Alan Sunderland: Children’s author and TV journalist

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image-alansunderland200Alan Sunderland is a television journalist and a children's author.

He has written three books about a rat called Inspector Octavius O'Malley. His third book in the series has just been released called Octavius O'Malley and the Mystery of the Criminal Cats.

Alan has also written Refugee – The Diary of Ali Ismail which was part of the “My Australian Story” series published by Scholastic Books in June 2006. He has also written Cosmo Cooper and the Lemons of Lockbarrel in 2002 and Toy Wars in 1999.

Alan's job as a television journalist for SBS and the ABC has taken him all over Australia and overseas. He is still working in journalism, but now he likes to write children's books as well as news and current affairs stories.

Alan lives in Sydney with his wife and three boys.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.01

Octavius O'Malley and the Mystery of the Criminal Cats

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Alan.

Alan:
It's a pleasure.

Valerie:
Now, you've worked as a television journalist for many years. Have you always wanted to write books during that time?

Alan:
Well I've always had the theory that everybody who's a journalist, or at least a vast majority of us, have secretly harbored ambitions to write books at one stage or another.

When you think about journalists, generally, and I'm certainly no exception, the thing that attracted me to journalism in the first place was the idea that I could write for a living; write stories for a living. And it was kind of accidentally my case that I found myself wandering into television and radio rather than print.

But most of the people I've worked with over probably way too many years in the business have, at one time or another, toyed with the idea of writing a book. So I guess it was always bubbling along there in the background because if you're drawn into journalism, you're drawn to writing.

Valerie:
Although journalism is quite different to writing books for children. So what – what drew you to writing books for children?

Alan:
Yeah. It is a definitely a bit of a departure there; you've spotted that well. It is a bit different. Look the simple answer I give is that I had kids of my own, a not uncommon phenomenon that draws people to writing for kids.

I've got three sons who are now frighteningly old but – but when they were born you start reading to them, you start telling them stories and making up stories. You start reading children's books and I would guarantee there isn't a person out there who hasn't read certain children's books and thought, “Gee, I could do better than that.”

Of course, it's another thing to do it so it was certainly having kids of my own that opened up that as a possibility because they were my instant, sudden audience, if you like.

Valerie:
And how did you make that transition? Like did you just start writing or what happened?

Alan:
Yeah. Well, look, it's a funny thing. I mean, there isn't one thing. Journalism is definitely very, very different to writing fiction and particularly writing fiction for kids. But one thing that a career in journalism does teach you is not be scared of the blank page.

You kind of thought as a journalist, particularly doing daily reporting, just sit around pondering what the killer opening line is going to be or whether you thought through where this thing is heading. Your life is ruled by deadlines so you've just got to get in there and you've got to start writing.

So I was lucky, in a sense, that I had that tradition drummed into me; deadline's approaching – get the thing started and knock it into shape. And so I went through a stage in my career, probably about a decade ago where for the first time, I stopped being a daily reporter and I went into management.

So I had a bit of time on my hands where I wasn't writing stuff of my own. I had young kids that I'd been telling stories to and making them up and – and my wife, my partner Julie, just badgered me and badgered me to say, “Look, you've always talked about writing a story. Why don't you actually sit down and do it?” And it was – honestly, as simple as that.

Valerie:
Right. And was it easy to get into it or did it take a while?

Alan:
I found the first story really easy and I guess, to be fair because I'm still a full-time journalist and manager of other journalists, so I wouldn't have written – I think I've written six children's books now over the last few years – and I wouldn't have written them if they weren't enjoyable.

I mean, if it was hard work for me, if it was something I really had to force myself to do, I just don't think I'd be able to spare the time. So even right from that first book, I was very lucky in that I had some ideas. I think I probably broke every rule in a writer's book. I didn't plan it out carefully. I just thought, “I'm going to start this and I'm going to see where it heads.”

And so I found the story really a pleasure to write and then of course comes the inevitable problem of having finished it and put a full stop at the end; what do you do then?

Valerie:
Yes. So what did you do then? Did you take it to a publisher, an agent?

Alan:
I was again, looking back on it I can't quite believe how fortunate I was. I had no contacts despite having a career in daily journalism. I had no contacts at all in the publishing industry so I literally – it never occurred to me to get an agent. I went on the website. Thank goodness for the worldwide web.

And I tracked down a few publishers that were publishing children's books and I found a few that I thought would prepare to look at unsolicited manuscripts and as every aspiring writer out there would know, they are few and far between. And I just sent it off cold.

And I put one of those ingratiating cover letters on, telling them what a wonderful person I was and how I was a journalist, hoping something to make it stand out from the pile. And I did that to two or three different publishers and I was very, very lucky that there was a lovely bloke who used to be the children's book editor at Scholastic, by the name of Alf Mappin, many years ago who just had a look at it.

It caught his fancy and he put it to one side and it was probably six or eight months before he was in a position to publish it but I contacted him and he said, “Look, I like it but I've just got no space for it,” and it sat on the bench for a few months and then an opportunity came up. And looking back on it, I can't believe how lucky I was. They signed me up to a contract to write a second book and off I went.

Valerie:
Great. Now your character, Inspector Octavius O'Malley

Alan:
That's the one.

Valerie:
Is a rat. How did you come up with the idea of a detective rat?

Alan:
I'd written a couple of books and my Octavius O'Malley book was about the third one I wrote and I'd parted company with Scholastic, my first publisher, and I had after two books finally decided to get myself an agent, which was, in retrospect, a very, very good idea. And I just thought, “Look, I want to write something that's fun and interesting.” I've always had a soft spot for thrillers and I needed a character and I just think with a rat you can't go wrong there.

They're interesting, they're smart, they're sneaky but what I loved about writing about a main character who is a rat is that his starting point in life is that nobody likes him. His starting point is that people are suspicious of rats, they think they're dirty, they think they're nasty and they're a pest, really. And I liked the idea of having a character that you could make as endearing and lovable as possible but who is carrying around this burden through life that everybody distrusted and disliked him.

Valerie:
And another one of your books, Refugee, is very different to the Octavius O'Malley books. It's about Ali Ismail and his story about leaving the Taliban and becoming a refugee for 15 months in Woomera Detention Centre in South Australia. How did you get to know Ali and learn about his story?

Alan:
Well, Ali is – I'm sorry to have to tell you, a completely fictional character but look, it was an interesting scene. That book was one of the “My Australian Stories” that Scholastic put out and I went back and did that project for them. And I think they were interested in me doing it; it was the only book I've ever written that I was commissioned to write. I've got to tell you it was very scary because you take the money and you haven't written a word? You've got to deliver. But as a reporter, I've worked for the ABC and I've worked for SBS and inevitably, that means I've covered a lot of issues, a lot of stories to do with the refugee policy and the detention centres.

And although I said to you that Ali Ismail is fictional, he is a composite of many, many people who went through very similar circumstances. So it was a really interesting process for me. I knew a lot of the stories. I knew what had happened. I knew what the policy had been like.

I took some time to read, there's been some wonderful reports written with first person testimony from a lot of young people, young Afghani boys and others who've been in those situations of unaccompanied refugees. So I read up as much as I could. I got all of the information. I went over to Woomera, spent a week wandering around the detention camp there, met a number of the staff and people – priests and others who'd worked there and I also then went to a school in Adelaide where a lot of the refugee boys had been taken out of detention and sent to school.

And that was good and that gave me an opportunity to hear those first-hand stories so although Ali was very fictional, I followed very closely – because it's such a contentious and controversial area so I followed very closely the lifestyle of people who had been through that.

And then, again, I was lucky when I'd finished it that I sent it off to one of the teachers at the school in Adelaide, who then showed it to a couple of refugee boys who'd been in very, very similar circumstances to my character and I was lucky that they read it and gave me some feedback on it, which made me comfortable because it's difficult to inhabit such a completely different skin, if you like, and you hope that you can make it resonate and make it realistic.

Valerie:
So did that require considerably much more research than your other books?

Alan:
Well, given that my other books require zero research.

Valerie:
Yes.

Alan:
If in doubt about a detail, you just make it up and I've got to say as a journalist – I love that so much – if I want the sky to be green, then the sky is green.

Valerie:
Right.

Alan:
Yes, Refugee required a lot of research because the format of those – of those My Australian stories, which are very interesting, is that it's 12 months in the life of a young person and they keep a diary.

And so I had my character in the very recent history, only a few years ago, and he was in Woomera; he was coming out of detention. So I had to develop a whole lot of timelines. I had to not only know what was happening in Woomera at the detention centre when the bio riot was, when the breakout was.

I then had my character come to Adelaide and get involved in a school there, which meant he was exposed to Aussie Rules football. So I then had to know who was playing who the week in my diary that he was in town. Was there a game on that week? All sorts of – what was the weather like?

So you had to have these parallel narratives which took a lot of research but, of course, once I'd established that, the writing of the story then became quite interesting because I knew where it was going. It was anchored to reality and I was then just bringing it to life as best I could.

Valerie:
So it's obviously very different to the other books. Do you have a preference?

Alan:
Look, I found both of them really interesting. I've got to say if I had time on my hands and wasn't working full-time, I think I could spread myself over a lot more ambitious projects, like a commission piece, Ali Ismail, would be a wonderful thing and I'd love to do some more of it but it is time-consuming. You've got to set aside a fair amount of time and effort to do it properly.

So for sheer enjoyment and for sheer pleasure, the kind of Octavius O'Malley adventures and others that I write where I can simply enter into a complete fantasy world and just make as many bad jokes as I can think of, is great fun and I'll happily do that until the cows come home.

Valerie:
And is the plan to continue in full-time journalism whilst writing on the side or is there any plan to actually write full-time?

Alan:
Well, this is the well-trodden path that every would-be author heads down. I love my work. I've been a journalist for nearly 30 years and so it's more than just a job; it defines me as a person.

But that's not to say that I wouldn't love the opportunity at some stage in the future to concentrate fully on writing fiction. It is enormously enjoyable and the only real barrier between that is there's more a matter of paying one's mortgage?

Valerie:
Yes.

Alan:
So you're forever struggling with, I've just finished my Octavius O'Malley books – a three book series with HarperCollins; I've just finished those. They've been enormously enjoyable. Now, if they suddenly sold worldwide rights for a couple of million dollars, well maybe I'd think of full-time writing but I'm a realist.

And so in a sense, the juggling act, if you can manage it, is good too because I suspect that although we all dream of being full-time writers, if I found myself locked in a small room eight hours a day with no one but my own imagination for company, I'd probably go a bit nuts after a while.

Valerie:
Yes, I think so.

Alan:
So journalism throws you right into the heart of the most interesting things happening in your community and that's an enormous source of pleasure and stimulation.

Valerie:
You said that one of the best decisions you made was to get an agent. Tell us why that was so useful.

Alan:
Well, in the case of my wonderful agent, Debbie Golvan, I can be very specific because I'd written my first two books and they'd gone okay and I'd written a third book, which turned out to be my first ever Octavius O'Malley book, my magnum opus, and I'd sent that off to the publisher who published my last two and they came back saying, “Look, we love it. It's a great book but it's too close to other books that we're doing. It's a bit too similar; we don't really have space for it.”

Now, like all good authors, I just took that as a monumental, personal rejection of me. But anyway, I thought to myself, “Well, what do I do?” I was at that crucial juncture. I've had my third book; I thought it was good and I didn't know what to do with it. And I'd had one relationship with one publisher and so it set in my drawer for a while and then I did exactly the same thing with agents as I did with publishers.

I just went through the phone book, I asked around, I spoke to people, I got the names of three or four agents that look like they kind of did children's fiction a bit along – as well as other things and sent it off. And I was really, really lucky that Debbie Golvan down in Melbourne had a read of it, enjoyed it, said, “Look, Al. I've got good contacts.”

And that's the key with agents. She knew who would be interested in it, why they'd be interested and where to place it. And of course, it helped that I had a couple of books published by them so off it went to HarperCollins and lo and behold, totally unexpectedly, they turned around and said, “A, we like it and B, we actually would like a three-book series. And can you tell us the names of all three books? Now, there's a slot for our catalog.” The only problem was that I only ever thought of one.

Valerie:
Right.

Alan:
So I played catch-up for a couple of years. But it was really encouraging and so from my experience, it really was useful to me to have somebody who knew the industry, who liked what I was writing and could give me some suggestions and advice on where to put things and why.

Valerie:
And sometimes that makes all the difference in that you were proactive about it because a lot of people can leave their manuscript in the bottom drawer and complain it doesn't get published, but that's because they haven't sent it to anyone.

Alan:
Well that's right and as I say – don't get me wrong – I can be as easily discouraged as the next man and it would have been enormously easy for me to just give up after the first couple and I have that awful tendency that many writers have that if somebody – and if you send your book out and somebody send it back saying, very politely, “Thank you very much but it doesn't quite suit us,” it's so easy to say, “Oh. It must be awful. Who am I kidding? I'll throw it away. What was I ever thinking that I could ever be a writer?”

And it took me a while. I was very lucky because I do get discouraged easily but it took me a while to realise that there are 100 reasons why people say no to publishing books and probably only one of those 100 is because the book's no good. 99 of them are wrong time, wrong place, not sure and so persistence can be soul-destroying. Persistence can really depress you when you get knocked back off after knock back but I have to say that it – it really does pay of.

If you've got a sense – if you get good feedback from people who lead you to believe that the book is good, then it can succeed in the most unlikely places, provided you just keep plugging away.

Valerie:
That's exactly right. So your first book, Toy Wars, is about monsters attacking Planet X. As this is your first book did this idea just pop out or was it something that was brewing in your head or?

Alan:
It certainly didn't spend 30 years gestating in my brain, I have to say. Look, if you've got two young kids under five and they're in bunk beds in a messy room, then you do spend a lot of your time thinking about huge, great piles of toys having battled with each other because that seems to be their life.

And so I quite unashamedly stole it from my two sons who are both now teenagers and will probably hit me for a share of the royalty once they hear this. But – so that was a really – that grew directly out of just life. Life as a young parent, life with kids racing around so I had – I had a chess set and a – and a bunch of monsters doing battle with each other and it was as simple as that.

I thought to myself, “Well, here's a bunch of chess players that just play absolutely by the rules. They're really good but provided they just take – follow the rules exactly and here's a little bunch of plastic monsters who can do any – if they – if my boys want them fly, they'll fly. If they want them to kill, they'll kill” And so I thought, “What happens when these two cultures clash?”

And it was as simple as that and it was just taking one idea, one moment of “oh yeah, that'll be interesting” and just exploring and seeing where it went. It sort of went from there.

Valerie:
So, do you receive feedback from kids about your books?

Alan:
Yeah, you do. And it's one of the great pleasures. I mean, unfortunately, because I work full-time, I really don't have as much of an opportunity as I would like to go out and meet groups of kids, talk to them, do school visits and do readings. I've done a little bit but obviously, time is really problematic for me.

But when you do get those opportunities – I've been to my boys' schools and a few times. I've got friends who are teacher-librarians who will get me out and talk to a group of 50, 60 kids. And look, there is no substitute for that kind of feedback because you read a chapter of your book to a bunch of kids and you immediately know what works and what doesn't work.

If they laugh at the right points, it's working and if they're staring out of the window waiting for playtime, it probably needs a bit of work. So that kind of feedback is just fantastic and kids are just – there's no filter there with a lot of kids so you'll get all sorts of interesting things.

I get email and letters sent to me from kids who'll pick up on something you would never think kids would necessarily pick up on, that they love. And that just seeps into the process for you; what they're responding to.

Valerie:
And what are you working on now? Are you working on a particular project at the moment?

Alan:
Yeah, I knew you'd ask me that. It's been a little while. I finished third Octavius book about a year ago and I was lucky enough to go on holiday – so a couple of weeks to London earlier this year – and I thought, “This is it. I've got two weeks away from the office; nothing to do but wander the streets of London and sit around on a park bench with my notepad and pen and do some writing.” And I thought, “This is the moment I'm going to start a new book.”

And I wrote maybe the first couple of chapters and you know what it's like. I got back and read it a week later and I just thought, “You know what? This story is not going anywhere.” And so I'm at square one. I'm open to suggestions.

But I guess it's a funny thing when you've just finished a series of three books with the same characters.

Valerie:
Yes.

Alan:
Those were easy because I knew who they were and to me, the big key to writing is to get the characters and just follow them where they lead you.

Valerie:
Yes.

Alan:
So I've got to come up with a new character. That's my next challenge. And once I do, I'll just see where it hits.

Valerie:
And so obviously, you do work full-time. When do you fit in the actual writing and do you just sit down and just go for it or what happens?

Alan:
Yeah. Look, I'm not disciplined. I'm not organised. As I say, I keep breaking every rule in the book. I try and give myself a bit of space. It depends on the stage that you're at. In the early stages of a book, when I'm really starting one, I need to give myself a bit of space.

So I tend to wait until I have my annual holidays. I'll take three or four weeks off in one block when I can. Over Christmas, January I'll go away and we'll go on a camping or on a beach holiday and I'll sit down and I'll just try and the ideas have been fermenting for a while and I'll just try and get something started.

Now, once I'm over the hump – I might have written two or three chapters, I've got my characters worked out, I know the basic dynamic of the story – whether it's a quest or a mystery or an adventure; where – how it all comes together.

Once I'm at that point where I'm seeing where things go, then I will try and be regimented. I'll say, “Okay, if I can write 1,000 words a day for the next two weeks, I'll get another 20,000 words written and I'll be over the hump of it.” So it depends on where I'm up to but at the early stages, you've just got to give yourself enough space to really think about that and nothing else.

Valerie:
So you would give yourself a target of something like 1,000 words a day even though you work full-time as well?

Alan:
Yeah, I did that but only if I've got the time to do it. I'm not Superman so if I'm in full-time work and working a 10, 12 hour day then no, it's got to wait for weekends.

But for example, when I wrote my Ali Ismail book, I'd done all the research, I had the basic structure of the book and I went away for two weeks on holidays and I thought, “I'm going to get up in the morning, I'm going to have a cup of coffee, I'm going to write 1,000 words and then I'm going to go off to the beach or go bike-riding or whatever.”

And that might have – and some days it takes an hour. Some days it takes two hours.

Valerie:
Yeah.

Alan:
And I just do that and then I go away and I just keep the thing chugging along, chapter by chapter, until I get to the end. But that's – and if you hit – you can hit a wall. I can – I've been in situations where I've been so ill-disciplined about my plotting that I'll get to chapter 10 and there will be a crucial plot point and then I'll think, “What on Earth did I imagine was going to happen next?” And I'll have to go away and let things mull and sometimes I'll have to step back.

On one of my books, my Cosmo Cooper book, I completely changed the ending. I wrote the entire book, got to the end of it and I just thought, “No. This doesn't really work,” and I had to completely revise the plot and restart it from about chapter three onwards and just headed off in a completely different direction.

Valerie:
And do you actually think it's better to plot the entire story before you start or do you just, in some cases, let it all just come out?

Alan:
Look, I've always let it come out. I've always had a basic sense of what I want to happen. Sometimes, I'm not sure why; I'm not sure where it's going to go. But I'll tell you what I do like about not plotting it all the way through and that is that you – I really believe strongly in making your characters real people.

I mean, okay, in my case, they're rats though I think of them as real people and one of the things about not being too precise about the plotting is that I can't tell you how many times I've been halfway through a chapter and I started the chapter thinking that by the end of the chapter, I'd have reached this point.

And it'll go off in a totally different direction because I'll be in – I'll be engrossed in my character, they'll be heading off and I'll suddenly think, “Hang on. I'll bet they would do this. Okay, let's have them do this.”

And so there's a certain freedom in that, but you really have to trust the dynamic that you've set up for yourself and it can lead you into some unusual places. And particular, if you're writing humorous stuff and in my case, kids' books, you can afford that sort of wandering. And it helps the plot feel like it's been carefully organised when in fact it's just flown straight out of the character you've written on the page.

Valerie:
Do you have any plans or desire to write for adults? Fiction for adults.

Alan:
I've thought about that a bit because I've kind of stumbled into children's writing. I'm not quite sure how or why it headed in that direction but I guess – I have to believe it kind of suited my personality and it filled a need for me that wasn't being met by the journalism.

So it's a funny thing. In a way had this schizophrenic approach where all I do for an adult audience is journalism and what I do for a child audience is fiction.

There's no reason, in particular, why I wouldn't write for adults at some stage and I have thought about it but I guess in the short term, if you've got a momentum that's built on the kind of work you're doing, you tend to keep that going for a while until something comes along to nudge you in a different direction. It makes me sound a bit passive in my own career but it's the way I've operated, really. Something comes along and I think, “Oh. I'll head down this path.”

Valerie:
Sure.

Alan:
But for the time being, I think the next project, you can only really take these things one project at a time – will be another children's book. Beyond that, I'm just not sure.

Valerie:
And finally, what would your advice be to aspiring writers on improving their writing and getting published?

Alan:
Yeah, look, I've always loathed to be too free with my advice because I think it's a bit strange. I'm lucky enough to get a book published and it kind of makes me an instant expert and I wouldn't hold myself out as an instant expert at all.

Valerie:
You've had more than a book published.

Alan:
Well, I've got a few out there but, well, there's two things I would say. One thing I always say, particularly when I talk to groups of kids because kids love the idea of writing and making up their own stories and you can't talk to a group of kids more than five minutes before everybody wants to tell you what their idea is.

And the advice I always give to kids is concentrate on the character. If you can't work out what to write or how to write it, don't worry about thinking out a whole elaborate plot because quite often, if you start with a plot, it'll be pretty threadbare and generic. Start with a character. Always start with a character.

So for anybody who's wanting to write and dip their toes in the world of fiction, I always say, “Think of a character. Get that character moving. Get them going on the page and then start to see what happens.”

And the other bit of advice I give people always is by dibbs of 30 years of journalism, I know that the worst thing you can do is agonise over the quality of the first few words or the first few sentences or even the first few pages, because that's what – what stops people. They right a page-and-a-half and they think, “This is terrible” and they give up.

Now, quite often it is terrible but if you write 50 pages, something good will emerge and then you can go back and tidy up the first few. You'll know whether that was really the start or not so it's getting in there and just writing no matter what and seeing where it takes you.

Valerie:
Sure. And on that note, thank you very much for your time today, Alan.

Alan:
It's a pleasure.

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