I got to interview Lee Dilley, author of Mushy Pea & the Magical Christmas Stocking and Mushy Pea & the Enchanted Christmas Tree, about his picture book series, his writing, and what it’s like to be featured on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in Children’s Boks on Christmas list.
Mary Ann Mahoney: Hi, Lee! Thanks for speaking with me today! Can you tell Previous Magazine’s readers a little bit about yourself?
Lee Dilley: I’m one of ten children. Looking back, we lived in poverty but it didn’t feel like it at the time. I’ve had an extremely varied working history, from croupier to teacher, meter reader, postman, and estate agent. The list goes on…around 30–40 jobs.
MAM: What got you into writing and how long have you been writing for?
LD: I think writers are always writers, but some don’t write it down; they keep it in their heads. I started writing poems, well, brief paragraphs of emotions, when I was 21 and working on cruise ships. I would never show anyone, I would hide randomly on the ship.
Being dyslexic, I didn’t want anyone to read my work as some would assume that because I couldn’t spell, I was stupid. Because, apparently, that’s a measure of intelligence to some people.
I often say I write my dreams so I can get some sleep. The reason I write is because I cannot stop ideas, dialogue, titles, and stories running through my head. If I write them down, I feel like I can get on with my life. I was also obsessed with Only Fools and Horses, so my first genre of writing was sitcoms.
I find my imagination is extremely strong, and just an emotion can create a story in my head. I guess it is problem solving or trying to make sense of the world. I think I understood writing when I realised that it’s picture with words. In short, I suffer from ‘What if?’, for which the only treatment is to write a treatment.
MAM: What struggles have you faced as a writer?
LD: Dyslexia, of course, is a struggle but your curse is always your gift. The gift of dyslexia is being able to think non-linearly and find patterns and connections in the world. I also think emotionally and non-linearly, meaning something which happened years ago could feel like yesterday. This helps me capture emotion in my writing.
The biggest struggle I’d say is money. A dirty word if you have it, a frequently spoken about word if you don’t. Writing takes up so much time and pays very little, certainly to begin with, that it feels like a rich person’s hobby. Might as well be race car driving.
MAM: What made you choose self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing?
LD: This industry still seems prehistoric and there are so many gatekeepers. I just feel if it’s going to work, it will, so take the shortest route and get your work out there.
MAM: Your first children’s picture book, Mushy Pea & the Magical Christmas Stocking, was released in 2019. Tell us about the protagonist, Mushy Pea.
LD: Mushy Pea has a limb difference, but that makes no difference. She’s just another girl who’s mischievous, cheeky, grumpy, and unappreciative, but loving, caring, and has a thirst for adventure.
MAM: Why was it important to you that Mushy Pea had a limb difference?
LD: During an event, I heard a woman say that as a child, she’d never read a children’s book that represented her limb difference. Mushy Pea was written at this point, but I realised it wouldn’t make any difference to the story, but would make a difference if someone with a limb difference read it.
MAM: ExpHand Prosthetics tweeted about Mushy Pea & the Magical Christmas Stocking just before Christmas. Are you collaborating with them?
LD: There are a few limb difference charities that recommend Mushy Pea. It’s not something I reached out for. Mushy Pea isn’t about a girl with a limb difference, it’s an adventure story about a girl who happens to have limb difference. It’s amazing that children can see themselves represented, but I also want to show that it doesn’t change the story at all.
MAM: Your second book in The Adventures of Mushy Pea series, Mushy Pea & The Enchanted Christmas Tree, was released on 2021. What is it about?
LD: In the first book, Mushy Pea was Grump-pea. In this book she’s selfish, wanting all the Christmas presents to herself, she attempts to open them on Christmas Eve night and causes the star to drop off the tree. When she touches the star, she shrinks to the size of a pea. But now she has to climb the Christmas tree and put it back, otherwise Santa won’t leave any gifts at all.
MAM: What has the overall reception for your books been like?
LD: Brilliant! I’ve never heard anyone mention Mushy Pea’s limb difference; they only ever mention the story.
MAM: How did it feel when Mushy Pea & The Enchanted Christmas Tree charted at #2 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases in Children’s Boks on Christmas list?
LD: It was really exciting to see Mushy Pea among the giants; amazing famous authors and huge publishers. Felt like the underdog.
MAM: Are you planning to release any more books in the future?
LD: Yes, there will be several more books in the series: Mushy Pea & the Lost Book of Smells, Mushy Pea & the Spooky Pumpkin, Mushy Pea & the Lost and Found Mystery, Mushy Pea & the Extraordinary Egg Hunt, Mushy Pea & the Amazing Pencil Case, and Mushy Pea & the Toothbrush Adventure.
MAM: Anastasia Khmelevska did the illustrations for your first book. Why did you decide to illustrate your other books yourself?
LD: Yes, Anastasia did a great job and really built Mushy Pea as a character. I would have loved to have kept the same illustrator, but unfortunately it comes down to money. It’s extremely expensive and difficult to recoup your money in sales. I taught myself to illustrate out of necessity, otherwise there’d be no second book. I enjoy the process and it does give me full control.
MAM: What does your workflow consist of?
LD: I’m dyslexic so I think visually. I see a picture book as the twelve best sheets from a screenplay, so I draw the 12 illustrations first then I write afterwards. The beauty of not thinking linearly means I usually start with the end and then randomly illustrate other pages.
MAM: As you don’t have kids of your own, who are you writing The Adventures of Mushy Pea series for?
LD: I think it’s for the children I don’t have yet. I’ve written all stories of screenplays, sitcoms, features, and plays, but I do find complexity in the simplicity of picture books. It also suits my mind. A few months of work and you have a creative project complete and printed. It’s a great feeling.
MAM: You’re one of 10 siblings. Did your parents read to you a lot?
LD: My dad used to make up a few stories and tell them to us before bedtime. But as a kid, I could not read well at all. Even at school, when they would ask me about the plot of a book, I’d scan the back and somehow always convinced the teacher I’d read it.
MAM: You wrote a screenplay called The Marmalade Nebula. Can you tell us more about it?
LD: It’s about arch enemies Poppy and Kevin who are forced to pair up in a three-legged race. During the school sports day, they are mistaken for a rare three-legged, two-headed creature by Antares and Nash, space pirates on a quest to collect the rarest creatures in the universe for the Marmalade Nebula Zoo. It was originally a script, but the during the pitching process, the producer wanted more visuals, so I had a poster designed. They then asked
for audio, so I created the audio. They then asked for animation, but the best I could afford was a comic with audio. This is still being pitched. It was longlisted for BBC writing for children and the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Competition. It was also mentored by the creator of Bob the Builder and Thunder Cats, Chris Trengrove.
MAM: Do you have a favourite author?
LD: Roald Dahl. He writes how I read, so it’s sounds very natural to me.
MAM: Do you have any advice for other writers?
LD: Don’t try to predict what people might like because when you fail, and you will, like we all do, you’ll be left with something no one likes. Write for you and if others like it, it’s a win-win situation.
Also, writer’s block means your character has stopped moving the story, meaning you haven’t written the skills or tools to get over the writer’s wall. So let them learn something or teach another character how to help them.
MAM: What do you like to do besides writing?
LD: Watching movies. Travel, but that’s paused. Hike, but I feel that’s standard human things. I like socialising, but I equally enjoy my own company. I feel really lucky to enjoy both.
MAM: Where can people find you online?
MAM: Where can people buy your books?
LD: Just Amazon at the moment. I planned to make them more widely available, but I just want them available from there for now.
MAM: Thanks for speaking with me today. I’m looking forward to reading your next books!
Disclaimer: Mary Ann Mahoney worked as the editor of Mushy Pea & the Magical Christmas Stocking and Mushy Pea & the Enchanted Christmas Tree for Split An Atom’s book proofreading and editing service.