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

Friday 1 October 2010

Author Interview - Mo Johnson

Kids Book Review warmly welcomes author Mo Johnson to our interview fold - here Mo tells us about her beautiful book Noah's Garden and about an inspiring little girl called Jessica...

Tell us a little bit about you. I worked for 18 years in Australia as a high school English teacher and Year Coordinator. In 2008 I left teaching to work with my husband in our Mortgage Choice franchise in Sydney’s south and that’s where you will find me most days, so still writing in my spare time.
Next May I will have been in Australia for 20 years, having arrived here from Glasgow, Scotland in 1991. I met my Australian husband in 1988 when we were both working in Japan. We live by the beach in the northern suburbs of Wollongong NSW and we have one son who is now 13, a Shitzu called Scruffy and a Beagle called Scout.

How long have you been writing? I started writing in 1997 when I was living in Darwin for a year. I was pregnant and we were there temporarily for my husband’s work. I had two freelance pieces published but when Paddy came along I got so busy I stopped writing and went back to work again when he was a year old. I didn’t begin writing seriously again until 2005.

What genre do you love to write in most? YA and social realism with humour.

What other genres have you written in? I’ve written short stories for adults, published in the US Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I’ve also written lots of non fiction books for the Education press. My first picture book was published both here and in the US in June. I also do corporate writing for companies, including annual reports and brochures, etc.

Why do you write? It’s just something I love to do.

What made you decide to write children’s books? Working for 20 years with teenagers. For the last 13 years I worked in an all boys college and was head of Year 9 for 6 years. Dealing with those kids and their families gave me lots of ideas for characters and stories.

What was your inspiration for Noah’s Garden? “Noah is fighting pirates again.” After visiting friends RCH in Melbourne, I drove home with this phrase in my head. Two days later I wrote the book.

Can you tell us about the book’s association with the Melbourne Children’s Hospital? Jessica Titmus was diagnosed with a serious heart condition at her 18 week, in-utero scan. Her parents were told she would not survive birth. Nevertheless, they moved to Melbourne from Sydney and Elese gave birth to Jess there on December 6 2005.

For the 7 months that followed, the family lived in a Ronald McDonald room at the top of the hospital while Jessica fought for life. In May, my family went down for a weekend to visit. A couple of times that weekend we took Jess’s three year-old brother Noah into the hospital garden.

The Peter Rabbit garden at Melbourne RCH is lovingly tended and an amazing refuge for all who visit. While Noah was playing in the cubby there, waving a stick around, I asked what he was doing and he said, “Fighting pirates, of course.” That made me think about how he was escaping the uncertainty of his life and how strong the power of imagination is.

Despite an extreme shortage of equipment and the fact that many babies in the hospital did not survive, the staff of the hospital were relentless in their optimism and care. Jess will have completed her first year at Kindy at Austinmer Public school NSW in Dec 2010.

This book is a tribute to her, the Titmus family and the brilliant people who work at children’s hospitals, especially those who loving create garden havens.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? It was an Enid Blyton-style smuggling story for a primary school test.

What do you love most about producing books for children? Hearing readers say they enjoyed the stories.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey? Not having enough time to write.

What advice do you have on writing children’s stories? Write for yourself… because you really want to. Write first… edit later and don’t listen to anyone who tells you how hard it is to get published.

How has the Australian children’s literary scene changed in the past 10 years and where is it headed? Wow! I don’t think I’m experienced enough to answer that. I do know that I am confident there is still a market for children’s literature. People are still buying books. I’m also constantly amazed at the quality of work that I read and proud to be part of such a generous, talented community of writing colleagues.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? An interior designer.

What do you love? Reading/writing, travel, food, interior design, the property market.

Name your top five children’s books of all time. These aren’t strictly children’s books but ones I read as a teenager and loved:
The Far Away Tree – Enid Blyton
Flambards K.M Peyton
The Go Between – LP Hartley
Brideshead Revisited _ Evelyn Waugh
And more recently… I loved Liar by Justine Larbalestier
Carries War – Nina Bawden

I’m going to cheat and add a couple more…
Anamalia by Graeme Base
Dream Snow by Eric Carle
...and everything by Bill Condon.

What books did you read as a child? All the Blytons, all the Nancy Drew series, those listed above, lots of Dickens for school which I hated, then I moved on quite early to Agatha Christie.

Describe your typical daily writing process. It’s get as much down in the hours between 7pm and midnight. Never leave on a blank page. Start the next night by rereading what I’ve written and go from there.

Describe yourself in five words. Intolerant, loyal, irreverent, unfocussed, optimistic.

What’s next for Mo Johnson? Hopefully a chance to work less and write more. I have lots of different projects on the go as I tend to jump in and out of things – my way to avoid writer’s block.

I have a new picture book under consideration with a publisher and am working on another at the moment. I also have a junior fiction ms on the go and a YA novel that I’ve been playing around with since 2005.

My most pressing project at the moment is not for children. I was a friend of Kerryn McCann the current Commonwealth Gold medal holder for the last eight years for woman’s marathon. Unfortunately Kerryn lost her fight with breast cancer in December 2008. In the July before her death, she persuaded me to write her biography; we were working on it when she passed away and I have finally got to the stage two years on where I feel ready to write the book. So with blind faith and the sound of her voice in my ear, I have embarked on this. Who knows where it will end up.

Learn more about Mo and her writing journey at www.mojohnson.com.au.