In Episode 214 of So you want to be a writer: Why you should enter literary prizes and 3 questions Allison Tait has never been asked. Scrivener gets a huge update and Annie Proulx gives a truly great speech at the National Book Awards. Discover your chance to win Uncommon Type signed by Tom Hanks. And meet Jackie French, author of over 200 books.
Writer in Residence
Jackie French is an Australian author, historian, ecologist, 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Laureate, and 2015 Senior Australian of the Year.
She considers herself an honorary wombat part time.
Jackie has written over 200 books for adults, young adults, and children of all ages.
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Jackie French is an Australian author, historian, ecologist, 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Laureate, and 2015 Senior Australian of the Year. She considers herself an honorary wombat part time. Jackie has written over 200 books for adults, young adults, and children of all ages. I’m not allowed to mention her first book or how it came to be published, because after 25 years of telling that story she’s a bit bored with it. But we are going to talk about her latest books and of course writing. So welcome to the program Jackie.
Thank you, Allison.
I feel very honoured to be speaking to you, because you are a hero to many children’s authors in Australia. So we’re going to start out by talking about your writing process. Because you’ve written a large number of books over your career. Do you have a set routine for how you approach a book now? Or is it still every book is different?
Every book is different. But yes, there is a routine. Sometimes, and not magically, a book appears almost fully formed. But after about 200 books, I think that’s happened three times.
But I have to emphasise ‘almost’. Not coincidentally, those books were ones on things I’d been thinking about probably since I was ten years old. Writing short stories, scribbling notes, looking at people, just simply asking people for their stories. They were books that had been brewing in my sub-conscious for a very, very long time, trying to find a way that would be even slightly adequate to cover the themes. So I think more or less all of the things I’d been thinking about went ping.
But more often, the normal process for a book is that I get an idea for a book. It is an idea for a book. But the problem with ‘an idea’ is that, look, ideas don’t shoot down from the ether or from the space between the stars into your brain. They have to come from somewhere. And the problem with that is that they so often come from something that’s actually a thing, not sufficient to hang a book onto. Or even it’s actually second hand. Ideas that someone else has used, but you can see another way, a better way, a richer way to explore that.
But that original idea is not enough for a book. I don’t so much re-draft my books as layer them. What I tend to do is, I get the idea. Okay, this is where it is going to be set. I even have a character that it’s going to be set around. Though of course, that protagonist can change. In several of my books the character who I thought was the protagonist has actually turned into, well, not a minor figure but certainly not the major figure.
So for about three years, I actually think about that book. And particularly because so many of my books are historical books, I work out the feasibility. The one I’m working on now involves a journey from England to Australia in 1810, then a journey from Port Jackson right down to WA, and then back again by a small boat. So there’s a lot of feasibility in that, including what winds are going to do, and what type the boat is and a whole range of other things. So I did spend three years working on the feasibility of this, the timing of this.
And look, the fascination of that too was it all came from just one tiny paragraph I was reading in the government orders of 1810. And I suddenly thought, this major thing had never, ever, ever been in any history book that I’d read. No one has actually realised that this was happening. I asked a friend who actually worked in an associated area, and she said, oh yes, in 1810 blah blah. And I said, you realise it’s there, the story is there. And no one has noticed it either in history or in fiction.
So, yes, I was really just working at the whole feasibility of this. How it would have happened, when it could have happened, etc. After that, I worked out roughly the plot, worked out roughly the characters. I am now at this stage of writing draft one. But ‘draft’ isn’t really the right word for that. Yes, I will write the book. But it’s primarily plot. It is mostly how this is going to happen, what happens next, what happens next, what happens next, where it happens, etc. After that I will look at it again and make it richer, make it more original.
The whole thing in draft one is – no, not one dimensional. I mean, after so many years I’m a good enough writer. So look, it’s not a bad book in draft one. But it’s the next 56 re-writings that really make it a good book. It’s taking the characters and working out not what I want them to say, but what they would have said. It’s changing the characters.
In the last book I wrote, which went off to Lisa about three days ago, it’s the sequel to Facing the Flames, the last in the Matilda series. And with that one, yes I wrote it. But the rewriting, over and over and over… There is one character in it called Fish. She was called a queer fish when she was six and decided she liked the name. And I wrote Fish as someone that you might say is on the spectrum without actually saying which spectrum she is on. But I suddenly realised, it was probably about draft nine, this is someone who longs for more than the truth. She loves the truth, she ferrets the truth, she gets deeply incredibly emotionally upset if people lie in either fact or emotion. But I realised that she also needed to create the truth, otherwise she was actually just going to be passive. She was just reacting.
So actually, who is this girl? And I realised she was an artist, but a particular kind of artist. And I won’t say here what kind of artist she was. Also partly because Lisa might say it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. And it’s going to be another 56 rewrites. But by the end of the book, this character was a multi-layered rich fascinating character, and hopefully everyone is going to know what is going to happen to this girl. Who is only one of many characters. The book is told from the point of view of six people.
On draft two, I was afraid it was a bit boring. So rather than three corpses underneath the burnt church, I decided to put more corpses underneath the burnt church. By the way, I don’t think it’s boring. I am dyslexic, so all of my work goes to Angela to correct the typos and the spelling before it goes to Harper Collins. For which they are enormously grateful. They don’t have to ring me up and say, page 36, what’s that word? And I say, that’s hippopotamus. But Angela very rarely comments on my books. But with this one she just said, oh wow, adrenaline jag, it’s riveting. Couldn’t stop. With the corrections. So I’m not actually…
That is a problem as well. When you are writing books that you hope are going to be page turners, people are going to really want to know whether because of the plot or the character what is going to happen next. The problem is with 56 drafts, you really know very, very well what is going to happen next. And after 56 drafts, you think, this is boring! You forget, of course, that there is a tension as people turn the page. But that’s probably not a bad thing. Because again in the layering, adding more tension through it, making sure that at so many points through the book there are…
Well, it’s really breaking narrative expectation to make it a page turner. You know when you watch someone on TV. There’s a middle aged woman taking her golden Labrador for a walk in the morning. And she’s walking by the lake and the mists are coming up and everything is lovely. And suddenly the dog goes woof, woof, woof. And she calls back, yes, come back, come back. And of course, what is the dog doing? It’s finding a body. This is narrative expectation. We know it’s going to happen. You are watching a war movie, and the young soldier says, when I get home I’m going to leave the army and grandpa’s vineyard is just waiting, and by the way, my wife is pregnant, it’s due in two days, etc. You just know, okay, 30 seconds and he’s going to get it in the head. That’s it. That’s narrative expectation.
And that is what you will pull in the layering. How many times have you followed narrative expectation? And every time you do, you are going to have to break it. And this means that when you rewrite a book, you are really rewriting a book. You are not just changing a sentence here or there. You are doing major, major rewrites.
However, it’s not quite as bad as it seems because the plot, the outline, the book is actually there. So even changing the major characters, and certainly changing the minor characters so they too are real and not just cliché. Even changing the plot, and various aspects of the plot, or even changing it from first person to third person, requires less work than you think. Because you’re working on something which is already there. It is so much easier to remould something that you’ve got on paper, than to put it down.
But it’s this process of layering, which creates a good book. It’s very interesting. Looking at Terry Pratchett’s last book, which he didn’t quite finish, it’s one of the Tiffany Aching books. It was finished and they published it. But his wife and friends wrote an afterword to it, and said that the way he wrote – and it was an enormous shock for me realising that he wrote exactly the same way as I write – you write the book, you’ve got the book, you write the book. But then you start doing the layering, then you start, they called it tinkering, tinkering the book. And reading that book, you could see so many places where the writing was thin, where he’d actually just hurried over a bit obviously intending to go back to it later. But he was working to actually get the whole outline down so he could really start focusing and working on it.
I’m fascinated by the fact that you do so many drafts. Because you have written so many books. So I’m wondering, are you resting them between drafts, working on other things? Or are you focusing on one?
No. Focusing. Focusing absolutely. Completely and absolutely on one book, even to the extent where I get really irritated if anyone comes in. Leave the phone off the hook, etc, I don’t look at emails. I focus absolutely on that book.
If I’m interrupted in any major way, if I have to go away, etc, it always takes me three days to get back into it. But those three days have to be done. You have to keep working for those three days, and suddenly on day three, right, it’s coming, it’s coming! Always on day two, I think I’ll never write again. This doesn’t work. And no, it’s not working. You have to be prepared to actually trash those days when it doesn’t work. But if you don’t do those days, you don’t get to that magic point at the end of day three when suddenly the book is there, you are standing in that universe, and you can actually see the whole plains and images actually stretching out before you. And you know, yes, this is the book, I am in it, all I have to do is actually write this down.
So again, that’s a not quite accurate image. Because when you write, you never quite know what is around the corner. Once you find your characters, or even the plot, are doing unexpected things, you know you are really in the book. Because they’re doing what they would be doing, rather than what your expectations that they will be doing. So once your book starts taking on a life of its own, and doing things you did not expect, yes, then you know it’s working.
The one I’m writing now, I thought a character was in fact going to be a slightly… Not eerie, but a character that you’re deeply, deeply uncertain about. And that’s still the case. But I hadn’t realised that he’s actually also very funny. Incredibly funny. And I had not realised that until this morning when I looked at him again and realised yes, the reader is going to know exactly… Well, no, actually they’re not going to know exactly what he’s doing, because otherwise it will be predictable. But in a lot of the things he’s doing, yes the reader is going to know, but this is pretence. And it’s going to be funny. Which is good. Because the book badly needed humour. And this character is actually going to become more important. And yes, extremely, extremely funny.
A good moment.
A very good moment.
So do you write every day?
If I can. If I can. Every day I answer emails or answer letters, otherwise it just gets far too much for me. So yes, I have to have a couple of hours every day at least answering emails and letters. I do now have help answering letters, because there’s no way on earth I can answer them all myself.
I do answer the very, very personal ones, but an enormous number of them are from people who just want to know how to write a picture book, or where you get your inspiration or things like that. The ones where, to put it bluntly, they’re too lazy to actually go and keep reading on my website, which is where they get my email address or my other address, so rather than actually read the information on the website, it is easier to write to me.
Including all of the emails from kids who have got assignments, and simply are going to get an A if they get an email back from the author, or the teachers who have actually said that everyone has to email the author with their comments, or the teachers who then send 28 projects for me to look at and comment on, because they’re all so good. Those take up a heck of a lot of time. And look, as much as possible I do answer them myself. I’ve got a period coming up though where I’ve got several surgeries so, yes. But where it’s not answered by me, it’s signed by someone else.
And how do you decide if a story is going to be for children, young adults, adults? Does that come with a contractual obligation? Or does that come with, okay, this is a picture book?
It’s usually clear from the beginning by the age of the protagonist. And that’s really the only criteria, is the age of the protagonist.
We underrate kids, we really do. No one says to a kid, you can’t watch Game of Thrones because you won’t understand it. We say, you can’t watch Game of Thrones because we know they will understand it, and we don’t want them to have to cope with various of the themes yet.
Kids are not just as capable as adults with complex themes, they’re also more eager for it. The job of kids is to understand what the adult world is like. They have a hunger for deep things. Adults often are just trying to get from one mortgage payment to the rest. They want escapism. Now, kids want escapism too. They certainly want it, but it needs to be good escapism. Deeply cleverly funny escapism. But they also want, even more than adults, books that have got heart and substance.
In this year’s WAYRBA and KROC Awards, for example, the kids choice awards, Pennies for Hitler won the kids choice awards. Now in the other books, in the age groups, were funny, light, short, escapist. And then suddenly here in the middle is this extremely large, very complex thematically challenging book that kids have voted for, Pennies for Hitler. Hitler’s Daughter was on the list for every year for ten years with a winner. The one before it. And again, it’s a challenging book.
By the way, the books can only be there for ten years before they’re put in the hall of fame and they’re not shortlisted anymore.
Otherwise it would still be there.
But no, it is so interesting in kids choice awards, seeing yes of course incredibly popular, incredibly funny ones are there. But then suddenly there is this incredibly thematically dense big book that kids love. And love incredibly deeply. And these are the books that change them. These are the books that live with them all their lives.
That’s what I wanted to ask you about, actually. Because the seventh book in the Matilda Saga was released this week, and I find it a really interesting series because it combines history and that generational saga, and it doesn’t shy from big themes, politics, difficult storylines, with a suggested reading age of 10+. So I’m interested in how you approach writing stories like that for children?
It took me a while to realise that kids are interested in adult lives as well. Of course, they’re interested in adult lives. They don’t get to know what’s happening half the time. It happens after they’ve gone to bed. They want to know what adults do.
So in the Matilda series, there are always characters who are either the age of the target audience or a bit older. Kids are very happy with protagonists who are four or five or six years older than them, because again they want to know what it’s like to be that age. But in the Matilda Saga, yes, some of the protagonists are going to be older as well. And in fact because the series starts in 1892, the characters who were young, I think Matilda is 12 at the beginning of the series, the characters, we’re now in 1979, the characters of course age as the series goes on.
So again, there are more young people added to it. But people really want to know what happens to Matilda? What happens to Nancy of the Overflow and Flinty McAlpine? So we see their lives progress.
But yes, it’s certainly thematically ambitious. What I wanted to show in that series is the history of our nation from the point of view of the people usually left out of the history books. It’s Australia’s history from the point of view of the women, the indigenous people, Afghan, Chinese community, etc. And of course, the voices change as the history, as the series continues.
But yes, it is deliberately trying to tell the history, told from the point of view of two interlocked communities, three interlocked families. But again, the history that you may not get reading the history books, the history that was very carefully hidden.
And in fact the latest book, the one I just sent to Lisa, in unravelling who those bodies are under the church that has burnt in Chasing the Flame, so many of Australia’s secrets get unravelled. The things that as nation we don’t really want to look at in our past. Fish thinks she’s looking for a serial killer, but in reality what she is finding are the things that we do not want to see.
That sounds very intriguing.
It is. I hope! I hope. This is always the moment where I’m biting my fingernails waiting for Lisa to read it.
Do you find though, because your other release this year was Goodbye Mr Hitler, which is the last in your Hitler trilogy, do you find that parents… Because what I find interesting is the number of parents that I speak to, I have a thirteen year old and a ten year old son, and parents will often say to me, oh, I can’t believe that you let him read that. Do you know what I mean? Not necessarily talking about your books, clearly, but other things that they think are not suitable for the age group. So I’m just wondering if you ever find that gatekeeper aspect causes problems?
No. Absolutely the contrary. I’ve never ever had a letter or an email like that. With Goodbye Mr Hitler, I’m starting to get emails and letters from parents and teachers who have said that they’re crying as they write them, and the book needs to be read by every child in every school and be in every library, and it’s the most important book they’ve ever read. Every child must have this book. So, no.
But Goodbye Mr Hitler is a book about incredibly hard things. But as one email this week said, woven through it on every page there is love and joy and hope. And he said that so many books on this, yes they may have happy endings, but the books are just so grim. But in this one, there is even at the worst of times, there is incredible love, incredible joy and incredible hope. And forgiveness throughout the books.
Is that a conscious thing on your part? Or does that just come out of the story?
It’s partly conscious. It is, too, that I have a very strong belief that yes, bad things happen. Horrendous things happen. At the moment, to me actually something mildly horrendous is happening, which is why I’m facing a year at least where I won’t be able to walk and several surgeries.
That’s not good!
No, it’s not good. But a very wise man told me some years ago, that the other side of love is loss. And we need to look at those together. Whenever you look at loss, see the love. Whenever you look at love, realise that everything is transitory.
But he said, hold it at a distance. Imagine the loss, imagine the tragedy. You are holding it in your hand as a ball and it is out there at the outstretch of your hand. Now all around it, you can still see the beauty of the world, the love, and the happiness. And it is so easy when bad things happen just to focus on that. And to forget all of the love and joy and literally transcendence that is there as well.
He told me that in fact a few weeks before my husband stopped breathing, and after I resuscitated him was taken by ambulance into Canberra hospital. And I followed the ambulance in the car, and it was the most beautiful afternoon I have ever seen. The sun was shining gold through the tussocks, and the hills had that extraordinary almost radiant purple colour, and the line of the hills and the sky was almost as if someone had scribbled it. And it was beautiful. And I remember every single second of its beauty, because he had taught me to focus. Yes, I was focusing very deeply on my fear and my grief, but I was holding it at a distance. And because the adrenaline meant that I was absolutely completely there, I saw everything. And I remember it. And it was so beautiful.
And that is what I have tried to put in Goodbye Mr Hitler. The tragedy is there, the anguish is there. But there is also love and beauty and this is very, very deeply a part of my philosophy.
We should not turn away from hard things. Especially for kids. Kids know they’re happening. They actually get upset if they can’t, if people try to hide them away. Kids know these things happen, they need to know about them, they want to know about them. But to find a way to show them that yes, bad things may happen, but when bad things happen there usually are people who want to help. They may not be able to help the first people or the second people, but there will be people who want to help. There will be beauty and transcendence.
Always, yes, focus on the bad, because you need to to actually cope with it. So I’m not saying don’t look at it. On the contrary, keep it there in front of you and do not turn away. Because if you turn away, it’s going to leap out at you some other time. Don’t turn away from it. But remember everything that is going around it as well.
Those are excellent words to live by. Thank you for that.
It is one of the things that’s deeply important for kids to learn. It’s how they learn resilience. Bad things happen, but these are ways that you get through it.
Okay. I’m going to just think about that for a minute.
Would you like to talk about something completely different?
I’m just going to need a little moment. No, I’m actually going to ask you now about your role as Children’s Laureate, and whether or not that changed the way you approach… Because it’s a big job, that.
Look, it was. But it was also pretty much doing what I’d always done, and in fact what I’ve kept on doing since. And even if I can’t walk in the future, I will keep on doing it. There is no way I’m going to let this stop me.
The one thing I did learn though, was after about my third appearance as laureate and people just looked a little bit unsatisfied, I think is probably the world, even if the talk was good. And I realised no, my job as laureate is to thank people. That’s what it is to be given a title. It’s not just to enthuse people, etc, it’s not just to get people into reading and all those things. The job of a laureate is to thank extraordinary people. And that really is everyone that you talk to, when you’re talking to teachers, librarians, parents, etc. To actually thank them for being there.
The people who come to see you as laureate are those who are slogging away at it. People often talk about tireless workers for kids. I’ve never met one. Everyone who works for kids is usually very, very, very tired. Kids are exhausting. But they keep on doing it because it matters. It matters more than anything else. It’s at the heart of what it is to be most deeply human, is to actually cherish our young and create resilient, happy, imaginative, empathetic adults. This is the most important job we have as adults.
So as laureate I learnt that we need to thank those people who care enough to come to listen to people in how to be inspired or maybe to do it even better, or even just for validation, being with a community of their peers. Always when they’re very, very tired, too, and may possibly be having a couple days off just to talk to each other and have a glass of wine and have dinner in the evening and enjoy themselves.
Yes, true. Now your Twitter feed is a really interesting place. It’s a glorious mix of books, writing and, of course, wombats. Are you a fan of social media?
I’ve only been doing it for about three months.
I know, but you’ve really taken to it.
I really don’t understand it yet. I’m starting to understand it.
To my utter surprise, after being very contemptuous, oh you can’t say something in 140 characters, I’ve realised in fact you can. You can do a lot. And it’s probably better putting it on Twitter than continuing to mutter it to my husband. But I don’t really understand social media yet. But I’m beginning to have the most enormous admiration for it.
We have lost most of our sense of community in the past 30 to 40 years. Even with students, so many are exhausted with part-time jobs just simply to eat or to survive. People are working longer hours, commutes are so long, there just isn’t the time for community that there was before. Social media is creating communities again, and that really matters. This is again who we are as humans. We work together, we form small groups together, we form large groups together, we cooperate. And I think social media is possibly the saviour of humanity, because it allows us to form communities.
Well, long may you reign with your wombats, is all I can say. Okay, so we’re going to finish up today with our final question that we ask all authors. And I would say that you can probably do this standing on your head. But what are your top three tips for aspiring authors?
Never believe your own press releases, and never, ever, ever say ‘this is my style’ and get furious at someone who says the book just doesn’t work. You cannot fall in love with your own style, you cannot fall in love with your own words. You are not writing for yourself. If you want to write for yourself, write a diary. But when you write for other people, remember you are writing for them. You are not writing to show how intellectual you are, how clever you are, how much you’ve actually managed to transcend your disease or the horror of your childhood. You are not writing for yourself. You are writing for the reader. You are writing for the reader in terms of the theme, plot and the way you put the words on the page. And what you want is completely and utterly irrelevant. You are writing what they need. That’s the first one.
The second one is if you are not crying, it’s not working. But I’m not talking tears because it’s unhappy. It is so easy to get an effect by actually killing off much-loved characters. Dickens did it very, very well. Someone complained whenever you had a poor deserving girl, she was probably dead by the end of the book. Don’t get cheap effects by doing that. Instead, if you can make yourself cry because something is beautiful, because it is funny, because it is transcendent, then you know you are writing.
Patrick White said if he was crying at the end of the book, he knew it worked, and for me it’s the same thing. If you cry because of the sheer power of the book, you know this book is working.
And number three, more or less where I began, always, always break narrative expectations, what the reader expects. And that is important in novels. You need to break reader expectation with every plot device and every character.
It’s especially necessary in picture books where every time you turn a page in a picture book, the reader cannot know what is going to happen next. You must have that tension as they turn the page. No one has ever turned pages to say, oh isn’t that lovely description, I’m going to turn the page to get more description. They turn the page sometimes because you have created a world they don’t want to leave, sometimes they turn it to find out what happens next. But it has to be what happens next. If they can predict what is happening, then you’ve failed as a writer.
Okay. Fantastic. Terrific tips. Thank you so much for your time today, Jackie. It’s been wonderful. Everyone can visit your terrific website at jackiefrench.com which is full of writing tips, advice, seriously pages and pages. So thank you very much for talking with us today. I really appreciate it.
Absolute pleasure, thank you.