This article begins an occasional “How I Made It” series here at TGCA in which we talk to artists, writers, musicians and others to hear about their creative process, their struggles, and their reflections on serving God in the Arts.
In this first article, we talk to poet and author Simon Camilleri about his children’s book, When Santa Learned the Gospel.
TGCA: Simon, this time last year you published your children’s book When Santa Learned the Gospel. Tell us how the idea first came to you.
Simon: Back in 2013 I witnessed something very funny at a local community carols event. As expected, at the end of the evening, Santa came out on stage and asked the kids “So, who’s been a good boy or girl this year?” All the kids raised their hands and said “Meeee!!” The funny thing was, when he asked them, “And who’s been a naughty boy or girl?” they all said “Meeee!!” just as enthusiastically. After an awkward moment, Santa shrugged and said, “Oh well . . . I guess you’ve tried to be good.” I left that event pondering what message about life those kids had just received. I reflected on how the whole “morality equals reward” system that the Santa story promotes was kind of like the “good people go to heaven” message that many think Christianity teaches. I sat down inspired to write something that would give some commentary to what I had witnessed and at the same time communicate the true gospel to both kids and adults. What resulted was a funny little poem called, “When Santa Learned the Gospel”.
TGCA: How did you go about refining it and turning it into a book?
Simon: I had shared the poem through my blog and it had been received really well, so I knew that I had stumbled upon something that might work as a book. But it took another three years before I was willing or able to try to make that happen myself. I had sent the text to a few publishers and no one had expressed interest and so I decided to have a go at self-publishing. Just before Christmas 2016, I ran a Kickstarter campaign to get people inspired about the book and to raise the funds needed. That went really well and so it gave a real sense of enthusiasm to my efforts to produce the book. It also helped that I had reached my ten years at my job as a graphic designer and so I was able to take three months long service leave to put it all together. I worked closely with illustrator Matt Boutros over the first few months of 2017 and after an epic amount of work I held a Book Launch celebrating the completion of the book on 22nd July 2017.
TGCA: You write poetry, music, boardgames, plays, and articles. Tell us about your creative process. How do you go from idea to end product?
Simon: I have always been a bit of a Jack of All Trades and Master of None. I love learning new skills and creating things from scratch to entertain and engage people. My creative process usually starts with an idea—it could be a theme, a concept, an image, a message or even a simple tune. It doesn’t have to be much, but if it’s good it rattles around in my brain throughout the day and keeps growing and growing. Once the creative juices are flowing and the synapses are firing it’s hard for me to let it go. (Just ask my wife!) Sometimes, I just have to put it aside, but if I have the time to work on it, I then will sit down and just write or draw or tinker on the piano. When it’s really working, sometimes the entire thing will come out in one sitting. Of course, most of the things I create aren’t that amazing. Sometimes, they don’t work at all. But I just keep creating. I’ve often described it as panning for gold. You gotta go through a lot of rocks and mud before you stumble upon the gold nugget.
I’ve often described it as panning for gold. You gotta go through a lot of rocks and mud before you stumble upon the gold nugget.
TGCA: What’s your favourite part of writing?
Simon: When you finally get the idea out of your head it can be very satisfying, but for me, I am always conscious of those that will be reading what I write. I guess it comes from my background in theatre. No scriptwriter ever writes a play just for himself. A script is only truly “complete” when an actor reads and performs the words on stage and an audience experiences it. I think I carry that attitude into every creative thing I do. It’s not about the process of writing or creating, or even how much I like it. It’s about how well did it communicate the message, or entertain, or amaze, or engage. That’s what made the creation of When Santa Learned the Gospel so exciting. Hearing stories of how people gave the book to their non-Christian friends or read it to their children and talked about the gospel—that’s definitely my favourite part or the whole experience.
TGCA: What’s the hardest part of the writing process?
Simon: As my process is often running on unfiltered creative enthusiasm, I find it really hard to be disciplined as a writer. It’s hard to sit down be intentionally productive with the small pockets of free time you get with full time-work and an adorable three-year-old wanting your attention. I can go through dry spells and periods of creative frustration. I find if I really want to work on something, I will need to carve out a few solid hours of time and sometimes even get away from all distractions to be really productive. Naturally though, life doesn’t always make that possible.
TGCA: What are you working on at the moment?
Simon: I have had lots of churches express an interest in incorporating When Santa Learned the Gospel into their Carols Event or Christmas Service. To help them do that, I am currently working on a collection of free creative resources that churches can use. I call it a “Carols Pack”. It will include things like an original song, a script-version of the book, bible passage notes, etc. I have also teamed up again with Matt Boutros and together with a team he is leading, we are creating an animated video of the book.
TGCA: Which other poets/songwriters/children’s authors do you like? What do you like about them?
Simon: There’s lots so I’ll keep the list to those that are both Aussie and Christian. Musically, I have always loved Sons of Korah for their desire to faithfully communicate the Psalms in a way that is emotionally moving and beautiful to listen to. Lately though, with a three-year-old daughter, Colin Buchanan has been a big part of my household. His ability to express profound gospel-saturated biblical ideas in a fun and engaging way is really inspiring for me. As for poets, I love the hilarious and brilliant Christian poet and master wordsmith Cameron Semmens. For children’s authors, I don’t know if I personally have any favourites. There are a lot of bad books for kids out there (both in quality and in content). I recently picked up a copy of Wonderfully Madison by Australian Christian author, Penny Reeve, which was really lovely. Basically, I support any Christian that is trying to use their gifts to communicate some aspect of gospel truth whilst also striving for creative excellence. I love to see that in any artistic medium.
If you are interested in finding out more about Simon’s book “When Santa Learned the Gospel” or the free “Carols Pack” he is developing, please go to the When Santa Learned the Gospel Website or check out the video below: