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03 March 2016

Sean Taylor's HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE? - Guest Post!

Sean Taylor is the author of many books for young readers. He has published middle grade and teenage fiction, but he is best known for picture books such as WHEN A MONSTER IS BORN, CROCODILES ARE THE BEST ANIMALS OF ALL, ROBOT RUMPUS! And IT’S A GROOVY WORLD, ALFREDO!. Here he talks about HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE (illustrated by Jean Jullien), which has been shortlisted for the 2016 ‘Lollies’ Best Laugh Out Loud Picture Book Award. It comes out in paperback on 3rd March this year.
E: What is your creative process, can you walk us through it?
Sean: Any ability I have to write picture book stories probably owes a good bit to an apprenticeship in poetry. I wrote poems seriously (sometimes comically) for many years. This included a good bit of performance poetry. And my first book was a collection of poems for adults. Writing poetry taught me to work at language until it is, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, “the best words in the best order.” (Or as near to that as I can manage…)
      I was doing this yesterday. I scribbled out the first 300 words of a new picture book story. Then I sat working at it from midday until about 7 at night, shifting words around, distilling them down, working on the rhythm of the story, and the music and sense of the language - sometimes making it feel more right, sometimes making it feel more wrong. But trusting that the playful, instinctive drafting process pays off.
      This is the work poets do. It’s what Oscar Wilde made fun of (though he may well have been telling the truth) when he said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again!”
E: Is there a story behind the creation of HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE?
Sean:I had a feeling an owl might make good character for a picture book. Then I came across a photograph of a very starey-eyed hoot owl, who looked as if he was trying to be scarier than he really is! It made me think an owl might be funny too.
      This was about six years ago. My oldest son was three back then, and dancing with delight about dressing up (as three year olds do.) I sometimes find myself exploring a specific theme in my picture book stories. I went through a phase of writing stories about bedtime. (See THE WORLD CHAMPION OF STAYING AWAKE, published in 2011.) More recently I’ve written a string of stories exploring the funny side of fear (an example is my second book to be illustrated by Jean Jullien, which I can reveal will be called I WANT TO BE IN A SCARY STORY!) Right now, I’m trying out some stories about making friends. At the time I came up with HOOT OWL MASTER OF DISGUISE, I was interested in writing about dressing up. I had that image of a starry-eyed owl as a character in my mind. And a moment of writing magic happened. Two unconnected ideas met and joined. And a third idea…a story about a dressing-up hoot owl was created.
      That meeting of unconnected ideas has led to quite a few of my picture book stories (and poems) over the years. If you have an interest in writing, it’s a good thing to try to make happen.
E: What was your path to publication? 
Sean: A long and winding road in the case of HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE. I wrote it back in 2010. My agent was Celia Catchpole. She tried to sell the story, but no publisher would have it. ‘How do you illustrate an owl disguised as a sheep?’ came the feedback. ‘Where does this owl produce its costumes from? Does it carry them in a bag?’
      I remember reading the story out, myself, to my editor at Walker Books at the time, Lucy Ingrams. She wasn’t the most shockable of editors. But she did look slightly shocked by HOOT OWL MASTER OF DISGUISE! So the story went in the Walker Books filing cabinet for at least a year.
      Then my current agent, James Catchpole, took a liking to the language and the humour of HOOT OWL, and he was unashamed enough to try selling it all over again. At some point he read it out at Walker Books again, and the bright-eyed Walker picture-book craftsman, David Lloyd, heard it. Apparently he walked into the office some weeks later saying, “What was that book Sean Taylor wrote about an owl dressing up as a carrot? Let’s have a read.”
      It made them laugh. David Lloyd wasn’t worried where Hoot Owl’s costumes might come from. Walker Books bought the story. Maria Tunny (the editor) and Deirdre McDermott (the designer) managed to get Jean Jullien involved on the basis of some drawings they’d spotted on a menu in a burger restaurant! And HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE happened.
E: What is your favourite or most challenging part of being a creator?
Sean: I’m up at 6am when I’m writing. And the start of the day, with the hours ahead, is both my favourite and my most challenging moment. The way I get going often defines the day. I’ll generally feel excited about the possibilities that lie ahead. At best, the excitement stays with me as the writing hours pass. I have a rule not to look at emails or anything on the Internet until 11am. I have been known to break my own rule. But when I stick to it I usually have my better writing days.
E: Is there something in particular about HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE you hope readers will take away with them, perhaps something that isn’t immediately obvious?
Sean: Good writing offers readers things that not even the author is aware of. I hope my stories are good enough to do that.
What are you working on next, or what would be your dream project?
Sean: I’m in love with the picture book form (see this piece on my own blog) And I’m working on fresh picture book stories. But I’ve been asked to come up with some comic writing for 7-9 year olds, and am having some fun with that. I’m collaborating with a Muslim theatre company to make a book of Islamic humour and wisdom for young readers. And I have another writing love-affair going on with children’s theatre. I’ve written two children’s plays, which were produced in Brazil. There’s a possibility of a third in the pipeline – a puppet show based on my book for 6 – 9 year olds, WHERE THE BUGABOO LIVES!
      These are all dream projects for me. That’s why I manage to feel excited at 6 in the morning!

Learn more about Sean Taylor at http://www.seantaylorstories.com.

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