In the latest in our series of interviews with local talent, we spoke to prolific author Rob Keeley to find out what inspires him.
What initially inspired you to write?
I’ve been living with stories for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home full of books and we were also great TV viewers, and that taught me subconsciously from an early age how to tell stories, long before I studied Creative Writing. My grandmother – Nan – also did a great deal to fire my imagination. I spent lots of time with her while my parents were working and we would play ‘pretending games’ where we could be just about anyone, in any situation. One involved me wearing an old mackintosh of hers to be a door-to-door salesman, knocking on the kitchen door to try to sell her something ridiculous, such as a broom-handle with no broom attached.
Then, because I’m a wheelchair user, when I was three years old I was placed in a special school, all disabilities mixed in together, where I had a very rough time indeed. It took until I was nearly ten for me to get full-time into a mainstream school. So my world of the imagination was a useful place to escape to and I’ve maintained it alongside my regular life ever since.
What did you find that writing offered you?
It provided a place where I was in charge, where there weren’t people continually telling me what I could and couldn’t do, and where anything was possible. This is why I can’t understand the modern theory that “children want to see themselves in books”. I was the last person I wanted to see. I wanted to see others and be others. Then, once I was able to get my fictional world down on paper, it offered me the opportunity to share that world with an audience. I quickly discovered that I loved writing stories and had the ability to entertain.
How was your first book received and what thoughts and feelings created the words?
The Alien in the Garage and Other Stories, my first story collection for the 8-12s, was in the making for the best part of a decade before I finally found a publisher for it. It didn’t come out of one consistent set of thoughts and feelings – rather, they were children’s tales I’d written over a long period of time, in and around my studies, my day jobs in offices and other writing projects. I was delighted when Matador (Troubador Publishing Ltd) agreed to take it on, and overjoyed when it received good reviews.
Given the impact of your first book, how did this manifest in further books?
The success of the book gave me confidence to do more and I produced two further collections of children’s short stories, The (Fairly) Magic Show and The Dinner Club, before moving on to do children’s novels with my Spirits series and others. Recently, I’ve returned to the short story format and the fictional school I created for it with The Boy Who Disappeared and Other Stories, which was published in March 2023.
How do you think up subjects for your books?
You don’t usually begin with a subject – unless you’re writing non-fiction – but with a story, a character or an idea. This can come from someone you’ve known, something you’ve done or read about, somewhere you’ve been – but very often it’s totally random. My current novel for the 8-12s The Teacher Who Knew Too Much, which is published later this year, is about a boy who discovers his Maths teacher is really a safecracker and taking part in bank raids. And I have no idea where that came from!
Sometimes even dreams can supply ideas – particularly when you’re in that half-waking, half-sleeping state in the early morning. This happened with my picture book Carrots Don’t Grow On Trees! when I half-woke early one morning with a mental picture of a carrot tree. When I got up, an hour or so later, I had in my mind the story and the characters to go with it.
Can you offer any advice to people who sense they have a book in them but have never got round to doing it? Are there particular habits that work for you that help you get the book done?
I would say: simply sit down as soon as you can and get writing! You’ve got to make the time to write. It’s no good having a project in mind for years and never starting it. You can surprise yourself with what you can produce. If you need to build your confidence and learn writing technique, think about doing a Creative Writing course. I teach Creative Writing myself, to adults and children, and have an eight-week course I offer in person or online. Writing competitions can be a great way to get your work known – though they’re called ‘competitions’ for a reason!
The other thing I would say is: get to know the industry, the market for books like yours, and most of all, your target audience – which you have to have in mind constantly while writing. One of the silliest sayings I’ve encountered about writing (and the industry is full of them) is “write for yourself”. You never write for yourself! You always write for an audience and you have to know what they’re waiting to read. A good source for who’s publishing what, and technical advice for authors, is The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, which is available in bookshops, reference libraries and online.
As you can gather, I’m very disciplined about my writing. I was an office worker for a long time and still work an office-style day with a breakfast break, a coffee break and a lunch break. Yes, a breakfast break! I like to make an early start at writing, do my creative thinking in bed then be at my desk for eight a.m. Then I can get in 60-90 minutes’ work before breakfast.
What hobbies and pastimes do you have outside of writing that help ground you?
The writing process never really stops. With me – I can have ideas or plot a new story while shopping or vacuuming or having a meal. But away from my desk, I love exploring the countryside or taking a stroll by the sea, going out with family or friends or taking part in our church community. I still love reading, going to the theatre or cinema and watching new things on TV or online. These pastimes give me the grounding to go on writing.
What drives you as an individual? What are you passionate about?
The need to tell stories underpins my whole life and I’m passionate about children’s storytelling and literacy. It’s so important to give young people a good start in life, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have automatic access to books and media. Having experienced inequality from an early age, I want everyone to have access to reading and writing. But in the end I believe in a meritocracy with opportunities based on individual worth, rather than an identity-based society that is drawn on race, gender, sexuality or disability. This comes out of a lifetime of trying to get everyone to see the person in me, rather than the wheelchair. There is so much more to people than surface characteristics and we need to help people to focus on their talents, and to make best use of them for the benefit of society as a whole. Everyone has something to offer.