Lorraine Johnston is a force of nature in the writing world. Not only do most of her books support well-known charities, she’s just got herself a writer in residence post too. With MS and other ailments, she’s an extraordinary women who is a pleasure to talk to, so OF COURSE Sarah Broadley jumped at the chance to interview her for MyBookCorner – about her informative and often funny books…
1. From the US to the UK and beyond. Can you tell us a little about your experiences overseas and how your first book came about?
I started writing in October 2011, not from a place of passion to write a book and become a ‘writer’ but from a place of being lost, after losing my career, hopes and dreams after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I had lots of metaphorical hats beforehand, mum, wife, daughter, sister, Health and Safety Advisor, volunteer, and trainer. After diagnosis, I felt I had only one hat left, which felt like it was sat firmly on my head stating ‘Disabled.’
I was first published in the USA through my naivety, audacity, and arrogance. Once I’d decided that I wanted to write children’s stories, I did some homework for the potential target audience for my story and sought permissions from Audubon Zoo and Blue Frog Chocolates, which set the story firmly in New Orleans. I designed a ‘Mardi Gras Tartan’ and submitted my manuscript to a publisher in Virginia. I wanted first to dip my toes in the children’s book world far from home, so that if I made a fool of myself, no one over here would notice! Later Tartan Gator was accepted and ended up being quite popular in Louisiana.
The most amazing book-signing events were arranged in Barnes and Noble in both Louisiana and in New York. I was invited to attend the Louisiana Book festival in 2014, which was a wonderful surprise. It was my first book and my first book festival, and I was delighted that the decision to write children’s stories, had put me on the beginning of an amazing journey. After that, I was invited to the Ruby Bridges Foundation New Orleans Children’s Book Festival. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fly back out so soon after the first festival, so a dear friend read Later Tartan Gator out on stage for me. I was beyond thrilled.
2. Walter, MacMoley, Gator and Whit are just some of the fantastic characters in your picture books. Who’s been your favourite to create so far?
I guess you’ve heard this answer before, but that would be like asking to pick your favourite child. Each has a different meaning and purpose for me. Later Tartan Gator was a terrifying pleasure to write, and I enjoyed learning how to make a book commercially appealing. Importantly, a percentage of all proceeds went to St Thomas Community Health Center in New Orleans. Now that I have brought LTG home, I have re-written it and created a special edition, this time raising £1 donation to Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance for each copy sold.
Whit of Whiteleys Wood came about because I wanted to become a volunteer and help raise funds and awareness for the wonderful charity, Whiteleys Retreat. I have pretty much been a volunteer and undertaken fund-raising events since I was in the Girl Guides – and that’s a long time ago. But now, I’m very limited in what I can physically do; So, I wrote the story and gifted 100% copyright and proceeds to www.whiteleysretreat.com and Whit has been flying around all over the world, raising awareness of the fantastic work they do as well as raising vital funds too.
MacMoley Moves Home is a story that I pitched in New York, and it received great feedback, including the shortest question from a panel ever; “Are you visiting NYC or living in NYC?” they asked. “Visiting.” I replied. “Pity! It’s cute. Next!”
During lockdown, I decided to publish it on my own.
And Walter’s Wonky Web comes from a place where I want to encourage children that their best is good enough, even if it’s a bit wonky. And besides, there are far too many people frightened by spiders and I have to confess that I am one of them!
3. Do you have any more books coming out soon?
Walter’s Wonky Web will be the last self-published book that I do. I have been exceptionally lucky to work with my first choice of literary agent over the last challenging year that we have all had, and hopefully we will have great news in the future about my next book. But until then, I can’t spill any beans or talk about cats, giraffes or any other projects just quite yet.
4. You’ve worked with many amazing illustrators on your picture books – Jane Cornwell, Preston Asevedo and Mandy Sinclair. Did you see their ideas for your words as they were formed? How involved were you in the page layouts etc?
I was lucky to be involved in all of them and it was amazing to watch someone else’s interpretation of my stories. Later Tartan Gator was a challenge because Haggis was a new beast for the New Orleans born illustrator Preston Asevedo to contend with, and the kilt was tricky too. In the end, he made a wonderful job of both. It’s been a privilege to be able to be part of the design and concept for many of the page layouts but equally, each wonderful illustrator has brought their own additions which were very clever and beautifully done.
MacMoley was designed and created in wool first, as a hand-felted collectable by my dear friend Liz Gaffney-Whaite from www.heartfeltbyliz.com . Once his monocle was in place and his label was stitched to his bottom, he was swiftly posted to the talented illustrator Jane Cornwell and she did all the illustrations based on the woolly ‘MacMoley Collectable.’ It was a wonderful collaboration that was written, felted, and illustrated in three months from start to finish.
Mandy Sinclair kindly gifted her beautiful illustrations for Whit of Whiteleys Wood and did all the work without charge. She added her own little details to each page and made it a wonderful picture book for the charity. Simply amazing!
5. You have just been announced as a Writer in Residence for Dundonald Castle and Ambassador for Whiteleys Retreat! Congratulations. Can you tell us a little about what is involved and your plans ahead?
I’ve already explained how I am physically restricted with what I can do, but writing has saved my sanity and given me purpose. A life without purpose can be a miserable one. I intend to share my stories, both written and personal, with other people to hopefully inspire them to write or to try something new. It’s amazing what you can achieve when you think and believe you can achieve it. My travelling days are sadly long gone; however, writing can take me anywhere and everywhere on the page. I will be delivering writing workshops and running competitions for Dundonald Castle which will bring in much needed funds for the charity and add another activity for the local folks and wee ones to attend.
It will be a privilege to champion Whiteleys Retreat as Ambassador for the charity. I cannot speak highly enough about Whiteleys for providing therapeutic short breaks for children, young people and their families with cancer or life altering illness. It really does make a huge difference to them, to get a break from hospital appointments and long periods away from their family due to hospital stays.
6. Will you delve into older readers or the mighty world of YA?
Funny you should ask that. I have two adult books on the go, about two entirely different subjects. One is filled with humour and ridiculous real-life events and the other is dark and raw. I should have finished them a long time ago, however, I keep getting new ideas for picture books. Hundreds of them! And as for YA, I thoroughly enjoy reading the wonderful Tanya Landman’s books and she inspires me to at least try a YA. So far, I have the title, the synopsis and a few short chapters written. It’s direction is surprising me to be honest. It’s taking twists and turns that I didn’t anticipate. The process is hugely exciting and terrifying I equal measures.
And then a giraffe pops it’s head into the folds of my brain and that’s me off again with another storyboard.
This last question wasn’t asked, because no one could know to ask. But regardless of whether I become successful with future books being published or not, I have been successful in two important things.
1. MS used to be two innocuous letters of the alphabet. Then thirteen years ago, they turned into representing Multiple Sclerosis. Writing has allowed me to re-claim those letters, and now they represent manuscript.
2. My first symptom of MS happened on the morning of my 40th birthday. I re-claimed my birthday and arranged my first ever book signing event to be at Blue Frog Chocolate shop, on Magazine Street in New Orleans, on my 42nd Birthday. My birthday was no longer a date to refer to my first symptom, but now a date to celebrate how long I have been a writer.
I’ve learned that you can write a happier ending and I intend to do so until The End.
Whit of Whiteleys Wood by Lorraine Johnston, illustrated by Mandy Sinclair – When it comes to flying, Whit is determined to succeed. She loves to soar and climb higher and higher until…crash! When Whit falls down, all the woodland animals help get her back on her wings. Her confidence is dented but she soon discovers that as she gets back up into the air again, she can help others learn to fly too. A lovely story of supportive friends, especially when you need them the most.
Walter’s Wonky Web by Lorraine Johnston, illustrated by Jane Cornwell – Walter can’t seem to get his web straight, it’s all wonky! He asks lots of his animal friends how he can fix it and they all come up with marvellous ideas to help…but his webs are still not right! A fantastic story of being true to yourself and accepting your differences with fantastic fun facts about spiders too!
MacMoley Moves Home by Lorraine Johnston, illustrated by Jane Cornwell – MacMoley needs more space, so he collects all his things and begins to dig. He meets all his friends along the way and ends up just where he needs to be…home. A superb rhyming story of adventure and friendship.
Later Tartan Gator by Lorraine Johnston, illustrated by Preston Acevedo – if you down to Audubon zoo today you may get a bit of a surprise. For the alligator isn’t quite feeling right and he doesn’t know what to do. After eating some haggis, will he return to his normal green self or will he stay tartan forever! This is a fun rhyming tale of the important story of ‘DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS’ unless you can fix what happens next!