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

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Author Interview - Gabrielle Wang

KBR is thrilled to welcome literary talent Gabrielle Wang in this glorious and insightful interview. Enjoy.

Tell us a little bit about you.
I was born in Melbourne of Chinese parents and am fourth generation Chinese Australian on my mother’s side. My father came from Shanghai and my mother was born in Melbourne, her grandfather having come to Australia during the Victorian Gold Rush in the 1850s.

When I was at school, I wanted to be an artist. At that stage I didn’t know I could write. In fact I failed Year 12 and had to repeat it in order to get into Graphic Design at RMIT. I was a hopeless writer and had no aspirations in that field. All I ever wanted was to be an artist when I grew up.

After graduating, I worked as a freelance graphic designer for a number of years then decided to go search of my ‘roots’. I couldn’t speak Chinese when I was young and knew very little about Chinese culture apart from the food. So it was quite a journey searching for the Chinese side of me.

I began a part time Arts degree at Melbourne University majoring in Chinese but moved to Taiwan before I completed it. I lived in Taiwan studying Chinese painting and learning the language for six years then spent two years in Hangzhou China, at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Art.

In 2000, I took the subject Writing for Children at Holmesglen Tafe. That is where I discovered that I could write. Before that I wanted to illustrate picture books. My first book, The Garden of Empress Cassia was written while studying at Holmesglen.

I now live in Melbourne and have two children and a cockatiel called Cookie. I recently lost my writing buddy, my beautiful dog Saffy. She would have been 15 years old in December.

What genre do you write in?
I love writing in the magic realism genre. This is where the story is set in the real world but crosses over into other dimensions.

You are also an illustrator – which did you prefer as a child, writing or illustrating?
As I mentioned before, I had no idea I could write until 11 years ago. I enjoy writing now because I find it comes more easily.

Which comes first? The story or the artwork?
Before it used to be the artwork. Now it’s the story.

Which mediums do you like to illustrate in?
Pencil and water colours and Chinese black ink.

Did you always have a fascination with writing books for young people?
For many years I wanted to illustrate a children’s picture book, but now that I write novels. I especially enjoy writing for younger readers from 8-12 year olds. Their minds are still free to travel to amazing places with me.

How important is it to infuse your Chinese heritage into your work?
I don’t choose to write about my Chinese heritage; it just comes out by itself.

Why is it so important to expose children to other cultures, as you do so well in your books?
When you read a novel, you become that main character. You can become a Chinese or an Aboriginal or Palestinian child. You can feel as they feel, cry their tears, live their thoughts, their dreams. This is the treasure to be found in books of fiction, especially those for young people. By reading a book where the main character is of a different race and colour, one can learn tolerance and empathy.

What are the greatest obstacles you have experienced on your writing journey?
The beginning few years was hard when I was sending manuscripts out and getting back so many rejections. I had nine rejections for The Garden of Empress Cassia before it was finally accepted by Penguin.

I think that is a very difficult period for all unpublished authors. You are always wondering if you are wasting your time. But if the passion is there, what else can you do? It’s a matter of being persistent and having faith in yourself. My advice to aspiring writers is to write as much as you can and before you send work out to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. Revision, revision, revision is the key.

What is the hardest thing about writing books for children?
Trying to make a living. But in Australia that applies to most authors, not just those who write for children. We just don’t have the population here.

What is the best thing about writing books for children?
There are so many ‘best’ things it’s hard to pick just one, so I won’t. I love letting my imagination soar. I love visiting schools and talking to kids about my books and writing. I love working from home and having the excuse, because I’m a kids’ writer, of being able to act like a kid most of the time. I love living in my made-up worlds.

Which of your books is your favourite and why?
This is the most common question I get asked when I visit schools and the most difficult. Each book is like a child - so much work and love and dedication has gone into it. Having said that, if I’m forced to choose it would have to be The Garden of Empress Cassia because that was my first publication. And Little Paradise because it is based on my mother’s amazing love story.

Your latest Our Australian Girl book – no. 3 in the series, Poppy and the Thief - is out now. Tell us about the joys of writing such an historical tale? Was Poppy based on anyone?
It was very exciting including my great grandfather in this novel. I never met him, of course, because he came to Australia from Canton, China during the 1850’s, but I imagined him. I’m sure his personality wasn’t as I portrayed, but he did go out with teams of bullocks to clear the land in Victoria and New South Wales so he must have been a very strong and brave man.

Also, as in the story, he called for a bride from China. I wanted to pay tribute to my great grandmother by writing about her. She must have been very courageous to come to a strange land where she couldn’t speak the language and to marry a man who was old enough to be her father.

Have you always enjoyed writing history?
Not really because I love to use my imagination and with historical fiction you have lots of restraints. But I’ve been writing historical fiction now for the past four years with the Poppy series and before that with Little Paradise, so it is growing on me. And I have learnt so much along the way.

Which books did you read as a child?
I loved Enid Blyton, especially the Magic Faraway Tree and the series Famous Five and Secret Seven. Also Milly Molly Mandy books. I liked CS Lewis and Georgette Heyer. I also liked books with illustrations and would spend hours copying them.

If you couldn’t be a writer/illustrator, what would you be? An archaeologist, a zoo keeper, an animal behavourist. I have a passion and a respect for all animals. And I love digging up old things.

What would encompass your perfect day? Morning and early afternoon of writing where quality words are flowing, then taking my dog for a walk, then coffee with a friend and coming home to a dinner cooked by someone else. Ahh… perfection.

Tell us 10 things about Gabrielle Wang our readers may not know.
I wanted to be a movie director when I was a teenager
I love cocker spaniels
I am always the shortest adult at any gathering
I drink lots of tea
I don’t like chocolate
I am a very slow reader and have to say every word in my head
My favourite food is soup noodles
I don’t listen to or read or watch the news
I love hot weather
I’m learning Italian

What else do you love to do, other than write books?
Illustrate, tai chi, horse riding, cooking.

What words best sum you up?
Sensitive (a little over sensitive, I think),
Bossy (my son added this one in so it doesn’t count)

What’s next for Gabrielle Wang?
I’m working on a short story for a Penguin anthology called 13 Ghosts, and filling the well for a new novel called The Wish Bird. I haven’t started it yet but this is a very important time in the making of a story. I have the final book in the Our Australian Girl series coming out in September called Poppy Comes Home as well as the US edition of The Garden of Empress Cassia. It’s been a very busy year.

See more on Gabrielle at www.gabriellewang.com