He Reigns!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Welcome Award Winning Author Marilyn Helmer

I was born in St. John's, Newfoundland, grew up in Montreal and moved to Burlington, Ontario where my husband Gary and I raised our family and lived in the same house for thirty-six years. When Gary retired from teaching, we traded city living for a house in the country in an adult lifestyle community. One added benefit of moving to this busy, friendly community is that we are closer to our children. Our son Chris – soon to be married - is a hydro geologist and our daughter Sandra, happily married to Jeremiah, teaches grade five.

I love to travel and have gone on several mother/daughter trips with Sandra to the British Isles, France and the Mediterranean. Not to be left out, sports-minded Chris and Gary share their love of skiing and snowboard on father/son trips to Utah and western Canada. Gary and I have been to Ireland, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and the Caribbean as well as many trips across Canada and to the United States.

When I’m not writing, my interests include photography (every once in a while I manage to get a good shot), reading (more children’s books than adult), gardening (more weeds than flowers), scrapbooking and card making. I walk every day to keep fit – love that 10 000 step program! I’m a member of the local Red Hatters, known as the Scarlett O’Hatters, and belong to a very fun book club.


1.      Why did you become a writer…was it a dream of yours since you were younger or did the desire to write happen later in your life?

As a child I loved to make up stories, sometimes just to get myself out of trouble.  I was an avid reader with a penchant for mystery stories. My favorite books were the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys series and British author Enid Blyton’s Adventure books. A couple of like-minded friends and I started a mystery story club.  We loaned each other favorite books and began making up stories of our own. Our clubhouse was a park bench where we told our stories, complete with “… to be continued” breaks to add to the suspense. Little did I think back then that one day I would actually become a published author.

2.      What was the inspiration for your latest work?

My latest book is a picture book called “That’s What Bears Are For”.  It was inspired by my  children’s love of sleep-buddies, those well-loved and often well-worn stuffed toys children   take to bed with them at night. I wrote a poem called “Old Ted”, which was published in Spider Magazine. It is a tribute to my own childhood teddy bear.  

As children, we love to hug and cuddle our teddy bears but when we grow older, we put them aside. They no longer get the hugs and cuddles of childhood.  Aha – inspiration! How about a story of a bear who misses the hugs and cuddles he had long ago?  I rushed to my computer and began to type.  As the story goes, after years of loneliness, Bear is found at the bottom of an old trunk by a young girl named Jenny.  Bear recognizes a kindred spirit when he sees one and becomes a bear on a mission. He is determined to once again enjoy days of hugs and cuddles, because, after all, that’s what bears are for!

3. What was the most interesting research you had to do for any of your books? 

That would be the research I did for my middle grade novel, “Dinosaurs on the Beach”. The story is about a young girl named Josie who shares her grandfather’s fascination with fossils and prehistoric creatures.  Josie makes a fabulous find – tiny bones which may be from the world’s smallest dinosaur but she must deal with many stumbling blocks in order to prove the value of her find.

To get the setting just right, I visited the Parrsboro-Joggins area on Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy coast. Scientists and geologists have made major discoveries of fossils in this area, dating back 300 to 350 million years ago. It was amazing to walk in their footsteps, visit  the museum and see some of the amazing finds these dedicated scientists have made.

I also benefited greatly in my research from the geology and paleontology courses my son Chris took in university. We went fossil hunting with our cousins along the Blue Beach area in the Annapolis Valley. At that time, collecting fossils was permitted. Although I didn’t make any ‘fabulous finds”, Chris did and generously loaned them to me to take along on school visits.   

4.      I know you are an award winning children’s author, Marilyn. Tell me about the awards you’ve won, and the books you won them for.

My picture book, "Fog Cat", won four awards and although I greatly appreciated all of them, the one that I remember best is the Mr. Christie award.  It was the tenth year the Christie book awards had been given out so a gala celebration was planned. The recipients and their families were invited as well as a number of school classes and local celebrities. The date of the ceremony was to be June 4. Unfortunately on that date, my daughter would still be in Hawaii finishing up a work program and my husband would be away at a conference. But my son assured me that he would be there. Then, oh glory day, the date of the award ceremony was changed to June 7. My husband was coming back from his conference on June 5, my daughter from Hawaii on June 6 and June 7 that year was our 30th wedding anniversary. My whole family came to the award ceremony. Afterward we had a lovely lunch with my publisher and that evening celebrated our joint wedding anniversaries with my daughter’s in-laws and their jolly extended family. The good times don’t get much better than that!

"Mr. McGratt and the Ornery Cat" was named an Ontario Library Association Best Bets selection. This book was a delight to write. The inspiration for the story came from the experiences my family had with our very ornery cat, Star, who lived to be twenty years old. Although Star was basically an indoor cat, every once in a while she would make a great escape and terrorize the other cats in the neighborhood. I always read this book when I visit schools to talk to primary children.

"Funtime Riddles" received a Canada Toy Testing Council Great Book award.  The six riddle books I wrote for Kids Can Press was one of the most fun projects I have ever done. My contract stipulated that 30% of the riddles should be original. Coming up with original riddles is not easy – they have all been done before!  But I had a terrific editor to work with and we had a lot of laughs putting these books together.

"One Splendid Tree" received the Rotary Club of Hamilton Children's Book Award. For years my dream was to have a Christmas book published and “One Splendid Tree”, set during WWII, made that dream a reality. I have done a number of events at libraries during the Christmas season where children make the decorations described in the book and use them to decorate their own splendid tree. I was delighted when two years ago The Hamilton Academy of Performing Arts turned “One Splendid Tree” into a play. I have also discovered online that several schools and libraries in the U. S. have featured  it in their Christmas programs.

5. How did you decide to write books for kids? Have you always wanted to write children’s books, or did that come about later on? 

I didn’t start seriously writing until I became a stay at home mom when my two children were born. My children, Chris and Sandra, are only fifteen months apart in age and a very active pair they were! Getting them to sit still was nigh unto impossible but when I brought out a book, magic happened. They would sit quietly (well, relatively quietly!) cuddled up on either side of me, listening and begging, “Just one more story, Mom. Please!”  That is when my dream was born. Maybe I could write stories myself, stories that would inspire that kind of joy and pleasure in children.  What satisfaction it would be to write a book that might become a child’s favorite, that might introduce them to the wonders of the written word and instill in them a life-long love of reading.  And so my writing career began. The road to success was paved with many rejection slips but I hung in there. Eventually I was blessed with success and my dream to be a children’s author came true.

As an extra bonus, I have had the opportunity to visit schools and libraries to talk to children about the writing process. My penchant for entering writing contests has brought me recognition in the field of adult short fiction too.

6. Have you written any books for adults (I don’t mean “adult” as in erotic romance, just non-children’s books)?

I haven’t written any books for adults but I do enjoy writing short adult fiction.  I may one day self-publish a collection of my short stories. However, I will need to have more stories before I seriously start to compile a book.   

7. What’s your writing schedule like?  When do you find time to write?

When I first started writing, I wrote haphazardly in my spare time, tucking my poems and stories away in a drawer, thinking “maybe, someday I’ll try to get them published.” Then I took a course in Creative Writing and on the advice of the very encouraging teacher, I joined CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers) and signed up for their annual day of workshops. In one workshop a published author talked about her initial hesitancy in submitting her stories to publishers and facing the dread rejection slips. I felt as if she were talking directly to me because that is exactly what I had been doing.

I came home that day, a woman on a mission. Never mind finding the time to write, I would make the time. With steely determination, I set myself a program – I would write in the mornings when my children were in school, five days a week, 8 a.m. to noon. Every month I would send out a minimum of three submissions.

During the first year, I collected a lot of rejection slips but eventually persistence paid off.  I had a poem published in a children’s magazine and won a home computer in an adult short story contest. I stuck to that writing schedule for many years, taking summers and March breaks off. Now I don’t find as much time to write but I still keep at it and for me, mornings are still my most creative time.

8. Do you have any writing idiosyncrasies?

In an attempt at being organized, I have way too many files and notebooks sliding around on my desk. One notebook would likely work better – and not be constantly lost in the shuffle.  But that tottering pile of notebooks looks so impressive …!

I always have more than one project on the go in case I come down with an attack of the dread writer’s block – or writer’s blockhead as my daughter calls it.  That way I can switch to another project for a few days and come back to deal with the problem with a fresh mind.  Oh, and I always have a cup of tea handy.  

9. What’s the most challenging aspect of writing for you?

That would be getting the initial first draft completed – it’s like pulling teeth! Once I have a beginning, middle and ending though, I feel encouraged to forge ahead.  I don’t mind self-editing and revising until I believe the manuscript is ready send out. When (if!) the manuscript is accepted, there will likely be more revisions to do with an editor. Speaking of editors, I have been so fortunate. I have worked with many and have yet to meet one who I didn’t feel had the best interest of my manuscript at heart.