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

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Author/Publisher Interview: Jane Godwin

Jane Godwin is the Publisher of Books for Children and Young Adults at Penguin, as well as an author of many acclaimed novels and picture books. Jane joins us today to tell us how she came to hold two dream jobs.

You hold a much coveted day job – can you tell us how that came about? Well, I got my first job at Penguin way back in 1985 – eek! I was twenty one years old, had just graduated from university and had spent a few unhappy months working in the television industry. The position at Penguin was in the marketing department working with children’s books. After a year or so, Julie Watts (who was Publisher of Children’s Books at the time) asked me if I would be interested in a trainee editor’s position. I grabbed this opportunity and really that was beginning of my career as an editor, a publisher and a writer.

When did you start writing? About fifteen years ago. I was working as an editor, and we were interested in creating some non-fiction picture books for young children. Julie suggested I write one about Antarctica, which I did, although initially I was very reluctant. It took me three years to write! But Dreaming of Antarctica became my first book. We used some beautiful photographs in it and also illustrations by Terry Denton.

How did you make your start in writing books for children? Well, after the Antarctica book was published, Penguin was in the initial stages of developing the Aussie Bites series. I had always remembered a particular experience from my childhood as an event that might make a good story, so I wrote it down and it became one of the first Aussie Bites. It’s called Sebby, Stee, the Garbos and Me. From there the seed was sown and I’ve been writing ever since (when I manage to find the time!).

Did you always dream of being a writer, or a publisher, or both? No, not really. I was always fascinated in the world of the child, and I always loved reading, so it seems inevitable that I found myself working in the world of stories, language and children. But for many years I thought I would become a child psychologist or something like that.

What inspired you to write for children? I think there is something in me, maybe in all children’s writers, that is holding on to the emotions of childhood. Some people say that children’s writers have never grown up, but I don’t really see it like that! I do find children and their lives eternally interesting, and I think I find children’s lives more interesting than the lives of adults. I suppose in some way too I want to give children something, something to think about, to remember, hopefully sometimes even to treasure.

When I set out to write a story, I don’t necessarily think this is a story for this age child or that age child, I just tell the story and organically the characters seem to end up being young people and the ideas and struggles are those of young people. I still feel a strong connection to my own childhood – not so much to events but to the emotional life of the child in me, and to the children around me.

When I think about books I’ve read that I’ve never forgotten, most of them were books I read as a child. I think there is something very powerful about reading when you are young: it’s so formative, you haven’t quite decided what sort of person you are or you want to be, and whatever you are reading is helping you start to understand life’s big questions.

Have you experienced any blocks or obstacles in your path to writing books? Only time! I wish there was another Jane Godwin to whom I could farm out some work! I love my job as a publisher and I love being a writer but it is a constant challenge trying to find time to do both to the absolute best of my ability.

What does a typical day in your life involve?
5.30 – wake up, have breakfast, read paper, attempt cryptic crossword
6am to 7am – go for a walk
7.45 - drop my daughter at her work (she is going overseas in July and she’s working at a call centre near Penguin) and then get to the Penguin office.
8.10am to around 6.30pm – coffee, then meetings, working with my team on ideas and books in production, checking covers, proofs etc, sometimes seeing an author or illustrator to talk about what they are creating or planning to create next, giving feedback on manuscripts, maybe some more coffee, maybe another meeting with other departments like sales, production or marketing, then the day has gone!
7pm – get home, have dinner, say hello to my husband and 19 year old daughter (our 21 year old son lives on the other side of the city but we see him every week.)
8.30 – I always have manuscripts to read, so sometimes I take the top one from the pile. I also really try to write a couple of nights a week.
10.30 – usually fall asleep reading.
(Boy, that made me feel tired just typing up my typical day!)

As a publisher, what do you want to see in a manuscript submission? It’s hard to articulate, and there are no easy answers to this question, but I want to see something that is original (both in its ideas and in the way it uses language), has a kind of clarity and vision and honesty and, to risk sounding corny, is written from the heart. I don’t mean it has to be sentimental, but it has to feel as if the work and the ideas behind it really mean something to the writer.

As a publisher, what don’t you want to see in a manuscript submission? I don’t want the writer to send it in with balloons, chocolates, flowers or other gimmicks – the story should speak for itself. I also don’t want someone to ask me what I’m looking for, because I believe writers need to write about something that they are looking for or want to explore, not try to tailor their writing to market forces etc.

What is the best thing about writing books for children? When you feel that a child has absolutely engaged with something you have written, when you see the intensity and involvement in that child’s face as he/she is reading, or you receive a letter or email from a reader and you know that the work has affected them in some way, and you realise that writer and reader have made a connection. Also getting to spend time with lots of kids, working creatively or just talking about books and stories that have meant something to them. I also think that it’s a career that does no harm (well, it does use up paper but we try to be as green as we can be!). The bottom line is we are giving children ideas to ponder, to wonder about, to learn from, to be enchanted by. We are encouraging creativity and imaginative thought. That can never be a bad thing.

What is the hardest thing about writing books for children? I’m not sure about children’s book specifically – well, writing books for anyone is hard work! Sometimes I think it’s like tearing out your heart and soul and putting it on the ground and saying to an assembled crowd, ‘Look at that, you can trample on it if you like.’ You have to be prepared to accept criticism, you have to make yourself vulnerable, you have to be prepared for times when it’s a real struggle to think through the best way to tell a story, and you have to have some sort of belief that you can do it. Wow, that’s hard!

What else do you love to do, other than write books? Reading, walking in the natural world, spending time with friends and family, doing crosswords, playing games, cooking, trying to learn a language other than English, knitting and sewing things (but I never finish them).

What would be your perfect day?
Cup of tea and a good book in bed
Coffee and the crossword with my husband
A walk by the sea
Cooking a meal with family and friends
Eating and laughing and playing a card game like Five Hundred or a word game like Boggle or Scrabble with my kids (even though they are adults they still indulge me and will play games with me. I SO love that!).
Yes well that’s daggy but it makes me happy!

What books did you read as a child? Can you reveal your top 5 favourites?
Big Sister and Little Sister, by Charlotte Zolotow
Swimmy, by Leo Lionni
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth.EL Konigsberg
The Doll’s House, by Rumer Godden
Dibs, In Search of Self, by Virginia Axline (I read this when I was 14 and it had a profound effect on me)
Sorry, that’s six!

What’s next for Jane Godwin?
As a writer: I’m writing two more picture books that will be illustrated by the lovely Anna Walker (who did All Through the Year and Little Cat and the Big Red Bus), plus in the very early stages of a novel – but that’s where the time problem kicks in.

As a publisher: I’m embarking on a second lot of books in a new series I started publishing this year with my colleague Davina Bell called Our Australian Girl. The series has started with 16 books (no wonder I feel tired) featuring four characters from different eras in Australia’s history. The authors are Sofie Laguna, Alison Lloyd, Gabrielle Wang and Sherryl Clark.

We wanted the stories to be really exciting and not to ever feel like a history lesson, but more as if the reader is with a friend on an incredible adventure. We also wanted to have a series where girls could see that they could be admired for something other than their mobile phone, their clothes or celebrity status, but for other qualities like strength, kindness, bravery, resourcefulness and wisdom. That makes the books seem very worthy but they’re not – they’re just great stories about girls growing up during a different time. The tagline for the series is ‘A girl like me in a time gone by’ and that’s how girls seem to be seeing the stories - which is great. We are so thrilled with the reaction from readers, and also their parents and teachers. Everyone seems to be loving the books!

I have lots of other projects in various stages of production too, and then there is the whole digital side of publishing that we are learning by doing – scary and challenging but exciting, too.

See Jane Godwin's books over at the Penguin website