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

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Author Interview: Jacqueline Harvey

We are thrilled to welcome Jacqueline Harvey to Kids Book Review today. Jacqueline is the author of the Code Name series and, more recently, Alice-Miranda at School. Her next novel, Alice-Miranda on Holiday, is due for release in September 2010 - and keep your eye out for more in the series.

What’s your story? I grew up in Camden NSW, in what was then a rural hamlet south west of Sydney (although I see in the press lately, it is about to become quite a metropolis). A particularly inspiring primary school teacher ignited a passion for education and I decided at a young age that I wanted to be a teacher – and at the same time I loved writing so it was my dream to be a writer and a teacher.

I taught for ten years at a gorgeous independent school in the Southern Highlands called Gib Gate. Although I was keen to write, I really had no idea how to go about being published and so for a long time I satisfied my creative urges writing poems and plays for the children in my classes and contributing education pieces to the local newspapers.

It wasn’t until I went on Long Service Leave and moved to Byron Bay that my husband encouraged me to give writing a ‘proper go’. He told me, ‘you don’t want to die wondering’ and he was right. I didn’t want to be one of those people who said, ‘I’m going to do that one day’ and so I decided that ‘one day’ was now. I wrote everyday and did lots of research about publishers. But writing is a challenging business and after no nibbles and an increasing sense of frustration being away from teaching I took what I thought would be a six month contract at Abbotsleigh teaching Year 3.

Somewhere along the line, six months turned into nearly nine years; first as a classroom teacher, then seven and a half years spent as the Deputy Head of the Junior School and the past five months as the Director of Development. I had only been at Abbotsleigh a few weeks when I received the fantastic news that my manuscript for a picture book had won the Frustrated Writers’ Mentoring competition held annually by the Children’s Book Council Australia NSW branch. That manuscript became my first and to date only picture book, The Sound of the Sea and went on a few years later to be an Honour Book in the CBCA Book of the Year Awards.

At the same time I had written The Sound of the Sea I had also completed the first book in the Code Name series which was picked up by Helen Chamberlin at Lothian. I have to say that winning the Frustrated Writers award paid off as doors which had been firmly closed were now starting to open. So, now I work full time and I write – it’s a balancing act but really rewarding.

What genre do you write in? I think my heart is in Junior Fiction (what the Americans would call Middle Grade). Stories for 7-12 year olds – which I still to this day, love reading more than many other books.

What other genres have you written in? My picture book, The Sound of the Sea – which I wrote without an audience in mind. It was a book for me – I had taught several children who had lost a parent in tragic circumstances. I had seen their range of emotions played out at school each day and I wrote the book after a particularly beautiful afternoon on South Golden Beach near Byron Bay. I really didn’t mind what other people thought of the book and I suspected I might cop criticism for writing a ‘sad story’.

Readers relate to the book through their own life experience and so I have often heard children talk about the sadness in terms of the death of a grandparent or even a beloved pet. I certainly never intended for it to be a book for younger readers and I used to get a little bit cross when I saw it touted as such.

Why do you write? Writing gives me a window to other worlds. I write because I love it. I feel like I have stories to tell and I want to share them. It’s so satisfying to hit upon an idea that you think will work well and I love the feeling of working hard and creating something I’m genuinely happy with.

What made you decide to write children’s books? It was always what I wanted to do. When I was studying teaching at Uni I took every children’s literature course going and I always thought that I would love to write books for children. I love reading and many of my all time favourite books are for children so it was a natural fit.

What do you love about writing for kids? Children are so honest. I’ve had the most incredible privilege of being able to read my material to children for many years. I think in my early days at Abbotsleigh some of the girls would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear, but after a while – and much training about the benefits of honest feedback, I know the girls tell me what they are really thinking.

A few years ago I wrote what I thought was quite a lovely and gentle story about a magnolia tree. I remember reading it to some girls in Year 6 and when one of them prefaced her response with, ‘Well you know I really like you Mrs Harvey, it’s just…’ I laughed and laughed.

What was the inspiration for your latest character, Alice-Miranda? Although I have taught lots of girls over the years, some who may have exhibited a similar trait here and there, I suppose that ultimately Alice-Miranda is my ideal of a child I would want as my friend. She’s positive and funny and doesn’t take no for an answer (in the nicest possible way). I initially thought that she would be a character in a picture book, but once I started writing I knew she demanded more – a whole novel more, and now a series.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book-writing journey? Writing is difficult - I’m always super critical of my own work and I look back now at my first novels and I know, that while they’re okay, they’re far from my best work. I have learned that you have to work hard, learn from others who have made it and never ever give up. And while the writing is hard, the publishing is even harder.

I was fortunate in that I didn’t have a mountain of rejections before I was published – more of a small hill. But every rejection is difficult – when you get the mail and recognise your own handwriting on the envelope – that’s never a great day. I always appreciated any morsel of advice from publishers, and handwritten notes were like gold – particularly the ones offering positive feedback and even ideas about who else might like to see my work. After The Sound of the Sea was awarded Honour Book I naively thought that the process of publishing would become easier. Not even close.

Doors seemed to be closing all over the place and for a while I grew quite despondent about the whole thing – but never ever did I think I would give it away. During that time I learned from others. I read and read and read. I drew inspiration from friends like Markus Zusak and James Roy – and above all I realised that I would never achieve anything if I sat around moping about how difficult it was to be published.

What’s a typical writing day? Because I work full time in what is a very busy job, I don’t really have any typical writing days. When I’m starting a book, I tend to write a plan in longhand in one of my notebooks and then write a few chapters at a time. I revise as I go along.

I also read aloud to my husband and have him read things aloud back to me. As the story progresses I tend to get caught up in it and often write well into the night and I have been known to get up at odd hours of the morning if an idea pops into my head. I always read my work to the girls at school too, although now I’m in a different role I find that a little more challenging.

What advice do you have on writing? Read widely; find your voice and practice. Learn from others who do it well, but find something that is your own. Listen to kids – they know what they like, don’t give up when it gets tough – you make your own luck, network but don’t be pushy.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? A teacher, a journalist (which is another type of writer), working in public relations (which is a lot of my role as Director of Development), a professional speaker – my dear grandmother always said I could talk under water with a mouth full of marbles so she was very impressed when I started being paid to talk to kids!

What are your all-time favourite kids’ books? Heidi (I used to tie a bell around our long suffering Labrador’s neck and imagine our flat paddock was the Swiss alps), Matilda, Bridge to Terabithia (I can’t ever read that book to a class without crying), Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Twits – I love reading aloud and all of these books are great to share.

I also loved February Dragon by Colin Thiele and Pastures of the Blue Crane by Hesba Brinsmead. Picture books I love are Grandad’s Teeth and a really cute English book called Snog the Frog (you can do great voices with that one!).

What else do you like to do, other than write books? At the moment I work a lot but when I do have some time off I love to play golf. I read and when I get the chance I like to travel.

What would be your perfect day? A walk to a great café for breakfast; bacon, eggs and tomato with Turkish toast, a huge skim cappuccino, and the Saturday Herald, spending the day with my husband talking about stories and then starting a new book (and falling in love with Alice-Miranda all over again), maybe watching a movie in the afternoon and having a barbeque with family and friends for dinner.

What five words best sum you up? Determined, Empathic, Hardworking, Positive, Talkative.

What’s next for Jacqueline Harvey? Alice-Miranda on Holiday is due out in September this year and then next year both books will come out with Random House Delacorte in the US (which is beyond exciting!). I’ve just been offered two more contracts with Random House Australia for Alice-Miranda book number three and four so I will be very busy writing for the rest of this year in every spare minute I have.

See our review of Alice-Miranda at School