By Martie Thompson
Local children’s author MJ Hayes said before she could write, she told stories by drawing with crayons. Her whole life, she has been interested in writing, including as part of her career as a kindergarten through third grade teacher. In fact, her first story was “Ollie the Octopus,” which she wrote as exemplification for her third grade class at the time, since they were learning about octopuses.
She went on to write 35 books, all of which were rejected by publishers until, as she said, “the most exciting thing happened.” Hayes was attending a children’s writing conference in 2007 and told a woman she met at breakfast about her “WIP” (Work in Progress), entitled “Emma’s House of Sound.” It was the story of a deaf child who put on a silent concert to show the school bully the meaning of deafness. The woman at breakfast turned out to be Patti Gauch, a vice president at Philomel Books, a branch of Putnam Books for young readers, and she loved the idea. Later, Hayes was asked to write a play based on the story for Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine. In 2009, her play received the St. Johns Cultural Arts Council State of the Arts grant.
She has had 12 more children’s books published, including her new book, “Santa Comes to St. Augustine,” written in rhythmic fashion and featuring a tour of the sites of St. Augustine.
Q: How did you come to live in St. Augustine (World Golf Village area)?
A: I’m originally from Long Island, N.Y. I moved to Florida in 2007 to be near my family. I wanted some warmer weather and I love the history of St. Johns County and St. Augustine.
Q: Do you ever get writer’s block?
A: Everyone gets writer’s block. I like to write in the mornings, and I find that if I take a walk and get away from it all, it helps. I get lots of ideas while walking.
Q: Do you have any tips for aspiring writers who would like to be published?
A: Persistency is important, no doubt. But here is some information: there are three ways to get books published. First is self publishing, which is not recommended because it doesn’t have the accolades to get one published the right way. Traditional publishers, like Scholastic and Putnam, are difficult because the competition (with other would-be authors) to get your book read is unbearable. I decided to become my own professional, independent publisher. I have a professional team, including a copy editor and page layout specialist and Ingram Spark is my printer. For me, this is the best approach.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
A: To relax myself, I practice yoga seven days a week. I also swim and I like to play cards socially — a game called Hand, Knee and Foot, which is a variation on Canasta.
Q: What is your favorite book to read?
A: I don’t really read for pleasure. Usually I read to learn about something that I like to write about. But I do like books that remind me of when I was a child, like “Wizard of Oz” and “Mrs. Wishy Washy.” I also love a couple of books by Suzanne Bloom, “Alone Together” and “What about Bear?”
Photo courtesy MJ Hayes