Janeen Brian is an award-winning author of more than 65 books – including picture books, short stories, poetry, non-fiction and novels for young people and the educational market. Some of her more well-know children’s books are Where does Thursday go?, Hoosh! Camels in Australia and Pilawuk: When I was Young. Other popular ones are Dog Star, Duck, Down, Rocky, Silly Galah!, By Jingo!, Wishbone, Leaves for Mr Walter, The Super Parp-Buster!, Party Time!, Rock-and-Roll Ducks!, Pop-up Fox and Nature’s Way A to Z (previously Its and Bits of Nature).
Her most recent short novel is Oddball is a short novel from the ‘Lightning Strikes’ series and is about a schoolyard handball challenge.
Janeen has been a teacher, actress, artist and writer and has even written scripts for Humphrey Bear, the iconic Australian children’s program. She has been featured extensively on the SA Premier’s Reading Challenge book list and has 19 books listed for the 2009 challenge.
She lives in Glenelg, South Australia with her husband and two daughters.
Visit Janeen’s website: www.janeenbrian.com
Click play to listen. Running time: 37.02
* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us today, Janeen.
It’s my pleasure, my pleasure. We’ve got a nice day here and good to speak with you, Valerie.
Great. Now you are one of the most prolific writers that we’ve interviewed. How in the world do you manage to write so much, more than 65 books you’ve got?
There are others out there with a lot more books than I have but it is quite a number I admit. I think that I may have always been someone who’s been fairly disciplined and I’ve got school friends who’ve come up to me and said, “I always remember you as fairly focused.” So if you’ve got a job to do then you are going to do it and you’re going to do it in the shortest amount of time or the whatever.
I may have already had that when I was young, but also I think that one time I was in the library and it was just first dipping my toes into whether I would be interested in writing. This is many, many, many years ago. A writer there made a comment that really resonated with me and it was the fact that when people said, “Where do you get the time to write, you’re a busy lady? Where do you get the time to write?”
She said, “Well, we’ve all got 24 hours in the day. It just depends on how that you use it.”
It really struck a chord with me and I thought, “That’s so true.” A lot of time things do go on and it depends on whether you are a goal-setter and I think that I developed that habit as part of my personality and part of wanting to do things and wanting to make use of the day rather than letting it just go by. I think that my daughters always smile when I talk about chinks of time. When the kettle’s boiling you can do some exercises or that kind of thing.
I sort of value time in a way. I have a great regard for it and I realize that we don’t know how long that we’ve got and I just like to make use of it.
I also am a person who likes to earn a living so when I decided that this was going to be my living then if I didn’t work then I didn’t get acceptances. And I didn’t get money. Therefore that was a strong motivation as well.
Plus I like to be fulfilled. I think that type of thing fulfils me however in saying that, I like a balance too. I do relax. I do lots of lovely walks and I do yoga. I love to read of course. That’s probably it.
It comes from something that struck a chord way back. It’s something that I want to do. It’s just part of my personality as well, I guess.
At what point did you decide I want this to be my living?
That was just before 1990 and at that point I had been doing teacher/librarian. I was a teacher/librarian. It was a small Catholic school which I’d had a wonderful time. I’d not been trained as a librarian but I was offered the job and I loved it.
Just before 1990 the principal, the headmaster, was about to leave and he and I had forged a great relationship and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after that. Although I had been working at the library three days a week and writing two days a week, I thought, “Okay we’re going to have how a new broom sweeps clean.” That’s one thing.
The second thing was that they were going to bring in the computers. I knew that I did not have computer head and I also knew that would take up the majority of my life, I don’t know, three months, five months, seven months. That’s not where I wanted to be.
I wanted to let someone else do that and I wanted to work with either words or with children. If they wanted that to happen in the library then that seemed to be a good time to be thinking about what I would do. Would I go full-time?
The other thing was that we had paid off the mortgage of our house and I know that this sounds very bland and all the rest of it. But it was a huge important because you can’t earn, it is very difficult as you probably know, to earn a living as a writer. So I having had that mortgage paid off the house and having the two girls sort of almost out of school stage.
I had this saying and I’m full of sayings but I have this saying that says, “Look before you leap, but if you’re going to leap don’t look too long.” I leapt in 1990 and haven’t regretted it at all because I loved still doing what I was doing and I’m still involved in those parameters of children and books, just in a different way. I go out to visit schools as well.
But obviously you do earn a living as a writer.
I do, yes, I do.
So it worked.
It works. I think that you have to be fairly diversified or I do anyway. I think that you have to sort of look at what is available. For a long time I wrote for anything. I wrote birthday card greetings. I wrote poems for people who wanted an individualized personal poem.
I would do anything, magazine little articles, anything really just to keep the money coming in and my muscle flexing.
Before that when did you delve into writing initially? Was it while you were a child or was it later in life? When did you start exploring it?
It was probably more later in life. When I had two girls of my own and I probably started looking at things then like writing mainly things for them too. But I do remember when I was about 21 and I was out teaching at that point and I do remember being very excited by an idea that I had and racing home and tapping away on this little Olivetti manual typewriter this story.
Of course like a lot of us you send it off and you just wait for the acceptance to come back and of course it didn’t. You feel as though you have been knee-capped quite frankly for a long time. A lot of us get turned off and so on but it seemed to hang with me.
Although I’d had not a huge amount of encouragement, I suppose that I got some encouragement from my English teachers and things like that but no one ever sort of drew me aside and just whispered in my ears, “You’re going to be a writer. You know that you’ve got it girl.”
No one ever said anything like that or knew anything like that so I sort of really didn’t take it on board. Then when I was in my 30s I think I probably started dabbling and that was I started doing some sub-distance education type courses where I received the stuff in the email because you didn’t have to front up. It was good. You could just do it at your own time. I sort of crept in like that. So it was in my 30s and I’m in my 60s now.
You write across a number of genres and age groups. Do these all require a different approach to your writing, the way that you get into the space for each genre or age group?
Yes. Yes and no. Often I find that I have a particular feeling in my head and my body and whatever when I’m about to write a poem. It’s as if everything, everyday or whatever has disappeared from within the space around me. It seems as though that’s when the words will come easily. Sometimes picture books or sometimes the gift of a book when it comes through comes through at that particular time.
However writing for different age groups comes with I think a bit of intuition and a bit of experience. Having worked with children for quite some time I seem to be able to intuitively work out a vocab that would suit that particular child. And not just a vocab but a sense of their interests and their attitudes of that particular child.
Like a very, very small example would be I might be writing, “She arrived.” for one age group but then I’d say that, “She got there.” for the younger age group. Because I know children will know that word ‘got’ and they will know that word ‘there’ because I used to do a lot of sort of language things with the younger children. I know to use the basic words rather than ‘arrived’ which they may not be quite so familiar with.
I’m very interested in how children learn anyway, particularly reading and language. I guess having worked across a few year levels in teaching, being interested in listening to children as I go around the place and noting things, I suppose it becomes part of your STOCK TRADE is to be able to work out what age group you’re actually going to pitch it for.
I don’t tend to go for teenagers. It just doesn’t seem to be me. I can get to about 13 maybe 14 at a push but beyond that, no. Lots of people have that kind of feeling, they have a particular connection with a certain age group. Mine’s definitely from about two or three years up to about 11 – 12, in that mid-junior primary/primary age is where I feel very comfortable.
Tell us a bit about your most recent novel then, Oddball!, and how that came about.
Oddball! was a very long gestation but interesting too in so much as when I was teaching you have to go out onto yard duty. Sometimes you think that you’ve got to make use of your time when you are out there apart from watching that the kids aren’t strangling each other or sort of hanging from a tree.
I used to carry a little notebook when I was out there and one of the things that I wrote in 1984 was this little snippet about these boys, do you know the game handball? Some countries call it hand tennis but handball. You have your four corners and I heard one of the little kids say, “We’re not letting so-and-so play because he’s too good. He always gets us out.”
They were sort of pushing him to one side because they just knew that he was just too good and that they wouldn’t get a game. I started playing with that idea but I thought what happens to the people in that game. It’s quite interesting because in so much as there’s a guy who is really good at it and never get a game or does a guy who is really bad at it and never get a game.
I started playing with those things in my head and it must have stayed with me like most ideas that people write about tend to linger a bit. It stayed with me. Then I received some information a couple of years ago from Walker Books and they were doing a new series, a particular new series and it was for kids who had missed the first round of reading. In other words the penny didn’t drop the first time around. So they were wanting really fast pacey books often for boys in that sort of 9, 10, 11, 12, 13-year old range, so quite a span.
In other words the words had to be words that they could really grab and go with. There had to be humour and it had to be of an interest level that they could relate to. I sat back and drummed my fingers on my chin and though what on earth could I do because I was really keen to do one.
Then of course I remembered this incident about hand tennis or handball. I thought that’s something that I could do. The first draft I sent to them they liked it but they said that it was too wordy. In other words it wasn’t quite funny enough and they wanted it to be a sort of really good grab.
They also wanted it to be a book where you could actually highlight different types of narrative text or different text so that they might be reading and then suddenly they might have to read an email or they might be reading it and suddenly there’s a note that they have to read. So they are getting a good balance of reading in that way too.
I played with them and I came up with a character, Sol. Sol is just a ordinary little kid or ordinary kid who just gets so fed up with this Todd Aggostino or Aggo who is the king ruler of the school and top bully and great sportsman and all that. He just gets so fed up with that Sol never gets to have a proper go at this game. It’s the only game that he can play.
He’s dead boring on the cricket pitch or the football field so giving him his dues, he did try to get into handball but of course this Todd Aggostino is wanting to rule the roost. Like a little kid if they get frustrated they say, “I’m the going to tell on you.” Or “My dad’s a policeman,” that kind of outburst which is not true.
So Sol one day in frustration says to this Aggo, “I’m going to beat you. I’m going to beat you at handball.”
And he says, “Oh, yeah, are you.” Kind of, “You and what army?”
He says, “I’m going to beat you and I’m going to use hypnotism.” He’s actually painted himself into the biggest corner because he’s got no idea what on earth he’s going to do. So the rest of the book works the way through how he is going to deal with it. The ending of one of things with that bullying situation it’s the bully has to have someone to bully. Sol in the end realized that through the storyline you get a sense of him practicing a lot more so that in practice he will get better but he did not beat Todd Aggostino.
But Todd Aggostino’s win was a very hollow win because in so much as Sol had actually grown himself in his own self esteem through the storyline of what he did in his own practice and his own development.
He had a lot of support from the kids too because they felt that they couldn’t care that Aggo had won again anyway. So the bullying aspect which came through really left a bully without anyone to bully. So a bully without anyone to bully is a bit of a weak bully so they get their power taken away from them.
What’s the next thing that you are working on? What are you writing now?
What I’m writing on now is I’m actually going to Brisbane on Thursday and I have been very lucky to have been given a May Gibbs Children’s Literature Trust Creative Card fellowship.
Great, that’s a mouthful.
That is a mouthful and it really means that on the basis of your next project which is what I’m doing you have been given up to a month of where you have an apartment where you are undisturbed and you can write to your heart’s content. So the book that I’m working on now has been one that I have been sort of for a long time. It’s a historical novel and its set in the mid to late 1870s in an area in south Australia but not necessarily south Australia where copper was discovered.
Copper was discovered in little areas called Moonta, Kadena and Wallaroo. That’s where the setting is and that’s the time frame. My character is a rather nice kid called Arthur. The basic premise is they had in those days what they called “picky boys”. Picky boys were the boys who were employed by the mines to sit at a long table and pick the good ore from the bad ore and put them into different containers.
A lot of kids from the age of eight upwards would go and do this because the mining cottages and the mining situation was extremely poor. So a lot of kids went and did that as part of getting money for their mum who might have nine or ten kids and more in these tiny little cottages that the Cornish people built.
We had 12,000 Cornish people come over to south Australia and they went into all sorts of mining areas all through Australia and South Africa and South America, and I should say North America. They were great miners and the story is about this boy who is put into a situation at a school by rather revolting, cruel teacher because he realizes that Arthur is left-handed. He ties his hand behind his back and in those days of pen and ink Arthur’s work becomes absolutely a shambles.
There is a lot of bullying going on in that situation as well. It’s his decision. Will he leave school, will he go into work in the mines, will he start as a picky boy and there is conflict with the parents too. They’ve come out from Cornwell to give their kids a better start.
So that’s what I’m working on now and that’s what I’ll be working on when I leave and spent a month in Brisbane.
Something like that apart from writing there is quite a lot of research in that kind of theme. Can you just describe to us your typical writing day? Is it something that you do 9:00 to 5:00, in the middle of the night or how does it work for you?
No, I’m not good at middle of the night. I suggested to a friend, I heard someone say, “Sit outside and just look at the stars and have a little head lamp or something and see how your writing goes.” Because I heard someone say that they got the most wonderful writing out of that.
I just can’t do that. I get up at a reasonable time. I suppose it’s anything from 6:30 onwards and that balance again I know that I’m going to be sitting for a long time so I try to do some exercise and go for a walk. Then hopefully oxygenate the cells upstairs.
Then what I do mainly is I let myself and my brain know that I’m going to be working so I start off with writing my diary. I always have just a general diary and I just write in that for a bit. Often I will do a bit of practice writing because I think even though I’ve been writing for so long it’s just so good to have a little bit of practice writing going.
I might get a little of a trigger and write on something like that or I might find a book that I’ve got some exercises in. I just do a little bit of that. It’s sort of more or less preparing me. I often get rid of a lot of my emails too, the ones that I think are more urgent, I often do that. Basically I’m sort of stepping, stepping, stepping into it.
I probably would be started by at least half past 8:00, 9:00. That’s when I try to get the majority of my work going. I drink a lot of cups of tea and I have a lot of water so therefore I need to go to the toilet quite a bit. But that’s good because it means that you sort of have to move a little bit when you’ve been sitting strained and tense and concentrating for 20 minutes or 30 minutes or whatever it might be.
I would be trying to keep that work pattern up for as long as I could and that might be that I keep going until 2:00. At 2:00 I tend to fade a bit. I don’t know. It might be the blood sugar level. I’m not sure but then I’ll come back a bit and sometimes I can work until 6:00. Sometimes I finish at 3:00 and do other things or 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon and I’ll do other things.
But I do feel like that I have to put in that certain 9:00 to 5:00 days, you put it. It’s sort of a work ethic kind of thing. Saturdays too sometimes in the afternoon, although my Saturdays are mainly a beach walk and then housework and then mosaics. I have a nice little studio and I do mosaics most of the afternoon.
When I’ve cleaned up I often come back in here to in order to kind of get that lovely space. It’s like I’m saying, “I’m writing but it’s not my work day. Often I get nice feelings coming through and work that seems to flow nicely too.
But I do an awful lot of research and even when I’m writing poems I still some of my non-fiction comes through too. Can I read you one little one?
There’s just one here from my book called By Jingo! and that’s all about Australian birds and animals. I wanted it to be bright and bold. I wanted it to be quite short and quirky poems with a little bit of information around the outside for people who are tourists who don’t maybe know the animals and birds of our country.
But anyway this is one and sort of had to make sure that my non-fiction information is correct anyway it’s Emu.
“Emu is a fattish mound of feathers on two legs,
With fluffy, stripey babies from largish, greenish eggs.
He also has two googly eyes,
With which to peer and peak.
And is thought of as a sort of,
Nosey, sticky beak.”
And that’s the end.
Thank you and that’s probably taken hours and hours and hours to write but I wanted to get the quirkiness of that sticky beak. You’ve probably been near emus and they just bend their neck and they want to peer and peak and they want to look and look. And they want to see what you’ve got in your hand and so on.
You’ve got the fact that it’s a he and it’s the dad looking after the chicks and some information as well in that little poem. My non-information comes through not just in non-information books, I shouldn’t say non-information books, non-fiction books or information books. It often comes through in some of the things that I’m writing and certainly in the fiction book, the novel that I’m writing now required a huge amount of research.
I like research. I like being a bit of a detective. I also am amazed at what I become interested in that perhaps I would never have become interested in. I think it is such a bonus being a writer that it does offer you these opportunities to look at things and to delve into things that would have passed you by.
I guess what I’m doing is filling my life with interesting things too. So I think that I’m lucky and that worked out as well.
I think that a lot of people would be surprised to know what you just said earlier about you just start off often with the writing exercises. I mean that you’ve already written more than 65 books and yet you are still starting your day with some practice exercises. Can you just give people just a couple of examples of what some of those exercises might be specifically?
You might just take three words, any three words and from that you have to write a paragraph using those three words.
Three words to start the sentence or just three random words?
No, no, no. I mean, that’s one way but you might say you would take the word “bird, challenge and ice cream”. So you’ve got bird, challenge and ice cream and then without thrashing your head too much on the table you start to write and all you’re knowing is that you have to allow yourself the freedom to let the words come that are going to bring those three words together in some kind of a piece of work.
Nothing that has to be sent off or anything, it’s just your practice. And what it does is that it makes you realize that you can write about anything. It frees you up. It opens that subconscious that we’ve all got so much information and ability. So that’s one thing.
Another thing might be like you might flip open a book and you might take the first sentence and then you go on from that. Another thing I might be do is I might just have a feeling like I might look out and see like I can see now is the birds in the bird bath, okay. And I simply write very quickly about that, just very quickly.
I’ve got books of them. I have exercise books of them and sometimes I flip through and there’s not bad stuff there that you might be able to make use of or you might be able to get a few words. And I love making up words.
We’ve got billions of words in our language but to me the joy of being an Ogden Nash or a Dr. Seuss is even more fun. I like to make up words and sometimes I find these creeping into that work too.
Do you write longhand or on the computer?
Most of my original thoughts will come out in longhand and then I get this sort of buzzy feeling that I can take it on to the computer at that point. Sometimes when I get stuck I will go back to longhand and sometimes when I want to brainstorm I will go back to longhand.
Sometimes I find that if I’m not by the computer or if I’m stuck somewhere and I’ve got my little notebook and I’m just writing something I find that I actually slow down a little bit and get some richer writing when I’m just doing a little bit of longhand. That’s quite interesting to note too because sometimes we put it on the computer and it looks pretty good and we think, “Well that’s okay.”
But actually maybe just taking time off to do a little bit of longhand writing is not a bad thing either. Nothing is set in stone. That’s what is so interesting. Most of my books start in a different way. I don’t have a formula for any of them. This one that I told you about before about the copper mining which has got a name at the moment called Mine Out.
I wrote that at the start as a short story and its gone into so many different versions. Then I’ve just sort of almost wiped those versions because I just sat down one day and decided that I’m going to write the first sentence that comes into my mind and I’m going to rewrite this and it started talking about ghosts.
And that threw me for a while and then I thought I know there are lots of pits and old shafts and dead mines and there could be a lot of supposedly ghosts hanging around. I was able to get into it that way and actually it really opened my mind into exploring different ways of writing. So now I would never have thought of that before.
I guess it’s just really learning to trust yourself after a while. It doesn’t mean to say that it’s always right but trusting yourself to go that extra mile without being too critical of what’s coming out of your mind and your brain.
I’ve been to a couple of courses. One was called “Catch the Whisper” and I think that’s really helped me loosen up a little bit too. I don’t know that I’m one of these real good plotters. I probably should be a little bit more but I tend to see what happens, and then this could happen and this could happen and this could happen.
Finally what advice for aspiring children’s writers who are listening to this?
I think apart from the most important thing is obviously to read and read widely and write. Because a lot of people think that it’s going to hit them. They are going to sit down and this magic is going to happen and it simply doesn’t. It really doesn’t.
I guess what I would do is I really would start going to some courses and I would start looking for opportunities where I could to do those courses I think is really important because if I had done a lot more of that I think that I would have saved myself a lot of heartbreak and time.
But in saying that I still done right but so I would really recommend getting into that frame of mind where you are saying to yourself, okay, if I’m going to write and I really am going to make a job of it, not a job but I’m really going to make it worthwhile then you have to look at it as a learning job. You have to look at it as an apprentice job.
Okay what are you going to do as an apprentice? You are going find out as much as you can. You start learning by going to classes or taking on courses or going to the library and picking out from the 800 section books that talk about writing. And do the exercises.
A lot of these books say, “Here’s the information and now just do some exercises.” And instead you just turn that page and go to the next chapter. That’s the hard thing to say, “Okay I will do it. I’ll do those exercises because it’s going to help me.”
The training side of it I think is absolutely important. It’s important to try and get together with other people who are writing. I think that it’s important to look on your computer and check out you can tap in “writing” or “children’s literature” or “romance writing” or whatever. You are going to get so much from that so use it. It’s at your fingertips.
Don’t sit back and wait for it to happen. It won’t happen. You have to be actually a very determined person and I think that quite frankly there are tears involved in writing. There really, really are.
And so you’ve got to have to develop two skins. I read this once. I wish it was original but it’s not. You’ve got to have two skins if you want to be a writer. One you’ve got to have a tough skin to get through all of the rejections. That’s part of a writer’s trade. We all get them. I still get them. You’ve got to have a tough skin to weather all of that and all the ups and downs of the publishing business.
And you’ve got to have a sensitive skin. If you didn’t have that sensitive skin you wouldn’t be writing because you wouldn’t be a soul that’s involved in the imagination and trying to create. So you’ve got to have two skins and it’s worthwhile trying to develop both.
Wonderful, great, well, wonderful advice. Thank you very much for your time today, Janeen. We really appreciate it.
It’s been lovely talking with you. Really nice and I hope you’re weather goes as nicely as ours at the moment.
It’s gorgeous today.
Lovely, we’d like a little bit more rain over here but anyway never mind.
Next time that you’re in Sydney you will have to come and visit us at the Centre.
Will do, thanks very much indeed for speaking with me Valerie. Bye-bye for now.