Exclusive Guest Author Interview with Mimi Thebo
Mimi Thebo first came to the UK in 1985 and her first novel was published in 2002. She has written for adults and children and describes her work as ‘hopeful and uplifting’. Her books have been published in more than a dozen languages, adapted into a BAFTA Award-winning film by the BBC, signed for deaf children by ITV, and her stories have been read on Radio 4. She has also published poetry and journalism. She believes ‘good fiction makes the world a better place’ and that ‘her own books do this particularly well’. Mimi is an academic and a Royal Literary Fellow. She lives in the Southwest of England with her husband of 30 years, her teenaged daughter, a dog, a cat and two fish, in a small house and writes in a shed in the back garden.
Photo Credit: Olivia Wadsworth
What inspired you to write your latest book, ‘Dreaming the Bear’?
I was thinking about communicating what it was like to feel breathless and imagining the worst place I knew to be breathless in. And before I knew it, I was snowshoeing up that hill in Darcy’s body.
You’ve said that ‘Dreaming the Bear’ has “depth and passion that I could never achieve in my previous work” – what made it possible to achieve this, this time?
When I was 14, I died in a car accident. I spent most of my high school years in hospital, having surgery after surgery. When one of my previous editors suggested I should write that story, I shied away from the idea. But then, when I felt stuck with my writing and unsatisfied with what I was achieving, I remembered what she had said. And I wrote about that time.
It took forever. I was afraid my PTSD would start up again, so I asked for teaching relief from my uni job, but a whole bunch of very starry names had just been hired by my department and I didn’t get it. That meant I had to write it in summers, in the time in-between uni broke up and my daughter’s school broke up. That was about two months, either side of mummy time. And it took five years.
It was a desperate gamble. All that time, my family weren’t earning anything from my writing (and my writing is a big part of our family income). Also, it was hard at my day job as a university lecturer – if you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘publish or perish’ about life in the academy… I was perishing. I was really lucky that my uni kept me on and so did my lovely agents. I could have easily been sacked or dropped by both of them.
But I knew I had to do it. And, thank goodness, it’s paid off. In my writing, I no longer flinch away from the darkest side of life…
Several of your books are thought-provoking and cover some gritty issues, is that intentional or do the stories evolve that way?
I think if you were to look at the average child in the whole of books for children, they would be white, healthy, and come from a very stable middle-class home. There would be no money worries or family problems. None of their parents ever get drunk or smash plates or get sacked from their work or can’t pay their credit card bill… nobody ever has any real problems.
That wasn’t what it was like when I was growing up – I wasn’t in that safe middle-class world. I loved reading, but I found it hard to find myself in books… I often felt like I was peering in a window at lives that were always telling me they were better and more important than my own.
When I started to write for young people, I was determined not to write that kind of family. Every family would have ordinary problems… maybe even extraordinary ones. In Dreaming the Bear, the ex-Army father suffers a bit from PTSD and it makes him a little harsh with his children. Mum is trying to get her career back on track after a break to have children and she’s struggling to balance it all. They are a lovely family, but they have real lives and real problems, just like everyone else… and they don’t have endless money…
You write in your shed – what’s it like inside to make it a special place for you to be creative?
It is so NICE having my writing shed. It’s tiny, but it’s all mine and it’s well insulated against the weather. It’s just big enough for a desk and a chair. I’ve got a little heater and a lamp and a carpet and a rug for over my knees. I’ve got special little bits - rocks and pictures and other things. And the best thing? The family don’t have to tiptoe around me anymore and they don’t forget and disturb me, either.
I creep out there in my dressing gown and slippers in the morning, with my laptop under my arm and a cup of tea in my hand. I miss all the ‘where’s my hockey socks?’ and ‘don’t forget to go to the train station’ stuff. It also gives my husband time to be the boss of the family – to be the one who decides what’s going to happen that day and is emotionally responsible for things without me coming in and taking over.
By the time I emerge from my shed, they’re all gone…
When you have an idea for a book, how long does it take to decide whether the idea will work or not?
Oh, Lordy! I’ve been working on one book for nearly 10 years and I’m still not sure… I don’t work that way. I kind of write at an idea and then leave it for a while if it needs work and then come back and worry at it again. If you’ve ever seen a Jack Russell terrier with a football – that’s my working method. I usually have five or six or seven footballs on the go and some of them I eventually kick into touch and some of them I finally decide are done. When I think they’re done, they go to my agent, Sophie (Sophie Gorell-Barnes at MBA)… although sometimes I send her some of the more worrisome footballs to get her ideas on where to try and bite them next.
Do you still write poetry? What inspires your poems?
I’ve been writing poetry for young people. I tend to write poems one of two ways. Firstly, something moves me and I get an image in my mind and I scurry away and scribble. Or, I’m messing about with my family and start writing rhyming couplets out loud and then think, ‘Actually, that’s pretty good,’ and have to have quick rights negotiations with everyone else. This usually involves me paying for pizza or ice cream.
Do you have any advice for budding writers and poets?
Read. Write. Show each other. Be kind.
It is the absolutely ONLY way to get better at writing. If I find another, I’ll let you know, but I’ve been looking for 40 years and haven’t had a sniff of another one so far…
You’ve had great success to date with your work, what do you hope to achieve in the future?
Hmmm. Not ‘great’ success, really. I want to win prizes, become famous and go on Strictly Come Dancing. And then I want to get fabulously wealthy and for people to read my books for centuries after I die. I’ll probably settle for one or two of those. But I’m not prepared to compromise on Strictly.
Do you have any projects in the pipeline that you can share with us?
My story of the car accident may be published next year… it’s in the pipeline. I’ve just sent two picture books to my agent and both are poems. One is a poem I wrote in scribbling secretly mode and is about travelling to a windy beach by train – that’s out for publishers to look at now. One is a poem I wrote in the family-messing-about mode and is about a baby deejay… Sophie thinks it needs a little more tidying up. I’m also working on a story about a coyote, a near-future novel and a kind of fairy tale. Lots of footballs to chase and worry.
Where can young writers find out more about your work?
For more about me and my work and life: www.mimithebo.net
For more about what it’s like to be a writer: www.myglamorousliterarylife.com
On Twitter: @MimiThebo
On Facebook: Mimi Thebo Author
On Instagram: @doctormimit
Can you sum up ‘Dreaming the Bear’ in 3 words?
A huge thank you to Mimi Thebo for answering our questions!
Dreaming the Bear
By Mimi Thebo
Published by Oxford Children's Books on 4th Feb 2016
It is late winter. Darcy is going through a difficult transition. Her parents have moved her away from everything she knows in England, to the middle of nowhere, living in a cabin inside the Yellowstone National Park. After catching pneumonia, she faces a long and difficult recovery. Feeling isolated and alone, she talks a walk and finds a wounded bear in the snowy wilderness of the Park. They form an incredible bond as Darcy does everything she can to help the bear, but who is really helping whom to recover?
Highly recommended for readers aged 10+