Sonya Harnett: Australian author of children’s and adult fiction

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image-sonyahartnett200Sonya Harnett is one of Australia’s most well known authors. She has written books for both children and adults and received numerous prizes and awards. She started writing when she was 13, and her first book, Trouble All The Way, was published when she was just 15.

Her three most awarded books (there are far too many awards to list here) are the young adult novels, Sleeping Dogs and Thursday’s Child, and the book for adults, Of A Boy. In 2008 she was awarded the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s biggest prize for children’s and youth literature.

In 2006 she published Landscape With Animals under the pen name, Cameron S. Redfern. It attracted some controversy because of its explicit sex scenes and the fact that Hartnett tried to keep her authorship of the book a secret.

Her latest books are the adult novel, Butterfly, the children’s picture book The Boy and the Toy, and later this year she’ll release The Midnight Zoo, another children’s book.

Click play to listen. Running time: 32.00

Butterfly

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Sonya, thanks for joining us today.

Sonya
Pleasure. Thank you for having me.

Valerie
You’ve very famously started writing at a very young age, and published your first book, Trouble All The Way, when you were 15. Did you always know from when you were young that you wanted to be a writer?

Sonya
I enjoyed writing when I was young, from about the age of about nine, when I first discovered you actually could sit down and write a story if you wanted to. But, I have never technically wanted to be an author, or, you know, I never had any ambitions of spending my life this way.

It’s kind of just been what I fell into doing, which seems a shame because in the course of so many years I’ve met so many people who would love to have had the sort of ride through life that I have had, and yet I live this completely unexpected and really unwished for existence.

Valerie
What prompted you at the time? What gave you the confidence to send your book to a publisher and to think, “This could be it.”

Sonya
I think the fact that I was 14 had a huge part in it. You know when you’re 14 you don’t really know enough about the world to be aware of how badly you can fail at something. I think the sheer balls that you have when you’re a teenager got me through. But, at the same time I didn’t expect that they would accept it.

I think I sent it more- it was one of my friends who encouraged me to do it, but that doesn’t mean that I- I guess I felt that if I sent it to them it would just be kind of almost something to do, you know? So, I would just fill the time and just see what they would say. It was never anything that I had any expectations of hopes that it would pan out that, you know, a hundred years later I would be having a conversation about my life as a writer.

Valerie
Then obviously you finished school and did what teenagers do. At what point did you think, “I’m going to be a full time writer?”

Sonya
It didn’t come until years later, really, until I reached the age where I had to concede that I was unemployable as anything else, really. That didn’t come until- I guess looking back- and I’m actually in the middle of writing Redmond Barry speech for the State Library this year, in which I have spent the last week or so really concentrating my mind on my history as a writer.

I’ve noticed that there’s been a few- it’s not been so much as one occasion where I accepted my fate, but I’ve had to do it in sort of small stages. And, one of them came when I was about 24, and the other one came when I was about 34. The last one had to come when I was about 30… I guess when I finished working at- like having any outside employment was when I really realized that I was never going to do anything else, which was about the age of about 36.

Valerie
Right. So, it was a slow process.

Sonya
Yeah, it has been a slow process.

Even to this day I toy occasionally with the idea of thinking, “Well, maybe I should go and study medicine,” or vet science, or something. But I know in my heart, I’ve always known in my heart, that I just am way too lazy to do anything like that. I couldn’t go back to school. And, I am way too steep now in spending a great deal of my life just sort of pottering around and having my mind think about things that are no way as demanding as vet science.

Valerie
So, tell us about when you do potter around, and think of these things, and think of your idea for the next book. Tell us sort of about that gestation period. How do you typically draw on your ideas and your themes that eventually end up in a book?

Sonya
Well, I’ve always thought that the best- I mean I always write about something that interests me in one way or another. And, I guess my interests are quite varied, and yet at the same time I think it’s also fairly easy to judge by looking at my books what I’m not interested in. So, I don’t write about sport, and I don’t write about politics, and I don’t write about this, that, and the other. But, I am interested in relationships. I’m interested in nature. I’m interested in death. I’m interested in what I see when I walk out the front door, basically, of the street.

So, I tend to think, “Alright, what is the thing that’s interesting me at the moment?” Say, the book that I’m currently trying to put together in my head is something about the princess in the tower, which has a subject that’s interested me for years, and years, and years, and years. It’s got history in it. It’s got dark deeds in it. It’s got two children- it’s right up my alley, really. So, and I just figured that the time has come to concentrate my thoughts about that particular subject and use it.

And, so then you kind of think, “Alright, I don’t want to write about the princess themselves, but what I will write about that can somehow tie that subject into it?” And, you very, very gradually over the course of- sometimes it can be over the course of minutes, or hours, or sometimes it can be over the course of weeks or months, or sometimes with a book like, say, The Silver Donkey, took me years to put that book together, and then it all came together when I was lying on the hotel bed in London one day, but I had been thinking about it in bits and pieces for a good twenty years.

Valerie
You’ve written children’s, you’ve written young adult, you’ve written for adults. What do you do to switch hats? What do you do get yourself into a different mindset, really, for a different market?

Sonya
I don’t really have to do anything. The books come to me, the stories come to me and I just write them, basically, to put it very simply. Indeed, there’s no consciousness to have to change hats.

If I think, “Alright, this book is going to be about the princess in the tower,” it just feels like it will be a book for children. Sometimes along the way the writing gets a bit, you know, a book that I think might be a book for teenagers gets turned into a book for adults. But, it’s the book that does that, not me. It’s the story that does it.

Once I’ve put a lot of thought and a lot of organization into the planning of a book, a book tends to write itself to a great degree and I just am there doing the donkey work of typing it onto the page.

So, the books change their own hats. It’s almost like- well, there’s never a queue of books. I’m not the sort of writer that has plans, that has a lot of books on the go, or- I only work on one book at a time, or even plan one book at a time, or anything like that. But, so I don’t have a queue of ideas waiting to be written about.

But, the books have organized themselves in a very orderly sort of fashion as they come to my mind and then they leave it. That leaves space for the next one, which comes complete with its own intended audience.

Valerie
You make it sound so easy.

Sonya
Well…

Valerie
Is it easy for you?

Sonya
In some ways it’s easy, but I know that when I explain it that does- it leaves out the fact that I’ve been doing this for many, many, many, many years and I have taken a lot of stumbles along the way, and I’ve learnt things very much the hard way. And, so, when anything comes easily to me it’s only because there was a lot of years when it didn’t come easily to me.

But, I have really trained myself to be a professional writer. And, I have refined my craft- well, I’m continuously trying to refine my approach to the craft so that it is easy and professional, so that I don’t waste a lot of time, or… I just think once I’ve made the commitment that I was going to do this, probably for the rest of my life, I went about finding ways to make it proceed in a very orderly, clean kind of fashion. That it would give me least difficulties as it can.

Valerie
Very efficient.

Sonya
But, don’t worry, it’s still- now and again I will still bash my head against the laptop and go, “What?” “What?!” “What next?”

Valerie
What would you say is the most challenging thing for you as a writer? What’s the most challenging part of the process?

Sonya
Well, I’m not good at plots. That’s for sure. It’s been my lifelong weakness. I can think of the subjects that I would like to write about, but how I’m going to go about putting them together into a story is where I stumble, and that is what a lot of the pottering involves. I think of the initial idea and then I potter and potter until I can think of enough associated ideas to make a plot. Plot is my great Achilles heel. I could never be a writer of airport novels, or anything like that. It would just be beyond me.

Valerie
Tell us about- because you are a full-time writer, professional writer- do you have a- and that takes discipline- do you have a particular writing routine that you stick to? Or any sort of daily rituals, or anything like that to get yourself into the zone?

Sonya
No, I tend to- well, if I have any sort of daily, or I guess for me it’s more like a sort of yearly ritual in that I proceed in- the way I operate turns in a great circle, and the circle takes about a year to turn.

Valerie
Right.

Sonya
I certainly don’t write everyday. In fact these days I only write when I have to. I left long ago, long behind me, either the desire or the reason to write everyday. It’s something that I do to earn my money these days. I still enjoy it, but really it’s my income, and like anybody I only perform my income-making job when I have to.

But, so, I spend a great deal of any sort of given set of twelve months pottering around and trying to come up with the ideas. But once I have enough ideas I tend to get my act together very quickly and I will storyboard out the book and then I will start. And then during the writing process I’ll work in the morning. And then I take a good chunk of the early afternoon off to do things that- I mean I live by myself, so I have to run a house, I have to tend to three animals… all those sorts of things that need to get done. I need to cook. I need to clean. I need to wash my clothes. I need to vacuum. And, then in the afternoon I’ll return the book. During the course of those two sessions each day I’ll revise what I’ve done the day before and I will think about what I’ve got to do the next day.

But, and then I allow myself sort of the evening to just watch telly, or go out to dinner, or whatever I want. I used to spend a lot of time, if I was working on a book, so of fretting about, “Oh, I shouldn’t be watching telly.” “I shouldn’t be cooking dinner.” “I shouldn’t be vacuuming the floor.” But, I have found that it gives me sort of more mental peace if I allow myself the freedom and the right to sort of do those things while I’m also doing a book.

But, I will- and then basically I’ll stick at the writing of the book and follow that sort of daily routine until the book is done.

Then, well, I’m allowed about two minutes of peace to think, “Well, that was good. That’s finished. That’s an achievement,” and then the whole gruesome process starts all over again.

Valerie
You mentioned that storyboard the book at the start. How important is that process to do for you at the start? Because some writers say that they don’t do it at all and they just let the ideas come out and see where it takes them, kind of thing. Is the storyboarding process and that sort of plotting process, even though you say that’s not your strength, very important to you?

Sonya
I developed it when I was in my late teens. I did three years of majoring in film at Media Studies at RMIT, and learnt to storyboard books then. But, I didn’t employ storyboarding on my novels until many, many years later, and indeed many books later. But now it’s part of the professional approach that I have to the writing of the books. In the past I wrote the way you just mentioned that a lot of writers do, which is to start and see what happens. But, I think that’s kind of the way, personally I find that kind of an amateur way to approach writing, particularly- well, if you’re doing it in order to be able to pay your bills and live from day to day, then it’s an amateur way to write and it’s not a guaranteed- you don’t have a guaranteed product come out of that kind of style, or method of writing. You can run out of ideas. You can write your whole story and it turns out to only be five pages long… that sort of thing.

I just don’t have the time, nor the patience for that kind of messing around. If I start a book I absolutely want it to be able to come out as a finished product. I insist on it, it has to be- you know, it has to happen. So, the storyboard is a kind of guarantee that it will happen. You know sometimes it is quite- people go, “Isn’t that kind of a boring way to write?” Sometimes it is a bit boring of a way to write, but there’s satisfaction each time you get to kick off another card in the storyboard and say, “Yep, it’s done.” But, it is a very much enjoying the dots process.

But I’m not in this business to mess around. If it’s boring, well, so be it, but at least I know that when I get to the end of all this time, and trouble, and effort I’ll have a manuscript to show for it.

Valerie
That’s a very disciplined approach.

Tell us about your adult novel, Butterfly, and a little bit about how that book came about.

Sonya
Butterfly was- I was writing a book about the great flood, actually, and it just wasn’t going, even though it had its storyboard and I knew that it was quite a strong story; it just wasn’t grabbing me. I wasn’t in the mental sort of state at the time, or emotional kind of state to be writing anything really, but particularly something that I found quite Closter phobic to write. You know, they’re in the middle of the flood on a raft, and it was continuously raining, and it just was- I just found it quite sort of drear to write. I wasn’t feeling any kind of power, or pleasure behind it.

It’s very unlike me to let a book get the better of me. I haven’t done that for years, and years, and years. But in the end I just went, “Oh, this book… I’ve got to put this book aside. It’s driving me to my grave.” But, that doesn’t mean that I will let myself off the hook to write nothing. The only thing that I really feel like writing is something that takes me back to being a kid and something that’s not going to be every minute of my day of- sitting at the book requires the concentration to think, “Alright, it’s raining. The characters are wet. There’s nothing to look at.” “Let me have something that rests my mind a bit more.”

So, I wrote- so I thought, “OK, I’ll write this book about being 14 and being in the suburbs.” But, I quickly realized as I put the story together that it actually wasn’t going to be so much about a 14 year old as about the people around her, but that she would just be the way into the book.

And, it was- I wrote it nonetheless under very sort of difficult physical conditions. The house I was living in I was doing a major renovation, adding a second story and having the whole back of the house knocked down. So, everyday the builders would arrive at, like, a quarter past seven. I had for almost the entirety of the writing of it no ceiling and very few walls, and no kitchen, bathroom, or toilet.

Valerie
Nice.

Sonya
Or, laundry. Well, the good thing about it was it sort of meant I didn’t have to do things like vacuuming.

But, I also had to change my routine a little bit. I had to get up earlier. I could write from about 5:00 to 7:00 in the morning, and then the entire day until about 4 o’clock was just dead time, writing-wise, because the builders were there, the radio was on, the hammering was going on. There was all sorts of things happening; decisions to be made about the renovation continuously. Then in the evening when they left at about 4:00, I could do a couple of hours then. So, I had great swathes of the day when the book was very, very far from my mind.

It took a long time to write because I could only chip away at it like that, in tiny, tiny little segments.

But nonetheless it was relatively well-behaved. It wasn’t a book that- who’s writing really engaged me. It wasn’t in total a book that really- that I- some books you really love and really enjoy writing, and others are sort of more journeyman pieces. I have to say The Butterfly was one of them.

Valerie
Which book have you loved?

Sonya
Some of them I’ve loved have been…

Valerie
And why?

Sonya
I’ve loved The Boy. I loved The Silver Donkey. I’ve loved one that’s coming out in August called Midnight Zoo. I don’t know what makes the difference really between the ones you love and ones you don’t love, although those three books that I’ve just named all have young children as their central characters. But- and I quite enjoy writing from the point of view of a child, a little child, or having them as my main characters. It just gives you a kind of freedom and a quirkiness in the book that an adult character doesn’t.

I love The Ghost’s Child as well thought, and that’s about a very old woman.

It’s impossible kind of- you certainly can’t guess which ones you’re going to love. It just turns out that some books will really want to help you and write themselves, and there’s very much a sense that they are already written in space somewhere and all I am doing- I have to put in almost no effort whatsoever accept to move my fingers on the keyboard. The story just comes to me like a seed from a UFO.

Valerie
Wow.

Sonya
And, those are the ones I love. The less, in general I have found, the less work I have to do, the better I like it.

Valerie
Right.

Sonya
But Butterfly wasn’t like that, even though it was all storyboarded and everything, nevertheless a book can still be quite hard work if the sentences don’t run together as nicely and smoothly as you might have hoped.

Even something like- in The Midnight Zoo, for instance, writing the later draft I had to insert quite a big addition to something, right towards the end where it was going to be difficult, but the book just opened itself up and said, “Here you go, put that in.”

With a book like Butterfly if you have to do something like that it’s going to be more problematic.

So, anyway, and it was quite unpleasant I’d have to say trying to concentrate on being 14 again. That wasn’t very nice either.

Valerie
Your book Landscape With Animals attracted some controversy because you wrote under a pseudonym. Why did you choose to write under a pseudonym?

Sonya
As I was writing it I was in two minds about whether it would come out under a pseudonym or not. But as soon as I showed it to Penguin, to Bob Sessions, the publishing director there, he said, “There’s no question, it has to come out under a pseudonym. Don’t even think otherwise.” And I said, “What’s your reason? Are they matching mine?” He said, “Well, because the last thing a writer like you needs who’s work is forever-” you know my whole career has been plagued by this, “Who do you write for?” “Where are the books placed in the bookshop?”

Anyways, I have to answer those sorts of questions for the rest of my life. It just fills me with despair.

But, he said, “If you have a book with the title- with the world ‘animals’ in the title you are going to get librarians that are going to ‘This is a Sonya Harnett book. She writes for teenagers and children. We’ll stick it in the children’s and teenager’s section’,” and he goes, “That could be potentially a disaster.” I said, “Yeah, OK.”

I mean I wasn’t in anyway surprised when he said this is the reason, this is what would have to happen.

So, you know people have accused me of writing it under a pseudonym as sort of a pathetic attempt to generate kind of controversy, or attention, or whatever. But that is not at all how it was. I’m quite proud of that book. It was- sometimes you sort of test your abilities as a writer, and that was certainly a book that I thought, “This is going to take from me every ounce of ability that I have,” as indeed the writing books for children as well. So, they make for an odd pair- writing books for children and writing pornography.

But, I would go to having it under my own name in a flash.

Valerie
Are you planning to write more though under a pseudonym?

Sonya
I don’t think so.

Valerie
Right.

Sonya
But, you know, never say ‘never’. You don’t know. I really- because I work one book at a time in sort of a twelve month cycle and don’t think about the next twelve months that will follow it, it’s always a surprise to me what comes along as much as it’s a surprise to anybody else.

Valerie
Right.

Sonya
I don’t know, I might have ten pseudonyms by the time the decade is out.

Valerie
Yes. It sounds like you’re able to tap into this divine sort of wordsmith, or divine fountain of ideas that just run through you and come out on the keyboard.

Sonya
Well, it sounds easy maybe, but… and sometimes it can be. Sometimes I surprise myself. But I think everything stems from the fact that I’ve been doing this for my entire life. If I hadn’t devised ways of making it- it may sound easy- then I’d be doing something wrong. I think even a brain surgeon, or somebody who does the most difficult job in the world has ways of describing that belie the difficulty behind it.

If I have a book that comes to me from outer space and I don’t have to put any effort in, it’s only because I’ve written books where every single word has been a screaming agonizing effort.

Valerie
What then would your tips be to aspiring writers in order for them to become as prolific and efficient as you, and to write better? What would the main things be that they should be thinking about?

Sonya
I think first of all you must read and read, and read, and read, and read. I read everything that crosses my path. I’ll read ads in the newspaper. I’ll read the public notices column. I’ll read any piece of rubbish about things that have no interest to me whatsoever. I’ll read reviews of new cars and stuff, although I actually do quite like cars.

I think that it’s absolutely important to have as broad a general knowledge as you possibly can, and as broad an idea of what words are capable of doing as you can possibly have.

It wasn’t until I started to read really adventurous kind of writers that it really got through my head that you could write anything you like. You don’t have to stick to any sort of tame formula, or anything like that. You can approach a book in anyway that you can think of. So, you must read and read, and read, and read.

And, you must have a lot of interests in life. You must find a great deal of things interesting.

And, I think you must never accept defeat because-

Valerie
Right.

Sonya
Huh?

Valerie
Yeah. Yes.

Sonya
Sorry, I thought you said, “Why?”

Valerie
No.

Sonya
“Why never accept defeat?”

It’s an industry where defeat looms and it’s a craft and an industry where defeat looms continuously. It’s always there, just a small sideways step away. You have to- I think you’ve got to learn if you actually fall into that quagmire of defeat you can pull yourself out of it again. If one book gets turned down that doesn’t mean that you are finished.

On the other hand, I also think that maybe people should be perhaps a bit more accepting of the fact that not everybody can do it. It is a craft, but we’re widely encouraged to believe is accessible to anybody who can pick up a pen and a piece of paper, whereas I think that is kind of degrading and demeaning to the art.

I mean no other art form is treated in that way. Not everybody believes they can paint a picture. Or how many people do you know, and I do a bit of painting and drawing myself, and so many people over my life I’ve heard say, “I can’t draw for nuts,” but you never hear anybody say that, basically. Most of us can swim, but we don’t all go around thinking that we can swim as well Ian Thorpe, or anything like that.

So, I do think that if you plan to be a writer you have to have- if you hope to be a writer then you have to have talent to be it. And, if you don’t have the talent then maybe you should accept it.

Valerie
Talent and discipline.

Sonya
Yes, discipline as well.

I guess I’ve lived my whole life doing this, and when people say, “Oh, you’re very disciplined,” it doesn’t really make absolute sense to me because this is just the way I am. I’m not aware of myself as being disciplined. But, certainly the books don’t write themselves, that’s for sure. If you want to write a book, then you’ve got to sit down and do it.

Valerie
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Sonya.

Sonya
It’s a pleasure.


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