Judith Rossell is an uber-talented writer and illustrator of children’s books, as well as being a presenter for our Writing Picture Books course in Melbourne. Her latest book, Withering-by-Sea, is launching this month so we asked her to paint us a picture of what it’s all about. Once she’d finished that, we popped it in a frame and kindly explained that we’d been a little unclear and actually just needed her to answer some questions, not paint an actual picture…
So Judith, can you summarise your book Withering-by-Sea in 78 words or less?
It’s an illustrated novel, for 9 to 12-year-olds. It’s set in Victorian England. In the story, 11-year-old orphan, Stella Montgomery lives in the Hotel Majestic with her three dreadful Aunts. One night, she sees something that she shouldn’t have, and is plunged into an adventure involving a mysterious stage magician, a group of singing cats, a drowned village, a hand of glory, an enormous ghostly sea serpent, mutton-in-aspic, dancing girls, a clockwork beetle and a military pudding.
So just your standard storyline then…haha. Where did the idea for this come from?
I’m obsessed with Victoriana, and I wanted to write a dark, funny, gothic adventure story. This is the kind of book I would have enjoyed reading when I was a child. The first idea I had for the story was the scene where Stella is concealed behind the ferns in the conservatory of the Hotel Majestic, and she sees one of the hotel guests hide a mysterious package. That’s how the story began.
Oooh, spoiler alert! So how long did the whole process take?
Perhaps as long as five years. I mainly work as an illustrator. I’ve put this project away and come back to it many times, in between other books.
That’s right, because you started out as an illustrator, but have now written 11 books including this one. How did you transition to writing them?
The first book I wrote was a maze book, The Lost Treasure of the Green Iguana. I had illustrated two or three maze books, and I thought I’d try to write one. They are fun to plan. I like setting up the mazes and puzzles, making them tricky to solve. The text is quite simple, most of the story is in the illustrations. Then I attended a writing class…during that class I wrote a novel for younger readers, Jack Jones and the Pirate Curse, which was published in 2006. It was translated into German and Dutch, and there was a US edition too.
So, do you have an agent?
A couple of years ago, I met Jill Corcoran at the SCBWI conference in Sydney. She is a US agent. I liked her a lot. I showed her my picture book Oliver, which was published by Harper in the US, and she offered to take me on. I was very happy about this! She negotiated the contract for Withering-by-Sea with ABC books here in Australia, and she set up an auction for the US rights, which was exciting (and scary). I’m very happy to have someone experienced to do the negotiating in the US on my behalf, it can get a bit complicated. Until I signed on with Jill, I didn’t have an agent.
And do you have a writing routine?
I try to write every day. My new thing is to go back to bed after breakfast and not get up again until I’ve written at least a page. I’m a slow writer, I find it very difficult sometimes. I have to force myself to do it. When I have a few chapters finished, I print them out and carry them around with me, and scribble corrections on them when I’m out and about.
There are lots of writers for whom the ‘I’m not getting out of bed until I’ve written a page’ strategy might backfire! What are you working on now?
Withering-by-Sea has a sequel! I’ve made a start on the new story. It’s daunting having to begin all over again! But I’ve had few ideas, some of them seem quite promising. (I think!) I’m happy to be in Stella’s world again. In the new story, she is sent away to the family home, which is a huge house in a forest.
Any advice for others who’d love to be a full-time writer one day?
Write write write. And read a lot. Keep trying to improve. Also, you need to be determined, and not to let yourself get discouraged. Keep going!
And finally, what’s YOUR writing superpower?
I wish I had one!! I really do. The best I can think of is that I’m quite a fast typist. I’m a fast typist but a slow writer. It would be more helpful the other way around!
You can learn how to write your own picture book from Judith if you're in Melbourne, find out more about our Writing Picture Books course here.
Withering by Sea is available from all good bookstores and online.