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Catherine Emmett speaks to Picture Book Snob

We were delighted to virtually meet the wonderful author Catherine Emmett recently and chat about her writing journey and the inspiration behind her work...

Author Catherine Emmett speaks to Picturebook Snob

King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle was our No. 1 most popular post on Instagram last year. It's also one of my family's favourite books - McDarkly stole our hearts as soon as we met him. I couldn't believe this was the work of a debut author and was even more fascinated to learn more about Catherine's origin story...

King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle

King of the Swamp is your first picture book – have you always wanted to write for children?

I have always had stories and voices appearing in my head! When I decided I wanted to write some of them down, I found it really difficult to focus on just one idea, that led me towards picture books, where generating lots of ideas is key.

You famously swapped spreadsheets in the city for the life of a writer in the country. How much time passed between making this decision and getting your first book deal?

I was very lucky when I first started out ! I started writing back in 2015 and gave up my day job in 2017 to focus on looking after my children. I sold 4 picture book texts within only a few months of leaving my job and getting an agent, which frankly blew me away!

Can you tell us about the “eureka” moment you had? Was it something that had been building for a while or was it a sudden epiphany?

There was a bit of a build-up, but two moments stick in my head. One was giving a careers talk to some young kids. I was drafted in last minute as a stand-in and so had nothing prepared. I just told them to do what they loved and that if they worked hard at it they’d do well, no matter what it was. When I got back to my desk it really made me look at my own choices. I also remember waiting for my eldest to come out of school one day and chatting to a friend about careers. I realised that if I didn’t make a change, I’d always look back and wonder what I’d been so afraid of.

It must have been so exciting to see the finished book. Had you ever any doubts about changing your career and location or were you always confident you were on the right path?

I really feel as though the universe had some sort of plan for me and that moving out of London and changing jobs was part of it! I feel that moving has helped me to get myself back. I used to love reading and drawing when I was younger, but when I worked in the City I had no time for any of that. I got my first agent the weekend after we moved out of London and it felt like a sign that the universe was pleased with my choices!

How does it feel to see your work in bookshops and libraries?

In a word, AMAZING! I was really lucky and was able to go and see King of the Swamp in lots of bookshops last summer between lockdowns and it really does not get old - it is magical.

When did you first get the idea for this book and/or how did it come to you?

King of the Swamp was inspired in part by a trip to Belise back in 2000. I was mapping uncharted jungle and in some areas of the jungle the ground was very swampy and these teeny tiny orchids grew there. It took about 20 years for that seed of an idea to grow!

Was it a long journey between that first idea and the book’s completion?

On a writing course with the brilliant Pippa Goodhart, I realised that the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly made for a perfect picture book twist. So I had an idea for an orchid growing main-character, and knew I wanted to combine him with that transformation. It took about 18mths of letting that sit in my head before it all came together – and then I sat down and wrote King of the Swamp in about 2 hours start to finish!

McDarkly is a remarkable character and the reader finds themselves rooting for him straight away. Was there anything or anyone from your personal life that inspired the character of McDarkly?

When I was little we had a big kind of wooden shed above the garage. I used to take loads of plant cuttings and drown them in Baby Bio to get them to grow. I really loved just pottering around on my own and making plants grow. The idea of a character that is a bit lonesome and likes growing things is very close to my heart.

One of Ben Mantle's illustrations for King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett
King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle

Are you a keen gardener and/or do you know a lot about orchids? Are there any other traits you share with McDarkly?

See above! But yes I really enjoy gardening – in the last three houses we have lived in we have created gardens from scratch, as either there was no garden there at all, or it was super neglected. Thinking about it, I actually did my GCSE computer project on creating software for a garden design business! Maybe King of the Swamp is more autobiographical than I thought!

There’s a strong theme of rural versus urban in this story which echoes your own trajectory - was this a conscious decision or something that emerged organically?

This character for me was always one that lived somewhere quiet and dark. I think for me being close to nature again feels a bit like coming home – I’m always happier surrounded by open spaces rather than buildings.

King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle

This is quite a moving story. The reader feels concern about the swamp’s fate, despair when McDarkly’s plans go awry and then joy at the story’s conclusion, with plenty of humour along the way. It’s rare for a picture book to elicit such a wide variety of emotions and a very skilful author that can pull this off in such an entertaining way. Were you aware of how impactful the story was as you were writing it or was it something became more apparent when you saw the text paired with the images? And how did it feel to see the book for the first time?

Aw that is very kind of you to say – I am blushing! I think because I had the character in my head for so long, I feel like I knew him really well. That meant that I could really understand how he would react in different situations. I was super happy with the text as soon as I wrote it and I knew my agent would really like it, which she did.

Seeing the images was just amazing. Ben Mantle had drawn McDarkly drinking a cup of tea, which I had never mentioned. As soon as I saw that, I knew that he totally understood the character. I actually went back and changed some of McDarkly’s dialogue to better fit how Ben had drawn him.

Ben Mantle's illustration of McDarkly drinking tea

The images have quite a retro feel. The roller skates, disco ball, record player and the montage of scenes of McDarkly preparing the swamp looks a little like polaroid photos give the story a seventies vibe. I love all the quirky details in the images and find I notice something new every time I read this story (I’m only spotting the candelabra attached to the portable disco ball now!). Were these part of your original vision for McDarkly’s world or something that Ben introduced?

That was ALL Ben! I just got to sit back and enjoy by that stage! I really love the palate that he has used and how he and the designers put it all together.

Did you have to wait long before seeing Ben’s work and were you impatient during this time? Were you nervous at all?

Picture books always take ages to put together and there is SO much waiting! It often takes years in between having a text bought to seeing illustrations - it really is the worst part. It’s always slightly nerve wracking to see the illustrations for the first time, but I was in safe hands with Ben! I had a huge smile on my face as soon as I saw his illustrations!

We’re huge fans of the little swamp creature who can be seen in the background and find his antics extremely amusing. Was this character present from the start or did he emerge as the story developed?

All Ben – but I REALLY love him.

Ben Mantle's little swamp creature

Rhyming picture books are notoriously tricky because the rhythm needs to be as perfect as the words, but this flows very naturally. Did you deliberately set out to write a rhyming picture book? Did you it difficult or does writing in verse come naturally to you?

When I first started out writing in rhyme, my 6yr old niece said ‘keep trying Aunty Catherine, and you’ll get better’! I found metre very tricky at the start but spent a lot of time understanding it – now it comes very naturally. I’ve now starting running a rhyming picture book course with WriteMentor to save others the pain of searching for rhyming resources.

You must have gotten lots of feedback from children since King of the Swamp was published. Do you have a favourite review from a young reader?

The favourite thing that I have seen is this amazing display by class P2 in Dunbarney Primary – it’s so brilliant!

amazing display by class P2 in Dunbarney Primary for King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle
Art inspired by King of the Swamp from the students of Class P2 at Dunbarney Primary School in Perth, UK

What are your favourite picture books to read with your own family?

We LOVE The Book With No Pictures – that gets a lot of requests!

Can you tell us anything about your latest project?

My next book, The Pet, is out on 13th May and is illustrated by the brilliant David Tazzyman! It is about the terrible Digby David and what happens when he demands larger and larger and bigger and better pets!

The Pet by Catherine Emmett and David Tazzyman
The Pet releases on 13th May 2021

Have you any advice for aspiring authors?

Keep writing! It will improve your craft and also will keep you going through all the highs and lows of being a writer – especially all that WAITING!

Lastly, I consider myself a picture book snob! Is there anything that you are snobby about?

Ha! There really isn’t! I’m going to have to develop one!

Author Catherine Emmett's advice to aspiring writers
Catherine's advice for aspiring authors

Find out more about Catherine and her work on her website

Read our review of King of the Swamp by Catherine Emmett and Ben Mantle

See Catherine's next book with David Tazzyman, The Pet, on the publisher's website

Learn more about the WriteRhyme, the 6-week rhyming course Catherine is teaching with WriteMentor

Illustation by Ben Mantle from King of the Swamp - our most popular Instagram post of 2020

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