Lu Fraser speaks to Picture Book Snob
Lu Fraser is the author of The Littlest Yak, which was illustrated by Kate Hindley and published by Simon & Schuster in September. This is one of our favourite picture books of all time (read a review) - it's absolutely delightful; amusing, adorable and also quite moving, with beautiful illustrations. Gertie is a little yak who longs to be bigger and this is a wonderful story to which both children and their parents can relate. I was delighted when Lu Fraser kindly agreed to an interview and answered all my long-winded questions, even though there were millions of them! Here's Lu talking about her creative process and inspiration, what it's like to be a writer, her family's favourite books and tea...
The Littlest Yak is your first picture book. Had you been an aspiring picture book author for long before this was published?
I think I was always destined to end up in picture books but I took my own sweet time getting here! Picture books can be tricky things so, when I wrote my first one back in 2004, I had no intention at the time of showing it to anybody – let alone an agent! I wrote it for my daughter, for fun and, to be honest, just to see if I could do it. The following year I was in conversation with an agent about a YA book and she asked to see what else I had. Ironically, it was the picture book she wanted to sign! Although I was tempted, it didn’t work out and I packed the story away (16 years later and it’s still sat in a cupboard!). The whole process kick-started something I had never, ever planned, although – I suddenly realised I LOVED writing picture books!
Is it correct that you worked in children’s publishing for many years?
Sadly, I’m afraid I’ve never worked for a publisher (how exciting would that have been?!). I did work for a children’s media company, that created children’s publishing and TV brands (so I did work in an environment that had publishing as a big part of its business!).
Was working in this environment what steered you towards becoming an author or was the ambition always there?
The dream of being a writer was firmly entrenched in my heart as a little girl but I do think working on published brands, and alongside publishers, gave me the courage to pick up my own pencil!
Was The Littlest Yak the first book you ever submitted to a publisher or agent?
Although The Littlest Yak was my first book to be published it wasn’t the first picture book I ever wrote or submitted – infact, since signing with my agent Mandy Suhr at Miles Stott, The Littlest Yak was the fifth book we submitted and sold. (The first four had already been bought by Bloomsbury but timings/illustrator schedules, etc., meant that The Littlest Yak came out first!).
You’ve shared some images on social media of bookshop window displays featuring The Littlest Yak, how does it feel to see a shop window full of your book?
Mostly WOAH! Seeing The Littlest Yak on a shelf was HUGE but seeing it on a display unit or a table blew me away! By the time it was appearing in window displays it felt surreal and when Waterstones in Winchester created a whole Gertie window, I was utterly speechless. I never, ever take any of it for granted – I just try and enjoy it whilst it lasts!
I was intrigued by a message you posted on social media wishing your daughter a happy 16th birthday. You mentioned that the lines, “Maybe one day you’ll be huge, you’ll be tall, So don’t rush to grow up when it’s GREAT being small,” were originally written for her. Could you tell us a bit about how and when you composed them and how long it took for the story to form around them?
Gertie really was born in the blink of an eye! One wet and windy October I was sat on a delayed flight to Edinburgh when I looked over at my daughter and suddenly realised how much she’d grown, how quickly time had passed and how much I wanted to hit the ‘stop!’ button before she grew any more. I also knew, in that moment, how much she wanted to fast-forward. Gertie walked into my head a second later and, by the time the plane took off, the outline was done! I wrote the first draft a week later when I got back. Ironically, the first lines I wrote for The Littlest Yak we later removed in the editing process and they went on to germinate a whole new story that has just gone out on submission!
Was it a long journey from that first kernel of an idea to first draft and then to finished book?
I think I wrote the first draft in about two or three weeks (I tend to write a bit…walk away…write a bit…walk away!). I sent it to Mandy, my agent, in the November and we talked it through and agreed the second half needed a bit more work. I went away and thought about it over Christmas then sent a new version back to Mandy in the January. It was done shortly afterwards and we put it out on submission in the March London Book Fair – 5 months from lightbulb-moment to finding a home at Simon & Schuster!
I love how The Littlest Yak celebrates and stresses the importance of being yourself, is this what inspired the book or did this message emerge as the story developed?
I have to have a very clear idea of the heart of a story before I actually pick up my pencil – if I start writing before I’ve got that sorted it’s a disaster! Sometimes the heart of a tale is clear and easy and sometimes it’s a bit more complex but, with Gertie, I knew from the moment she walked into my head exactly what I wanted her story to be about (although getting it just right took a bit more work!).
I don’t think I appreciated how cute yaks are before meeting Gertie. What made you choose yaks as characters? Was the story always going to be about animals? Did you have yaks in mind from the beginning? Have you always been drawn to these animals? Have you encountered any yaks in real life?
Yaks are phenomenal! I remember reading about one as a little girl and not knowing a thing about them but thinking how wonderfully woolly they were! When the idea walked into my head it was a Yak and it was called Gertie and there really wasn’t any arguing with it! Gertie arrived…and that was that! (& yes! I have met a Yak in real life!).
It’s a very atmospheric story with all the clattering and pattering of hooves and sweepings of snow. Have you mountaineering experience yourself?
If my best friend was reading this question she would be laughing helplessly – I get vertigo just standing on the coffee table to put the Christmas decorations up! Having said that, my daughter would feel the need to point out how much I love a good view from up high and how frequently I drag the family UP something to see the view when we are on holiday! My favourite walk with the dogs is always UP, too, and I do have a very clear memory of climbing a mountain in Iceland was I was pretty young and standing at the top thinking ‘is there a anything more astounding than standing up high, looking down on this wonderful planet?’. Maybe I have the heart of a mountaineer – if not the stomach!
I love all the knitwear in this book. Was this something you had in mind when you first imagined Gertie and the herd?
Oh, I WISH I could take credit for all that woolly brilliance! Sadly…I can’t! That’s all down to the wonder that is Kate Hindley!
I am hugely strict with myself when I write and do my utmost to never imagine my characters in detail at all! (unless the story requires it). I am a big believer that the other 50% of the book should be handed over to the illustrator and that they should be left to their own devices! I work really hard at text layout and the page breaks but then I scream to a halt and remind myself that what comes after that belongs to someone else!
How much did you and Kate Hindley collaborate on how Gertie and her herd looked?
Not at all! Kate is a genius at what she does and she absolutely doesn’t need me chipping in! I always say I couldn’t have imagined Gertie half so well as Kate…and it’s true!
The language and style of this book is very poetic. Have you a background in English/creative writing and/or had you written much poetry before?
Oh, I am a massive poetry fan! There’s easily 100+ poetry editions crammed into my bookshelves in my little cottage! The very first book I ever bought with my pocket money was a poetry anthology – I was only seven but I was hooked! I think I wrote poetry from that moment onwards! English was always my best subject at school and, after A’level, I went on to study English Lit. at University, too.
The combination of snow and skies full of stars makes the story feel very festive (while simultaneously suitable for reading any time), did you originally think of the book as “Christmassy?”
I absolutely never thought of this as a Christmassy text! For me, the focus was always Gertie’s revelation – the moment she realises how great her smallness is. It was only when I looked back, I suddenly realised how wonderfully snowy her world was!
I read that you had signed a four-book deal, can you tell us anything about the other books you are working on?
Yes! That’s right! I have a four book deal with Bloomsbury and a four book deal with Simon & Schuster.
Next year (2021) I have two books coming out with Bloomsbury: The Viking who Liked Icing (with debut illustrator Mark McKinley - August 5th) followed by The Witchling & the Wish (with illustrating magic from Sarah Massini - September). Then, in ’22, it’s back with Simon & Schuster with a couple of projects (Spring & Autumn) that I WISH I could talk about as I am SO excited but… you’ll have to watch this space!
When you begin writing a story, do you already know exactly what happens and how it will end or is the plot more fluid and subject to change?
I try not to think too much when I write! I absolutely hate writing a plan or plotting things out. The only thing I’m strict about is getting the heart of the story condensed into a couple of key moments and then… I’m off! I write like an onion – I start somewhere in the middle then add layers until the story swells and I eventually reach the opening spread and the end pages! I never, ever write from the start to the finish and I only ever write the bit that I’m in the mood for on that particular day. I rarely know what’s going to happen, in terms of detail, from one spread to the next, either, so the story is as much a surprise (and as fun) for me to write as I hope it is for little people to read it! I live for the moment when everything slots into place – it’s like sliding the last piece of the jigsaw home. You know you’re done and it just feels… right.
Could you tell us a bit about your creative process? How do you come up with ideas?
I’ve got quite a few books coming out now and I can honestly say every single one has sprung from a different (random!) creative source. The Littlest Yak, as you know, was the result of a delayed plane flight with my daughter, my next book is linked to my closest friend and the following two are simply because I wanted to write them – one because it ties into my childhood and one for no better reason than that the main character makes me laugh out loud! My motivations have stemmed from the contents of a friend’s back garden to a photo on social media (and then, of course, there’s the story I created simply because I liked the title and needed a tale to fill it!).
Do you follow a strict writing schedule or are you more flexible? Do you have a favourite place or time of day to work?
I wish I was one of those amazing authors who writes in cafés or at a table in the kitchen surrounded by life but, sadly, the author part of my brain isn’t quite so forgiving!
I’m usually awake around 5am and will lie in bed for a bit, just letting my brain wander through the manuscript I’m working on. Then, I’ll either work propped up in bed or in my little hut at the end of the garden. Either way, the earlier I write, the better. When I write I build a whole world in my head… so that means leaving this one behind! Curtains closed, no conversation with the family, no putting the washing on, no checking emails, no phone anywhere near me - just a huge supply of tea, pencils and my noise-cancelling headphones! (I write with one particular type of pencil in one particular type of notebook – a habit I can’t break!).
What is it like working with an illustrator? Are you ever nervous about how they might interpret and depict your work?
The funny thing about picture books is that, even when you’ve worked your hardest, you can only ever be 50% of any potential magic – the other half is up to someone you (most likely) have never spoken to - let alone met! It’s a huge undertaking of trust! If the illustrator is well-known then you’ll already have an idea of their work and that can be tremendously reassuring but, ultimately, it’s a leap of faith.
There’s always that momentary flutter in your stomach as you hit the ‘open’ button on the first roughs but, if you’ve working with a great team, you have nothing to worry about! I also think it helps that I don’t visualise my characters too much, as well!
How familiar were you with Kate’s work before this? Did you have her in mind for The Littlest Yak or did your publisher pair you with Kate?
I was on my way to a meeting at the S&S offices when I caught a fleeting glimpse of a book cover on an advert… and fell in love! I mentioned it to Simon & Schuster and it turned out to be one of their middle grade books - the illustrator in question was, of course, Kate Hindley (even though I had her books on my shelf, I somehow hadn’t made the connection that the cover on the ad was hers!). As it turns out, Simon & Schuster had already been thinking the same thing too, and, thankfully, Kate agreed to work with me, so I guess it was fate!
It must be so exciting to see your words brought to life by an artist, especially one as extraordinary as Kate Hindley. When did you first see Gertie as Kate imagined her, and did she look similar to how you had pictured her yourself?
Gertie first arrived in my inbox in the late Autumn of 2018 (about 2 years before she was on the shelf) and I knew, the moment I opened the file, that we were done and that I wouldn’t suggest a single change. Kate had absolutely nailed it first time round! As I don’t imagine my characters much it was quite a big moment for me – like meeting Gertie for the very first time.
Waiting to see the first illustrations for your picture book (and the finished product too) must be difficult as well as exciting. Do you find this waiting period challenging and if so, is there anything you do to distract yourself if you’re feeling impatient?
The funny thing is… I’m not really impatient at all! In fact, by the time the artwork is properly underway, I almost don’t want it to arrive - partly because, once the artwork is done, there’s a finality to the project (it’s almost over and I have to say goodbye to a character that has been part of my working day for years) and partly because I’m very nervous about my books going out into the world. I’d quite happily let the ‘waiting for artwork’ part stretch on for ages and ages!
However, like most writers, I’m pretty awful when we send work out on submission! The waiting is hard-work! I’ve learned to be a little more patient as the years have gone by (but not much!). Thankfully, I’m pretty busy most of the time with new work or edits or artwork so that’s a brilliant distraction – there’s nothing like a deadline to keep you focused elsewhere!
I expect 2020 was a difficult year to release a book. Has the support of the online community of writers and readers compensated for the lack of opportunities to promote a book that might typically be available to an author?
2020 has been the very strangest of years for us all and definitely an odd one to launch a book! There’s no doubt that the importance of social media has grown hugely, in light of the pandemic, and has certainly been the key factor in raising awareness for Gertie #thelittlestyak . I love how everyone has rallied around in the industry – booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, fellow writers, illustrators, parents, carers , publishers, the trade in general – everyone has shared and loved and talked about the books that have kept us going through lockdown and Gertie has been swept along on a wave of support. I’m so hugely grateful for all the help and all the love!
There appears to have been an overwhelmingly positive response to Gertie’s debut. Will we see any further adventures of this little yak?
More Gertie?! That’s a very good question! The response to The Littlest Yak has been absolutely bonkers - it’s left me a little overwhelmed, to be honest! Readers have taken this little woolly yak with her BIGNESS to their hearts and it has been the most incredible thing. Will Kate & I go back to Gertie’s mountain? Well… I never write a book with the intention of a ‘part two’ or a series but Gertie is very dear to me! Watch this space…!
I love the image of Gertie perched on top of a tall stack of books. Is this similar to how you spent your own childhood? Have you always loved reading?
What a great question! When I first talked to Simon & Schuster about Gertie I commented that these particular lines (‘And she read lots of books to make her thoughts grow…’) were actually written about myself as a little girl so… yes! That image of Gertie on the books is absolutely how my childhood was spent (my husband will tell you that not much has changed – our house is still bursting with books!).
What were your favourite books when you were younger and what are the stories that you and your daughter enjoyed reading together the most?
When I was a pre-schooler I absolutely loved the Blackberry Farm books by Jane Pilgrim (they’re around 70 years old now!) and I was a big Mr Men fan, too. After that, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five held the top spot for a long time followed by C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I met The Velveteen Rabbit when I was six and it still reduces me to tears, even now – it holds joint first place (along with The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston) as my favourite children’s book of all time.
My daughter and I used to read together morning, noon and night when she was younger! In terms of picture books, Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk holds a special place in the hearts of the whole household (and there’s a lot of love for Charles Fuge’s I Know a Rhino) but the first picture book I ever read to my daughter still remains one of her top two of all time – Jane Yolen & Mark Teague’s How do Dinosaurs say Goodnight? The other one being The Monkey with a Bright Blue Bottom by Steve Smallman & Nick Schon.
Antoine De Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is definitely at the top of the list, too!
Which writers (if any) have influenced you?
I think, before writers, it’s poets that have probably had the biggest influence on me – the use of rhythm and the importance of a pause or a verse break, in particular, are all hugely important lessons if you write rhyming picture books! I read everything from Homer to Shakespeare to Wendy Cope but I suppose, if I had to pick one poet that I am especially fond of, it would be Keats. The other significant influence in my head is Dylan Thomas; I first read Under Milk Wood when I was 12 and was completely blown away.
I had a great piece of advice from one of my A level English teachers who told me to read everything – EVERYTHING! From War and Peace to movie scripts to Latin translations to Mills and Boon. ‘How are you going to be able to give an opinion on what you think is ‘good’ literature if you haven’t read everything you can get your hands on?’
I think, at the end of the day, every book you read influences you in some way – even if’s only the realisation that ‘No – that’s not for me… that’s not the way I want to write.’
Gertie’s name suits her so well, how did you come up with it? Was this name something you had in mind from the start or something you thought of later?
Gertie arrived in my head whole and perfect, in all her ‘yakness’ with her name very clearly written in thick black pen on a sticker which was proudly stuck to her curly, whirly wool – I had absolutely nothing to do with it!
Although it’s in a presumably freezing setting, there’s a warmth that radiates from The Littlest Yak and Gertie’s world feels very cosy. Was that something you and Kate consciously created together or something that just materialised naturally?
I’m so glad Gertie’s world feels cosy, despite the chilly setting! In all honesty, I was so focused on getting the relationships right, and conveying the love that exists between Gertie and her Mummy, that I never consciously thought about balancing out the icicles and the blizzards with the hugging! Although Kate and I worked quite separately I think we both worked to the same ends, with the guidance and support of the S&S team – getting the emotion of this story across was paramount to all of us . Readers seem to really sense that, too, which is just brilliant!
The text flows so smoothly, it gives the impression that it flowed effortlessly from pen to page. Was composing the story as easy as that or were there many revisions?
When I first wrote The Littlest Yak the second half of the story was quite different to how it ended up - I knew what I wanted to say but wasn’t saying it clearly enough! That’s where my agent comes in; Mandy Suhr at Miles Stott has had decades of working on the other side of the table as an editor and publisher before she became an agent so she instantly sees the issue and always manages to get my head in the right place. I went away and re-wrote the second half and, bar a few tweaks, we were pretty much there. The other genius in my life is Helen Mackenzie Smith, Editorial Director of Picture Books at Simon & Schuster and, luckily, my editor, too! We batted a few changes back and forth but, apart from adding in a spread and changing the final two lines, most of what we did was just fiddling. We were done in 4 days! I was very lucky with Gertie – once I had the message set in my head the story flew (but it’s not always like that!).
Some of the lines brought a tear to my eye, did you ever find yourself getting emotional while writing this story?
Yes! I completely cried into my keyboard on two of the spreads! The conversations between Gertie and her Mummy were the ones that choked me!
I expect you must have gotten lots of feedback from children since The Littlest Yak was published. Do you have a favourite remark from a young reviewer?
I love hearing stories about children reading The Littlest Yak – we get so much lovely feedback and it really does mean so much! My absolute favourite story was from a Mum who told me about her little girl on her first day at Nursery and, when she hesitated at the door, feeling a bit nervous, she took a deep breath and told her Mum ‘I can do this because I have BIGNESS inside…just like Gertie!’ I really did fill up when I read that!
Have you any advice for aspiring authors?
I think, in today’s crowded market, it’s very tempting to try and write commercially, in the hope of being successful – to try and write for the gap that you think exists or the gap that you think might exist in the coming years, etc., but, from my own experience, I think the only time you really write convincingly and successfully is when you write from the heart… and write what you actually want to write about! My advice is always the same to anyone wanting to write – wear your heart on your sleeve, write truly, write honestly…
Lastly, I consider myself a picture book snob! Is there anything you’re snobby about?
I had to think long and hard about this question! And yes! There is one thing I am HUGELY particular about and that’s my… TEABAGS!
Everyone who works with me knows I don’t function in a meeting until I have a cup of tea in my hand (and my daughter and her friends always avoid me first thing in the morning if I haven’t had at least two cups of tea!). I love all sorts of tea but I really do like my teabags to be leafy and not all dusty and twiggy!
The Littlest Yak by Lu Fraser and Kate Hindley is published by Simon & Schuster and available in all good bookshops. Read Picture Book Snob's review of The Littlest Yak.