An interview with Philippa Dowding, award-winning author of 13 books for middle-grade readers, including Oculum, Firefly, and Quinn and the Quiet, Quiet. She is also a poet, a musician, and a copywriter. Hear about her attraction to weird plot possibilities, her occasional tendency to spook herself while writing, and her encounter with a gargoyle in a curiosity shop that helped launched one of her book series. 20 minutes. All ages.
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[1:15] Interview with Philippa Dowding
CA: Do you ever do object studies or has an object ever featured in one of your books or sparked some ideas for you?
PD: … The Lost Gargoyle series was inspired by …a funny little curio store with gargoyles on the steps…. I started a bedtime story that night with my kids about one of these gargoyles following us home… he had such a big personality, this gargoyle. He just came fully formed because of having seen them on these stairs.
[2:30] CA: Cool Do you have any techniques that you use to increase the tension in the middle of a book?
PD: …Try to build a cliffhanger. …. As you get closer to the end, you can shorten the chapters … And honestly you just have to write through it….One of the things that I do like to do when I work with kids in schools, we do “Wouldn’t it be weird if…” a child says a line and then the next child says a line. And that sort of gives you the idea that there’s no wrong way to write a story. … So you have to tell that internal critic that we’re going to play this game now, “Wouldn’t it be weird if…” and just be weird. …
[3:50] CA: Do you have a favorite first line, either from your own worker from other works of fiction?
PD: I guess my favorite first line of my own fiction is “This morning I woke up on the ceiling,” which was from the Gwendolyn Golden story. …
CA: Have you ever opened with dialogue?
PD: Yeah. Oculum starts out with the word “Mother.” …
[4:35] CA: Do you tend to change your beginning after you’ve revised?
PD: … I don’t think I’ve ever really changed the beginning. …
[4:55] CA: Do you have any advice to young writers on how to begin?
PD: … The only way you can write it is to begin, and you can just tell yourself, “I can always rewrite this; this is just a draft” so that they can overcome that sort of fear of looking at a blank page. … The first idea that comes to you is fine. …
[5:30] CA: And any advice on how to end a story?
PD: Reading it out loud. There’s a natural cadence to an ending. …You can feel there’s a beat missing … It’s the best way to find out how it’s flowing. …
[6:10] CA: Do you share your work with critique partners or family or friends?
PD: I always do. … Basically people that you trust that are going to actually call you on it if something is not working. … It can be nerve wracking. Confidence is … something that we absolutely have to build. Because it’s such a private job…. And you have to convince yourself that your private is … worthy of being public.
[7:05] CA: Do you set aside certain times of day or certain parts of the year when you write fiction?
PD: … You need that tipping point to make you write it at all because it’s the thing that’s has to be written next, and you also need the discipline to finish it, and then you need the staying power to revise, you need the skill to edit it — it’s a long process. …. I have a home office, I have the discipline of getting up and working. …. I write every day, and if I’m not working on … copywriting, I write probably four to five hours a day….
[8:25] CA: Do you have a favorite POV to write from?
PD: So I’ve got 12 books out and a 13th coming and 9 of them are third person omniscient…. At first I found first person really hard. … But now I like it. … Gwendoline Golden is my first first-person story – and that’s my fourth novel… — and she told me how to write it. … it wasn’t conscious. …
[9:20] CA: Have you ever written multiple points of view?
PD: Oculum is 2 voices. … One’s a child that’s living inside this perfect domed world, and there’s another child living outside. And they speak quite differently, because he’s living in a world that’s quite degraded so his language is quite degraded. That was kind of an interesting challenge. …
[10:00] CA: Have you ever written an unreliable narrator?
…. I feel sort of an alliance with younger readers, that we kind of have to be reliable at least in the way that we’re telling the story. … So I haven’t really dabbled in that puddle yet.
[10:35] CA: And have you ever written about siblings?
PD: Yeah, most of my books have siblings in them. …
[12:00] CA: Do you ever spook yourself when you’re writing?
PD: Oh yeah. …. I found portions of Blackwells and the Briny Deep really spooky. … I’ve been a sailor all my life. … Writing this scene in Blackwell’s where the twins are at the tiller and their brother gets swept overboard — that actually happened to me. So that was scary to write. … I had a child read Blackwells … and she read it and had no problem with it…. If you scare yourself, you probably need to check the scene… and get someone else to read it.
[14:00] CA: Did you tell stories around a campfire as a kid or anything like that?
PD: I didn’t. I was probably the kid that was writing stories around the campfire, but it was all in my head. …. But my dad … and I would tell stories a lot. … That’s an important part of being a writer, I think, is having someone that shares stories with you.
[14:55] CA: And do you have a favorite scary story or movie?
PD: My favorite kids’ story, I think, would be The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaimon…. And I think my favourite scary movie is Jaws…. It still spooks me when I see it. … What could be more scary than being at sea with a monster?…
[15:45] CA: And what do you think is scarier: humans or monsters?
PD: I think that you have to have both. …. Humans are scary because you can just detect the monster below the surface, and monsters are scary because — or fascinating because — there is just a touch of humanity in them. … I’m scared by humans and monsters.
[16:25] CA: Do you have a favorite setting from your own fiction or from a favorite book?
PD: I really liked writing the two different settings in Oculum… probably the world under the dome would be my favorite setting in my own books. And other books, I mentioned The Graveyard Book before … the setting of a graveyard to raise a child in, being raised by ghosts….
[17:10] CA: Did you do any worldbuilding exercises when you were creating Oculum?
PD: Yes. …That’s what I do in my journals is… spend a lot of time trying to illustrate some of the characters or some of the world. For me it sort of unlocks a way to write more about it or more accurately….
[17:40] CA: Tell me about your upcoming book.
PD: So Firefly is coming in February 2021, and it’s set in a costume warehouse in Toronto. It’s got 7 million pieces in it. And it’s a story about a girl who’s had a pretty rough life, and her aunt takes her into this warehouse… And how really we all wear different costumes, and the story is about finding the right one, finding the right fit….
CA: And so that was inspired by a real place.
PD: Yeah. It’s actually based on a family business. … They specialize in period clothing …. She … was costume designer to 10,000 movies in her life… It seemed like such a beautiful place to tell a story.
[18:55] CA: And do you have any favorite fictional characters?
PD: …. I really love Elizabeth Bennett. I think she’s a great female protagonist. … my favorite villain is probably Milton’s Lucifer….
[20:00] Philippa Dowding introduces herself
PD: I’m Philippa Dowding. And I’m a children’s author. And I’m a poet and I’m a musician and I’m also a copywriter. And I like to sail. I like to walk my dog every day. And I live in downtown Toronto with my family. I can see the CN Tower from my backyard. And here’s something that I don’t tell many people, but my very favorite ice cream is Tom & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. That’s the only ice cream that anyone ever needs.
[20:55] Find out more about Philippa Dowding
You can hear more advice from Philippa Dowding on Cabin Tales Episode 3, “Spooky Stories are all Around Us,” about getting ideas, on Episode 4.5, “Author Interviews about Plotting,” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending story,” about Revision.
You can find out more about Philippa Dowding and her books from her website at PDowding.com. There you can watch Philippa read from her latest novel, Firefly. You can watch a virtual interview she did for the Forest of Reading Awards last summer. You can find teachers’ guides for all of her series. And you can find links to her poetry and her music. You can even watch her dance the Gargoyle Shuffle.
[22:05] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the picture book author Ishta Mercurio.
Thanks for listening.
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Guest Author: Philippa Dowding is an award-winning children’s author, poet, musician, and marketing copywriter. Her 2017 middle-grade novel, Myles and the Monster Outside, won the OLA Silver Birch Express Honour Book award. Philippa lives in Toronto with her family. Find her on her website at http://pdowding.com.