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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

An Interview With Meredith Costain

Today on the Great Raven, my guest is Meredith Costain, contributor to the humorous children's anthology Laugh Your Head Off Again And Again(Sydney, Macmillan 2017), and author of many, many books for children.

Meredith lives in Melbourne with her partner and two beautiful dogs. (See below) If you want to learn more about Meredith and her books, you can find her at

We have known each other for many years, but I have learned some fascinating things in this interview I didn't know. Read and enjoy!

 Your story in this anthology, "Nutbush", was about dogs. I know you have some of your own - is this what inspired your story or was it something else?

I’m definitely a dog lover (we have two young kelpie/heeler rescue dogs at the moment) and will sneak a dog or two into a story or chapter book whenever I can, whether it be as a main ‘character’ or just somewhere in the background. For this anthology the brief was simply to provide a ‘funny story’ for a primary-school aged audience – so dogs it was! We’ve been training our youngest dog recently (she can be a bit of a terror in the dog park, herding joggers and skateboarders), and also teaching our other dog to bark on cue at the end of the lines of ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window?’, so dog-training became the inspiration for the story.

What are the benefits and challenges of writing humour for a young audience?

There is plenty of evidence around to show that kids love funny stories. Humorous books dominate the best-seller lists and lots of parents swear that the break-through books that turned their reluctant readers on to reading are the ‘funny ones’. It’s also what (most of) the kids say when I ask them what they like to read when I’m doing school visits.

Much of this humour (particularly for the 6-10 age-group) tends to rely on bodily functions: poo, pee and fart jokes rule. I prefer to use more situational humour, word play or exaggeration in the series I’m currently writing. However I did throw in a brief reference to wee in my story for Laugh Your Head Off Again and Again: hopefully it hit the spot! (so to speak …)

Your story is set in a small country town. Why did you choose this for a setting?

Placing characters in a country setting means there is more scope for action and adventure, away from house-bound ‘screens’. Kids can build billy carts and tree-houses or find treasures in the local rubbish dump and tadpoles in the creek. There is also more of a sense of community in a small town, given that everybody knows everybody else (and often their business as well!), so it’s easier to introduce characters of different ages.

You have written a wide variety of books, from education titles to picture books to chapter books - do you enjoy the challenge? 

I just like writing! So yes, I have fun trying out different formats and writing for different age-groups. I enjoy doing the research for non-fiction as well (although it can be hard to know when to stop looking things up and get on with the actual task at hand!)

Versatility is also a good way to ensure a reasonable living as a writer. Writing in different styles and formats for several different publishers over the years has meant that I could keep a steady stream of projects on the go. These days though I mainly concentrate on series fiction for junior to middle primary-aged readers.

 Do you have a favourite type of book/story to write? If so, what is it?

I enjoy writing tween (and slightly younger) fiction for girls. All that angsty stuff and big questions (to them) like: ‘Do people like me? And if not, what do I have to do to get them to?’ and ‘Am I different from everyone else?’ and ‘Will I make any friends if I go somewhere new?’ that I went through myself. I guess by writing about it now (and with the benefit of hindsight) I can give myself a happier ending (on the page at least) by showing a bit more resilience. And I also get the chance to say the things to the ‘mean girls’ I would have liked to have done before.

I also enjoy writing picture books where I get to play with words. I often write these in rhyme (considered a ‘no no’ by many!) so when everything comes together in terms of both scanning and perfect rhyme, it feels pretty good! Actually, I enjoy any kind of writing where I get to play with words.

What do you like best about writing for children?

The licence to be playful – with both words and ideas.

There’s also lots more opportunity to meet up with your readers, through organised visits to schools and libraries to do writing workshops. Kids can be a great source of inspiration!
But they are also a very honest audience – if they don’t like something or they find it boring, they’ll let you know pretty quickly. So there’s extra incentive to make your writing not just good but exceptional (and non-boring!).

Do you have a favourite book of those you have written? If so, why? 

There are a few, including Freeing Billy, an Aussie Nibble about two kids who help to find a new home for a neglected Rottweiler puppy living in their street (based almost entirely on true events), and Doodledum Dancing, a collection of rhyming verse for the very young, illustrated by Pamela Allen. I read a lot of rhyming poetry when I was young by poets such as A A Milne, Hilaire Belloc and C J Dennis, so was delighted when Penguin took on my own attempts at verse, particularly as poetry has traditionally been difficult to sell.

But I’d probably nominate Musical Harriet, my first picture book, illustrated by Craig Smith. Also inspired by true events, it’s about a girl who is desperate to play the trombone in her school band. Sadly, her arms are too short to push the slide down far enough to produce all the notes, so she needs to find a quirky way to overcome the problem. (And yes, there are dogs involved.) The book was adapted for television by the ABC, and there was talk of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra writing a script for a touring performance as well, but sadly they missed out on funding for the project, so it didn’t go ahead.

You do a lot of commissioned work - have you thought of something you'd like to write outside of this?

Much of my education work has been commissioned, and also a few ‘special projects’ for trade publishers, such as a Ladybird guide to the Sydney Olympics (which actually reached the New York Times bestseller list) or novelisations of TV shows such as Dance Academy and Heartbreak High.

But pretty much all (apart from my latest series) of my trade published books (from picture books and chapter books to series fiction) have been my own ideas that I’ve submitted to the editors of publishing houses in the standard way.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on the edit for Book #13 of the Ella Diaries, which is about soccer, and writing the fourth book for its spin-off series, Olivia’s Secret Scribbles, for a slightly younger readership (5-7 year olds).

Olivia is Ella’s (feisty) little sister, and the new series will give Olivia her own voice and adventures.

It can be a bit confusing to be working on two ‘related’ series at the same time, particularly in terms of voice, language and style. But it’s been getting easier as I’ve ‘discovered’ more about my second character. Ella is very ‘arty’ in that she loves ballet, and acting, and fashion design, and writing poems and songs in times of great angst. So I decided to make Olivia more ‘STEMmy’ – an inventor who enjoys designing and carrying out experiments (sometimes with disastrous results!).

 When is your next book coming out - and what is it?

There are two. Total TV Drama, which is Book #11 in the Ella Diaries series, will be out in January. Ella and some of her classmates (including her arch-nemesis Peach) will be appearing on a TV Quiz show.

And My New Best Friend, the first book in Olivia’s Secret Scribbles, will be released in February. This one will have a mystery element, as well as a few ‘off-the’wall’ inventions!


Sharon Himsl said...

That's a lot of writing. Congratulations. Being versatile as a writer sure has paid off for her, something I'm trying to practice. Especially like that she writes humor. We can never have too much in the world, but it's not easy to do right. Working on a piece right now so guess I'll find out. Nice interview. Happy Thanksgiving, Sue!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Versatility certainly does help in writing, I agree! Glad you enjoyed the interview.

Unknown said...

Always love reading about Meredith Costain. Not only is her body of work outstanding but I also admire the fact that she just quietly gets on with writing one successful book after another. No fanfare launches, no waxing lyrical about craft (despite being a poet), or deep and meaningful exclamations about why she writes. She's extremely generous with her time when it comes to mentoring others and she's got such a depth of knowledge about the industry. Thanks for the interview.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I have to agree with you about that, Maureen! And none of this blog tour stuff for one book when she could be writing another one. Mind you, a launch can be fun. She kindly agreed to do a joint one with my book, both being in the It's True series, and we held it at my school library. She spoke to the kids and signed for them and we gave them some chips, sweets, etc.