A former creative writing teacher and journalist, Liz Kessler hails from England. Her popular Emily Windsnap series for middle-grade readers features the deep-sea adventures of Emily, half girl, half mermaid. Emily's unusual transformation from water to land takes her on many exciting journeys. Kessler's newest release is "Philippa Fisher and the Dreammaker's Daughter," which is the second book in a new fantasy series (2009). Kessler lives in Manchester.
Previous National Book Festival Appearances
From the 2009 National Book Festival
What sparked your imagination for your book series featuring Emily Windsnap?
I’ve always loved the sea and boats and anything to do with water. I even lived on a narrow boat on the canal for ten years. It was while I was living there that I had an idea for a poem about a girl who lived on a boat with her mum. The girl had a secret…that she was a mermaid! Somebody suggested I try turning the poem into a book – and that’s what I did!
Can you tell us about your most recent book – Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker’s Daughter?
After writing three Emily Windsnap books, I wanted to do something different. I wrote a book called Philippa Fisher’s Fairy Godsister, which is about a girl who accidentally gets off on the wrong foot with the fairy (called Daisy) whose job is to grant her three wishes. Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker’s Daughter is the second book in this series. In this one, Philippa makes a new friend, and Daisy has a new assignment…delivering dreams.
You have worked as a journalist and a teacher of creative writing. How have these experiences influenced you as an author?
Being a journalist was a really good experience. It helped me to develop a good discipline – writing to deadlines and working as fast and accurately as possible. Teaching creative writing is LOADS of fun, and it can also help you develop your own style. Quite often, I find it easier to see what other people are doing wrong in their writing than to spot the same problems in my own! But then I realize I do the same things, so it helps me understand my own writing a bit better. It’s also really satisfying to help others develop their own style and their enjoyment of writing.
What challenges do you face in your writing process? How do you overcome them?
There are all sorts of challenges! They can vary from struggling over major plot issues to getting a comfortable chair! One of my main challenges is in the early stages of a book, when I’m trying to figure out the story, and work out how everything fits together. This part of the process is probably the hardest – but it’s also the most creative bit. I used to have a lot of angst about it, but now my main way of overcoming this is just to get on with it and believe that I’ll get there in the end!
Another challenge can come when the weather’s lovely and I want to go out playing, but have to work! The way I overcome this is that I get up really early, do my work and then I have the afternoon to play!
What tips or advice can you share with young students who hope to start writing?
There is so much I could say to young students who hope to start writing, but the main thing would be just to enjoy it, do it as much as you can and don’t let anyone put you off!
It’s good to have a small notebook and pen that you can carry around with you. That way, whenever you get ideas, you can write them down straightaway and don’t need to worry about forgetting them! I’d also say it’s great to write a bit every day if you can.
If you want to hear people’s opinions on your writing, make sure you go to someone who you trust, and someone who knows how to give criticism nicely! Then listen to what they say and if you agree with it, don’t be afraid to make changes. (My books take lots of reworking. You mustn’t be afraid of people suggesting changes.) However, if you DON’T agree with what they say, then have the courage to stick with your own ideas.
Don’t worry too much about getting published. You can worry about all that stress later! For now, just enjoy the writing!
Can you suggest a fun writing topic to get them started?
Oh gosh. There are so many! OK, here’s one – which is taken from a book by a friend of mine. It’s called How to be a Brilliant Writer by Jenny Alexander. (Definitely get this book if you enjoy writing – it’s brilliant, and really helpful!)
This is a quick ‘writing warm-up’ exercise.
Make a list of ten subjects that interest you. Then pick one of the things on the list and write for one minute about it. Don’t stop to think about it, just write – but stop after a minute. Then pick another one and do the same. Then pick a third, but this time write for five minutes. This is a good exercise to do with a few friends, and then you can all read out what you’ve written to each other – which can make it even more enjoyable.
What is your list of favorite children or teen books?
I always find this question hard because I can usually only remember the last book I read! There are so many great children’s books out there. Here are three of my favorites.
As a child, one of my favorites was The Adventures of the Wishing Chair, by Enid Blyton. Another was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Both of them are still around, so that proves they must be lots of other people’s favorites too! I recently read How Kirsty Jenkins Stole the Elephant by Elen Caldecott, and I really loved this.
How do you decide on themes for your books?
I don’t consciously decide on any themes. I just focus on the story and the characters. I think there are themes that come up quite a lot in my books, and they are always things that I do really care about – like friendship and family and love and loyalty and being yourself and things that like – but they always sneak in there by accident! And I’m glad about that. If I tried to deliberately ‘put’ themes in the books, I think they might get in the way of my stories!
How important is research in the development of your books? Can you explain the process as well?
My research generally involves getting a good sense of the kind of place that my book is set in. So with my Emily Windsnap books, I always spend as much time by the sea as possible. The second book, Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep, was set at the Bermuda Triangle, and I traveled to Bermuda to research it! As well as having an amazing time, it was really helpful for the book. I went out snorkeling every day and then sat on the beach with my notebook writing about all the things I’d seen!
With my Philippa Fisher books, I try to be in the right place, too. The new book, Philippa Fisher and the Dream Maker’s Daughter, is set largely in a mysterious forest, so I spent a lot of time wandering round woods with my notebook!
What is your advice to parents for passing the joys of reading on to their children?
I think I would say try to find books on subjects that interest your children. That way they’re much more likely to get into reading. Also, try not to force it, as that might put them off. Other than that, I think if the parents can show their children how much they love reading, the children will probably pick this up. When someone is passionate about something, it’s often much easier to get other people to see its attractions too!
If you weren’t creating children’s books, what do you think you would be doing?
In my fantasy life, I’d be a groundbreaking explorer and filmmaker, traveling to amazing places all over the world and making documentaries and films about them. In real life – probably teaching!
Do you have a website where young people can learn more about you and your work?
Absolutely. If you go to lizkessler.co.uk you can find out all about me, my books and even my dog! (And play games and read my blog and make a mermaid swim past the window and loads more stuff too!)