This week, we’re sitting down for a chat with author Sarah Brennan! The creator of the wonderfully witty Chinese Calendar Tales, A Dirty Story and An Even Dirtier Story for kids, plus the hilarious (and oh-so frank!) Dummies for Mummies parenting guide shares her experience of being a busy working mama, her favourite hangouts with teens in Hong Kong and her top tips for aspiring writers.
How do you save time? What are your organisational tricks and tips?
My small office a few miles from home is the best time-saving device I ever indulged in! I LOVE my office – I can close the door, get down to work, and not budge till late afternoon, without a single distraction! Getting to work early is great too – by 8am if possible – I can get vast wads of work done by lunchtime, so that when the kids come home from school I can give them my full attention. And, of course, I try to limit time on social media to an absolute minimum – it’s the biggest time-waster known to man!
I wish I had more time for…
Where do I start? I’d love more time with my girls, to teach them skills like sewing and more sophisticated cooking. I’d love more time with my husband, talking, walking and passing the time of day. I’d love more time with my girlfriends and my family back home. I’d love time to paint watercolours. If I had a garden, to spend hours tending it. Of course to travel, and to read more books…
I always feel saner after…
I’ve completed all the tasks on a list of things to do – which is rare! And after I’ve written one of my books – the writing process is incredibly satisfying and soothing. Devoting time to my family without interruption always makes me feel much better too!
Favourite activity with the kids in Hong Kong?
Walking in the country parks, having a girlie afternoon shopping in Central, watching movies together at home or in the cinema.
Favourite kid-friendly restaurant in Hong Kong?
The girls being teenagers now, we can take them pretty much anywhere – but we all love Open Kitchen (formerly known as Simply Life) in IFC2 where the food is scrumptious and the service fast and friendly.
Favourite family-friendly holiday spot in Asia?
Borneo is fantastic – beautiful scenery, wild life reserves, canoeing, beaches and lovely family friendly resorts.
Activity that I do not love to do but do it anyway because my kids love it…
One of the great things about kids turning into teens is that the things they desperately want to do that I desperately don’t, are ideal opportunities to teach them self-reliance! Like clothes-shopping, which can be lethal for a mother of teen girls who on principle, don’t like anything she thinks looks good on them, or watching movie series involving vampires or robots or human sacrifices, or painting their toenails in ten different colours…
Can you talk us through your career pre and post babies? How did you get back into the swing of things after having children?
It’s a bit complicated! At the time I had my first baby, I was a partner in a London law firm specialising in medical litigation, so I spent my full-time maternity leave at home working feverishly on my computer while my daughter slept, holding team meetings in the living room and carrying my child in a carry-cot on trains to meetings in Manchester! It was completely insane, and after I returned to part-time work in the office for the remainder of my leave, I felt perpetually jealous of my nanny. My firm’s refusal to allow me to continue to work on a part-time basis neatly coincided with my then husband’s transfer to Hong Kong, so we all upped sticks and moved here in 1998.
For the first four years I was very happy being a stay-at-home mum, relieved to be away from the constant stress of my old life, and during this time I had my second daughter. In 2003, my life turned upside down. I started writing a regular column for a Hong Kong parenting magazine and was asked by the publisher if I’d ever written anything for children. Having written stories since I was a child, I had a large number up my sleeve, and the publisher selected A Dirty Story, which became a picture book in 2004. At the same time, my marriage was falling apart. The Department of Immigration is not particularly sympathetic to trailing spouses when a separation occurs, so I had to very quickly write a business plan and establish a business that would employ me as a full-time writer. To this day I am grateful to the kindly officer who looked benignly at my preposterously optimistic business plan and year after year stamped my visa until my 7 years were up and I was eligible for a permanent ID card!
A Dirty Story was immediately successful in the Hong Kong schools I visited, so An Even Dirtier Story followed the next year. The following year, in 2005, my funny parenting columns were collated into a book entitled Dummies for Mummies, published by Haven Books. By this time I’d had some experience in marketing my books, so decided to take the leap and set up my own publishing company Auspicious Times Ltd, which went on to publish the Chinese Calendar Tales. That same year, I met my lovely French husband Philippe, and we married at the end of 2006.
What inspired you to write The Chinese Calendar series?
I’d been feeling very conscious in the schools I was visiting that my Dirty Stories were rather Euro-centric for a largely Asian audience, so in 2007 I wrote and published The Tale of Chester Choi, about a Chinese dragon who ate children by the side of the South China Sea. It sold so fast that within months I wrote The Tale of Run Run Rat for the Year of the Rat in 2008. This became Time Out Hong Kong’s No. 1 children’s best seller for a whole six weeks, followed by The Tale of Chester Choi at No. 2 and Harry Potter at No. 3, so I knew I was onto something! By the end of that year I’d also published The Tale of Oswald Ox, and the Chinese Calendar Tales series was on its way. Ever since, I’ve written a new tale ready for the next year of the Chinese Zodiac. We’re now at Year 7 in the cycle, The Year of the Horse, with a companion tale, The Tale of Pin Yin Panda, published in 2012.
How did the partnership with illustrator Harry Harrison come about?
When the publisher at P3 first read my manuscript for A Dirty Story, he said that he knew someone who might like to illustrate it. That, of course, was the wonderful Harry Harrison, and his illustrations for the book were a terrific mix of wickedly dark humour and raucous fun, which matched my own perverse sense of humour perfectly! So when I decided to publish my own books, Harry was the obvious choice. He insists that the only reason he agreed to illustrate The Tale of Chester Choi was because I tracked him down to his studio and wouldn’t stop reading him my story until he said yes!
Where are the majority of your books sold? Do you find that the stories translate well to an international audience?
Not surprisingly, my books sell mostly in Asia, particularly Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore. This is not just due to their content but also the way in which my distribution has evolved over the years. I’m now selling growing numbers overseas in countries including the UK, Australia, Canada and the United States. Being written in English in humorous rhyming verse, with funny illustrations, by an Anglo-Australian and expat Englishman respectively, they cross the East-West cultural divide easily, although I do try to target my tours and my distribution towards markets where there is already an interest in Chinese culture and history.
How long do you spend writing each book?
As I know exactly what Zodiac beasties I need to write about in the coming years, I’m forever making notes as I research and as ideas pop into my head. So there’s a certain amount of pre-planning that happens over the years. However when it’s time to knuckle down and write the next tale, I spend one or two days making a detailed story plan, then I start writing. The first verse always takes the longest – it’s a matter of finding the rhythm or the “song” for the story – and once I’ve found that, the rest flows more or less easily, with some verses seeming to write themselves! I always say that detailed planning is a writer’s best friend, not least because it then only takes a matter of days to finish writing the story.
How has having kids changed the way you define work?
It’s trite to say it, but having kids immediately altered my priorities. For me, much as I adore my job and hope to do it till the day I drop, my girls will always come first. As a business owner, that always creates tensions, as it would be quite easy for me to work 20 hours a day and still have work left to do. So it’s a matter of building in family time and sticking to it. That having been said, I am keenly aware of the importance of providing my girls with a role model as a working mum. I want them to know that they can look after themselves without having to rely on someone else. And to know that there is no free lunch – if you want something, you have to work hard, long hours to achieve it.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers in Hong Kong?
Be determined and don’t take no for an answer! The book business is incredibly tough, often lonely, and highly competitive. It’s also a roller coaster ride that never stops! So you have to develop a thick hide, be persistent, and above all believe in your writing, whilst at the same time remaining realistic about it. It’s definitely not a game for shrinking violets; the days of the introverted writer are over and the willingness and ability to market yourself and your product is essential.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
To follow my instincts.
As a mama I wish I were better at…
Juggling all the things I have to do so that everyone felt happy all of the time… including me!
My most humbling mama moment was…
When the tooth fairy forgot to leave a coin for my eldest daughter two nights in a row, and on the third morning a coin appeared in the glass that the tooth fairy knew nothing about (again…). It transpired that said daughter had got fed up and put in the coin herself…ouch!
What’s your favourite family ritual?
Long lunches around the dining table on Sundays after church.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about….
All the things I need to add to my to do list.
Bedtime is always smoother when…
The girls actually get to bed when they said they were going to bed, two hours earlier!
Even when my children have families of their own, I’ll still…
Be a worrier! My husband tells me I’m the greatest worrier the world has ever known, highways ahead of Genghis Khan!
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
My husband. The best gift you can give your kids is the example of a happy marriage.
My favourite moment of the day is…
When the kids have gone to bed (or at least say they have), I’ve shut down my computer, the CD player is on, and we’ve settled down on the sofa for a quiet evening of reading… which is precisely the moment that I always fall asleep!
The Tale of a Dark Horse is the latest in Sarah’s Chinese Calendar Tales series, and is now available to buy at Bookazine.