Interview: Children's Author Mina Witteman. Born in Brabant, in the south of the Netherlands, Mina lived in Amsterdam for 34 years. She now lives and writes in Berkeley, California, the USA. Mina has brought her Dutch lifestyle habits with her to America, and she can be found happily cycling through the city of Berkeley.
I met Mina several years ago when she was a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). The society held bi-monthly meetings at The English Bookshop. I bumped into her again at the Van Rossum bookstore (boekenhandel), during Children’s Book Week (kinderboekenweek), where she was reading from her book, Boreas and the Seven Seas, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed.
We met at a coffee shop (well, coffee and tea shop) located within the Oudekerk, a 14th-century medieval church. De Koffieschenkerij which runs the coffee (and tea) shop and which sits smack-bang in the middle of the famous Amsterdam red light district. It has a very Dutch atmosphere, with quilted curtains, classic blue and white tiles on the wall, a heavy oak beam ceiling, and a black and white checked cement floor. An altogether traditional place to meet for tea, coffee, and definitely a slice of cake or two.
As a former bookstore owner, I know that many people express a desire to write children’s books. As with all things in life, writing for children is a challenging process, and this is what prompted me to interview Mina and share her tips for success with other aspiring writers.
When did it all start, Mina?
I have always enjoyed writing and I wrote a lot in high school. After my son was born, I continued to write and tell stories. Later, I followed a master’s book editing course (non-degree) at the University of Amsterdam. My first book, Deedee’s Revenge (for the age range, 4 plus), was published almost instantly.
I never treated my writing as a hobby; instead, I took it seriously from day one. I did take advice from friends and family, but more importantly, I listened to the professionals and they gave me the insight that others could not. But, as the old adage goes, ‘practice makes perfect’, so I wrote and rewrote until my craft improved. Never rest, because discipline is key!
My emphasis is more on re-writing than on my initial draft. I tend to put the first draft away and rewrite, and I will do this about 3 or 4 times, until my characters and prose come alive and the distance between them and me has been reduced to zero. What I really mean is that I immerse myself in the emotions of my characters, so that we eventually become one.
Who are your inspirations?
I am a big fan of Dostoyevsky and Proust – when you read their books, it’s like going through life in slow motion and experiencing all the contradictions that life offers; peeling off the layers of life. For children’s books, I like Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing series. As a reader, you are entirely immersed in the bat, without losing all the special qualities that we think bats have. I also really enjoy the wordplay in his books.
Congratulations on your recent prize!
I won the San Francisco YA writing contest. I submitted my article a few months ago, then forgot about it. Lo and behold, I later received a letter in the post telling me that I had actually won the prize! I was ecstatic.
My dream is:
To find a children’s publisher in the US and have my books translated from Dutch into English. So, dear reader, Mina has shared with us a small aspect of what it has taken for her to become an acclaimed children’s writer. Each time you leaf through your favorite children’s book, keep in mind the number of re-writes it has taken to achieve that final draft. And that’s just the start... Happy writing!
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