Costantia was born in the UK to Cypriot parents and spent the picture book period of her life in London (battling with a name that even she has difficulty pronouncing in English!). She spent her middle grade and young adult years in Cyprus and then the USA and then back round again.
She now lives amidst almond and olive trees on the outskirts of a hot, dusty Cypriot village, the Green Line and buffer zone checkpoints clearly visible from her kitchen windows. Her two young daughters, English hubby, lioness-dog Luna, and hyperactive pup Woody keep her busy and are an endless source of story ideas, new characters, and constant interruptions. Her debut picture book Tomatoes in my Lunchbox will be available in spring/summer 2022 (Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan USA).
Author interview – Costantia Manoli
Hi Costantia, I’m so glad you found the time to answer my questions! Let’s dive right in: When did you start writing, and why?
I have always written, probably before I could even actually write as a child. What I mean is, I’ve always had a very distinct internal world—it’s like a constant conversation with myself about the world around me, the way I see things, the way I understand things, the way I project things. I now recognise that this is part of my creative process, it’s my creative voice—my writer’s voice! As I developed the skill to actually form letters on the page, and then words and sentences, this internal world took the creative form of writing (as well as drawing/painting/illustrating).
At what age did you take yourself seriously as a writer?
I find it difficult as a writer to talk about taking myself seriously—maybe I always have… maybe I never will! I’ve always written. I’ve always created. I’ve always taken the work itself seriously. A lot of that work has been rejected. And some work has not—so I suppose when you get that validation, when something happens (for me this was two weeks after my 40th birthday, when I signed with my agent), then you start to think—well actually, maybe I am a writer!
Do you prefer the term ‘writer’ or ‘author’, and why?
I am both a writer and an author. There is a certain formality that comes with the word author—so maybe that’s when I start taking myself a bit more seriously! Perhaps it’s that writing is the creative craft itself, but authoring is the job? I do both and I use both!
I recently had a discussion about this with my co-host over at the Diving into Writing podcast and she said something similar! For her, writer refers to the actual writing of the book and author encompasses the whole business that comes with having that book out in the world. I quite like that distinction.
How long did it take you to write your first book?
It didn’t take very long to actually, physically write—I rushed home from work one day with the story bubbling in my head in one of those frantic got-to-write-it-now modes and got it all down in one sitting. This is unusual for me—I usually start and stop and let the story build itself. Of course, there have been many revisions since then, but the essence of it has stayed the same. What took a long time—years and years, in fact—was getting to the point where I could write that particular story and write it in that way. I had to write all the not-so-great stories first, all the almost-good-but-not-quite-there-yet stories and some those were good but maybe not in the right place at the right time.
Either way, I had to get them out of the way to make space for this one to come to me. And it really did come to me—it arrived almost written. All the years of writing and wrangling before that had paved the way for this story to land—it was the culmination of years of work and a springboard for new work too!
What was your last book about?
My last book/first book is a children’s book about a girl who feels displaced in her new country when her teacher mispronounces her name. She discovers that all it takes is one friend, one connection, to bring two worlds together.
What are you working on right now?
I am working on the second children’s book, which will also be out with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan USA in (hopefully!) 2023 and a middle grade novel. More info on those to come soon!
What is your writing process like? Do you plot or do you just dive in? How many drafts do you go through before the work is final?
I snatch as much time as I can in between the day job and motherhood and all the other things life throws in my way. I think I do a combination of plotting and diving in. Mostly diving though and then I feel my way through it. I find the formality of plotting intimidating so it can block my writing. Once I have something on paper to work with—even just a line or two, or a list of words, then I can start pulling it together and figure out the plot points and adjust accordingly. So I suppose plotting becomes part of the revision process rather than part of initial drafting.
What do you struggle with most as a writer?
Time and imposter’s syndrome!
Have you always had that struggle or has it changed over time?
Time has always been an issue in the sense that when I had a lot of time on my hands (pre-kids!), I really didn’t know what to do with it and I couldn’t discipline myself to get as much work done. Now that I have two young children and I simply do not have much time to spare, I am far more focused on what needs to be done. Having very limited time forces me to find inventive ways to squeeze more out of it! I do need that writing time though, I need it to reconnect with myself—however many minutes it may be—without it, I feel untethered.
What advice would you give to writers dealing with the same?
While it’s lovely to think of writing as something special and sacred (and it really IS both of those things), you sometimes have to be a bit irreverent with the way you do it. You cannot always have the perfect space and a clear stretch of time to get things done. Sometimes you have to write things on the back of a receipt with one hand while wiping a child’s snotty nose with the other! Also, you cannot always control when your writer’s voice will start talking out loud—it’s always ticking away and working in the background, but sometimes it will speak up and you have to write it down whatever else it is that you are doing at the time!
This is not inspiration—this is your mind doing the work while perhaps you are working on some other unrelated task. Whatever it is, you have to write it somewhere when it comes to you, even if you cannot actually give it the full attention that it needs at that moment—I know that as much as I think I will remember something, if I don’t write it down immediately, it will leave me! I’ll remember that I had something, but I will not remember what the thing is. Family life—especially with young children—can be very demanding and can overwrite everything else.
So, write it all down—whenever you can, wherever you can! You cannot wait for the stars to align and inspiration to strike or you’ll be waiting potentially forever! You really have to work at it. Put the work in first, sparkly stars and inspo will come later!
Have you ever had writer’s block? If yes, how did you overcome it?
I frequently find myself worrying about where the next idea will come from or how to move forward from where I am. I find that a good long dog walk usually clears that up. If not, skipping to the next bit or starting from a different place can help. Webinars on craft or talks by writers also help to get the mind and imagination working, as well as a simple conversation with a writer friend—not necessarily about writing! Or, I’ll open a book on creativity, craft, and writing, etc., at a random page (Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is especially good for this!) and see if it sparks anything.
I love that book. It changed my entire way of thinking about writing. Is there anything else that helps you stay inspired?
It’s the work itself that inspires me—I don’t wait for inspiration to strike before I get to work. And work isn’t always the writing itself—I read, I write, I draw, I walk, I parent, I live life, all this is part of the writing process. There’s always something there if you’re open to it!
Who’s your favourite author?
This is a very tricky question! I am not good at picking favourites at all! I do love Seamus Heaney, Penelope Lively, Jeanette Winterson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Caitlin Moran, and and and…
What’s your favourite book?
I really do find ‘favourite’ questions very tricky. I have different favourites at different times. A book that has had a huge impact on my life and my writing would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. I studied this text as a teenager at A-Level and it really has stayed with me, flexing and changing throughout the years. I have had multiple copies as I lend it out to people so often but never seem to get it back. I’ve lost count of how many times I have replaced it! But you know, if it means the book is out there being read and reread and loved, then I’m happy to contribute to that cycle!
OK, last ‘favourite’ question, I promise… What’s your favourite book on the craft?
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (told you I’m terrible at choosing favourites!)
What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says, ‘the only way I can get anything written at all, is to write really, really shitty first drafts.’ This really speaks to my heart and I take this very seriously. My first drafts are usually excellently shitty!
Always inspiring and immensely talented!!!