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

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Author Interview: Nette Hilton

We're thrilled to welcome prolific author Nette Hilton to Kids Book Review, as part of our final Behind the Books feature for 2010. Nette shares with us her joy for writing, and you can find out more at her website, nettehilton.com.au and her blog.

Tell us a bit about you. I live on the far North Coast of NSW in a dear little house that I planned myself so I always have sun in winter and breezes in summer – and, to make it close to totally perfect, the beach is up the road. The gardenias are in bloom at the moment as well as star jasmine and paw-paws and soon there’ll be lemons and later, mandarins and oranges. And later, as soon as I get the chook-pen sorted, I have a couple of fluffy white chooks as well.

I have three dogs – two ancient Maltese who feature in A Grave Catastrophe as Block and Tackle. They’re still ambling along, noses to the ground following wherever the newest smell leads them (which makes them interesting to try and take on a walk). My latest dog, Bonsai, is a teacup Chihuahua who is very, very lively. He’s a bit like a delinquent in an old dog’s home – but he manages to find lots of ways to keep himself amused – and the old folks shuffling along.

My kids are grown up but they come and visit often and bring my lovely grandkids – all four of them. They are all amazingly clever – as you’d expect!

How long have you been an author and did you always want to be one? I’ve been writing books – as in they are intended to be published – for 22 years. This is a fairly long time and it is always a surprise when I meet mums who tell me A Proper Little Lady was their favourite book and now it’s their children’s favourite as well. It doesn’t seem that long and I hope I never, ever have to stop.


I don’t think I actively wanted to be a writer like some people do. I was more interested in being a vet or a pathologist or a princess on a white horse but, as things turned out, it wasn’t to be. Many books that I was reading as a child were written by English writers. It didn’t seem real to me to actually be a writer but I always enjoyed writing letters to my grandmother and she was an incredible writer. Her letters made me cry laughing – and they’d be pages and pages long. I wrote poems and crazy stuff for the inside messages of cards but really never considered making a living from writing.


Can you remember the first book you ever wrote? What was it about? My first book was a book for my daughter, Emma, who hated going to school. Now she’s grown up and, after being a hair-dresser for a while, has decided to be a... you guessed it... a pre-school teacher. I went to buy her a book that said it was okay to hate going to school but there wasn’t one that fitted the way I wanted her to hear that message. So I wrote one. It was about a little girl named Em who didn’t want to go... eventually she learned that some things have to be endured and the best way to get through is to get on with it.

What made you decide to pen books for children? I honestly don’t know. I suppose the ‘Emma’ book got me started as it was sent to a publisher by a friend of mine. It was accepted to be published but I had to fix it up – and I didn’t know how. Jane asked for another manuscript so I pretended I had heaps and quickly wrote The Long Red Scarf – which won Honour Book Award in the CBC Book of the Year Awards in 1988.


I wrote books for older readers and even penned a couple of adult thrillers. My writing simply follows where it goes – a bit like the old dogs. When I begin to hear a story, or have a good idea I don’t spend a lot of time wondering which age group will like it. I really believe that good books are for everyone – kids books should be fun for adults too. (I’m not sure that I think adult books for kids is such a hot idea though. Sometimes they just miss the whole point even though they can read the words.)

What do you love most about producing books for children? When I can make people smile... or cry... or laugh out loud. And children are such a good audience. They’re not afraid to really whoop out great big laughs at all sorts of things. They don’t like crying (and I don’t like to make them cry – they do sometimes feel sad though) but they always tell me, with just a wicked little gleam in their eyes, when their teachers cry at the end of The Web.

I love, too, being able to think like a kid – it lets me enjoy all sorts of stuff that adults aren’t supposed to like (for instance, pushing my oldest dog around in a pink pram when she gets too achy to finish her walk, or talking to my car when it doesn’t want to start and buying poor, sad looking bears in the op shop because they look like they need a bit of a hug – and you can’t hug and them put them back – imagine how that would feel).


What is the hardest thing about writing books for children? Getting published. It’s always hard – and thinking up a new story with a different look and a sparky ending that hasn’t been done before always scares me a bit.

Why do you write? The same reason as I breathe – because it’s my life. I don’t know what I would do without it. I’ve just started making books that are for me – little books that come together with paintings and old pictures and bits of jewellery and squashed bugs and flowers and beautiful hand made papers. And watercolour – oh my word, I just love seeing the pages come to life with lovely, runny colours.

Which of your books is your favourite and why? I think my favourite book is always going to be the book that I’m working on – they tend to consume you and become a big part of your life.

At the moment, though, I love The Innocents. It was a book that I’d written in various forms with different voices over a few years. Each time I finished it I promised myself that it was done – but then, it would demand to be re-written. And the whole time there didn’t seem to be a reason other than it wanted to be written. All the other books that I should have been doing were pushed aside every chance I got – and back to Missie Missinger I’d go. Now that it’s out there I’m almost afraid to read it – but the journey of that book, and the characters in it are so close to my heart.


What do you think makes a great picture book? A feeling. A picture book should make you smile a little on the inside. You should be left warm and comfortable – even if you’ve had to howl laughing along the way. A picture book sits with you like one of the old bears from the op shop. Leaning a little, making a warm patch to remind you they’re there and grateful that you’ve taken the time to get to know their story.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles you have experienced on your book writing journey? The absolute frustration of never being able to feel that you’ve got it right. Every year I apply for a writer’s grant (along with every other writer in Australia) and, except for the first time in 1992, I’ve never managed to be awarded another. It’s a bit like giving it your best shot and then it falls short.

I always promise myself that I won’t be disappointed (and I must say it is a bit like winning Lotto) but I always feel so, so flat when my name’s not on the list. It’s because I feel rejected but it’s also because I start to doubt myself. This is the biggest obstacle and one that I really work at to overcome – and that, I suppose is the up-side of being down: the hard work it takes to prove that I still able to write usually results in another new book – and off I go again.

It is only an obstacle for as long as I let it – the next year I’m there again writing up my newest ideas.


Describe a typical writing day for you. When are you at your most creative? Whether I am feeling creative or not my writing day usually starts by 11am and goes until 4.00ish. I am very disciplined when writing a book and plan the chapters that are to be finished by the end of the week. If I finish them early (because they flowed along well) then I don’t do any extra. I have a little holiday. If I don’t finish them by Friday then I work on Saturday and Sunday until I’ve reached that mark I’d set.

Often, though, I play with words or songs at night. I love the absolute deep, deep night hours when there’s only the sounds of the waves on the beach. Some nights there’s not even that and I must say it’s a bit creepy, almost eerie and I let myself sink further into words. The dogs stay with me, dragging themselves from their beds to snooze on the floor beside me on nights like this. These are creative times – these are times when I let myself hear the words that I know will lead into a new book or a new poem or a new song. I don’t often use these late night hours for a manuscript that’s already happening (unless I’m late trying to reach the right number of chapters).

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? Well, some people do say that I’m a bit of a princess already (I’m not sure if they’re being nice but I always give them the benefit of the doubt and smile kindly at them) and I haven’t even got a horse. Obviously some princesses don’t need them...

I’d really, really love to be a musician. I love playing music and I’m so crap at it. And my voice... yikes! I sing in a choir so it will get better though and I have guitar lessons and, at night as I’m waiting for sleep to come, I play my favourite songs and dream about being the singer on the stage and everyone clapping and singing along with me... only they’re not as good.


What books did you read as a child? Can you reveal your top five favourites? I read Enid Blyton and my favourites were the Famous Five series. I read Sherlock Holmes stories and my favourite book for a long time was a collection of all those stories. And the last one – a huge favourite – was Dracula by Bram Stoker. I remember reading it in my grandma’s bed when we were holidaying with her. She lived near a lake and the mist was rising above the lake outside the window. Boy, I’ve never been so scared. I loved A.A. Milne – but not as much as I love it now.

Do you have any writing or publishing tips? Writing tip – be sure you understand the structure of a narrative. It lets you work out how to end your story – and you need to know that or else you’ll get lost in the middle bits.

Work at being able to describe your story in one sentence. E.g. This is a story about bravery. Or jealousy.

Then, for a publisher, you should be able to build on this sentence and outline your story in a paragraph (half a page at the most).

Even if you don’t want to publish, you should try to have a clear understanding of your story and how it is going to be linked together to illustrate what it is about.


Describe yourself in five words. Happy, grateful, impulsive, daggy. Friend.

What’s next for Nette Hilton? My new books – always! They fit in and around the things that make up the rest of my time – my guitar has morphed into song writing and my newest song is being recorded by James Thornbury (from Canned Heat) on his latest CD. Even when I’m dancing and trying hard not to trip over myself I can be writing a new scene for D’lilah Brigitta Wichita LaRue who is my newest character – just wait till you meet her. Next year I’m going to America and already I’m working up ways to take D’lilah with me, looking for another way to make that trip into a story.

Anything else you’d like to say? Anything else – well, I’m grateful that there are people who love to read my books. Absolutely thrilled as a matter of fact. My most exciting news is my trip next year which is to accompany my daughter who has won a Churchill Fellowship – and, of course, while she’s off being famous I’ll be visiting libraries and book stores and doing all those things. And then... writing about it.

And I love it when people visit my blog and let me know what they think.

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