Ep 190 Meet award-winning author Tamsin Janu on her third novel ‘Blossom’.

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podcast-artworkIn this minisode of So you want to be a writer: meet Tamsin Janu who talks about her third novel Blossom and how she has a flourishing career as an author working on it one day a week.

Got a question for Val and Al? Ask at podcast [at] writerscentre [dot] com [dot] au

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Writer in Residence

Tasmin Janu

Tasmin Janu’s award-winning debut junior novel, Figgy in the World, was born from memories of her three month trip to Ghana, West Africa in 2009. Many of the locations she visited and Ghanaian kids she met are depicted in the novel. The second Figgy book is entitled Figgy and the President. And the third, Figgy Takes the City, will be released in September 2017.

Tasmin’s newest junior novel is Blossom, a fantasy/mystery set in Australia. It follows the adventures of 10 year old Lottie, who one day discovers a strange little girl, Blossom, on her doorstep.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

Tamsin, thank you so much for joining us today.

Tamsin

Thank you for having me.

Valerie

I am so thrilled for you, and so thrilled about the third book that you’ve got released. But there’s a fourth one coming out as well. Now, the latest book, well, just to give people a little bit of background – your first book came out and that was Figgy and the World. And it won all these awards, and it was such a huge success, and was so popular, especially for a first-time author. And you’ve followed that up with the sequel, or the second book in the series, Figgy and the President. And coming up soon, in September, will be Figgy Takes the City. Is that right?

Tamsin

Yeah, that’s right.

Valerie

And that will be the third in the series. But you also, in the meantime, because you’re a very busy woman, you’ve released another book which is not part of the Figgy series, and it’s called Blossom.

Now, I have so many questions for you Tamsin, because you’ve achieved so much in such a short period of time. And I want to get into your writing process, and how you’ve managed to be so prolific and how you’ve written such fantastic books. But before we get on to that, let’s start with Blossom, because that’s the one that’s out now. And it’s such a great read. It just hooks you in from the first few pages. So I want to know, for readers who haven’t yet got their hands on this book, what is it about?

Tamsin

Blossom is about a ten-year-old girl named Lottie who lives in the outer suburbs of Sydney, and she one day discovers a little girl on her doorstep who she names Blossom. And Blossom doesn’t speak, so she can’t say where she’s from, and she’s really obsessed with a flower which she carries around everywhere with her. So she’s a bit of a mysterious little character.

Valerie

Now it is such an unusual premise. But when you read the book it’s completely credible and believable. But it’s such an unusual premise when you just hear it like that, right? So how in the world did this idea come into your head? Because it’s so unusual.

Tamsin

I’d lived – it sounds a bit weird how it came about. But I was a youth worker in the Northern Territory in 2014 and 2015, so I lived in a remote community out there. And I would always have people coming to my door, and knocking on my door. And it was always a bit of a surprise when I opened the door who I would find. You know, sometimes it would be a random group of little kids, sometimes adults. It was a whole variety of people.

So that’s really what sparked the idea for the opening scene where Lottie opens the door and Blossom is standing there, it’s just that idea of someone coming to a door and you not knowing who they are. But then from that, I don’t know where it came from, really!

Valerie

You don’t know where it came from!

Tamsin

Just kind of, the story kind of went from there. And the characters developed and took me with them.

Valerie

That’s fantastic. Now as I’ve mentioned this is already your third book with the fourth one coming out very soon. So really, you’re already an experienced author. But I’d like you to take us back to before you’d written anything. Did you always know from a young age that you wanted to be a writer? Or was it something that came to you when you became an adult and you thought, oh, I might try this writing thing. How did it all form, the desire to be a writer?

Tamsin

I remember from when I was really young, I always liked writing stories. I’m one of six children, I’m the second eldest, so I forced all my younger siblings to be in my plays a lot.

And I remember being very young, I have an older sister who is very smart and worked really hard and so she’d win all the awards in school. Whereas I wasn’t quite as smart and didn’t work quite as hard, so I remember whingeing to my mum once that I didn’t win many awards. And mum kind of said, but you’re creative, you write good stories. So I remember holding that with me through school.

But then the first time I wrote outside of the school experience was probably a year after I left school. I just kind of felt like writing. And it just started from there, that I started jotting down some stories and getting going.

Valerie

Wow. And so you have done the course at the Australian Writer’s Centre, Become a Children’s Author, which is about writing books for children and young adults, right? So what prompted you to do that course?

Tamsin

I was just really, I’d probably been writing, I was writing quite a silly book that I knew wouldn’t go anywhere. But I was just having so much fun writing it. And I just wanted to learn more, really. I wanted to learn more about the craft, and all that kind of thing.

But when I got to the course, I hadn’t really thought about getting published or anything like that. But the course introduced me to the possibility of getting published, I suppose, and just taught me a lot about things like voice and where your story is pitched. Like, I was kind of writing at the time a book that was a bit young adult and a bit middle grade. So it kind of showed me the different categories of children’s literature as well.

Valerie

And I understand that it was only on the second day of the course that you came up with the idea that eventually became your debut novel, Figgy and the World. Is that right?

Tamsin

Yeah. I was a bit early to the course on the second day, so I sat in the park and that was when I wrote down the first words of Figgy and the World. So yeah, it was kind of funny. It must have sparked something in me that I kind of, yeah, thought seriously about an idea.

Valerie

Now that book has become so popular and has won so many awards, or been shortlisted for so many awards. In case there’s some listeners who aren’t familiar with it yet, and with the rest of the series, the third book in the series coming out now, just giving us a little bit of a rundown on Figgy and Figgy’s world.

Tamsin

Sure. Well, Figgy, she lives in Ghana, which is a country in West Africa. She lives with her grandma Ama and her cousins. She goes on numerous adventures. The first book involves Figgy going on a big trip across Ghana to find medicine for her grandma Ama who isn’t well.

And so the second book, Figgy is a couple of years older, and she goes on some adventures there, too. She’s trying to find out what she’ll be when she grows up. And she stars in a movie.

And then the third book, Figgy and her friend Nana, they’re going off to school in Ghana’s big city Accra, so they have to leave their home village. So yeah, it’s been nice following Figgy as she grows up. She was eight in the first book, and now in the third she’s turning twelve. So, yeah.

Valerie

And so when you started, when you sat in the park on the second day of your course and you thought of this story about Figgy, and you developed it in the course, at what point did you think – you know what? I could get this published, maybe.

Tamsin

I don’t… I can’t really pinpoint a time. I just kind of wrote it. It came quite quickly. And just the story came out quite quickly. And then I kind of decided to send it off to a couple of publishers. Kind of the course, you know, I think they’d given us a sheet with a couple of publishers you could send your first couple of chapters to.

And then also at the time, Scholastic Omnibus was accepting unsolicited submissions and they were accepting the full manuscript. So I posted that off to them. And then three months later I got a response, and it was a rejection. But it was Dyan Blacklock who used to work at Scholastic Omnibus, and she was saying she liked a lot about it, like the voice and the premise and the setting. But there were a couple of things that needed work. And they were kind of more things that more beginner writers, I think, all tough things like consistency of voice and the pacing and keeping the writing tight.

So I kind of took that as a challenge, and I think I had to finish a couple of months of uni exams. So I waited until my summer holidays and really worked on it hard and kind of worked on it a lot and then sent it back, and they accepted it. So it was kind of just, I don’t know. Quite unexpected that it happened like that.

Valerie

And then became so successful. So you were studying at uni. Now what were you studying at uni?

Tamsin

I was studying law.

Valerie

Now, have you subsequently started a career as a lawyer? Or have you wanted to write? Tell us about that balance.

Tamsin

Yeah, it’s been a bit tricky. I’ve kind of been a bit all over the place. When I finished uni, I went off to be a youth worker in the Northern Territory, like I said, for a couple of years. And I’ve kind of come back and now I’m a research assistant at a charity. So I guess I kind of use my law background in some ways. But I haven’t gone on to be a full-on lawyer yet. And it’s more just because of the time. I’ve kind of made the decision this year that I want to have at least one day a week where I can dedicate to writing. So I was really looking for a part-time job.

Valerie

You dedicate one day a week to writing and you’re releasing your fourth book? Is that what I’m hearing?

Tamsin

Yeah.

Valerie

Oh my goodness. That’s amazing!

Tamsin

I do bits and pieces on other days, too.

Valerie

Sure, but that’s fantastic. So that, let’s get into that. Tell me, you must have a really efficient and productive day. How do you structure your writing? Regardless of whether it’s on that day or when you’re doing your bits and pieces, how do you approach your writing? Because obviously you’re not a full-time writer. You’re only really dedicating one day a week, plus your little bits and pieces. How do you structure your writing in order to write all of these books?

Tamsin

Yeah, you say it’s structured, but it’s actually really all over the place.

Valerie

Go on, just tell me.

Tamsin

I’m trying to become more structured. I really… It is, it’s kind of whenever I can grab time. So, it’s kind of changed as I’ve moved to different jobs and everything, it changes how much time I can dedicate.

But when I’m really into a story, and when I’m really enthusiastic about it, I find I can, if I have a day at home, I can kind of dedicate most of the day to just working on that story. And I write quite quickly, I think. So I can draft a story quite quickly. Which I think helps. But I think it’s just enjoying it helps you to fit it in whenever you can.

Valerie

But let’s say you’re in the middle of writing one of your manuscripts, then. Tell me about your typical day, as in the day that you dedicate to writing. Do you just wake up and just get to the computer and go for it? Or do you have any kind of ritual to get into the zone? Or do you have a word count target? Or how does that actually work for you?

Tamsin

Sure. So when I’m drafting, I’ll get up and have breakfast, and I’ll kind of sit down and write. I don’t usually work to a word count target, but sometimes I’ll have it in my head that it’ll be nice to get to 2,000 words by the end of this day. But I don’t beat myself up about it. If I’m having a hard day –

Valerie

Did you just say 2,000 words as in you might actually write 2,000 words in one day?

Tamsin

Yeah, sometimes.

Valerie

That’s a good target. That’s great. Fantastic. Okay.

Tamsin

Yeah. But when I’m having a hard day concentrating, like I think we all have those days, where it’s just… I do like to go to a cafe occasionally and sit for two, three hours, how many hours I can get away with at a cafe.

Valerie

You have to buy lots of cups of tea, don’t you?

Tamsin

Exactly. So because I really like the buzzing background noise in cafes. I find that really helps productivity.

Valerie

Yeah. I love it, too.

Tamsin

And I also go on lots of walks. So going on a long walk, I think, really helps. You come back, you feel a lot more productive.

Valerie

Yeah, fantastic. All right. So I just think that’s fantastic, and how prolific you are, and you’re only dedicating one proper day per week. So tell us about, do you just start with a premise and start writing? Or do you actually know what’s going to happen in the story? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Tamsin

I think I’m definitely a pantser. But I do generally start a story, I’ll have a premise, and I’ll jot down a few points before I start writing. So I’ll generally kind of know where I’m going, or I’ll at least know the first half. And then when I’m kind of a quarter way through I will have thought of the ending. But I find that stories sit in my head for a long time before I actually write them. And so that really helps with the planning process, because I’m just thinking about them all the time, often for a number of months before I actually write anything.

Valerie

Wow.

Tamsin

So by the time I get down to write, I really want to write the story.

Valerie

So when they’re sitting in your head, and you’re just thinking about them, and they’re obviously brewing, at what point do you know – because as you said, you don’t actually know the whole story before you start writing, usually you know the first half – at what point do you know, I gotta get it out now? What’s the trigger?

Tamsin

I’m not sure. It is after they’ve been sitting there for a couple of months. And I just feel ready, I think. I feel like I can write it. It’s just a feeling, I guess, of readiness.

It’s also when I have time. I try to, because I’m often working on a couple at once, so I try to finish what I start. So once I finish the next one then I’m like, great, time for this new story! But I don’t want, because you get new stories in your head all the time, and if you sat down and wrote all those new stories you’d never finish one. So I try to commit to the one I’m writing before I…

Valerie

So in that case, you write, you’re getting new stories in your head all the time, do you literally just let them sit in your head? Or do you write some notes so you don’t forget what’s in your head?

Tamsin

I do have now a folder on my computer, WIPs, works in progress. So I’ve just been putting up a new Word document and literally writing down, it might only be a couple of lines, just of ideas, because I am a bit scared if I have a great idea then I’ll forget about it. But that’s mostly, yeah, that’s the extent of my planning.

Valerie

Have you had to do a lot of research for your books? Particularly, I suppose, Figgy being in Ghana. Did you have to do a lot of research for that?

Tamsin

Yeah, I actually lived in Ghana for a bit over three months before I wrote the Figgy books. So I was volunteering over there and teaching at a school. So I lived with a local family for that whole time, and was obviously around kids all of the time. And I travelled a lot all over the country, too.

So I really got, I think I got a good sense of Ghana from being there for that long, and just soaking up the culture and everything.

I also wrote journals. I wrote in a journal while I was there. So I would write in it every single day for the entire time. Which was quite a commitment, because some of my days were, you know, got up, went to school. Saw a funny animal on the way and then walked home. But they were really useful once I got home, because it just really helped bring back the sights, sounds and smells, everything about Ghana.

Valerie

What do you think is the most challenging thing about writing? As in what do you find the most challenging thing?

Tamsin

I sometimes find it hard when you’re writing a book and you’ve been working on it for a long time, and you kind of get to that stage at the end of the book where you’re not sure if it’s finished. I still have sometimes a lot of trouble putting a full stop on it and saying, that’s done.

And it’s particularly problematic, also, when you’re doing, you’re writing a manuscript and you get to a point where you’re like, I think there’s a problem, but I don’t know what it is. So I found a solution to that. I just leave it for a couple of months. And generally coming back to it with fresh eyes, you kind of see it in a different light and can solve the problem. But yeah, I find that a little bit frustrating sometimes, when you feel like you’ve hit a bit of a road block.

Valerie

And what do you find the easiest thing about writing?

Tamsin

It’s probably just coming up with stories. I just, I love doing that. I love doing first drafts. Just kind of getting a story out on to the page. I really, really love that process. I know some people find that that’s the most horrible part. But that’s the part that I really love. And makes me really excited.

Valerie

Now, you say you often have a couple of things going at once. So for example, Blossom is already out, and then Figgy Takes the City is already written because it’s coming out very soon. What are you working on now?

Tamsin

So I’m working on a couple of other middle grade novels. I don’t like to talk about them too much before they’re out there, because I get superstitious. But one involves gymnastics. I did a lot of gymnastics when I was a kid. So yeah, that’s what one of them involves. So I’m kind of drafting one and editing the other.

Valerie

Great. And so are they totally different topics? Totally different worlds, so to speak?

Tamsin

Yeah, pretty much.

Valerie

So if you’re working on two things at once, is it hard to keep track? How do you then divide it? Morning, I’ll write the gymnastic one, and then in the afternoon I’ll write this other one. How do you actually, on a practical level, divide up how you spend your time?

Tamsin

Sure. Um. It’s kind of more of a feeling, I suppose. With the gymnastics one, I previously, I wrote it and got some feedback and then I was sitting on that feedback for a while. And then I felt ready to tackle the feedback I’d gotten and to really get in there and edit it. So I’m really focusing on that one and leaving the other one I was drafting for a little bit.

It’s just, often it’s what I feel enthusiastic about, what I feel motivated to do. And I’m sure once I finish editing the one I’m doing now, I’ll be so excited to go back to the other one and finish drafting it. So yeah, I kind of go by what I feel excited about because then I’ll get the work done.

Valerie

Now, you’ve been successful as an author with your fourth book coming out, but cast your mind back to the moment you heard that your first book was going to be published. Can you remember what was happening at the time? What you were doing? Can you describe what your experience was, and how you received it? Was it a phone call? Was it an email? And what did you think?

Tamsin

Yeah. I was actually doing some volunteer youth work in remote Western Australia in the Pilbara at the time. And I was staying in one of the miner’s dongers, they’re kind of like little caravans. So I had some wi-fi in there, so I got an email from Dyan Blacklock saying that they, you know, they wanted the book. And it just seemed a bit kind of like I was in another world. Because I was away from home, and I was kind of like is this real?

But then she was saying that she wanted to have a phone call but I don’t think I had reception there. So I went to youth program and I remember standing on a bridge on the play equipment to ensure I had reception. And having the phone call.

But yeah, it all felt very kind of other-worldly, just because I wasn’t at home. But yeah, it was just so exciting. But just even the prospect of having a book out there, even when the book came out, it was just… I never really expected it.

Valerie

It’s so wonderful. And so when you did the course at the Australian Writer’s Centre, what did the course do for your writing and your writing experience?

Tamsin

I think it just, it definitely motivated me to, I guess, maybe write a bit more towards publication. To show that it was possible to get your book published. I mean, I’d never known anyone who’d had a book that was published. And so I kind of thought of authors as kind of faraway creatures who were very special. And they were saying, no, it’s possible for normal people, too. So it gave me kind of that push. And it also just showed me, I guess, lots of useful things about the basics of writing and how to structure a novel.

Valerie

And did you ever imagine at the time that you would end up with four books? And I’m sure that’s only the start! There’s plenty more coming out of you, I can tell.

Tamsin

No. Never. Never. I never thought that that was even possible. So it’s all been such a wonderful ride and journey.

Valerie

What’s been the most rewarding thing about being an author, or the most rewarding thing about writing your novels?

Tamsin

I think it has actually been – and I didn’t consider this when I wrote the books – but it’s been the feedback from children, specifically. It’s just really lovely to get emails and letters from kids who really enjoy your books. And particularly now Figgy and the World is studied in quite a few schools. And so I get lovely, lovely, lovely letters and emails from kids. So that’s been I think the most rewarding and the nicest thing about it. Just knowing that kids enjoy it.

Valerie

Wonderful. And finally what’s your advice for aspiring writers who hope to be in a position like you are one day, with all these books published?

Tamsin

I think it’s important to write what you want to write. So don’t be swayed by what’s trendy, or anything like that. Because I think when you write what you’re passionate about it really works well. And also, don’t get disheartened. I think writing can sometimes be kind of hard, and you spend a lot of time by yourself in your own head, and there’s sometimes a bit of disappointment when you don’t really get it right. But when you do get it right, it feels really great. So yeah, just keep working at it.

Valerie

Wonderful. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Tamsin.

Tamsin

Thank you, Valerie.

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