Riding high in the Amazon bestsellers books list is Tunbridge Wells’ Hannah Shewan-Friend with her tome Inky Babble. Eileen Leahy talks to her about witches, writing and juggling workloads
How long have you been illustrating and writing?
I’ve done both since I was at school. My writing started off as penning silly poems or songs and the odd short play for drama class. They were always humorous as I love anything that makes people laugh, and I think I get that side from my family’s music hall links. Apparently they were quite the comedians. On the illustrating side, I’ve loved art since before I can remember. My dad studied at St Martin’s in London so he encouraged me. I then studied art at Reigate, followed by technical drawing at Croydon College, then Civil Engineering at Greenwich University. I’ve been producing technical drawings and 3D models for 17 years now, but I always come back to drawing and painting.
Tell us about the origins of the title of your book Inky Babble?
I was trying to think of something that was a bit different and stood out. I had already decided that I talk – or babble – so that’s where that bit came from. I love anything that is a bit spooky and goes bump in the night, so when I was thinking up characters I liked the idea of a bat, and the name ‘Inky’ just came to me as a good way to describe its colour. Inky Babble then just popped into my head, and I decided that it was actually a great name for the book and my dragon.
Did you always want to write a children’s book instead of an adult one?
I knew I wanted to write a book, but I didn’t think specifically about a children’s one until I had my little boy, Sebastian. It was at that point I decided I wanted to write a story for him. He inspired me to knuckle down and do something that I have always wanted to do. When I showed the book to others they encouraged me to get it published, so I decided to just go for it.
It’s about a witch named Maud and her dragon called Inky – can you tell us what inspired you to write this tale?
I love witches, I think they are wonderful, and there is so much mystery attached to them. I’m a big fan of books that feature them, such as Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch and the Meg and Mog series written by Helen Nicoll and illustrated by Jan Pienkowski. When I was at school I was bullied and I wished I had spells to make myself invisible – or turn the mean girls into toads.
Have you always been fascinated by witchcraft then?
Yes, as I hit my teens I became very interested in its history. I was living in East Grinstead and it was the three supposed witches buried in St Swithuns’ graveyard that made me explore this subject further. Anne Boleyn herself was called a witch due to having six fingers on one hand, and if you look closely at my witch Maud she has the same. My inspiration for her was my love of these mysterious creatures; they are different, and being different scares people. I suppose in a way I’m using Maud to show that you shouldn’t be scared to be you and be different. Maud is a strong character and she may be a witch, but just because she is different it doesn’t mean that she is bad. She’s actually very good.
Why did you choose to write the book in poetic verse as opposed to prose?
I did a lot of poetry at school, and it started off with me being taught tongue twisters. I then went on to perform poetry every year at The Royal School of Music, Speech and Drama festival and always performed something that was funny. I love rhyming verse: Spike Milligan has always been a firm favourite as well as Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes anthology. I also enjoy Matilda Who Told Such Dreadful Lies… by Hillaire Belloc.
Does it come more naturally to you?
Yes, I do find it easier to write poetry. I like the flow of it and how much fun it can be, especially with children because they like to try and guess the next word, which makes a rhyming story so much more than just a story being read to them. It encourages them to learn faster, ask what words mean and explore their vocabulary.
What was the timeframe for having your first book published?
It was a lot of hard work as I did the entire process myself, from designing book covers and layouts to building a website and creating an online presence.
But before I did all that, I had to write the story, which involved creating the characters and drawing them up.
Working out a book layout was the next step. Children’s picture books are normally 800 words maximum, and around 38 pages long, so I knew what my constraints were. I set up my own publishing house called Toil & Trouble Publishing, and when I was ready I launched the book through Amazon on December 5, 2016. The whole process took 13 months to put together, but I had started plotting it in my head about seven months before that.
How did it feel when it started selling well on Amazon?
It hit No 22 in their charts at Christmas which was a major achievement given that it was up against classic books in the children’s poetry section, such as Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. It was lovely to see that it was being received well and bought by people. It was very exciting to see it in the top 50 books– where it stayed over most of December and some of January.
You’re a mum and you also have a job. How do you juggle working, writing, illustrating and being a parent?
It’s hard work and I do a lot of running around, but then so do most mums. My husband, Simon, is extremely supportive and we share our parenting responsibilities right down the middle, which has enabled me to keep my career as a Civil Engineer working part-time in central London. Typically, I write on the train and illustrate at home when my son has gone to bed as I won’t let work encroach on family time.
What’s your next project?
There are some exciting things going on. I have just been signed by a literary agent, Merton Books, who also manage the Call the Midwife series of books by Jennifer Worth. I’m also currently illustrating my second children’s book, which I finished writing in January. It’s called A Whoosh and a Wisp and is another poetic verse book. It’s about a magic rabbit who loses his top hat and then has to deal with a grumpy goblin… I was a bit witched out after writing Inky Babble, so I am letting Maud have a rest, but she will be coming back for another book.
Inky Babble is published by Toil & Trouble and priced £6.99. Available from www.amazon.co.uk and all good bookshops