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

Friday 24 September 2010

Author Interview - Peter Macinnis

Kids Book Review is delighed to welcome award-winning Australian author Peter Macinnis with this insightful interview on the wherewithalls of writing books and attempting to retire...

Tell us a little bit about you. Officially, I'm retired, but don't believe it. I have written all my life, and I have now been a full-time writer for five years. I see no reason to stop, not while I'm having fun and my readers are having fun.

I was born in Ipswich during World War II, but I have lived (and still live) on Sydney's northern beaches for most of my life. I have been a teacher, a bureaucrat, a researcher, a management consultant and fraud investigator, a museum educator and encyclopaedist. My wife and I have three children, a lawyer and two scientists, and we have two grandchildren.

I have always been or wanted to be a writer. I got the writing bug when I was about 10, when I wanted to be the next Ion Idriess. I started on my first book in 1971, though it was only published in about 1982. Since then, I've had about 40 books published.

What genre do you write in? Lots! Most of the time I write about science, but history interests me as well, sometimes I combine the two. I used to (and still do) write serious books for adults, looking at how things like sugar, rockets, poisons and even lawn changed our world, books I call 'histories of things'. The fancy name is 'narrative non-fiction'.

The thing is, I'm restless, and I like looking at the reasons why things happen (or happened the way they did). That's how I cross the border from science to history, because both those areas are about causes. Most of my books for younger readers are also attempts to explore the reasons for something. I like to offer insights.

Mind you, my next book, due out on November 1, is very different because it's about monsters, but these aren't your normal vampires and zombies. And after that, I may be about to switch again—keep reading, because there's a Big Secret later on! [Ed: we can't wait!]

What other genres have you written in? Well, the next book, the monster one is probably best described as comedy (if people like it) and as tragedy if they don't. It's supposed to be about monsters but I'm afraid the larrikin that lives in my head took over. The publishers enjoyed it, so I'm hopeful. See The Monster Maintenance Manual for more.

Your book Australian Backyard Explorer won the Eve Pownall Award for Information Books – how did it feel to win this prestigious award? My wife and I work as a team. She was originally a science teacher as I was, and she is always part of the planning and editing process. We had been visiting the grandchildren in New Zealand and we flew into Brisbane for the awards.

After it was all over and we had shouted 'yippee!', we flew home and headed off to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia to see Wilpena, Lake Eyre and other places, and to get some photos for the next National Library book, which is to be called Australian Backyard Naturalist. This book is about looking at, observing and sometimes catching animals and plants. It's very much a hands-on, how-to book. Except for the Monsters: you can't blame her for that, though she checked every word, even there. It's how we work.
How long have you been writing?
What do you think makes Australian Backyard Explorer so intriguing for children? It's a combination of quite a few things, I think. It's beautifully-designed, but it's practical as well as good-looking. I had already written a book for adults on the realities of exploration called Australia's Pioneers, Heroes and Fools, and so I already knew the bits that fascinated adults. I worked on those as I talked to young people.

For instance, the explorers didn't find ways through land that nobody had ever seen; they all followed Aboriginal tracks across the land. And it wasn't just posh white men who went exploring. There were men who couldn't spell, convicts, Aborigines, women, young boys and even some girls, and let's not forget the animals that carried the equipment and food (and mostly ended up being eaten), dogs and even one cat.

There is an important negative: it matters more what isn't in my books. When I was at school, we only learned about a few heroes and a few sad cases who got killed bravely. We never heard of John Horrocks who died slowly of gangrene after his camel shot him. We never heard about the awful water people had to drink or what they ate or how they got injured, how they made their boots—there was none of that, but that's what I wrote about. We learned lists of names and dates but there are none of those in my books.

I can still recite all of the rivers that Ludwig Leichhardt crossed, in order, between 1844 and 1846. Now I ask you, what earthly use is that? History shouldn't be learning boring lists of names and places and dates, it should be about what and how and which, as well as when and what and who. Facts are useful, but understanding is far more important.

What do you hope Australian Backyard Explorer will impart to its readers? The book is about understanding what went on and getting readers to ask questions, like 'Why did only Leichhardt use bullocks?' or 'What were Burke and Wills really trying to do?' or 'Which tools would you really need?' or 'Why did Kennedy take horses and carts into jungle?' or 'Why did they have to eat that?'.

Real history is about people. We were on Hadrian's Wall in northern England in June, and we learned about Roman letters written 1800 years ago on bits of wood. Many of these letters survived somehow, and now they are being read and translated. These letters show us how ordinary people lived then, and give us a new insight into how we live today. Those old Romans weren't so different from us.

In the same way, we do lots of what the old explorers did, but it's a lot easier when you have GPS, shops to buy food at, roads to follow, credit cards and weather forecasts.

What do you love most about producing books for children? I get to tell stories. I know lots of stories, and I also make some up. Once I used to get into trouble for making things up, but not now! A lot of people think writing for children is somehow easier, so you see lots of celebs saying 'I'm going to write a children's book'. I think it's no harder to write for children, but certainly no easier! You need to think through the steps and spell them out.

What are the greatest blocks you have experienced on your writing journey? I'm never blocked because I usually have several books on the go at once. The Monster Maintenance Manual took me almost seven years from when I began it to when it appears on the shelves (a few ideas in it go back almost forty years, one goes back to a nightmare more than 60 years ago!).

If I'm having problems with a book, I just flick to another project and come back a few hours later. While I was writing it, I had 14 other books published, but two of those involved research that began 30 years ago. Some people call it multi-tasking, but I think I just have a short attention span.

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to write for the children’s non-fiction arena? Go for it! Planning is important. I use a spreadsheet to record and sort every idea, every quote, every interesting snippet, then I sort and re-sort until I have a story-line. The important thing is to have a clear story-line.

You need a story that needs telling and then you tell it until it works. I suggest starting by telling it to some young people, rehearse it, tell it again, write it, and then write it again and again.

Revision is incredibly important. I wrote one of the honour books for the 2008 Eve Pownall awards. It won because after I finished the first 'final draft', we knew it wouldn't work so I threw it out and started again. That was a history of the Kokoda campaign, but I would never do military history again because it's too tragic. My first attempt was mainly a brief for the prosecution of two really stupid generals whose stupidity killed many Australians. I can do without that sort of stuff in my life.

Anyhow, when I got to the end and read it, I realised I had lost sight of the story and so did my publisher. If you can't say 'this is rubbish!' when it is rubbish, then you're in trouble. Always stay honest with yourself!

The thing is, every book has to start with a question, and then answer at least part of it—or prepare the reader to find some answers. There has to be a story but it can either be yours or the reader's. The question may be hidden in the final book, but it has to be there while you are writing.

One good story makes a book, not because it's the only story but because you use that story as a framework to hang the other stories on. My Kokoda book was about how the 39th Battalion, mainly young boys and old men, held back the much-larger Japanese army in a slow, brutal retreat. Those inexperienced soldiers bought the time for other troops to come up and help them, and all the rest of the Kokoda story hung from that.

In Australian Backyard Explorer, my frame was the story of how Harry the Camel shot his master, though you would have to dig now to detect it as a framework. In my social history of lawn (an adult book), the key story was that all our sports that are played on grass arose within a couple of years, either side of 1859. That raised a question, and I supplied the answer!
If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? This question does not compute. If I really have to answer, I think I might be satisfied with something involving world domination, no, solar system domination. There aren't a lot of things that give the same satisfaction as being a writer, but if the solar system domination deal includes getting a daily issue of chocolate biscuits and a friendly dog of my choice, I might sign up for it.

Then again, I might just grab the pen and run off into a corner and start writing a story on the back of the contract. Look, people who are into solar system domination and stuff aren't required to be reliable and honest!

Other than writing, what else do you like to do? Reading. I love to read: poetry, history, science fiction, technical manuals, newspapers, novels, straight science, murder mysteries, plays, essays, Australiana, labels on jars, humorous works. You can see what I read by looking me up on Goodreads, but a lot of it is weird stuff that is intended for research for future projects.

Travel. In my life I have passed through, walked through, lived in, worked in or just toured in 38 countries across the Pacific, Asia and Europe. You can understand Australia better when you have a bit of outside perspective.

Walking and wandering in wild places. In July, my wife and I walked over a mountain in Italy where Leonardo da Vinci tried to fly, 500 years ago. It was about 39 degrees and it was great because we had Monte Ceceri almost to ourselves. Nobody else was mad enough to be out in that heat. We like being out there looking at strange arthropods, unknown flowers, mysterious rocks. I have a favourite wild place in the Budawang ranges where my hand, on the wall, can span a geological gap of 100 million years, from Devonian to Permian, just like that. A place like that is very special.

Talking and telling stories. It's a bit like writing, but I also do radio talks on the ABC.

Did I mention reading? Too bad, because I'm mentioning it again.

What children’s non-fiction books by other authors do you admire? Does Dr Seuss count as non-fiction? I'm just getting into step with my grandchildren, so most of my experience with children's non-fiction comes from when I used to read to my own children, and it's a bit out-of-date now—the youngest is 28!

Describe your perfect day. A dawn chorus where I can distinguish at least 12 species of bird calling, a walk to the library and back—that's about 2.5 km. A working morning with music, lunch and solving a Sudoku. A working afternoon with more music, a walk down to the beach for a swim and a read, back again, dinner with something BAD having happened to the TV, a working evening with extra music, then a good book.

Describe yourself in five words. Insatiably curious, inquisitive, restless, unquenchable.

What’s next for Peter Macinnis? Ah, the big question: I like to think I have a good ten or twelve years of writing in front of me, so I wrote down a to-do list on the plane back from Adelaide the other week. In November, I will take two or three weeks out to publicise The Monster Maintenance Manual, and I am just polishing the last bits of Australian Backyard Naturalist, then in December, I start the new project, whatever it turns out to be.

According to my list, the most likely next project is something different, a series of four Young Adult historical fiction novel about a young Cornish boy who gets into trouble in Cornwall where he has been trained as a chemist and as a collector of unusual animals. He flees to Australia, goes exploring in the inland and later, on the coast, encounters pirates in the Gulf of Carpentaria, works on a Murray steamer, helps a group of Chinese miners travelling across the Coorong, goes digging for gold, works as an assayer, marries an Australian-born girl, brought up in Sydney's Rocks area who is stronger than he is.

They go mining, then they go seeking treasure, and have many other adventures in the period 1851 to 1867. I'm still working on the outline, but that's top of the pile right now. There will also be a website where curious readers can track down the true stories that I will be using to back up the fictional events.

Or I may decide to reveal the true history of Count Henry Blenkinsop (a minor character in The Monster Maintenance Manual), an original scientist who took refuge in Australia. This will be worth reading for the account of how he shot down the Red Baron, accidentally blew up Professor Moriarty—and made an odd use of Moriarty's papers. Along the way, he actually made most of the major scientific discoveries between 1890 and 1950, but nobody ever knew.

Or I may get serious and adult and do a study of the human, social and environmental costs of our hunger for gold, a metal which is useless for making tools or machines. All the gold humans have ever found would fit in a cube about 22 metres on a side, which is not a lot when you consider the costs, but there were benefits as well. I'm working on this, because some of it applies to the Cornish Boy series as well.

Or I may decide to look at the human preoccupation with fences and walls: city walls, the Great Wall of China, stock fences, spite fences, the Berlin Wall, barbed wire fences, the dog-proof fence and more. There's a barbed wire museum in Kansas, and now you know why I went to visit Hadrian's Wall!

Or I may decide to look at mad inventions: flying machines powered by eagles, shoe guns and hat guns, bicycles that you row, strange ships, pest catching machines, ways to escape from being buried alive and more.

Or I might just decide to do something really different. My books are always about temporary obsessions, and there's a new book lurking in a comment that my wife made as we passed a lonely tree on the shores of Lake Eyre, written in my notebook.

Any last words? There is a marvellous site (Trove) at the National Library, where they are putting historical newspapers from 1803 to 1954 online, and several thousand volunteers (I'm one of them) are helping to correct the text, to add tags and comments. If you want to know what I'm researching, you can sneak a look over my shoulder by heading here.

Learn more about Peter here.

Australian Backyard Explorer is published by the National Library of Australia. Read our review of this book very soon on KBR.