Not Just a Piece of Cake: an interview with Hazel Edwards

hazel portraitHazel Edwards OAM is one of the most distinguished and popular authors of Australian children’s literature today, with a long and brilliant career spanning many decades–and many books! Today, I’m delighted to be featuring an interview I did with her to mark the release of her long-awaited memoir, Not Just A Piece of Cake: Being An Author, which is published this week.  

First of all, Hazel, congratulations on the publication of Not Just a Piece of Cake! Can you tell readers how it came about? And what was it like, as a writing experience? Did you find it difficult to get your life down on paper?

In a memoir, it’s acceptable to write only a slice of life. And that slice also fits the cake imagery. I’ve always preferred short, multi-layered pieces, with sub-text . ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’ is 404 words and one less when ‘smack’ was censored out a few years ago.

But I prefer the term Questory (Quest + Story) rather than the more old –fashioned ‘memoir’. However, memoir is the genre convention for booksellers and makes the book easier for readers to find.

hazel in antarctica

Hazel in Antarctica

Health issues meant I couldn’t fly for a year, so I decided to ‘de-clutter’ stuff from my literary life. My other aim was to capture book-ish memories before they vanished from my hippocampus , the part of our brain where we store experiences. The recent dementia of some older writers worried me. And I’d been at funerals recently where some eulogies were works of fiction. I wanted a ‘real’ record with the flaws, doubts and candid dilemmas.

Originally I wasn’t sure whether I’d offer it for publication. It’s not a family history although it contains some of mine. It isn’t a how- to- write. It’s really a serendipitous map of the lifestyle process of writing longterm when you also have a family. Plus some ironic humour.

Until now I’ve avoided autobiography except when I was beset in the Antarctic polar ice  with 38 expeditioners (34  blokes and 4 other women )and it looked like we’d be there all year. ‘Antarctic Writer on Ice’ was the serendipitous result, based on e-mails sent under extreme expedition conditions. So the Map of Serendipity was a concept which appealed.

In ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake’  I’ve experimented in styling via anecdultery rather than chronological boredom. Anecdultery is my term of choice:crafted storytelling based on quirky incidents and characters. The extra-ordinary behind the ordinary. But not linear.

Having run workshops on ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’ for decades, I’m wary of listing only significant birth and death dates which have readers yawning and shelving my book, forever.

I took on a different kind of intellectual challenge by experimenting with the structure of ideas. I’ve always dreamed in fractals. I wanted to explore the process of the process of longterm creativity. Honestly. Plus the specific creative time challenges when you also have a family. And to explore what sustains a writer. Issues like mentoring and being mentored. Fan mail.The thrill of creating a story which wasn’t there before.

I wanted to evaluate…what had been the most inspirational experiences…and which books & stories  had been personally most worth writing, instead of racing on with the next project as I generally do. Filing is not my strong point.  Neither is formatting.So this memoir was a change of pace and of style but also meant re-visiting articles as often I had written about experiences soon after, and these had an immediacy and details I had forgotten.

Thumb Cover Not Just a Piece of Cake jpgThis memoir is probably more candid than my earlier writing. Usually I write for a specific audience. This time I wrote for myself and in the beginning I was unsure whether anyone else would read it.

As a long term author, there’s a danger of answering in the same way to predictable questions–and by the way, Sophie, yours are NOT predictable :-). But after a few embellishments, the writer forgets what was true and what was value- added dramatised faction or even fiction.

So I decided to indirectly answer the most common queries about an author’s work style but also explore the diversity of experiences. Writers need to take risks, whether physically adventurous or intellectual risks. And often readers like to know ‘behind the book’.

In the original table of contents I had a conversational tone with sub-headings like  ( ‘Come and Meet My Camel’   ) and chose the chapter titles to indicate the diversity of an author work style.

The title is a playful reference both to the fact an author’s life is one of hard work as well as fun, and the title of your famous picture book, There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake. What’s it like, having written a book that has become such a popular classic?

Recently a Twitter fan complimented my ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake’ book cover, saying ‘The hippo was the elephant in the room’. That could be taken a couple of ways.

I believe a book belongs to the reader not the writer, so a ‘classic’ is owned by the audience. ‘Hippo’ has a life of its own, with fan mail too. Plus a film , Braille and Auslan versions and even a touring production.

But being known as the author of the Hippo series has enabled other projects.

hippoposterFirst published in my late twenties, I had a baby and a first book in the same year, so there were many memories across 200 books ( 194 are non-hippo-ist). I wanted to explore some non-hippo experiences too, like crime or mystery writing or even scripting. I don’t always sit at a computer and ask What if?’  Nor do I eat cake, well, just occasionally.

In the original table of contents I had a conversational tone with sub-headings like and chose the chapter titles to indicate the diversity of an author work style.hazel with kids hippo party

Children’s authors are often under-valued. I struggled with an earlier W.I.P. title; ‘Let Hippos Eat Cake; Being a Children’s Author or Not?  I wanted to convey the dilemma of always having to defend writing for children because others assume that audience is less important. It isn’t. And the skills required to retain reader interest are greater.  Often I stop myself from adding the disclaimer, I write non fiction and crime & mystery for adults too.

But there is joy in some of the answers included in the 100 Hippo History incidents and also in the Literary Speed Dating chapter where I interview my own character.

Authors can also have fun. And are permitted to be a little eccentric. It comes with the job.

You have maintained a long and distinguished writing career over several decades, with hundreds of titles published. How do you keep your writing fresh and relevant? And what strategies do you employ, career-wise, to stay on top of the many changes in the publishing industry?

Diverse interests. Deliberately learn new things so I can write freshly with the response of an amateur. Become the naïve participant. And interview intriguing personalities or workers with unusual occupations like wedding-dove releaser, forensic pathologist or Antarctic station leader.Participant-observation is an important part of remaining relevant and also an excuse for visiting places as diverse as a fireworks farm, wholesale flower market or the pokies when I was investigating addiction and discovered I was an ideas addict.

Each year I research a new area and also collaborate with an expert in a field which is new for me. ‘f2m;the boy within’ the YA novel about transitioning gender was co-written on Skype between NZ and Australia. So the method as well as the gender content was new. Ryan Kennedy , my co-author is a family friend and also an ftm ( female to male).f2m_cover_big

Now I describe myself as Authorpreneur on my business card. Great talking point. And I pay credit to my marketing manager daughter Kim for upskilling me into this digital century, especially via website, online bookstore and social media.  For a format challenged author who thinks in abstract not pictures, this has been BIG. (It’s her real day job elsewhere luckily) Recently I’ve become a speaker-author and intend writing fewer works, but sharing them more, in different formats.

You are not only a distinguished writer but also an inspirational teacher of writing. Can you tell us something about the courses and workshops you are involved in running?

These days I mentor more than teach.

Hazelnuts is the self-adopted name for those I’ve mentored and they continue to help each other via workshopping and launches for their finally published books.  I’m told that a cultured hazelnut is called a Philbert.  70% reach publication or performance.


a light-hearted interpretation by Felicity Marshall

My workshops on ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History; and Authorpreneurship;The Business of Creativity’ are popular. I enjoy being a panelist at Literary festivals and occasionally give keynotes. Next year I’ll talk about my memoir and the techniques involved for ‘family history ‘genies’,  Year 11/12 students looking at careers and also small business groups as well as new writers.

You’ve been an early experimenter in such things as e-publishing and app creation. What is your view of the challenges and opportunities in those fields?

I have an e-book store of my established  fiction, script, literacy and adult titles on my website. But the most successful have been the adult non-fiction How To…’ titles.

E-books and the implications of digital changes have been the greatest learning curve. There are new opportunities for beginning creators  and for those with backlists, but the e-administrivia is time consuming and detracts from original work. I try to list things once and make my website the focus of my literary information with FAQs,  an archived newsletter and links to publishers, bios and events.

When I was first published in my late twenties with a traditional, mainstream publisher, they did the PR, the marketing , acted as ‘minder’ and expected to ‘nurse’  an author’s next book via editorial input. These days, authors do 90% of the marketing and being media-worthy with a web presence is vital.

Having a mixed portfolio of skills helps retain freshness. The versatility of writing for all ages and in different formats  as well as a teaching background helps. But there are still times when doubts occur. I talk about ‘The Plateau of Boredom’ in my memoir. And also about Story Stealing and who owns which idea.authorpreneurship_cover_front_low_res

You have been a great contributor over the years to author and children’s literature organisations. How important do you think it is for authors to be involved in that kind of thing?

Vital. Give not just take. ‘Networking’ should be a mutual support.

How do you see the publishing industry, and specifically the children’s books world, today, as compared with what it was like when you started out as an author? And do you have any thoughts on what the future for the industry might look like?

Today, it’s  instantly possible to call yourself an author, but NOT easier to have long term quality work available to readers in multi-formats which return sufficient for the intellectual property which the artist has created.

Hazel’s fantastic website, where you can also order some of her books, is here.

Hazel’s Facebook page is here.





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