Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Aleesah Darlison is the author of League of Llamas – a series of four books aimed at younger readers that has come out this year during the months of the pandemic. She’s had to cancel launches and all kinds of author appearances in the wake of the pandemic. She appears here to discuss her series, llamas and animals in writing.
Hi Aleesah and welcome to the Book Muse! (thanks for having me!)
- Like many of my participants, you write for children – what attracted you to writing for children more than adults, and which age group do you primarily write for?
I didn’t consciously start out writing for children. I think I eventually gravitated to the genre because I had young children of my own, and because my inner child needed to express herself! One day when I grow up, I might spread my wings and write for adults too. My favourite age groups to write for are 3 – 5 year olds with picture books then 6 – 12 year olds with chapter books and junior fiction.
- Where did the idea for League of Llamas come from, and was it a conscious decision to only write four books?
Several of my kids and their friends were obsessed with llamas and we started talking about them one day, bouncing ideas off each other until we came up with the concept of llama secret agents. Once I had that initial seed, I worked with it, developing characters and plots designed to make kids laugh out loud – it’s all about engagement factor, after all! League of Llamas, or LOL, for short works in with that idea. I did consciously develop ideas for four books and that’s what I pitched to my publisher, Penguin Random House. Four is my favourite number and it’s neat and tidy! I have plenty of other ideas for additional stories, so we can always add more.
- Llamas as secret agents sounds like it would be a lot of fun to read and write – what is it about llamas that you think is so funny?
Writing about llamas doing secret agent business and other silly things was so much fun! I often gave myself (and my editor) a giggle with the stories. I just loved working on these books. My llamas are stand-out characters – they have strong personalities and do naughty things. They’re giddy at times, they have great camaraderie, they have some admirable qualities but also they have many, many faults.
The llama main characters (Phillipe, Lloyd, and Elloise) are all convinced of their own positive attributes, but they’re not so good at recognising their faults, their foibles, and their idiosyncrasies. Being completely oblivious means they have no inhibitions and no boundaries. They don’t hold back so they can be entirely themselves, which tends to create rather hilarious moments.
- Following on from that – are llamas effective secret agents, and could our spy agencies utilise them as well as humans?
Absolutely! My llamas can create the best disguises (Phillipe goes undercover as a giraffe), Lloyd is unwavering in his loyalty to his fellow secret agents (he’s as cool as a cucumber under pressure – although he is ruled by his stomach and LOVES donuts), and Elloise is a force to be reckoned with (you have to watch her side-kicks and karate chops). Singularly, they may be vulnerable, but as a team they’re unstoppable!
- You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults – what are the most common themes and characteristics you find appearing in each book?
There’s usually an animal or two or three (or more!) in my stories. My favourite things as a child were books and animals, so I guess it’s natural that I write about animals now that I’m grown up, well, sort of … I get to combine my two great loves and have fun doing it. This all means that I’m well-known for my stories that feature animals and the environment, as well as child self-empowerment, unicorns … and llamas, of course!
- Which animals are the most fun to turn into a character of some kind, and why?
All of them! There are so many adorable animals out there just waiting to be written about. As authors, we have an endless supply of potential characters in our animal friends.
- Animals are a common aspect in books for children – for both fiction and non-fiction. As a kid’s author and parent, what do you think draws children into books about and featuring animal characters?
Many animal species are familiar to children, so they have a sense of comfort and connection with them from the moment they open a book. Some are super cute and disarming too, a fact that’s helped along by how talented illustrators depict their subjects. I challenge anyone to resist a baby panda or koala or llama? It’s impossible!
- Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic did you have any launches, events, and appearances planned that had to be cancelled, and what were they for?
Oh, yes! Before the release of my League of Llamas Series, I’d been working for months to create numerous events and activities. The series was even featuring at a festival launch where we were going to have real live llamas for people to meet. I had bookings for to present League of Llamas workshops and talks at multiple festivals, schools, and libraries across Australia. Basically, I had five months’ worth of events and tours that had to be rescheduled. There was so much work put into setting up these events, then there was more work involved in rescheduling, and now there will be more work again in re-confirming and running those events once we defeat COVID. It’s been a challenge to say the least.
- What is, or are, your favourite things about school visits, and why these in particular?
It’s always the kids. They’re amazing and so full of fun and joy. They’re always eager, friendly, and welcoming. Seriously, it’s one of the perks of the job to be able to work with kids.
- Do your kids inspire any of your stories and characters, and in what way?
All the time. Either with silly, funny, or clever things that they do or say and which I then translate some way into a book. Otherwise, it might be with ideas and information about things that they like that could form the basis of a story or character. Kids think in the most imaginative ways and come up can often come up with things that you just wouldn’t think of as an adult.
- You write series and stand-alone books – what are the challenges for each one, and which do you find the easiest to write, or at least, to get started on?
Each book has its own challenges. Sometimes a stand-alone story will simply flow onto the page, sometimes you have to push. With a series you need unique stories with the same characters so it can be tricky to maintain stamina over the long haul. Series are a lot of work because you’re often writing and editing multiple instalments at once and to multiple tight deadlines. Plus, you have to keep track of everything to ensure you’re not repeating yourself. Planning is paramount, so I’d suggest that if you really don’t like planning your stories that you don’t tackle a series.
- How far have you gone to research something for one of your books, and what has been the most interesting thing you’ve uncovered so far?
When I was first starting out, I was really into historical novels and went a long way towards writing two manuscripts (one biographical, one fiction). These manuscripts are yet to see the light of day as I still haven’t gotten them quite right. I’d go to the NSW State Library almost every day or night researching on microfiche and old newspapers, digging up court documents and purchasing birth certificates and war records from the archives (which I still have). Historical novels are a huge amount of work! It was fascinating reading the court transcripts to a case that involved one of the real-life people I was writing about. Those transcripts showed so much of the reality of the world these people lived in and their personalities and back stories. It wasn’t just about the court case – it was their own relationships and personal interactions, the social mores of the time, and the prejudices people actually held and honestly believed they had a right to feel.
- You love llamas – would you enjoy having one as a writing companion, or would something like a cat or a dog be easier?
I’ve seen that people use llamas as yoga companions … so maybe they would work as a writing companion too. I’ve visited a lot of llama farms, so I have been up close and personal with them. If I had one of my own, I’m sure they’d make for great writing inspiration … but they would be tricky fitting in a house. So, I guess I’d have to go with a dog. I’ve had dogs as pets for years and they’ve always stuck by me with my writing. My current dog, Lexie, has a bed under my desk and she spends most days there if I’m writing.
- With each picture book, you seem to have worked with a different illustrator – how has that process worked with each book and illustrator?
Publishers choose the illustrator for a project and each story has a different feel or essence so requires a different style of illustration. Sometimes, I can suggest illustrators, but usually the publisher has a firm idea or preference for who they would like to work with on a project. Sometimes, I’ve known and met the illustrator. Sometimes, I’ve never met them or spoken to them. Illustrator choice often isn’t up to the author, it’s up to the publisher so authors tend to run with it. So far, it’s always worked out well for me!
- You also have two series for younger readers – Little Witch and Unicorn Riders – are there more books planned for these series?
No, those series are a little older now. Unicorn Riders was my second series (after Totally Twins) so came out about ten years ago. There are eight books in that series so while I thought I’d explored the unicorn stories in quite a bit of depth, I would have loved to create a companion series called Griffin Riders and based in one of the neighbouring kingdoms. Maybe one day I’ll get back to that idea!
- Are there any new series or stand-alone books planned for the future, or is there anything in the works right now?
I have ideas for other series that I’m currently developing, but – most exciting – is that my publisher, Penguin Random House, recently accepted a new picture book series from me so that will keep me busy for the next few years. We’ve currently got four books planned for that series, so I need to get cracking with the writing!
- I ask a question like this to as many people as possible – how do you think the arts will be impacted due to the pandemic, and what can people do to help?
From what I’ve seen and heard, many creatives have lost presentation work, which really supports us more than book royalties. On top of that, they’ve lost launch opportunities and book sales because book stores have had to close or don’t have any foot traffic due to self-isolation and lockdown restrictions. Then you have the potential for publishing contracts and new releases to be stalled or cancelled altogether. I haven’t heard much on that front yet, but it may happen.
The other impact is that, although many people have found themselves at home more and you’d think this means more writing time, the worry and stress of the virus or of losing income has depleted any ability to focus on creativity. Many authors like myself also have children who need to be home schooled, so we’re busier than ever before, but not with our writing.
There have been many negative impacts of COVID on the writing industry, as there have been for many industries. I think the main thing to focus on is that the restrictions and ‘hibernation’ won’t last forever and that if we can stay healthy and well, then we can pick ourselves up and carry on. Hopefully soon. And hopefully without losing too many talented creatives to the virus.
Social media and Zoom have been lifesavers in keeping us connected and supporting one another. The Australian children’s writing industry is a tight-knit group, so those connections are helping many us hang in there.
- Do you have a favourite local bookseller, and why this one in particular?
I’ve been supported by many booksellers over my career, so they’re all absolutely wonderful, they’re the life-blood of our industry. They work so hard! If I could name a few Sunshine Coast local ones it would be QBD Kawana, Harry Hartog Maroochydore, Annie’s Books on Peregian, Pages & Pages Noosa, and The Little Book Nook in Palmwoods.
- When not writing, what do you enjoy doing or reading?
I have a penchant for detective and crime stories and also Stephen King! I do tend to read a lot of children’s books too and I’m a sucker for a clever picture book.
- Finally, will there be more League of Llamas books for younger readers to enjoy?
Absolutely! Books 3 and 4 come out on 3 July. If kids and parents want to grab copies, they can order via www.penguin.com.au or they can visit QBD, Harry Hartog, and other booksellers OR purchase online at Amazon or Booktopia. Go the llamas!
Anything I may have missed?
That’s it, thanks so much Ashleigh!