Ep 209 Meet Jaclyn Moriarty, author of ‘The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone’.

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In Episode 209 of So you want to be a writer: The Book of Secrets is featured in the Kids’ Reading Guide! Discover how to write authentic American dialogue. What you need to do to become a full time freelance writer. A creative writing fellowship at Stanford is up for grabs! Plus, you’ll meet Jaclyn Moriarty, author of The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone and much more. 

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

podcast-artworkLinks 

The Kids’ Reading Guide 

When British Authors Write American Dialogue, or Try To 

Are you ready to become a full time freelance writer? 

Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Fellowships at Stanford University: Applications Close 1 December 

 

Writer in Residence

Jaclyn Moriarty

Jaclyn Moriarty is the best-selling author of novels for young adults and adults including Feeling Sorry for Celia, and the Colours of Madeleine trilogy.

Jaclyn grew up in Sydney, lived in England, the US, and Canada, and now lives in Sydney again. She has been the recipient of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Queensland Literary Award, and the Aurealis Award for Fantasy.

Her books have been named Boston Globe Honor Books, White Raven selections and Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Assocation.

Her latest book is The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone.

She is very fond of chocolate, blueberries, ice-skating and sleep.

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Interview Transcript 

Allison

Jaclyn Moriarty is the award-winning author of Feeling Sorry for Celia and A Corner of White, and has won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award three times. Three. Her books have been translated into several languages, have been named best books for young adults by the American Librarian Association, awarded the Boston Globe-Horn Honor Book Prize, and shortlisted for America’s Nebula Prize. She has previously written for teenagers and adults, but for the first time she is now turning her attention to younger readers with The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone. So welcome to the program, Jaclyn.

Jaclyn

Thank you so much. And thank you for that lovely introduction.

Allison

In my best radio voice!

Jaclyn

It was beautiful.

Allison

Let’s talk about your new book, because it generated a whirlwind of interest before it was even published. I saw lots of different spectres of spheres of the online world talking about it: librarians, booksellers, readers, etc. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about it?

Jaclyn

Sure. The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone is the story of a ten-year old girl named Bronte. It opens with her learning that her parents have been killed by pirates. And she’s not that bothered by this because she has been raised by her aunt Isabel, and has never really known her parents. But her parents have left her detailed instructions requiring her to travel through the kingdoms and empires, delivering treasure to…

She travels the kingdoms and empires delivering treasure to her ten other aunts. And the instructions are very detailed, and they’ve also been bordered by fairy cross-stitch, which is a kind of a magical cross-stich border, which means that if she in any way breaks the rules in the instructions, then her hometown will be torn to pieces.

Allison

Goodness gracious. No pressure then?

Jaclyn

Exactly. Yes.

Allison

So where did the idea for such a magical, mystical adventure story come from?

Jaclyn

It’s difficult to know where it came from. In some ways I can tell you exactly where it came from. A long time ago, a reader sent me an email saying nice things about my books, and she mentioned that she was drinking cloudberry tea as she wrote the email. And I’d never heard of cloudberry tea before, and I was really enchanted by the idea of cloudberry tea. Maybe everybody else is already, maybe you drink it yourself all the time, I don’t know. But I just thought, that sounds magical. So I wrote back to her and said, one day I want to write a book featuring cloudberry tea.

And then years went by, and in the back of my mind every now and then I would think, oh, I promised her I was going to write a book about cloudberry tea. And my mother always told me that if you make a promise you should keep it.

So one day I thought, I am now compelled to write this book. So I sat down and wrote the first chapter of a book without knowing anything about it. I just decided to make it about a ten-year-old girl whose parents have been killed by pirates. And cloudberry tea features in the first chapter. And I had no plans for it at all.

And usually I had always written young adult fiction, but suddenly cloudberry tea seemed to take me into the world of younger children’s fiction. And when I finished the chapter I thought, and this might sound ridiculous, but I thought, this is exactly the kind of book that I’ve always wanted to write.

And then because something felt really different about it, I decided to just set it aside and only write it when I felt in that particular mood, that kind of cloudberry tea mood. And so for years I just added now and then. Because with my other books, it’s like my profession. And so I have a structured disciplined approach to the writing of the other books. But with this one, this one reminded me of the way I used to write when I was young and writing was pure pleasure. So I wanted to keep that pleasure, so I just came back to it and added another chapter when I wanted to be in Bronte’s world again.

And about half way through I decided that I wanted to make this into a book, and then I thought I am going to try and write each chapter in a different cafe. And so I went in my neighbourhood, I went around to different cafes in the mornings, and wrote a different chapter in each cafe. Although, I kept coming back, I broke that rule in the end, because I kept coming back to, there’s a local chocolate shop where you can get tea or hot chocolate which is just the best place to work. Because it’s tiny and they have, well, you’re surrounded by chocolate. And they play great music and they have an extraordinary chandelier made out of glass teacups. So I kept going back there.

And in the end, I finished it in the chocolate shop. And that was a very different way of writing to the way that I usually write.

Allison

So how long did the whole process take you? How long did it take you to draft it from start to finish? Given that you were just doing it as you felt like it? And then – I really like your idea of going to a different cafe for every chapter, I’m going to try that. How long did the actual, until you had a draft that you were happy with, did it take you?

Jaclyn

I think it must have been a few years. Well, once I started writing in a concentrated way it took me about eight months. Before that there were probably four years of occasionally going back to it. So that might be five years in total, but yeah, that’s a fragmented timeline.

Allison

And did you find, because as you say you’ve used a different writing process to what you would normally use, in the sense of you would normally obviously plan it out quite extensively before you start writing? Is that how you would approach your other books?

Jaclyn

Yeah. I’ve found with each of my books that my plans have got longer and longer. So when I used to write, when I was young, I never planned at all really. And with my first book, with Feeling Sorry for Celia, I had a two-page plan, I think.

And then with each book, as I’ve taken myself more seriously as a writer, and also become a bit more afraid with each book, because there is a contract and this is how I make my living, and so it seems more important that you cannot accidentally write yourself into… I’m terrified of accidentally writing myself into a corner, or finding that this story has nowhere to go.

So with each book my plans have got longer and longer. And the most recent books before this one was my Colours of Madeleine trilogy, which was a fantasy trilogy. And I knew it was going to be a series before I started. So with that one I spent over a year writing a plan for the whole thing. And the plan was about 200 pages long.

So yes, with every other book, I plan, and the plans are really long. And I love planning. I find a lot of pleasure from planning, I feel like I can go in any direction the story wants to go in, and if it’s before you start writing, there is that possibility that this is going to be a masterpiece. So the longer you put off actually writing and finding out, oh no, it’s just me again, the longer you can believe, “THIS is going to be genius. Wait for this to start!” So sometimes I think it’s procrastination.

But my sister, Liane, two of my sisters are also writers, and Liane is a very successful writer. And she never plans her book at all. She just sits down and starts writing.

Allison

Yes, we’ve spoken to Liane on the podcast. And she told us about her process. And I remember being stunned. Because you are reading these quite… It’s that notion of how do you not know this is going to happen at the end before you start? How do you get to this point? And she would explain how she was sitting in a car and she’d be like, oh that’s who did it! And my head was exploding.

Jaclyn

Exactly. Yeah.

Allison

Which I imagine, if you’re a planner, that would feel the same to you, that your head would explode a little bit at the idea.

Jaclyn

It does. I love her books so much, and her plotting is masterful. And just like you, one of her books, when I read the manuscript of Big Little Lies, which is the one that just got made into a TV series, when I finished it and called her up and was raving about all the things I loved about it, and I said, “I couldn’t believe that blah turned out to be the murderer.” And she said, “I know. I couldn’t believe it either!”

Allison

All right, so let’s go back to Bronte. This is your first book for younger readers. So what did you find different about writing for this age group rather than writing teens, YA, or writing for adults as you have done?

Jaclyn

It’s hard to know. Because it was such a different process it’s hard to know how much the difference was because of the age group and how much was because of the process. Because I did decide not to plan this one at all, because I thought why does Liane get to not plan and I…

And so there was the pleasure of that, that I just knew that Bronte was going to go visit her ten aunts. And so it was like being on a journey with her and waiting to find out, with each aunt, waiting to find out what she was like. Because Bronte had met some of the aunts before, but many of them were strangers to her. And also, Bronte is narrating the story, so it was almost as if I just decided I’m going to let Bronte tell the story. So it was crazy, and sounds more mystical than I usually am. But that’s how it felt. Bronte is telling the story, and I’m going to wait to see what she says.

But also, because it also was that age group, the nine to twelve-year-old magical adventure stories, like CS Lewis and the Narnia books and Edith Nesbit, I don’t know if you know, the Phoenix and the Carpet books? Five Children and It? A lot of people don’t seem to have heard of them. But they were a big part of my childhood. And Arthur Ransome. And that sort of story is the one that really taught me what stories should be when I was that age. So that’s what I’ve always wanted to write.

And previously when I had tried to write books like that, they hadn’t worked. And for me, and I feel like I wasn’t quite ready. I don’t know. And I kept wanting my characters to be older, and I wasn’t interested in my characters until they were 15 and could be a bit edgy and sexy. Even my Colours of Madeleine trilogy, that was my first proper fantasy trilogy, that one is set partly in the real world, and partly in a fantasy kingdom. And originally, I wanted that to be a children’s book and the characters were 12-year-olds. But I kept starting it and it kept not working, and I realised it’s because I don’t believe in these characters. And I made them older and they came to life for me.

But with this book, the character of Bronte just was immediately real to me. And so now it could work for me. And so because it’s Bronte, in a lot of ways it didn’t feel different to my other books, because I always wait until I have the characters.

And then the story, I don’t want to keep saying, oh the story just comes alive because of the characters! Because that’s not fair, there is also a lot of, it’s not fair to me, because it’s like suggesting that I didn’t have to do anything. There’s still a lot, even when you’re not planning things, you are walking around thinking about them and trying to draw connections and trying to figure out what might happen. Like Liane said about driving along in a car. So even though you’re not sitting down writing out your structure, you’re thinking. And there was a lot of, especially because it wasn’t planned, there was a lot of sleepless nights trying to work out, how does this work? And it’s wonderful when it comes together.

Allison

What will happen next?

Jaclyn

And also I did more editing in this than I had before. With my other books, I think, the big plans that I write are really like first drafts. So I don’t, I edit as I go along. With this one I did a lot more shuffling around and bringing out ideas that had occurred to me near the end, and so on. You can do that with computers.

Allison

You can. So you were the first Moriarty sister to publish a book. And then of course the three of you, Liane, Nicola and yourself, have gone on to publish lots and lots of books. What’s it like being part of a writing family? Is it competitive? Or is it complementary? How does it work?

Jaclyn

I might be imagining this, but I don’t think we’re competitive at all. We’re all very aware of how lucky we are and how unlikely it is. Because that’s the dream, to be a writer. So it would be crazy to… I’m really happy all the time to be writing. So it would be mad for me to say, oh why can’t I get the kind of sales that Liane gets? I’d like to get a few more sales. [laughs]

It’s more that… And I think also maybe there’s a slight difference because my books are generally for young adults and this one’s for children. I’ve written one adult book, and I’ve got another adult book coming out next year.

I’ve got something in my throat sorry, excuse me, I’ll just clear my throat. Sorry.

But my adult books are quite different to Liane and Nicola’s books. So in some ways it might be easier because they are, I always like to have a bit of magic in them, so in some ways I have my own space. And I don’t know if there’s… I haven’t seen any, Liane and Nicola’s writing is maybe a bit more similar. But even that, they are also quite different. They have their own voices.

And I think it was harder for Nicola than me. Because she’s come in third, and so she’s got the voices in her head, and the voices out there saying, oh, you’re just doing this because your sisters do it. And she’s comparing things. And I always think that’s so sad, because she did her masters in creative writing, a degree in creative writing, and she won the creative writing prize for that, and she wrote a novel and got a two-book deal, with two small children, with a different publisher to Liane and my publisher. And those kinds of things are extraordinary. She should be celebrating and drinking champagne.

Allison

Absolutely.

Jaclyn

And instead of that, she’s all full of doubt and insecurities and thinking, why aren’t I achieving at the same level as Liane and Jacky? So it’s not fair to her.

Allison

It’s also part of being a writer, isn’t it? Comparing yourself to… It’s a very hard thing to switch off for anyone, I think.

Jaclyn

That’s a really good point. And that’s the only issue for me, is the insecurity and doubts. And as you say, you’re absolutely right, that is what it is to be a writer. Waking up in the middle of the night and despising your writing and thinking you’re a failure. All those kinds of things. And each book, yeah, you know all that stuff.

So Liane having been so successful, I am so proud of her, and so excited for her, and I love hearing all her stories. We get firsthand accounts of her being at red carpet events and being at the Emmy’s. And I don’t really want to, I wouldn’t like going to those things, I’ll be all right if it happens, but I think that I almost prefer to hear about it from Liane than have to worry about what I would wear or how to behave on the red carpet.

Allison

I totally agree with you. What would you wear? I have no idea what I would wear. But anyway.

Jaclyn

Exactly. She has meetings with Nicole Kidman, and I think, I have nothing in my wardrobe that I can wear to a meeting with Nicole Kidman. But I love hearing about the meetings with Nicole Kidman and all those events. So I love hearing about it.

The only difficulty is that that becomes, you know, how you look for things to be insecure about. So I can wake in the middle of the night and think, she’s just so much more successful than me. Maybe I should just stop. Maybe I’m not… And then in the day I think that’s stupid. What are you talking about? That doesn’t make sense. And she wouldn’t be happy to hear me say that, either.

Allison

No. Because I think people write for a lot of reasons, don’t they? And I think that if you have to look at all the reasons that you write, and to keep the perspective on what it is that you’re doing.

Jaclyn

That’s a very good point. Yes. Because it’s not just about…

Allison

No, it’s not just about wearing sequins at the Emmy’s, and worrying about what you would wear underneath. So let’s talk a little bit about how your first book came to be published. Because that’s the dream deal. Your first book, when you go back. So how did that happen for you? What was the journey to publication for you as an author?

Jaclyn

I grew up always wanting to be a writer. And doing lots of half-novels, or first chapters, and stories, and not really being able to get anywhere with publishing them.

And then I did that thing where you realise, where you think that grown-ups don’t actually become writers. It’s not realistic. And so I started English and Law at University, and then I went overseas to study the law, to put off becoming a lawyer for as long as I could. So I went and did a Masters at Yale, and a PhD at Cambridge.

And while I was at Cambridge… I should say, before that happened, friends of mine, when I was at law school, two friends of mine wrote a Dolly fiction. Do you know the Dolly fiction series? It’s a long time ago.

Allison

Yeah. A long time.

Jaclyn

They were teen romances. And two friends of mine got together and wrote one together, they got a contract and wrote one together. And that was a kind of, you know that idea that you have that it’s not realistic to be a writer, real people can’t do it, that imaginary people write books? And that the fact that two of my friends had actually made a book, even though it was a little teen romance, they wrote it really well, it was a great book, and great story telling, and professional. And that to me made it seem possible to write a book.

And so there’s a time between when you finish law school and you get your professional qualifications at the College of Law, which is a six-month program, and if you don’t get into the first half of the year of the program you have to wait six months and go into the second half of the year. And so most people get jobs in law firms for that six months while they’re waiting, like paralegal jobs. But instead of getting a paralegal job, I decided I was going to do an experiment and see if I could make my living as a writer. And just in an imaginary six-month way.

So I was also doing other part-time jobs, so I could make money to live on. But I got a contract to do one of those Dolly fiction books, I think you got $2000 for it, it was quite good. And so in that six months, instead of working as a lawyer, I wrote a Dolly fiction teen romance. Which was such a good experience to make it seem possible that you could make some money from writing, and also to work on structuring and planning and writing, making yourself write a complete short novel and polishing it. All of that was a good experience.

Allison

What was it called?

Jaclyn

I think it was called Cicada Summer. It was a bit too long, and in the end I had to cut dramatically. So a lot of the plotline doesn’t work. Luckily, you can’t find it anywhere. But I had two days or something to cut. I always talk too much, I’m talking too much now, sorry, but I had two days to cut 10,000 words or something. And so yeah. Don’t look for Cicada Summer.

Allison

What a shame. I quite like it. It’s a nice name. Cicada Summer is a good title, I like it.

Jaclyn

Thank you.

Allison

Good job.

Jaclyn

I think there’s another, I’ve seen it around, I think there’s another book out which I think is quite a good book somebody else has written called Cicada Summer.

Allison

See, it was a good title. Someone else liked it.

Jaclyn

So when I was at Cambridge doing my PhD, that’s when I realised that once I finished the PhD I was going to have to… I’d run out of things to do to avoid being a lawyer. And so I knew this was my last chance to become a writer. And so that’s when I wrote Feeling Sorry for Celia, while I was doing the PhD.

And that’s when I got really ruthless with myself. I was quite hard. Because writing is so much fun, but this was the book where I thought, I am going to write a very good book that I can imagine being published. And I think before then I had written, mostly I had written for myself. And this one I said, I want to be able to visualise this as an actual book. And that made a big difference, I think, for me. It made me stop writing myself into corners and half finishing books, and writing, you know, you just write silly things, because you’re being experimental. I thought, I want this to be original…

And I wrote it at night, because I was doing the PhD during the day, so I was strict with myself. And then I finished it and sent it to a publisher in London and they sent it back to me and said, no thank you. And I sent it to about ten other publishers and ten agents, and they all said no. So I brought it back home with me to Australia and got a job as a lawyer. And then I sent it one more time to an agency.

Excuse me. I don’t know why I have to keep clearing my throat, sorry.

The author Garth Nix was working as an agent at the time. So he is the person who opened the envelope and he really liked it and offered to be my agent and he found me publishers in Australia and America and England.

Allison

Fantastic. Go Garth.

Jaclyn

So that’s my story.

Allison

It’s a good story.

Jaclyn

Yeah, exactly. I love Garth Nix.

Allison

Garth Nix got me published.

Jaclyn

Yes. Exactly. I know.

Allison

So is there such a thing as a typical writing day? What does it look like for you now? Are you someone who writes every day at a set time? Or are you someone who writes just when you have something that you’re working on? How does it work for you?

Jaclyn

I write every day. Not on the weekend. And usually at a set time. I don’t really believe in that, you know people always say you have to write every day? I don’t believe in that. Sometimes you need a few days off and it makes all the difference. That’s what I think.

But my day is that I take, I have an eleven-year-old son, and I take him to school in the morning, and then I walk, I live near Kirribilli, and I take him to school and I walk into Kirribilli and across the Harbour Bridge and back again. And I look at the water and the boats while I’m walking. And so I find looking at the water helps my imagination. And also just walking fast makes, that kind of exercise, I think that helps with creativity.

So then I go to a cafe, often to the chocolate shop, and then I go to a cafe in the morning and write. I might do some writing on my laptop or I might do some planning of the next chapter, or research reading. And I take coloured Textas and pencils and big notepads, and write and do a lot of scribbling, planning and brainstorming and drawing pictures and things like that to plan the next chapter. And then I come home and write at my computer for the afternoon, and then it’s time to go and get Charlie from school. So that’s my day.

Allison

Fair enough. And what about the promotion side of being an author? Are you someone who is active online? Or do you promote your books in other ways? Do you enjoy the promotion side of it?

Jaclyn

Yeah, I like it a lot now. I didn’t really used to, I used to be frightened and nervous and shy. And now I think because I spent a long time working, writing at home by myself, I am so excited to have social interaction that I like it, and I am really happy to be talking to people. And that’s when I talk for too long. Because like that crazy person, the one, if you’re by yourself for a while, you go into a shop and you start making crazy long conversation with people in the shop.

So I quite enjoy it. I enjoy it and I just like meeting people and talking to people. So I like that side of it now.

I’m not very good online at all. And my publishers are always telling me to do more, be more active, do it properly. I don’t do it properly. I had a blog for a while, and I updated it every three years, I think. Which is not how you build a blog.

Allison

Apparently not. What about author talks in schools? Do you do a lot of that sort of thing? Are you going out to talk to teenagers? Talk to us about that. Have you got any tips for talking to teens?

Jaclyn

Oh, I want to hear other people’s tips for talking to teens. That is the one thing that does feel… I usually really like it once it gets going, but that’s the thing that still terrifies me, talking to teenagers.

And with this book, because it can go wrong, you can think, and teenagers are so different, and it depends on the group and the culture at the school. Because you can think, I’ve got my talk figured out. You can have a really successful one where all the kids are really, look really interested, and they’re laughing, and it’s good, and you think, okay, I’ve got it figured out, I understand how to talk to young people now. And then the next school is a complete disaster.

And you know, the honesty of teenagers. If they find you boring, they yawn, without covering them up, in your face. And they start talking to each other. And then when that happens, I start panicking. And the more you panic, the worse it goes.

When it goes well, I love talking to young people, it’s good. But yes, that’s my great fear. And I don’t do it as much as other people do. Because I find it takes up a lot of my mind space when I have a school talk coming up in two weeks, it’s on my mind for the two weeks before hand.

Allison

Fair enough. All right, let’s wrap up today with your top three tips for writers. What’s some of the best advice that you would give aspiring authors?

Jaclyn

I’m trying to think of something that… Because I know people say the same things a lot. I know people always say, okay, the first one can be, I know people always say this, reading a lot. And I know that’s the most obvious one, but what I find helpful is reading really widely, not just… Because people used to say, “read a lot”, and I would always be reading my favourite style and genre of book and favourite authors. And then I realised that the key is in reading outside your favourite style and author, outside of the style and genre of writing – excuse me, it’s dust, or pollen or something, sorry…

Allison

You need some cloudberry tea.

Jaclyn

I do. I’ll just have a glass of water. Hang on. Sorry about that.

Allison

That’s all right.

Jaclyn

So reading non-fiction, science and history. And poetry. So because I usually write for young adults, I read a lot of young adult books. But I find it’s really important also to read science fiction. And often I notice I read books by women, so sometimes I try and read something by men. So that you have a variety. Well, I think non-fiction and science and history and things like that can really trigger your imagination in unexpected ways.

And reading literary books to remind yourself of all the possibilities that are out there, at the same time as reading kids books, if you’re writing a kid’s book, I think is important. Because you should never be writing down to children. So be aware all the time of what great writing is. And I don’t mean that literary writing is the only great writing, because there are wonderful children’s books that are just as good as literary books, I think. So that’s the first one.

The second one, I think, is also a variation on the usual advice, which is people always say, keep a diary. And I never found that very helpful until I started a different kind of diary, which is a kind of stream of consciousness thing that I write most days. Well, I haven’t for a while, that’s a lie. But I try to write on my computer so that I can write it fast, and where I try to each day write, not just a description of what happened that day, but a few lines where I talk about the details of one incident from my day, or one conversation I had, or describe one person I met. Or I try to get underneath one emotion that I had, try to explore it. And I found that much more helpful than just keeping a regular diary, doing that. And also, then it really helps with the way you, if you talk about people you’ve seen, then it helps with character descriptions. And I don’t think I’ve got a third tip.

Allison

They are two terrific tips.

Jaclyn

Those two were long.

Allison

We’re happy with two.

Jaclyn

Okay, thank you.

Allison

It’s all good. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Jaclyn. It’s been very, very interesting, and best of luck with The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone. We will put a link in the show notes to your website, etc. And I hope that it goes really, really well for you.

Jaclyn

Thank you so much. And it was lovely talking to you. Thank you for the great questions.

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