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

Thursday 25 February 2010

Interview: Author Jill McDougall

Who is this creative person? Jill McDougall

What does she do? She writes books.

What’s her story? Well… I live in a fabulous part of South Australia. Think deserted beaches, azure-blue seas, reefs to kayak around, wineries to visit and the best farmers’ market in Australia. Where is it? Not telling. Oh okay then, it’s Port Willunga – Australia’s best-kept secret so … keep it to yourself.

I share a stone cottage with my partner, two delinquent dogs, three black chooks and a spider called Ruth 2. (You don’t want to know what happened to Ruth 1 but let’s just say it involved a Size 10 boot and an instant diet.)

How long has she been writing? Ever since I discovered that pencils were not made especially for bursting bubble wrap and exploring little brother’s ear hole. I was probably nine when I began filling exercise books with stories and poems.

Does she remember the first story she ever wrote? Actually I don’t. Only that I sent it to the Junior section of the Sunday Mail and it wasn’t selected for publication. My first rejection! I do remember my first publication though. It was a letter to the editor of the Courier Mail hotly defending the Beatles’ long-hair look. “After all,” I argued, “Beethoven didn’t exactly have a crewcut.” Quite a good point, I thought.

What inspired her to write books for children? I was a teacher working with Indigenous students and desperate to find suitable (as in - culturally relevant) reading material. Eventually (motivated by despair) I wrote stuff for them myself. I began with poems as I thought the rhymes and rhythms of English would be almost a match for the gorgeous harmonic sounds of Western Desert language. My very first effort became the title poem of an anthology…

Anna the goanna
Is fat and slow
Her belly is like jelly
Wobbling to and fro
Here come the hunters
Looking high and low -
Go Anna! Go Anna!
Goanna go.

(And er…. this book is available through Amazon.)

How did she get her first book published? I sent my collection of poems off to Aboriginal Studies Press and voilà – the stunningly-illustrated Anna the Goanna was born.

What other genres has she written in? You name it – I’ve done it: plays, short stories, emergent readers, chapter books, novels, non-fiction. cartoons, poetry, newspaper articles, newsletters, e-books, even a greeting card…

Has Australian children’s literature changed in the past decade? I’m no expert and it’s hard to generalise but having said that, there is definitely a trend towards a multi-media approach. Fewer books are being published but the Chosen Ones have more marketing dollars thrown at them.

Titles now come with their own websites, video teasers, blogs, toys…. I recently spotted a new Andy Griffiths book plastic-wrapped with a pencil case.

Books are taking on a new look inside the covers as well. Some publishers are adopting a multi-genred approach to give stories (especially for younger readers) a lively, more vigorous look. This manifests as anything from font variations to the addition of cartoons and diagrams in fiction.

What are the greatest obstacles she has experienced on her writing journey? Ignorance. (Mine, that is.) I made time-wasting (and ear-reddening) mistakes such as sending a submission printed in blue ink (cringe) and decorated with photocopied logos of the series I was targeting (double cringe). Red-hot urgent note to all aspiring writers: research the industry standard (plain white paper, size 12 font, etc) and submit professional-looking work if you want to be taken seriously.

My other big mistake was sending work out too early. It can take years of editing and re-writes to get the best out of a piece. I once did 34 drafts of a 1200 word short story. It makes sense when you think about it… why not send out one highly-publishable piece than a dozen half-baked stories that will never see the light of day (but leave a poor impression).

Why does she write? It’s the most fun you can have on dry land. Pretty much.

What does she love most about writing for children? You can be ridiculously silly and they get it.

What advice does she have on writing children’s stories? Read my ebook on writing for children. I’ll send it to you free if you mention this site (contact me). There’s a lot to learn but this book with give you a head start.

What five things does she like to do other than write? In no particular order… adventure holidays, growing food, family, friends, pets, reading and… writing. (Yes, I know that’s seven. See my answer to the last question...)

What’s her favourite children’s books of all time? I’m hopeless at remembering titles. In the past few years I’ve really enjoyed Don’t Call me Ishmael (Michael Gerard Bauer) – I fell about laughing in the peg scene. Also Nick Earls’ 48 Shades of Brown and anything for Young Adults by Bill Condon.

Which of her own books is she particularly fond of? Dracula’s Revenge. It’s part of the Deep End series by Era Publications and it’s about the pressure placed on young people to conform. It’s a theme dear to my heart.

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? I’d go on adventure holidays and, er… write about them.

What was her favourite game as a child? Playing teacher with 40 little square bits of wood. I’d write names on the wood and throw dice to decide where they came in class. Kept me absorbed for days.

What books did she read as a child? Anything by Enid Blyton. Christopher Robin stories and Pookie the Flying Rabbit.

What would be her perfect day?

4:30am: Editor rings. Breathless. She’s just finished reading my latest treasure and wants to offer a 7-book series, a movie deal and an opera.

4:55am: Editor rings back to say it was not a hoax. And what is my address for sending a Very Expensive Present?

10:00am: Breakfast at the Hilton to celebrate.

12:00pm: Fly business class to London to research new book on Gourmet Eateries of Europe.

What five words best sum her up? Bad. At. maths.

Visit Jill’s hilarious website and learn more about her books, plus loads of fascinating literary information. She’d love to hear from you! jillmcdougall.com.au