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

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Author Interview: Jackie French

As part of our special Behind the Books feature on Jackie French, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview her. Here, she tells us about her latest book, her life as a writer... and the wombats.

First, we must ask – how are the wombats? Mothball is fat and grumpy. She doesn’t like the rain- or having to swim through the creek to reach the back door and her dinner. Wombats aren’t supposed to swim - but that doesn’t stop Mothball.

Your latest novel, A Waltz for Matilda, is an intriguing insight into how our nation came about. What was your initial inspiration for this story? The song - any who has farmed sheep knows that you can’t stuff a jumbuck in a tucker-bag so easily - or even catch a sheep unless you have dogs and a sheep yard. And where did the troopers come from? There were about 25 troopers for 10,000 square miles- how did they manage to turn up just then?

Unless it was a set up, of course. Which Banjo Patterson probably believed it was. The squatter and the troopers provided a ‘poddy lamb’ who’d seek out the swaggie, Frenchie Hoffmeier, a unionist suspected of burning down a shearing shed. They couldn’t get him on that, so they set him up for sheep stealing.

But the plot went wrong. He died. The song was written as one of so many songs of loss and protest in those years of drought and depression.

There was another inspiration, too. Most histories of Federation are boring - layers and constitutional conventions. But our nation was born of passion and ideals - even if most of those ideals aren’t one a lot of us share today. For every speech Henry Parkes made perhaps 100 were given by the women of the suffrage and temperance movements, who, somehow, became the heroines of A Waltz for Matilda. (I thought the shearers were the heroes, but somehow they turned into almost comic footnotes.)

A Waltz for Matilda is also many true stories, put together to make another story, as with so many of my books. But mostly it’s a love story to a land.

Without the land - and its drought - there’d have been no federation. Drought caused the shearers strike that led to the union movement and the labour party. Drought led to the depression that meant the states needed to join together with tariffs, trade and protection. If this had been a different land - one without the droughts and flooding rains - we might still be a collection of independent colonies.

You have such a passion for Australian history – what sparked this love? When I look at the land I see its past, and a glimpse of its future too. I’ve always felt it impossible to be confined in a little box of the present.

Do you love the research side of your historical fiction, or do you see it as merely a necessity? The research is only ever done from love and obsession. Years later, perhaps, I’ll think of a theme, a character, a story line, and think ‘that’s when it would have happened.’

If I need to do much research for a book then I don’t know enough to set a book in that period - I wouldn’t know what I didn’t know, if that makes sense. You need to know a period well enough to know where the gaps in your knowledge are.

I’m lucky, though - for much of my life I’ve lived without electricity, growing my own food, using skills that much of the world has lost. Knowing exactly how you sweep a dirt floor, make cheese, soap, perfume, gunpowder, or how to start a fire is better than a shelf full of book research. Most of life - and stories - are made up of things like breakfast, or where you slept the night, or how you fastened your trousers.

You write in such a variety of fields – which do you feel most at home with? Fiction when there’s a drought or flood or life is hard; fact when life is peaceful.

Mostly though I find the question hard to answer. Like most authors I eat a wide range of foods; read a wide range of genres. Why not write in many genres too? Who wants to eat cherries every day, no matter how sweet they are?

What do you love most about producing books for children? Children’s laughter, or seeing a child’s face as the story overwhelms them. But also every experience for a child is a proportionately larger part of their life than for an adult. A book has far more power to change the way children see the world. So many experiences created for kids are exploitative or depressing. It’s an enormous privilege to be able to give joy, instead.

What is the hardest thing about writing books for children? Too many ideas, too many bright flickers that can’t become books. I told stories before I wrote books, and at heart am perhaps still a storyteller. A storyteller can tell a different tale every night.

What do you think makes a great picture book? Each page needs its own climax, as well as building to the peak of the story. A novel only has to build once, but every time a child turns the page of a picture book they need to find the unexpected.

Many writers speak of battles with confidence in their ability. Do you still struggle with this or has it become easier to overcome with time and so many published books? Every time I start a book I know it’s a failure. I am utterly convinced I will never write a good book again. Suddenly after three days the world on the page becomes real - and my husband now insists that I ‘just write for three days’ on a piece of paper on my desk. There is always that terror time, waiting for the editor to email back and say if the book has worked.

What drives you and makes you determined to succeed? I’m not, I think.

Success comes accidentally. Often writers are successful – appear on the bestseller list, win the odd award - without anyone except their readers noticing or yelling ‘hey they’re a success.’

I write for the love of doing it. I create stories for the joy of it. I tell them for the joy they bring, too. I do write for money - to pay the rates, keep the car on the road, and these days thank goodness even put some in superannuation. But if I wasn’t paid I’d still write, when I had time from making a living some other way.

I was interested to read that you are dyslexic. Do you have any advice for others on how to achieve dreams despite obstacles standing in your way? Be realistic, then leap for the sky. Symbolically only - you need to dream of the sky to reach it, but only focus and hard work down on earth will get your there. (It is so very easy to live in your daydreams, and forget the work.)

As for the realism - know what’s impossible, then look for something that is. I’d never make an accountant - figures wander all over the page. I dreamed of singing opera, but an hour of singing left me breathless. (I also have a heart defect.) But stories were my first love, and I still sing opera, but when only the wombats can hear.

Dreams plus realism; working hard at what you love - they’re pretty sure to get you somewhere good.

PS. Most humans love creating stories. (They’re called daydreams.) Amateurs fall in love with their book, and defend every word of it. Professional writers love working at their stories. The better the writer, the more they love editorial criticism - whatever works to make that book good.

Describe a typical writing day for you. When are you at your most creative?
6 am. Wake up.
7.am. Wake up again
7.30 am. Tell my self to get up. Now. (Hew as the one who woke me at 6am and 7 am)
7.31. Say good morning to shrike thrush singing out the window.
7.32. Say good morning to husband, now at the boiled egg and apricot jam of toast stage of breakfast.
7.35-9.30. Mooch about the bush, tracking wombats and other animals, sometimes picking fruit or planting tomatoes or hacking back the kiwi fruit vines that try to turn our place into Sleeping Beauty’s castle every summer.
9.30. Shower
9.45. Breakfast: home made muesli with a chopped banana.
10.00-11.00 or 12.00. Answer emails, catch up on yesterday’s work, jot down any scene that speared into my brain in the bush or garden before it evaporates.
11.00. Pick peaches for morning tea. Peach juice and sticky fingers on computer keys.
Sometime: Make soup for lunch. Eat and yarn to husband. Splash in the swimming hole if hot.
Usually about 2 pm: Finally get the day free to work on the latest book. I write best in the early morning, but rarely get a chance to these days. Have RSI breaks to fill a basket of apples or make a dozen pots of jam or feed any wombats learning how to go back to the bush. I try to break from the keyboard at least once an hour.
3 pm. Watch the lyrebirds attack the window. Order myself back to work.
3.30 pm. Pick dinner. Order myself firmly back to my desk.
4pm. Watch the wombats in winter out my study window; tell myself to go back to work. Now.
5- ?? Drag myself back from the 1800’s or wherever I’ve been for the past hours. Stop writing. Blink. Realise I should have put dinner on an hour ago…
7pm- 10pm. Answer letters while we watch a DVD. If my husband is away I’ll write late into the night.
11 pm. Tell the wombats to stop arguing under my bed.
2 am. Mutter at wombats. Go back to sleep.
3 am. Wonder if I can convince the possums to wear slippers instead of gumboots when they play sliding down the roof.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? I would always be a storyteller. I always have been. Only the medium would differ.

But sometimes, in ‘night dreams’ to put myself to sleep, I imagine I have been given a whole planet to plant out, to create new forests and landscapes.

I’d also love to be a sentientologist - someone who evaluates other species to see if they are intelligent, and what form their intelligence takes. But sadly I don’t think there are any jobs going yet for planet planter or sentientologist.

What books did you read as a child? Can you reveal your top 5 favourites?
I didn’t realise that some of my best loved books were for adults - they just happened to be on the shelf at home.

Karalta by Mary Grant Bruce
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Great Dialogues of Socrates
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (but I always skipped the pages about the mad woman)

What’s next for Jackie French? Just more, I hope. More books, more wombats, more laughter with friends, more cooking lasagne for my family, more mooching about the bush. Just more.