Alastair Heim became my hero the minute I saw the sales announcement in Publishers Marketplace for NO TOOTING AT TEA. Anyone who gets a flatulence book through an editorial board is someone I am in awe of! Then I read an interview where he talked about Star Wars and I knew I had to ask him to be in Writing with the Stars this year. Luckily, he is as nice as he is funny and said yes! Also, I ended up at the SCBWI KS/MO conference this year and got to meet Alastair in person, where he was kind enough to give me a specially signed version of NO TOOTING AT TEA (pictured below). If fart books are not your thing, no worries. His other books are fart free and equally delightful. I can’t wait to see who Alastair will pick as his Padawan!
You have been asked before, but please share the inspiration story for NO TOOTING AT TEA.
Gladly! The inspiration for NO TOOTING AT TEA came from an imaginary tea party I was lucky enough to attend in March of 2014. Everything was going perfectly properly, until one of the other guests (not me!) broke the most important of tea party rules … she TOOTED. The hostess remained calm and politely reminded the flatulent party interrupter, “There’s no tooting at tea.” I started writing the story immediately.
I think Sara Not, the illustrator of NO TOOTING, has a great sense of humor. I am pretty sure that on page 4, Sara illustrated the littlest girl picking her nose and then on page 5, eating it. My son thought this was very funny. Had you noticed that before and do you agree with my assessment?
It is funny you should mention that! When my agent and I first received the illustrations back in 2015, she immediately thought that, too. I didn’t even notice it until she emailed me about it. When we reached out to my editor to confirm whether or not the little sister did, in fact, pick her nose and eat it, she responded back with, “Let’s just leave that up to the reader.” I completely agree with my editor ;-).
How did you find yourself writing for kids? Did you start before you had your own children or no?
I didn’t start trying to write children’s picture books until after my first child was born. My wife and I received tons and tons of picture books as baby shower gifts and, after reading every single one of them, I was inspired to write my own.
You worked for a long time to get published. Tell us why you persevered. What did you tell yourself to keep going?
Yes, it was roughly nine years from the time I started writing to when LOVE YOU, TOO was released. I will be completely honest and tell you that when I was three years into trying to get published, I had every intention of giving up. I had spent two years writing, another year and a half trying to get an agent, and was rejected by everyone I queried (including my own agent, Kelly, at first).
In May of 2011, I was having lunch with Ed Ball, one of my very best friends and the person I dedicated THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION to. (Side note … Ed is a published author and one of the foremost experts on the Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins Guitar. He’s written two books about it that you should totally check out.) Anyway, I told Ed at that lunch that I was giving up on trying to get published. His exact words were, “No, you’re not.”
It was the encouragement from my wife, kids, and the other people in my life that kept me going. I hadn’t stopped writing new stories (I’m unable to stop), but I had gotten to the point where doubt was clouding everything and failure was starting to set in as inevitable. It wasn’t until a year and a half later, after a very strange series of events (that Ed Ball played another large part in), that I signed with Kelly Sonnack at Andrea Brown Literary in September of 2011.
How do you find time to write with a day job and three kids? What is your writing schedule like?
Whenever we don’t have an event or activity to go to on the weekend, we try to stay home as much as possible. It is on those weekends that I like to start new work or, at the very least, think up new book titles. I don’t usually write on weeknights, except when I have revisions from my agent or an edit to finish, of course.
I usually start my Saturday morning with eggs, coffee and an All the Wonders Podcast (recommended listening). From there, I usually work on one of my in-progress stories or, if I’m stuck, stare out of my back window until a new idea pops into my brain. I can’t tell you the number of book ideas that have come from simply staring out of a window. Most of them are not that good, but every once in a while, the scenery provides me with a winner.
Was there anyone who helped you on your way up?
I didn’t have any contacts in the publishing industry, nor was I a celebrity who wanted to write a picture book, so I can’t say I really had anyone on the inside help me out (until I signed with my agent). I did, however, have a wonderful network of friends and family who read my manuscripts, told me whether my stories sucked or not, and supported me when I was at my most doubtful. I also have a critique group (shout out to the Heartland Writers’ Critique!) who gives me wonderful and sometimes painful feedback on my stories.
I wish there had been a mentoring program like Writing with the Stars when I was first starting out. While a mentorship is not a guaranteed path to publication, having someone (who has been through the trenches) to consult with, learn from, and ask questions of is, to me, an invaluable tool I would have counted myself lucky to have had.
How many manuscripts did you write before you wrote your first one that sold?
LOVE YOU, TOO was the 21st manuscript I had written.
What were the best things you did to learn the craft?
There are a few things I did, and still do, that help me immensely. First, whenever I’m writing in rhyme, I read my writing aloud (multiple times) after I finish a stanza. I’m trying to make the rhyme as tight and effortless-to-read as possible. I will also, from time to time, record myself reading it so that I can hear it back and edit further, and even have my wife or friends read it aloud in front of me so that I can hear other people’s interpretations of it.
While I buy a ton of picture books for my kids, I try not to let other people’s work influence what I write—from a topic and subject matter standpoint. I want to come up with my own, original ideas, and trying to emulate someone else’s is never a good way to go. I do, however, pay close attention to writing craft and great rhyming when I find it.
What was the idea spark behind THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION?
The idea for THE GREAT PUPPY INVASION actually came from a piece of art located where I work. The sculpture is of five Dalmatian puppies stacked on top of each other “cheerleader pyramid” style. One day, I looked at the sculpture and thought, “Hundreds of puppies suddenly show up in a town that has never seen puppies before.” The title popped straight into my brain and I started writing the manuscript the following weekend. I found it wonderfully entertaining to imagine what people would think and how they’d react if they were experiencing puppy behavior for the first time.
Your new book, HELLO DOOR, debuts in January. Can you tell us a bit about it and how you got the idea?
HELLO, DOOR was actually a book title that I thought of back in 2012. A few years later (in 2016), I was flipping through a journal, in which I write down all of the titles I think of, and rediscovered it. It got me wondering about what a book called “HELLO, DOOR” might actually be about. So, I blurted out the words, “Hello, door. Hello, house…” and from there, it became the story of a sly and sneaky Fox, who greets everything he sees (and steals) with a polite, “Hello!”
The lovely ladies of NO TOOTING will be back for a sequel, NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS in 2018. What else can we look forward to from you?
Yes! Except NO PEEKING AT PRESENTS will now be released in the Fall of 2019. I have one other book coming out before or after that (I’m not sure which) in 2019 that I’m not legally allowed to announce quite yet. I can tell you that it’s a fun, rhyming read aloud book.
If there is anything you are dying to be asked in an interview, please feel free to ask yourself.
I’m not going to tell you what the question I’m dying to be asked is, but I will tell you that the answer is, “A Superman T-Shirt.” Like my editor once told me, “Let’s leave it up to the reader to decide” what the question is ;-).
Thank you, Alastair! Please remember to support these mentor authors by buying books, leaving online reviews, and telling your librarians. (But please, no tooting in the library.)