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Writers Weekend: Drawing on the imagination

22 February 2023

James Foley loves tapping into childlike wonder. In the final interview with local talent ahead of Writers Weekend, the author and illustrator tells Julie Hosking how his creations come to life.

It must be fun being inside James Foley’s head. An astronaut called Stellarphant took up residence for a while. Before that there was the world’s best inventor – a 12-year-old, no less – and her baby brother. Now there’s a trio of secret agents in the shape of a mole, a hippo and a bug.

The award-winning children’s author-illustrator lets these colourful characters take up residence until Foley knows what to do with them – and some hang around for quite some time.

“I’ll start with an image of a character and/or a scene, and then I’ll start brainstorming how that scene fits into a larger story,” he says.

“Is this image from the climax of a story, or the beginning? What other characters might I need to tell the story? What sort of other scenes would be fun to draw and exciting for readers to see?”

A child draws on a piece of paper pinned to an easel. There are already lots of coloured drawings on the paper. An adult with dyed red hair kneels near the child, her back to the camera, offering encouragement. They are in what looks like a park and the sun is shining. This is Family Day at Writers Weekend.
There’s plenty for kids to do at Family Day. Photo supplied

This brainstorming usually goes on Foley’s head – he won’t start writing or sketching until he knows the beginning, middle and end. “I’ll tell the story to myself as a summary; just a quick, basic rundown of the story beats. This helps me find the structure of the story, and to double check that there is a logical flow and no major plot holes,” he says. “Once I’m satisfied that the story holds water, then and only then will I start writing it down.”

Foley is guest curator for Writers Weekend’s popular Family Day on Sunday. In keeping with this year’s theme, Steadfast as the Stars, Julie Hosking asked Foley to take us inside his creative galaxy, as well as give some insight into Family Day.

JH:  Tell us about the genesis of your new children’s book what is the inspiration for Secret Agent Mole and what kind of character is Goldfishfinger?

JF: Secret Agent Mole is a brand-new graphic novel series I’m writing and illustrating, published by Scholastic Australia. It’s like James Bond meets The Bad Guys. Those are the biggest influences and inspirations, plus spy parodies like Get Smart and Austin Powers.

The story follows three trainee secret agents – Maximilian (Max) Mole, Helena Hippo and June Bug – as they take on the world’s worst baddies in a bid to become fully qualified secret agents. In book one, they go up against two fiendish fish: Goldfishfinger, a thieving goldfish who is mad about gold, and Toxin, the world’s most poisonous pufferfish. They also cross paths with a supervillain who becomes Max Mole’s nemesis: a naked mole rat called Dr Nude.

The idea for Secret Agent Mole came while I was chatting with fellow author/illustrator Matt Cosgrove (creator of Macca the Alpaca and the Worst Week Ever series). I had just been asked by Scholastic to pitch some ideas, so I called up Matt to get some advice as he’d worked with Scholastic for years. I said to him, “you can be my mole in the organisation” – and then the character of Max Mole popped into my head fully formed.

JH: This isn’t your first series – how far ahead do you map out storylines to be able to plan multiple books?

JF: In the past I haven’t planned things in too much detail; I’ve generally taken it a book at a time. My previous graphic novel series S.Tinker Inc followed the world’s foremost inventor under 12, Sally Tinker, and her baby brother Joe on their adventures in invention. When working on each book I had a vague idea of the story I’d like to do next in the series, but I didn’t have a plot breakdown or even a title – just a premise, really. That loose and flexible process worked for me though, and I ended up writing and illustrating four graphic novels in that series – Brobot, Dungzilla, Gastronauts and Chickensaurus – as well as three short comics called One Small Step for Mammoth, Get Kraken and Sallymander

Working on Secret Agent Mole has been different. A whole bunch of ideas came all at once, and new ideas keep popping up. Book 1 started out as just a scene at the start of what is now book 4, but then expanded into its own book. And what I thought would be the story for book 2 ended up expanding into books 2 and 3. And the very first scene I imagined for Max Mole is now set to appear in book 4 (assuming we get that far). So unlike with S.Tinker Inc, I’m now mapping out stories well in advance. I have ideas for around 10 books so far; I don’t think I’ll run out of ideas any time soon!

JH: What elements take a starring role in your writing process – do the words come first or the illustrations? How do you bring the shimmering possibilities to life?

JF: Ideas normally arrive as images first, either in my head, or on the page. Then story and words follow. It’s not the same for all author/illustrators; some of my friends start with words first. It’s about finding the creative process that works best for you (and allowing that process to sometimes change between books, too).

I’ve found in the past that if I start writing before I know where the story was going, I get bogged very quickly. I’m the kind of writer who needs a plan.

Once I’ve got the manuscript, then I can start on storyboarding the pictures, whether that’s for a 32-page picture book or a 200-page graphic novel. Then once that’s all approved by my editor, I get on with the final artwork.

For example, my picture book Stellarphant started as a sketch that I drew for fun back in 2014. I was sitting with some author/illustrator buddies in a holiday cottage, and we were all sketching random things. I happened to draw an elephant going on a spacewalk with a penguin. That sketch stuck with me; I knew there was a story there. So I brainstormed the story for years until it finally clicked. I wrote the manuscript, storyboarded it and finished the artwork in about 18 months. It was finally published in 2021, it’s now had Turkish and North American editions too, and has been nominated for nine Australian and international awards so far.

JH: You have guest curated sessions for the popular Family Day at Writers Weekend. What magic ingredients are you looking for to tap into the starry-eyed wonder of children?

JF: I was looking for a balance of seasoned presenters and newer voices; a range of forms represented (from picture books and graphic novels to non-fiction and science fiction); the inclusion of Noongar stories and storytellers; and opportunities for kids to get involved, in this case through a screenwriting workshop and public reading. There were so many extra sessions and presenters I would have loved to include – we have an abundance of fantastic children’s authors and illustrators in WA and across the country.

JH: If someone says ‘reach for the stars’ what springs to mind? And how do you encourage children to do the same through books?

JF: That reminds me of my picture book Stellarphant, which is about an elephant called Stella who wants to become an astronaut. Space Command doesn’t think she’s up to the task so they keep putting obstacles in her way, but Stella is persistent. The book is about determination but also about discrimination, and I hope it encourages kids to strive towards their dreams, no matter how silly or unrealistic others may say they are.

JH: If you had to sum up your star power, what would it be? And what do you wish the universe would bless you with?

JF: I’m not sure what a ‘star power’ is – is that one of the special items in Mario Kart?  I am a big fan of the Marvel movies and TV shows! If we’re talking fantastical superpowers, I would love to be able to fly. But if we’re talking something that would be really personally useful, I’d love to be able to draw quicker, or to be able to survive on three hours sleep. Then I could make more books!

JH: What are you looking forward to the most at Steadfast as the Stars?

JF:  I’m biased, but I’m most looking forward to the launch of a picture book called Say Hooray. It’s written by my wife Renae Hayward and illustrated by Rebecca Mills. It’s the perfect baby board book! They’ll be joined by Kelly Canby and her latest picture book Timeless for a very special double book launch.

I’m also a huge fan of two Noongar language books that Fremantle Press just published: Noongar Boodja Waangkan (Noongar First Words) written by Jayden Boundry, and Ninni Yabini written by Cheryl-Kickett Tucker, both illustrated by Tyrown Waigana. Jayden and Cheryl will both be at the festival to present a Noongar storytime. I think it’s important that Perth kids learn about Noongar language and culture, and picture books are wonderful starting points for this.

I’m also super-excited to be launching book 1 of the Secret Agent Mole series at Family Day. The book isn’t officially released until 1 March, so if you come to the launch you will be one of the first people in Australia to get a copy.

But all the sessions will be fantastic – you can’t go wrong.

Writers Weekend is at Fremantle Arts Centre, 25-26 February 2023

Read our first two Writers Weekend interviews with Holden Sheppard and Michelle Johnston

Pictured top: Author and illustrator James Foley can’t wait for Family Day at Writers Weekend. Photo: Jessica Wyld

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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  • In the eye of the storm

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