Libby Gleeson is the award-winning author of more than 30 books for children and teenagers.
Her latest young adult release, Mahtab’s Story, was published in 2008 and was launched at Auburn Library by the Governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir.
Her books for teenagers include Eleanor, Elizabeth, I Am Susannah, Dodger, Love Me, Love Me Not and Refuge. The junior fiction Hannah series includes Skating on Sand, Hannah Plus One, Hannah and the Tomorrow Room and Hannah the Famous. Libby’s picture books include Big Dog, Where’s Mum? and The Princess and the Perfect Dish.
Libby has been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards 12 times. She won the Book of the Year for Younger Readers Award in 1997 with Hannah and the Tomorrow Room, and the Picture Book of the Year Award in 2002 for An Ordinary Day. The Great Bear (with Armin Greder) won the Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2000, the first time an Australian title has won this prestigious award.
Libby has been a teacher and lecturer and is actively involved in writers’ organisations. In 1997, she was awarded the Lady Cutler Award for services to Children’s Literature and in 2007 she received a Member of the Order of Australia for services to literature and literacy education.
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* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability
Valerie: Libby, thanks for talking to us today.
Libby: It’s a pleasure.
Valerie: You’ve been an avid reader since you were a child, I understand. What type of book do you like reading the most yourself?
Libby: I think my preference has always been for realistic fiction. I’m a great believer in reading novels and I tend to read Australian writers as much as possible, although not exclusively.
Valerie: And what’s your favorite author at the moment then?
Libby: I can’t – my favorite author’s not an Australian. It’s probably Toni Morrison, the black American writer. I think Beloved is one of the greatest achievements in literature.
Valerie: And what would be your favorite Libby Gleeson book?
Libby: No, it’s too hard my dear, too hard. I would say to children when they asked that question [that] it’s like asking their parents which of their children they love the most because you know you’re deeply attached to all of them for various reasons. And although there might be one that’s in your head most, because it’s the most recent one, it doesn’t really come to the point of being a favorite.
Valerie: Well let’s say then somebody who hasn’t read any Libby Gleeson, what would your suggestion then be for what would be their their first foray into the Libby Gleeson world?
Libby: Of course it would depend on who they are and what their reading level is, but if it was for a small child, then I would suggest any of the picture books would be appropriate with the possible exception of The Great Bear, which is really for older children. But if it’s a young kid who’s an emergent reader, then I would suggest the Hannah series or perhaps Clancy’s Long Walk, which is a new Aussie Nibbles. And then, if they’re an older reader, then any of the mature novels, the books that probably some time ago that I pitched probably for kids around about the top of primary school or the bottom of the secondary school. So, Eleanor, Elizabeth, I Am Susannah, Dodger, or more recently my most recent title Mahtab’s Story, which has only just come out.
Valerie: So tell us about Mahtab and her family. How did this story come about and why did you want to write it?
Libby: In 2002 and 2003, I was very distressed at the way in which young Muslims in Australia were being treated. Anyone with the Muslim faith was being vilified post 9/11. And of course everybody was in shock from that event, but I thought it must have been very difficult being a Muslim child in Australia at that stage. I spent some time with the principal of Holroyd High School [in NSW], who is a passionate supporter of refugee children, and she introduced me to a group of girls and told me their stories. And I became very friendly with one of these girls, and she and her family had escaped from Afghanistan following the deaths of a number of members of the family. And they had arrived in Australia on a leaky boat and been put in a detention center. Now Mahtab’s Story is based on that family’s experience, although it is not a biography; it’s a fiction. But many of the things that happen in the novel did happen to the Karimi family on their journey to Australia.
Valerie: Was it one of the harder books you’ve had to write or –?
Libby: Oh yes, oh yes, because I – it’s the most difficult when you want to write something which includes a political perspective or a social issue. And you know, I’m a very firm believer that if you’re writing from the point of view of issues, then you’re not writing good fiction. You have to write from the point of view of character and of story. So although I did have very strong feelings about what had happened to this family, it was the nature of the personalities, their characters, the way they dealt with the situation they were in which had to dominate the story. That whole exercise took me about five years.
Valerie: What was the hardest thing about it?
Libby: Probably working out how much of the real story to put in and how much not to, because there’s a very strong feeling that you’re appropriating someone’s life when you write this and making sure that they were fully aware of what I was doing and that they were happy with, in fact, complicit with it.
Valerie: Right. Now you do obviously write for older readers and also much younger readers. Is there a particular age range that comes more easily to you, so to speak?
Libby: Not really. As soon as I say yes, then I’ll think of an example otherwise. I certainly enjoy all the different age groups and it’s a case of just getting your head back into that particular age level. I’ve just written a new picture book text, which I’m sure will be directed at the very young, and I realise what a pleasure it was to do that. But at the same time, I’ve started working on a big novel for the older kids again and the challenge of that is exciting as well. So I’d be lying if I said any one group is either easier or satisfying.
Valerie: Sure. Well you’re very very prolific and you seem to write a book or two almost every year. How do you keep up this pace, because many authors have a much longer, you know, gestation period?
Libby: Well, I think I actually don’t think I’m that prolific in that something like Mahtab’s Story has taken me five years to write. So the longer fiction is always going to take a couple of years. The junior novels of substance, like the Hannah stories, they tend to take a year to write. I think what’s happened in the last couple of years is that there have been a number of much shorter works, plus there have been a number of picture books that have come out, because of the backlog from waiting for illustrators and so on. So it’s a bit deceptive. There’s certainly no more than one per year and sometimes not even that. But at the same time, if you like doing something and you know you don’t mind hard work, then that’s how I approach it.
Valerie: So in that case, can you take us through a typical working day for you?
Libby: It’s a bit hard to say there’s a typical working day because, you see, I’m not only a writer but I also sit on a number of boards like the Copyright Agency and the Australian Society of Authors and The Foundation for Public Education, so often there are days when there is no writing done at all. If however, it’s a good writing day, then after I’ve had the morning coffee and the newspaper, then I go to the gym – because I can’t sit at a desk all day without some injuries to the back of the neck. And then I finally sit down at my desk at about half past nine and I would – the best days you work right through, no question, [with] the odd interruption of the phone and the email. And in the early stages, like with this longer novel at the moment, I’m simply making notes and research. I’m not actually writing the story. But I’m thinking about it all the time and making notes about, maybe it’ll go in this direction or that direction. And it won’t be probably another month before I sit down and actually start trying to create text. I don’t write at night anymore. I used to. And I don’t write in the early morning anymore at this age.
Valerie: Any particular reason?
Libby: Yeah, I’m getting older.
Libby: Life’s too short. I enjoy staying in bed.
Valerie: Now the Hannah books are obviously about a girl named Hannah and you’ve got three daughters. How much do you draw from their experiences for your Hannah books?
Libby: In the early stages when Hannah was first created, there was no question that it was definitely based on the experiences of my younger two daughters. Hannah is a feisty, determined, bright, capable little kid and it really grew from a time when one of my daughters taught herself to skate on a holiday after having been told not to take her skates, blah blah blah, and she did and she was successful. And I had a lot of admiration for her because she decided she wanted to do something and she went ahead and she stuck at it until she did it. At the same time, Hannah is a ‘three child’ – part of a three-child family in the opening stories. And I was very aware that in a three-child family, too often it’s two against one. That happened with us, although which two sometimes changed. And so that dynamic I found quite fascinating. And in the stories, I made the older siblings twins so that Hannah’s exclusion from their world was greater than it would under normal circumstances. And certainly in the first three of the books, there was a lot of what had happened with my younger two daughters involved there. Although in the second story, there’s a fourth child born in the family and that didn’t happen with us. But I imagined what might have happened.
Valerie: You write about quite a wide variety of different things so do you do anything in particular to get into each world and to get into each age range?
Libby: Lots of thinking and note-making I think, and lots of concern about the authentic voice of a particular character. So that if you do want to try and write about what it’s like to be a six-year-old in kindergarten or whatever, then you’ve really got to spend a lot of time trying to remember what it felt like when you were there, but also trying to observe and to talk to kids who are there now; because clearly, education’s different now than it was in the 1960s. You know, it’s not just a case of just sit down and out it comes. There’s a lot of preparation.
Valerie: You sound quite systematic in the way you approach it, would you say that? Because a lot of other writers talk about having to go for a walk until something hits them.
Libby: I think if you wait for the muse to hit then you’re going to wait an awful long time. I think you have to go out there; you have to determine what your idea is and then you have to start working at it. But at the same time, you can’t always – it doesn’t just necessarily come. And I do walk a lot, too. I walk a lot and I think a lot. I used to swim a lot as well, just sort of trying to get my head into whatever the necessary space was. But probably, walking now is the one I use most. Or if I’m stuck for a while, I might turn back and read; read other things, not stuff I’ve written, but stuff other people have written just to try and immerse myself in good writing and good use of language.
Valerie: When did you first realise that this is what you wanted to do – write – you know, way back when?
Libby: It’s a bit hard to say exactly, but certainly all through my childhood and adolescence, I did write. Not great novels or anything because, and I know some kids do try and write novels, but I used to make little notes and write little scenes and so on. As I grew older, I was more interested in study and I went to the University of Sydney for five years and so on. But after I taught a couple of years and I went traveling around the world for five years, I spent time then trying to reinvent myself as a writer. I was quite determined, at that stage, that I wanted to work out what it would be like to be a writer and how I could do it. And it’s instrumental that I spent some time in a writing workshop in London. And I had previously heard people say that you couldn’t teach people to write, you know, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous’. We don’t say that to dancers or musicians or any visual artist, people in other creative art forms; why should it be that way with writers? And so I spent about 18 months in a weekly writer’s workshop and I feel as though it was my apprenticeship. I really did learn an enormous amount.
Valerie: And when did it hit you that you could make a living from it? When did that realisation come?
Libby: Well, I remember talking to my first ever publisher who said to me, ‘You can’t make a living out of this until you’ve got 10 books in print’.
Libby: Now that’s quite an enormous task. And I think in a way, she’s dead right; unless your first book happens to be a Harry Potter or something.
Libby: I think probably it took me … I published my first book in ’84 and I probably just determined in the early 90s – so a good seven or eight years later – that maybe I could make a living from this. And the only way you make a living from it, I think, is to write the best books you can so that they will stick around for more than six months or a year. They have to be books that will appeal across the spectrum, not just to the kids but to the people who are going to buy them. This is children’s literature I’m talking about. And then they have to appear in libraries, both schools and in the public library sector; so that you can pick up the payments that writers make from lending rights. And you have to be a member of the Copyright Agency, so if your work is copied, then you’re going to get payments that way. So you stitch your living together both from the royalties and from these other payments and you end up like a – I think Les Murray said, ‘a small farmer’ who, they’re living together from a range of different things.
Valerie: And is it something you always knew you’d get to? You always knew you were going to succeed?
Libby: I think that’s probably the kind of comment you make when you’re an adult. I don’t know that that’s the case. There’s no question; I was always interesting in writing and reading. But I don’t know that I always believed I would do it. More only as an adult.
Valerie: And what has been the biggest obstacles or challenges along the way, do you think, in making a living as a writer?
Libby: Oh I think that the vagaries of the publishing world – such that now books have a much shorter shelf life than they ever did – the print runs are much smaller. This is not necessarily the publisher’s fault I might add; it’s the way of the world. The new technology, I think, is an issue in that there’s vast competition from video and from handheld computer games and so on. And I see other things coexisting, but I think it’s been to the detriment of the volume of sales of books. And the other thing, which I think has not been fully looked at yet, is the devaluing of the teacher-librarian. This is an issue I feel very strongly about. In some states in Australia, there’s no longer a teacher-librarian and so there is no longer somebody in the school sector who’s going to be the face of promotion of books and of literature and of coordinating the efforts of other mentor staff or having an intelligent approach to the buying and the marketing of books. And I find that very sad. And I think if I was a bureaucrat, that would be one of the issues I would be trying to address quite strongly.
Valerie: A lot of people are under the misconception that writing children’s books is easier than writing for adults. What do you have to say to that?
Libby: Give it a try and see and find out for yourself. A lot of people look at a picture book text and think, ‘Oh look at that there’s only 200 or 300 words there; it must be a cinch.’ Well in fact, it’s incredibly difficult to balance the development of a character of a story with rhythm and language and emotion and all of the qualities that any of work of literature has to have – and to do it all in so few words is, in fact, incredibly difficult. And my advice to anyone who says they are going to write books is, give it a try. So many people say to me, ‘Oh look, I’m going to write a book when I just – when I retire or when I do this or when I do that’, and I think ‘No, you’re not’. If you want to be a writer, you have to be prepared to write and you’ve got to do it now.
Valerie: Do you write your picture books, do you write the text first or do you work hand-in-hand with an illu
Libby: Ninety per cent of the time you write the text first. Occasionally, I’ve done picture books where I’ve known immediately who I want to have as illustrator, and then we’ve worked together talking about the subject or the program as we move through it. But that’s very unusual and 90 per cent, it’s text first.
Valerie: Yes, because so many people come to me and say, “You know my friend and I, she’s an illustrator or he’s an illustrator, we’re going to write a picture book together.” But I know that’s not usually the way that it’s done.
Libby: Definitely not. And in fact, I wrote a book some time ago called Making Picture Books, about the process. And I rang around all the picture book editors that I had any connection with and they said, ‘Most often, the books that I reject are those that have come in from couples where, mates or sisters or something, have worked together and it hasn’t worked’. And they’ve rejected it, largely because they find that the illustrations don’t measure up. And you know, a lot of writer’s don’t realise that picture book editors have a very clear idea of what will work and their experience has taught them this, and so often they’ll take a text and they’ll edit it through a process which means that the illustrations you’re going to submit are not going to be the same because the story will have developed and changed. And they also know the illustrators who are sensitive to certain subject areas and can produce beautiful work and that will sell.
Valerie: And finally, what’s your advice for aspiring writers? What tips do you have for them to make the writing process easier?
Libby: Well, I think the first thing that they have to do is read. I’m always struck by the number of people who want to write for children and who don’t read children’s books, so they don’t know what’s being published now. That’s my first piece of advice. My second piece of advice is to write and to write constantly. Not say, ‘I’ll do it when I retire’ but to practice writing now. And my third piece of advice is to join a group of some kind and get good critical feedback, whether that’s at a continuing ed or a college set up specifically for writing is not really the point. It’s a question of finding someone who is going to be quite honest and brutal and tell you when your work is not measuring up. It isn’t easy to publish, but it is possible and only commitment and hard work are going to get you there.
Valerie: Wonderful. Well on that note, thank you for your time today, Libby.
Libby: My pleasure.