Interview: Kristen Heimerl Author of Inspector Dewey

Finalist of the 2015 Shelf Unbound Competition for Best Independently Published Book

a three norwegians book

Meet Inspector Dewey and his beloved, bumbling buddies in this silly, page-turning tale of mystery and adventure, daring and determination, and the comfort of home and family, all told by master marketer and first-time author, Kristen Heimerl. —KW

Shelf Unbound: Why did you decide to write a children’s book? 

Kristen Heimerl: A real experience inspired me—in fact, the defining moment is captured as an illustration in Inspector Dewey. I was crawling on the maple floor of my creaky, old home to the telephone in the kitchen. It was 2:00 a.m., a bad guy was on the street outside, and I had left my lights on and my windows open. I needed to call the police—without being witnessed.

Urgency and silence were imperative, but my cats, well…being cats, had other intentions. Dewey was charging ahead, head low and cantering on the prowl. Lily was by my side, thumping and squiggling, jumping and wriggling—delirious with delight. And Thumper was trotting behind—clip clop, clip clop—his great girth skimming the ground with every step, and doing his gentle, sweet part to keep the family together. I stopped halfway down the hall, took in the hilarity of the moment, and made a mental note to start writing a children’s book the next week. And so I did.

I honestly can’t imagine creating anything other than picture books—I love the creative marriage of words and visuals too much. Moreover, picture books played an important role in my development as a child. I was the “stupid” kid—younger than my peers, slower to develop, and awkwardly shy. But picture books transformed my life; they showed me the beauty of illustration and the power of language. My early books set the foundation for a love of reading and a life of learning. Inspector Dewey is meaningful to me in so many ways—not the least of which is the opportunity to influence a new generation of readers and learners.

Shelf Unbound: Dewey and your other cat characters each have their own distinct personalities. Did you base them on actual cats that you have had?

Heimerl: I live with three beautiful, beloved, bratty, silly, sweet, self-centered siblings. And, yes, they are cats. And an endless source of inspiration for characters and stories.  

When an unexpected intruder stumbled into our lives two years ago, I knew immediately that if one of my cats was to tell our heart-stopping story, it had to be Dewey.

Quite simply, Dewey—the REAL cat—is a dork. When critters creep into our home, he doesn’t miss an opportunity to orchestrate a stakeout. Undeterred by the boredom and banality of staring at a fault in the floor, Dewey will press on for hours—days, in fact—just to rid his home of vermin. Despite his slender size, Dewey takes his responsibility as the “Big Cat” in the household seriously. His roles are plenty, extending beyond mere home protection and extermination services to that of housekeeping and more. 

Dewey was an easy character to create—the real cat is such an affable guy. Even his arrogance is adorable. Who doesn’t love a goofy, quirky noodle of a cat? Thumper and Lily were more of a challenge. I desperately wanted to avoid any cultural stereotyping. I know—deep, right? But I worry about the distorted taxonomies our culture imposes and their negative impact on children. I didn’t want any part of supporting the construct of ditzy blondes or troubled introverts to which Lily and Thumper could easily be reduced.  

I know it’s wrong to anthropomorphize animals (or so I’m told), but with the Three Norwegians, it’s so darn easy! I just look at them—their expressions, their mannerisms—and their thoughts, ideas, and words pop into my head rather effortlessly … and hilariously.  Okay, it is a little fun, too! But isn’t it just that way with all beloved pets? 

Shelf Unbound: Your illustrator lives in Spain. How did you find her and what was your process in working on this book together? 

Heimerl: My intent from the get-go was to leverage local creative talent to bring Inspector Dewey to life. I had three super-talents earmarked for the job, but the stars simply weren’t aligning. My grand plans fell apart. It was then that I got creative. The Internet makes the world a very small place, so I did what any seeker would do: I went online. I searched. And searched some more. I removed all boundaries and focused on one end goal: to find an illustrator with the raw talent to create really cute cats.

My search spanned months and resulted in a collection of more than thirty different illustrators. I netted out at my favorite five and reached out to them with two requests: Would you consider illustrating my children’s book? And, if so, would you consider creating a trial illustration using a snippet of my manuscript? All but one accepted the challenge.

When the trial illustrations came in, Irene was an easy choice. Not only was she incredibly talented and kindhearted, but she was a fine arts student and her dream was to someday become a children’s book illustrator. How could I bypass an opportunity to help make another’s dream come true? 

Although I’ve never met Irene in person, I feel very close to her and would go the extra mile for her again and again. We connected via email nearly every day for months on end co-creating everything from storyboards to cat design to colors and everything in between. 

It was not an easy undertaking by any means. Years of marketing organization and creative-vision leadership gave me confidence to take on the role of art director. And while I can’t imagine not leading the creative direction for major business initiatives, for the next book, I will hire an art director. Without training, I lacked the technical language required to translate my creative vision and consumer appeal into concise, tangible, actionable words and design suggestions that would resonate with Irene. Add the language barrier (English is her second language) and her design-student status, and disconnects were inevitable.

We ended up in a great place, but we would have ended up in a better place if I had hired a seasoned children’s book art director. On the other hand, there’s something truly authentic and beautiful about Inspector Dewey. It’s real and raw and flawed—and stems from the heart of a (large) team of really passionate and talented people. I imagine that our next book will be unblemished, but I worry: Will it have the same character and quirk?

Shelf Unbound: You have a marketing and brand building background. What has that experience brought to creating this book? 

Heimerl: I had the good fortune of bringing 25 years of corporate business experience to my book project. Through my experience leading marketing and innovation organizations across a variety of industries and, separately, from my experience as a strategy consultant, I have a history of moving down a variety of industry learning curves swiftly. I knew that I could handle the challenges the publishing industry would present—provided that I approached my book project strategically. For example, I worked with consultants or outsourced tasks in low-experience/low-knowledge areas. This allowed me to mitigate the risk of errors and keep avoidable costs down as a result of being a “newbie.” In other words, if the task related to something I considered critical to the quality and/or success of the book and I did not have the skill or experience to execute at the quality level I required, I outsourced it.

I also have a long history as a strategic marketer and brand builder. The beautiful thing about creating a children’s book for a professional marketer is just that: You get to create it and bring it to market. This has meant lots of different types of activities over the past two years, but what I really geek-out over is the super-silly, creative stuff—the stuff I left behind as a child.

Case in point: Dewey’s Detective Kit. I’m a full-grown woman with not a lot of patience. It never occurred to me that painstakingly compiling detective-themed activities into a downloadable kit for kids would bring so much joy.

It was a zone-making moment. Sure, I included the standards: top-secret door signs, official name badges, Find-the-Fishy puzzles, Pin-the-Tuna-on-the-Tree game, and the like. But the super fun? Creating stuff from scratch! Like Write a Mystery!, Feline Fun Facts, and Dewey’s signature: Create Your Own Fishy Phrases. Add in an invisible ink recipe, top-secret snack-making, a playlist of famous detective-themed tracks—and OMG! I thought my gut would explode with glee!

I know I’m not alone in my seemingly immature interest because my (adult) illustrator and designer shared this funky fervor when I turned the content over to them to add their magic to the mix.

Publishing Inspector Dewey has given me the opportunity to leverage all of the business skills I developed and honed over nearly three decades, and marketing it has given me complete creative freedom to engage in creative child’s play as an adult. I can’t think of anything more incredible—or joyous. 

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