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 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.
James Foley is a children’s author and illustrator, who has illustrated anthologies, written for anthologies and published several of his own books, including the current series, Toffle Towers, which was written by Tim Harris. So far, James hasn’t had to cancel or postpone any events yet. Yet getting the perspective of author-illustrators was something that interested me, and I wanted to expand this series to other authors as well if they were interested. It’s always interesting to hear the different stories behind the books and creations.
Hi James, and welcome to the Book Muse!
- You’re a writer and an illustrator – what came first – writing books, or illustrating?
When I was a kid I was always doing both. I was making little short stories, picture books and comics; they were two sides of the coin for me.
- Your new series is Toffle Towers – of which I have just ordered the first two. What is Toffle Towers about, and where did the idea come from?
Toffle Towers is about a 10yo boy called Chegwin Toffle who inherits a hotel. As the new manager, he has to find a way to bring in new customers or the hotel will close down and all the staff will lose their jobs. It’s written by Tim Harris and illustrated by me; I’m not exactly sure where Tim got the idea, but I know that the British comedy Fawlty Towers was an inspiration.
- Toffle Towers is aimed at middle grade readers – are all your books and series aimed at this age group, and if not, which ones are for younger or even older readers?
Some of my books are aimed at middle grade – definitely Toffle Towers, as well as my graphic novels series S.Tinker Inc. There are three books in that series so far: Brobot, Dungzilla and Gastronauts; the fourth is called Chickensaurus and is out this October. The series stars Sally Tinker, the world’s foremost inventor under the age of twelve, and follows her adventures in invention.
I’ve also done picture books for younger readers – The Last Viking, The Last Viking Returns, In The Lion – and a picture book for older readers called My Dead Bunny. The sequel to that, There’s Something About Lena, is out this October.
- You write graphic novels as well – is this more of a challenge than novels?
I wouldn’t know – I’ve never written a novel. A novel would be a bigger challenge for me because I’ve never written anything that long that was predominantly words. A graphic novel has its own challenges; there are just so many pictures to draw.
- Do you do your own illustrations in your work, or do you work with other illustrators, or both?
I’ve mostly worked as an illustrator for other authors. When I’ve been the author, I’ve always done my own illustrations.
- Toffle Towers 2 has just come out – did you have any events or launches planned around the release, or any events and appearances in general?
I know Tim did. Most of my gigs are booked for later in the year, and they’re mostly still booked (for now – fingers crossed).
- As a children’s author, I imagine school visits are important. Did you have to cancel any, and secondly, what do you enjoy about these visits?
I haven’t had to cancel any yet, but it might still happen- it depends if the social distancing restrictions are lifted by August. I enjoy being able to meet my audience, to encourage them to make their own stories, and to make up stories together – it’s so much fun.
- Many middle grade books now have illustrations – I think this is a really interesting trend, and not something I remember after I reached a certain age in my books – what do you think has driven this trend, and where did you first notice it?
I’ve no idea. It’s been a thing for a while now. I don’t have anything interesting to say on this question, haha
- Have you ever contributed to any anthologies, and what have these been?
Yes, I contributed to Total Quack Up in 2019, a fundraiser for Dymocks Children’s Charities; also Funny Bones in 2020, a fundraiser for War Child Australia.
- Have any of your books ever won any awards?
They’ve been nominated for a bunch; the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Book of the Year awards, the children’s choice awards, the Aurealis awards; I’ve had a book selected for the International Youth Library’s White Ravens List.
- Are there any literacy related charities you support, and what made you choose these ones?
I support Room To Read and Books In Homes Australia. Both aim to get books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise have access to them.
- You’ve worked with Disability in the Arts/Disadvantage in the Arts Australia (WA) – what was this experience like for you, and has working with places like this and Indigenous organisations informed your writing in any way?
It taught me that art is a great leveller; lots of people like to draw and paint when given the chance. It’s taught me to be grateful for my skills and to try to share them as much as possible.
- Apart from creating your awesome stories of course, what is your favourite thing about being a kid’s author?
Hearing from kids who really enjoyed your stories.
- Favourite illustration medium and method to work with?
I’m mostly working digitally these days – I use a Wacom cintiq digital display and Adobe Photoshop software. But if I’m working traditionally, I love some big sheets of paper and charcoal, and I also love pen and ink and watercolour.
- Favourite way of writing – pen and paper or tapping away at a keyboard?
Pen and paper first to get down ideas, then the keyboard to edit and finalise.
- What has SCWBI done to help you in your career?
Heaps. It’s been my support network, it got me my first gig, it helped me meet editors and publishers across Australia. It’s been absolutely vital.
- What has been your favourite writer’s festival?
They’ve all been great but a few have been extra special. I did Brisbane Writer’s Festival a few years ago and spoke to some massive crowds; I did the Whitsunday Voices Youth Literature Festival and spoke to some big crowds there too. I’ve done some great regional festivals in WA as well, including one in Geraldton – that included a little plane ride and an overnight stay at the Abrolhos Islands. And there was a little festival on Bruny Island in Tasmania – that was spectacular.
- Working in the arts, what has been something you have noticed about the importance of the arts for all ages, and the way people interact with the arts?
I’ve noticed that lots of adults say they can’t draw, ‘they can’t even draw a stick figure’. They can draw, they just need to learn how. I’ve noticed too that most primary school kids LOVE to draw, and when you can take them through a drawing step by step, they feel really proud. I think most people see drawing as some kind of magic skill, but when you teach people how to do it, you demystify it, and it gives them a great sense of achievement to be able to do it.
- You illustrated the Total Quack Up books – how did Adrian and Sally decide your style worked best for the stories?
I don’t know why they chose me – I’m glad they did though. It was a lot of fun and it led to me working on the Toffle Towers series.
- Finally, what have you been doing to help kids with isolation in terms of reading, literacy, fun and homeschooling?
I’ve been working with Littlescribe to provide some free online creative writing lessons. They’re on the Littlescribe facebook page and youtube channel. You can check those out here:
I’ve also done a session with my local indie bookshop, Paper Bird Children’s Books and Arts; it’s available on their youtube channel.
Any further comments?
Thank you James, and good luck with Toffle Towers!