I’ve been catching up with some amazing Australian writers over at Boomerang Books. They’ve had hundreds of books published between them, won countless awards and even have a few Order of Australia Medals to their names. They are so very inspiring that I had to share a few snippets from my interviews with Susanne Gervay, Gary Crew, Hazel Edwards and Dianne Bates.
For the full story, you can check out my blog at Boomerang Books, but here’s a taste.
Susanne Gervay is an award-winning author, speaker, recipient of the Order of Australia and all-round dynamo.
She rushed into my life last year at the Capricorn Literary Festival. I had the pleasure of sharing an apartment, and lots of stories with Susanne during our week-long visit to schools in Rockhampton and Emerald. Her energy was infectious whether we were visiting schools, snorkelling at Great Keppel Island or discussing stories.
She joins me to chat about her beautiful new picture book, Elephants Have Wings, which explores the humanity in all of us. The book is illustrated by award-winning illustrator, Anna Pignataro, who has created more than fifty books for children.
JF: Congratulations on your new picture book. Tell us about the inspiration for Elephants Have Wings?
SG: Inspired by my journey to India and South East Asia where I spoke in Delhi, Goa and Singapore, I returned imbued with the cultures and spirituality of India and Asia. I experienced the Baha’i Temple in Delhi where I was part of a service under the open-air lotus roof of the temple. Five young people read from their holy books from five different faiths. I also became aware of mystical stories. One was the parable of the blind men and the elephant which is part of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sufism. Another was in Hindu mythology, that during the monsoon rains which refresh the earth, the clouds are regarded as the wings of elephants. Young people today are overwhelmed with media reports of terrorism and religious conflict, and it is time to reach out and create a safer world for our kids. Elephants Have Wings came out of this. It would be a gentle, nurturing picture book celebrating family, inter-generational story, beliefs in a world that is both beautiful and threatened, opening discussions of harmony, inclusion and peace. As the daughter of refugees, action for inclusion and peace are personal. I was privileged that Anna Pignataro, also the daughter of refugees, would go with me on this journey.
The story follows the trials of Stella Montgomery, an 11-year-old orphan, who lives with her dreadful aunts in a damp, dull hotel in Victorian England. But everything changes when she witnesses an evil act in the conservatory.
The book is the first in a series of Victorian adventures for Stella Montgomery and features the kind of beautifully intricate and magical drawings that have made Judith Rossell one of Australia’s most successful illustrators.
Judith joins me to talk about her new book and the historical period that inspired it.
JF: Congratulations on Withering-by-Sea. It’s a wonderful book and the illustrations are stunning. Which came first – the pictures or the words?
JR: Thanks Julie! I’m very happy with how it came together. (Particularly the ribbon. I’m very happy about the ribbon!). I started with the words, but along the way I did some of the drawings. Sometimes drawing the little details of the characters or the setting can give ideas for the story. Drawing the pier gave me the idea of a theatre, which gave me the idea that the Professor was a stage magician.
JF: What interests you about Victorian England?
JR: I’m a big fan of the early Sherlock Holmes stories, with the lovely atmosphere of fog and gaslight, and mysterious goings-on. And it was such an interesting era for the enormous changes that were happening, so many important inventions, and social changes. The pace of change in the 1890s was so much greater than now, people experienced the first telephones, motorcars, moving pictures, anesthetics, votes for women, education for all children… so many life-changing things. It must have been an exciting time to live.
JF: Why do aunties get such a bad rap in Victorian era fiction?
JR: Aunties and Stepmothers! You’d expect your mother to be on your side, sympathetic, reliable and looking out for you, but an Aunty might do anything! Aunties have many more possibilities, for exciting adventures, and for evil deeds. (I’m an Aunty myself, so I can say these things).
The story follows the journey of Primo as he attempts to navigate his way though his final year of school with an emotionally brittle mother, a father suffering from dementia, a troubled brother and a demanding older girlfriend. When Primo crashes his father’s prized Fiat Bambino he’s forced to make some difficult decisions. Without strong role models, his choices are dubious and ultimately lead to more trouble. Primo discovers that there’s more to being a man than just posturing as one.
JF: Congratulations on your new book, Dead Dog In The Still Of The Night, Archimede Fusillo. You have carved a niche in the YA market writing about boys seeking an identity. Can you explain the motivation for this?
AF: I have always thought that boys and young men were more than simply the sum of their adventures. It seems to me that too often males in general are portrayed by the mass media as being one dimensional, with little to draw upon apart from angst, self-destruction and a high tolerance for drink and mayhem.
All I ever set out to do was explore what I saw was the deeper more emotional, more humane side of the male gender. I was brought up surrounded by boys, young men and older men who were not carbon copies of one another.
What spoke to me was the breadth and depth of dignity, a sense of caring, and yes, even a degree of self-loathing that permeated the life of boys seeking to discover what it was that made them men, what the parameters and boundaries and expectations were and are that help define one’s sense of selfhood.
Multi-award winning author Gary Crew delivers a dark, but compelling Australian fairy tale in his latest illustrated book, The Cuckoo (Ford Street Publishing). The story follows the journey of Martin, a boy on the cusp of becoming a teenager, living in the Blue Mountains. Deserted by his mother, bullied by his brothers and neglected by his father, he seeks solace in the bush. The story is a warning against arrogance and is cleverly complemented by the intricate and surreal drawings of Naomi Turvey. Gary Crew joins me to talk about The Cuckoo and his other recent works.
JF: Gary Crew, congratulations on the The Cuckoo. The book is ultimately a tale of forgiveness and hope, but there is a great deal of cruelty in the story. Can you explain the background to the book?
GC: Having taught Murray Bale’s novel ‘Eucalyptus’ at university, I was interested in writing an Australian Fairy Tale that would appeal to boys. The extract from Perrault’s ‘Hop o’ my Thumb’ which introduces The Cuckoo proved the perfect starting point for a Fairy Tale based on sibling rivalry and sacrifice.
JF: The Cuckoo is an illustrated book, aimed at middle school readers. What does an illustrated book offer children heading into the teenage years? GC: Visual literacy is a vital element associated with negotiating the modern world, irrespective of the reader’s age, so that’s one reason; secondly, the image allows the basic print narrative to be extended into a multiplicity of personal interpretations and readings according to the reader’s unlimited imagination.
On the day that prolific Australian author, Hazel Edwards was honoured with an Order of Australia Medal for services to literature, her latest young adult novel was receiving a very different distinction at the other end of the country. Hazel Edwards has written more than 200 books, including the hugely popular Hippopotamus picture book series, but none has provoked the reaction of f2m: the boy within. The book, co-written by Ryan Kennedy, tells the story of Skye who becomes Finn and transitions from female to male
JF: You are best known for your delightful picture books featuring a cake-eating hippo. What prompted you to write about gender transitioning?
HE: Ftm means female to male transitioning. But our title is f2m, like adolescent texting and also indicates our collaboration. Co-author Ryan is a family friend, whom I’d known since he was 11, and presenting as a girl. I knew he was transitioning from female to male, and admired his courage. A great collaboration. It would have taken me years to research what he already knew. Plus he’d kept a medical diary, and although the f2m: the boy within is fiction, NOT an autobiography, the medical sequences are accurate. We chose YA novel format because 17-ish is time for photo ID for drivers licence and when most teens are seeking their identity. Ford Street Publishing who specialise in edgy YA, was willing to support our risky project. Brave. It was short-listed by the internationally prestigious White Ravens best YA fiction 2011.
When Counterfeit Love, my latest book for young adults, came out this year, I have to admit to suffering a little fatigue. I’d had eleven books published in four years, and was feeling like I’d just finished an ultra marathon. But when I look around at my fellow children’s authors, I realise I’m just ambling along. I welcome an author who has more than 120 titles to her name.
Dianne Bates has a flair for humour, but has delved into some very disturbing topics in her young adult fiction. Bates has drawn from personal experience in her work, including her latest book, The Girl in the Basement, which tells the story of a girl abducted and held in a basement, awaiting her fate.
JF: You’ve written more than a hundred books, across lots of topics, but your YA books seem to focus on very dark themes – abandonment, self-harm and kidnap. Why is that?
DB: Most of my fiction books for younger readers are humorous! I guess the darker issues are something that I feel suit teens who are transitioning into the adult world and so often suffer much angst. During my adolescent years I knew abandonment and the feeling of being trapped, also I self-harmed. It’s said that one should write about what one knows, so I often draw on my life experiences when I write social-realism (which is most of the time).
JF: Can you explain the inspiration for your latest book – The Girl in the Basement?
DB: As a child I lived in a household of domestic violence and was constantly in fear of what might happen next, so I could well relate to the experiences of a teenage girl who is trapped physically and psychologically. I also had first-hand experience of an unpredictable man in my life so you could say I didn’t need to do much research but could draw on my childhood memories. I read a lot of crime fiction and real-life crime books which I found helpful in creating the life and mind of a criminal (the book is told from two points of view). In researching specifically for The Girl in the Basement (Morris Publishing Australia), I read about the experiences of young, abducted women who managed to flee their abusers. In particular, Sabine Dardenne’s whose book, I Choose to Live, about her 80 days in captivity, gave me a real insight into the experience and mindset of being kidnapped. Interestingly, the same week that the women were released from years of captivity in the house in Cleveland Ohio was the same week that The Girl in the Basement was released by Morris Publishing Australia.
See my blog on Boomerang Books for more of these interviews.