Creatives in profile - interview series

Creatives in profile: interview with Addy Farmer

We may be in the middle of a global crisis, but there’s nothing in the rulebook to say you can’t carry on interviewing people during a worldwide pandemic.

In fact, the lockdown has made it more important than ever to stay creative and connected. Addy Farmer is a children’s author and the chair of the North Lincolnshire Literary Trust. She lends her insight into children’s writing to app developers, consulting on story arcs and narrative software. She also offers feedback on manuscripts via her website: www.addyfarmer.com

As a response to the coronavirus epidemic, Farmer – with fellow award-winning children’s authors – launched My Corona Diarya project to encourage young people to keep diaries throughout the Coronavirus Crisis. The aim is to build an online archive and ultimately publish an anthology that can become part of the historic record of a time that changed the world forever.

NITRB caught up with Addy to find out about the project, her writing and how the pandemic has changed her creative life. 

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about yourself. Where do you live? What’s your background/lifestyle?

FARMER

I live in a small town called Crowle in the middle of the North Lincolnshire countryside. It’s very flat around here; there are big skies and you can see for miles. It’s a great place to walk, think and make shapes out of the clouds (I am a fully paid up member of the Cloud Appreciation Society). From my house, I can walk down a road bordered by farmland and in fifteen minutes reach Crowle Moors: an ancient peat land, once industrialised and now a place of birdsong and a kind of rough beauty. On a warm day, it is life-enhancing. I think myself lucky, especially at the moment, because I live in the countryside, in a house with a big, messy garden. I’m not a gardener but I am a very keen potterer which is also a good way of Not Writing when I should Be Writing. I also run a bed and breakfast. 

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love or do you have another passion?

FARMER

I write in the morning and sort out any admin, workshop preparation, bed and breakfast business and volunteer stuff in the afternoon. My creative workshops are with festivals or with organisations like Landscape Partnership and ReWild. They’re mostly outdoors, which I love. I am a volunteer network co-ordinator for the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and this means that I help organise meetings and workshops for our region – it’s a wonderful thing to do because it brings writers and artists together in what can be a rather lonely line of work. I love to connect with people and organisations because making connections can lead anywhere! 

I am basically a jobbing author and will work on children’s writing related content. I have, for example, developed a story world for a start-up company and, recently, I worked with a brilliant education company called PANJANGO, helping to create story arcs for their app. I am very interested in exploring children’s writing in other media especially children’s theatre. The amazing Rhubarb Theatre in Lincoln has adapted two of my picture books for performance; watching and taking part in those productions was fascinating. Seeing children’s immediate reactions to the story was brilliant. For me, it’s all about trying to live the creative life.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your new project, ‘My Corona Diary.’ Why do you think it’s important?

FARMER

It is the brainchild of my amazing friend and fellow writer, Kathryn Evans. She began it as a creative response to the outbreak. She wanted to give children from littlies to teens, the opportunity to respond to the lockdown. She wanted children to know that what they had to say was truly important. We hope to curate these responses and bring together a book at the end of the pandemic. You can find out more information about it at www.ourcoronadiary.com

INTERVIEWER

How has the pandemic changed your creative career? 

FARMER

Inevitably, the bed and breakfast and workshops side of things has completely dried up but I have channelled that time into more writing and helping out with this rather wonderful new project, Our Corona Diary. 

INTERVIEWER

As well as writing, you’ve also worked as a teacher. What is it like balancing a career in writing and a demanding profession?

FARMER

I moved out of London and ran a bookshop in the Midlands before settling in North Lincolnshire and starting a teaching career in primary and special education. I also had three amazing children with one brilliant husband. I no longer formally teach but the experience was invaluable when I started running workshops in schools. Interacting with children was always the best part of teaching so to be able to go into schools now and inspire children (without the hassle of endless admin) is such an enjoyable privilege! 

INTERVIEWER

Which children’s writers should we be paying particular attention to at the moment? 

FARMER

I would say all of my friends in the Slushpile blog: Teri Terry, Kathryn Evans, Candy Gourlayl, Mo Lynas, Jo Wyton, Paula Harrison and Nick Cross. They are all very different writers but what unites them is the heart they put into their stories. All of us on the Slushpile blog have faced challenges in our writing but one of the hardest things is keeping going in the face of almost constant rejection. This isn’t a plea for sympathy because all writers – published and pre-published – face failure. But you do have to develop an ability to stand back from rejection, de-personalise it, analyse it and crack on with the next thing. And most importantly enjoy being creative! I have blogged about this in Notes from the Slushpile, here! I can say that writers are some of the staunchest people I know.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank screen to completed manuscript? Do you plan the plot before you write or do you just dive in? 

FARMER

I have ideas flying all over the place. I am never short of ideas – they could come from something I’ve read or seen but often my ideas start with the way I’m feeling. I like to write stories that spring out of folklore and nature – I used to love reading Alan Garner and Susan Cooper. Just after Christmas, I went on a writing retreat in the Lake District with some friends. It was inspiring not just because of the people I was with but also because of the place I was in. 

Plotter or pantser? I think a lot about my story before I begin writing. I have a very good idea of the structure and I know my characters. I know what my characters want and where they will end up. I know how I want my reader to feel about these people. If I ever drift from that feeling, I know to go back to it. Knowing the spine or heart, the centre of your story, is crucial. I used to fly off into a story because I was so excited about it but then screeched to a halt in chapter 6 with no idea where to go or how to get there. Making an exciting, believable outer journey for your character is important but it’s the emotional journey that makes a story memorable. 

INTERVIEWER

Which three qualities do you think are essential in a good story for children? 

First, I want to be lost in the story and be borne along effortlessly from beginning to end – I must never see the construction, the scaffolding that goes on behind that story. I must also identify in some way with the protagonist and love her VOICE – get this part right and it feels like the character is talking to you directly. The writer can’t intrude in any way. Finally, when the book ends, I have to feel sad and know I’ll want to read it again. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a writer? 

FARMER

Yes, perhaps because I mostly write for young children. You are telling stories to them at an amazing time in their lives. They want to understand and enjoy but they’re also open enough to be transported wholeheartedly to other worlds and really believe in your characters. I absolutely want to make my writing the best it can be not just for me but for the reader who is ALWAYS front and centre when I’m writing.

INTERVIEWER

What was the first book that made you cry? 

FARMER

I’m pretty unsentimental and it takes something to make me shed tears. Books about hard-won friendship will do it. Most recently, it was Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders which is a truly heart-wrenching sequel to E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

INTERVIEWER

Name a fictional character you consider a friend. 

FARMER

Who would I enjoy a good chat with AND trust with my life? I would say Hermione Granger but she’s too serious … I thnk it has to be Moomintroll – for his sense of adventure and being brave and holding onto his family and friends. For Moomin beginners, I recommend, Moominsummer Madness by Tove Jansson. Once in the Moomin’s world, you won’t want to leave. 

INTERVIEWER

Which book deserves more readers? 

FARMER

One of the wonderful things about being a children’s writer is that you have to read a lot. Here are a few books which left an impression on me…

The Silver Donkey by Sonya Hartnett – a wartime story about honesty and courage.

The Crowfield Curse by Pat Walsh – a wonderfully evocative and exciting medieval story of magic and secrets.

Charmed Life by Diana Wynne-Jones – I could choose any of her books, really. They are clever, magic and funny. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? 

FARMER

I’ve been working with Child Bereavement UK on a chapter book called, I Love You, Sunshine that I hope will make a difference. I’m also working on a creative non-fiction picture book called, Little Peat. It’s about a little industrial engine abandoned on the moors (spoiler: there’s a happy ending). I am also working on a funny middle grade novel and a ghost story! I always hope for publishing success with my work but I always try to remember that I’m living a creative life which is a wonderful thing.  

QUICK FIRE ROUND: 

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book? 

FARMER

My Swordhand is Singing by Marcus Sedgewick

INTERVIEWER

Saturday night: book or Netflix? 

FARMER

Netflix

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 

FARMER

Cult Classic

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents? 

FARMER

Fencing

INTERVIEWER

Any embarrassing moments? 

FARMER

Plenty

INTERVIEWER

What’s the best advice you ever received? 

FARMER

When you think you’ve finished, leave it to stew and go back later. You’ll find more to do.

INTERVIEWER

Any reading pet peeves?

FARMER

When people fold down the corners of pages to mark their place. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a theme song?

FARMER

Let’s Go Fly a Kite from Mary Poppins

INTERVIEWER

Your proudest achievement? 

FARMER

Seeing my work performed

INTERVIEWER

Best advice for writers just starting out? 

FARMER

Read, read, read!

You can buy Addy Farmer’s books on her website, follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and find out more about the My Corona Diary project here 

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