A farmer’s wife, harpist, storyteller, artist, and archaeologist – Katie Stewart is all of these and more. Katie’s picture book ‘What Colour Is The Sea’ was recently published by Fremantle Press and was more than 40 years in the making. I hope you find this interviewing as inspiring as I do…

NLK: You’ve worked as an archaeologist, ethnohistorian, teacher and in a school library, how do these experiences inform your creativity?

KS: I think everything we do feeds into what we create, doesn’t it? It’s all there in the back of our minds, colouring the way we view things. Archaeology and ethnohistory taught me to look at things carefully and to piece small ideas together to get a possible whole. 

Teaching was all about creativity. The kids and I were always feeding each other ideas. I don’t think you can be a teacher without having a creative soul, not a good teacher anyway. Add to that all the things I learned about children while I was teaching and it was a great grounding for creating books. 

And of course, the school library was full of books. It was a smorgasbord of great ideas! 

NLK: What Colour Is The Sea? isn’t your first book, can you tell us a little about your previous publications?

KS: Most of my self-published books are fantasy novels. Two of them are young adult in the “Treespeaker” series. It’s set in a fictitious land, loosely based on the Mesolithic era (there’s my archaeology background feeding in) with tribes of people living in, what is left of, what used to be a huge forest. The forest has now protected itself with a ‘veil’ that no one from outside can cross…until someone manages and changes things forever. 

Another is “Mark of the Dragon Queen” about a girl whose father is imprisoned for using magic from which he has been banned. She decides to free him, but of course that doesn’t go quite as she expects.

“The Dragon Box” (can you tell I like dragons?) is aimed at 8-10 year-olds. It’s about a boy being bullied about his lack of prowess in football (I wrote it for my eldest son who went through the same thing). He’s given a hand-held computer game, but when he goes to play it he finds himself in the game, in a land where almost every character is based on someone he knows – including the boys who have been bullying him (they are goblins in pink tights). 

The book I’m proudest of, and the one I most wish had taken off but didn’t, is “Famous Animals”. It’s non-fiction and has sixteen animal puns of famous people – like Aristurtle, Mendelswan and Luciano Pavaratti. I created it for children (there’s a bit about each animal and the famous person). When I sell it at markets, most people say they’re buying it for themselves or adult friends, not for kids. (NLK: I’ve seen this and it looks amazing!)

NLK: What inspired you to create What Colour Is The Sea?

KS: This is a story I wish I didn’t have to tell because it tells everyone how old I am! Truth is, the idea came to me when I was a teenager and we lived in Albany. I was standing at the kitchen window watching the sea change colour with the weather and it crossed my mind how strange it was that something with no real colour changed colour so often. That thought stayed in my mind for over forty years before I finally got it down on paper as a story and sent it off to Fremantle Press. 

NLK: You live on a farm in rural Western Australia, what does your average day look like? How do you balance a busy farm life with your creativity? 

KS: I have to admit to being a really bad farmer’s wife. I tried really hard when we first got married, but my father-in-law was still on the farm so I really never needed to get heavily involved in the farming business. Last year my husband decided to lease the farm, so this year he’s not heavily involved either. He’s just pottering around doing all the jobs he never had time to do before. So we don’t really have a busy farm life at the moment and that has worked out wonderfully! We still have the space and fresh air without the pressure of farming. 

NLK: What’s your tip for keeping the magic of creativity alive during these turbulent times?

KS: My number one tip would be – stay away from bad news. I haven’t left Facebook, but I have blocked or unfriended anyone who constantly posts misery and doom (as opposed to ‘I’m not coping’ posts which I think people need to be allowed to do). I do read the official updates, but there’s nothing worse for killing creativity than stress. Of course, at the moment it’s hard to avoid stress, but I think it’s a matter of finding a balance. I’ve found that creativity is a good stress reliever, but once the stress reaches a certain point it gets really hard to be creative, so it’s definitely a matter of finding that balance. Exercise, watch movies or YouTube videos (preferably funny ones), sing, talk to friends online, do whatever makes you less stressed. Then create for all you’re worth. I’ve been doing colour-in pictures for kids to download free from my website. It keeps my mind off everything and makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. I’m also teaching myself new skills. It’s great to have the time to do it.

NLK: What was your favourite childhood book or a book that your children particularly enjoyed? Why? 

KS: My children all absolutely loved “A Sausage Went for a Walk” by Ellisha Majid and Peter Kendall (Fremantle Press) (NLK: Fun fact — I used to live in the next street to Peter and we would bump into each other while walking our dogs). My eldest is almost 27 now, but still remembers it and I’m pretty sure it’s still in print. They loved the rhythm of the words, the funny illustrations and just the idea of a breakfast refusing to wait around to be eaten. The book we had was a hand-me-down from cousins and we still have it somewhere, so I guess it will get passed on to the first grandchild sometime in the future. 

NLK: How would you describe your creative process in five words?

KS: That’s a hard one. Probably “Experimental, outside-the-box joy.” That about sums it up, I think. I love trying new things, I love pulling ideas together to make new ideas and all creation is a joy to me. In fact, if I don’t create, I get really down. 

NLK: You have some unusual hobbies, playing the Celtic harp and metal detecting? How did you become interested in these pursuits?

KS: I first became interested in the harp when I was small and saw a harpist on TV…one of those great big harps they play in orchestras. I pestered and pestered my parents for one, but of course there was no way they could afford one and it wouldn’t have fit in our house anyway! Eventually Mum shut me up by telling me that if I was a good girl I’d get one – when I went to heaven. As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I decided that I still wanted a harp, but I had no intention of going to heaven any time soon, so I’d treat myself to one as a birthday gift. A local musician, Adam Harris, played the harp and kindly helped me to get a small celtic lap harp from Canada. I call it ‘Siomha’ which is an Irish name meaning ‘peace’. It’s a great stress reliever.

The metal detecting was something else I took a long time to get into. Our farm used to be part of a large estate. Part of the estate was bought and broken up in the 1920s to be sold as Soldier Settlement farms – 50-100 acres – most of which failed and were bought up by the few who managed to make ends meet. As a result there are lots of old cottage sites on our place and I always thought it would be great to have a detector to go over them. A couple of years ago, now that the kids were grown up and I had more time, I finally bought one. The first thing I found was a musket ball, which must have been there since the old estate was built in the mid-1800s. I was immediately hooked. 

About Katie Stewart

Katie Stewart is an author and illustrator. Born in the north of England, she came to Australia at the age of nine. She started her working life as an archaeologist and ethnohistorian, went on to teaching and then to being a mother. She later worked in a school library, but her lifelong dream was to be what she is now. She is married to a farmer, has three children and lives north of Northam, where her love of animals means she has a lot of pets and takes lots of nature photos. In her spare time, she tries to play the harp or wanders the countryside with a metal detector amusing the neighbours and occasionally finding an interesting piece of history.

Connect with Katie

Facebook : facebook.com/KatieStewartAuthorIllustrator

Instagram: @katiestewartillustrator

Website: katiestewartauthorillustrator.com