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Author Interview: Dolores Keaveney speaks to Picture Book Snob

Irish author Dolores Keaveney wrote and self-published her first children's book in 2009 at the age of 60. If I Were a Bee went on to become a bestseller and a self-publishing sensation here in Ireland. Since then, Dolores has written fourteen books, and illustrated a further two.

Dolores is inspired by her family and her garden, and her work has been compared to that of Beatrix Potter. Dee the Bee was published by Starfish Bay in September 2020 and is available in bookshops in Ireland and all over the world. Dolores recently spoke to Picture Book Snob about her journey as an author and her creative process...

Have you always been an artist? When did you start painting?

I have been painting for the best part of 40 years. While I am not formally trained as an artist, I did attend watercolour classes for two years in the Vocational School, Mullingar. My teacher was a wonderful professional artist called Anna Marie Leavy. She was, and still is, an amazing watercolour artist. I attended two year-long sessions and, along with some of the others that were taking part, we formed The Lakeland Art Group. Anna Marie taught me all I know about watercolours.

Have you always been a storyteller?

No. I only started storytelling in 2009 when I wrote and self-published my very first children’s picture book called If I Were a Bee.

Was If I Were A Bee the first book you attempted, or were there others that didn’t make it to completion?

There were no others. If I Were a Bee was my very first. I was attending a bee-keeping course in Belvedere House & Park. I had always an idea that I might keep a beehive and I wanted to learn about how to care for one. One night, I awoke with a poem about a bee in my head. I sat up and wrote it down. Lay down and went back to sleep. The next day I thought I had dreamt this, but lo and behold, the poem was written on the paper. I then put it beside lots of paintings of flowers that I had been painting. And hey presto, I had the vision of a book all about the flowers that the bee calls to in order to collect pollen and nectar and If I Were a Bee was born.

Had you always dreamed of being an author?

In fact, this sounds strange, but I really never intended to write books and it was never one of my dreams. I had been painting in watercolour for years. I loved going to craft fairs to sell my miniature watercolours. I then created a range of big slate mirrors which I made myself and spent many years outside breaking each slate with a pliers, sanding and spraying them. It was very physical work and I loved it. I decided to paint in watercolours on the slates and spent many years travelling around fairs. It was a great time for me. I then decided to keep bees... and the book writing began.

You have several grandchildren; do they give you feedback on your books during the writing process as well as on finished projects?

When I started writing and illustrating I had three grandchildren Ellie, Greg and Mal. They became the main characters in Jenny the Little Brown Hen and Sylvester and the Six Little Chicks. This family were also very involved in the making of Beelicious Recipes with Honey and I used lots of their recipes and some of their drawings in this book. Then as the books progressed Will, Ali and Marta featured in some books and all of my grandkids were involved in the making and illustrating of Dilly the Camper and the Magic Fairy Garden. This was a wonderful project because when the children came to visit, we would take out a long roll of paper. All of them would draw their characters and add more words at different times. It was magic. Then Huw and Austin got involved in The Little Sunflower Seed. We had enormous fun with this book and made a video in which they also took part.

You have been traditionally published as well as self-published. Are they two very different experiences? Which do you prefer?

I have self-published 14 children’s picture books and I have just one traditionally published picture book. The traditionally published book is my latest.

There are absolutely two different experiences. Firstly, self-publishing is not for the faint hearted and it involves a lot of work. Both experiences are the same up until you decide to either print the book yourself or sign a contract with a publisher.

With self-publishing, you have full control of your book. You can choose how many books to print, how you are going to sell them, where to have a launch and so on.

With a traditionally published book, you literally sign your book away to a publisher. They print it and publish it and do everything to get it in to the shops. But you really have to help out in that you have to do a lot of publicity yourself by contacting bookshops, libraries etc., signings, radio and TV appearances, if you can. I love all aspects of publishing.

I saw recently that Dee the Bee was stocked by bookshops in New York. Where is the farthest Dee the Bee or any of your other books has travelled?

Yes, the book is stocked online in many shops in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand UK. This is my first traditionally published book and it is published by Starfish Bay Publishers in Australia. I really do not know how many shops it is physically in but it is definitely in a shop called Hipocampo Children’s Books in New York.

Over the years all of my books have travelled far and wide, heading to Australia, America and lots of other countries. I have been blessed with the amount of books that have been sent as presents to lots of kids all around the world.

Are Duchess and Valkyrie based on real cats?

Yes this story is based on two little cats called Duchess & Valkyrie. We inherited those cats, names and all, and they were beautiful. Unfortunately, both are dead now, but it's lovely to have this book to remember all their mischief.

Do you have a favourite of your own books?

I suppose I have to say my first book, If I Were a Bee, is my favourite and by far my best seller.

Who are your favourite children’s book writers and illustrators? Are you influenced by anyone in particular?

My all time favourite children’s book author is Judith Kerr and The Tiger who came to Tea. Judith sold more than 10 million copies around the world. I remember buying it for my son John, who is now 48, when he was a small child and, guess what? I still have the book to date! I had the great pleasure of seeing Judith in Dublin about 3 years ago, and of telling her how much I loved her books. She lived to her early nineties and just died last year. I also love Beatrix Potter and her beautiful illustrations.

Dolores reading to children in a library in Carrick-on-Shannon

Are you working on anything at the moment and will your next book be traditionally published or self-published?

Yes, I have a little picture book nearly ready for submission and if I do not get that magic word, I will self-publish it next year. It is called Huwie the Apple Tree. It is a very different book for me because it is very minimalist. It is a true story about my grandson Huw who planted an apple seed. Some say it is my best so far… time will tell!

So many writers speak about self-doubt as the enemy of creativity. Do you ever feel discouraged while in the middle of a project? If so, what helps you to keep going?

To be quite honest with you, I never feel discouraged. I am a very lucky person as I have always been very positive in my outlook on life. I am 72 years young and have experienced lots. I can say that I was born very positive and all through my life I have tried to remain positive in every situation. I try to stay focused in the now, which is not easy, but this has helped me throughout my life. I love nature and gardening and when things are not going to plan, I usually go to my garden and put my hands into the clay and do a bit of physical work, and this is my go-to place.

Are you originally from Mullingar?

Yes, I am from Mullingar. I was born in 1948 and have lived just outside Mullingar all my life. So I am a fully fledged Mullingar Woman. Beef to the heels, like a Mullingar heifer… that is a Mullingar saying.

Do you always use watercolours or do you use other media in your art too?

Yes, I almost always use watercolours. It was the first painting media that I learned and I love watercolours. I seem to be able to paint with them much better than acrylic or oils. My art is mostly big, bright and colourful.

What’s the funniest/strangest/most unexpected thing that’s happened during your career as an author?

Funniest... Dressing up in a bee suit and bee slippers and flying around a classroom reading for for children.

Strangest… Having Covid taking over the world the year you publish your first traditionally published book.

Unexpected… The absolutely amazing crowd that turned up to the launch of my very first picture book If I Were a Bee… I was gob-smacked.

Dolores meets Ireland's president, Michael D. Higgins

What do you love the most about creating children’s books?

I am a grandmother to eight grandchildren and I love creating granny stories. My books are very simple and are all about nature. I really love telling the children about bees, flowers, hens, spiders and many other animals and insects. I am passionate about spreading the word about our humble honeybee and teaching children about all the fruit and vegetable that the honeybee pollinates, that we eat every day.

You have also designed a range of textiles - is this something that developed from your books or have you always done this?

I never did this before I started the books. Because I have always loved going around to fairs, I decided to try and develop a range of repeat patterns from my images so I could have a range of products like aprons, cushions, wall hangings, bags etc. I was on the internet one day and saw a company in Ireland called Pixalili in Donegal who were printing and making textiles for people. I emailed them and when they saw my images, they were delighted to include them on their website. I can also supply these products when I am working at fairs etc. and I am adamant about having my textiles designed, printed and made in Ireland. This year has been a bit of a downer, but I have been busy though during the lockdown. I developed a range of Muslin Scarves using my images and I hope to have them available for sale on my website. They will be printed by Pixalili and guess what? I will be sowing them myself so they will be 100% made in Ireland.

A range of Shannonbridge pottery designed by Dolores

Where do your ideas come from?

I mostly write in rhyme and something just could just trigger a rhyme and then I might write it down. I wrote a little book called The Scary Spider and it just happened suddenly. I was walking past my window and saw a spider and ran inside, got my camera and took some photos. Suddenly, all the words just came out of my head onto a page and I had the book. It still took several months before I had it in my hand

How long does a project usually take from start to finish?

From the time I get the idea until the time the book is on my floor it could take the best part of one year. If I submit it to a publisher, depending on the publisher it could take as long as 2 years.

When you are working on a book, which comes first, the images or the words?

I always write the story or the rhyming story first. It is the first thing to come into my mind. When I have that all down on paper then I perfect it. The most important thing one has to do when writing any type of book is to have it edited, professionally if possible. There are many editors out there that will edit your book and leave it without mistakes. The worst thing for to happen is for you to have your very lovely new book in your hand and to find out that there are mistakes in it.

When you’re working on your illustrations do you do several different sketches before deciding what to paint? Do you use storyboards? Tell us a bit about your creative process.

I sometimes do a storyboard, but not always. This is what I do: I get my story and decide how many pages I will have in my picture book. The biggest picture book you can have is 36 pages in all, and that includes the cover and endpapers. So I will divide my text into say 14 spreads (two pages together) or 24 pages, or bigger if I need to, up to 36 pages. I then take each page and start illustrating this to match up with the words. I continue on each page until I have the 14 spreads done. So when it is completed, I scan the images in a high resolution 300dpi. I usually use my local shop to do this for me because I want my images to be the best they can be. I then upload them along with the words and design the image in Photoshop. I do have a graphic designer who has been wonderful. When I have all the designs done, he will then look over them and get them into In Design ready for Printing. It is a long process.

Have you any advice for authors and/or illustrators who are just starting out, or those who have always dreamed of writing a book but haven’t managed to do it yet?

I suppose the first thing that one has to do is to write the story. It does not have to be perfect to begin with, it can be just a draft. Then you have to decide whether you want to submit it to publishers or publish it yourself. If you decide to submit to publishers, you need to check online what publishers are accepting submissions and follow their submissions guidelines very carefully. If you are self-publishing, it would be a great idea to check what the market is like and what books are popular. Then the illustrations are next. It would be very helpful, and would save a lot of money, if you could do the illustrations yourself, but not everyone can. There are lots of freelance artists with whom you can collaborate. For anyone who is looking for more information on self-publishing, I wrote an article for many years ago and it's still relevant.

You recently had a story walk created for Dee the Bee in Mountmellick Park. That must have been very exciting. Can you tell us how it felt to see such a lovely tribute to your work?

Yes, Mountmellick Library contacted me and asked if they could use Dee the Bee to create a Story Walk in their local park. This was because no children or authors could attend at the libraries because of the current situation. This project was the brainchild of Edel Heffernan librarian. The Story Walk project was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont and developed in collaboration with Vermont Bicycle and Pedestrian Programme and the Kellogg Hubbard Library in the USA. I was absolutely delighted as this was the first time any library in Ireland had created such an event.

What does it feel like to walk into a bookshop and see your book on the shelf or in a window, and images of it being stocked in far-flung places across the globe?

It is absolutely wonderful to see my books in bookshops, libraries either locally or further afield. It is just heartwarming to know that people are interested in stocking and buying my books and I am always full of gratitude for this.

When you started writing your first book, did you ever imagine you’d be selling books internationally?

Yes, you will probably say I am full of myself, but from the word go my only thought was that my books would go "global." That was the word that I put on a storyboard many years ago and it took ten years of never giving up to achieve this. So "yes" to this!

Finally, I consider myself a picture book snob, is there anything you’re snobby about?

To be honest, I never considered myself as a snob about anything, but when I started writing way back in 2008, I had this drive to self-publish my book. I went ahead and did it. It was a great success and for so many years after that I have helped lots of people to achieve their goals regarding self-publishing. I suppose you could say that I am a self-publishing snob.

You can learn more about all the books Dolores has published as well as her textiles, on her website. Here's another article Dolores wrote containing lots of comprehensive information for anyone interested in self-publishing a children's book. Dolores is also featured in the Children's Books Ireland Books Make Things Better reading guide.

Read Picture Book Snob's review of Dee the Bee here.

Dolores delivers copies of her latest book during a pandemic


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