“My First Time”: Jackie French

Every successful author had a first novel – the one that started it all and paved the way for what followed. Fortunes may shift up and down, but you are a first-time novelist just once. And like many other “first times”, there’s often a story to be told.

Jackie French is the award-winning multi-genre author of more than 140 books. (That’s right, 140!) They include children’s fiction, picture books, history, fantasy and non-fiction, but just one of them was the first…

“I had been writing stories since I was six and creating stories since I was three. But everyone from parents, teachers, guidance counsellors 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, definitely compulsion.

“I scribbled in private during my first marriage. I was told, ‘There is only room for one book in a marriage.’ 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.”

Nothing to lose

“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 hot running water. 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 was a freelance author recommended I do that. So within a week I had sent a short story called Rainstones to Angus & Robertson – now part of HarperCollins.

“Within three weeks I had an acceptance from Angus & Robertson with a short letter 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.”

Smudges and typos

“There’s a story that I often tell about how they came to look at the manuscript. As many would-be writers know, publishers 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.'

“My manuscript had been typed on an old typewriter I had found at the dump. I sat 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.

“Now 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. 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 the yellow paper I’d bought many years before and my dyslexic spelling was what could politely be called ‘extremely original'!

“I heard years later what happened. Someone had 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; because 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. She read the first paragraph and she read the second paragraph and then apparently she read the entire story to everyone in the office!

“And that’s 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 and it was worthwhile seeing if I could come up with something else like it.

“I was around 30ish at the time. Within three weeks I was actually earning a living as a writer and I’ve been writing ever since.”

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