It may be the Chinese Year of the Pig, but for debut author Kathryn Lefroy it is very much the year of the alpaca. Here she tells us about her debut children’s book Alex and the Alpacas Save the World, and what it’s like to come from a literary family.
Where did you get the idea for Alex and the Alpacas Save the World?
Back in 2010 I took a trip to Tasmania to visit a friend who was housesitting a small hobby farm in the Huon Valley.
From the second I arrived the story ideas started to swirl. The property abutted this vast, creepy forest that I was embarrassingly too scared to go into! It had the most picturesque olive grove that would not have been out of place in the south of Italy; but best of all were the four pet alpacas who wandered around as though they owned the place.
I was only meant to go for a weekend, but I ended up staying for two weeks! And even when I went back to ‘reality’ I couldn't stop thinking about the magic of the farm and all the secrets that I was positive it had kept from me. But I didn’t actually start writing Alex until a few years later when I was living in San Francisco.
Why did you choose alpacas to be Alex’s adventure companions?
The alpacas on the farm were the first ones I’d met up close and personal, and they were the goofiest, most hilarious creatures I’d met. They were so skittish and bumbling and dopey, but also had this expression like they were all sharing a hilarious joke that you weren’t in on – and you never would be.
So basically the least likely animals you’d ever want on your team if you had to save the world … which makes them super-fun characters to write.
Why do you think it’s important for children to read?
There are a million studies out there that can tell you (with far more authority than I) why it’s so important for kids to read. But my two cents is that reading takes you to new places, lets you meet new people, and be immersed in new experiences. It opens your mind to possibilities that might seem out of reach in the real world. And it sparks your imagination in a way that nothing else does. Reading is basically the best.
What do you think children can learn from reading your book?
I was keen not to make the messages in the book too didactic (it is, first and foremost, an adventure story), but readers will be right here with Alex as she learns problem-solving, compassion and patience. What I hope most for this book is that it’ll inspire kids to seek out more stories, have more adventures, and let their imaginations run wild.
Oh, and they’ll also learn how to make an excellent Alexandwich.
It’s great to see a strong, female heroine in this book. Was Alex based on anyone you know or a completely imagined character?
She’s a bit of a mishmash of every awesome person I know. She’s someone who is trying to figure stuff out, and while she makes mistakes along the way (like all of us!) her bravery, loyalty, and determination are what get her through in the end.
She is named after one of my nieces (fun fact: most of my characters are named after nieces, nephews, and other people I know and love) but any other similarities are purely coincidental!
What kind of books did you like to read as a child?
All the books. Every single one of them! But I suppose I always gravitated to adventure stories with a bit of mystery, a lot of heart, and where the ‘baddies’ got what for. (To this day, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken is one of my favourite books, and I read it at least once a year.)
What kind of books do you like to read now?
Still all the books, all the time – from adult literary fiction, to kids’ chapter books, sci-fi and fantasy YA, crime thrillers … and everything in between. The invention of the e-reader is the best thing ever. (I know, I know, controversial – but I’ve lived a bunch of different places and it’s heartbreaking having to get rid of books or put them in storage each time. This way, my books are with me, always.) I usually have three books on the go at any one time: one adult novel, one children’s story, and one audiobook.
Where do you write?
Mostly at home these days. I get up early, do some stretching (us writers all have terrible backs – actually, that’s not specific to just writers), then write for a few hours before I have to get stuck into freelance or screenwriting work. In other places I’ve lived, I’ve rented desks in writers’ studios, and that was a really great way to meet people working on all different kinds of projects. It can be a pretty lonely business, writing, so it’s important to surround yourself with good people who inspire you.
What part of having the book published are you most looking forward to?
Okay. Here it is. The thing I’m most looking forward to: being at the airport one day, and seeing some kid I don’t know so engrossed in one of my books that her parents are yelling at her to hurry up because they’re about to miss the plane for the holiday they’ve had booked for seven months, and she’s like, ‘Just let me finish this chapter!’
You come from a family of authors – how does it feel to follow in your parents’ footsteps?
For a very long time I rebelled against that! I wanted to become the CEO of a large and successful company and sit on a million boards, so I did a PhD in business and worked in the corporate world for a while. I still do some work in that area – strategy and writing for large tech companies – but my happy place is definitely in the world of stories. It’s fun catching up with Mum and Dad for a meal and talking about the various projects we’re all working on.