Interview with Belinda O’Keefe

Belinda O’Keefe is a New Zealand author, whose picture book, The Day the Plants Fought Back, was a finalist for the Best First Book Award at the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Belinda’s first novel, Partners in Slime, won the 2020 Tom Fitzgibbon Award and is released by Scholastic NZ this month. Partners in Slime is one of favourite NZ children’s books this year and you can read my review here.

I caught up with Belinda to ask about her inspiration for Partners in Slime, which of her relatives has helped her out of a jam, and what awards mean to her.

• What inspired you to write Partners in Slime?

My youngest son Dylan has always been fascinated with science, constantly experimenting with all sorts of things. For about a year, he and his friends were obsessed with making slime, and it was after tearing my hair out at the state of my slime-splattered bathroom that I had a brainwave for the plot of Partners in Slime!

• Did you have to do a lot of slime experimentation as research for the story?

I left all of that up to Dylan, and yes, he experimented with all different types of glue, shaving foam and other kitchen ingredients to get the perfect recipe. It was a heap of fun seeing what he came up with!

• Jake and Cooper start their slime business to earn some money to get tickets for the opening of the Steel Beast rollercoaster. What can you remember desperately saving your money for when you were a kid?

I don’t remember saving my money for anything big when I was a kid. I used to love going to school fairs though, and I remember doing a heap of jobs to earn a bit of extra pocket money so I could spend it on things like candy floss and treasures at the white elephant stall.

• Cooper’s Uncle Ivor is a scientist who helps Jake and Cooper when things get a bit messy. Do you have a relative whose skills or knowledge has helped you out of a jam?

My dad always helped me out of a jam growing up. He was really good with his hands, and could fix just about anything. Uncle Ivor has a lot of the same traits as my Dad – he was always running around with the kids at birthday parties, joining in all the games and acting like a big kid. He had big bushy eyebrows too!

• How different was it writing a novel to a picture book?

It was completely different. I found it more of a challengewriting the novel – there’s a lot more editing involved, and ittakes a bit of planning getting the chapters to flow. Having said that, I found it more rewarding when I finally finished my first draft! I was also able to let my imagination run wild, as I didn’t have to think about how illustrations would fit onto each page. I love the fact that every reader will have a slightly different picture in their heads when they read it.

• Partners in Slime would be a great read aloud for Years 5-8. Do you read your books to your sons before they are published?

Yes, I always read my books to my sons (and my husband too). I usually read them each chapter as I write them, to make sure I’m on the right track. They’re brutally honest, and tell me if it’s good or not. We sit at the dinner table and I have a pen handy to make any changes they suggest – they’re a huge part of my editing process.

• The ending of Partners in Slime is fantastic and leaves the story open for sequel. Are you planning to write more books featuring Jake and Cooper?

I’m actually in the middle of writing a sequel – I just had to do something with that cliff-hanger ending!

• Your first book, The Day the Plants Fought Back, was shortlisted for the Best First Book prize at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and Partners in Slime won the Tom Fitzgibbon Award. What do awards mean to you as a writer?

Awards are a huge deal for me – it validates my writing and gives me encouragement to keep at it. I had seven years of rejection letters before I got my first book published, so I think it’s a great lesson for my kids, and for other kids (and adults too!), to never give up if it’s something you’re passionate about. I still have to keep pinching myself!

• What books are you and your family enjoying at the moment?

My boys haven’t had much time to read lately as they’ve been super busy with after-school stuff, but some of their favourite books have been the Harry Potter series, and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. As for me, I’m never without a book to read – I always have to have the next one lined up as soon as I’ve finished the last page. I read a real variety – thrillers, comedy, tragedy, YA. One of my favourite junior fiction novels I’ve read recently is Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan.

Partners in Slime is released in June by Scholastic Books NZ.