'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Monday 18 January 2010

Interview: Author Christine Harris

Who is this person? Christine Harris

What does she do? She’s an author.

Where can you take a squiz at her books? christineharris.com

What’s her story? I live in the Adelaide Hills, married to writer David Harris (‘Cliffhanger’ series and ‘Time Raiders’ series, and more ...). We have five grownup children between us, and thousands of kids we have ‘adopted’ for an hour or so when we visit schools. No pets – we are away too much.

I was a late bloomer – didn’t know what I wanted to do, really. Did odd jobs over the years, while writing away in private. Then my life changed when that writing became public.

How long has she been writing? Since I could first string sentences together. My first published book - ‘Outer Face’, came out in 1992.

What genre does she write in? All genres for young readers. I think it’s good to have a go at all types of writing. You don’t know what you’re good at until you give it a go.

How did she come up with her fabulous Audrey of the Outback series? Audrey is the young cousin in ‘Outback: The Diary of Jimmy Porter 1927-1928’, published by Scholastic Australia. People liked her so much she ended up with a series of her own, but it’s set two years later in 1930.

The original book was part of the ‘My Australian Story’ series about episodes in Australian history, written in diary form. I chose the time when the Flying Doctor Service was just established in the Outback.

Audrey is a combination of people: a bit of me, my own children and little snippets from the thousands of children I’ve met in schools over the years.

Why does she write? Good question. On bad days, I wonder that myself. But there are extraordinary highs when things go well. Writing allows me the freedom to work at home, I can choose my own hours (which is good because I am a rotten sleeper and keep weird hours).

Writing has led me to many countries and friendships I would otherwise not have experienced. It is exciting (I hate being bored or doing nothing). And I love the interaction with fans/readers. That is exciting and fascinating too.

What made her decide to write children’s books? I enjoy the kinds of stories for younger readers. A child will rarely read a book simply because it is on a best-seller list. They will only read it if it captures their imagination. I like that. I am the same, and I’m bored by stories that drag on.

I also discovered that I seemed to have a talent for it. A voice, if you like, that connects with children. Once I visited a Darwin school and a boy there was totally shocked when I walked into the classroom because he thought I would be ‘twelve years old’. Which is a real compliment.

Does she remember the first story she ever wrote? I probably shouldn’t confess this, but when I was in primary school we were asked to write a story about ‘The Golden Rule’ (treat others as you would like to be treated). I had no idea what that was and was too shy to ask, so I wrote a story on gold mining. I also wrote a short book, featuring Tarzan, when I was nine and up a tree.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles she has experienced on her writing journey? Over-editing by some editors, which makes a writer lose confidence in his/her own abilities. Sharing ideas too soon – before they make sense and they evaporate. Emotional baggage and interruptions from everyday life.

What does she love most about producing books for children? The interaction with readers. I had an email from a girl who told me that her father had died of cancer, that her mother was ‘very, very ill’ and the girl thought she ‘will lose her soon’. But the girl said that reading my books made her feel better.

How has the children’s literary scene in Australia changed in the past decade? It has become more corporate. Years ago, publishers could take a gamble on a writer in whom they saw talent and they would nurture them along. Now, each book has to stand on its own, make lots of money for the publisher and be in ‘fashion’. I was horrified when a publisher explained a series to me a couple of years back by saying, ‘We know this series is junk food in a pretty wrapper’. I declined the job.

However, I believe that we have more good quality Australian writers and the respect for children’s writers had risen, although not nearly as much as it should. Hence the current call for an Australian Children’s Laureate to promote reading and books to our children.

What advice would she have on writing children’s stories? Don’t give lectures or sound off about morals. Kids will turn off. The results of behaviour, good and bad, are better shown by what happens to characters. Read a lot in the genre, talk to and listen to children, watch children’s TV shows. Write from the heart, not just the head.

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? A gardener or photographer.

What books did she read as a child?
Anne of Green Gables
Swallows and Amazons
Martin Rattler’
A Wrinkle in Time
Stories and Songs from Many Lands (which was a whole set)

Of all her books, what are her favourites?

This is difficult because I only write books I can feel passionate about, but here goes:

Foreign Devil (which won Best Horror Novel 2000 in the Aurealis Awards for Speculative Fiction)

Audrey Goes to Town (CBC Notable Bk, winner of Children’s Peace Literature Award)

Jamil’s Shadow (CBC shortlisted, also published in Japan)

Spy Girl: Secrets (I like the whole series of five books, but I had to pick one so I simply chose the first – Shortlisted for YALSA, American American Library Association, Quick Picks for Young Adult Readers, published in Australia, Thailand, Japan, Brazil, USA, Canada...)

What else does she enjoy doing? Writing, knitting, walking, discovering new ideas, listening to my grandson try to talk.

How has her passion for travel and photography influenced her writing? Everything we experience influences our writing, but it is so good to have other cultures and perspectives on which to draw. Travel stimulates our senses in a way that doesn’t happen at home. It’s all new and different and raw and we take it all in.

What would be her perfect day? Ooh, I’ve never been asked this before. OK, here goes:

David, my husband, wakes me with a hug, tells me something nice (which he does every morning), he cooks pancakes for breakfast (which he does most mornings), I have an uninterrupted morning to write, it is 22 degrees C with a light breeze from the south, I spend an hour or so in my garden, walk for another hour with David, put on some world music and cook a big meal which I will share with our grownup children and their children. We will light candles, sit outside to eat and laugh a lot. And before bed, I will watch two episodes of Dr Who (starring David Tennant).

Oh, and could I please have a shoulder massage too?

What five words best describe her? Curious, enthusiastic, private, uncertain, confident. (Yes, I know some of these are contradictions – that’s how humans are.)

What’s next for Christine Harris? Lots of striving for the perfect day, as described above.

New writing projects, still in the early stages so I can’t really say anything about them. But a little of the old and a lot of the new – as far as ideas.

Being early in the year, things are just shifting into place workwise, but the next book will probably be a picture book about ‘Audrey of the Outback’. The words are written and Ann James will begin the illustrations this year. Hopefully, the book will be published in 2011.

You can learn more about Christine’s amazing collection of books at her website.

This year, she will be talking at ‘Voices on the Coast’ festival and a writers’ festival in Gladstone – both in Queensland.

For upcoming news, check out her Audrey blog where you’ll also find fun activities for Audrey fans and Audrey’s diary.