Children’s author Roderick O’Grady talks to me about his debut novel and his future writing career.
Tell me about how your debut book Bigfoot Mountain. Why do you think readers will enjoy it?
It’s about a young girl of 12, who recently lost her mum, living with her step dad in a remote cabin, at the foot of a mountain range, near the sea in the Pacific Northwest of North America. One day she and her friend Billy find four HUGE footprints in the woods… Her stepfather Dan thinks its hoaxers but Minnie thinks she knows better. She and Dan are struggling emotionally- he is withdrawn and grief-stricken, whilst she is very sad but feels compelled to keep busy.
The events that transpire in the woods and around their cabins help them become closer and help them deal with their grief. I think readers will enjoy that it alternates between what Minnie discovers- sometimes with Billy, sometimes with Dan, sometimes alone, and events from a young Sasquatch’s point of view. He’s been watching the humans. Their stories begin to intertwine. I’ve created a community of Sasquatches who have had to move over to this side of the mountain due to forest fires and as guardians of the forest have to manage the wildlife that has also fled the fire and is crowding the mountain slopes. The story is about seeking balance, understanding the rhythms of nature and, ultimately, it’s about love and connection.
What is your career background and how did you get into writing?
I used to be an actor when I lived in New York but gave it up on my return to London as I had children to support. After 18 years I returned to an acting career, at the age of 56. When I was ‘resting’ between acting jobs I decided to write a story revolving round a magically beautiful forest where large bipedal hominids roam… The only writing I had done before was having a go at writing film screenplays, none of which ever saw the light of day. I wrote a road-movie, a time travel comedy, a New York based romantic drama, a thriller based in the world of building contractors and the Russian mafia, a period tale of an escaped female slave busting a people-trafficking and smuggling ring on the Devon coast in 1750. It was good practice in some ways though, as I learned about creating snappy dialogue, making it specific to the character in tone and rhythm and learned how to create a overall tone for a scene; the ‘exposition’ in screenwriting terms.
Also structure is hammered in to novice screenwriters as absolutely key if you’re writing a ‘commercial’ movie. So that practice all helped hugely. It also made me a very visual writer and I think served me well in writing the novel. I always doubted that I could write enough, that I could come up with enough story and was very pleasantly surprised when it came in at 47 thousand words. I didn’t really plot the book, I just let it flow. The sequel has a more complicated plot though and that took a lot of work. But this first one, Bigfoot Mountain is a linear story told from two perspectives. It required much research- on Sasquatches (I’ve read many books by interested scientists and so-called researchers) but also on the flora and fauna of the area, which I loved doing.
As a new author who’s just got their debut published, what are your thoughts on the industry currently? How can it become more accepting to new authors such as yourself?
I was surprised and naïve on entering the profession- there are SO many children’s’ novels being published every month! I had no idea how hard it is to make a living from writing. And I wasn’t expecting to have to engage on social media so much in order to make the book ‘discoverable’. It’s out on 29th of April so I am busy engaging on social media and actually I’m looking forward to visiting schools, and independent bookshops. I will be introducing myself and bribing the shop staff, with biscuits, to do a special Bigfoot Mountain window display!
On the subject of the publishing industry, I’m encouraged that many literary agents allow submissions to be sent in, as finding an agent is so hard these days, but it takes a lot of digging and questioning to get the bottom of what a publisher will actually be doing for the author, with the work, in the process of getting the book to market. Children’s publishing is different from adult literature too and getting one’s head round it all requires a novice writer to find the right people of whom to ask the right questions. I don’t know any writers or anyone in the business so it’s been a long and interesting journey.
What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?
To relax I dabble in thrillers and books about the environment- rarely do the two genres meet… perhaps that’s a gap in the market! I love children’s classics- Varjak Paw by SF Said and of course Pax by Sara Pennypacker. I finished and admired Overstory by Richard Powers recently, which is about trees, beautifully written and with engaging multiple story lines. These writers inspire me to try harder, and to take more time over my prose, in order to describe the natural world to the best of my ability.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I enjoy Patrick O’Brien for a rollicking sea-faring yarn and would love to plot a story with him though he is sadly no longer with us. His work reminds me how important well developed characters are. I enjoyed the charm and simplicity of AA Milne’s writing and I would have liked to maybe come up with more characters, in that series. Again, Milne worked with well-developed characters.
Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?
I am planning to write a third book in the series. I finished the sequel, during Lockdown One but am not sure when that’s going to be published.
Where do you see your literary career going? What would you like to achieve over the coming years?
I would like to write more books for young people. And I would like to write for the screen- how that will manifest I’m not sure. But with children’s books which I really love writing now that I’ve had a go at it with Bigfoot Mountain, I try to make my characters fun to spend time with- it’s important that they be spirited, positive and funny, like children are inclined to be naturally. I think if characters in a story can be daring, kind, fun, and determined, it’s helpful to young readers. I try to write memorable scenes, and exciting profound moments that will hopefully stay with the reader.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?
I feel like I’m distinctly behind the curve with new writers and really just want to browse in some bookshops and talk to the staff about exciting new writers. Staff in independent book shops always have good advice and are usually up to speed on new works. That will happen hopefully from April 12th this year when ‘nonessential shops’ can reopen! Hoorah! Personally I think bookshops are essential retail…
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I really hope young people and their older siblings, their parents and teachers all enjoy Bigfoot Mountain and take on board the message about understanding the bigger picture; that we are all connected, through the earth, through the energy in the earth passing through plants, rivers, seas, and animals, and that we must learn to respect and love our natural world.
Thanks to Roderick for answering my questions: I love a good children’s book about nature so I’ll be interested to check out your debut!