A very warm welcome to Vickie Johnstone, author of the amazing ‘Kiwi Series’ books for children. She is here today, talking frankly about her books and her journey to become a published author.
About Vickie Johnstone:
Vickie lives in London and has a thing about fluffy cats. She works as a senior sub-editor on business mags and enjoys the delights of such things as mining, geodrilling and the environment.
She loves reading, writing, films, the sea, art, animals, nature and travelling.
She recently published her first book, called Kaleidoscope. It is a gathering of 119 poems she has written over the years since a very long time ago in a galaxy far far away. They are on a variety of themes and in different styles.
She is currently writing a series for children called Kiwi. The star is a little black cat, called Kiwi, who takes her two young owners to her other home – the blue-lit Cat City, where they meet such characters as Inspector Furrball, Paws, Madame Purrfect and Moggie. Nothing will quite seem the same again to the two children.
Book 1 is Kiwi in Cat City
Book 2 is Kiwi and the missing Magic
Book 3 is Kiwi and the Living Nightmare
You can find Vickie at:
Now onto the interview:
Describe your books?
I have a book of 119 poems called Kaleidoscope. They are about imaginary people, nature, life, abstract stuff, war, love, being a kid, animals, funny things, dark things – all sorts really.
Then I have three books in the Kiwi Series. These are based in a world called Cat City, which is inhabited by our feline friends. The star of the book is Kiwi, a black cat who takes her two ‘owners’, Amy and James, to her other home. She magically turns them into kittens and they discover Cat City. There, they meet Inspector Furrball who is trying to find out what has happened to some catnapped cats, and they try to help him solve the crime. In book two, there are some new characters, including a hamster and a mouse. Cat City is at risk of invasion and the gang try to save the day. Book three is a bit spooky, based on Halloween. It begins with a dream, shared by the Kiwi gang. Then they go off to try to rescue the three-legged cat of their dream. To counteract the spooky bits, there are some funny (hopefully) scenes when Inspector Furrball and Siam have to enter the human world.
When and why did you begin writing?
I began writing when I was little. I always had my nose stuck in a book and I used to daydream all of the time. This is why I don’t drive – I can’t concentrate long enough! When I was a kid I once walked into a lamppost cos I was daydreaming. It hurt. Don’t try it! Unless you’re wearing a cushion on your head. I had enthusiastic English teachers at school. It was always my fave subject, along with art. I remember we wrote stories in primary school for homework. I can’t remember much about infant school, except for always racing to dress up in the rabbit outfit during free time on Fridays! There was one costume and I’d always want to wear it. A white rabbit! In primary school I remember writing a story based on Miss Pepperpot, which the teacher read out to the class. We had to write a story based on it and I put all the kids in the class in it. In senior school I remember writing a thriller-type story – I think I must have been 13 or 14. I’d been reading Agatha Christie and Ed McBain, and stuff like that. In the story, playing cards were important and a detective tries to find out who killed this guy, only to find out he isn’t actually dead, but faked his death. It was pretty long and I wish I’d still got it – it would be a giggle to read it now.
How did you come up with the idea for the series?
I had a cat called Kiwi. She had a big character. She was black, fluffy, cheeky, she’d try to nick your food if you weren’t looking, she was a good hunter unfortunately, she would jump to catch moths, chased her shadow, was really friendly – she’d try to make friends with anyone. I only had her for six years though, until 2000. I thought about the book while she was around. It was based around her and I imagined her in a city of cats, and some other characters. Everything grew around her. I eventually wrote it in 2002. I’d written a short story describing her, which I turned into the poem that starts the book. My niece is called Amy, and she was really young when I wrote it. When I was a kid I liked books where the kids went off and discovered new worlds, or those with talking animals! I also used to think I could talk to my cat when I was little. So it wasn’t a big jump to imagine turning into a cat – I figured that would be cool, so I made it that Amy and James would become kittens. Then the reader could discover the cat city through their eyes and how they’d adapt to it.
How has your journey from writing to getting published been?
Well, it was long! I wrote Kiwi in Cat City in 2002. In 2004, I typed it up and sent the first three chapters and a synopsis to a big publisher. I got a reply saying that following the success of Harry Potter they had received a deluge of children’s books into their office, and they were not taking on any more. So I gave up. Bit silly really – I should have kept trying, but I didn’t have much confidence in it. I put Kiwi away. No one read it and I kind of forgot about it. Meanwhile I was still writing poetry, stories that I never finished, and odd bits and bobs. I’d enter the odd poetry competition, but never got anywhere. In 2009 (I think), I did a sponsored 12-hour writeathon to raise money for Children in Need. I wrote poetry. It was the kick up the bum that I needed, and I started writing more poems. I also began an as yet unfinished fantasy novel. At the start of 2011, my boyfriend read an article about a writer who had self-published her books on kindle. That was it really. My first thought was ok, how do I do this? I hunted high and low for the floppy disk that I’d saved Kiwi on, couldn’t find it, and typed the whole thing up. Also, I went through all of my poetry books (a lot from the writeathon) and gathered 120 to publish in a book. For some reason, I miscounted (I was never good at maths) and it ended up as 119, so I kept it at that. I published this book, Kaleidoscope, in March 2011, followed by Kiwi in Cat City in May. It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. I’m totally grateful to Smashwords’ Style Guide, which helped me with the gumf of formatting and started me off on the joy of marketing. Mr Coker also answered my emails when I couldn’t format my poems for the life of me. It was also one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. No one had read Kiwi, so I didn’t know if anyone would like it. For me, the main thing was that it was now published. If I popped off tomorrow, I’d fulfilled the dream I always wanted to do – to publish a book. If people thought it was rubbish I could just unpublish it. I emailed about 20 reviewers on Amazon. Two replied and luckily they liked the book. Can’t express what that felt like. Unbelieveable. This year has been my best year for writing. I wrote two more books in the Kiwi Series and I did NaNoWrimo in November. The icing on the cake was that InknBeans Press took on my books in October, and will be publishing them from now on. Ritesh: After talking to a number of indie authors, I’m beginning to realize the huge amount work authors put into books. I used to believe that you can churn out books in a series without much effort.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
The only challenge is physically writing it. I am lazy. I like sleeping and I give up on things easily. I would always start and stop, and rather go out and socialise than write. I wrote Kiwi in Cat City over a six-week period when I’d been made redundant. I had been thinking about the story for a couple of years. It was inspired by my cat, Kiwi, who died in 2000. Originally, it was cats versus dogs, and it was called Kiwi and the Kung-Fu Kitties, but then that big film came out – Cats and Dogs, which had some cats doing some serious kung-fu. So I had to rethink that. I went for cats versus cats instead! I didn’t do any research. I remember I enjoyed writing it, but I was too scared to let anyone read it. I was a big fan of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee when I was a teenager, and still am, so the martial arts made it into the second book. Ritesh: Martial arts and cats remind me of the ‘S.W.A.T. Kats’ cartoon I used to watch when I was young, LOL! Used to love it.
What was the hardest part of writing the series?
The hardest bit was that there was a big gap between writing the first and the second books. Nearly 10 years! So I reread Kiwi 1 a few times, made notes of the descriptions of the characters and their characteristics. I had to get the feeling of the book into my head before I could write the second. I had to see the characters and how they interact. The hard thing was to make book one flow into book two without there seeming to be any time lapse or change. Obviously, I’ve changed over 10 years – I think! I’m probably more cynical than I was, so I had to keep that out. I guess book three is the darkest. With book three, the hard part was making sure that it wasn’t too scary. It’s set on Halloween, but I didn’t want to terrify any young readers. At the same time, I wanted it to be a bit scary. Also, I have to watch the language in the books and violence. I try to keep the violence out. No one ever dies. Happy endings are a given. And I try to keep the language simple, but not too simple. It’s good if readers learn some new words, but not good if they don’t understand what’s being said. Hopefully they are ok. Another thing is you have to keep things consistent and if you’ve done something in the first book, you can’t suddenly change it in the third! So, for example, the way the children change into kittens and get to the city has to be the same in every book. By the time I was writing book 3, I was wondering why I hadn’t made their trip a bit simpler in book 1! I was like is it the bluebells first or the bluebells second? Doh!
Who designed the covers of the book?
Originally, my friend, Mark Wass, designed the cover of Kiwi in Cat City. We have now changed the cover so that it has a cat on it with big eyes. My friend’s image is now being used on the back cover of every book, and the little cat face is also on the front cover with the series number. The covers for the three books are royalty free images for which you pay a one-off fee.
Did you learn anything from writing your series and what was it?
I learnt that I can see a book through from the beginning to the end. I used to start things and never finish them. I’d also do things on impulse … so once the impulse faded, I’d stop. Now I know you have to keep on trying, keep on writing even when you think you have nothing to say, and don’t give up. I also learnt that a lot of adults like reading books about cats 🙂
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your books?
I can’t think of anything, although there are probably a lot of things that could be improved! I guess everyone will see something different. I’d have liked to have had illustrations from the start, but although I can copy, I can’t draw from my imagination at all. It’s so hard! If I could change something it would have been to have kept up with my writing after Kiwi 1, instead of waiting 10 years. But I think I’ve been really inspired by writing groups such as Book Junkies and the Indie Author Group on Facebook. Talking to writers you realise you’re not alone in your crazy addiction – and everyone is willing and able to give good advice. People egg each other on. It’s cool. That made a big difference to me. There’s a growing community!
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Was there somewhere in the books you felt stuck?
I got stuck doing NaNoWrimo. That was hard. The first week was great and refreshing. The second was harder and then I hit a wall. I began writing with no plot. I knew there were four characters – a girl, two guys and a dog – and I knew the ending, sort of, but I had no plot at all. I couldn’t write for a few days, and then I suddenly got an idea and ran with it. During the third week I finished, naturally, at a bit over 30,000 words, but I needed to get to 50,000, so I went back through the book and added scenes and padded some others out. I couldn’t add to the end because the story had finished. It was a fun challenge. I made it up as I went along, which was how I wrote Kiwi in Cat City – I didn’t know where that was going either! With Kiwi 2 and 3, I scribbled down notes of a plot, ideas and odd keywords. I didn’t write the scenes in order either. I carry a notebook around all of the time now. So I guess I’ve changed the way I write in a way. If I get stuck, I jump to a different section of the book I’m writing, and then go back to write any difficult parts.
What are your current projects? When is the next book in the series coming out?
Well, my NaNoWrimo book is with InknBeans Press for reading, so I’ll see what they think of it! It’s a comedy romance with a dog story in there too. The dog is my favourite character to be honest. He’s definitely the most intelligent and moralistic. When I came back from Cornwall on the train after Christmas (it’s a five hour trip!), I was thinking about Kiwi and came up with ideas for books 4 and 5, so I’ve got a rough outline of the plots for those in my head. I’ve just got to write them now. Eeeek. So, I’m not sure when they’ll be out. It would be good if I can finish them by February. But I work full-time so finding time is always the thing for me! Ah, I should have put that in the ‘most challenging’ bit!
Could you describe what happens in the next book in the series? Can we get an excerpt?
Ok, well, I don’t want to give the plot away, and I haven’t really got much written down yet, but, as you know, Inspector Furrball and Madame Purrfect are a bit of an item and they are planning their wedding. Book 4 will begin with the couple looking forward to the happy event, but then a ring is stolen, and it’s up to Kiwi and the gang to find out who stole it. This will take them to a new part of Cat City. There’s more to it than that, but that’s how it will begin. Most of book 4 will be in Cat City. Book 5 is going to be somewhere completely different. Wink!
What book are you reading now? Which are your all-time favourite authors / books?
At the moment I’m reading Dawn French’s autobiography and it’s so very funny. I’m really enjoying it. She refers to her boobs as being a sort of Disneyland for boys. The way she writes is very good. Very graphic. It’s written in the form of letters to each individual she’s remembering from part of her life. I recommend it! It’s fun! If you’ve never heard of her, she’s a Brit comedian. She was in French & Saunders, The Vicar of Dibley and the other thing with cigarette-wielding ‘Patsy’ – now I’m kicking myself I can’t remember it!
Favourite authors is hard. I have so many. I’ll just list a mix of books and writers cos it’s hard to think of them all. I’m bound to miss some. Ok, Crime & Punishment, Fantastic Mr Fox and Roald Dahl in general, Hans Christian Anderson, The Folk of the Faraway Tree, Paulo Coehlo (especially The Alchemist and Six Minutes), Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, John Keats, Shakespeare, William Blake, Douglas Coupland (especially Miss Wyoming), Thomas Hardy, Anna Funder’s Stasiland, Angela Carter, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust (not the film though), Jonathan Coe’s House of Sleep, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, John Irvin’s Prayer for Owen Meaney, A room with a view, The Brothers Grimm and Cormac McCarthy. My fave songs are easier – All along the Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Bad Moon Rising and Kate Bush’s Wow. Ritesh: That is one long list and I have hardly read anything from it! I have to go to Vickie for recommendations!
Give us three “Good to Know” facts about you, something you could not read just about anywhere.
I love Milky Bar chocolate and tea – tea solves everything. (I think so too!) When I was a kid I wanted to marry either Bugs Bunny or Top Cat – I didn’t realise there was a problem in that they were a) animals and b) not real. I have odd ears – one is shaped like my dad’s and one is shaped like my mum’s – I announced this one Christmas and my brother nearly choked on his sprouts. I live in jeans – I’ve yet to work out how to make jeans into a tepee and I’d be well away. Oops that’s four.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to readers?
Yes – keep on reading! Enjoy your books and if you have a book inside you, go for it! Whatever your dream is, follow it and good luck. Don’t give up. I guess that’s cheesy! And good luck for 2012 – make it a good one 🙂
Books by Author Vickie Johnshtone:
Kiwi in Cat City
For children aged 9+, teens and adults. One dark night, Amy cannot sleep and she looks out of the window into the garden to see her cat, Kiwi, transfixed by the moon, which is glowing brightly like a cat’s claw. Waking her brother, James, Amy suggests they follow Kiwi to see where she goes… whether it involves a hunt for mice or something else. Little do they know that, with a flick of her tail, Kiwi is going to magically change them into kittens and lead them on the adventure of their lives to a land they never knew existed in their wildest dreams. In the blue-lit world of Cat City, the budding detectives help Inspector Furrball to solve the mystery of the missing catizens and find out what happened to Madame Purrfect.
Kiwi and the missing Magic
For children aged 9+, teens and adults. In the second book of the Kiwi series, James and Amy embark on another adventure with their little black cat, which will take them to the Land of Giant Mice. The children return to Cat City to help their friends from the first book and meet some new characters along the way, including the Worry Bee, Whiskers and Moggie. The catizens’ home is at risk of invasion and some of the Magic has gone missing. Can James and Amy help Kiwi save the day? More importantly, will James’ pet hamster find his true calling in life?
Kiwi and the Living Nightmare
For children aged 9+, teens and adults. In book 3 of the Kiwi Series, Amy, James and Kiwi embark on their spookiest adventure yet – on Halloween. What begins with an eerie dream about a three-legged cat will take the budding detectives on a quest to find an old house in the middle of the woods, meeting some familiar characters and some perky squirrels along the way. Little do they know that there awaits an angry, restless ghost that will do anything to stop them leaving. Meanwhile, Inspector Furrball and Siam discover the human world, and some surprising news.
A book of 119 poems about people, life, philosophy, animals and nature. It is structured under eight themes: figures; nature; abstracts; love; haiku; creatures; childhood and darkwave.
A handful of poems about people wandering the world, searching for something new, with their suitcase of dreams