Karen Collum lives in Brisbane, Australia. She was a primary school teacher before she became a mum. Since the birth of her eldest son in 2005, she’s been a stay-at-home mum and now happily calls herself a writer. She’s a mum to four kids under six, with her baby girl arriving in December 2010. Karen has always had a love for words but didn’t quite believe that she had what it took to be an author. She was wrong. Her debut picture book, SAMUEL’S KISSES was launched in December 2010 and she has since had another picture book published, FISH DON’T NEED SNORKELS. A third picture book will be released in 2011 and a junior novel in 2012. Karen is active in the online kidlit community and is the co-convenor of the Twitter-based picture book chat group #pblitchat.
How many children do you have Karen and what age range?
I have 4 children. My eldest son (Possum) is five and a half, my identical twin boys (JJ & Moo) are 3 in May and my baby girl (Miss H) was born in December 2010.
When did you start writing? Had you established a writing rhythm or career before or did it happen alongside the kids?
I didn’t start writing seriously until my eldest son was a toddler. It was while I was at home full-time with him that I decided to take the plunge and give this writing thing a go. It’s the best professional decision I ever made.
What impact has having children had on your writing career?
My children are the inspiration for much of my writing. As a children’s author, it’s crucial that I’m in tune with children and how they think. I love watching my kids and seeing the world through their eyes. We lose so much of that wonder as we grow up and I want to capture the innocence and magic that children inherently possess
How do you organise your writing time and space, how do you work your day, do you have a routine or is it more ad hoc?
Once I’m past the newborn baby stage, I’ll go back to getting up early to write before everyone else is awake. We’re pretty strict on wake-up times at our house, so the boys don’t get up until after 7am. My usual habit is to get up at 5am and work for a couple of hours in the beautiful peace and quiet. I used to write late into the night but found that doing so affected my ability to sleep – I couldn’t turn my brain off! Getting up early also gives me a sense of accomplishment for the day. I feel like I’ve had my writing ‘fix’ and can then focus on being a mum for the rest of the day.
As for writing space, my husband works from home as well which means we’ve run out of rooms! My office is at one end of the loungeroom. We’re about to move, however, and I’m hoping we might find a house where I can have a space all my own.
The other practical things I have done that have made a huge difference to the time I have to write is to create a roster for meals and for cleaning. I clean two rooms of my house a day and that way there is always somewhere that is neat, tidy and sparkling clean. Otherwise I can find myself feeling overwhelmed, which isn’t good for my creativity. The same applies to cooking. Knowing what meals I’m cooking ahead of time means that I’ve got all the ingredients on hand and I’m not panicking about what to have for dinner at 5pm when the kids are starving. I often cook the evening meal in the morning when I’m not so busy and pop it in the fridge. Being on top of the cooking and cleaning frees me up mentally which in turn means I’m better able to write and be creative.
Is it possible to maintain a balance on a daily basis or do you find yourself readjusting focus from work to family over a longer time-span depending on your projects?
I am passionate about picture books and they’re my favourite thing to write, which is a good thing as I can quickly get an idea down on paper and come back to it when I get the chance. I find writing longer works harder (although I have finished a full-length adult novel which is currently being edited) as I find I need longer stretches of time to immerse myself in the story and get back into the flow after a break. A picture book is ideal for me to dip into whenever time permits. I still feel connected to it even if I haven’t been able to touch it for a week or so. A novel is much harder to reconnect with in a short amount of time.
As for balance, I’m fairly relaxed so I take advantage of opportunities when they arise but don’t get stressed if the wheels fall off and one of the kids is sick or something unexpected comes up. I think flexibility is really important for my sanity!
How do the children react to your writing or the time you spend on it.
My boys tend to come and look for me at the computer if they can’t find me!! I sometimes need to put self-imposed limits on the time I’m on my computer because it’s easy to just sneak away when the kids are playing happily. They don’t seem to mind at all, but I don’t want to miss out on precious time with them either. I often try to stay off the computer unless the kids are sleeping. Some days my self-control isn’t very good though. Like today.
What do you find most challenging in juggling your role as a mother, your writing and other work
The hardest thing for me is that I’ve always got a million more ideas for books than I will ever get time to write. Having said that, I think that would be the case regardless of how much time I had. Sometimes I think it would be lovely to go away for the weekend by myself to write, but I have a feeling if I did that I would be missing the kids and my husband immediately! The reality is that I function well when there’s a lot going on and I like the challenge of fitting everything in. I have to be organized and make my situation work for me, and most of the time it does.
You’ve made breakthroughs, such as gaining acceptance for your picture book SAMUEL’S KISSES. At what stage of family life did this happen? How did you create and maintain the momentum to make these breakthroughs and why do you think they occured when they did?
I got my first acceptance for a trade picture book, SAMUEL’S KISSES (New Frontier Publishing, 2010), when my twins were 8 months old and my eldest son was 3. It was such an exciting time. I think the bottom line for my success was hard work. Lots of it. My husband works most evenings and I had all the kids in bed by 7:30pm which meant I had the evening to myself. I put that time to good use by educating myself about how the publishing industry worked, connecting and networking with other industry people and generally trying to become an expert in my field. I’m still a long way off being an expert, but I knew enough back then to write a decent cover letter and polish my manuscript to publishable standard. I also did a lot of research on which publishers might be most suitable for the style of book I had written.
There’s the saying, “Luck is when opportunity meets hard work.” I think that applies to me, although I do think there was also some divine intervention as the editor herself happened to open the mail the day my submission arrived and personally read my manuscript. You can’t create a situation like that but I sure am thankful for it!
My second picture book, FISH DON’T NEED SNORKELS (Autumn House, 2010) came about in a similar fashion and also resulted in another picture book contract and a junior novel contract.
I think these moments came when they did because I was ready as a writer and as a person for it to happen and I’d put in the ground work. There isn’t a magic set of rules to follow, but you can do things to increase your chances of being published.
Do you think women face particular challenges in career/family life balance or is it something that both men and women face in equal measure?
I think the difference is that women tend to create the emotional environment for the home more so than men. That means that if I’m feeling drained, worn out or ’empty’ on a soul level, the entire household is affected. When my husband feels that way he can often take some time out, but as a mum there’s nowhere for me to go to recharge. I think that’s why it’s essential to find something that fills you up. For me, it’s writing and that’s why I’m happy to get up at 5am to write. I am a happier mum and a happier person when my creative self is fulfilled. I’m also thankful that my husband is supportive and will free me up occasionally to go to book launches or writing events. Even a couple of hours every few months does wonders for my energy levels. Everybody wins when mum is happy!
Something has to give when wearing many hats, what is it for you?
That’s a great question. I’d like to think it’s not my ability to mother my kids, but to be honest I tend to avoid some of those really intensive parenting things that some mothers do like building a butterfly out of toothpicks. I probably take the easy option in situations like that!!
I don’t let the housework go, so that’s not something that gives. I like to have my house fairly neat and tidy as I feel that the state of my house is a reflection of the state of my brain, so it needs to be organized for me to function as a writer. Perhaps I tend to invest in my writing and my online friends rather than making an effort to nurture real-life friendships. I don’t go out terribly often which is strange considering I’m such a social person. But then again, with 4 kids under 6 there’s only so many places I’d want to go!
What suggestions do you have for mothers or indeed parents who want to write or further a writing career
My biggest piece of advice is to find a writing time that has the least impact on the family BUT negotiate to create opportunities to write as well. For me that means the early mornings when my writing impacts no-one but myself. It also means negotiating with my husband for an afternoon off every month or so to go to an event or just sit in a coffee shop and write. I think it’s hard to balance the ‘me’ and the ‘us’. Find something that works for your family and then go for it. Life’s too short and you don’t want to die wondering!!
What a wonderful practical and inspiring interview from Karen. If you want to find our more about her and her gorgeous children’s picture books, check out her website.
Find out more about Karen’s beautiful picture book Samuel’s Kisses
Find out more about Fish Dont Need Snorkels.
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, you can catch up with the whole series here .