Anna Fienberg has written many award-winning picture books, short stories and junior novels including Ariel, Zed and the Secret of Life, The Magnificent Nose and Other Marvels and more recently the Tashi series. Nearly all of Anna’s books have been listed as Notable Books by the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA).
Her latest title is Tashi and the Golem, which is the 17th Tashi book. She has also written six picture books in the Minton series; both series are bestselling collaborations with artist Kim Gamble. Anna’s most recent book for young adult readers is called Number 8 (2007).
Her first book, Billy Bear and the Wild Winter, published in 1988, originated from a series she wrote while working as editor at The School Magazine.
Anna enjoys writing books for young adults, publishing Power to Burn in 1995 and four years later, Borrowed Light, described as a complex, frank portrait of female teenage sexuality. Borrowed Light was an Honour Book in the CBCA 2000 Book of the Year Award for Older Readers and was also shortlisted for the 2000 NSW Premier’s Literary Award.
Anna was born in England in 1956 and came to Australia at the age of three. She lives in Sydney.
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* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability
Valerie: Anna, thanks for joining us today.
Anna: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Valerie: Anna you come from a family of readers and your mother is a librarian. Do you remember when you were a child the kinds of books you were encouraged to read then?
Anna: Yes, I do actually quite clearly. We read a lot of fairytales together, you know earlier on, and my mother being the librarian would bring home new books all the time. So I was very lucky that way and oh, such a range: There was Betsy Byars books about relationships and kids my age I suppose I loved, but I also loved fantasy, the Narnia books and Rosemary Sutcliff. There were quite a few – when I got a little bit older – historical books that I was certainly encouraged to read. My mother had quite a passion for Roman history and so on. But I do remember Enid Blyton being all the rage and just her [my mother’s] nose turning up a little, you know, I could see it. She wasn’t mad about Enid Blyton but she certainly didn’t sit through anything.
Valerie: Right. So which would be your favorite Anna Feinberg book and why?
Anna: I think probably it would be Number 8 – that’s the latest older readers’ book, probably because, not just because it’s the latest one, but because it came so easily and books certainly don’t always come easily. They can, you know, novels can be a couple of years in the writing if not more and there can be lovely easy parts to them but sometimes you really struggle and you’re in the dark world down there. Number 8 though was just sort of easy to read, to write and a joy really. It was based on partly on my son and it’s about a boy who has an absolute sort of passion for even numbers. But he really despises odd numbers but evens, you know, they make you feel sort of secure and they’re reassuring. And he lives with his mum who is a singer and they’ve moved around a lot in his life. I actually haven’t at all. I’ve been in the one place quite a long time but – and so anyway, various adventures happen because, in fact, in the last place that she was working, in the casino, there she saw something she shouldn’t have seen. And she moves out to the suburbs which are quiet and safe, so she supposes, but her history catches up with her. And of course her past life catches up with her son and he has to sort of run for his life. So there’s a mixture of humor and drama and so I think that’s probably why I just enjoyed the ease of it.
Valerie: Sure. And I have to ask, does your son have a passion for even numbers?
Anna: Yes, he does, yes. He particularly loves the number eight and very often actually – if he was chewing, he’d have to chew twice on one side and twice on the other and have to count his peas on his plate before he ate them and so on.
Anna: And so everything took quite a while, but I’m glad to say he seems to be over this now.
Valerie: Where do you get your ideas for the Tashi series? You’re on your 15th book now. So how do you come up with so many stories for this character?
Anna: Look, I think they actually they do draw on fairytales quite often. There’s such a rich variety there to look at and interpret in new ways. So I think we all, in some ways, rewrite ideas according to our own world. And for instance, I love that character of the evil grandma from Russian and Czech and Polish fairytales. Tashi and the Forbidden Room was actually based on Bluebeard and The Magic Flute where the stranger comes to town and there’s a locust plague. So we draw on these things – fairytales. Although they’re fantasy, they obviously really highlight real human dramas and conflicts, don’t they? And there’s the source probably. Even though they’re fantasy, they’re catchy stories like most fantasy probably has come from certain experiences, too. And I remember Tashi Lost in the City came quite directly from the day when my son was about eight and he was lost just for seven minutes at Darling Harbour, but it was the most horrifying seven minutes I think of my life. But there was a huge crowd and I just somehow knew that this was going to happen to poor old Tashi. You tend to work out your angst sometimes through stories.
Valerie: Oh yes, the lot of the writer. Now, when you were 28, you lived in Italy for a year and you’ve mentioned in some interviews that The Witch in the Lake was an inspiration from living there. Can you describe how that came about?
Anna: I think one of the lovely things about writing is that when you’re writing a book, you tend to live in that place with those people in your mind for a lot of your life and even when you’re doing other things in the real world. Italy was somewhere that I really, really loved living. And it seemed to me, just the daily things there – asking for bread, coming home with the right thing having said it in Italian – it was such a stimulating part of my life then. And you know coming from Sydney and arriving in Florence, I was to do a course in Italian there for three months and then stay for a year. Back in those days, I’d saved up enough to not have to work for almost that year. I couldn’t do it now. But in wandering those cobble narrow streets at dusk when everything – the lights have dissolved, the outlines, the medieval churches and so on … and that sense of anonymity, too. I didn’t know anybody so there was a feeling, this tinge of panic quite often, even though I felt really excited about living – but if anything happened no one would know. And it’s a perfect place to actually live out your imagination when you’re traveling in that sense.
Valerie: What made you want to go there and why Italy then?
Anna: I think it began because, mainly at school, I was doing art for the high school certificate. We studied for renaissance painting and I was so struck by the difference between the medieval and the Byzantine sort of mosaic beauty of those paintings. But the people were still, you know, they weren’t lifelike – they were like gorgeous bathroom tiles. And then the Renaissance painters just brought the human face and figure to life and there seemed to be such warmth and humanity and wisdom and all those things in those faces and in those landscapes. And I think I just wanted to jump through those da Vinci sort of arches into that life.
Valerie: Your book Borrowed Light is about a 16-year-old girl who falls pregnant and feels alienated from her family. And it was your first young adult book. How has this book been received and what are your feelings towards that book?
Anna: That was actually a really difficult book to write. You know, it was sort of before the ’80s with some books. I really wanted to write about adolescence and that search for self and the ‘Who am I?’ and ‘If I am this person, will I still fit in and will people still accept me? Am I weird?’, and all of those feelings. And so, often, I think that’s the very time when you’re starting to form relationships and the attraction between people can often be, you know, it’s about sex. But very often you’re actually really looking also for that connection, mainly for that connection, and some sort of intimacy. But it’s such a fumbled, difficult sort of time and I really wanted to write about that, but I think what happened when I was writing it was that I tend to write from the inside. And so you push yourself there and I was back at the bottom of, well, being 16 and thinking about how it felt, how life felt at that stage. And I was rescued, really, by the metaphor of the celestial world. I’d written mainly fantasy before then, but I wanted to write a real-life story; but I just couldn’t find my way in or out of that rather gloomy place. I remember when I was telling my son a story about something else completely different and he just wouldn’t get to sleep, so we just lay there in the dark for a while and I started to tell myself the story of this Borrowed Light but in another voice, as if I were a friend, a kind friend who wasn’t being critical and so on. And there I found the voice. And she was very interested in astronomy and I suddenly saw this connection between the celestial world and gravity and some stars. You know stars have much more pull and that other planets will orbit around there. And was I a star or was I a moon? And very definitely a moon. And so on. And so it went. But in terms of reception of the book it was pretty well received. It’s very – it’s quite explicit and so I think that probably some schools have a bit of difficulty with it and others seem to have embraced it. I always felt it would be great if it was a jump off point for people to actually discuss these issues that we all find often difficult to discuss. But that would be how I’d love to see it received.
Valerie: You’re saying it was hard to get into the real world after writing fantasy. Since then, has it been easier to write in the real world?
Anna: Yes, that’s true actually. You’ve got to do things for the first time, don’t you? I think books are always about your life in some way or other but yes, they’re also various disguises, which in themselves can be interesting.
Valerie: Yes. Where do you reach into to get most of your ideas? Is there a particular place or process you draw inspiration from? Like is there a system almost?
Anna: I think a system starts to happen once you’ve got an idea, but I think really feeling is the state of the imagination you know that when you have deep feelings about something that’s happened or that you’ve dreamed or whatever, that’s the urge you have then to express it and explore it. So I do tend to write about things I feel deeply about. And even just to sustain writing a novel that would for maybe two, three years, you need to be really like falling in love I suppose. You need to be totally swept away by an idea and involved and engaged. And once you have an idea – for instance with Borrowed Light when I thought about using the celestial world as a mirror for what was going on, on the earth – it’s amazing then how much you see around you, events that are related. It’s almost as if you have a focus that sort of suddenly turned on and triggers your observations and so on. But yes, I think often just the height and awareness of what you’re feeling.
Valerie: Right, and then once the book is completed, it must be almost, sort of, a sense of, well, not loss but that something’s gone away? That world has gone away?
Anna: Yes, I think it is a bit of loss actually. It’s a funny, uneasy time. And I remember feeling it quite particularly with Number 8. I hadn’t ever … well, maybe because I enjoyed writing it so much and would go for walks with my dog – and I got so used to those – and worrying about Esmeralda’s math homework, which she found so difficult and what she could never understand, reciprocal fractions or, you know, back to boy Jackson counting his peas on his plate and how long it took him. And then that week when it had gone and finished and nothing more I could do, it was just this sort of quietness in the bush as I walked and, ‘What am I going to think about now?’ It was like not being inhabited anymore.
Valerie: Wow. Now, you wrote your first story when you were eight-years-old and I believe your mother kept it. Can you tell me about this, about the story and also whether you still have it?
Anna: Well actually, in fact I do wonder where it went in those great purges of spring cleaning and renewal. I think it’s gone, but I do remember it. It was about a mermaid and I think for about a year or so, I tended to write stories about mermaids. Quite early, I discovered that when you’re writing about something, you can actually live it in your imagination. And I think I just yearned for an expanded sort of life. I’m sure we all do. We do it in play when we’re little, don’t we? But I love the freedom of my particularly mermaid, just swimming and whether to swim through the seas, and mine, of course, could go anywhere they wanted. And if they got lonely, I invented this system where they had a hat and, if a passing ship came along, they’d throw the hat over a sailor’s head and that meant that he could breathe underwater. And so he could come under the water and spend the day and visit islands and all sorts of things. So I was tightly into it.
Valerie: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Anna: Not until very late. I didn’t think I could ever do it for a living. I knew that I enjoyed writing and, certainly, I enjoyed reading. But I got a job with The School Magazine, which is still going and it’s been going since 1916 and it’s full of stories and plays and poems. I got a job as an assistant editor there and worked there 10 years, actually. We had to write stories and articles and so on, often for the magazine, and one of my stories, Billy Bear and the Wild Winter, was picked up by Angus & Robertson – they wanted to make a book out of it. And in a sense that sort of gave me the idea that maybe it would be possible. And I don’t know that I would have gone on to write another, I mean, full publishing. Luckily, I was working under an editor [Kat Hawk] who was, oh, she was a wonderful woman. And she was terribly encouraging about my writing and kept urging me on. So I went on from there.
Valerie: So you seem to like books with magical aspects, like Mrs. Pepperpot and the Narnia series. How did you learn to incorporate aspects of magic into your works?
Anna: I think it’s an interesting question. I think magic for me has always felt very much like the dream world. I love the way, I suppose, it’s a more Freudian look at it. You might be dreaming about the sole of your shoe but really it’s your soul; in dreams things are so obscure. And I love the way you work out what it really might have meant to you when it’s probably a completely different scene, but you can extract things like a puzzle, almost like some incredible geometry or something. And I feel that magic and fairytales and so on, they’re heavy, weighty with symbols, like dreams are. And so, in a sense, I think I have used symbols of my own dreams and what I’ve read and think about how they relate to the character’s real-life experiences and try to get them to reflect that.
Valerie: Well, as a writer, you do live in another world when you’re writing in particular. And you were just saying before, at the end of Number 8, you were thinking, ‘Well what do I think of now?’ Do you crave the next world or do you crave – ?
Anna: I do, I do. And I always look so longingly. I read about writers saying that, while they’re writing one book they’ve got ideas for the next. But I have long periods of drought in between, between the major sort of novels, I suppose. Yes, you know, I’m still grieving for the last and thinking about the next, but it’s so wonderful when it arrives.
Valerie: Describe it. What’s that feeling when it arrives?
Anna: It is like falling in love when you suddenly see; maybe you’ve seen someone at a bus stop and you were sort of looking at their face and [you know] your world’s going to change. Well it’s a bit like that, the dropping out of nowhere. And I’ll just know. For instance, I did a short story once called The Ghost Bird and I knew I had to write a story for teenagers, but I really had no ideas at that stage at all. I was driving and going shopping, I think, and John Dengate came on the radio talking about mutton birds and what rigid flight paths they have. They fly from Tasmania to Japan or Siberia and they always go the same way. No matter what’s in their way, they’ll just go the same way. And I found that fascinating. I knew something was starting. So, I pulled over and started to make notes next to the two kilos of meat or whatever was on my shopping list. I think when he was talking about this rigidity, I was thinking, ‘I know people like that’. And there are certain aspects of myself like that; ‘I know this way and I know this kind of living and life, and I always do this no matter what’. So, a character came from there, somebody who had come from another country in another situation and was living here and who had a son. And the father just couldn’t adapt to this new world and he was a little bit like the mutton birds. In the end, I had to kill him off because [of] the mutton birds – he was out camping and he was in the flight path of this flock of mutton birds, which sounds cruel but his ghost anyway came back to resolve things with his son. But, who would have known that going shopping that day, I would listen to that radio. I was so grateful to John Dengate and the ABC and the shopping list because it just made all the difference the next few months.
Valerie: So when you write in that zone, when you’re in love, can you describe your working day?
Anna: I wish it were more disciplined and I could give myself [over to] the subject, but with domestic life and so on … usually I get my son off to school and do the breakfast and and, hopefully, then I have the day to myself or at least the next few hours. But I always thought I had to wipe down the kitchen sink – that was really important – and have things in order. Because otherwise, I feel chaotic and I’ve left things in a mess before I go into this other world.
Valerie: Do you have a ritual?
Anna: It’s a bit of a ritual with the kitchen sink, I think, and I walk my dog, too. And the act of walking is lovely, actually. It frees you, it’s almost like a passage from the real world into the imaginary world because I can – I’ve got a bush nearby which is lucky. And so it’s sort of quiet and still and you can just let your mind off its leash, you know, not the dog but …
Valerie: So what would your advice be for aspiring writers? What tips might you have for them to make the writing process easier?
Anna: One of the first things I’d say is to be kind to yourself. I feel like I’ve spent years with this critical voice on my shoulders saying, ‘Call that a sentence? Why do you even bother writing for?’ I think writing’s a bit like dreaming while you’re awake, and you need to do the dream in order to then have the material there and the excitement and the discovery to edit back and shape and so on. And if that editor on your shoulder comes in too much and too strongly, it can really inhibit that flow and the whole reason for writing. So I’d try to make conditions for yourself, so that you can be kind and let it go. And also take a notebook. I often say that to children at schools; you never know when an idea is going to come and it’s terribly helpful to be able to write it down right then because, a bit like dreams, you might remember the flavor of something but not the details.
Valerie: You never know when John Dengate is going to talk about mutton birds.
Anna: Exactly. That’s the wonderful unpredictability of the world. And being ready and open, and open to the world, to observing, and also to what you’re feeling about the world. So I suppose a bit of it is an inside journey of really getting to know yourself and what’s important to you. And within that, I think then, is the detail. If you’re going to talk about a tree, what kind of tree is this? The more detail you have in your stories, it individualises it and brings that feeling; often the better it is. Within reason, of course.
Valerie: What’s next for you?
Anna: Well I’ve written a grown-up book which I’m just starting to edit at the moment. That was probably my most difficult process, I think. And so, at the moment, I’m about to edit that and then I’ve been writing another short novel for children and thinking about another adult book. So, I’m a bit all over the place for the moment.
Valerie: Can you tell us a bit about the grown-up book yet?
Anna: Yes. It’s about a woman who’s quite slightly obsessive, very passionate about escapology, particularly Houdini, and the way in which he can defy death with his escape acts. And she’s probably rather keen to escape from her own life, but has no idea how to do it. And so it’s sort of a journey for her, I suppose, about learning how to escape but come back, too, to herself.
Valerie: Was it hard to make that transition to the grown-up book?
Anna: In some ways it was. I think you feel when you’ve been writing children’s books for a long time, although young adults was also a challenge, but you feel, ‘Oh, oh, I can explore this bit and now I can say it about this’, and so on. And sometimes you can get lost inside, I think, and you’ve got to be very aware of the narrative structure; it’s just as important in a book for adults as it is for children.
Valerie: Wonderful. Well thank you very much for talking to us today, Anna.
Anna: Well thank you, Valerie. That was great.