Kathryn Apel lives among the gum trees, cattle and kangaroos on a Queensland grazing property, where she writes poetry, picture books and verse novels. Her previous books include Bully on the Bus, Too Many Friends, and The Bird in the Herd. Kathryn’s latest book is What Snail Knows, illustrated by Mandy Foot, and we’re thrilled to chat to her about the book today.
From the publisher:
Lucy’s glad she has Snail, the perfect pet for a lonely girl. If only she had her own shell to hide in every time she started at a new school. But this place is different. She likes her teacher, Miss Darling. She likes her classmates, especially Tahnee. She even likes Mei-hui’s van park, where she lives with Dad and Snail. This place feels like home. Can she convince her dad to stay?
You’re well-known for your verse novels, did you know you’d write this as a verse novel when the story idea first came to you?
I did not! I was talking with a friend about the ‘How Can I Help?’ unit I’d team-taught a number of years earlier, and my friend commented that it would make a great book. I was in the middle of prepping two picture books for print at the time (Up and Down on a Rainy Day and The Bird in the Herd) and I couldn’t imagine how to squeeze ‘How Can I Help?’ into a picture book. But 6 weeks later I realised it could be a verse novel. And I was very quickly excited about that idea!
How did you go about writing What Snail Knows? Did you write a plan before you begin working on the story?
My story plan unfolds as I’m writing. When I get some words on the page, I stop and think about the character more. Is the voice distinctive? What does s/he want? What could cause the problem?
And that’s how this started … ‘It’s just you and me. We don’t need nobody else.’ I was thinking about my character and wondering how s/he could link in with ‘How Can I Help?’ when I realised I already knew her. And I didn’t need to create a whole class of characters for this story. I already had them! They were in my verse novel, Too Many Friends. The voice I had found was Lucy’s – the quiet girl who was always alone. I did wonder how I was going to fill a book when Lucy doesn’t say much … But she thinks. A lot. And she shares her thoughts with Snail.
I can tell you that there is a lot of stress when you’re 3/4 of the way through your first draft and you still don’t know what happened to your main character’s mum … or why they have to move a lot. Usually I know how a story will end … just not how it will get there. But this time I didn’t even know the ending. Would Lucy and her Dad have to move again? Why? How did things change and resolve? I had no idea, and I was very worried that I wouldn’t be able to finish this book! So – I wouldn’t say I recommend not planning …
Did you talk with Mandy Foot about the illustrations? Do you consider illustrations at all when you’re writing?
I didn’t know there were going to be illustrations – so I didn’t consider them when I wrote. And I didn’t talk to Mandy about them. But I loved them. That tangle of hair, the dirty smudges, and that sweet little face. Finding the right place for them in the story was a bit like a jigsaw – but when the puzzle was complete, those little line drawings surprised me with the emotions they squeezed from the poetry. They captured the aloneness … And the moments of connection between Lucy and Snail, Lucy and Dad and finally Lucy and Tahnee.
Do you have a tip for young writers who would like to write a verse novel or a verse short story?
- Say less, best. There are lots of small words we need in sentences that we don’t need in poetry. Cut them out.
- Play with your words and where they sit on the page.
- Try line breaks instead of punctuation.
- Read your writing aloud. Or better still – get someone to read it aloud to you.
- Focus on individual poems. Write one poem. Then the next. Forget you’re writing a book and just write lots of small poems that fit together to tell a story.
Could you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?
I’m rather excited to have a picture book that has also just gone to print. Miss Understood, illustrated by Beau Wylie, will be released in May 2022 with Scholastic. It’s a romp of a rhyming picture book, as told by the wolf, Miss Understood. She is such a sweetie, and if you have never heard her side of things, you really must read this book, because truly, she has been … misunderstood.
I have a couple of other picture books and verse novels in various stages. And I’m a wee-bit excited about the possibility of another companion title to Too Many Friends and What Snail Knows. I’m still mulling it over in my head – and then I need to do some research. And that may involve me stepping waaaay out of my comfort zone.😬 So it may be a while, yet …
What Snail Knows is out now! Look for it at your favourite bookshop or local library.
Read an earlier interview with Kathryn Apel about another verse novel