Things that stink: My ten-year-old’s feet after he claims to have washed them in the bath, that piece of cheese that was left too long in the fridge, and the garbage after taco night. Things that definitely don’t stink: Today’s author, her debut book, and this interview. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to chat with Colleen Paeff about her debut, The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem.
KC: Huge congrats on your debut! Can you share with us a little bit about your writing journey? Did you always want to write picture books?
CP: Hi Kim! Thank you so much for having me on the Writers’ Rumpus. I wouldn’t say I always wanted to write picture books, but when I was in college I was introducing my pet lizard, Bill, to my dad (Stick with me, this is related, I swear!), and Bill leapt right onto my dad’s face. It was so funny and seemed like something that would be in a picture book, so I wrote one. I sent it to a few publishers, got rejected, set it aside, but every five years or so I’d break it out, revise it, and submit it again. It never got published, but it provided me with an introduction to the world of children’s literature. Over the years, I wrote other things, too: essays, short stories, magazine articles, but writing for children was and is especially appealing to me for a couple reasons. First of all, it combines two things I love––kids and writing. And second, I’m convinced that people who write for children are the best people in the world. I get so much joy from being a part of this wonderful kidlit community. It’s difficult to imagine doing anything else.
KC: I couldn’t agree more! Kidlit people are the best! I love the structure of this book – how you’ve made it really clear when things happened via the date headings. What was your writing/researching process like for The Great Stink? Where did the spark for this story come from?
CP: Thank you! I happened to be living in London when I started my research, so I was able to visit the London Metropolitan Archives and the Crossness Pumping Station. I also spent a few hours with a terrific London tour guide named Kim Dewdney who took me to sewer-related sites around the city. In addition to that, I read lots of books (The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson and The Big Necessity by Rose George were two favorites.) and a ton of 19th century newspaper articles, plus parts of Queen Victoria’s journal. And I couldn’t have written the book at all without Stephen Halliday’s information-packed book, The Great Stink of London. I read that book twice and I still refer to it when I’m preparing for interviews or looking for additional information.
The spark of the story actually came from a few lines in Ruth Goodman’s book How to Be a Victorian. She mentioned the Great Stink, but didn’t say too much about it, so I did a little research. When I realized it combined poop, history, and engineering, and there was no book for children about it, I knew immediately that I wanted to be the person to write one.
KC: Wow! What an amazing opportunity you had being in London to do your research! And reading parts of Queen Victoria’s journal?! Outstanding! Speaking of outstanding…Nancy Carpenter’s art certainly falls in that category! There is so much going on in each spread! Do you have a favorite spread from The Great Stink?
CP: I have so many favorites! First of all, I love the cover––especially the falling bird and the way the letters of our names are floating in the murky water. I guess if I had to choose one spread from inside the book, it would be the one that requires turning the book sideways. It really gives the reader a sense of how disruptive it must have been for Londoners as the sewers were being built. And I just love the look on Joseph’s face.
KC: Yes! I love that spread too! Do you have a specific writing schedule or any helpful writing habits that you’ll let us in on?
CP: I don’t have a specific schedule, but I try to do my creative work in the mornings, which is when my brain functions best. It’s important to know when you do your best work so you can take advantage of those prime creative hours. The Freedom app is one of my favorite writing tools. I use it to block my internet access while I’m writing (because I have zero self-control). I can’t use it when I’m doing research, of course, but for writing and revising it allows me to do deep, focused work––which means better writing––without any distractions.
KC: Cue me going to download that app!! What are you working on now and where can people follow you online?
CP: I’m working on a few things, but I’m primarily focused on a picture book biography about a citizen scientist who became a firefly expert. I’ve been learning a lot about fireflies and feel more strongly than ever that those of us who live in areas without fireflies are being robbed of one of the primary delights of the natural world!
Thanks for the chat, Kim!
Fueled by English breakfast tea, a burning curiosity, and a love of research, Colleen Paeff writes picture books from a book-lined office in an old pink house with a view of the Hollywood sign. A former preschool teacher and bookseller, she is the author of Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (illustrated by Nancy Carpenter).