Sally Fawcett takes us up the garden path and “Through the Gate”

We’re chatting today with an AWC alumna in the form of Australian children’s book author and illustrator Sally Fawcett. Sally did our Writing Picture Books course in 2013, subsequently finding publishing success with her first book, What Could it Be, in 2016. And now she has a new book out – written and illustrated by hers truly.

So, Sally, first we’d like to just say that “hers truly” is not a regular term people use, but we particularly liked the sound of it. Now, if you could, please tell us about your new book, Through the Gate.
Through the Gate is about coping with change. A young girl has moved to a dilapidated old house. She feels as sad as the old house looks, but as the story progresses, her mood improves. Each time the girl passes ‘through the gate’, she notices more and more positive things about her new situation. The house is gradually renovated as winter transforms to spring, sadness to happiness and grey to colour. It is a story about hope and resilience in the face of change.”

That’s very clever. So what inspired you to tell this story?
“I had just drawn three little shape houses for an illustration challenge. My triangle house looked sad and no matter how I turned those triangles, the house still looked sad. I didn’t want it to look sad. I took a break from drawing and went to do the dishes. While I was doing the dishes I thought about the sad little house and wondered how I could make a house look happy. Then the universe gifted me this story. I stopped mid-dishwash and jumped on my computer and wrote the whole story.”

Well, at least you knew that the story would be squeaky clean! But seriously, did you ever finish those dishes? Wait, don’t answer that. Instead, let’s talk about the illustrations in the book – also done by you.
“The illustrations offer a ‘spot the difference’ game to make the story an interactive experience for readers.”

And being one of these multi-talented folk – both an illustrator and a writer – answer us a hypothetical question. If you were forced to choose between keeping your writing talent or your illustrating talent, which would you choose?
“That’s an easy one to answer. I would choose writing. I love thinking up ideas. I don’t think I could ever illustrate someone else’s words, but I would be more than happy to pass the illustrating over to someone more talented than me. I find that I can write a story really quickly and then I love the process of playing with the words to polish the manuscript. I am a really slow illustrator. I love illustrating, but love writing more and when I am illustrating a book, it takes all of my creative energy so I don’t have the head space to write, which is what my real love is.”

Our real love is doughnuts. But back to your writing – is it fair to say that when you’re crafting a story, you start with the words first and then the images?
“I start with the words, but the images are in my head as I write. I wrote Through the Gate about two years before I even put a pencil to paper to draw the first image, but I had that whole book pictured in my head that whole time. So I guess the words and images come to me at the same time, but I write the words first.”

You took our Writing Picture Books course some years back. Are there things that you learnt that continue to influence your writing today?
“Probably culling words so the illustrations can tell half the story. I love the marriage of illustrations and words.”

We never received an invite. But please, continue.
“I am also very careful not to be didactic. I don’t like telling kids what to do or how to think through stories. However, I do like showing kids a new perspective, perhaps a different way to look at the world. I like to open up ideas and hopefully as the kids bring their own ideas, thoughts and feelings to my stories they will see the world from different perspectives.”

What do you think you need to do to write a good picture book?
“Open your mind to different layers of meaning and metaphor. My favourite picture books are those that work on many different levels and speak to the heart and soul, so adults and children both can enjoy and learn from them. I love Pezzetino by Leo Lionni. So simple yet so deep.”

What three pieces of advice do you have for writers (who aren't illustrators) that will make an illustrator's life easier?
1) Let the illustrator do their job and stay out of it. But then I would probably be a very bad offender in offering my visual ideas to an illustrator. I always write illustration notes on my manuscripts even though I have heard many times not to do that. However my publisher doesn’t mind and I personally feel that for my stories it is really important for me to communicate the images that are in my head as I write the words. There is really no right or wrong way I think. Some illustrators might like to collaborate on ideas and others may not.

2) Cull your words so you don’t say anything in the words that can be shown in the illustrations.

3) Be extremely grateful that you have an illustrator doing all that hard work for your story. Illustrating is really, really time-consuming (for me anyway). If I am lucky enough to have a talented illustrator create the visuals for my story I will be so happy to sit back and watch the magic happen while I dream up more stories.”

Excellent advice and here’s to many more stories in your future – thanks for the chat Sally!

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