|Photo by Nicholas Purcell|
I don’t remember ever making that decision – I have always written and illustrated. In fact I would get in trouble in school for handing in rambling novella-length stories because I hadn’t planned them well enough and for drawing pictures in the columns of my homework. In my early teens, I would write and illustrate my own books and often give them to kids I babysat.
My first published book ‘Speak Chinese, Fang Fang’ began as a hand-made book for a young Chinese-Australian student I was tutoring, and it was only at the prompting of a librarian friend that I even thought to send it to a publisher. I was freakishly lucky to be picked up considering I knew nothing about publishing at that stage.
What do you enjoy the most about both?
I love writing stories. I never tire of the thrill of creating a beautiful sentence and the satisfaction of fitting all the pieces of a story together to make it work. Also, finding a character I can grow to love and understanding the world from their perspective. Writing is also portable and manageable – I can pretty much do it anywhere at any time, whereas illustration requires much more space, physically as well as time-wise. I need to have a clear block ahead of me in my studio to work on the illustrations of a picture book so I can completely lose myself in the quiet introspective space I need to create its tone and continuity. Having said all this, currently, I am mainly writing short pieces, working on a novel is something else again. A novel is a commitment to months and sometimes years of anxiety for me, which is why I write them so rarely.
What was your road to publication like?
Embarrassingly smooth. If I had known before I sent my first picture book off to a publisher how hard it can be to get published, I may not have even tried. I’m glad I never knew.
Do you start with words or pictures?
What do you like to read?
Everything and anything.
What were you favourite books growing up?
Probably Roald Dahl (I also love Quentin Blake’s illustrations). I also went through a huge Judy Blume and Paul Zindel phase as a young teenager.
Where do you like to work?
In a quiet log cabin in the woods, with the sounds of the ocean nearby. Ha ha. Currently I work at my kitchen table in the middle of our busy, tiny house in North Fitzroy. It’s fine. I do have a studio next door but I like to be around my kids when I can and I’ve pretty much trained myself to work anywhere.
Can you tell us about some of your books?
Well the two things I am most excited about are my newest children’s novel Angel Creek and my series for younger readers called Billie B Brown.
Angel Creek is for upper primary and is set around the Merri Creek over a hot Australian summer. Three kids, Jelly, Gino and Pik, are out exploring the creek on Christmas Eve while their parents host the neighbourhood drinks and in a dark tunnel they find a baby angel with a broken wing. They decide to keep the angel to try and fix its wing, but soon discover they have no idea how to look after such a wild and wordless creature. Things start to go wrong, and they realise that you can’t just take something from where it belongs and expect that no one will notice.
The Billie B Brown series are based around a fiesty young girl who is good at soccer, but terrible at ballet. They are simple to read but difficult to write as I have aimed to keep the vocabulary and sentence structure simple enough for a child to read alone, but have the stories complex enough to keep my young readers interested.
Neither my publishers nor I had any idea how popular this series would become. I receive fan letters almost every week, not only from darling little girls inviting Billie to their next birthday party, but also grateful teachers and parents who are thrilled to see their littlies devouring the books. At first we thought there might only be four books in the series, but I have just written my fourteenth Billie story – and this Christmas my publishers are even bringing out The Big Book of Billie! I’ve recently received my advance copies and they are absolutely gorgeous: twelve Billie stories, games, puzzles and even recipes! Too cute!
What makes you passionate about writing?
Getting letters from readers inviting my characters to their birthday parties. :-)
How long does it take you to illustrate a book?
It depends on the style I am using and how complex the illustrations are. The part that often takes the longest is the planning: the dummies, roughs and storyboards to nut out the layout of the book. Once I have decided on a style and medium, the finished artwork usually takes me around three months to complete, but I can often be juggling other things at the same time, which isn’t ideal, but at this stage in my life impossible to avoid.
What's been the most memorable event during your writing/illustrating journey?
There are so many: every book published is exciting, awards are thrilling, but probably having a parent tell me that mine is the first book their child ever read is the most rewarding of all.
What's your involvement in this years book week?
Schools visits mainly, though this stretches out on either side of Book Week so that it pretty much becomes Book Months as far as I’m concerned. Lots of talking, lots of driving and meeting lots and lots of delightful kids. For a couple of months a year I feel like a rock star.
What do you like/dislike about conducting workshops?
I went through a period a few years back where I began to suffer anxiety and panic attacks. I have no idea why, but they would creep up on me at the worst possible time and this made public speaking almost unbearable. So I took a year off school visits and all speaking engagements and just concentrated on my work and my family and eventually my anxiety subsided. Now I love running workshops and giving talks again even though I find it exhausting and my voice gets very hoarse. I know I need to learn to pace myself so that I don’t give ‘everything’ in my first talk when I have another two to go.
What advice would you give aspiring writers and illustrators?
I have no words of wisdom to give in particular other than to love what you do. Whether you are writing for a publisher, audience or just for yourself, it’s only worth doing if you love what you do. This will give you the drive and the passion to keep doing it no matter what.