Jackie French is one of Australia's ( and we are sure elsewhere too) best loved and most awarded authors, winner of Children's Book Council of Australia awards, State awards, and 'most popular' awards voted by bookshops and children in Australia and overseas. Her work has been translated into twenty three languages.
Both Diary of a Wombat and Hilter's Daughter have sold over a million copies, with multiple awards in several countries. She lives in a remote Australian valley, with the wombats she writes about, as well as her husband and family.
Her books range from picture books like Queen Victoria's Underpants to teenage fiction like Nanberry :Black Brother White to 'crossover' books for adults and teenagers, like A Girl from Snowy River.
When I wrote to Jackie, I was not even sure of a response. But she was prompt and forthcoming. And once you read her answers here, you will know why she is such a loved author! Her words just reach out to you. Here are Jackie's cyrstal clear, honest views in her wonderful style of writing !
ST- Can you share with us a bit about your childhood and your introduction to books? Who were your favourite authors for kids, then and now?
JF- My childhood was about 50% boredom, 25% terror. The best bits were books, and roaming about the bush near our house.
We lived in a new suburban development, so the bush was always at out backs. School was extraordinarily boring until I reached High School- a selective school with some brilliant teachers who changed my life. My parents’ marriage was in trouble- it was a hard part of both their lives- and sadly those few bad years coincided with my adolescence.
I read anything I could find. There weren’t enough children’s books- I read through the local libaries within a year- so read any adult books I could find too. At seven my reading varied from Enid Blyton’s famous Five to Huxley’s Brave New World and Plato’s Great Dialogues of Socrates. I had a crush on Socrates. Still do, probably. Many of the books weren’t ‘suitable’ for a child, but I think I subconsciously censored those bits. It wasn’t till I read some of the books as an adult that I noticed them.
Perhaps I am still writing for that child back then, the one who wanted to be safe, and loved, and to learn about the world of ideas and the startling and often glorious ways that life can change.
When and what provoked you to take up writing? What inspires you?
I wrote my first book at 6, a trilogy at 13, at least one story a day. But I was told firmly ‘no dear, you can’t be a writer. No one in Australia can make a living as a writer.’ So I wrote secretly, until my first marriage disintegrated. I was broke, living in a shed with a baby, desperate for enough money to register my car. A friends suggested I publish some of my work. I sent a story to Angus and Robertson, an article about organic pest control to a magazine and a piece on living with lyrebirds in the bush to the Canberra Times newspaper. Within three weeks the story had been accepted, and I had regular columns in the magazine in newspaper.
The book was picked out of the slush pile by the editor as the worst spelled, messiest work they had ever seen- so bad she took it out into the main office for everyone to giggle at. The messiest wasn’t my fault- the wombat I lived with back then left his droppings on the typewriter keyboard, so the ‘e’ didn’t work- I had to fill the ‘e’s in with biro. But I still can’t spell. (I’m dyslexic.) Luckily spelling is optional for a writer these days- my spell checker or assistant can correct my work for me. (Mostly)
What inspires you?
Wombats, words, friends, family, the first light in the valley every morning, the way shadows turn purple at dusk, the debates of philosophers 2400 years ago, and the conversation with teenagers last Tuesday….
Ideas and themes grow over years and decades. Plots and characters brew. Usually they come together suddenly in a ‘ping!’ moment, and I can glimpse the book I’m going to write. After thatI take notes, usually on scraps of envelope that get lost, which doesn’t matter, as by then they have become part of the fabric of the book in my mind. Each book changes as I write it too, evolving right up to the day they are sent for printing.
On to your delightful Wombat series. And you have also done books that feature sheep, kangaroos, emus, koalas in key roles. Why and how did you arrive on this subjects?
The animals in my books are all real- and the stories mostly true. The wombat in Diary of a Wombat still lives under our house; there really was a dancing kangaroo, though she didn’t wear a tutu and her name wasn’t Josephine, and Pete the Sheep came from desperation two droughts ago.
I was a sheep farmer back then. But there as almost no water, and no grass. Our friends were desperate, too. Between us we had 4,000 sheep that needed new homes.
So we decided to give one to every school in Australia. Then we’d become shearers, and go around the country giving all the sheep fantastic haircuts.
Luckily it rained before we tried it. But twenty years later the idea came back to me- along with hilarious drawings from Bruce Whatley, who created sheep and dog hairstyles I could never have imagined.
There are different takes on exposing kids to anthropomorphic characters. What are your views?
Kids know the difference between a story and a lie. I’ve never met a child who really believes a wombat can write a diary, or a kangaroo dance in a tutu and ballet slippers. But we all (adults too) like to pretend.
The pretend world can be magic. But it can also inspire dream and laughter and a vision of what life might be like- just like I was inspired, comforted and given joy by books so many years ago.
How do you collaborate with illustrators to bring alive your books?
The idea for Diary of a Wombat arrived on my doorstep when I was on the phone to a friend. She could hear Mothball wombat in the background. ’Oh, that’s just Mothball chewing up the doormat,’ I said .’No, that’s her bashing up the garbage bin.’
By the end of the phone call I almost had the first draft of the book.
Two years later and 200 redrafts I sent it to Harper Collins. They commissioned different illustrators to do draft images for it, but none were right. Then they asked Bruce Whately.
I wanted the images to be like a real wombat. After all, the wombat in the book is a very real (and very smelly) wombat who still lives under our house. But it had to be Bruce’s book too.
Bruce once thanked me for ‘giving him room to play.’ When we do a book like Flood together, I do the text, but he may create a quite different book from the one I imagined with his artwork.
This happens with other artists too. I get an idea; work on it for a year or three; send it to Lisa Berryman at Harper Collins, and she puts forward a shortlist of possible artists. But once we agree on the artist, the book is as much theirs as mine, and they may take it in quite a new direction. When Sue de Gennarro produced the incredible artwork for The Tomorrow book, for example, using only recycled rubbish from her kitchen- old tea bags, envelopes, scraps of paper to make the most glorious images of what ‘tomorrow’ might be like- I had to pull back the words, cutting most of them out so that they didn’t distract from Sue’s superb images.
I think the best picture books are ones where the author and the artist tell different parts of the story. Bruce thanked me once for 'leaving him room to play.' Once you hand the book to the illustrator they need to be free to make it their own story too, and you need to leave it open enough for them to be able to do that. The words and the concept is yours, but all else - including taking the concept further- is theirs. Anything else is an illustrated short story, not a picture book.
What are your upcoming projects?
The last two years have felt as though I have finally begun to know how to write. The Girl from Snowy River comes out on December 1, a continuation of the outback Australian saga that began with A Waltz for Matilda. There’ll be three more in the series, spanning the history of Australia from 1890 to the present day, with six generations of extraordinary women. Diary of a Wombat celebrates it’s 10th anniversary in a few weeks, too, and Bruce Whatley and I have another wombat book for next year. We also have Queen Victoria’s Christmas coming out, a sequel to Queen Victoria’s Underpants, and Pete the Sheep: The musical will be produced by the wonderful Monkey Baa Theatre Company, who are touring Hitler’s daughter: the play in the USA and Canada next year.
You live in what sounds like a “one with nature” kind of home. Gardening is a passion and you write on that too. Tell us more about that and how it impacts your writing for kids.
I write about the world I live in. It’s a world of wombats trying to dig through the front door, kangaroos that dance around our kitchen, and fruit trees that feed us, our friends and all the animals.
Our orchard has been designed so that we share it with the birds and animals. Instead of shutting them out- o even killing them- we welcome them, and distract them with the sort of foods they’d rather eat than our apples, oranges and bananas. We grow about 272 different kinds of fruit, working out new ways to grow fruit without using much water, in our long droughts. Our house has solar panels for both electricity and hot water, as well as power from a home made water wheel and generator, though there is rarely enough water to use it.
I write looking out at the mountains, the avocadoes hanging on the tree, and a round brown wombat trudging past my study window with a smaller, rounder baby scampering at her heels.
It is beautiful, and the heart of all my books. It is home.
Any anecdotes you wish to share from your almost two decade long career writing for children?
There are too many moments shining like small suns through the years. The call from the publisher to say they had accepted my first book. A bolt of lightning hit me- a real one, through the phone line, from the thunder storm outside. I screamed as it flung me across the room. The publisher as puzzled at the shriek of anguish- after all, she’d called with good news.
So many memories- the wonder on my son’s face as a tiny boy, telling him a story, or the class at school silent in the hot Brisbane classroom, flies buzzing at the windows- I was allowed to spend the last 20 minutes of each day tell the class a story, if we had all behaved well.
Mothball the wombat reading Diary of a Wombat over my shoulder- or at least she seemed to be looking at the pictures. She didn’t even bite me- or the book.
Sending off my last book, after four major rewrites and thinking ‘ yes, I’ve finally captured what I need to say.’
The joy of knowing that there are still so many stories to come, that incomparable match of losing yourself in another world while at the same time being totally focused on finding the perfect word, the right technique.
Watching giant black python spear across the garden yesterday and thinking: yes, that will go in a book, too. My husband’s smile when I come back from a conference. The little girl yesterday who emailed hoping ‘you never stop writing till your hands fall off.’
I never thought of writing as ‘work’ when I was a kid. It is. But the magic hasn’t faded since I wrote that first story, as a six year old.
For more on and from Jackie go here. Her books are available online- Booktopia will ship anywhere in the world. And many are available as ebooks too.