AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Alex Miles
I recently had great fun reading and reviewing the fifth book in the Starring Olive Black series, written by Alex Miles, illustrated by Maude Guesne, and published by Affirm Press. (Here's the link to check out what I thought of this junior fiction book.) Today, I'm thrilled that Alex joins me on the blog to take part in my Author Interview series.
Whether you're an author, illustrator, parent, teacher, librarian or kidlit read, you'll find so much great information in Alex's answers. Read on to find out about some facts about her inspirations, writing process, latest book, and much more... there's lots of fabulous, inspiring, behind-the-scenes info here!
Can you tell us a bit about your book, and the themes/issues it explores?
Olive Black is a ten-year-old superstar! She’s loyal, funny and just a little over the top. Olive acts in lots of films; she has played a witch, a solver of mysteries, and even a dog! But what makes her relatable is that we see her balancing screen tests with maths tests, backstage gossip with backyard cricket.
I’ve loved exploring the ups and downs of primary-school friendships with humour and authenticity. While each book has a meaningful theme or message, I’ve tried to make sure that the moral aspects never feel heavy-handed or didactic. I hope that readers will love spending time with smart, headstrong, caring Olive and the cast of funny characters who surround her.
Overall, the series explores friendship and team-work, body image, gender expectations, problem-solving and creativity, celebrity culture, managing commitments and decision-making, individuality and identity.
In Olive’s latest movie, The Pyramid Puzzle, she’s playing an Indiana Jones style character and films on-location in Egypt, but it’s the mystery she’s digging up back at school that’s truly puzzling. In trying to solve it, she strikes up an unlikely friendship with the naughtiest boy in school. She’d written this boy off as the class clown, but in getting to know him and his difficult family circumstances, Olive starts to realise there’s more than meets the eye. She learns why it’s important to not be quick to judge people and comes away with gratitude for her family and her life.
What was the inspiration behind writing this particular story, and did it change much as you were writing it?
As for the movie setting, I was at a book signing one day and a girl said to me “I love Olive and I reckon she should do a movie about mummies one day!” It was perfect. Ancient Egypt is such a fascinating backdrop – it’s both the movie Olive’s acting in and she’s studying Egypt at school too.
As for the relationship with classmate Nathan, there are a few boys I was at primary school with that shaped this character. Kids who lived with foster families and in hindsight would have had a really tough life that I, at the time, had no concept of. Nathan is one of my favourite supporting characters in the series, he’s cheeky and so fun to write and with The Pyramid Puzzle I was really excited about readers getting the chance to see what was behind his tough guy exterior and, hopefully, gaining empathy for the kids at school who are on the fringe.
It evolved a little as I was writing but not that much because I like to spend a lot of time plotting at the start before I sit down to write the first draft (something I picked up when working as a storyliner at Neighbours). Plus we were on a very tight deadline with this book because I was pregnant!
How do you hope readers will connect with the book, and/or what do you want them to take away from it?
I hope they’re entertained and have a good laugh! And also gain a sense of empathy; perhaps think of someone in their life that they’ve been quick to judge and give them a second chance.
What influences do you think shape your writing?
With ideas, I draw on my own experiences as well as observing what’s around me. In particular for Olive, having worked in a television script department and with several friends in the industry, over the years I’d seen glimpses of what life was like for actors behind the scenes.
My experience with my brother helped a great deal too. He works in the media so I’ve been able to witness the world of ‘celebrity’ from the sidelines. He’s not at all show-boaty, and I think Olive’s the same. Being an international mega-movie star gives the reader a framework that’s fun and exciting, but at the heart of it, Olive’s facing the same growing pains as any ten-year-old Aussie girl. She’s making mistakes, facing bullying and body image issues, challenging authority and managing family relationships … she just does it all with a fancier wardrobe.
Biggest challenges in writing this story, or in getting it published?
Being pregnant… and having a toddler :). I was about 18 weeks pregnant when I started The Pyramid Puzzle, handed the copyedit in just days before little Fred was born, and he’s now a happy little four-month-old as the book has hit the bookstores.
Luckily, I’m used to tight deadlines, having worked at Neighbours and having completed the first four Olive books when my son was super young. And I had the word-wizard Davina Bell as my editor which was a LIFE SAVER – we’ve done a few books together now so there’s a shorthand there – we were able to whiz through it without having to compromise the story at all. I’m really proud of that and very grateful for Davina’s wisdom and support.
Are there any tidbits from the publishing process of this book that you could share with regards to working with the publishers and/or the illustrator?
The illustrator Maude Guesne is a legend – so great at what she does and, over the series, has crafted something far better than I could have ever imagined. I was very involved in the illustration process early on, with briefs and providing feedback etc, but after the first or maybe second book, my editor and Maude have taken the reigns and I don’t need to add much these days.
It was important to me that Olive wasn’t a girly-girl, or a celebrity brat, but Maude has done an incredible job of ensuring she hits the right balance of being sassy, fun and down to earth. I think the fact that Maude is French and a fashion designer has certainly helped Olive have a cool wardrobe – way cooler than I would have put her in.
Do you have any suggestions on ways parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers can get more out of the book? For example, questions to discuss or ponder, activities to complete etc.
Absolutely, the feedback I’ve had from parents and teachers is that the series is a great conversation starter for various issues that kids face as well as good fun with creative activities for the movie side of things.
We have detailed teacher notes which are coming out shortly (see below to get your copy) and as for activities, one that we have is for readers to design Olive’s next movie! You can download and print this activity sheet to get started or find extra movie-making inspiration on my website.
I have an eNews that comes out every second month, packed with teacher resources, competitions, free things and fun stuff for kids. So please sign up to my eNews if that is of interest. I’ll also mail out the full teacher notes for Olive when they’re complete.
Can you let us in on any sneak peeks into your next books or other projects?
Not too sure is the short answer. I was quite busy with work when my first son George was a bub so this time around I’m looking forward to taking it a bit slower and not having any crazy deadlines. That said, one of my favourite things about being a writer is doing school visits, so I’ll keep those up (you can read about school visits on my website) and there are two ideas that were brewing while I was up doing middle of the night feeds with Fred recently. Stay tuned… :)
Where do you do your writing, and do you have any particular rituals in your creative process?
Just this week my writing room has become Fred’s nursery as he’s moved out of our bedroom now. But as for rituals the main one is using post-it notes on the wall for plotting. I picked this up at Neighbours and find it so helpful in seeing both the big picture and tiny details. I can craft the large story arcs this way but also move particular scenes or chapters around without fearing that I’ll accidently delete something.
Do you have some tips for other creatives?
Try writing a pitch for your story before you write your first draft. We had to pitch ideas all day long at Neighbours, and I ended up doing it with the Olive books, at first because of the tight schedule we were working to but as it turned out, it was valuable and something I’ll continue to do with whatever I write.
The benefit was that it forced me to really isolate what the story was about, what the turning points were and what would make the reader need to keep turning those pages. It also got me excited about the story and (I hope) that energy comes through my writing.
Do you have a favourite children's book (or top three) that you can never get enough of? What about a favourite book character?
I’m not alone here but I love Matilda by Roald Dahl. And as for a favourite book character, I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan with Poirot and Miss Marple being my favourites. It was a total dream writing the The Robbery Riddle which sees Olive star in a who-dun-it movie. I was able to channel all my favourite mystery devices and pay homage to Christie in the last scene of the book, where Olive has finally worked out who the baddy is and gathers everyone in a room for the big reveal, just like Marple or Poirot would have done. So much fun to write!