This week’s Smorgasbord guest is children’s author, Pauline Mackay. Pauline is passionate about languages, a statement ably illustrated by the fact that her hugely successful Wee MacNessie books are available in 12 bilingual editions.
Hi Pauline, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. You are best known for your Wee MacNessie books. How did they come about?
Hi Lorraine. Thank you for inviting me to take part in your Literary Smorgasbord. Knowing how much I love languages, you can probably guess I’m already smiling.
Wee MacNessie is like a member of my family now, with four books in the series so far. He’s a baby version of the Loch Ness Monster who came into existence while I was living with relatives on their croft overlooking Loch Ness. My whole life has been linked to this world-famous stretch of water and the croft, where my Mum was brought up, so much of what appears in the illustrations is true to life there. I can’t, of course, guarantee that Wee MacNessie is a faithful representation of the Loch Ness Monster!
Your books are available in several languages, including Gaelic, Scots and Arabic. Was that always part of the plan?
The first book in the series is available in English and 12 bilingual editions: English with Arabic, Dutch, French, Scottish Gaelic, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Polish, Russian, Scots and Spanish.
When I started writing my first Wee MacNessie book, I knew I wanted a story which would work for native English speakers but also be accessible to children learning another language. I studied French at the University of Glasgow, taught English as a second language in Poland and learnt Polish while I was there behind the Iron Curtain, so I was well aware of the importance and difficulty of language-learning. By the time Wee MacNessie was born, I was already running a bookselling business which specialised in bilingual and Gaelic books for children, so I knew there was a market for such books and that many of the existing titles were too complicated for beginners.
I studied illustration at art school, and although I have never worked on children’s books, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between author and illustrator. How do you find the illustrators for your books?
I’ve used 3 illustrators on my books so far. Shelley Buckner/Mackay was recommended by a marketing consultant; Dylan Gibson caught my attention on an online children’s publishing group and I met Brian Robertson at the Dornoch book festival years ago.
It’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I deal with illustrators because I am also the publisher of my books. Authors would not normally deal directly with illustrators unless they were self-publishing.
How much discussion do you have with an illustrator before they begin work on one of your books?
Before they begin, the illustrators receive an initial brief which describes my vision of the layout of the book and general composition of each page. I always have a little film of the story playing in my head which I try to get down on paper. Having an illustrator who can capture that vision never fails to amaze and impress me. However, the brief is not set in stone and sometimes elements change as the book takes shape. With bilingual books there is the added challenge of leaving enough clear space for two sets of text.
Beyond the obvious, what does the illustrator bring to the project?
No matter how good the story, no matter how good the brief, the illustrator is the one who brings the book to life. Visually representing the author’s story is only part of their job. Every page is a treasure trove of potential stories. Also, and very importantly, a picture book has to appeal to two totally different audiences – the adult who is buying the book and the child. This is incredibly challenging for any illustrator, even an experienced one.
What were you like at school?
I worked very hard at school. This made absolutely no difference to my ability to do science!
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Inverness and returned here with my son when my marriage broke down.
What books did you enjoy reading in your childhood?
I was obsessed with Enid Blyton books when I was young.
When did you start writing?
My Mum tells me my wonderful Primary 1/2 teacher liked my stories so it sounds like there was something going on even then. I also remember sitting at my Gran’s table watching the passing trains and writing stories, fuelled by raspberry ripple ice-cream. When I was a teenager I started writing songs because I wanted to be a singer. It wasn’t encouraging that my wee brother insisted on flushing the toilet to try and drown me out when I practised!
What is the Pauline Mackay writing method?
I don’t seem to be one of those incredibly disciplined writers who sits down at a certain time every day and produces at least 1000 words. Most of my stories are short, but the amount of time devoted to moulding them into picture books is enormous. I also spent a great deal of last year creating additional teachers’ resources in English, French, German and Spanish to complement my Wee MacNessie books.
What are you working on right now?
Kitty’s Scottish Safari is my latest picture book. This is a completely new project which I hope the public will find fun and educational. My little cat character, Kitty Purry, travels round Scotland with her family visiting animal statues and knitting something different for all of them. I visited the statues as part of my research and was fascinated by them, especially the penguins, the giraffes and the elephant. Brian’s illustrations are truly brilliant and we have a cheeky stowaway mouse for children to spot. There are five language versions but they are not bilingual – English, Gaelic, Scots, French and German.
If I’m guessing correctly, the penguins are from Dundee, the giraffes from Edinburgh, but I’m stumped on the elephant.
Please tell me Kitty Purry visited Greyfriars Bobby and the T-Rex at the Hunterian in Glasgow…
I didn’t know about the Dumfries rhinos, but the stowaway mouse is a great idea. I loved little illustration in-jokes like that when I was a child, and then again as a parent.
Hmmm – I’ll get back to you on that… What has been your best writing moment so far?
It’s almost impossible to pick one moment but the positive feedback from customers who have sent my books all over the world is particularly precious. One lady told me the Arabic version of Wee MacNessie had been a huge hit in a nursery in Beirut and that the children referred to him as The Scottish Monster.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
There is so much advice out there, I’m not sure I can add anything new. Being truly objective about your own work is impossible but I find that a little time away from your manuscript is a surprisingly powerful quality control tool.
Is there any one book you would like to have written?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar would look rather nice with my name on it!
If there was one person – contemporary, historical or fictional – you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why? How would you spend the day?
I think a day spent in the company of multilingual Mary, Queen of Scots would be a revelation. Given her French husband’s mother was Catherine de Medici, she could probably reel off a few good mother-in-law from hell stories!
A few short questions to finish with. Favourite books?
Pride and Prejudice, The Tobacconist, Kidnapped.
Jane Austen, Daphne Du Maurier, C.J. Sansom, Matthew Pearl, Tracy Chevalier.
David Melling is very talented.
My Dad’s cauliflower cheese takes a lot of beating.
Walk the Line; Chocolat; Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang, and Matilda.
André Rieu, Johnny Cash.
What are you reading right now?
Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (The Amazing Adventure of Translation) by David Bellos.