Interviews and Guest Posts on Kid on the Go!
Updated: Mar 8, 2022
Interview by Nicola Pyles, Wow! Women in writing blog tour WOW: First, congratulations on your newest memoir! What inspired you to write a memoir about your childhood and youth?
Neill: So many best-selling childhood memoirs are by people who struggled against physical or mental abuse, poverty, racial or cultural discrimination, or dogmatic parents and guardians, but somehow overcame such oppression to get a good education and succeed in life. I experienced none of those conditions, so what could I write about that would tell an entertaining, captivating story? I have clear memories of the adventures I enjoyed in my formative years in my small hometown, Elmira, Ontario, Canada, and always wanted to find time to write about them. I had loving parents and they gave me and my siblings a great deal of freedom. Like many in the 1940s and 1950s, they rose from relative poverty to financial security through their determination and hard work. Nevertheless, I felt that I could translate my memories into a set of universally-appealing stories that would bring back similar memories in the minds of many readers.
However, I had to have something to struggle against to add conflict and drama to the narrative, and in my case, it was the industrial and environmental pollution I experienced in my hometown. The stinks from chemical and fertilizer factories, the slaughter house, and unpleasant manure smells radiating from Old Order Mennonite farmers’ fields provide the setting for the overall theme of “escape.” But I tried to carry this main theme humorously or poignantly by exploring subthemes such as learning how to reduce the impact of the odors, going on vacations, going fishing and hunting, coping with death in the family, building and renovating “escape” vehicles, learning the value of hard work, dealing with hormonal changes and bullying, fantasizing about girls and sex, fighting the dictates of authorities, joining the rebellious 1960s “rock n’ roll” culture, awakening intellectually and becoming a youth leader, and then when I finally leave to attend university, taking “existential leaps” that eventually lead to me to the verdant Island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, as told in my first memoir Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah. Kid on the Go! is a standalone prequel to that memoir.
WOW: You definitely have offered us a unique coming of age memoir we don't usually see! So, you did charming artwork for this book. How did you decide which passages to do art for, and what was your process?
Neill: Thanks for the compliment in calling my efforts “artwork.” I think of it as sketching. I had no experience in drawing since elementary school, but was inspired by the illustrations of Quentin Blake in Roald Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood. That book is actually written for an older audience, just like mine, but claims to be for people ages seven and above. At any rate, I loved the way the comic drawings complemented the descriptions in the book and wanted to try something similar. I never thought I had any artistic talent, but have a sister who is an artist. I asked her to consider doing it but she turned me down, saying it was not the kind of art she was working on. So, I started to doodle and showed my attempts to my wife, Elizabeth, who does calligraphy and artistic books. She told me she liked my efforts, as did my daughter. I tried again by tracing similar scenes and objects I found online, rubbing lines out, and doing them over again. But I still had an inferiority complex concerning artwork and decided I really needed an artist like Quentin Blake. My daughter put me in touch with Dav Yendler, an illustrator in California and I showed him about 20 of my first efforts. He refused to work for me, saying he loved them and if he did get directly involved, they wouldn’t be very authentic. He gave me a few tips and told me to do more—at least two per chapter. That’s what I ended up doing and so far, I’ve only received positive comments.
I chose the passages to illustrate based on my ability to do the drawings and the effect they might have on embellishing the words. Everything was done is pencil and then scanned and sharpened in Photoshop. No magic process. I encourage others to do the same but be prepared—it takes hours to get them right.
WOW: Your art is definitely authentic and I'm glad you did them yourself. How did the pandemic change your writing routine or process (if at all)?
Neill: Quite frankly, Covid-19 has made me focus on research, background reading, writing, and online promotion. It has been one of the most productive periods of my writing career. I started writing three memoirs simultaneously in 2013, after I concluded my international career, and released the one on my life and times in Borneo in early 2019. Fortunately, by the summer of 2019, I had also finished all of my travel for Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American Search Through Four Centuries, to the Mayflower. So, all I had to do was online research, reading, writing, and revision. Once that book was released in late 2020, I concentrated on Kid on the Go! I have done a few zoom presentations on my books, but must say I prefer person-to-person contact. It is difficult to connect and gauge audience reaction on zoom. So, I hope we can say goodbye to the pandemic soon.
WOW: I sure hope so too! So, why have you continued to go the route of self-publishing?
Neill: As mentioned above, I had a long career in international filmmaking and media production, including the writing of some technical books and journal articles on the role of communication in changing behavior and social norms in developing countries. When I retired from that at the end of 2012, I started studying creative nonfiction—first at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and then at the English Department of the University of New Mexico. I hired an excellent literary editor, who has also worked on my other two memoirs. I submitted my Borneo manuscript to about a dozen publishers and received two offers from small companies. But both of these excluded any guarantee that they would fund any significant publicity.
By then I had learned that there are about 1,000 new titles in all genres released daily into the North American English market. Without significant promotion, I knew there’s no way I’d sell books and these publishers were going to take away most of the royalties that I could use in promotion. So, I set up a publishing company, NBFS Creations LLC, hired good cover and interior designers, and publish through IngramSpark, a company that prints and distributes books and ebooks internationally, through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, other chains such as Chapters-Indigo in Canada, and also reaches independent bookstores and libraries.
In my 70s, I felt I did not have the time or real possibility to become a recognized writer of creative nonfiction by the traditional means. Besides, I did not need that financially. Even through this independent publishing route, Finding Myself in Borneo and Guns and Gods in My Genes have gained many great reviews, and won awards, which can be seen on my website. In these contests I have competed against other self-publishers and large and small publishing companies. So, maybe a big publisher will want one of my manuscripts someday, but I won’t hold my breath! I do love the speed and independence of doing it myself, with competent professional editors and designers.
WOW: So many authors feel the same way! What's next for you?
Neill: I have completed over half of the first draft of my next manuscript on my career as an international filmmaker and multimedia producer, working for two Canadian development agencies, UNICEF, Johns Hopkins University, and an agency called FHI360 in Washington, D.C., where I was director of a communication project with 150 staff and a large budget. During my career, I lived for four years in Malaysia, four years in Bangladesh, seven years in Kenya and Uganda (East Africa), and my last overseas posting was in Moscow, Russia during 2004-2007. Besides that, I traveled to about 80 countries on short-term assignments. All this has given me significant experience in learning about the issues within so many fields of endeavor to improve human life in the developing world: volunteering during your youth; the role of science and technology in agriculture, forestry, fisheries and aquaculture; finding solutions for delivering health care, clean water, sanitation and hygiene; empowering girls, women, and young people to take charge of their lives, while attempting to change the behaviors and social norms that restrict them from reaching their full potential. I think there’s a good story here. I’ve set up a website on my main projects, including most of the videos, comic books, and other media products that I have been able to retrieve, so far.
My challenge is to write about my career creatively and coherently in a way that will entertain and educate—that is, make readers smile, wonder, and think about the present state of our planet. I am also including thoughts on what was achieved or wasn’t achieved in the projects I documented or created, my advancement in skills, personal development, marriage and family life, and memories of many of the people I met in my travels and those who influenced me and propelled my way forward. I hope to complete this book by the end of 2022. In the meantime, I also want to begin a new writing project, probably involving travel through New Mexico and America’s Southwest. That project is gradually taking shape through reading and thinking about the history, ethnicities, and cultures I have encountered here.
WOW: I can't wait to see what you come out with next! Thank you so much for your time and best of luck on your book!
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