Booksquawk interviews Lari Don, author of “The Tale of Tam Linn”, “Girls, Goddesses and Giants” and “First Aid for Fairies and Other Fabled Beasts”
Interview by Hereward L.M. Proops
Booksquawk: Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Lari Don: I am a children’s writer, brought up in the North East of Scotland, now living in Edinburgh with my family. So far I’ve written picture books, adventure novels, collections of myths and legends, and now a teen thriller (Mind Blind) as well. If I had a coherent career plan, I would probably focus on one distinct age group, but I can’t help myself – I love stories too much, so when I find a tale I want to tell, or start imagining a story I want to follow to the end, I have to share it with the right age for that story. So I suspect I will always lack a bit of focus, and just fire stories out in all directions!
Booksquawk: You write for both young children and teenagers. Which audience do you prefer to write for? Have you ever considered writing for adults?
Lari Don: I started writing for adults. I started writing literary short stories, and got a handful published and won a prize (the Canongate Prize in 2001). But once I had an idea for a children’s novel (First Aid For Fairies And Other Fabled Beasts) and started playing with magic and dragons and adventures, I started enjoying myself so much that I haven’t written a word for adults since. Writing for children is much more fun! I love writing for all ages of children, but the heart of my writing is the novels I write for 8-12 year olds.
Booksquawk: How did you make the transition from being a writer to a full-time author? Was it a difficult move to make?
Lari Don: I had already stopped paid work to be a full-time parent, and I started writing seriously in the gaps when my kids were little (the gaps generally being once they were in bed at night) so when my younger daughter started school, I just didn’t go back to a ‘proper’ job. I took the decision to see whether or not ‘stories’ could be a job. And with a combination of storytelling (passing on traditional tales orally) and writing, I have almost managed to make a living for the last seven years. The hours are long and the pay is short… but it is the best job in the world!
Booksquawk: What do you think of the state of the publishing industry at the moment?
Lari Don: I worry about the future of bookshops, because knowledgeable and passionate booksellers are so important. I worry about the future of publishers too, because I know that a good editor can improve any book. I worry about the future of printed books, because a book in the hand is something very special. But in my most optimistic moments, I’m not that worried about the future of writers, because I believe people will always need stories, and stories are what we do. I think book buyers have to decide what kind of books and what form of publishing industry they want. If they want cheap self-published e-books recommended by a computer algorithm, then eventually that’s all that will be on offer. Personally, I still buy real books from real booksellers in real bookshops, and I also love working with my editors, so I hope bookshops, paper books and publishers do survive and thrive. But it’s all up to the people who buy books!
Booksquawk: “The Tale of Tam Linn” is a wonderful re-telling of an old folk tale. What attracted you to the story and are there any other old ballads that you would like to tackle?
Lari Don: I’ve known the story of Tam Linn for years, because my mum’s family come from the Borders. And it was one of the first old Scottish tales I worked with in my fiction – I used it as the inspiration and background for some of the scenes and plotlines in First Aid For Fairies and in Wolf Notes. As well as bouncing fiction off it, I love telling Tam Linn straight to audiences. It is both my favourite Scottish story and my favourite fairy tale, so when Floris asked me which story I’d like to write for their Traditional Tales series, this was the story I most wanted to do. I am aware that Tam Linn is a ballad as well as an oral tale, but that’s not really how I met it or how I work with it. As far as I can tell, most Border ballads are fairly adult in content, so I’m not sure I will be working with any others. Tam Linn is the one which holds the most magic for me, and I hope I’ll work with Tam Linn and Janet and their story again.
Booksquawk: Philip Longson's artwork for "The Tale of Tam Linn" is marvelous. Did you have much input in the look of the book?
Lari Don: No, I didn’t. It was quite nerve-wracking waiting to see what an artist would do with this story that I love so much. But I needn’t have worried. Philip’s style is perfect for the story, bringing all the enchantment and darkness I could have wished for. In my experience, writers aren’t that involved in choosing or briefing illustrators. There is a brilliant blog post about how the artist and designer work together on the look of the book (with some great early roughs for Tam Linn), and this blog makes it clear how little the writer has to do with the look of a book. I can’t take any credit for it!
Booksquawk: Which of your books are you most proud of?
Lari Don: The simple and honest answer is that I’m proud of them all, in different ways. But that’s a bit of a cop out! First Aid For Fairies was my first book, so I’m really proud it got published at all. Everything else I’ve written comes from that. And I am really pleased with how Maze Running rounded the whole Fabled Beasts Chronicles series off – I know some readers didn’t want me to end the series, but I felt I wanted to give those characters and that world a good send off. In terms of other novels, the characters in Rocking Horse War surprised me the most (always a healthy thing) and the darkness of Mind Blind (my first book for Young Adults) was a challenge, so I’m delighted that it seems to have worked for readers. In terms of picture books, Tam Linn is the most gorgeous, and The Big Bottom Hunt the most embarrassing for my family, both of which make me happy. Of the collections of myths and legends that I’ve written, I will probably always be proudest of the collection of heroine tales, Girls Goddesses and Giants, a book I wrote for my daughters and for everyone else who needs to discover the strong heroines in old stories. And I was privileged to collect my favourite Scottish stories (including a different version of Tam Linn) in Breaking the Spell, so that book reflects much of the magic that inspires my other books. But I have to stress, I am proud of every book I put my name to - I write because I love it, and I don’t write books I don’t love! (So now I feel bad about all the books I haven’t just mentioned…)
Booksquawk: What inspires you?
Lari Don: Everything, all the time! I have so many ideas and so little time… But I am most often and most fruitfully inspired by old stories, new questions and my daughters.
Booksquawk: What are your favourite books / authors?
Lari Don: When I was young, I loved books by Diana Wynne Jones, CS Lewis and Roger Lancelyn Green. In the last 10 years I have loved books by Neil Gaiman and Rick Riordan, and recently I’ve been really enjoying books by Maggie Stiefvater and Jonathon Stroud.
Booksquawk: Have you anything in the pipeline that you'd like to tell us about?
Lari Don: I hope to be working on another picture book with the same team at Floris Books, retelling another Traditional Tale, but if that comes off, it won’t be published for a year or so. My biggest and most exciting job at the moment is another 8-12yrs adventure (I was writing the big fight scene this weekend…) but again, publication of that is a long way off. However, I have just finished a book - a collection of shape-shifter stories, with Bloomsbury, and it should be out this autumn. It’s (currently) called Serpents and Werewolves, Tales of Animal Shapeshifters From Around the World, and it has been great fun to work on. I’m looking forward to sharing it with readers soon!
Hereward L.M. Proops