon, an owl and a Great Dane – who both spoke and had more views and attitude than your average opinion poll – and a pair of incorrigible gnomes.
girl with a quill: Are you working on any story now? Can you give us a peek into it?
Nicky: I’ve just finished a complete rewrite of an urban supernatural/magical realism novel for Young Adults. It’s currently out on submission so forgive me if I’m a bit cagey about it. Meanwhile, I have a new story composting in my head – so far I know the main character and the nub of the plot – for the rest there is a lot of staring out the window going on, often accompanied by frantic note taking. I am also doing some research – quantum physics is proving interesting…
girl with a quill: Who is your favourite character in the literary world and why?
Nicky: There are two: Hercule Poirot is one – simply because Agatha Christie gave him so many characteristics and so much life that he’s vivid – although, admittedly, something of a caricature.
The other is Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax – simply put, she’s a witch after my own heart – I mean, who doesn’t want to be adept at headology and be able to borrow another creature’s mind on occasion?!
girl with a quill: If you could throw a dinner party and invite 5 famous creative people, who would they be and why?
Nicky: I’m not sure I’d want a dinner party with 5 famous creative people; I suspect there would be way too much ego around the table! Instead, I’d rather invite a huge group of my children’s writer pals to a soiree!
girl with a quill: If you could throw a dinner party and invite 5 of your favourite fictional characters, who would they be and why?
Nicky: I think the guest list would very much depend on my mood at the time and the kind of party I wanted. But to be completely frivolous, let me say, Hercule Poirot, Granny Weatherwax, Bertie Wooster (he would of course bring Jeeves), Gandalf and Vlad Dracul. I suspect I’d then sit back and watch the mayhem unfold. I can tell you that already multiple creative outcomes are flitting up from my imagination!
girl with a quill: If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of your writing career, what would it be?
Nicky: Try astrophysics instead – it’s probably easier.
Accept that you’re not as good as you think you are and set to work improving. Everyone thinks they can write (I was a copywriter and a scriptwriter in a previous life) but actually, most people can’t write and fewer people can write a really good story, especially a children’s story.
girl with a quill: What is the one piece of writing advice you could give your future self, 10 years from now?
Nicky: Learn, always learn – observe and grow all the time – be savvy, stay in touch with the world and stay creative.
girl with a quill: What do you want your lasting legacy, as a writer, to be?
Nicky: I don’t really care about creating a lasting legacy – I just want to tell a good story and tell it well. If it touches someone’s life, that’s wonderful. If a legacy is created from that, great – but since I probably won’t be around to know about it, it doesn’t really matter. To my mind, the desire to create a lasting legacy is fundamentally an ego-based illusion. The important thing in the here and now is to honour the story – and yourself – in the process of creation.
I am on Facebook but I manage my connections there quite tightly.
And you’ll find some of my photos on Flickr at HYPERLINK “http://www.flickr.com/photos/absolutevanilla” http://www.flickr.com/photos/absolutevanilla
And a note to your readers – please don’t confuse me with the chicklit author who uses my name as her nom de plume! Or the Danish musician, who is male.
Thank you for a truly entertaining interview Nicky. Thank you also for coming such a long way from your lovely writing place to visit with me in mine. You are welcome to visit anytime. Now it looks like we need a top up of wine and I think I have some dessert somewhere. Vanilla Ice-Cream? In honour of your visit. Excuse us readers well we adjourn to enjoy our dessert…Mmmhh Absolute Vanilla…Absolute Nicky Schmidt…
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