Christine Harris: Author of the Audrey series

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image-christineharris200Christine Harris has written over 50 books.

She won a writing prize when she was a little girl and has been writing ever since. She wants to make people laugh, cry and think through her books.

She has written all sorts of books for children and young adults (generally ages 7-14 years old) she has written historical fiction, fantasy, joke books, spy books and series books.

Christine’s first book in the series Audrey of the Outback is set in Northern South Australia in 1930. Her latest book in the series is Audrey goes to Town, where Audrey Barlow has to go to Beltana town and has to stay with strict old Mrs Paterson.

With her own newsletter, blog and club members Audrey has a large following of girls who love reading about this adventurous and likeable character.

Christine lives in Mount Barker, Adelaide Hills, Australia.

Click play to listen. Running time: 30.41

audrey-goes-to-town

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thank you for joining us today, Christine.

Christine:
You’re welcome.

Valerie:
Now Christine, you’ve written over 50 books. Where in the world do you get so many ideas?

Christine:
That’s a question I ask myself sometimes. I’m not one of those people who just has a million ideas roaring at them all the time. I’m in awe when I hear other writers say, “Oh I can work on five or six books at once.” I don’t get that many ideas at once. So what I’ve done is I’ve learned techniques over the years that enable me to gather the ideas and to record them. I’ve taught myself how to get the ideas and how to store them.

I fully believe in what David Malouf once said in an interview, a reporter, a journalist said to him, “How long did it take you to write this book?” David Malouf said, “All my life.” And I think it’s true that all the things we absorb in our lives all come together in a nexus when we write a story. So, I watch movies, I read a lot, I talk with people, I get ideas from lots of places. But the important thing for me, and I’d be lost without it, is that I write down those little gems of ideas immediately. I do the hardy thing. He had notebooks everywhere including his toilet. I have notebooks everywhere. There are notebooks in my handbag because for me the ideas can be fleeting so I need to record it immediately.

Valerie:
Tell us about the Audrey of the Outback Series. How did Audrey come about and I believe she even has her own blog?

Christine:
She does, which is nice. Often particularly if you’re in a series and you have one or two books a year, the fans read the book in a week and then they want something else. So then to wait for another book and children are really loyal enthusiastic fans and I love that about them. So, all the extras and all the things, if I was to put all the extra activities and crosswords and things on my website, it would take six months to load. So by using the blog it enables me to constantly give activities and information.

For example, I did a lot of research in 1930 Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup so I did a quiz with interesting facts about Phar Lap and I’ve put that on there. This is the interesting part, as a tester, I sit waiting for my husband, David Harris, who’s also a writer and I said, “David, have a look at this quiz, answer the questions and see how many you got right?” And he got a few right and mostly he was surprised by the answers.

Our 11-year-old granddaughter was staying with us for the weekend and I said, “Claudia, look at this quiz and do it.” I wanted to make sure it wasn’t too hard. And she got seven out of 10 right. I said, “How did you know all that about a horse that was running in 1930?” And Claudia said, “I saw the movie.” So that’s an interesting thing, kids actually pick up a lot from what’s happening around them, as we do.

Audrey was actually in one of the, My Story books. She was a minor character. She’s the little cousin of Jimmy who’s telling the story. And Audrey is a composite, as most characters are, and I find with historical writing the characters come out of the research in the yarn. So you find the stories and then the person, the composite person sort of becomes part of that. I didn’t have her in my mind when I started but she grew out of it and now she’s real.

Valerie:
When in your life did you start thinking to yourself, “I really want to be a writer?”

Christine:
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I think storytellers in different forms are born with that desire and I always played imagination games with my grandma. From the time I could hold a pencil, I loved writing stories. A writer needs to write whether they’re published or not. I think we’re only happy, and those horrible squawky noises of life are only blocked out when we’re really in the middle of a story. Now, getting published is a whole other thing. But I’ve always written for pleasure because I needed to tell a story.

Valerie:
And when you’re an adult and obviously you need to make a living from it, you can’t just write for yourself, when did you think, “I’m going to really make a go of it?” and what steps did you take to get there?

Christine:
I have got two children and when the second child, Jenny, started school and she went off to school because I wanted to stay home with them when they were little, I didn’t want someone else to see their first tooth pop out and someone else to hear their first word. I wanted to do that.

But when Jenny went to school, that’s a really important day for me because Jenny went to school and I was crying and she just waved and ran off. She wanted to play with the other kids.

I sat in the house alone and it was so quiet, it was deafening. I thought I was happy to give up those years and it’s not even giving up, to enjoy them with my children. But what do I want to do now? I thought about it, I thought it has to be something to do with books, writing, maybe librarianship or be a writer. I lived in the country and my options were quite limited so I drove half an hour to the nearest town and went into the Tafe office, the college of further education and I said, “Look, what can I do?” and he was so good that man. He said, “What are you interested in?” I said, “Words.” He said, “Well, here’s your options?”

My only option was a correspondence course or they call it external study now. So I did a very short one module first because I was so scared because I hadn’t studied since school and I thought, “Oh stuff it up.” And when I did pretty well with that then I thought, “Now I’ll sign up for the two-year writing course.”

Valerie:
Wow. That’s how it started. You did it by correspondence?

Christine:
Yes I did, because I lived down the bottom of Yorke Peninsula and it was sort of 15k from the last pub, the first fringe on the right and I could literally see Kangaroo Island across the waters. So it was quite isolated and that was my only option. We didn’t have Internet then so it was all writed out by hand. It worked out really well because my tutor was David Harris and he gave me an A so I married him.

Valerie:
Why did you choose to write for children and young adults?

Christine:
This is almost, I don’t know if it’s by accident, by experimenting, I really believe you don’t know what you’re good at till you try. And frankly the kids were little and I’d dish up a new meal and they would go, “I don’t like that” and I’d say, “But you haven’t tried it yet. Have one or two mouthfuls. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. But try it.” Sometimes they’d like it, sometimes they wouldn’t.

With that two-year certificate of creative writing that I did with Tafe, it had various components. One was writing for children, one was writing advertisements, one was the legal aspect, covering the whole gamut. When I did that I thought, “I’m never going to write for kids, but it’s good to experiment and to do the exercises as good as I can.” I found I really enjoyed it, and to my great surprise I found I was good at it. When I shared the stories with kids, they loved it. I took them to the local primary school where my children were going at the time and I sat the kids down and just read them my stories and then asked them questions about it.

My goodness, they are the smartest little critics because I had a little picture book text and it was a cumulative and it was things that come out of a school bag, which never ended up getting published. But the kids loved the story and it was quite long and I read it to them and at the end a hand went up and a kid 5-years-old yelled out, “You forgot the banana.” And, I hadn’t realised I had, in the whole long list of things, I’d forgotten a banana and he’d picked it.

I guess that’s one reason, that little kid going, “You forgot the banana,” and ding, a light went on. I thought, “These kids are really intelligent.” And they really love a good story. They get so into it. The best thing about kids is they believe. A great example of this, once I was doing an online chat with a group of educators in Queensland and it was a live chat with kids via the Internet a couple years ago. I chose to be a character and they were having the live chat with me, not as Christine Harris but as my character. This went on for about 10 minutes and then I got this message from this kid, “Excuse me, but do you know you’re not real?” I thought that was so wonderful. The kid’s like, “I’m really confused here.”

The other reason I write for kids and I read once on a ticket or something it said, “Children laugh on average 146 times a day and adults laugh four.” So that’s why I write for kids.

Valerie:
Great. Now you have written quite a few historical books for 8 to 14 year olds on events which have happened in Australia like your book Strike!, which is about a strike in the Australian waterfront in 1928. What type of research goes into writing these books? Is there a lot? And you do do the research first and then start writing the book?

Christine:
Yes. I do the research first and often I know the thing I want to write about or the time period or the event, but I know nothing about it. I’m all for picking up hints as I go and on each one of those historical novels I researched, I’ve learned something I could do better next time. You never can say, “I’ve written 50 books. I know it all now.” The minute you say that, you’ve lost, you mind as well give up because you’re never going to learn anything.

So once I’d read that Barbara Hanrahan read every day’s newspaper for the time she was going to write about. So I thought, “I can do that. Strike! is set in 1928 so I went down to the Adelaide State Library in Adelaide and I read every day’s Register newspaper for the whole year of 1928.

Valerie:
My God.

Christine:
Then I’d see what the weather was on that day, that was the weather. It made it real to me and I could see – and it’s shocking how many ads in 1928 newspapers for laxatives and Arnotts biscuits.

I hope those two things are not related. It was really interesting. And even when I looked at the cartoons and there was one cartoon in the Register for 1928 and it had a very well-dressed man looking at what was obviously a body on a slab. He had his good suit on and he’d dressed up the body already. And the caption underneath was, “Awww. He was an atheist. All dressed up and nowhere to go.”

So you know, you absorb and that’s what I was talking about before, you’re a sponge, you soak all that up. But even with that when I went to write it, I researched it all, cut things, did photocopies of cuttings from newspapers, interviewed oldies, went down to the site, walked around Port Adelaide. Then I thought, “Now I need to put that aside, write the story and not be didactic and stick to every little fact.” Facts don’t make a story. And then I realised when I tried to double-check something, I couldn’t find it. I had a big wad. So I realised the next historical novel I wrote, I would start indexing from the first page. Each time I’ve learned something. I put photographs and when I wrote Foreign Devil I had 255 pages of research notes. I couldn’t have found anything without an index.

Valerie:
Do you enjoy writing those ones based more in historical situations than completely fictional stories?

Christine:
I absolutely love a good story, and when that story happened doesn’t really matter, it needs to be told. I think it’s so important, like when you interview some of the oldies and they tell you the most amazing stories; if they’re not written down, they’re forgotten. And that’s really important. I think there are some wonderful stories from the past that because they’re old stories doesn’t make them boring or bad stories. Like, I interviewed one old lady when I was doing Strike!, and she said when there was a big riot and 2,000 people rioted through Port Adelaide and it was pretty scary. It was almost Civil War in Australia.

She said she was a young girl when she got off the train or the bus or something from visiting with relatives in the country, and she got out at a corner called Black Diamond Corner in Port Adelaide, it’s very famous. There were people everywhere and she thought, “What is going on?” Because she’d been away, she didn’t know so much about the demonstrations.

She looked up and standing next to her was a middle age woman with a handbag. She opened the handbag, shoved a brick in there and closed the handbag and ran off into the middle of the demonstration. She was obviously going to wallop someone with her handbag.

Valerie:
Oh my God.

Christine:
I talked to that lady about that, wrote down and now 10 years later that lady has died and so have the other four old people that I interviewed. I couldn’t get those stories now. And they really deserve to be told.

Valerie:
I have to ask, how long did it take to read a year’s worth of newspapers?

Christine:
Well, the worst problem is the print is so small. The machines are appalling. I had so many headaches. It took me months and I would just – I could only do it for so many hours a day, and you get brain dead after a while. So I would go down half a day every day. It took me months and months. Even with The Diary of Jimmy Porter which is set in 1927/28, the research took five months full time and the writing took four.

Valerie:
Oh right. Gosh.

Christine:
So the writing’s often the smaller part of it.

Valerie:
Yes, of course. In your Vibes series which is about Brittany Cook who wakes up in a hospital room and gets weird feelings or vibes, where did this idea come from? And what kind of feedback have you had from readers on it?

Christine:
Well anything that’s a mystery, kids love. And you know, it is true and I’ve heard some writers say that when you write books that have a character that are like the kids who are reading it, they really enjoy it. But I actually think the books that kids like the most are the ones that have a character that they would love to be. And I think there’s a fine distinction there. So, with that character and that series, I find girls in particular really respond by identifying with Brittany but they want to be her.

And it’s the same with a character in the Spy Girl series, Jesse. Girls really – they want to be her so much. The idea for that was really simple. I’d been on the road promoting books and working schools, I’d been touring and I was absolutely exhausted. It had been weeks. I was sitting on the plane looking at the clouds about flying back home and I thought, “I am so tired. I can’t wait to get home.”

And the two things I really missed was my own homemade bread and my pillow. I thought, “I want my own bread and my own pillow.” And then for some reason I thought, “What if I had nowhere familiar to go home? What if I couldn’t remember my home? So, I couldn’t go home and go, ‘Oh I love being here. I love the smell of my house. I love my pillow.’ What if there was nothing? No place for me to go like that and I completely lost my memory?”

At that moment it was a Qantas flight years ago and they had the TV going. It was some entertainment – Entertainment Tonight and they’re interviewing this actress called Brittany somebody or other and I thought, “Ah! There’s my character.” It was one of those nexus moments and I came home, wrote it down straight away. And then started researching and all the things like the cards that they used to tour where the people were psychic and that’s all real. I love to mix fact and fiction so that the borders are blurred and people can’t tell which bit is which.

Valerie:
On your website you often mention writing with the heart. Can you tell us what exactly you mean?

Christine:
Well, people sometimes think that you’re a good writer if you know big words with lots of syllables and you can know how to put them in the right order. Now, that can be correct but it can be like looking at a lump of stone. You feel nothing. You can get a dictionary or a thesaurus and copy out big words and get a style guide and know how to put them in order. That doesn’t move people. People are moved by a story where they feel something, and I believe that only happens when the writer has felt something. Those times when you write with passion – now, when people hold back, and I’ve seen this even when I’m working with new writers sometimes, they try to write rather than try to tell a story. A story moves people. Words on their own don’t.

So be brave. Draw on your own feelings, even though it’s exposing yourself in a way and even though that’s sometimes hard, that’s when the real writing happens and that’s when people care about your characters. And you speak to any editor and say to them, “What do you look for when you look at a manuscript?” One of the first things they usually say is, “I ask myself, do I care what happens to this character?” And that’s one of Stephen King’s tricks, he said he makes people care about a character and then he kills them.

Valerie:
Lovely.

Christine:
Which is hard to do if you’re a writer, but I see his point.

Valerie:
Tell us about your typical working day when you’re writing? For example, are you working on your next project now?

Christine:
I’m actually going to stay up all night if I have to and finish the third book in the Audrey series.

I’m so close I just can’t leave it. A typical writing day, that’s like, “Oh ho ho, what’s typical?” I don’t think I’m a typical person. I have a typical ideal day, which somehow I never quite seem to get there. But I’m not one of those people who sits around in their pj’s for a week while they’re working. I feel I’m going to work and I create a circumstance where work is expected of me, because this is what I do full time. I write. So to respect my process and what I do, get up, tidy the house, I have a shower, look as nice as I can and then I sit down at my computer because then I think psychologically I’m prepared for work.

I have near my desk things that I know will make me feel good, my little special objects. I pick one particular object for each book that’s related to what I’m writing. For example, with Strike! I had a little wooden replica of a police baton. When I wrote Baptism of Fire, I’d actually been to Fiji because it’s set in Fiji and I had a carved pineapple club sitting on my desk. The Audrey series I have a little emu that’s handmade out of a pinecone and that sits on my desk. And I have one symbol for each book and it’s my good luck thing if you like.

Valerie:
What a great idea.

Christine:
Yeah, it works for me. And then they go on the shelf and I think of something – my husband David buys a new mug when he starts a new book, that’s his thing. He has to have a new mug, no matter how good the old one was, it has to be new book, new mug. I find time just disappears, I can write for hours, but I can’t write just creatively all day and all night. I actually get a really sore back sitting in a chair.

Valerie:
Oh yeah.

Christine:
Blitzing out for me so I like to write every day. And if I get sick of sitting there, I go outside. I did that yesterday. I was stuck so I went outside, we’ve got a little outdoor sitting and I take the laptop or a pen and paper and I sit outside. I can hear the birds and the sunshine’s warm and it changes my pattern so, I find changing where you write really helps too. Some people can’t write when it’s dead quiet. I spoke to someone who had a fellowship to write in Paris – in Paris, mind you, and the flat was so quiet she couldn’t write so she just had to go to the library every day. We’re all different.

So I write as much as I can and I start off every morning by reading what I wrote the day before. It puts that in my head and it flows on. There are things I do when I play music but I can’t play any music that has discernable lyrics because I find myself attracted to the words and I listen to them.

Valerie:
Oh yes.

Christine:
And I forget what I’m writing. My husband plays chook music.

Valerie:
What’s that?

Christine:
Opera and – I can’t listen to it but I found a lot of these CD’s of Tibetan chants.

Valerie:
Oh.

Christine:
And it’s like bells, ding, and the little ummmmmm. And I go, “Yeah, yeah, this is good. This is creative.”

Valerie:
All right. Okay.

Christine:
You see why I laughed when you said typical?

Valerie:
Yes. Yes, exactly. But I love the idea that you have little sort of a charm or you know, little memento of each book. Now you mentioned you blog, that you’ve actually had quite a few people come up to you at readings or after school visits and say some pretty weird or obscure things to you. What sort of things do they say?

Christine:
Well, I guess they’re obscure to me but kids are perfectly logical even when they’re being weird. Sometimes the things they say or even write to me are quite sad and surprising, sometimes they’re hilarious. They’re really honest. They feel they know you because you’ve written a book. I had an email just a couple of weeks ago, and it’s very short. I’ll just read it to you because I can’t put it better than she did. She said, “Dear Christine, this is really an honor emailing you. I read your books all the time and you do a good job. I’m going through a hard time right now because when I was three I lost my Daddy to cancer and my mom has a veryvery bad illness and I think she’s going to leave me soon. And when I read your books, it makes me feel good. Keep up the good work.”

Valerie:
Oh my God.

Christine:
And that’s not the only email I’ve had like that, and I got goose bumps now just re-reading it. Yes, it always makes me cry. And then sometimes you get the kids, you look at them and you go, “What were you thinking when you just said that?” I was at a signing once and there were two boys about I suppose 10 or 11 years old, had their book autographed and they turned around and walked off, and one said to the other very loudly, “This will be worth a lot of money when she dies.”

I’ve had letters from kids saying things like this, “Dear Christine, I thought you’d have green eyes and a huge butt.” And I emailed that kid – oh actually it was before email. I wrote back to that kid from Kalgoorlie in West Australia and I said, “Why did you say that?” I was curious. And he said, “Because I think all authors would sit down all day and not get enough exercise.” I thought, “This kid’s going to be prime minister.” Then you get the ones like, “I thought you’d be six foot tall, have writer’s cramp and a bit of a moustache.” And the worst one is, “I thought you’d be a much younger woman.”

Oh and a little kid, he came up to me deadly serious, and the school had paid for my visit and they’d ask for a 50 cent contribution from each child to help offset the cost. And the little kid with glasses, had a clipboard in his hand, and he said, “You’re a very good value for 50 cents,” and ran off.

Valerie:
They’re very honest, aren’t they?

Christine:
Absolutely, and I really love that. I think my all-time favorite is a kid ran up to me in Alice Springs and said, “Are you going to be a comedian when you grow up?” and then this look came over his face and he goes, “Oh. You are grown up, aren’t you?” But I have learned never, never destroy their beliefs and once I accidentally this. I should remember keep the magic alive because the kids put their hand up at Christmas time said, “Have you ever met Enid Blyton?” And straight away without thinking, I gave an honest answer. I said, “No. Enid Blyton is dead. She died years ago.” And the kid went, “Ohhhh,” his eyes crumpled and burst into tears.

Valerie:
Oh dear.

Christine:
And then I realised, this kid believed because the story was real, the author’s real, author’s are eternal because the stories are. So the next time someone said to me, “Have you ever met Enid Blyton?” I said, “Well, I’ve never been to England.”

Valerie:
Right.

Christine:
Because we never, never destroy their beliefs. They have that time for such a short time, why tread on it?

Valerie:
That’s gorgeous. And finally, what advice would you give to aspiring writers, people who want to get published and write books just like you?

Christine:
Don’t take any advice.

Valerie:
Sorry?

Christine:
Don’t take any advice is my advice. In a sense I think you try everything. Author one will say, “Here’s the advice I’d give,” and it just won’t work. You’ll try – Author two will say, “Try this,” and you try it and you go, “Yeah, well that works but that doesn’t.” Someone else will suggest something and you go, “Oh that is absolutely brilliant.” I think Somerset Maughan summed it up beautifully when he said, “There are three rules for successful novel writing unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”

I think the most important thing is that you keep your heart and mind open and that you learn continually. I have a big collection of biographies of writers and I find I learn a lot from that. I go to writers’ festivals and I listen to other writers talking. I have a lot of books on how to write, and no matter how basic they are I always learn something from that.

I find it’s really important to write regularly even if it’s a little bit. Keep an ideas book, watch movies and don’t be afraid to play the what If game even as an adult, “What if that happened? What if that happened?” Just be comfortable with their imaginations, be comfortable with their own dreaming and I think that’s so important. We live in a practical, I have to do this to pay the bills and do that, but sometimes own magic gets left behind.

Surround yourself with positive people. Sometimes we have people who I think are like – how can I put this? emotional vampires, in that if you’re continually sharing your ideas with someone who keeps putting them down or saying, “That’ll never work” or “That’ll never -” you’ll lose your confidence. So you choose the people that you share your ideas with. You surround yourself with a group of advisors who are maybe not experts but positive thinking people. And I think it’s really important that you have a variety of interests because we can get so boring if we just sit at home and write all the time.

I try to learn something different every year that has nothing to do with my writing and yet it has everything to do with it. Last year I studied psychology online for a year, the year before I studied Auslan, Australian sign language. And eventually those things wind up in my books, but it keeps me a more rounded person that I’m doing something different and getting out with other people.

So I guess the best advice is the famous one. Kurt Vonnegut gave a talk at a university and they paid him quintillions of dollars to give it, and all the students, they’re all keen and he stood up and he said, “Who wants to write?” and all these hands went up and I won’t use his language, but basically what he said to them was, “Well, go and do it then” and he walked off and collected his paycheck. And that’s it, don’t just sit there, don’t just talk about it; do it.

Valerie:
Awesome. Thank you. And on that note, thank you very much for your time today Christine.

Christine:
You’re welcome.

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