A Chat with Rachel McGrath

Rachel McGrath

Interviewing Rachel McGrath (http://rachelmcgrath.net/) has truly been a pleasure. Deeply introspective, Rachel isn’t afraid to share the most difficult moments of her life with her readers. Not only does she write for herself, but she writes in order to connect with others who share her experiences. Then there are her children’s books, which are delightful romps that will enchant children of various ages. A talented storyteller with a formidable heart, I’m pleased to welcome Rachel and introduce her to our global village of readers!

Interviewed by Debbie A. McClure

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Q: In Finding The Rainbow ( http://www.amazon.ca/Finding-Rainbow-Rachel-McGrath/dp/1784650447/ref=sr_1_2?tag=geolinkerca-20&ie=UTF8), you talk about the heartache and trials of dealing with infertility and miscarriage. What feedback from readers have you received that has resonated the most with you?

A: The best feedback has been around the core message within Finding the Rainbow; the prevalence of hope.  I have had feedback from people who have had similar challenges, and those who have never had to face such struggles, and it has been wonderful to hear that it is a story that many felt they could connect with and understand, regardless of their own experiences.  That is truly what I had hoped. I did not want this to be a story of misery and pain, but to give a message of courage and strength; of always looking to the future to a new day, a new rainbow.

Q: What is the message you most want to convey to readers of Finding The Rainbow?

A: Many women have had to deal with miscarriage or infertility, and it is a really lonely place when you are going through that pain. I wanted to convey that it should not be a lonely place, and that there are so many people who can help, love and support you through the pain. Above it all, whilst it is an all-consuming journey, there is a path we all must follow, and that path is never clear. Some of us will reach our destination, others will need to find a different route, but we choose the path that defines our happy ending, regardless of whether it was the ending we had first hoped for.

Q: Rachel, you’ve also written several children’s books, including Mud On Your Face (http://www.amazon.ca/Mud-your-Face-Rachel-McGrath-ebook/dp/B015JPAIZ2/ref=sr_1_1?tag=geolinkerca-20&ie=UTF8), which is very different from the non-fiction genre of some of your other works. Which do you find more difficult to write and why?

A: Great question! I actually wrote Mud on your Face a few years ago, and I’ve always enjoyed writing fantasy and fiction. That is where my true storytelling nature comes into play. However, Finding the Rainbow, my memoir, was the book that made me a writer! I truly enjoyed writing it, but it was tough letting it go, opening it up to the public and exposing myself. I guess the fiction and fantasy stories are easier, as you can hide yourself behind them, rather than throwing yourself out for all to read.  I don’t regret either, but I’m certainly more comfortable with fiction.

Q: There are many challenges to indie (independent), or self-publishing. What has been the most difficult thing to learn and implement in your own journey to becoming a published writer?

A: Kindle!  Uploading onto Kindle and especially children’s books with illustrations. This in itself took longer than actually writing the book! It was completely frustrating for a very long time, and I could have paid someone to do it, but the stubborn side of me wanted to learn the process myself, and I wanted to get it right.

Q: You aren’t afraid to go deep inside yourself and share your struggles and sorrows with readers. What have you learned about yourself since beginning this journey of writing?

A: Getting my book published has given me confidence in my writing, and it has also provided some amazing new connections through a community of writers that I never knew had existed. I have always dreamed of being published, and whilst the topic of my first book is not one I would wish on anyone, it has given me a different path. I guess what I am saying, is that out of one challenge, I have found a way of channelling the pain and frustration into something that hopefully connects with people. I had to be honest, open and completely transparent in my book, Finding the Rainbow, and through that, and it has re-inspired my passion to write.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the business of writing since you began?

A: I’ve learned that the writing industry and the talent across the independent author network is incredibly vast. It has truly amazed me. On top of that, in the world of writing itself, the connections I have made and the pure generosity and friendship I have found in so many authors I have met through different social media groups, yet have never met has amazed me.

Q: Who has been your greatest mentor, either in life or in writing, and why?

A: I have many mentors in my life, but I would like to say that it is my parents who have always stood behind my dreams, no matter what. They have never stopped believing in my abilities and ambitions, and even when it meant leaving the country and living on the other side of the world, they have always supported me.

Q: What advice would you give to new writers who are considering self-publishing their work?

A: Self-publishing is easy, but getting your product right is really difficult. There is editing, cover design, formatting, pricing and then marketing!  My advice is do your research and spend the time getting the formatting and editing right, because reviews are everything and readers can be tough critics (as they ought to be). Cover design is so very important; it needs to be catchy, relevant and professional. I’m no expert but I love to read, and when something is not formatted, has bad editing or an unappealing cover, it really throws me off, despite everything else. Whilst it is frustrating and sometimes if you don’t have the expertise, costly, it is worth it in the long run to make the investment in your pride and joy.

Q: What mistakes have you made along the way that you’d like to help other writers avoid?

A: My biggest piece of advice is don’t get impatient. As a writer you get so excited about your work, and getting it out there, and with the mediums available for self publishing it is so easy to publish something on Amazon.  My biggest mistake was with my first children’s storybook – Wonderful World of Willow (http://www.amazon.com/Wonderful-World-Willow-Coco-Book-ebook/dp/B016J6WVH8/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1449850911&sr=8-2&keywords=rachel+mcgrath).  I had not yet navigated the Kindle format for children’s books, and unfortunately when it did release, the layout was terrible!  I had to quickly take it offline, and then I must have spent at least a few weeks struggling with the technology and technical specification before it was ready again. Whilst I was lucky and not many had purchased it in those few hours it was live, it is still embarrassing.  I have learned through this to just stop, slow down, and make sure that it is perfect to your own standards, before giving it to your audience.  A week or two wait will save you so much embarrassment in the long run!

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what you do in addition to writing?

A: I still work full time in a busy Human Resources role with a global company. I have always wanted to write, but I’m a realist, too. Writing is not a ‘money making’ business, it is a passion and an art, and whilst I would love to just focus on writing, I never want to depend on it, feel like I have to do it. I want to always love it!

Q: Was there anything you’ve done career-wise that prepared you for taking on the massive learning curve and realities of writing?

A: I think life has lent me much of the learning I needed. I always wanted to write from my early teens, but had I finished a project back then, I know it would not have been the same work that I produce today. I now have life experiences, I have travelled, been hurt, I have hurt, and I have learned so much along the way.  Everything I put into my writing is me and my emotions, and whilst it is not all a memoir, it is how I view the world today.

The other piece to writing is knowing yourself, and being confident to share who you are. Again, it is the fact that I am entirely comfortable with who I am today, which I know was not the case in my twenties.  Readers want to know the writer behind the book, and I feel that today, I am able to provide that transparency.

Q: What are your thoughts on the future of e-books or print?

A: To be honest, I have only just converted to Kindle. I still love the paperback, and I love the fact that you can have a bookcase filled with your favourite books, on display for all to see. Having said that, having a Kindle is so much better if you are travelling and for the general convenience of having your book on hand at any times you need it.  This question is a tough one for me, as I still buy a paperback when I really love the book.  I guess it is a symbol or trophy of having read something that truly touched my heart!

Q: In Unfinished Chapters ( http://www.amazon.com/Unfinished-Chapters-Christina-Hamlett/dp/1517317975/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1449851381&sr=8-5&keywords=rachel+mcgrath_) you wrote about an event that happened wherein you reflect upon a friendship that ended poorly. What did you learn from that experience, and why did you want to share it with readers?

A: This friendship was a very important one for me. I was quite shy as a child, and my holidays were always quiet, as I didn’t often have a large social network when I was very young. But my friend who came every holiday was something I looked forward to, and our friendship was genuine, despite our differences. Whilst perhaps I knew our differences may one day push us apart, when it did happen, I felt it was more my own insecurities than the friendship itself. That stuck with me. I learned from it with future friendships, but I could never change that one experience. Writing about it was perhaps my way of closing that chapter, something that has felt unfinished for a very long time.

Q: What’s next for you, Rachel?

A: I have just finished and published a book of short stories – Dark & Twisty ( http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Twisty-Anthology-Rachel-McGrath-ebook/dp/B017ZIA5UE/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1449851381&sr=8-3&keywords=rachel+mcgrath), of which all profits are being donated to Worldwide Cancer Research (http://www.worldwidecancerresearch.org).  This was a project from the heart, and I wanted to dedicate something to  my father and my aunty who are both fighting cancer.

Other than that, I hope to have a children’s novel finished in early 2016, another story aimed at the seven to eleven year old age group.

I truly enjoy writing and I have so many stories inside me, so I will continue to work on new stories and hopefully they will reach the audience I am hoping for.

Thank you again for this great opportunity!

You can find out more about Rachel and connect with her here:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RJG27

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rachelmcgrathauthor/?ref=hl

Website: www.rachelmcgrath.net

Blog: www.findingtherainbow.net (the site linked to my memoir)

GooglePlus: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+RachelMcGrathAuthor/posts

 

 

 

 

A Conversation with Loulou Szal

loulou_headshot

Loulou Szal, a teacher and homeschooling mother, is passionate about advancing the vocabulary of children and teenagers, and inspiring the same love of reading that has been part of her life through a wide range of experiences. She makes a point to personalize the books she signs, to engage young readers in the story from the first page. She believes that “as adults, we should show children how precious books are” and she follows through on that philosophy in many ways. It was a pleasure to talk with her and discover her perspective.

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste

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Q: What inspired you to self-publish The Diary of Arnmore?

A: I had had my writing published in my high school newspapers and university papers. I loved having my work out there. After I graduated I went straight into teaching and so was busy.  I didn’t write as much ‘till my husband and I moved to Papua New Guinea for two years and ran out of books to read and borrow. He asked me to write something and read it to him, so I started The Diary of Arnmore.

When I finally asked family and friends to read it, they loved it and asked for copies when it was published. So, I began to look for a publisher. This is going back 24 years. The publishing market in Australia was small and limited. Back then you had to send printed copies by mail, with SASEs and this could take 6-8 weeks. I got some rejections and some encouragement from publishers who liked the story but didn’t publish what I wrote, which was fantasy [this is pre- Harry Potter].

So I decided to try overseas… it was even harder and more daunting to mail my story to people I would never see face-to-face and perhaps wait for a rejection. It was expensive and stressful. I didn’t trust an agent, was unsure of copyright, so I put it on the back burner.

We had children. Then came the Internet, so I tried to send my story off electronically, which seemed easier. One of the American publishers, Xlibris, kept up a steady contact. One of their reps called to say that they had been bought into by Penguin Books and would I be interested?

I checked the Internet for information of this merger and discussed it with my husband. He really believed the novel was a good one and we decided to go with self-publishing as it seemed to be fast and would cut out all the middle-men.

They had the published book in my hands within 10 weeks and it was a dream come true. It was just a long process and a mix of time, energy, emotion and trust to let the book go. Even to worry about what people might say. I had to be willing to take the good comments with the bad. So far, the comments have all been good.

Q: Congratulations. Your son, Jeremy Szal, is also an accomplished writer. What are some of the ways your shared passions have brought you closer?

A: My son is a great guy, he has always had loads of energy and so from the time he was a toddler, I always directed him to books to satisfy his restlessness and keep his attention. He is now 18 and writing is his hobby. We talk about books all the time. Books we are reading, writers and their styles, scripts, and books turned into movies. We talk about what we are writing, we critique each other and he often emails me his latest work to read. It doesn’t have to always be about books but the open communication is there. Since he was home-schooled most of his life, I have always been there and so we are close. He has other friends of course, but he and I are usually on the same page when it comes to books, even though he prefers Sci-Fi and I don’t.

He has actually thanked me on a few occasions for showing him how to enjoy books and writing and for sharing the high regard I have for these things, with him. I take it as a great compliment!

Q: That’s wonderful. I enjoyed your post “What I’m Reading…” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/what-im-reading/) that shared some of your experiences homeschooling your daughter on the classics. As a school teacher, who also homeschooled your children, what are the benefits and pitfalls that you experienced teaching your kids at home?

A: Not many pitfalls at all really. When they were younger it was hard to make an appointment for a hair-cut or dentist for myself. Personal time comes only at 11pm, but we are a close family and that’s always meant a lot to us. I have been able to enjoy my career and be at home with my kids at the same time.

They also had the unique experience of traveling the world with us, exposed to tremendous culture: visiting places from the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Swiss Alps, the Pyramids, and the Colosseum. They completed a year of school in Europe and became fluent in German. The school system there was different and based more on how many ‘failures’ you made in class, not how many things you got  ‘right’; this is completely in contrast to my training and the sense that a child should be given positive reinforcement, not negative. It also curbed our sightseeing and so we took them out after a year [and they were grateful].

I have always taken care to see that my kids had the social activities to help their skills in that area. Hence my home has always been the base for group classes with other home schooled kids, and my kids were always involved in classes like piano, tennis, gymnastics, etc. for a decade, and we also held picnics in the park and the beach.
Q: Cool! Another fascinating post from your blog was “Reading and Writing Has Changed” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/reading-and-writing-has-changed/). How do you think our digital age has impacted education?

A: It certainly has. The digital age has had a huge hand in this. Of course, I want my information faster now too, but not at the expense of the beauty of the English language, or the written word in any language.

A friend, a young 21-year-old man, showed me a brilliant antique book he had bought in a sale, Cassell’s Household Guide of Every Department of Practical Life, being a Complete Encyclopaedia to Domestic and Social Economy, printed in 1869. It’s a step-by-step guide to daily living for the middle and upper-middle classes of British society. Guidance and instruction on every aspect of life, ranging in subject matter from bread-making to death in the household, even the treatment of insanity. It’s beautiful and hilarious at the same time but it is written majestically.

Page 49 discusses acceptable employment for women: “the opening of the situation of a librarian to educated gentle-women… in either public institutions or in private families of rank or wealth… the work is such that a lady of good attainments and education could undertake to enjoy. It requires no great physical exertion, no exposure to the weather and no hardship which the most delicate would shrink from.” Yes, the subject matter is outrageous, but how beautifully and poetically written. This quote is taken from a time when conversation was an art, which ranked quite high on the list of accomplishments. But today, children and many adults wouldn’t understand the way it is written, nor grasp the meaning. What is a “lady of good attainments?’ ” Yes of course, all this could today be said in a faster, more succinct manner, with words of fewer syllables, but what a pity.

As long as people are reading, it doesn’t matter, but we are losing the descriptive, larger words and replacing them with simple abbreviations, like LOL.

Here in Australia recently there was a lot of discussion about how students write essays for exams and whether they should be allowed to write in abbreviated form, just as they do in SMSes and emails. The answer was no, for now…. the world is moving too fast and many good things are falling by the wayside; good vocabulary and good spelling are some of the victims.

Q: It will be interesting to see where we go from here. In your post “Why Writers Write…” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/why-writers-write /) you shared some of the reasons why you write. Why do you teach?

A: I love it, always have. I am the second child in a line of six children. I’m the oldest girl. My youngest siblings are younger than me by 8-10 years. I spent a lot of time looking after them when they were babies and playing with them when they got older. Our parents were immigrants and we never had much so our school holidays were spent in local areas and playing in the back yard. Funnily enough, I found myself building little huts and dragging a table and chairs beneath it and playing schools with my siblings. I must have been only 10 or 12 at the time but we all enjoyed it, read a lot, did maths, played games, and became close. We still are. So teaching is all I ever wanted to do (apart from writing).

Q: Having self-published books for the Children’s and YA markets, how do you promote?

A: It’s difficult now to promote my writing, I have a few distributors who represent me and take my books around to schools and libraries. This week I was asked by one of these libraries to join their town’s annual book promotion festival, called ‘Paint the Town Read’. It is designed to encourage young children to enjoy reading and so I am thrilled to be a guest and visit. They have asked me to read Hungry Mr. Croc. So at the moment I can do small things like that, but my priority is my daughter’s education and I don’t want to take away from that.

Q: What age group is Hungry Mr. Croc meant to be for? I usually think of picture books as the 3-5 or 4-6 range but per U.S. guidelines the language would be far too advanced.

A: It’s an interesting point that you brought up. The book is too advanced for 5-6 year olds to read on their own, but it is good for parents to read aloud to their children. I suppose the level of understanding would depend on how much the child has been encouraged to read by both parents and teachers by that stage.

When I initially discussed the illustrations with the publishers, I did specify that the illustrations should not be too cartoon-like as the book was not written with very young children in mind, even while the concept is simple.

We discussed the realism I wanted as the writing was not meant to be for very young children. They sent me some preliminary drawings and I actually loved them, so decided to go with it. I do however tell people that they should read it to their children first.

I feel that the larger words are set into the story in such a way that the meaning of the words can be discerned by the construction or syntax of the sentence. The writing itself was advanced and I did that specifically because I like to bring a child’s reading level up, encourage a wider vocabulary, not lower the standard to suit the common speech of everyday life as some school reading kits had been doing here. These books were not platforms to better reading, but were unimaginative and stagnant.

I based my work on examples of writers like Dr Seuss, whose books have great pictures and also great vocabulary, and are advertised as “classics with zany stories, silly rhymes and crazy drawings for young readers everywhere.”

Or even the beauty of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

These books were written when children read more and had a better vocabulary.

So I guess I’m old-fashioned like that, but as a teacher, I know it can be done: to raise the level of a child’s comprehension and reading ability by simply adding in a few new, bigger words. I read all of Dr Suess’s books to my son when he was a baby and I know that his comprehension of these books was good by the time he was 2 or 3. In fact by 3 he was reading The Cat in the Hat on his own. We took Dr Seuss with us everywhere (before iPads).

I just think we as adults aren’t trying hard enough or raising the bar, we have just lowered the bar and kept it there, from what I can see. There is nothing wrong in explaining the big words and reading on, the next time the book/ big word is read it, the child’s brain will make the connection.

Of course, I can simplify my writing, but I feel I would be letting the kids (and myself) down a little, when I know we could all do better.

There is my philosophy…

Q: That’s a fascinating approach. I love how you mentioned that writing allows you to travel in your head. How have your travels enhanced your writing?

A: I have always traveled in my head because in a crowded home (and quite a violent one) I needed my space and privacy and it was in my head. Better worlds where fathers were kind to their children and wives (hence a love of Enid Blyton stories). It’s calming to travel in your head and it’s a great escape with very little expense.

When I actually began to travel, I kept diaries. Traveling gives you the added advantage of really knowing a place, knowing the style, the customs, the smells—then you can bring them to life easier. I have written a novel about a school teacher working in The Solomon Islands in the early 1900s. Having been to P.N.G. I know how the weather is, the water, the customs, the lifestyle, the vegetation. Yes, I can Google it, but nothing beats being there. It’s like eating an apple and writing about it, or watching someone else on T.V. eat it and then trying to write about it.

I wrote another story about a holiday on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I know the town and even the street and house I set my story in. Traveling is a great investment for writing, it isn’t the answer to everything, but it certainly enhances your ability to be descriptive.

Q: Anything to add?

I wish more parents, adults, older siblings, and teachers knew the value of reading and the benefits in all areas of life that a good book can give… it is underestimated. No one read to me as a very young child, but I thank God for good teachers and libraries!!