An interview on how I write
Each of us writes differently, and finds an intellectual and working rhythm that suits us.
This is part of mine.
What does your typical day look like?
Most days are typical. Bryan and I live ridiculously routine-based lives.
This morning I got up around 6.30, had a mooch around the orchard and the garden; walked up mountain tracking the various wallabies, wombats I’ve been collecting data on for several decades. Today there was a goanna trail. I’m basically just seeing what has been happening in the past twenty-four hours, mostly from tracks and scats.
That takes about an hour and a half. I come back, yarn to Bryan who is on his toast and jam stage of breakfast, shower, eat the same breakfast every morning: a home-made raw almond based muesli with a chopped up banana. I once swore I would never eat muesli for breakfast -commercial mueslis are a waste of good calories. But this is both delicious and keeps me going most of the day. I read as I eat; non-fiction, something unlike the material I’m going to work on.
Make a pot of tea- green chai tea in Grandma’s silver tea pot, or pick a herbal mix - or coffee, depending on the caffeine needs of the day, then go through to the study to work.
I take a break every hour or so; go for a mooch in the garden, pick something for lunch or dinner. Lunch is usually vegetable soup or leftovers. Sometimes I put on a casserole to cook for dinner, in the solar oven in summer or the wood stove in winter; maybe a big pot of beans, too, for next day’s soup, or a pot of jam. Today there’s a vat of grapefruit marmalade simmering while I work. It’ll get about four hours cooking before it’s done.
Work till about 5pm or 6pm. Put dinner on, or Bryan’s mashed potatoes to go with it - Bryan doesn’t consider a meal complete without mashed potatoes. Make a cake or ice-cream, put the jam in pots while dinner is in its final stages of cooking. Eat dinner with Bryan; watch a DVD; usually answer mail or sort it while I watch, or sometimes darn or do some extremely bad knitting if I’m too tired to cope with more letters.
It would be good to say it’s a day’s work without interruptions, but that rarely happens. Usually by the time I open the email there are half a dozen requests, to speak, to open a library, to give an interview, to answer a question that seems urgent enough to whoever sent it
to bypass the, ‘Please don’t email unless it’s urgent,’ plea on the web site. If I’m lucky I can start thinking about my own work by the afternoon. Increasingly I’m not so lucky, and to be honest I’m not sure how to cope with increasing demands.Very few are the type of requests that can be answered by someone else - even when I’m saying, ‘No, I’m sorry, I can’t,’ it’s easier to tap in the reply than tell someone what my reply would be.
Other interruptions are sheer delights; emails or phone calls from friends or family, wombats at the front door. You can never tell with wombats. We haven’t had wombat demands for a couple of weeks because we’ve had so much rain and the grass is so lush. Then last night at about nine o’clock which is an unusual time for Mothball, she was bashing on the door again because it was raining and she suddenly decided she did not want to go out again and get her tummy fur damp.
There was a wonderful possum battle last night as well. Sometimes in the morning there are things like boxing kangaroos and they really do box. I’ll just stay up there for hours. There was a wonderful boxing match about a few years ago that went on for three days. They were punch drunk at the end of it, so exhausted with pauses for about thirty seconds in between each punch. Those are the unpredictable things. Last night one of the young avocado trees fell down so there was a break in routine then. I went out with Bryan and we were looking to see if it should be cut off at the stump or what should be done with it.
There are some things you seem passionate about: wombats and other animals, the bush, plants and so on...
I think it’s more than that. For me it’s very much an identification with the land here. I don’t see any major difference between myself and where I live, the plants, animal’s etcetera. People assume I write in different genres. From my point of view I don’t. Whether it’s history, ecology, or the fiction I’m writing about now, it’s all grounded in the way of life here and the landscape here. I’m writing at the moment in 1894 but most of the lifestyle I’m writing about is the life that I’ve lived here. The way the life changes, the way the landscape changes, the way you can actually tell two or three years in advance whether it’s going to rain or not, whether there’s going to be a bushfire. I’m writing about something that is basically timeless but these days most people are shut away from.
It’s another community – I suppose ecology is the closest word. Everything is interrelated. In a very real sense we live hand to mouth here. The electricity we use comes from the sun, the water we use comes from the rain, the food we eat comes from the land around us. Also the books that I write very much come from the land around me as well. That also includes humans as well as animals. The community here, friends. And of course through email that community isn’t necessarily limited to an area.
You’re dyslexic aren’t you? How has that impacted your work?
Yes, severely dyslexic. I was trying to explain to someone who was trying to get me to look at their website, that I’m not a good person to give an opinion on how a web site looks. He said, ‘It will only take you fifteen minutes to look through it.’ I was trying to explain that it doesn’t work like that – that I might be able to read the material in five seconds or might simply not be able to navigate where others would find it simple.
I think quickly. I write quickly - so quickly and in such amounts it is often embarrassing.I can read a book in about an hour and remember it for all of my life (so far). I can remember a conversation thirty-six years ago, but it is an intensely difficult effort to focus on anything with numbers or anything in two dimensions. Anything in three or four dimensions I’m fine with. I get lost in carparks because they’re two dimensional. I can store a landscape in my mind forever because it is not human-designed, the sheer complexity of the way one thing merges into another makes it easy to follow. I can’t spell; don’t see typos; arithmetic or anything with numbers is a nightmare. If I try to focus I’m nauseous.
What comes first: the picture or the word?
Neither or either. The first thing that comes is a concept. It’s almost a ‘ping’ moment, and is certainly a subject or theme that I have been thinking about for years, possibly decades. I would never even seriously start to plan a book without even thinking about it for at least three years. A book evolves. The characters evolve; the place evolves. Even the time when it is set can change.
The first concept you come up with is almost certainly going to be clichéd. Humans feel safer with clichés. When you cross the road it is a good thing to think about a clichéd car: this is a dangerous thing that can run me down. You don’t want to re-evaluate the concept of ‘car’ every time you cross the road, or you’d be dead. But that’s not a useful instinct when you’re creating a story. The more you think about a character, landscape or background, the richer and more original it becomes.
I often think the test to determine a good writer and a bad writer is to actually see how many insignificant clichés they actually use. Look at any of Patrick White’s texts for example. I often don’t like Patrick White the storyteller, but as an observer he was extraordinary. There are no clichés in his books. Everything he writes down is something he has looked at with the absolute clarity of a writer.
It’s almost as though you have to clean your glasses to write a book and see it again. You have to throw out all the expectation – the narrative imperative. ‘Narrative imperative’ is when you’re watching a detective story and there’s a middle-aged woman taking her Labrador for a walk and you know she’s going to find a body. The younger son will find the gold and win the princess, the villain will turn out to be a government conspiracy. Each genre has its own narrative imperatives. The good books are the ones that break free. You are constantly confounded as you turn the page.
Can you explain the relationship between the written text and illustrations?
I don’t think you can generalise. There are some books which are illustrated short stories, like the books illustrated by Stephen Michael King. I wrote a story and he illustrated the things happening in it. There are other books like where I knew exactly what was happening but of course none of that was in the text. That book is only a few words, but an enormous amount of collaboration with editor and artist. It’s a book about a real wombat - and Bruce somehow was able to see her, create her, even though he had never met her.
Other books like are collaborations right from the beginning.The original story changed enormously as myself, Bruce, Lisa Berryman, Kate O’Donnell and Jennifer Blau and Natalie Winter at Harper Collins worked on it. It was the same with as well. Bruce an extraordinary creator as well as an artist and an illustrator. Those three things can be very different. was three years of work and it was very much a team effort.
The Tomorrow Book with Sue de Gennaro was also a concept that changed dramatically once Sue began working on it. Sue started researching all of the inventions that I wanted on the page whether it was gardens that captured water from the air or houses that recycled their own water. About half way through she realised it wasn’t working. The sense of joy and excitement had gone. She started creating illustrations where the inventions were there but they looked fun. She didn’t necessarily look for technical representations of things that had already been invented. When she finished the book I realised that you could throw away all of the text that I had written because all the joy and excitement and incredible sense of fun and invention was already there on the page and there was no need for the text anymore. My words may have started the book, but they weren’t needed by the end. So I had to go back and totally rethink the book and basically put another text under what she had created.
You can’t generalise – if you do then you’re falling into a pattern or even worse, you’re falling into someone else’s recipe. That is possibly what separates a really good book from a bad book – you go beyond the recipe. So often creative writing schools or even editorial committees are looking for another one of last year’s great successes. It simply doesn’t work like that.
You’ve collaborated a few times with Bruce Whatley. What is the relationship like with him?
Fun. Also exciting. We bounce ideas off each other. Suddenly things evolve. A few of those ideas will never make it onto paper, like the X-rated sequel to : .
Seeing Bruce’s first drafts - and final pages- is better fun than Christmas. Despite working with extreme detail about what is going onto the page I never really know what is going to be there, even though it is always exactly what I expect: just…different.
With it was the sheer beauty of the book. It was impossible to expect what Bruce - or anyone- could do that with the text, the rich sepias and the almost da Vinci like flow of drapery. It’s absolutely extraordinary, the sheer visual artistic richness. Often you don’t notice how beautiful the artwork is, how extraordinary each detail is, because it’s very, very funny as well and you don’t realise that the ninety-five percent of the experience isn’t the laughter, it’s the beauty of the page. You don’t notice because you’re laughing.
Bruce once said that I give him space to play and I think that’s probably true. Ever since I’ve been very conscious that when you give Bruce an idea it’s good to let him run with it. The more space he’s given to actually create his own book from that idea, the better. On the other hand, Bruce is someone I know I can give an impossible concept to and he will come up with some way to make it possible. The tuba playing emu in was in fact an Emu playing a violin to begin with. He worked for months trying to get that to work. When you think about it, it’s a lot to ask of an artist – to get an emu playing a violin - and he couldn’t. He invented all sorts of contraptions and nothing looked realistic. After all, what do you do with the wing tips? The wing tips aren’t going to be able to play the strings or hold a bow. Finally, he worked out that the only instrument an emu really could play would be a tuba.
You need extraordinary trust in an artist to know that no matter what concept you come up with they will be capable of finding a visual representation for it. In the case of it would be so easy to make that into a clichéd giggle book. The rudeness of the underpants. But the whole point of it is that there is nothing rude in the book. Her whole life was the antithesis of rude. It would have overbalanced the story to bring anything risqué into it. Bruce has done it with subtle and beautiful hints and with her dogs. They are very accurate portraits of not just Victoria at that age (and what she was wearing at that age), but historically accurate portraits of her dogs. Her dogs are peering up her skirt and if you have dogs, that’s what they do.
You also mentioned Diary of a Wombat. Why did you use a diary text type over straight prose?
Diary of a Wombat isn’t fiction. I sometimes feel rather guilty about that. Diary of a Wombat is pretty much a week in the life of Mothball, who is one of the wombats that got fed last night. I was on the phone to a friend and was explaining the noises in the background, ‘She’s bashing the front door now, now it’s the doormats, she’s bashing the garbage bin, that’s her biting through the back door, I better go and give her, her oats.’ I suddenly realised I was giving the diary of a wombat over two or three hours. My life at that stage was pretty much bound to Mothball’s very individual timetable. She bashed up the garbage bin, I jumped and did her bidding.
Part of it wasn’t created by me; part of it was a very literal description of exactly of a very real wombat was doing and probably thinking. It’s put in a rudimentary way. A wombat is very single-minded and extremely focused. So it worked very well having simple declarations. Ate. Slept. When a wombat thinks food, they only think ‘food’. The difficult part wasn’t the diary part. The hardest part of a picture book is that you need a new wow factor every time you turn the page. When you write a novel basically you’re building up for one great climax, or maybe two or three which go up to one great peak. But a picture book isn’t like that. Every time you turn the page the reader can’t know what is going to happen next. Or if they think they know what is going to happen next you have to very slightly tweak so it’s not.
A picture book is a series of adventures; every page is a new adventure, but those adventures have to actually then cumulate in something which ties up neatly. It’s a completely different rhythm from a short story or a novel. That is the difficulty with It was building up the tension so there really was going to be some climax at the end. The pacing and the structure of the book was the difficult thing. It’s very easy to come up with concepts for a picture book. It’s very easy to come up with hilarious or extremely moving images. It’s much harder to pace a picture book so that it works as a picture book narrative.
Can you describe a time when you were struggling to develop something either with you illustrations or writing? How did you work through that?
No, there has never been a time. I learnt to read when I was very young – about three. Certainly by the time I was three I lived part of my life in an imaginary and evolving world called Tajore Arkle. One of my imaginary companions was the ‘Little Tending Girl’, short for Pretend Girl, I suppose. She had a sister called Maria who showed me ‘How to send my mind with the wind.’ I wrote my first book at six and the headmistress liked it so much she had it copied for all the kids in the school - after she corrected my spelling. Admittedly this was in an era when there were very few books for kids, so it didn’t have much competition.
I’ve always made up stories. In the first few years of school, if the class behaved, I was allowed to tell them a story for the last half hour of the day. In retrospect it was probably extremely convenient for my teacher, and the kids in the class passed it on as part of tradition from one teacher to another.
Writing for me is almost an automatic response. If I am happy I will write; if I am sad I will write; if I am scared I will write. When my husband was having major surgery and I couldn’t concentrate on reading a newspaper I sat down and wrote most of a novel in the eight or nine hours waiting for him to come out of the operating theatre. It’s my response to anything, but that doesn’t mean it is good writing.
It’s enormously and obviously who I am. In whatever era I would have been, I would have been a storyteller. The medium that I use now is the medium I grew up with, which is basically words and paper.
I don’t really believe in writer’s block. There have been many times when I know what I’m writing isn’t any good. Perhaps writer’s block is when you reach that point, but don’t have the courage to say: this isn’t working. Start again.
I suspect most people who do get writer’s block don’t want to face that they need to trash and begin again. Which is of course like giving away six litres of your life blood and a large portion of your life. But that is what you have to do.
Describe your writing process.
Thinking. At least three years of plotting and thinking a book out before I write a word of it. That’s proceeded by several decades of thinking about things that I’m writing about. I’ll then make structured notes, most of which will be illegible and most of which I’ll lose, but it doesn’t matter because the sheer act of writing it down and forcing myself to actually being precise about structure, character etcetera is part of it.
I don’t research a book. Instead I research a subject because it fascinates me, then years or decades later that background will evolve into a book. If you need to do a lot of research for a book, you don’t know enough to write it - you’ won’t know what you don’t know. Books need to come from primary material, not books others have written about a subject.
It then really depends on the book. There have been a few books that I’ve sat down and started on page one and I have written until I’ve finished the book and there has been very little change from one draft to another. was like that. was almost like that. I changed very little of it apart from when I’d finished the book I realised it needed more tension of the heroine’s missing brother. He was put in, in draft number two. It almost didn’t need any changing of the manuscript.
With other books I know what I want to write but doubt my ability to do justice to it. Thy take draft after draft: or rather beginning after beginning, till finally the work begins. I’ve just written a picture book that I’ve been trying to get right for over a decade. It failed and it failed, but the concept was good.
Then suddenly one morning I wrote it in ten minutes. How long do you say writing that book took? The ten minutes or the ten years?
No book though works on day one. You need to get into it, feel it, create the universe till it feels right.Every time I begin a book I am sure it won’t work, that I don’t have the skill to take the concept from my mind and get it on paper.
My husband has made me put a sign on my desk saying, ‘No book works until the end of day three. Don’t panic.’
Somehow, every time, at the end of day three the book starts to come together. Probably I’m going to have to trash most of what I’ve written in those three days. If I have to go away for a few days, it will probably take me another three days to really get myself into it. It is pretty much like knitting. You really have to have all the stitches under control; every one of those stitches needs to be on your needle and if you drop any stitch it takes time to get them it into place, all the stitches lined up again to start creating fabric.
What were your reading habits like as a child? Now?
Omnivorous. There weren’t an enormous lot of children’s books around so I read everything. I even read the paper every day. I read extremely quickly then and I still read extremely quickly now. By the time I was six or seven I would finish a book in an hour or two. So I would reread but I also read everything in the house. By the age of seven my favourite books were , and I had a serious crush on Socrates from the works of Plato.
The local librarian I think deliberately didn’t notice that I was borrowing books from the adult section and not just the children section of the library (which was strictly forbidden). I was lucky. These days there are so many extremely good books for kids so that many children don’t ever really extend their reading into the adult world. I think we seriously underestimate children’s ability to understand quite complex things. There are things that are not suitable for children, but no-one should ever say ‘No dear child, you shouldn’t watch that movie because you won’t understand it.’ We don’t want them to watch it because we know they going to understand it and they’re not really ready for some of the scenes, the violence or other things in it.
As a child I read widely; I also read desperately. My childhood was about eighty percent boredom, ten percent terror and the other ten percent was books. Books were my escape from the horror of my childhood but also from boredom. Most people would assume that the horrific and dramatic things about my childhood were the worst. In fact, the worst was the boredom. It was those endless hours in school where then nothing very much was happening. I would finish the textbook by the second day of every year and sit there bored.
That changed by mid high school, with a small bunch of quite extraordinary and dedicated teachers. One teacher in particular kept me supplied with an extraordinary number of books with incredible breadth. Everything from through to sociology to the Qu’uran to a critique of , the sort of books that you wouldn’t think were suitable for fourteen or fifteen year olds but were exactly what I needed to read. At that age you are trying to make sense of the world. I read with a breadth I wouldn’t have now.
Again I think adults underestimate children’s hunger for information and ideas; a hunger that adults don’t have. In an evolutionary sense the job of a child is to understand the world to become an adult. Often children are much more keen to debate values then adults are. for example won the WOW Award in the U.K. for the most likely book that would encourage reluctant readers to read, yet there is the expectation that boys, who are sometimes reluctant readers will only read books that are exciting and challenging. I think that’s true, but they don’t have to be physical challenges. Nothing physical happens in until the last four pages. There is a great deal of moral questions in it. As adults we can very easily forget our hunger as children and teenagers and our need to debate not just the world is but the way it should or could be.
What makes good literature?
Things you can’t forget; the books that wriggle down into your soul and consciousness. They change your views of the world.It’s like you’re washing the windows and suddenly you see the world differently. I think that can happen whether it’s a romance, a book of philosophy or science fiction. I don’t think it matters about the genre. A good book is book that you don’t forget. When you have read it you know you want to read it again and every time you’ll get something different from it. Whether it’s the language, the concepts or reliving in that universe again – it is a book that stays with you, but you know you want to keep with you as well.
How important is literature for us? What is its function?
Literature is how we look at and understand ourselves. Every book that you read is giving you an experience of not just being one person but many. It gives us an experience beyond the self. I don’t think we can see ourselves clearly as a society without literature; it’s the tool most effective social tool we have invented.
Movies are both too simple and too complex to do the job as effectively. It takes so much longer to watch a hero or heroine walk from the house to the front gate than it does in a book - and that’s wasted time. In a book I can take a character through ten years in two sentences.
How do we go about raising readers?
Incredibly easy. You just give them the books they are going to like. When my son was eighteen months old, and in hospital for a couple of weeks, video games were just coming in and there was a waiting list to play them. I started reading stories for the kids and another one of the mothers who not incidentally also came from the bush started reading them books too. And by day two, not a single child was watching television, watching videos or playing video games. If they were given a choice they listened to the books.
You simply need to find the right books for the child. But when I say ‘simply’, it’s not simple at all. All too often with people who love books are eager to press their favourite book experiences onto children so they actually don’t see what the child does want. I wanted my son to read the books that meant so much to me as a child. He wanted , and Often a child’s character is inherited from their grandparents, not their parents and as a book-lover the very books you love are going to bore your own child. But if you find the right book for a child then they’re going to read it - and then look for more. It’s something I’ve seen as a dyslexic, working with children with enormous reading difficulties.
There are so many myths about getting kids reading. Getting the word level right with the age level, making sure all the words are ones they understand - you don’t need any of that. I watched my son when I was reading to him. He was so entranced he didn’t want it to stop and so he forced himself to read page after page of it. I’m sure he didn’t understand a lot of the words but that didn’t matter. The story was so extraordinary that he kept at it just to find out what happened next.
Find book that they adore and give them a taste of it - just a taste. Read them a page, read them a chapter and you’ll find that if they’re taking the book and they’re reading it then it’s good. If a child doesn’t understand one word in six in a good book, it doesn’t matter. By the time they come across that word five or six times in context they’re going to know the word. They may not be able to pronounce the word - people still need to correct my pronunciation of words I’ve known for decades but never spoken
When should pictures disappear from the written word?
There’s no rule for that. I can think of books for adults where there are illustrations and they add enormously to the books. My favourite edition of has the most wonderful etchings done at the time. I think it wouldn’t work if they were modern illustrations, but the fact they were done when the book was written and in the period. It depends on the book; not the age group. Children and even toddlers enjoy stories without pictures. When you have a small child on your lap and you tell them a story, there are no pictures and they don’t need any. They have the pictures in their minds.
As human beings we have pictures in our minds probably from the day we’re born. We don’t need pictures to see what’s happening in the story. On the other hand, a book as a work of art entertainment can be richer with pictures, especially if the pictures themselves add another layer to the narrative or the beauty.
What do hope readers take away from your works?
A sense of joy; a sense of transcendence as they are taken away from the world they are in and are put into another world. Possibly a sense of power as well: both from the picture books and the novels. All of them are showing kids a very different world from the one they live in, possibly because for many decades I’ve lived in a different way from most Australians.
The one thing you show readers by writing about history is not to be afraid of change. Tomorrow always is going to be different from yesterday. It always has been. But human beings are extraordinarily good survivors, superb adapters. We are very good at creating a sort of world that we want. Books are perhaps the most effective tool to help us find it.