We first met Sarah Brennan 4.5 years ago when she was dishing out fun tips on how to survive motherhood with a new baby (and oh how her sage advice was so spot on!). Fast forward a few years and this talented children’s author and mama-of-2 has recently released the newest title in her popular Chinese Calendar Tales series, The Tale of a Dark Horse. We chat to Sarah about how to get those creative juices flowing, following your dreams and balancing it all while being a working mama!
What inspired you to write The Chinese Calendar Tales series?
I’d been feeling very conscious in the schools I was visiting that my Dirty Stories (my first books!) were rather Euro-centric for a largely Asian audience, so in 2007 I wrote and published The Tale of Chester Choi, about a Chinese dragon who ate children by the side of the South China Sea. It sold so fast that within months I wrote The Tale of Run Run Rat for the Year of the Rat in 2008. This became Time Out Hong Kong’s No. 1 children’s best seller for a whole six weeks, followed by The Tale of Chester Choi at No. 2 and Harry Potter at No. 3, so I knew I was onto something! By the end of that year I’d also published The Tale of Oswald Ox, and the Chinese Calendar Tales series was on its way. Ever since, I’ve written a new tale ready for the next year of the Chinese Zodiac. We’re now at Year 7 in the cycle, The Year of the Horse, with a companion tale, The Tale of Pin Yin Panda, published in 2012.
How did the partnership with illustrator Harry Harrison come about?
When the publisher at P3 first read my manuscript for A Dirty Story, he said that he knew someone who might like to illustrate it. That, of course, was the wonderful Harry Harrison, and his illustrations for the book were a terrific mix of wickedly dark humour and raucous fun, which matched my own perverse sense of humour perfectly! So when I decided to publish my own books, Harry was the obvious choice. He insists that the only reason he agreed to illustrate The Tale of Chester Choi was because I tracked him down to his studio and wouldn’t stop reading him my story until he said yes!
Where are the majority of your books sold? Do you find that the stories translate well to an international audience?
Not surprisingly, my books sell mostly in Asia, particularly Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. This is not just due to their content but also the way in which my distribution has evolved over the years. I’m now selling growing numbers overseas in countries including the UK, Australia, Canada and the United States. Being written in English in humorous rhyming verse, with funny illustrations, by an Anglo-Australian and expat Englishman respectively, they cross the East-West cultural divide easily, although I do try to target my tours and my distribution towards markets where there is already an interest in Chinese culture and history.
How long do you spend writing each book?
As I know exactly what Zodiac beasties I need to write about in the coming years, I’m forever making notes as I research and as ideas pop into my head. So there’s a certain amount of pre-planning that happens over the years. However when it’s time to knuckle down and write the next tale, I spend one or two days making a detailed story plan, then I start writing. The first verse always takes the longest – it’s a matter of finding the rhythm or the “song” for the story – and once I’ve found that, the rest flows more or less easily, with some verses seeming to write themselves! I always say that detailed planning is a writer’s best friend, not least because it then only takes a matter of days to finish writing the story.
How has having kids changed the way you define work?
It’s trite to say it, but having kids immediately altered my priorities. For me, much as I adore my job and hope to do it till the day I drop, my girls will always come first. As a business owner, that always creates tensions, as it would be quite easy for me to work 20 hours a day and still have work left to do. So it’s a matter of building in family time and sticking to it. That having been said, I am keenly aware of the importance of providing my girls with a role model as a working mum. I want them to know that they can look after themselves without having to rely on someone else. And to know that there is no free lunch – if you want something, you have to work hard, long hours to achieve it.
Were you always an avid reader growing up and how do you encourage your children to read?
My mum will tell you that I was an addict! Reading wasn’t just fun, it was a great way to avoid the washing up and other chores, and I would often sneak off while no one was looking, hide under my bed or in a cupboard, and read with a torch till someone tracked me down! It was definitely my favourite leisure time activity. I think my kids have just absorbed this by osmosis. Both my husband and I are still great readers, and as I always say in my workshops for parents, it’s a case of monkey see, monkey do. If your kids see you reading for leisure and pleasure, they’ll think that’s what adults do, and emulate that as they get older. Conversely, if you rarely open a book, it’s not fair to expect your kids to be keen readers. My girls have been bookworms since they were tiny, and although, like most kids, they waste far too much time on the Internet, they still read a lot of books in their leisure time.
How do you balance working and being a mum?
With great difficulty! Owning my own business means that, at least in theory, my working day never ends! On the other hand, it means that I can be flexible. So while I do sometimes have to travel to promote my book in other countries, when I’m home in Hong Kong I can fit my working hours around my family, even if that does mean that sometimes I’m still working at 2am on a Saturday night!
When do you write best and is there a formula for writing the perfect story?
I write best when I am alone, with no interruptions, and preferably when I’m away from both my home and the office. Which usually means on holidays, in a foreign country, with my family gainfully occupied elsewhere! Having a good tree to sit under, balmy weather, a cup of coffee or glass of wine on the table, and a few birds twittering nearby definitely helps! As for the formula for writing a perfect story, I’ll let you know when I’ve written one! For the time being, it’s a question of planning, timing and above all, my muse calling!
What is the most important element of a great story?
Gosh – that’s a tough one! I don’t think you can say it’s any one element. Clearly-delineated characters with which your reader can empathize, a good, fast-paced plot, a distinctive tone or mood, a great writing style, a gripping beginning. These are just a few of the essentials and if any one is missing, the story isn’t going to work.
Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you keep the creative juices flowing?
For my Chinese Calendar Tales, as I’ve said, I get inspired by Chinese history and folklore, the characteristics of the particular Zodiac animal I’m portraying, and also, it has to be said, by my childhood growing up with a wonderful and sometimes bizarre menagerie of animals! I keep my creative juices flowing by ensuring that I tend to my inner child! Which means being very silly sometimes with my extremely tolerant family, and refusing to ever grow up…
China is full of amazing festivals, how do you incorporate Chinese culture into your stories?
It’s a case of what part of the culture fits which story! Sometimes it’s easy – for example, in my Tale of Rhonda Rabbit, it was a no-brainer to include some reference to the legend of the Rabbit in the Moon – in that case, a picture of the said rabbit grinding herbs with a pestle and mortar in the scene where Rhonda is about to be captured by the evil cat. The same can be said of The Tale of Sybil Snake, where the beautiful Legend of Lady White Snake made a great template for the otherwise fictional story-line. But where I can’t find a suitable legend to include, I look to Chinese history, which is chockablock with fascinating characters and events. For example, in my latest book, the extraordinary true story of the Emperor Han Wudi’s conquests to the West in pursuit of the Heavenly Horses of the Ferghana Valley just begged to form the basis of my story for the Year of the Horse.
What are some top pointers for other mums who have a creative passion they would like to pursue?
Don’t put it off! Life is horribly short and has a habit of galloping by faster the older we get! If you’re a mum who’s suddenly found herself in a new country, with time on her hands, this is your chance (it was most certainly mine!). Grab it with both hands – that kind of opportunity may never happen again! If you’re a working mum trying to juggle your job with motherhood, get to bed by 9pm if you can, then get up early and devote those extra hours to that creative pursuit. There’s no easy answer, and the only thing I do know for sure is that if you don’t make the time now, you’ll kick yourself when you’re too old. There is no such thing as overnight success, and in creative pursuits especially, you need to practice and put in long hours over a long period of time to succeed. So hop to it!
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
To follow my instincts.
Who is your mentor and who inspires you?
This is going to sound a little weird… but many years ago, before my first book A Dirty Story was published, I went to a fortune-teller in Hong Kong with a girlfriend, just for a bit of fun. She was quite famous – she’d been Princess Diana’s fortune-teller (though I doubt she ever told the poor girl what was in store for her), and was only in town for a couple of days. She told me immediately that I would “live by my pen”; she then said “You know, you’ve got a guardian angel standing behind you. Whenever you’re in need of inspiration, just think of him.” When I asked what he looked like, she replied “He’s an old Chinese scholar, with a wispy beard and long robes”. I completely forgot about this, until one day, two or three years ago, when I found the tape recording of our session and replayed it. I was quite stunned. At the time of the session, I hadn’t even dreamed of writing about Chinese culture; my only stories, written years before, were distinctively Western in content and I was completely ignorant of Chinese history and folklore. So now I often think of that wise old man, and mentally blow him a kiss (though perhaps a bow would be more appropriate) for the inspiration he’s given me over the last seven years.
The Tale of a Dark Horse is the latest in Sarah’s Chinese Calendar Tales series, and is available to buy through MarketAsia, as well as at most leading bookstores. These gorgeous photos of Sarah are courtesy of Lumo Photography.