An interview with David McArthur, author of the bestselling picture book, What Does a Caterpillar Do? Hear about David’s preference for first person point of view, his love of fantastic takes on real-world settings, and his favourite scary story. 20 minutes.
Read the full transcript:
[1:10] Interview with David McArthur
[1:30] CA: Do you tend to know the end of your story when you begin?
DM: So I will try and plan. But actually, part of my biggest struggle is I get frustrated at the planning stage. …so I’ll write the ending first and then I’ll come back and I’ll figure out how I get my characters from A to Z. … And I think actually that allows you to … react to situations that are happening and ideas that you get, and you can weave them into the story as you go.
[2:50] CA: … how do you feel about tormenting a character?
DM: You don’t enjoy it. Well, you kind of do. …
[3:25] CA: Do you have any advice that you would give to young writers who might be stuck in the middle of a story?
DM: Yes… So what I try and do when I’m stuck is actually not stop working on the story, but just write out some plot cards, put them into a little bag, and then just draw some out at random. … it gets your creativity firing by doing something that’s linked to the story but different to what you’ve written so far. …
[4:30] CA: And you mentioned opening with dialogue. Is that something that you have ever done?
DM: I was taught at a very young age that you don’t open a book with dialogue. … It does need to have a hook. You can’t really start with something like, “Can I have that piece of pie, please?”
[5:30] CA: You have written a series…How do you handle endings in a story that you know will continue?
DM: With the “What does…?” series, they’re all individual books. … With the other stories I’ve written, they are part of this longer story …. I think you really need to end on a question. … It needs to be gripping but at the same time it’s got to have a little bit of a down time so you don’t feel completely robbed at the end of the story. It certainly is a tricky thing to get right. …
[7:30] CA: And how do you feel about sad endings?
DM: … I confess I don’t like sad endings. …. I prefer leaving people feeling a little bit more uplifted and that humankind is not such race after all.
[8:05] CA: Do you have a favorite setting from fiction?
DM: I like setting my stories in the real world, but a real world with a bit of a twist. … for example, a story I wrote when I was a student actually was set in the Second World War. But I took the idea based on this news article I had read which said that when the Americans were testing the atomic bomb, they were afraid it was actually going to crack the earth’s crust and release [laughter] the citizens of hell into the world. …
[9:50] CA: Do you have any favourite fictional characters?
DM: … I love Sherlock Holmes. … without a doubt, he’s my favourite fictional character.
[10:15] CA: And are any of your stories based on your own childhood?
DM: No, they’re not. … I tend to do that with my adult self, not so much my kid self. Mainly, probably because I don’t want to put myself in that situation. I’d be too terrified.
[10:45] CA: Do you keep a journal or sketchbook or anything like that?
CM: I have done in the past. Usually when I’m in the middle of a story, I keep a journal close so I can actually make notes quickly. With your cell phone these days, it actually has replaced the journal when you’ve just got ideas. …
[11:05] CA: Do you have any recommendations to young writers for getting or organizing their ideas?
DM: … Really listen to the conversations that are happening around you … Or looking at the headlines for the newspaper that day … It’s really about being open to the world around you and not closing yourself off and thinking that all the answers you could possibly have are going to come out of your head. …
[12:40] CA: … about what percentage of time would you spend drafting and what percentage revising?
DM: … when I wrote What does a Caterpillar Do? I must’ve spent easily five or six times as long editing it as I did writing it. … When you’re writing a longer book, I tend to probably do the same amount of editing but in terms of proportion of the book, it’s probably two or three times as long editing as I did writing it.
[13:34] CA: And do you have any advice to young writers about revising?
DM: A little trick that I used to use –you need to do this in the smaller books — … I would read it backwards. And it allowed you to spot grammatical errors easier because you were actually looking for things more than just letting the book flow through. …
[14:05] CA: And do you ever read your work out loud?
DC: Yes, I do. Usually to my kids and my wife, normally as a bedtime story … I’ll read them when we’re sitting at the campfire. I’ll read them to them when we’re going on a trip somewhere and they’re bored… So I do find it very beneficial, partly because it allows you to live your characters as opposed to reading the characters …
[14:45] CA: And do you have a regular writing practice?
DM: Probably not. I probably should. … I have a location I like to go to where I can completely remove all stimuli and it’s just a darkened room. … just getting your brain into a state of focus where you’re not being distracted by your cell phone or the Internet or the latest news article.
[15:40] CA: Do you have a favorite POV to write from?
DM: Yeah, it’s usually first person. …
[15:55] CA: Do you work on one project at a time or do you jump around?
DM: I do try and stick to one story. …
[16:20] CA: Did you tell stories, did you have an off-the-cuff storytelling experience as a kid?
DM: My parents always used to read bedtime stories to us. So we used to have a lot of storytime. Not so much someone making up a story on their own. … I’ve had a lot of experience with just making up stories on the fly. …
CA: And do you have a favorite scary story?
DM: Oh yes. … The book I love is The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, and it’s a fantastic tale, a fantastic ghost story. … I still get chills when I read the story now, even though I’ve read it easily 20, 30 times.
[18:30] CA: And do you have any phobias?
DM: I do. … I can’t stand scorpions. Even talking about them, I get on edge. I think it stems from—
CA: It’s the tail.
DM: Yeah. Thank you. I’m turning off the screen now…
[19:45] CA: And that’s pretty much all my questions, unless you happen to be the seventh son of a seventh son?
DM: I’m afraid not. I grew up reading that book, from The Dark is Rising sequence, and loving that book. … I think it’s one of the stories that have heavily influenced me as well as a writer.
[20:40] CA: And you mentioned your dyslexia…
DM: It’s part of the reason I wrote the What does? series… I really wanted to write a book that worked for kids who perhaps couldn’t sit down and just follow the regular pattern. … I really wanted to create an interactive book helping kids, give kids the confidence to read.
[21:25] CA: And that’s all my questions for you, David. …It’s been a pleasure. Bye.
[21:40] David McArthur introduces himself
I’m a children’s and young adult author. I’ve actually had four books published. And my latest is What Does a Caterpillar Do? which actually was the number one bestselling book in Canada. And it was written in memory of two little girls, Chloe and Aubrey Berry, who sadly lost their lives in 2017. And all the profits from that book are being donated to the Victoria Child Abuse Prevention and Counseling Centre. As a writer, I’ve been writing stories for really as long as I can remember. My dad used to have this really old laptop that I used to type out stories on and my mom would review it and say, You really need to slow down and actually think about what you’re writing. So yeah, I’ve loved stories, I love telling stories to my kids and my wife, and it’s been a big part of my life.
[22:35] Find out more about David McArthur
You can hear more creative writing advice from David McArthur on Cabin Tales Episode 5.5, “Author Interviews about Tension,” on Episode 6.5: “Author Interviews about Beginnings;” and on Episode 8, “The Never-ending Story,” about revision. You can find out more about David McArthur and his books from the “What Does…?” series website at Morello.ca/aKidsAuthor.
[23:40] Thanks and coming up on the podcast
I’ll be back next week with leftovers from my interview with the picture book author Lisa Dalrymple. Thanks for listening.
Host: Catherine Austen writes books for children, short stories for adults, and reports for corporate clients. Visit her at www.catherineausten.com.
Visit the Cabin Tales home page.
David McArthur is a graphic designer and creative writer based in Victoria, BC. His “What Does…” picture book series started as a game that David played with his son as they were driving to daycare. Find him online at www.akidsauthor.com.