Jackie French: Author of more than 100 titles

image-jackiefrench200A prodigious children’s book writer with well over 100 titles across a variety of genres to her credit, Jackie French is best known for her 1999 novel Hitler’s Daughter, which was awarded the 2000 CBCA Children’s Book of the Year Award for Younger Readers.

Another of her books, To the Moon and Back (co-written with Bryan Sullivan, illustrated by Gus Gordon, 2004) won the Children’s Book of the Year Award: Eve Pownall Award for Information Books in 2005 and a number of her other works have been either awarded or shortlisted as part of the CBCA Children’s Book of the Year Award honours.

She is also an avid gardener and conserver of endangered fruit species on her property out near Braidwood in NSW, as well as the author of a number of ground breaking books on theories and practices for pest and weed ecology.

We interviewed her at the Sydney Writers’ Festival where we asked her about her amazing publishing career and what we can expect from her in the future.

Click play to listen. Running time: 17.54

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle:  
Hi, I'm Danielle Williams from the Australian Writers’ Centre. I’m here at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and about to speak to Australia’s most prolific young adult and kids’ book authors, Jackie French. Hi, Jackie.

Jackie:
Hi. That word ‘prolific’, why don’t people say of concert violinists, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific, you play so many different things'. There’s this concept in Australia, or even in the literary world, that you have to stay with one genre. I don’t know any author who would say they only ever ate pizza, or potato chips, or watermelon or even apples. And yet there is this belief that a writer writes in only one genre, or possibly two if they’re going to be very, very, very daring. Sorry, you’ve got me onto ‘prolific’ now.

Danielle:
I guess when I say ‘prolific’ I mean there are over 130 books, so really that is prolific.

Jackie:
This is true. Actually, really, no matter how much I start denying it, yes, OK, prolific probably is a good word.

Danielle:
Given that you have published so much over the last 30-odd years, what continues to drive you? You know, what keeps you writing so much?

Jackie:
There’s a very honest answer to that, I really don’t know. To some extent I’m still the three-year-old who discovered this extraordinary secret world. I had imaginary friends, and the sister of one of them – her name was the [inaudible; 0:01:41.4 , sounds like “little tending”] girl, and she had a sister called ‘Maria'. Maria showed me how to send my mind with the wind to this new world called Tajjarakol, and I lived pretty much in Tajjarakol, whenever the math class, or any other time that I was bored, I just flew off. I put my mind with the wind to Tajjarakol, and partly when I write now I’m still that three-year-old, sending my mind on the wind to a place that fascinates me.

The other half simultaneously is very coldly, very proficiently evaluating and working with words, who’s got a very, very clear idea of the themes that she wants portrayed, the times and the passions she wants portrayed, is evaluating words, is evaluating concepts, is evaluating characters. It is simultaneously the most self-indulgent job in the world, as well as I think possibly one of the most disciplined jobs where you also have to be continually aware, ‘I am not doing this for me, I am doing this for the reader'. And, the reader is anyone from Salinger call to the fat lady, the fat lady, her legs are too swollen, she’s sitting in slippers in the kitchen and all she might have is your book. For the kid in the Western suburbs, for a child who is dyslexic like me. I know it sounds a paradox, but at exactly the same time it is complete self-indulgence and absolutely completely the opposite.

Danielle:
You just mentioned your dyslexia and I was going to ask about that. I mean that must take a different kind of discipline, a very strong discipline to work with your writing. How have you dealt with that over the years?

Jackie:
I think the discipline is really my editor's rather than me. After they got over the shock of the first book, which they described as the messiest, worst spelt manuscript they had ever received, it’s really the editors who are the ones who have to really cope with the problem. For me, I get the benefits of dyslexia really without the problems.

I suspect there is a connection between my dyslexia and my being prolific. I don’t read like other people do, and excuse me shutting my eyes, because I have to. I don’t read like that. I tend to scan down the page, I can read faster than anyone I know, I can assimilate data, I can actually take in data, I’ve got an eidetic memory, I can correlate data. I suspect that is also part of being dyslexic, but never having been any other way, you can’t go and perch in someone else’s mind, I actually don’t know if this is what every writer finds.

I do remember when an author went to my son’s school, I forget who it was, and my son came home and said, ‘She speaks just like you'. And I suddenly realised I've never met a writer who doesn't have recurrent obsessive eclectic passions. It might be for 18th century silverware, it might be that they've suddenly discovered some works on homogoriences, but it does seem to be a characteristic of authors to have this incredibly wide, incredibly eclectic and temporary obsessive interest in whatever is going to become the next book, or maybe 10 books’ time. Possibly without that eclecticism, without that obsession, and without that absolute passion for something which no one else has really noticed or possibly cared about, but can be presented in a way that suddenly people think, ‘Wow'. Almost to say when you clean the windows suddenly you can see, it’s always been there, but you couldn't see it. I think that probably is often the task for a writer. The view beyond the window has always been there, but a writer is the window cleaner. You clean the window and suddenly not just the view, but the implications of the view are there for the reader.

Danielle:
So, what’s your current obsession? I know you do have a new book coming out, so tell us a bit about that.

Jackie:
Always several, again, in different genres. The next one is Wombat Goes to School, that is one in The Diary of a Wombat one. The lovely thing about the wombat is the wombat can get away with anything because it is an animal. What you can do with the wombat books, all of us, I think, would really love to be able to bash up the garbage bin, until we got what we wanted. This is my fantasy of really what would have happened in my math class if a wombat had come to school.

The next book though is a rather different one. Again, it’s really been 40 years in the making, it’s called Let the Land Speak. It is a history of Australia, looking at the influence of the land itself on the iconic events, from the first foot on the beach, through Gallipoli, through Eureka – you can’t really understand Eureka, unless you understand the darkness. It talks about the women who made the land, there is so much talked about fire-stick farming, and yet fire-stick farming, which maybe only three per cent of – well, in fact, many areas they didn't even eat kangaroo in many areas, it was ceremonial. Fire-stick farming is easy for Europeans to understand, it’s very close to hunting, shooting, fishing – light a match, you can have a fire, and you think you've understood fire-stick farming. Yes, it did have a major impact on the land, but the women had far more of an impact.

This is also a book about how the women made the land, because women often don’t talk to men about women’s business. There’s one bit in the book, how a man catches a fish, OK? The good hunter waits, but you make your spear, the perfect balanced spear, you make the barb, you stand and you wait, and you wait with absolute stillness, with your body angled so the fish does not realise you are there. Three hours later, and with one incredible blow, you put your spear down and you get it through a fish, and it’s like an Olympic event. To do that it’s not extraordinary machismo, but you almost need to be an Olympic athlete to do it, and you carry it back, to great acclaim, one fish.

How a woman catches a fish – OK, you carry the basket down to the beach, usually with some fruit or something like that. You sit on the sand hill while the kids actually maybe go and dig a few tubers with your great-great-great grandmother have got, and some driftwood for the fire. You put the basket just in the waves as the tide is going out, you hold it in place with a stick, and as the tide goes out your basket fills with fish and they can’t turn around. It has taken you 20 seconds, you have got somewhere between 30-60 fish, and you've just actually sat there and laughed and gossiped and talked with your friends while the kids have lit the fire, and you've got the fish. It’s not mecca, but my word it is a very, very efficient way of getting food for everyone.

A lot of the book is that. It is very much a woman’s look at the history of Australia, but not just the history of Australia, the land itself, and the history of Australia. And the last two chapters are using the past to predict the future. Once you actually do understand the patterns of the past you can understand whether there will be bushfire next year, whether there will be flood in five years’ time and many other things as well. So, it’s a book of predictions as well as history.

Danielle:
What age is this book for?

Jackie:
Adults, I suspect though there will be crossover. Just as Diary of a Wombat, I think it’s enjoyed by 80-year-olds, I suspect that odd 12-year-old will probably Let the Land Speak as well.

Danielle:
Your writing career actually started with kid’s books…

Jackie:
No, actually, I was writing short stories for adults, sci-fi and detective fiction, but I was absolutely desperately broke, so I sent a kid’s book off to the first publisher in the phonebook, which was A for Angus and Robertson. It was picked up mostly because, as I said, it was the worst spelt, messy manuscript, and the mess was because the old typewriter, the ‘E’ didn’t work because the wombat used to leave its droppings. So the ‘E’ was all soft and squishy, but it was short-listed for the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year, and the New South Wales Premier’s Award. Suddenly after people telling me all my life, ‘No, no dear, you cannot make a living being a writer', suddenly I was making a living as a writer. But I was also making a living as a children’s writer. And when you are desperately broke as a single parent, living in a shed in the bush with no running water, not even in the creek, and no electric power, etc., and the publishers suddenly say, ‘We will now accept every book you want to write for us', you keep writing children’s books.

What's the really strange thing though is that I began partly from financial necessity, I probably would have written a few children’s books. I enjoy writing it, but the last 10 years it’s been a point where if I never wanted to write another children’s book I wouldn't have to. I could just continue to write books for adults and I haven’t. I've realised that there is a very, very large part of me that, yes, I am a children’s author. Partly, it’s because kids are honest. You can never make a kid read a book they don’t want. They'll ask their best friend what happens, but they won’t read it. They’ll never tell you they like it if they don’t. You get the kids that are like, “Dear Jackie French, our teacher said we had to write to our favourite author. My favorite author is Roald Dahl, but he’s dead, so I'm writing to you', ‘Dear Jackie French, the rest of the class liked your book, but I fell asleep. I think it sucks. From Ben'. It’s partly for that incredible honesty.

It is also knowing that every book a child reads is a major proportion of their life. If a child is only eight-years-old a book is going to influence them simply because it is a larger proportion of the life they have lived. There are so many things I think it is important for children to understand and to experience, and ironically as the world seems to get larger with communications, in another way it gets smaller and smaller, and children’s experience living and life experience and exposure to ideas gets smaller and smaller. A children’s author, because I enjoy it, I’m a children’s author from passion and conviction, but also it’s fun. Writing about a wombat demolishing doormats, what other job is half as much fun as this one? I still think I'm going to wake up and I'm 12-years-old and I’m in Ms. Emily’s math class, and I am daydreaming. For a lot of my life basically, this is as good as it gets.

Danielle:
Do you find it difficult to switch between writing for those different audiences?

Jackie:
No, actually, to be perfectly honest. I don’t think I change style, genre, concepts, no matter what audience I'm writing for. There are some subjects that kids will probably not be interested in, complexities of adult relationships, there are things, like farts, that probably very few adults actually really want to read books with that sort of thing in it. But, by and large all of my books, I think, can be read by anyone from three to adult, and I suspect they are. I really think just about all of my work is really not age-specific.

I do get annoyed where people advocate militating language for children, that’s how kids learn language. If a book is good enough a child needs only to understand four words in six and yet they are going to keep on reading. And, when they have come across those words another three or four times they'll know what they mean. That is how we acquire language and concepts, and so often we so totally underestimate kids. Kids are often more interested in the big questions, the good and the evil and how can we change the world, than adults. Adults will often read a book because it fits their image of being an intellectual, they will be preoccupied with how do you pay the mortgage and is there going to be a train strike tomorrow. But, the job of a kid is to understand the world. They are deeply, desperately interested in how the world works, why, and what is good and what is evil, far more often than adults. So, you do a very, very strange extent. For an adult writer writing a book about good and evil, you’ve probably got a relatively small readership, if you are doing that for kids, you have got probably every kid out there who is passionately interested in what is good and what is evil and where do they meet.

Danielle:
On that note I will ask you one more question. What is your advice to writers who want to write for kids?

Jackie:
Don’t underestimate them. Don’t be cute, don’t write down. Forget about the books you loved as a child. Always remember, though, who you are writing for. Don’t think of a child as being a different species. Don’t think of a child as being stupid. And, don’t equate the words that a child is able to read with that they can understand. No adult ever says to a kid, ‘Don’t watch that TV show because you won’t understand it'. We say, ‘Don’t watch that TV show', because we know they are going to understand it and we don’t want them to do it. Do not underestimate your audience, they are possibly the most sophisticated and judgmental and passionate audience you are ever, ever going to get.

Danielle:
That’s fantastic advice. Thank you so much for, Jackie.

Jackie:
My pleasure. My pleasure.

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