‘Hollowpox – the hunt for Morrigan Crow' by Jessica Townsend. I love these kinds of books with magical realism and this series is simply fabulous.
What do you love about reading to children?
Their excitement, their reactions and how they will always expand upon the story in their own way – it’s priceless!
What was your favourite book when you were little?
I don’t recall having many books as a child, I can’t remember any to be honest. My most memorable books would be a very thick copy of A. A. Milne’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ when I was 7 years old which I bought from the school book club, and the complete series of ‘The Black Stallion’ by Walter Farley.
When you’re working do you listen to music? Eat? Have a pet on your lap?
I generally have music playing and always two border collies at my feet.
Can you tell us a story about you researching for your story?
I love the research part of stories – talking to people, learning new things, finding inspiration when you least expect it. For ‘Lucy and Copper’ I spent a day with a little girl named Chiara and her pony Smudge. It gave me insights into their relationship, all the quirks that can’t be told in words. These inspired a lot of the images.
You see books as very important – I can tell that from your website. What would you say to parents just starting out - introducing stories and story time to their new baby?
Picture books open up a child’s world. They are never too young to start looking at books – they are the window to literacy. It’s how babies learn to associate the image of a cow with the word ‘cow’. Literacy today is about so much more than words and books are where it begins. The earlier a parent can start reading to their little ones the better. It not only builds their connection but also a child’s curiosity, imagination, knowledge, and confidence to explore everything the world has to offer.
When you are working, do you think back or check-in on when you were little?
No, but I do check back in on when my son was little and the different stages he went through growing up, and I ask his opinion a lot. Details for instance – children love details and it’s like they have a radar for homing in on things. I always make mock-ups when I start working on a new book, once the drawings are complete. With ‘Joey and Riley’ I had drawn cardboard rocket wings on the go-kart. This go-kart appears in two places – once on the farm and once after Joey has moved to the town. I had left them off the image from the town scene and my son picked it up when I read him the mock-up book. So of course, I had to put them in because I just knew then that another child somewhere would also pick that up. These are the little things that adults miss.
Do you ever make mistakes and have to start again? Do you do drafts?
Mistakes are basically learning opportunities, but deadlines don’t allow for too many of these! With every book I do I complete storyboards, character studies and complete drawings before commencing the finished painted artwork. With each stage I work very closely with my editor/publisher so any little changes can be made as it progresses. This avoids major changes at the painting stage.
Can you tell us one of the best things that has happened since you started your work with children’s books?
Being able to do author visits in schools and see children’s responses to my books first hand. To see how much children connect with my characters and stories, feel their enthusiasm and excitement, and know that what I do inspires a child’s own creativity. I recall a few years ago, I had two days at one particular school, speaking to every class. On the second day a teacher made a beeline for me and thanked me profusely. There was one student in a class on the first day who they had struggled for a very long time to communicate and connect with. After my session he started drawing and talking about what he was drawing – it unlocked a door that that teacher and others, hadn’t been able to get past. If I have to speak to 10,000 children to reach that one, it is so worth it. It is worth all the long days and late nights.
What is the best thing you have heard from a young reader?
Children come out with the funniest things sometimes like, ‘are you rich? Because I want a job that makes me lots of money’, ‘I can draw Valiants really well’, ‘can you draw a poo on the end of the elephant’s tail’, and ‘have you met Andy Griffiths?’ but honestly, the best thing is when they tell me they never want to put my book down – that’s heart melting stuff.
What’ya reading, Bren?
I'm reading The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne, which starts in post war Ireland and goes the whole lifetime of a young man from pre-birth to death. It's one of those novels where you don't really understand what you're reading when you set off but you understand that it's heartachingly honest and full of flawed people, and you slowly fall in love with many elements of it during the journey and when you finish, you feel like the character is an old friend and you just left his house for the last time.
What do you enjoy snacking on when you write?
Sesame curry peanuts. I'm addicted to them.
What risk have you taken with your writing that has paid off?
I took on environmental themes which are sometimes seen as scary for children, and I took on the challenge of telling these stories in unusual future voices. My stories are set in a very different future and I wanted them to feel like another time with a different kind of voice. The risk is that many readers have set ideas about what is appropriate for children, and how stories should be written.
Why did you choose to become an author?
It's a form of creativity that's always interested me, and I've tried other forms of creativity but always come back to writing. I just love to create stories. As a farm kid, having people sitting around telling stories after a long day of shearing etc. was one of my favourite things.
Is there a book by another author you would recommend everyone should read?
I really loved This is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield. I just love how she's captured the hopelessness of growing up in poverty, of having poor parenting, of how all encompassing poverty traps are. It's heartbreaking. I loved that novel.
In Dog Runner, did you envisage the Ella in a specific part of Australia, and if so, can I ask where?
I feel like it's somewhere between Shepparton and Wangaratta. Dookie, maybe. Shepparton is famous for canned fruit.
Were there any real-life dogs which you used for inspiration for the dogs in Dog Runner?
I went to a forest in Logan to see The Sled Dog Racing Queensland people practising running their dogs through forest trails, so that was wonderful. There was also a twitter account I followed where a girl had four malamutes, a brown, a grey, a black and a much larger one who was tall like an Alsation. So I kind of modelled the family dogs on three of her dogs. I've grown up with dogs and so I found it easy to write in the dogs.
What indigenous foods have you eaten and enjoyed which might surprise people?
Yams! I love all yams and sweet potatoes, give them all to me!
You’ve had considerable success writing about environmental themes. Was there a time, place or event that led you down this path, and do you think you will always weave these themes into whatever stories you write?
When I started out there weren't many environmental-based stories around but suddenly they're everywhere... so I think society decided it was important and that's where the success in these themes came from. I just write what I think is interesting, what I want to explore and what is on my mind. I like to focus on the future, on where we're going, like most people who write science fiction do, so I think I'll always be thinking about what comes next. Maybe it came from a childhood under the threat of the cold war and always being worried about the future. I see that same kind of worry in today's children about the environment and the need to explore what a changed future might look like.
Could you give your readers a sneaky hint at what your next book will be about?
I've teamed up with Zana Fraillon. We're each writing a character born 100 years apart. We're bringing you a novel set in a post-pandemic, post-city world, one where surviving humans have learned their lesson. But it turns out history truly won't stay buried.
Sean Williams is an established Australian author with a range of works ranging from young adult fiction to TV scripts. The What'ya Reading? crew caught up with Sean to find out more about him.
What’ya reading, Sean?
I’m reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and loving it. Why? Well, it’s a classic, for starters, and books don’t become classics by accident; it’s been on my to-read list for longer than I can remember. A lot of my students have studied it, so I thought I’d better catch up with them.
I’ve actually been on a bit of a retro bender for a while now, juggling modern books with Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, and so on. I think it’s important to go backwards sometimes in order to go forwards (picture a car that’s stuck in the mud). I’m also writing a book set in that kind of period, so it totally counts as research (the fun kind).
What was your favourite book as a young reader?
I have three books I loved as a young reader and which I still return to every now and again. They’re for slightly different ages and probably chart my maturation as a reader. A Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner is a book that starts off totally kid-friendly but goes into some very, very dark places along the way. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is the same: it looks like a book for younger readers, but it’s so grim and wonderful, full of magic and incredibly adult darkness. The third book is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, a story that really crosses the bridge from childhood to adulthood. Take the depth of mythology and dragons from Tolkien (minus the sword-waving) and add a school for magic, and you get one of the most moving tales about growing into power ever written.
These three books, for me, really defined what fantasy could do, and shepherded me unknowingly into writing stories of my own.
Do you like listening to music as you write? If so, what do you listen to?
I love listening to music as I write! Always and forever. But I can’t listen to music with lyrics or anything too boomy or I get distracted. My quest for the right kind of music to write to has been long and has morphed into writing my own. I have several albums now, under the name “theadelaidean”. You can find a playlist on Spotify if you’re curious. Think long, slow drones and very little in the way of melody. It’s also great to sleep to (but not while you’re working, of course).
What risks have you taken as an author that paid off?
Oh, there are so many. Writing short stories. Writing a novel with someone else. Writing poetry. Writing a novel in the Star Wars universe. Writing about something that really upset me. Writing romance. The list goes on.
Probably the biggest risk I took was to decide I was going to try writing in the first place. That was a huge leap, one I can’t now believe I had the courage to make!
Why do you think books are still as important as ever?
Books are important because they deliver stories. That probably sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but I do think it’s important to distinguish the two. Stories are universal: every culture has them; humans have always had them, even if they’ve changed shape and size, depending on what’s popular at the time (think of the difference between a haiku and an epic fantasy series). Stories are a way of passing down knowledge and understanding from person to person and down the generations.
The means of transmitting them, on the other hand, are always changing. Once upon a time, stories were spoken aloud. Then came writing, printing and then all the modern technologies we have today, like e-books and (full circle) audiobooks. All these technologies are at heart delivery systems for story, which is what really matters.
So stories will always be important, whether books are superseded by something or not. TV shows, movies and games are all candidates.
What inspired you to write about the experience of having a disability?
I’ve been interested in deafness and Deaf culture for almost twenty years, but not from any personal experience with hearing loss. I originally started researching with the thought of writing a big, fat, post-apocalyptic thriller where everyone loses their hearing. The more I dug into it, though, the more it seemed exploitative, and the more interested I became in just one of the characters: a young guitarist who struggles to maintain his relationship with music when he can’t experience sound. Eventually, I ditched the whole end-of-the-world scenario and decided to write about him and only him.
It wasn’t until later that I realised what it was that drew me so powerfully to this project. I suffer from chronic pain, and for a while there it looked as though I might have to give up writing, which was a deeply depressing scenario. So there I was, a writer facing the prospect of being unable to write . . . thinking about a musician who can’t hear . . . and when you factor in that writing music is my other creative pastime . . . well, it’s really a no-brainer how I ended up there.
My experience of disability is different to that of the protagonists of Impossible Music, but the novel comes from the same deep emotional well.
What are your thoughts on diversity becoming the 'norm’ in literature?
I am one thousand percent for it. Reading broadens the mind--so only reading about people just like me defeats the purpose. It’s also good for writers to stretch their creative muscles, along with their research abilities too. The saying “Write what you know” is often used as a reason not to write outside your own “type”, but I think that’s a cop-out. What does it mean to “know” something? It might mean you’ve lived it; it might also mean you’ve researched it exhaustively until you feel confident that you’re accurately representing a true facet of it.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is a very important part of becoming a good writer, and this is one way that can be achieved.
What are your favourite diverse books?
Oh, there are so many. Around the time I was reading A Wizard of Earthsea (a book full of dark-skinned islanders, btw) I tried to read Alex Haley’s Roots and got about halfway through before it overwhelmed me (I was eight years old). Even so, it had a huge impact on my developing mind, exposing me to African American histories and cultures I had never really heard of before. A favourite from later in life was Bob Shaw’s Night Walk, a sci-fi novel about a man who loses his sight. When I was researching Deafness for Impossible Music, I particularly loved Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen and Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World by Michael Chorost. YA novel Future Girl by Asphyxia is a recent favourite.
What was your mindset about how to approach the issue of ‘own voice’ when you started Impossible Music, and what did you learn about that by the time you'd finished and put it out to the world?
At every stage, I’ve approached the process respectfully and with great care--because that’s how I’d want someone to treat my story, if our positions were reversed. There are societies like Deaf Can Do and Sign Language Australia who are, in my experience, good places to start, very open to answering the questions of and providing resources to people wanting to know more. They also run Auslan classes, which I recommend for more than just research: it’s an astonishingly rich and subtle language that works very differently from those of the Hearing world. At every stage in my research, I had to accept when I was getting things wrong and work hard to correct those errors. When talking to people who are living the experience, their world always trumps mine. If any errors remain in the book, on the other hand, they are mine, not the people who were so generous with their time and insight.
The bottom line is that I had to get out there and engage with the people in the community I wanted to represent--which was hard for someone as shy as I am, but totally worth it.
What advice would you have for any writer planning a story of diversity which does not come from their own voice?
Don’t be afraid to give it a try but do so with an open mind. Be prepared for surprises and challenges that come from inside you as well as outside. That frustration you’re feeling when you’re trying to understand from outside your own experience? That’s nothing compared to the frustration coming the other way. Be humble, and kind, and patient. And please do accept if a story is off-limits. Sometimes, walking away shows the ultimate respect of all.