Brilliant Minds: In Conversation with Shannon Meyerkort
I am so excited to introduce you to author Shannon Meyerkort, whose book, Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes who Changed Our World is officially released into the world today.
I initially met Shannon at a workshop we were both attending before reconnecting at a weekend writing retreat run by historical fiction novelist, Natasha Lester. Since then we’ve met up for Shut Up and Write sessions (where we probably do as much talking as writing) and formed a small critique group with two other historical fiction writers.
I have been privileged to witness first hand Shannon’s incredible commitment to her writing over the past few years, bashing out several manuscripts while I continue struggling to complete just one. Brilliant Minds is the first one to be published, although one of her historical fiction novels was recently longlisted for the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, and it’s just a matter of time before the rest are also picked up and find a publishing home.
Brilliant Minds profiles 30 people who struggled at school due to having dyslexia, but who grew up and changed the world in all sorts of different fields. Among them are Dame Agatha Christie, Sir Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver, Erin Brokovich, Muhammad Ali and Steven Spielberg. Each profile is beautifully illustrated by Amy Blackwell. This is a book not only for kids who have dyslexia, but for anyone who has struggled at school and needs a reminder that they too can make a difference in their world.
I especially love the very personal story as to how Brilliant Minds came into being, but I’ll leave that for Shannon to share with you in the interview below.
How/when did you discover that writing was something you loved doing?
I wrote my first book in Year 4, Tales of Daphne the Goose, which I also illustrated. Years later I still wonder why I didn’t alliterate the title, and if I really should have written about a duck.
In the 35+ years since, I have always been writing in one form or another. After graduating, I worked at universities in three states and did a lot of academic research and writing, then when my daughters were born, I began blogging and doing a lot of digital content creation and magazine articles.
The idea that I could write a book came relatively recently and I began my first novel in 2017. By then, my youngest daughter was five. I don’t think I could have attempted a book before then; it was something I had to work up to gradually.
Where do you write and how often?
I’m lucky to have a writing room which is opposite my bedroom. It overlooks the rooftops and trees, but I have my back to the window and instead face two pin-up boards which I cover with maps and word lists and pictures and other inspiration for whatever I’m working on at the time. At the moment I have a lot of vintage circus posters around the room.
When I am immersed in a book I try to write every day, early in the morning before the sun rises. I have a pink kettle in my bathroom and I will make a huge mug of coffee and take it into my study and start writing at 5.00 am or 5.30 am. I can only write creatively before my day starts, before I have to wake the kids for school and start being a Mum. That’s when I can exist in that world. Later in the day, if I’m not working, is when I do my other writing jobs or edit or research.
What keeps you writing?
It nourishes me. There is something magical about creating something out of nothing, an entire world, a cast of characters. I get energised from researching and a buzz from seeing the word count grow. I get strength from the community of writers around me; my immediate writing group are friends as well as critique buddies and have been there for me during a particularly difficult year. The wider Perth writing community is also very generous and supportive, and it’s rewarding being a part of that
What do you do when you don’t feel like writing?
I read. I read every day, and no matter how exhausted I am I have to read every night before I go to sleep. I love reading the author’s note in books and learning about the story behind books, and then I imagine what mine might say.
I find spending time with my writing group can also invigorate me when I am in a sluggish writing patch. Sometimes it might be their words of support that give me that motivation to get started again, or it might be that someone has pointed out an issue and the solution comes to me, so that can also get me back at the desk.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that you must write every day, or write a certain number of words every day. Life is too messy for that. I can go weeks, months without writing. But I am always thinking about writing.
Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed Our World
What was the motivation and/or inspiration behind Brilliant Minds?
My youngest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia at the end of 2018, when she had just finished Year 1. I did what many parents do and I went looking for a book that would inspire her, and reassure me. I already knew there were many famous people like Jamie Oliver and Richard Branson with dyslexia, and I assumed there would be a book that we could read together about these amazing people. When I couldn’t find a book, I decided to write it myself.
As the subtitle suggests, Brilliant Minds profiles 30 people with dyslexia who have gone on to do fabulous things—are there any people you particularly enjoyed researching or have a particular soft spot for? Why?
When I first started researching and writing the stories, it was really just with my daughter in mind, so I was looking at careers that she was interested in. Actors and singers and astronauts. But soon I had this enormous spreadsheet with almost 200 names and the range of careers was just as broad as if I had been looking at ‘careers of people with brown hair’ or ‘careers of people whose names start with L’.
There was nothing missing: no career, no accolade or prize that was not on that list – from Prime Ministers to royalty, Academy Award winners and Pulitzers, Chief Justices to Chief Scientists – what I enjoyed was that dyslexia did not stop anyone from doing whatever it was they set their minds to.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of researching the people in Brilliant Minds was finding out how the childhood challenges of dyslexia informed some of their later successes as adults. Having to spend extra time every day doing homework as a child gave them stamina for working extra hard as an adult. Being used to failure made them unafraid to take risks. Having brains that processed information differently, made them see creative solutions that neurotypical people could not see. Even being slow readers made them more observant and notice small details others might miss or skip over.
Which readers did you have in mind as you wrote Brilliant Minds?
It’s very much a book for families. The stories are suitable for children, but I imagine that parents will be reading them to their kids like bedtime stories.
What was the process like between having your manuscript accepted and the layout of the published book?
It’s been a long and slow process. I submitted the manuscript to Affirm Press at the start of November 2020 and didn’t hear from them until the end of March 2021. I had a Zoom call with two members of the Kids’ Lit team at the end of April and they sounded very positive, but at this stage they had still only seen three stories (I had written fifty) and they needed to pitch the book to the rest of the Affirm team.
I finally received the contract at the start of June 2021. Then there was a long wait until I received the first set of edits in March 2022. Everything seemed to happen in a rush with writing extra stories, more edits, Affirm contracted an illustrator, we had to agree on the title, then there was writing the author’s note, proofing and getting everything finalised before the print date at the end of June 2022.
Then there was another lull before things picked up again just prior to the official publication date in late October 2022. So from submitting the manuscript to launch day it was almost two years exactly.
At what point did it feel real that your manuscript was actually going to be a book?
In mid-May 2021 I received an email from Affirm confirming that they wanted to publish the book and that I would be offered a contract. It was a coincidence that my daughter was home from school that day, and so she was the first one to find out, which was really nice. We took a selfie at the kitchen table – where I had been helping her with her extra homework – and our eyes are red because we were both crying with happiness.
What do you hope stays with readers once they’ve finished reading Brilliant Minds?
Dyslexia might slow you down, but it can’t stop you. And although it does bring challenges, especially during the schooling years, having a brain that processes and sees things differently can actually be a blessing.
I’m currently working on a series of Hi-Lo chapter books, or high-interest low readability. This means the story is more complex and interesting for older kids, but the reading level and language used are easier. They’re for children with dyslexia or any reading difficulty.
Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed Our World is out now wherever good books are sold.