Jackie French: Multi-award-winning author

image-jackiefrench200Jackie French has been writing for over 17 years and has had 132 of her books published.

She wrote her first children’s book called Rainstones in 1991 while she was living in a shed. She said it was probably the messiest manuscript that Angus and Robertson has ever received (and accepted). She has been a full time writer ever since.

Jackie’s latest book, A Rose for the Anzac Boys, is about the war in 1915. She has also just completed a children’s book called Emily and the Big Bad Bunyip.

She has written an historical novel for adults and several books about Australia including To the Moon and Back, Tom Appleby, Convict Boy, My Gran the Gorilla and The Goat that Sailed the World – the true story of the goat who sailed with Captain James Cook.

She lives with her and her husband Bryan in the Araluen Valley in Australia.

Click play to listen. Running time: 39.39

A rose for the Anzac Boys

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today Jackie.

Jackie:
My pleasure.

Valerie:
Now tell us about your first ever book Rainstones. When was that and what made you decide to put pen to paper all those years ago?

Jackie:
I had been writing stories since I was six. I had been creating stories since I was three. But everyone from parents, teachers, guidance counselors had said, “No, no, no dear. You can’t make anything being a writer in Australia. This is a waste of time.” So I wrote for my own pleasure is not really the word; more compulsion, I think, definitely compulsion.

Often it is as though a story gets its teeth into your neck and isn’t going to let go until you have actually written it down and not just written it but then juggled it and devised it and drawn a thousand threads together. And all of that was done in my extremely undecipherable writing. In fact I even can’t decipher it. And I’m not being modest here because I am severely dyslexic so I’m quite serious. Very few people can read my writing.

Valerie:
Right.

Jackie:
I scribbled in private during my first marriage where enunciation saying, “There is only room for one book in a marriage,” and so I was certainly not allowed to write a book until my first husband had. And so there were all of these silverfish eaten illegible manuscripts hidden away in drawers, in the back of book pages, etc.

The marriage broke up. I wasn’t earning anything as a farmer except I just had a complicated caesarean, there was a drought, the creek had dried up, and I was absolutely completely broke. I needed $106.44 to register the car. I was living in the shed in the bush with no electric light, no running water; well, no hot running water but there was a tap and shower outside. Things were actually pretty desperate washing the nappies by hand and putting them on the fence. I didn’t have money for child care.

And the only thing I could think of doing was sending a story off. In fact a friend who is a freelance author recommended I do that. So within a week I had sent a story to the Canberra Times, an article on natural control of scale to a now defunct magazine called Hobby Farmer, and a story called Rainstones to Angus & Robertson now part of HarperCollins.

And within three weeks I had got calls from the editor of the Canberra Times, the editor of Hobby Farmer offering me regular columns and acceptance from Angus & Robertson with a short story saying, “We are putting together an anthology. Would you like to send us another story?” Then when they received the second story, they suggested that this be a book of short stories and would I write the rest of them?

So suddenly after all those years I actually was making money as a writer. It was extremely sudden. There’s a story that I often tell about how they came to look at the manuscript. As many would-be writers know, have slush piles. The often thousands of manuscripts would come in all expecting detailed assistance and reply, and all too often there simply isn’t the staff for that and you get the manuscript back again with a very polite note saying, “Thank you for sending us your manuscript. Unfortunately it did not fit in with our publishing requirements.”

However mine had been typed on an old typewriter I had found at the dump. I was typing sitting cross-legged on the floor. My son and I shared the shed with a black snake called Gladys, a wallaby called Fred and a wombat called Smudge. It was a really old typewriter I’d found at the dump. I used to type sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor.

And I don’t know if you know how wombats mark up their territory. They leave droppings usually on high points. And Smudge did not like the noise of the typewriter. He wanted to make it very clear that this was his territory. And every night if I forgot to put the typewriter up in the wardrobe, he used to leave a large dropping on it.

Valerie:
Lovely.

Jackie:
Which meant that the combination of wombat droppings on the keyboard and wear and tear, the letter e didn’t work so when I sent the first manuscript off to Angus & Robertson I had to fill in all the e’s with biro, added to which it was very yellow paper I’d bought many years before. And as I’m dyslexic the spelling was what could politely be called extremely original.

And I heard years later what happened. The fact that someone pulled it out of the envelope, gave a shriek of laughter, and yelled, “Hey everyone! Look at this mess! Look what someone sent in.” They said it was the worst spelled, messiest manuscript they had ever received. And in fact they assumed it would be unintentionally hilarious; only someone quite illiterate would send in something like that. So she sat on the desk in the middle of the office to read a bit aloud to everyone so they could giggle at it. And she read the first paragraph and she read the second paragraph and then apparently in the office she read the entire story to everyone.

Valerie:
Wow.

Jackie:
And that is why I had such a fast response because everyone in the office had heard it and had come to an agreement that this was something that was worthwhile seeing if I could come up with something else like it.

Valerie:
What age were you by the time this happened?

Jackie:
The embarrassing thing is I can’t really remember. I was around 30ish. One of the problems was that Angus & Robertson was actually then taken over by another company which was actually taken over by another company, which are now all a part of HarperCollins.

Well unbeknownst to me, within about six weeks they’d sent me an advance for the story but then for the next few years I kept getting further advances for the story along with another letter saying that they had accepted the book. And I think the book was actually accepted three times in all, though it may have been four. So even though it was accepted, it didn’t come out for about four or five years.

And in that time I’d written a couple of gardening books, I’d gotten another award for a detective story, and in fact I had gotten two other books in the pipeline with Angus & Robertson; again the ones that have been just sort of lingering eaten by silverfish in the drawers roughly put into shape.

So really the first book that I actually wrote after that was Walking the Boundaries. Several others came out in between that but they were the ones that were really just sort of whooshed off that I’d written before. With that and the income from writing about kids in the bush, the stories in the Canberra Times every fortnight and the column in Hobby Farmer and then I wrote another couple poems in other magazines as well. Within three weeks I was actually earning a living as a writer and that’s how I’ve been writing ever since.

It wasn’t a very good living I have to say in those early years. But it was a heck of a lot better than what it had been before and it was about two years or two and a half years after that first acceptance that I was walking home having bought a bottle of gin and I suddenly realised, “Good grief! I have bought something that wasn’t absolutely necessary without even thinking about it. And I realised things had changed.” And since that time I’ve been extremely lucky that the books have brought in, it’s always been my income from writing has always been the income for the family and the last few years in particular we’ve been lucky enough that the income has been enough to basically do whatever we want to do.

I have to say very firmly I don’t want to buy a mansion in Tuscany. I don’t want to buy a $150,000 car although what I really do want to have is a reliable engine, four reliable wheels and a car body that doesn’t matter if learner drivers bash it about and/or it gets scratched by blackberries. But it has meant in the past few years particularly with the money from overseas editions that we simply really haven’t had to think about money at all, which is a good position to be in.

And it’s something I would very much like to say too to would-be authors whether they’re 10 years old or whether they’re 86, never feel that you need to be in Sydney, New York or London to be a writer. In fact a surprising number of writers live in the bush. Yes, Australia does not have a large book buying population but if your books are any good, they’ll be sold overseas. You’ll have an infinite market right across the world to sell your books.

And in fact I think living in the bush is one of the best places to write simply because you have got the gossip. Books have to be about something you know. You need to have a landscape, you need to have a community, you need to have people that you know and watch. And often in the city I think people mostly mix with their peer groups and there’s nothing more boring than yet another book about a writer at writer’s festival talking to other writers.

The wider your knowledge of people, the soil, the landscape, the ecology; the wider your ideas, the greater your grasp on philosophic ideas, the more material you have to put into your books and in a country area you know everyone, you know their secrets just as they know your secrets; you know all of their wonderful skeletons, you do have to be very careful, not of defamation suits but they actually don’t burn your house down.

But apart from that, you get to know a far wider number of people with love and intimacy than I think you would ever know in the city. And this is the most extraordinary resource for writing, not just a resource for material for your books but actually almost as background security.

Farming people understand writing. As one farmer said to me many years ago, “You know we’re pretty much in the same job. I produce sheep and you produce books.” They understand what it’s like to essentially run your own business and run your own business from home leading that hermit like existence at the computer and then leading human society afterwards.

The rhythms of life are very similar between farming and writing. And particularly at times right now where actually I have to say my family is going through a very difficult time with my husband’s illness and bouts of surgery, there is no way I could continue to write without the care and support of the community around us. And I’m very aware that the people and the place, it is impossible to say how much I owe to them in the creation of the books.

Valerie:
In your books you’ve written children’s books, gardening books, history books, and I understand you’ve written over 132 books.

Jackie:
Yes, some of them have been very, very short books.

Valerie:
But still, how in the world can you be so prolific?

Jackie:
Partly because as I said an enormous number of manuscripts, particularly the gardening ones, were really written even before I started publishing books. I’d done the research. The material was there. I really just needed whooshing together a bit. A lot of the books are more actual stories particularly the ones for kids. In there I would cut the number by about two-thirds. That still of course leaves probably about 30 or 40 books.

The answer to that is two-fold. One, because I write for a living which means I don’t have to spend time commuting; I don’t have to spend time earning money in other ways. And I find it does take me three days to actually get into a book. So being a full-time writer really does mean you are enormously more productive than if you have to sort of fit it into here and there and what have you.

I also write in different genres and that helps. I would go brain dead writing more than one book in any particular genre a year. I couldn’t write more than one historical novel a year. I could possibly do two picture books in a year. No, I couldn’t. That’s not true. Two picture books may come out in a year but they will be ones that I have written in another year. I can really only do one picture book a year.

But it’s almost as if the different sorts of books need different parts of the brain. It is a most enormous relief to go from something which takes, well both tears and research like A Rose for the Anzac Boys where hour after hour after hour going through the research material, the letters and diaries from World War I, my husband would find these at the desk where I was trying to turn – I know it sounds odd but war is basically very boring. It’s really day after day of face danger, survived; next day face danger, survived. And things don’t change very much day after day and year after year particularly in World War I. So it was difficult to turn it into something which was compelling reading so you actually wanted to find out, not just what happened at the end of the book but also what happened on the next page and the page after that.

But to go from something like that which was extraordinarily hard work both emotionally and intellectually to writing something like The Shaggy Gully Times which was basically just an absolute hoot being the most absolutely ridiculous material I could possibly think of taken off a local country newspaper. It was so much fun. And being able to go from one to the other I think both kept my sanity but also kept me writing.

The other answer to that too is I write compulsively, I write if I’m happy, I write if I’m sad. When my husband was in surgery, I wrote. Sitting by his bedside, I wrote. I have no idea if what I wrote will ever be used for anything but at a time when I couldn’t even concentrate to watch television or read a magazine, writing was the best escape again both intellectually, physically and mentally as I could have.

The final answer though is difficult to talk about. My brain does seem to work faster than the norm. I have to make a conscious effort to speak slowly. I do tend to come up with a lot of ideas and I would need to live for many thousands of years to be able to do anything with all of them. I tend to overproduce whether it is loading friends with sunny avocados that they will have to give them away to at least half a dozen acquaintances or whether it is with books, but I am able to read very quickly. I can scan a book quite happily in an hour which means I can research and absorb material extraordinarily quickly. And I also write extremely quickly and re-write.

Valerie:
What a gift!

Jackie:
It’s a difficult thing to admit but yes, most of the answer simply is that I do process data whether it’s input or output extraordinarily quickly anyway.

Valerie:
When you say you sometimes need to use different parts of the brain to do different genres, do you find it easy or difficult to switch hats between children’s and non-fiction and history?

Jackie:
No. It’s very easy. It’s not so much different parts of the brain as actually probably different parts of the emotions. It’s not the brain that gets exhausted so much. I think it’s the emotional side of you of focusing just on a particular area. So no, it is an incredible relief to actually switch from one to the other, from the serious to the very silly. And I do very occasionally alternate between the serious and the very silly or possibly a gardening state or something like that in between.

Valerie:
Do you work on different genres within one day?

Jackie:
No. One book at a time. One book and then I’ll work on something absolutely completely different.

Valerie:
Is there a genre you prefer more or enjoy more or find easier?

Jackie:
Definitely not. It’s the same with reading. I’m an eclectic reader. I like all sorts of genres to read. It’s really just like food. I mean, it’s sort of like asking what is your favorite food? Well, I love cherries and chocolate but I’d hate to live on them. I find it quite weird that writers are expected to stick to just one genre or for that matter just writing for kids or adults.

Valerie:
But many do.

Jackie:
Many do. And I find that odd. I don’t know any writer who only reads one genre. Every writer I know loves reading a whole range of genres. And there are books that you read when you’re on an airplane. There are books that you read at the beach; there are books that you actually get absorbed in and swept away both intellectually and emotionally. All of us who love books, we love an eclectic range of books. And so I always find the question really, “Well, then why do you only write one thought?” rather than, “Why do you write many different thoughts?”

Valerie:
What are you currently working on?

Jackie:
That’s always a difficult question because I’m inclined to talk about the book that I’m actually writing but then that’s not going to come out probably for at least a year. So you never really know whether you then should be talking about the book which is actually going to come out next if you know what I mean.

Valerie:
Yes. Well, your most recent book then? Tell us about your most recent book that’s actually out that readers can read?

Jackie:
My most recent book is A Rose for the Anzac Boys. It is a book that took, well if I was going to say three years that isn’t really true, it’s more wide researching for most of my life, but particularly in the last few years there have been a lot of self-published or small publishing houses bringing out letters and diaries from World War I.

And for the first time there is at least a glimpse of the forgotten army, the women of World War I, the official women, the nurses, the VADs were recorded. But when I first started researching it seemed like there were hundreds, then thousands and now I think probably more than a million.

Most of the transport was done by French women with carts and trucks. If you just read the letters, they take it for granted that that’s the transport, not of the officers but the men were by French women in trucks or carts. A lot of the ambulances were simply French women with carts.

There would be things saying “French women bought stew pots out to us on the bank; the first hot food I had in three days” because the army rations again if we’re not talking officers were really bullion based and biscuits. And so much of World War I we have known through accounts of the officers. Their conditions were very, very different from those of the men both in terms of rations and accommodation. So it’s only now that the quite illegal diaries, because they weren’t allowed to keep diaries, are being published. So we’re getting not a different view of World War I but a far more complete view.

A Rose for the Anzac Boys is based on the story of four girls, I mentioned three in the book, and they were school girls in England. I made one of them a New Zealander. They were 16-year-olds at the advent of war with school to work in a canteen near the front lines with the soldiers. And we’re not just talking about soldiers going to the war; we are talking about the thousands of maimed shell-shocked men with bleeding stumps, men that died in front of them, etc.

And I saw a letter from one and it went something like, “Dear Mummy, I hope you are well. Last night we fed 10,000 men. We gave them each a bullion beef sandwich, two cigarettes and a ramekin of cocoa. Well I had better go now as we are rather busy. Give my love to Grandma. Your loving daughter, Marjorie.” And it overwhelmed me.

It was also too reading the [Alice B.] cookbooks. She was a companion of Gertrude Stein and she wrote a wonderful book of recipes and just stories of the meals they had. And one of the chapters was meals to [Aunt Pauline Cook]. And again wonderful accounts of these gorgeous meals. And so you realize that Aunt Pauline was actually taking them around the battlefield, they were setting up supply camps for refugees. And you suddenly felt like, “What are these two totally unqualified women doing?” Gertrude Stein couldn’t even reverse.

There was one wonderful scene in the book where they’re having essentially a wonderful described meal and an army officer comes in and asks Gertrude Stein to move her car; it is blocking up the army and could she please back it out. She said “No, I could never do that. I am like the French Army. We never reverse.” I mean, yes not only were they completely unqualified but they couldn’t even drive properly and yet there they were organising supply lines in World War I.

And I realised there is a heck of an untold story here and quite extraordinary heroism. The men in the trenches were often only there for weeks though at many times the Australians were kept there for months. But these women were there for year after year with no break. And so that’s A Rose for the Anzac Boys. It was not an easy book to write.

Valerie:
I’m sure.

Jackie:
At times I wondered if I should be writing it. As I said, with my husband finding me in tears and just saying, “Why are you doing this?” and finally I realised it’s not just a story about women in World War I. It is a story about how things changed for women.

At the beginning of the war these women mostly upper middle class or upper class women were basically serving tea or doing flowers for the church. The war was their university and their training ground. Women in that stage didn’t have the vote in Britain. Women couldn’t be doctors. They couldn’t get university degrees.

By the end of the war they were an organised and unstoppable force. If you look at any of the campaigns from the suffragettes in the 20s through to the campaigns for free hospitals, hospitals for women and children, free libraries, free education; all of these extraordinary revolutionary ideas of the 20s and the 30s. You find the same names in the committees; the women who fought other battles in World War I.

And I realised I was telling a much wider story. It is a very deeply personal story of one young girl. But it’s in reality a much, much wider story than that.

Valerie:
What a wonderful journey for you.

Jackie:
It was a difficult journey.

Valerie:
But rewarding.

Jackie:
It was. One unintended consequence was in that HarperCollins wanted another war book from me, which I’ve just finished, The Donkey Who Carried the Wounded. I’d actually come across information that told me where the man called Simpson’s donkey had come from and also what happened to it afterwards. So it’s an account completely from the point of view of a donkey and partly from Simpson and partly from Richard Henderson, a New Zealander, because many of the rescued subscribed to Simpson. Simpson only lived for three weeks and if you look at the dates of men who claim to have been rescued by him, you realise that he had been dead for that time.

Henderson took over with the donkey and even the photo that we think of as Simpson and the donkey, even at the statue of the war memorial, when you look at it. We’ve got photos of Henderson; we’ve got photos of Simpson; and we’ve actually got a photo of the donkey but with Simpson’s commanding officer, not with them. But you realize that the statue is actually the New Zealander Henderson.

Valerie:
Right.

Jackie:
We’ve got an Australian legend about an Englishman with a picture of a New Zealand teacher leading a Greek donkey on a Turkish battlefield.

Valerie:
Oh my.

Jackie:
So it’s from the point of view of the donkey from Simpson, from Richard Henderson because I think it is time that we realized that when we talk about Simpson – and yes he was a legend and a most extraordinary heroism – but we have let the name Simpson I think stand for extraordinary heroism on many, many stretch of errors on that battlefield.

It’s also from the point of view of a Turkish sniper as well. And again, in doing that I was drawing on the materials I had already gathered together in the diaries and what have you of World War I. But I don’t think I will be returning to World War I for a few years. I think I’ve just come to the end basically of what I can go through for a little while.

Valerie:
So tell listeners about your typical writing day? Do you have a certain routine or anything like that?

Jackie:
Oh yes, very much. I wake very early; I go for a walk up the mountain and down the mountain; taking notes of animals, animal tracks, what the wombats have been doing. I’ve been keeping notes on wombat ecology for about 35 years. That takes about an hour and a half. I come back, have a shower, quick breakfast, get to work. I will work till probably about 5:00 or 6:00. In fact I’ll take various iris eye breaks to do everything from pick fruit and veg for dinner to maybe plant a tree or two or mulch around the garden, again to pick stuff for dinner, to cook lunch, to cook dinner. Then Brian and I have dinner. After dinner we usually watch a DVD and I’ll either proofread or most likely I’ll answer letters while we’re watching a DVD. It’s usually a very predictable day.

Valerie:
Is it five day a week, seven day a week kind of thing?

Jackie:
Seven days a week. Within that there’ll be trips to town and within that there’ll be sort of afternoons where we just decide to plant trees. There’ll be times when we actually just go down and spend a few hours down in the swimming hole. So it’s not as regimented as it seems. But it is a very, very predictable and routine life.

Valerie:
You need that. Otherwise you don’t get things done, do you?

And finally, what would your tips be to aspiring writers out there on how they can a) improve their writing and b) get published?

Jackie:
Think about the ideas, not the writing. Every novice writer I have known including myself has paid far too much attention to their writing style and not enough to what they are writing about. No one ever turned a page thinking, “Oh what wonderful imagery. I want to read another page to get some other wonderful imagery.” Most readers don’t care less what your writing style is like as long as it is clear and it’s not obtrusive.

What they want are the ideas, whether you’re writing a thriller or whether you are just writing about a human condition. Concentrate on having something interesting to say rather than your writing style.

Most novice writers overwrite but that’s often a function of not being quite sure what they’re saying. It’s the same if you actually look at academic writing. The writing which has got the most ostentation I can’t really pronounce that but you know what I mean, is always where the author isn’t quite sure about their ideas so they try to sound terribly, terribly portentous and pretentious by making it very, very convoluted. If your ideas are strong and clear, your writing will also be strong and clear. And if your writing isn’t, it’s a clear sign that you need to stop writing and start thinking.

So you need to have something interesting to say. The reader needs a reason to read the second paragraph, the second page and the second chapter. And the beauty of your writing is not going to do that. There has to be a reason for them to turn the page.

Now if you can do that, your book will be published because if an editor is drawn inescapably from that first paragraph to the second paragraph, if the editor desperately wants to know what happens on the next page and the next chapter, if you have got the editor turning the pages in sheer joy, exultation and fascination, then of course they are going to publish your book. There’s absolutely no secret about getting a book published. If it is good compelling writing with good compelling ideas, your book will be published.

There is a real myth that it is difficult to get books published these days. It’s not. We have now got desktop publishing; there are more publishing houses than ever before. It has never been easier to get a book published. It has never been easier to make a living as a writer simply because one of the things about the global economy is that your books will be sold overseas.

Now this isn’t to say we shouldn’t protect the Australian literary scene, this is a whole different kettle of fish that we don’t want overseas editions dumped in Australia. That’s a quite different thing. But it still does mean that there has never been a time when there have been greater opportunities for writers. If your book is being turned down, not by one publishing house because many publishing houses really do have their lists full, but they’ve always got room for something that’s brilliant. f your book is turned down by one publisher, it’s probably not compellingly brilliant. If your book is turned down by three publishers, it’s that you’re not good enough.

I know there are many, many stories about writers who were turned down by publisher after publisher and then it turned into a best seller. The untold part of that though is that each time it was rejected, they rewrote it. So the book that was finally accepted and the best seller was a different one from the book that was rejected. And it’s that rewriting that does it.

There is also I think a myth that it’s enough to be talented. Talent is to a penny. There are many, many people who have the talent to be professional writers. But it’s like being, well, for that matter a teacher or a brain surgeon. No one would ever say, “Oh yes, you have great potential as a brain surgeon. Here’s a hacksaw. Start chopping.” They would expect you to work for a good decade before you actually got to do the surgery.

But there is somehow this belief that because you have a talent for writing, then you can actually sit down and write a novel. And it doesn’t work that way. You have to learn your craft. The earlier you start writing seriously actually working at your writing, the sooner you are going to learn your craft and that’s the case whether you start writing at 10 or whether you start writing at 70.

Valerie:
Great advice. Wonderful. And on that note, I thank you very much for your time today Jackie.

Jackie:
My pleasure indeed.


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