Interview with Michelle O’Healy, Author of “What Happens When Unicorns Fart.”
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
In a world where it’s “all been said and done before” finding the unique, special, and delightful is a true treasure. Michelle delivers this and more in her new book, “What Happens When Unicorns Fart.” We wanted to know more about the magical work she and her unicorn friends live in! Here’s what she had to share:
Part of your bio states that you’ve spent years in the unicorn industry. What inspired you to start writing about your experiences now?
Over the years, I've noted that unicorns are heavily misunderstood creatures. My best friend is a unicorn and she's told me a number of times how stressful it can be to have this unattainable goal of perfection to live up to. I finally just reached a point where I felt I had to speak out. Unicorns should have the same farting freedoms the rest of us enjoy. Except Moms, because Moms don't fart.
It’s such a unique industry to be in… what is the industry itself like and what is it that you do?
The unicorn industry is broad. They are magical creatures, so really there are no limits. Probably the most magical thing about them is their ability to fire up our imaginations. That's what I do. I take the unicorn magic, combine it with my imagination and a cup of coffee, and out pops a story. Incidentally, there is a Unicorn hunting license offered by Lake Superior State University. While I'm a huge proponent of unicorn rights, I might have to get one. Just don't tell my best friend!
What inspired this particular story?
Frankly, I was trying to entertain my kids. They were a bit grumpy, and I needed to combat the negativity. At the time, just the word "fart" would put them into uncontrollable giggles. They were newly into unicorns, so it seemed a good basis for a story on the fly. Proudly, I can report that the story was, and continues to be, a resounding success.
This is your first book. What was the writing process like for you? Did it come easily or did you get stuck at times?
Oh boy. You know, I've always written stories. When I was a kid, my family did a lot of moving. If you've ever driven cross country without an iPad or a smartphone, or internet, and with an annoying younger brother stuffed next to you, you can understand. It was how I entertained myself. Writing this book was extremely natural. As I started typing it out, it flowed very easily. That's not always the case for me. Some of my manuscripts feel more like giving birth; laborious, and actually painful, but not this one.
The illustrations are delightful! What was the process like to find the right illustrator for you?
Thank you! I'm proud of how the illustrations and the book as a whole turned out. An acquaintance was kind enough to talk to me about his self-publishing journey, and steered me to a contracting website. I was able to see reviews from past projects, as well as samples from the different artists.
When I saw Milan's work, something really drew me in (no pun intended). There was an undeniable freshness and honesty to his illustrations that struck me as compelling. I sent the manuscript to him. He read it, bid on the project, and did a mock up. I was blown away with what he created.
How did you and the illustrator decide what each picture would look like? Did you have a clear vision or was it more collaborative?
When I sent Milan the manuscript, I had already worked out the pagination. That turned out to be a great place to start from in terms of illustrations. I told Milan that I wanted lots of rainbows and lots of color, and the unicorns needed to be standing like people. Outside of that, I just wanted the illustrations to flow with the story. He nailed it and went beyond. I would say it was highly collaborative, though I can't speak for Milan.
If you look at the manuscript, I hadn't even decided what (if any) gender the child was going to be, nor anything in terms of what the child would look like. That left a lot of freedom in the illustrations. The final illustration took a number of mockups to get right. When Milan sent me the final one, it was a total eureka moment. Working with him was a really incredible experience.
I'd like to add that the layout team at my publisher had some really great finishing touches I had't even thought of. I gave them the instructions to add rainbows at every opportunity, and they really did a beautiful job.
What made you decide to self-publish rather than use a traditional publisher?
As I mentioned earlier, I've written stories my entire life. A few years ago, I noticed that I had 26 manuscripts sitting in my children's books folder and thought, "maybe I should start doing something with these stories". I did the work and tried getting published traditionally, but hadn't had much luck. Incidentally, I'm over 30 manuscripts now. It kind of feels like I'm hoarding.
At any rate, one day, as I was waiting for the train to get home after my writers group, I happened to strike up a conversation with a fellow commuter. He read my manuscript on the train, kindly offered feedback and advice, and heavily encouraged me to just do it. It turned out, he had been an executive at a big self-publisher, and my manuscript was one of his favorite topics. I came away thinking, "why not publish it myself?" As I was selecting the manuscript to bring earlier that day, Unicorn Farts wasn't even in the running. I changed my mind at the last minute on my way out the door. It turns out that's one of the executive's favorite kids book subjects. It all felt like destiny knocking at the door. The crazy thing is, I started the project, and the pandemic hit a month later! It was really nice to have something so colorful and fun to work on during such a tough time.
What have you learned about yourself through the process of bringing this book to life that you didn’t know before?
I've felt very natural in my role as a mother, and professionally I always had confidence in myself. Maybe it's due to all the rejection, but I really didn't have any faith that I could pull this together and come away with something I could be proud of. It was a big gamble. Probably the biggest thing I learned about myself is that I am capable, and there is an audience for my stories.
This is a very creative and fun story that the kid in all of us can enjoy. Were you always a storyteller or is it something you discovered in yourself more recently?
I was definitely always a story-teller, but I didn't write picture books until my kids were born. The symbiotic nature of the two arts is a big part of what defines the quality of the book and I find that fascinating. Plus, writing for kids is just plain fun.
Traveling and adventures have been a part of your life since you were young. How much of that has influenced your storytelling do you think?
Huge. A writer needs broad experiences. I would go so far as to say that a writer has to live more than the average person, because all writing, regardless of genre, is about life. We can't write rich stories without rich experiences.
You have kids who’ve been adventuring with you as well. What roll does storytelling play in your family?
This question made me laugh out loud. I homeschooled my kids for over a decade, and eight of those years were on a boat. Stories kept my kids happy and engaged while in line at the post office, on long car rides, and in security lines at airports. We couldn't bring an entire library with us everywhere we went, so storytelling preserved my sanity. As the kids aged, we would take turns adding on to each other's stories. This also was great practice for them to learn how to actively listen to others, make eye contact, etc.
Your bio also mentions that you’re a yodeler. How does someone get into that? Are you teaching your kids or the unicorns you work with to yodel as well?
Yodeling is, oddly, not dissimilar from Opera. Both are loud, hard to understand, and somehow very disturbing. Unicorns are natural yodelers. This makes sense because it takes either magic, or an act of God to be able to do it. Through my close interactions with my local unicorn herd, I have been able to attain some skill; my kids not so much.
(Truth be known, my Grandfather would yodel as he walked around the tulip farm. Believe it or not, it was lovely to listen to while I was working. I always wanted to try it, but felt a little silly.)
If you today could sit down and talk with the woman you were at 18, what would you tell her?
Girlfriend would be in so much trouble. I would tell her to do what she loves, and it's okay if that changes because as we live life, we grow. Just always be your current authentic self. You get to define who and what you are, so roll up your sleeves and get busy doing more than just work.
What do you most hope families will get out of reading your book together?
Reading together is wonderful, but laughing together is memorable. I hope that families laugh. It really is an honor to me to be a part of such a special bonding time.
After writing "What Happens When Unicorns Fart?", I realized it was a story about nutrition. I grew up in a military family, and a lot of the places we lived had very little in the way of fresh produce. Things are a little different now. Children unfortunately are, however, still confined to what is in their own pantries and refrigerators. I'm hoping this will help expose them to foods that they may not know about, and inspire parents and caregivers to expand their culinary repertoire.
What comes next for you? Are there more books or other fun creations you’re working on?
I'm almost afraid to say. As I mentioned, I have a number of manuscripts just sitting. Self-publishing was awesome, and I definitely will do it again, but I haven't given up on my dream to be traditionally published. In fact, I sent out another query letter this morning!
But there is more for Unicorn Farts. I am working on an app (shhhhhh!!! It's a secret!!!). Current nutrition programs that I've reviewed typically focus on the four food groups, but I would like to expand on that and teach kids about what foods are available using Unicorn Farts as the platform. It's a new world for me and slow going, but what else am I going to do to keep myself busy during a pandemic?
We hope you've love learning more about Michelle and her unicorns. If you're interested in sharing "What Happens When Unicorns Fart" with your kids, you can find physical copies on Book Baby or Amazon, or an ebook version on iBooks.