Ho, ho, Hippo–an interview with Hazel Edwards

Today, I have the great pleasure of presenting an interview I did recently with Hazel Edwards, to celebrate the publication of a very special picture book: Ho! Ho! Ho! There’s A Hippopotamus On Our Roof Eating Christmas Cake. It’s the seventh and final title in the well-loved Hippo series, written by Hazel and illustrated by Deborah Niland, which since the publication of the very first Hippo book in 1980 has been a firm favourite with families all over Australia–and well beyond (even royal families, as you’ll find out!)

This book’s as warmly and engagingly written as ever, with the familiar charm of the bold, colourful illustrations and a sparkly Christmassy feel as well. You can also get an activity pack which includes all sorts of fun Christmas activities–and cookie cutters, including one in the shape of Hippo of course, to make gingerbread biscuits just like the little boy does with his grandmother in the book. Indeed, Hazel’s dedication in the book is to her grandson Henry, the third generation to make friends with Hippo, as she explains in the interview. Read on!

First of all, Hazel, congratulations to you and Deborah Niland on the publication of Ho ho ho, there’s a hippopotamus on our roof eating Christmas Cake! It’s the seventh and final book in the much-loved Hippo series which have enchanted generations of children and their parents. Can you tell us a bit about how this new book came about?

Extract from Santa Skylight gift book page

 Grandson Henry Garnet  ( to whom “Ho! Ho! Ho !…is dedicated) inspired this hippo story. Henry had just moved with his parents and big brother to an older house which has two chimneys. He was concerned that his grandparents’ house had only skylights, and the lack of chimneys would mean Santa might miss us on Christmas Eve.  Since I write a story gift of the imagination for him each Christmas, that became his photographic story, with his older brother suggesting a webcam and GPS to redirect Santa.

As with many picture books, the story was later ‘tweaked’  but is still about the logic of fantasy, especially when you have a ‘fantastic’ hippo and a Santa who might co-exist on a roof. And I especially wanted Hippo to strut a cake-walk on the roof , which later became a dance and carols by cake-light. So all ideas are moderated in the creation of a picture book like ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’

The hippo biscuit cutters have attracted the attention of reviewers , who are avidly baking gingerbread hippo biscuits.  I feel a bit of a fraud as I’m not a great cook, but the grandkids and I will make hippo biscuits this weekend.

I wanted the emphasis to be upon the ‘giving’ of creativity at Christmas, not a ‘gimme presents’ attitude.  So within the text and illustrations are many ideas which readers and families can create for themselves.

Hazel’s grandson Henry reading Ho Ho

Instead of a ‘launch’, readers are making the other ideas Deborah Niland has hinted at in the visuals.  And hopefully next year will be the touring musical again with Garry Ginivan productions. Last year’s  national ‘Hippo Hippo the Musical’ inspired from the books, was one of the most satisfying aspects for me of this history of the imagination. To sit in the audience with enthralled children who were the third generation of the original readers of the 1980 edition was special.

And they were all reacting to the hippo character on stage as if he were part of their own imaginative world.

Lovely as it is to see a new Hippo book out, it must also feel rather poignant for you and Deborah, as this is to be the last. Tell us a bit about the journey of Hippo, from the start to now. Where did the idea for Hippo originally come from? Did you imagine 38 years ago that Hippo would capture the hearts and imaginations of so many people? And why do you think young readers take so warmly to Hippo?

 Originally our new roof leaked and our then 4 year old thought the workmen fixing it were the cake-eating hippo thumping around.  Now the nephew of the original 4 year old has been concerned about the same roof: only this time , the skylights being a Santa -barrier is the worry.

The original ‘Hippo’ trio in 1978 when Hazel first wrote the story: Kim (Henry’s mother) Lani (neighbour) & Trevelyan (Henry’s uncle)

Because the big friend has all the answers, especially when you are doing something for the first time and are apprehensive, the hippo books are reassuring. Situations like starting school, going to hospital or acquiring a new baby in the family are easily identifiable.  Christmas is also shown as a time of family sharing of traditions and is Australian, rather than snow laden.

I remember you saying in an interview that for the anniversary edition of the first Hippo book (There’s A Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake) you chose to tweak a couple of things in the text. Can you talk a little about that? And how has the reception of the Hippo books changed over time?

 Food is the sex of children’s books, so the sensual delight of adding a themed food to a book for literary events is on-going.

Most readers enjoy the absurdity of juxtaposing cake with hippos who are actually bad tempered in real life, not cute and cuddly. But across the years I’ve had requests  to make the cake gluten –free or a healthier alternative like celery sticks. Real hippos do eat carrots, so I’ve suggested carrot cake as a compromise, but generally the cake is a chocolate mud one which is apt for muddy hippos. Or even just roof tiles, which are easier to design than the challenging hippo cake shape.

The original ‘smack’ was edited out at the publisher’s suggestion but many readers, especially young dads had firm views on retaining the original wording as a point for discussion with their families. I tend to agree that stories should remain in the cultural context in which they were written and that readers are intelligent enough to discuss interpretations. I do NOT favour child abuse, but ‘smacking is a highly emotive issue for some parents. The publishers changed the wording to ‘Daddy growled’…so earlier editions are now collector items.

Picture books are of course always a collaboration between words and pictures, author and illustrator. Can you tell us a bit about your own collaboration with Deborah Niland over the years?

We live in different states.  Deborah adds her visual interpretations to the text and I’m always willing to change the wording if the picture already conveys the concept. But I keep the rhythm of the reading. I love the ‘joyous’ aspect of the ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!…’ illustrations due to Deborah Niland’s ability to draw so appropriately for this age group. But it’s also a book which can be shared within families and many nostalgic readers love collecting copies, even if they are no longer children.

Hippo has become a classic figure in Australian children’s literature. What are your favourite anecdotes about how readers from 1980 to 2018 have responded to him?

Literary Speed Dating in my memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake; Being an Author’ is where the hippo (via Hazel) answers fan questions  in character.There’s also 100 things which have happened in the history of the cake-eating hippo friend.  Readers’ responses are often poignant. And some children with health issues have responded to the books, using them as a kind of therapy, that if the hippo can cope, so can they.  A book can offer reassurance that others survive, just like the young person in the original book (whose family has grown across the decades) but who is sort of in charge, with the help of hippo.

Here are a dozen memories:

  1. Knock at my front door. Small child. ‘Excuse me. Is this the house where the hippo lives on the roof?’ Answer. ‘Have a look.’
  2. Danish Palace note of thanks (with gold crown) from Princess Mary for autographed Hippo book Australia Government sent as official gift of the imagination for the birth of her daughter.
  3. Fan letter addressed to: The Hippo, Blackburn South, and delivered in person to author by the smiling mailman.
  4. Principal, an ex rugby player, accepted challenge to eat cake on school roof, in hippo costume, and read the book aloud if his students surpassed their reading quotas. They did. And despite being scared of heights, he kept his promise.
  5. Hippopotamuseum created by gifted educator to demonstrate physics principles e.g. falling, related to Hippo character.
  6. Rural prep mother who could not read, but wanted ‘Another easy book like Hippo which I’m learning to read with my 5 year old.’ Brave woman to ask in front of other parents.
  7. Parent’s letter from children’s hospital, thanking for the reassurance of ‘ Hippo on the Hospital Roof’ read in casualty waiting room and in ambulance en route.
  8. In Nepali Montessori School, in Kathmandu reading through interpreter, with hippo music and dancing, and Himalayan mountains as a backdrop.
  9. Feelix suitcase of book and stimulus for blind pre-schoolers. Also had hippo cake tins, an audio and Braille copy. Helped name Feelix project. Felix means happy and ‘feel’ related to the textures felt by blind children.
  10. Collage of memorable fan letters touring as ‘Corridors of Characters’ with Hippo responses by ghost-writer Hazel exhibited at the former Fremantle Maximum Security Jail.
  11. ‘Us mob like your stories. We laugh at the funny bits.’ from an online webchat with a remote outback school.
  12. After a literary festival, the over-loved hippo needed cleaning. Dry cleaners wouldn’t touch it because the head had paper inside. Too big to fit in washing machines, hippo had to be ‘emptied’ of the filling of polystyrene balls and the ‘skin’ washed by hand in baby soap flakes. Experts advised removing the filling either in the carpark or in the bath. …I found out why. The polystyrene balls went everywhere, even clung to our underwear. I handwashed ‘skinny’ hippo in our bath and a visitor freaked on opening the bathroom door to discover hippo hanging from the shower, to dry.

One of the most heart warming aspects of being a long term children’s author is having a three generational readership. ‘Ho!Ho!Ho! There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Christmas Cake’ is being shared by the grandparent generation too. And I also have grandchildren who are reading books inspired by their parents when children. And even learning to read from Hippo books.

Henry Facetime-reading with Hazel

Another special moment with grandson Henry was when I gave him the advance copy and he read it through with expression. Earlier we used to read on Facetime each night, (he taught me Facetime and I helped with his reading) but he always chose the books we shared.

The first Hippo book was adapted for a musical recently--what was it like, experiencing your characters on the stage? And will Hippo pop up in other adaptations, whether for stage or screen?

While children’s theatre is my greatest love, I’d like the cake –eating hippo to have his own television program. In that way he could reach more children and also encourage them to pick up the books too. Although there have been translations into Mandarin, Japanese and other languages, the one I value most is the Braille translation in Vision Australia’s ‘Feelix project’ for children who are sight impaired.

Hazel at a performance of ‘Hippo! Hippo!’ the Musical

Note from Sophie: As Hazel’s publisher Penguin Random House kindly sent me the Hippo cookie cutters with a review copy of the book, I had a go at making some biscuits myself, as a trial run for the visit of certain special little people who are coming to see us in a couple of weeks’ time! I didn’t make gingerbread biscuits as I’m not keen on gingerbread., instead making a vanilla butter biscuit mixture which has a similar consistency and is easy to shape and cut out. Here, below, is the result–the biscuits just made, before they went into the oven, and the final, brightly decorated product with some bonus stars! Fun to make and taste pretty nice too–and I know some little people who will love making them too 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More about Hazel Edwards:

Hazel Edwards writes quirky, thought-provoking fiction and fact for adults and children. Coping successfully with being different is a common theme. Co-written ‘junior novel ‘Hijabi Girl’ and YA novel ‘f2m;the boy within’ explore cultural diversity.

Best known for ‘There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake’ series, recently touring as a musical, Hazel has grandkids for whom she writes a story each birthday. ‘Outback Ferals’ her YA novel set in Darwin, is a sequel to ‘Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen’, researched during her 2001 Antarctic expedition.

Hazel runs book-linked workshops on ‘Authorpreneurship’ and ‘Writing a Non Boring Family History’.

’Trail Magic; Going Walkabout for 2184 Miles on the Appalachian Trail ’ with her son Trevelyan is an adventure memoir. He did ALL the walking.

A National Reading Ambassador, in 2013 Hazel was awarded an OAM for Literature. Her memoir ‘Not Just a Piece of Cake-Being an Author’ explores long-term creativity.

‘Celebrant Sleuth;I do or die’ an adult mystery with an asexual sleuth is her latest fiction and ‘Almost a Crime’ , short crimelettes are available on Kindle.

Hazel’s website is here.

You can find her on Facebook here.

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The Girl on the Page–an interview with John Purcell

Today, I’m delighted to bring you a frank and fascinating interview with John Purcell, whose gripping new novel, The Girl on the Page, I read recently with much pleasure.

First of all John, congratulations on the publication of The Girl on the Page–and on writing such a gripping and immersive read! I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I know many other readers have done. Can you tell us a bit about how the idea first came to you?

I didn’t know it but the idea for the novel The Girl on the Page had been with me for years. This idea had been in my preference for reading literature as a young man. It had been in the way I had run my little second-hand bookshop where I had to sell recent commercial fiction to pay my rent, when all I wanted to do was sell people beat up old Penguin Classics. It was in my decision to work for online bookseller, Booktopia after my shop closed. And it was certainly around when I signed a contract to publish the erotic series The Secret Lives of Emma under the pseudonym Natasha Walker. The idea is a simple one, What is the cost of selling out?

What was the road to publication like? And what has reader response been like so far?

The road to publication was long. After publishing The Secret Lives of Emma trilogy in 2012-13, I returned to a novel I had been working on for years called, A Gentleman of Sorts. This novel was set in 1815 in northern England. And although I was very happy with it, no one wanted to publish it. Like a fool, I persisted trying to get it published. I wrote nothing new between 2013 and 2017, I just kept working on the novel no one wanted. The spell was broken when a leading publisher offered me a contract for the book. It was a lukewarm offer. The book would be published, but it would sink like a stone. It was over. I rejected the offer and put A Gentleman of Sorts to bed.

Days later I started writing The Girl on the Page. The words came in a torrent.  Over the next six months, writing on weekends only, due to my full time job, I finished the book. My agent sent it out to publishers and we found ourselves in the middle of an auction with three major publishers bidding on the book.  HarperCollins were victorious and with the help of my publisher Catherine Milne, and her brilliant team of editors, we knocked the book into the shape it is now. I couldn’t be happier with the end result.

Publishers send out proof copies to reviewers before the final edits of the book are complete. So, with my head still in editing mode, the first reviews came in from booksellers. They didn’t hate the book, which was a relief. They seemed to understand what I was trying to do, too. Overall, since publication, the response has been positive. I love that readers love Helen and Malcolm as much as I do. Though I have been punched by some readers for that bit at the end. You’ll know what I mean when you read it.

The story is told in many voices: in Amy’s, Helen’s, Malcolm’s, Daniel’s and a little in Max’s. Quite a lot of juggling, but carried off very successfully! How did you balance the different voices?

The characters of Helen and Malcolm have been loitering around in my imagination for years. They are result of my interactions with all the Helens and Malcolms who used to frequent my second-hand bookshop. The old journalists, retired academics, and quarrelling novelists.  I found their voices were already quite defined and easy to write.

The character of Daniel had to be of Helen and Malcolm, but defiantly different, too. He is their son, but estranged. You can’t stop genetics, and so I had to make sure Daniel displayed some of the attributes of his parents, while his resentment and self-loathing coloured nearly everything he said and thought.

Amy strode onto the page. Hers was the loudest and surest of the voices in my head while writing. I had to restrain her. She had a tendency to dominate scenes and conversations. I surround myself with strong women. I wanted Amy to have a truckload of confidence around her work but needed her to be vulnerable in matters of the heart. My time with Amy was spent turning the volume down on her attitude and turning the volume up when she spoke from the heart.

Knowing the characters well helps with balancing the different voices. I sketched out backstories for these characters which don’t all make it into the novel. I knew them well before I let them speak.

You took quite a risk in making two of your main characters–Amy and Malcolm–rather monstrous really (though always human!) They made me think of the ‘monstre sacré’ concept we have in French–a term which describes a person given a free pass on selfishness and outrageously bad behaviour because of their talent and/or personal charisma.  And the more ‘likeable’ characters–Helen, Daniel and Max–face a great disadvantage when in the orbit of those ‘sacred monsters’, each in different ways. Do you think that’s a fair take, or do you have a different interpretation of those characters?

The funny thing is, many readers relate to Amy. They cheer for her. I have noticed a generational divide in the response to the novel. Younger readers in general have seen it as an Amy novel. Amy’s ambitions, her needs, her desires are those of her own generation. They align with her from the start and live the novel through her, thus she is absolved of all sins. They certainly don’t see her as a monster. In fact, the question of principles at the heart of the novel is largely overlooked by younger readers. There is no such thing as selling out to them, as of course you always take the cash. Every time. Older readers talk almost exclusively about Helen and Malcolm. The choice Helen makes and the consequences of that choice. The old novelists’ relationship is the central hub of the novel to older readers but the relationship between Helen and Malcolm and their son Daniel also figures in the discussion of the novel.

Daniel is reviled by younger readers. He and Julia, the publishing director, share monster status for them. While for the older readers, they find Malcolm to be the most difficult character to deal with. They understand Daniel, forgive Helen, put up with Amy but they find it hard to forgive Malcolm. I think Daniel would see both his parents as ‘monstre sacré’, while the reader only sees Malcolm.

I hope what I have done here is create characters who are as flawed as we all are. I certainly like how a character can be one reader’s heroine and another’s villain. That a book can be about one subject for a reader and be a completely different book for another. If I have done that, I will think myself extremely lucky.

The book revolves around a conflict between two extremes of the book world: the short-term gain of bestsellers versus the slow burn of ‘serious’  literature..Yet of course many of the writers we think of as great–Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, the Brontes etc–had large mass followings and were seen primarily as entertainers in their day. Do you think the distinction between ‘downhill’ and ‘uphill’ books (a cogent term employed in your book) is not as simple as someone like Malcolm might see it? And with your own book, which depicts the tension between the two, making the case for more thoughtful books whilst successfully adopting the suspenseful thriller mode–do you see it as part of the conversation around these things?

Even Malcolm doesn’t see it as a simple distinction, it’s just a convenient way for him to explain the differences between certain types of books. We all divide novels up into easy reads and more difficult ones. Some novels just ask us to think from page one, they require concentration, and if you aren’t in the mood, if you’re tired, for example, you will put them down. In that same mood you might pick up a thriller and read late into the night. Malcolm points out that we aren’t talking about a large percentage of the population when we talk about readers. And when we talk exclusively about novels we are talking about a fraction of the small fraction of the population who reads regularly. Most regular readers of novels have the capacity to read ‘uphill’ but prefer ‘downhill’ novels because such reading offers a form of escape that appeals to them.

The Girl on the Page is a ‘downhill’ book about ‘uphill’ books, said one reviewer. Which I found interesting. There is no doubt in my mind that my novel is being labelled ‘commercial fiction’ by some readers and many booksellers – that is, fiction which is easy to read and is expected to have a large readership. And yet, as one reviewer said, the blurb on the back made it sound really boring. The blurb actually described the content pretty well. But it doesn’t give any indication of the way it is written. And this is definitely part of the conversation, as you say. I have written one of those books Helen and Max hate.

I made a conscious decision to open the door to my book as wide as I could to let any kind of reader in. I wanted to involve people in my story from page one. So I wrote short sharp chapters which dropped the reader into the middle of the action. I want readers to become invested in the story and for them to turn the pages quickly. How else was I going to get people into a book where the big question is, should a literary writer publish a commercial book for cash? The result is readers are reading the novel in a few sittings and the end of the novel knocks them sideways and leaves them thinking about some pretty hefty things. Which is cool, right?

I was struck by your (very accurate, in my experience) observation of the ‘book-loving millenials’ who nevertheless don’t read in the same way that people of Helen and Malcolm’s generation might have thought proper. Can you expand a little on that?

The way people consume information today is completely different from any other age. We absorb so much more information in a day, through so many different screens, mostly in small bite-sized chunks. It’s only natural that the way a millennial reader approaches a book would be different. They have grown up in an informational soaked, entertainment overloaded world.

A physical book is an ingenious device which exists separately to the internet. It is its own ecosystem for the time you’re reading it. It has one overall argument, or subject, or story and it is told outside time. This is very attractive to those who are almost always connected and who don’t often enjoy the luxury of concentrating all their attention on one thing.

As a book industry professional–both as an author and bookseller who has frequent dealings with publishers and editors-you have an insight into the publishing world which comes over very strongly in the book, in various amusing–and sometimes depressing!–vignettes. The post-takeover shenanigans at  your fictional publishing house and the short-termism it engenders of course strikes many echoes in other book industry insiders/observers of course, including me 🙂 Putting on your prophet’s hat, what do you think might come of such developments within publishing?

Publishing has one great advantage at the moment, they still publish physical books. For a while there it seemed likely that printed books would go the way of video cassette tapes. Thankfully this was averted by the ubiquity of the smartphone which seemed to kill off the ereader and ebooks before they really took hold. And since then something even worse happened. Donald Trump. His cry of fake news has made many people notice just how difficult it is to find answers on the internet. And here’s where publishers of physical books come in. Over hundreds of years they developed a vetting process whereby they force writers to proof, edit, fact check and better their writing before they will publish it. There are checks and balances because publishing physical books is an expensive business. Of course, some publishers are better than others and of course they don’t get it right all of the time. But a vetting process is better than no process, as we are discovering to our shame online. As such, I believe publishing will still have a very important role to play in the coming decades.

Finally,  I thought that the title, ‘the Girl on the Page’ mischievously echoes an element of various bestselling titles, as alluded to in an aside in your book–is that the case? And can you expand a little on that?

The Girl on the Page was my working title. The sheer number of novels about women that were being published with ‘girl’ in the title was absurd and many people in the book industry were getting sick of it. So calling the manuscript The Girl on the Page was a bit of joke between me, myself and I. But later, as I wrote the scene at the book signing where the characters discuss books with ‘girl’ in the title, I realised that The Girl on the Page kind of worked for the book. So when I sent it to my agent I left it there. I really didn’t expect HarperCollins to go for it. But they saw the irony of it, and loved it. So, there you have it.

About The Girl on the Page:

Two women, two great betrayals, one path to redemption. A punchy, powerful and page-turning novel about the redemptive power of great literature, from industry insider, John Purcell.

Amy Winston is a hard-drinking, bed-hopping, hot-shot young book editor on a downward spiral. Having made her name and fortune by turning an average thriller writer into a Lee Child, Amy is given the unenviable task of steering literary great Helen Owen back to publication.

When Amy knocks on the door of their beautiful townhouse in north west London, Helen and her husband, the novelist Malcolm Taylor, are conducting a silent war of attrition. The townhouse was paid for with the enormous seven figure advance Helen was given for the novel she wrote to end fifty years of making ends meets on critical acclaim alone. The novel Malcolm thinks unworthy of her. The novel Helen has yet to deliver. The novel Amy has come to collect.

Amy has never faced a challenge like this one. Helen and Malcolm are brilliant, complicated writers who unsettle Amy into asking questions of herself – questions about what she values, her principles, whether she has integrity, whether she is authentic. Before she knows it, answering these questions becomes a matter of life or death.

From ultimate book industry insider, John Purcell, comes a literary page-turner, a ferocious and fast-paced novel that cuts to the core of what it means to balance ambition and integrity, and the redemptive power of great literature.

About John Purcell:

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing.
Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines.
Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.
Twitter @bookeboy
Instagram @bookeboy

 

Writing about World War One…

Today, April 25, is Anzac Day, and the hundredth anniversary of the battle at Villers Brettoneux in northern France on 25 April 1918, where Australian regiments were instrumental in helping to secure the liberation of that area of France. As someone brought up between Australia and France, it’s made me reflect not only on the joint experiences of French and Australian troops and civilians in that terrible war, but also on how difficult it is to try and convey, as a writer, something about those experiences, especially when you are writing for children.

Until a few years ago, I never expected to write about World War One. In both France and Australia, as a child I’d seen, in churches and memorials, the staggeringly long rollcalls of the dead in World War One; a war that seemed not only horrible and tragic but absolutely incomprehensible. World War Two seemed more understandable by comparison, in part because my parents were children during the German occupation of France. I could imagine myself writing about World War Two (though I didn’t, in fact until very recently) ) but not World War One. Partly, perhaps it was because in Australia, Gallipoli loomed large, of course, and I did not feel able to write about it, but also could hardly begin to understand, let alone depict, the ghastly long years of trench warfare on the Western Front.

What changed that was, first, a brief visit many years ago to the heartbreakingly big and neat Commonwealth war cemetery just outside Villers-Brettoneux. In the back of my mind, a seed was being planted–and years later, in 2010, it sprouted, inspired by a longer visit–a stay of a few days, in fact, in the pretty, and war-haunted, cathedral city of Amiens and the countryside beyond. Being on the spot, in the quiet streets of the city and the green and pleasant Somme countryside which yet saw so many deaths, looking at memorials and the French Australian museum’s collections of touching photographs of both Australian and French soldiers and the local civilian population, made me change my mind. And also I read about the last year of the war–the way in which in 1918, trench warfare, at least in northern France, gave way not to the pitched open battles of the very beginning of the war, but to a more ‘guerrilla’ style campaign, on both sides, with ambushes and surprise attacks and street-by-street battles in devastated villages. I began to see how I could perhaps tell a story, through the eyes of a young French-Australian character .

So that’s how my first World War One novel, My Father’s War(Scholastic Australia 2011), began. Set in 1918, it is told in the voice of eleven year old Annie, whose Australian soldier father, fighting on the Somme, goes missing, and who goes with her French mother to Amiens to try and find him. Through Annie’s diary unfolds the story of that last year in the war and the experiences of both soldiers and civilians in northern France. It was a story that both flowed naturally from having been in the areas I was writing about and being immersed in pictures and documents of the time, but was also very hard to write. This was a work of fiction so it had to work as an engaging story, especially given the age of my readers, but I also felt a great responsibility to tell it in a way that would not trivialise or falsify. It was a very delicate balance to strike and at times felt almost impossible(and saddening; I found myself weeping several times over scenes) but in the end it worked. Or at least, readers seem to think so–seven years after its release, it is still finding its way into libraries, schools, and homes.

Writing My Father’s War had made me see I could tell a story set in that time. Three years later, my second World War One novel was published. This was 1914 (Scholastic Australia 2014), which from the point of view of Louis Jullian, teenage son of a French diplomat and his Australian wife, told the story of the beginning of that ‘war to end all wars’. It was a very different book, because it was set in a very different time to that of My Father’s War. In 1918, four years of dreadful stalemate and horrendous slaughter had changed the face of Europe, destroying the old order forever.  In 1914, the old order was still there, sleepwalking towards disaster, and even by the end of that year, people imagined that the war might soon be over and things go back to what they’d been before. And my characters might both be French Australian, but they came from very different backgrounds and experiences. Annie had a difficult childhood dominated by war and her father’s absence; Louis, whose childhood was cosmopolitan and carefree, was coming of age at a time when everything would be thrown into question by a conflict that would engulf the world and truth itself. It was just as hard to write this novel as the first; harder even in a way, precisely because it was the beginning: reading about the causes of the war and the chain of events in those fateful few weeks from June 28 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, you get a sense both of the so-called ‘inevitability’ of the war but also the fact that it need not have been so. There were times when the momentum could have been halted–but it was not. I chose to tell that story, and the way in which a carefree summer turned into a deadly winter, through Louis’ eyes as he goes from helpless witness of the attack in Sarajevo to scarred and determined young war correspondent on both the Western and Eastern fronts.

Both the novels have had unexpected offshoots: minor characters from My Father’s War inspired a short story of mine, The Other Anzac Day (set during the battle in Villers Brettoneux on 25 April 1918) which was published in a UK collection, Stories of World War One, edited by Tony Bradman(Orchard Books, UK, 2014). This story, told in the voice of Archie, a tough but troubled young Australian soldier, both echoes and contrasts with Annie’s own view of that ‘other Anzac Day’ in My Father’s War. And Louis’ daughter as well as the son of one of his pre-war Austrian friends will be featuring in a novel I’ve been writing, set at the beginning of World War 2 this time, to appear in 2019. In the novel, the experiences of World War One, which transformed the lives of Louis and his friends, haunt the lives of their families too–and of course, by extension, their communities and nations, as the drums of war beat yet again.

 

More about My Father’s War and 1914:

My Father’s War

By Sophie Masson

(My Australian Story, Scholastic Australia 2011)

ISBN 9781741698282

It scares me a lot, thinking of Dad out there, far away in that dangerous, terrible place, wondering how it will be when he comes back-if he comes back, that is . . .

Annie’s dad has been away for two years, fighting on the Somme battlefields in northern France. For months there has been no word from him, no letters or postcards. Annie and her mother are sick with worry, so they decide to stop waiting-and instead travel to France, to try to find out what has happened to him. There she experiences first-hand what war is like, as she tries to piece together the clues behind her dad’s disappearance. Will Annie ever see her father again?

Teacher’s Notes My Father’s War: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8005439_228.pdf

1914

By Sophie Masson

(Australia’s Great War, Scholastic Australia 2014)

ISBN 9781743622476

A small black bottle or a torch came sailing through the air, and landed on the side of the car, close to the Archduke. An instant later came a terrific bang, the road exploded in a shower of dust and stones, and tiny sharp things went flying through the air like angry bees.

In June 1914, Louis and his brother Thomas are enjoying the European summer in a small town near Sarajevo. In the shadow of the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, the world erupts into war and Louis’ life changes forever. Old Europe is torn apart and Louis finds himself in the midst of his own battle – and fighting for the truth in war means that sometimes even your own side is against you.

Teacher’s Notes 1914: http://resource.scholastic.com.au/resourcefiles/8284239_24164.pdf

The Spanish Wife: a short story

Today I’m republishing another story of mine–rather Gothic in feel, with a real twist in the tail. It was inspired by a very strange dream, in which I actually heard a voice saying, ‘He was such a grey man, till he came back with a Spanish wife” I woke on those words, intrigued: who was speaking? Who was the ‘grey man’? And what was it about the ‘Spanish wife’? This story was the result of answering those questions. Enjoy!

The Spanish Wife

by Sophie Masson

You’d never have credited it, of Moffat. He was such a grey, precise little man. The sort who is always at his desk a full fifteen minutes before anyone else. The kind whose desk ressembles some general’s abstract plan of attack—never the messy reality of the battlefield. The type of irreproachable bachelor who’s just that—not playing for the other side or anything, but a man who lived a blameless, virtuous, dull life, first with his widowed mother, then when she died, by himself, in a small Holborn flat as neat and grey as his person. He appeared to have no ambitions, no dreams, no hopes, no fears. He had risen in the company only in small steps but did not appear to be resentful of the fact that chaps like Jones or Carey, who’d come in at the same time as he, with pretty much the same qualifications, were streets ahead of him now. He had no enemies, but no friends, either. At least, unless you count me. I took an interest in the funny little chap, for no reason I can really explain, because he is a good deal older than I and not really interested in the same things as I am. My last lady friend, Cora, told me that it was because Moffat made me look good—that his greyness made me look much more sparkling, witty and charming than I really was. But as she said it just before saying I was the most immoral, most selfish man she’d ever met, and slamming the door in my face, we can probably discount that as an explanation. I suppose, if I was to be pushed for an explanation, I was intrigued by him, in a strange way. He seemed to live life in a kind of dream. No, not really a dream; he was like a shadow amongst the solid. Not like a ghost, mind you; ghosts are unexpected things, producing disturbance, fright, an upending of order, what have you. Moffat was the very soul of the expected; the very epitome of unchanging order, always there, never noticed. A nobody, in short.

Until the day when he returned from Spain, with a Spanish wife. The going to Spain was odd enough: the country was in the middle of a bitter civil war, with Reds and Brownshirts and I don’t know what other dismal colours battling it out for control. Why Moffat of all people would go there was a mystery big enough in itself. He was not political in any sense of the word—he’d no more have dreamed of joining one of those hotheaded foreign militias rushing over to drape themselves in the warring colours, than he’d have thought of dancing naked around the office. (The mind boggles!) He had no sense of romance either, none that I’d been able to discern, at least—and certainly the image of sultry senoritas with roses in their teeth and clicking heels and bullfights and all that sort of thing would, I’d have sworn it, simply failed to register with him. He had not, so far as I knew, ever travelled before beyond the various seaside resorts of the South of England. Oh, and once to Cornwall, I believe, but he hadn’t much liked that. Too foreign I suppose. And yet there it was—Moffat had not only gone to Spain, but he’d come back with a Spanish wife. A wife at his age—he was by then in his mid-fifties—was surprising enough. But a Spanish wife—that really took the biscuit. A real revolution, you might say.

Rather to my chagrin, I wasn’t the first to find out. Mrs Evans, the tea-lady, made the discovery. On the day Moffat returned from holidays, Mrs Evans had come in early, at the same time as Moffat himself, and had seen him sitting at his desk, gazing at a photograph. In the deft way of her kind, she had managed to contrive a glimpse.

‘And that’s when I saw her. Gave me quite a turn, I can tell you! Never would’ve thought Mr Moffat had it in him.’

Dolores, her name was, Moffat said. He did not seem at all put out at being caught by Mrs Evans. Indeed, she said, he seemed to positively relish the opportunity to talk about his sudden spouse. He’d met Dolores while on holiday in Spain. They’d ”clicked”, as the saying has it, at once. They married within the fortnight. Yes, he smilingly told the gaping Mrs Evans, she had come back with him to England. He was very happy. Everything was perfect.

‘I am sure it will all end in tears. It isn’t natural, ‘ said Mrs Evans, sagely, as we crowded around her, agog at her story. Moffat was out of the office, on some errand—rumour had it he’d gone to check on his Spanish wife, make sure she was still real, and not a dream. Some of the others in the office were inclined, despite the evidence of the photograph and Moffat’s words—the man had never spun a fantasy in his whole life—to believe that it couldn’t be true, that Moffat had somehow gone a bit senile or, for reasons of his own, was pulling the wool over our collective eyes. But I knew that it must be true—Moffat had no imagination, no mischief, no romance, as I said, in him. Continue reading

A Boat of Stars: an interview with Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior

Last week, I went to a very special launch celebrating a very special book: the beautiful multi-author, multi-illustrator poetry collection for children, A Boat of Stars, edited by renowned literary agent Margaret Connolly, 2017 winner of the Pixie O’Harris Award, and award-winning writer Natalie Jane Prior, author of many popular books for children. Published by ABC Books/Harper Collins, it’s a real joyful treasury of brand-new original poems for kids, by an amazing range of Australian authors and illustrators. I am delighted to say that yours truly is not only one of them–I am also lucky enough to have no less than seven poems in the book, illustrated by such wonderful illustrators as Julie Vivas, Lisa Stewart, Sara Acton and Cheryl Orsini. It was such fun celebrating this very special book with the editors and a great many fellow contributors! So today I’m very happy to bring readers an interview with Margaret Connolly and Natalie Jane Prior, about how the book came to be!
First of all, congratulations on an absolutely gorgeous book, Margaret and Natalie! How did the idea for it first come about?

Natalie had written two ‘picture book texts’, Owl and Mouse, which we realised were poems, and the book evolved out of a conversation about what we could do with them. We both love poetry, and fretted that there was no obvious way of getting them published. We knew that there were very few new books of children’s poetry being published, and suddenly realised that there was a gap in the market. By the next morning we were working on a proposal for what eventually became A Boat of Stars.

How did you go about gathering poems initially? And how did you make selections? What were you looking for in each poem?

We were looking for poems that modern Australian children would enjoy, and that reflected their experience of the world. We wanted poems that they would find engaging and amusing, and enjoy returning to, again and again. The book needed to be Australian in its outlook, so poems about Australian animals, and with indigenous content, were essential. When we’d selected about two thirds of the poems we looked critically at what we had, and where there were gaps, and also asked a couple of experienced teachers to identify topics they thought would be useful in the classroom.

You worked closely together as editors. How did the process work for both of you? What were the challenges and discoveries?
We’ve worked together creatively for many years, so it was a natural progression for us to start working as an editorial team.
Did you send particular poems to particular illustrators, or did they choose poems to illustrate, or was it achieved in a different way?

The format of the book allowed for sixty poems, each with an accompanying illustration, and we assigned illustrators to poems, trying to match style and sensibility. We were thrilled when Stephen Michael King agreed to illustrate the cover. We wanted the book to have a cohesive look, and using a core team of five illustrators helped achieve this, with variety from illustrators who worked on one or two poems.

I believe you also worked closely with ABC Books on concept, layout, design etc. It must have been a big job–and it certainly is a superb production! Tell us about how it all worked.

It was a massive job, but one we both enjoyed. We were very involved in the layout and design, including spending a very intensive day in an ABC office mapping out the poem order, and illustrator/poem choices. Chren Byng, our publisher, was wonderful, as was the whole ABC Books team. Chren trusted us to do what we felt was best for the book, but was there to guide and assist whenever needed. She shared our passion and vision, and understood the book right from the start. It was the happiest editorial and publishing experience.

What do you hope young readers and their families will get from A Boat of Stars? And why do you think poetry is important for children?

We hope that the anthology will give children a happy early experience of poetry, and enrich their understanding of words, and rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry, like music, is primal. It’s language operating simultaneously at both its most fundamental, and sophisticated level. Reading poetry teaches children to look sideways, to see the world and themselves from different angles. Modern children are growing up in a troubled world, and this is a skill they are going to need. It’s a weapon in their arsenal for life.

 If you had one line to describe A Boat of Stars–other than the lovely one on the cover, ‘New poems to inspire and enchant’– what would it be?
Australian children need more poetry.

Margaret and Natalie signing copies of the book at the launch at The Children’s Bookshop, Beecroft

Fairy tales, history and collaboration: an interview with Kate Forsyth

Today I am delighted to bring readers an interview with Kate Forsyth, centred on two great new books which are wonderfully rich collaborations between herself and other creators: Vasilisa the Wise and other Tales of Brave Young Women, illustrated by Lorena Carrington(Serenity Press) and The Silver Well, a collection of interlinked short stories written by Kate and her friend and fellow author Kim Wilkins, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings(Ticonderoga Publications). Both are truly special books, beautiful in concept, words, pictures and production values, and after enjoying them both very much, I wanted to know more about how the books came about.

Kate, you’ve always been a lover of fairy-tales and used them a lot in your work–and of course now you also have a doctorate in them! How did you and Lorena come to work together on Vasilisa the Wise & Other Tales of Brave Young Women? How did you choose what stories to retell?

I’ve loved fairy-tales and fairy-tale retellings since I was a child, and first studied them in my undergraduate degree. Eventually I undertook a Doctorate of Creative Arts, focusing on the history and meaning of ‘Rapunzel’ for my theoretical work and writing a retelling of the tale as my creative component (my novel Bitter Greens).

When I had finished my doctorate, I wanted to buy myself a piece of fairy-tale inspired art as a present to myself. So I began to look around but most of the art I saw was quite childish. Then a writer friend of mine, Allison Tait, asked me on twitter if I’d seen Lorena’s work (Allison did not know I was actively looking for fairy-tale inspired artwork, she just thought I’d be interested.)

I went and looked at Lorena’s website and just fell in love with her dark, eerie & sophisticated creations. I bought one of her pieces and we began to email each other, talking about our shared interest in fairy-tales and gardens and books and art. We essentially became pen-pals.

Lorena told me that she was working on a series of artworks inspired by little-known stories which featured brave clever heroines. How wonderful, I said. I’ve always wanted to write a collection of tales like that. So we came up with the crazy idea of working together. We had no idea if anyone would be interested in publishing it, we just did it for the pleasure of making something beautiful with a kindred spirit.

Lorena had already created images for three tales – ‘Vasilisa the Wise’, ‘A Bride For Me Before A Bride for You’ and ‘The Stolen Child’ (I had bought one of the images from the latter as my present to myself). We decided we would work on seven tales, as it is such a fairy-tale number, and then I made a few suggestions for tales that I thought would work well. ‘The Singing, Springing Lark’ is one of my favourite stories to perform as an oral storyteller and so that was my first choice. ‘Katie Crackernuts’ was a tale I had already retold for the online story platform The Pigeonhole and so we decided to include that one too. I also suggested ‘The Toy Princess’, a literary tale written by the Pre-Raphaelite writer Mary de Morgan. The last tale took us a little longer to find. We both suggested a few different possibilities, but they were too similar in theme, motif or plot to stories we already had. In the end, we settled on ‘The Rainbow Prince, a story I had loved as a child.

At the end of each story, there are notes by Lorena and yourself, giving an insight into the background of the story but also why it speaks to you. Why did you choose to include this background information?

 I wanted readers to know where the tales came from, and who first told or recorded them. I find the history and meaning of fairy-tales so fascinating. And both Lorena and I felt giving a little insight into our creative purposes and processes would enrich the reading experience too.

What was it like working so closely with each other on this project?

 It was just wonderful. We never had a disagreement or problem. I love Lorena’s art and she loves my writing, and so we worked with a great deal of trust in each other’s ability to create something beautiful.

Would you think of doing another collection like this?
Oh yes, we are working on another collection right now. It will be called Molly Whuppie & Other Tales of Clever Young Women, and will be published in 2019.

Turning now to The Silver Well, can you tell us a bit about how it came about?

Kim Wilkins is one of my oldest and dearest friends. We first met 20 years ago when both of our first novels were shortlisted for the Aurealis Award (Kim won!) We then read each other’s books and just loved them. We live in different cities but always catch-up when in each other’s towns, or when we are overseas at the same time.

A year or so ago we did a ‘In Conversation’ event together at the Brisbane Writers Festival. As we walked towards the auditorium, our student minder asked us how we knew each other. We told her about having our first books published at the same time, and then I said, ‘next year is actually our 20th anniversary.  Twenty years since we were first published! And I’ll have had 39 books published. Such a shame I can’t write one extra to make it 40 books in 20 years.’

Kim Wilkins

Then Kim said, ‘How funny. I’ll have had 29 books published in the same time period. If I wrote an extra one, it’d be 30 books in 20 years.’

‘We should write a book together,’ I said.

‘Great idea!’ she said.

And that’s how it all came about.

It’s a great concept–a series of stories about the same place throughout history, where the silver well is a recurring motif. I really like the ways in which you and Kim have linked the stories without it at all feeling obtrusive–the links are subtle and satisfying. Did you and Kim sit down and sketch out the general shape first? How did you choose which periods in history to set stories in?

After our session at the Brisbane Writers Festival, we went back to my hotel room and had dinner and drank a bottle of Veuve champagne (our favourite), and began to throw ideas around. The concept of seven stories set in the same place at different times was our very first idea.

Within seconds we decided to set it in Cerne Abbas, because Kim and I had spent the loveliest week there the previous year (along with our friend Lisa Hartnett). Because we are both so interested in history and folklore, we had actually bought a few books about the village from one of the local stores and so already knew quite a bit about its past.

We decided to write three stories each, plus a frame story set in contemporary times. Then we simply had to decide which historical periods each story should be set in. Again, we decided straightaway. Kim said, ‘Bags early medieval time,’ and I said, ‘Bags the Second World War’, because these were both periods we loved and knew a lot about. We both love the Victorian era, but Kim bagged it first and so I chose to set a story during the English Civil War, which I had studied intensively for my series of historical children’s novels which begins with The Gypsy Crown. I also wanted to set one of the stories around the dissolution of the abbey in Tudor times, another favourite period of mine. Then we thought we should have a story set during the period when the abbey was absolutely pivotal to the village’s life. So Kim took that era.

By the time we had finished our bottle of champagne, we had the whole book plotted out.

Though it’s the work of two writers, the book feels like an organic whole, stories seamlessly flowing into each other. How did you and Kim pull it off so well? Tell us about the actual process. How did you organise your writing–did you write at the same time or in sequence? Did you decide on characters together, or individually? 

We each worked on our own stories independently, and only showed it to the other when we had a polished first draft. The idea of having connected characters grew organically, and needed just a slight tweak here and there to make it work. I wrote the frame story, set in contemporary times, and Kim wove in some extra details. Otherwise, we did not touch each other’s stories.

What were the challenges?

For both of us, the difficulty was making time in our hectic schedules to write the stories. We both had punishing deadlines for novels, plus the usual teaching and touring commitments. We made a promise to each other that we would drop the project if either of us found it too hard, or if our friendship came under strain, but somehow we managed to find enough time in the cracks of our days to get the work done.

Kathleen Jennings’ lovely line drawings are also very much part of the appeal of this lovely book. When did she become involved in the process?

On the day that Kim and I first decided we were going to write a book together! We sat in my hotel room scribbling down ideas, and thought how lovely it would be to produce a book with exquisite line drawings in it. We both thought of Kathleen at once, and we texted her and asked her if she’d be willing. She said yes at once. We also texted Russell Farr at Ticonderoga Publications to see if he’d be interested in publishing it (Russ has known us both for 20 years too) and he also said yes without hesitation. So that very first evening was very productive indeed!

What have you learned from the process of collaboration? 

The most important thing is, I think, trusting your partner, and allowing them complete creative freedom. We might not have worked so easily and joyously together if we had been constantly criticising each other’s work. Both Kim and I love each other’s writing style and so we just focused on making our own stories the best they could be, and then read each other’s stories with a great deal of anticipation and pleasure.

 Both The Silver Well and Vasilisa the Wise were published by small presses–in The Silver Well‘s case, Ticonderoga Publications, in Vasilisa’s, Serenity Press. And your earlier non-fiction work, The Rebirth of Rapunzel, was also published by a small press, Fablecroft Publishing. All of course are gorgeous books, flawlessly and elegantly produced, and showcasing just what wonderful work small press publishers do in this country. For you, as an author, what are the pleasures–and challenges!–of working with small press?

It was utter joy to work with all three of these small press publishers! They were all so passionate about the projects, and so willing to work with us to get exactly the look we wanted. I didn’t have any problems or challenges, really. We are all professionals, and we understand how the market works. And the books are finding readers, despite the smaller publicity and marketing budgets. The first print run of Vasilisa the Wise sold out in pre-orders!

The language of astonishment: on being bilingual

I’m republishing here today a meditative essay of mine looking at how the experience of being bilingual, as well as my family history, has influenced my work.

(This essay was first published in Explorations, A Journal of French-Australian Connections, Number 50, June 2011, and subsequently republished at http://languageofastonishment.pressbooks.com/ )

 

Towards the end of Russian-French writer Andrei Makine’s hauntingly beautiful novel of childhood, memory and divided loyalties, Le testament français(1995), the narrator Alyosha, who all his young life has been shuttling between the visceral reality of his Russian Siberian childhood and his French grandmother’s poetic evocations of her past and her old country, has a sudden slip of the tongue which for a moment puts him in a disorienting position: that of being literally between two languages, between French and Russian, and understood by neither. But it is that very moment which transforms his life and his understanding of himself and his literary ambitions. The gap between the two languages which as a dreamy child he simply accepted and as a rebellious teenager he reacted against, is not what he once thought it was—a frustrating barrier to understanding or a comforting bulwark against reality, depending on his mood at the time. No, it is something far stranger and much more exhilerating: a prism through which everything can be seen and felt even more clearly, sensually and intensely, and not only because with two languages at your disposal, you have even more opportunity to ‘nail’ the world, as it were. It is because that between-two-languages phenomenon common to all bilingual people is actually a striking metaphor for the gap that exists between language per se and lived, sensual reality for all human beings. And it is in that gap that literature itself is born: literature, which in Makine’s beautiful words is un étonnement permanent devant cette coulée verbale dans laquelle fondait le monde: a never-ending astonishment in the face of the flow of words in which the world dissolved. (Le testament français, Mercure de France 1995, page 244.) And it is that very ‘in-between’ that universal ‘language of astonishment’ which will turn Alyosha into a writer, and by extension Makine himself, who included many autobiographical elements in the novel.

When I first read Le testament français, in the year in which it first appeared, and the language in which it was written—French–(the English translation, with the same title, appeared in 1997) I had already been published in Australia for five years, with several novels already in print. I was already aware subconsciously of many of the things Makine writes about. But I was immediately and viscerally struck by Le testament français. Makine had put his finger unerringly on the pulse of the bilingual writer; he had expressed perfectly something most of us knew and struggled with but I for one had never expressed quite so clearly, though I knew that my background and divided loyalties informed practically everything I had written, even those works which had nothing whatever to do with bilingualism in content, style or theme.

I write very differently to Makine, and in a very different field to his adult literary fiction. Though I have written three adult novels, the vast majority of my work is fiction for young people: children and adolescents. It is an area I much prefer, for all kinds of reasons, but principally because it is the area in which I can most express myself, in which I feel most free, whose very constraints in terms of what may or may not be permissible due to readers’ ages mysteriously allows my imagination a great deal more latitude, invention, freshness and subtlety than would be the case in adult fiction. Within young people’s fiction, I have written in all kinds of genres, from mystery novels to fantasy novels, family sagas to ghost stories, thrillers to love stories, historical novels to graphic novels. But the element of the fantastic, in one way or another, has been an abiding feature of my work. And now, after reading that book and thinking deeply about what it raised,  I began to see that my own abiding interest in the fantastical, ever since my earliest childhood: in fairytales, legends, myth, as well as modern fantasy, was in itself  not only a personal choice, because I was that way inclined and always had been. But also because the journey between worlds, the sojourn in strange places, and the sudden irruption of a different, disturbing reality into the everyday which is at the heart of fantasy was actually also at the heart of my own lived experience.

 

I was born into a long, tumultuous family history. A history which at least on my father’s side we knew very well, stretching back through the centuries, from the peasant villages of western France to emigration to Quebec as some of the first people to settle in ‘New France’, through centuries of Quebec life to the spectacular return to France in the early twentieth century as very rich and reckless dual nationals of the haute bourgeoisie. It was a history that was a mixture of grand tragedy, thrilling romance, Grand Guignol horror and high farce, and it was  always more than a bit player in all of our lives. The dead jostled the living, in our understanding of the world; the mad, the bad, the sad, the brave, the good, the cruel, the powerful, the poor wore our features, and answered to our names. Passionate love and murder and suicide and treachery and madness and  acts of courage and of cunning were all common currency in this history of ours, which crossed over often into the history of the countries my various ancestors lived in. And throughout the twentieth century (and beyond!)it has continued to unfold in instalments action-packed, terrifying, ridiculous, disturbing and exciting by turns.

We were always in the midst of drama, some a direct result of the past, others new episodes that would in turn generate their own echoes. People to whom I’ve told even a fraction of the extraordinary stories engendered by my family have said to me that one day, I must write them  down. They’re thrilled by it all; they say, No wonder you became a writer! But what often people fail to understand is that , for a child, and especially a child who tends to be more of an observer, such as young writers en herbe tend to be, such tumult can be fatal to peace of mind and even to the growing of separate identity. It can actually paralyse your faculties of observation and clarity, which you need in order to transform powerful emotions into good writing. In order to escape, to protect yourself,  you can only retreat, at the risk of being labelled a selfish dreamer, an emotionless blank, a weird changeling in the warm human world…

Perhaps I was just such a changeling. Perhaps my own destiny, as a child born to carry straight on with the quarrels and loves of a self-absorbed French family was irrevocably changed when first, I was born on the other side of the world, in Indonesia, where my parents were working; then, second, because of ill health, I was left as a baby with my paternal grandmother in France for four years, and did not see my parents or sisters in all that time. My grandmother, a great beauty with a turbulent past, was from a world that to me seems as mythically poetic as the past of Alyosha’s grandmother Charlotte Lemonnier seems to him. She had a fund of stories of that world, suitably glossed for a child’s ears, and one of my greatest delights was to listen to her or my aunts, her daughters, tell stories about the glamorous people in the elegant photo albums that filled one of the family heirloom cabinets in her bedroom. The Toulouse apartment where they lived, filled with the gracious and gorgeous relics of the past, its wardrobes crammed with evening dresses and furs and hat-boxes, was like a memory capsule of the vanished family fortune and long-ago histories of its more celebrated members, a place where a child could dream and dress up and imagine fairytale destinies. But it was also a space where I was the only and very cossetted and petted child in the house, the embodiment of the future, and with my grandmother, one of the twin centres of this very feminine world.

My grandfather was still on and off a part of my grandmother’s life; but their differences and a difficult history had made them drift apart so that he was away for long periods in his other world, one I never knew and still know of now only in very small hints. A world where he did not have to live up to the protocols and constraints of the gilded class into which he had been born, where his own troubled past could be forgotten, a world in which he felt more himself, though he was not the kind of man who would ever have put it like that. Elegant, impulsive and with a not-so-hidden streak of violence, he was not an analytical type, and was also no worshipper of the past; indeed, quite the contrary. On his infrequent visits back to the apartment, he brought a disturbing breath of masculine havoc with him, and a reminder that the past had also contained much darker things than the golden memories evoked by my grandmother in her stories. I was afraid of him; and also fascinated by him. I’d been so young when I left Indonesia that I didn’t remember my father at all, but I knew, from looking at photographs, that he looked very like his father, my grandfather, though I also knew that they didn’t get on.

All this vanished almost overnight when my parents came back from Indonesia, and the next stage of my border-crossing, changeling existence began. Suddenly I was no longer the only child, but the third of four children; suddenly I had to adapt to the rediscovery of my father and mother. We were not together long in France though; my father had been offered a new contract to work overseas again, this time in Australia. And this time, I would go along with them, with my second older sister Beatrice and my little sister Camille, while my oldest sister Dominique, who was on the cusp of high school, would take my place in my grandmother’s and aunts’ lives as the young centre of their lives.

I knew no English at all when we arrived in Sydney. I was five, ready to start school, and with Beatrice, who did know English, I dutifully trotted off. I don’t remember much at all about that first year in Australia. And I don’t think it’s because I was traumatised—from what my mother tells me, though she was worried I’d be upset, in fact I took to school very happily and babbled away in French and broken English to anyone who would listen, seemingly unconcerned with the strangeness of it all, and soon had several friends. Rather, I don’t remember that time because I didn’t have the words in which to ‘dissolve the world’ and fix my memories. Memory itself is dependent on language, and it is why we do not remember, as a general rule, our pre-verbal babyhood.

But I do very clearly remember that first English-language book I read by myself, as I mentioned; the Little Golden Book which recreated for me, in this new language, fairy stories I’d already heard and read, in my own mother tongue. For me, it was like a version of the feelings Alyosha has when he realises that the stories his grandmother tells him could be told in French, or in Russian, equally, because they are at the junction of the two, told in that ‘language of astonishment.’ And the fantastic is par excellence the discovery of astonishment, of surprise, of the strange, dislocating everyday reality in an unexpected way. Little wonder then that it was that element that spoke so deeply to me, why I took so to the whole idea of fairyland, of the otherworld in my reading. And the discovery of the extraordinary range of fantastical children’s fiction in English was one I made by myself; for as my parents had come to English as adults, they were not familiar with English-language children’s books. We had many books at home in French: rows of Tintin and Asterix and Babar and Bibliothèque Rose editions of the Comtesse de Ségur and Bibiliothèque Verte editions of Paul Berna and lots of 19th century adventure novels, like those of Dumas, Féval, Gautier, Hugo. I read them all, some of them many times over; but the English-language books I found for myself in the public library or the school library were very special to me because I came across them by myself. I was always attracted to titles that breathed of magical possibilities. The world beyond the wardrobe, in the cracks of the floor,  through a river, across the sea, in the hollow tree, through the looking-glass: it beckoned me. It offered space and time. Possibility. More than that, it offered the chance of transformation, so that one could re-emerge into the everyday world re-invigorated, newly ready to cope, understand, and overcome.

My parents never intended to stay more than two or three years in Australia; Dad always had it in his mind to get a job back home. But that didn’t happen; the contracts kept being signed, and we settled into a shuttle of Australia for the two or three year period of each contract, with a stay of several months back in France at the end of each. It became our way of life, this moving between countries, continents, and languages; and though Beatrice soon rejoined Dominique back in France for high school, the rest of us(including the three youngest born in Australia, Louis-Xavier, Gabrielle and Bertrand)stayed here. English-speaking at school, we were not supposed to use it at home, and didn’t, with our parents; but soon evolved, between siblings, a kind of private language, a franglais, or rather frangarou, as I’ve coined it now to evoke Australian English: an in-between patois that twisted and melded and that no-one else would understand. That too now I see fed into my apprehension of the world as a multi-dimensional thing, a reality that could be disturbed, whose known layers could be peeled back to reveal something else, something unexpected, familiar and foreign all at once. The languages coined by fantasy writers are no more strange than the weird mixtures spoken between children who are growing up with more than one language deeply embedded in them..

I was soon writing as well as reading stories. Head down in a book, or nose up in the air, dreaming; or bottom up, scribbling interminably: for me, stories were literally indispensable, as absolutely necessary as breathing. Away with the fairies, I could hold and control and understand and know. Outside it, I was just a child, at the mercy of forces, both personal and impersonal, which swept me into constant, yet unpredictable turmoil. But right from the start, the stories weren’t just private, not just written for myself; I had an audience in mind, the audience of my siblings. We younger five especially were very close; our parents’ fears about the cultural difference of Australia, and their own difficult war childhoods, meant that they did not allow us to do the kinds of things our Australian school friends could do as a matter of course. I’ve often read in the reminiscences of fellow Australian writers that they had a freedom in their childhoods that children today lack, hovered over as they are by anxious ‘helicopter’ parents. Well, in our case, we had more that ‘hovered-over’ experience; not for us bike rides down the creek or jaunts by yourself into the city. During the week, we trod familiar paths to school and back again; after school and on weekends,  we stayed generally within the—quite extensive–confines of the garden and the house. However, our parents did not attempt to program our days. We were thrown very much on our own resources, especially as there was no TV allowed in the house. And entertaining yourself often meant having to entertain the bored younger ones as well; you couldn’t just bookworm all day or you’d run the risk of armed revolt, both from siblings and parents. Telling stories—or rather writing them—was a good compromise. I’d be doing what I wanted, and still escape into other worlds; but also keep the family peace. More exciting, I could actually take other travellers into those strange and magical worlds of the imagination.

Sometimes, we children would sit under a big table in the living-room that we’d covered with a large dark pink velvet curtain that hung all the way down, making the space beneath like a kind of dimly-lit tent. In this space my younger brothers and sisters sat while I played Scheherazade, spinning as many stories as I could. Though I didn’t know it, I was learning not only the storyteller’s vocation, but also the craft of the writer, because there were times when my stories fell flat and I had to quickly change them, and build up suspense and a sense of style. I couldn’t just go, And then this happened and then this.. because the audience would rapidly get bored and one brother would start pinching one sister or vice versa and the resulting brawl would make our parents come running.

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t a shared experience. One of my ways of coping with boring or uncomfortable situations was to imagine myself elsewhere. I could look at a stone, or a piece of wood, or anything really, focus on it till I felt as if I could crack its essence, and emerge into that parallel reality I’d grown to love deeply. It was an actual physical reaction, this sensation of being in another world: a kind of dreamy dissolving of the limbs, a swimming of the head, and yet a great clarity of mind, and a delight that was piercingly sweet.

This was possible anywhere; but even more so when on holidays we were back at our house in the rural south-west of France, west of Toulouse. The house, that had been renamed by our father La Nouvelle Terrebonne, after the original Terrebonne, the long-lost family mansion in Montreal, was a centuries-old place that with its nooks and crannies and secret places seemed to me to hide many different passages to the otherworld.  In that enchanted Narnia-like space, everything was extraordinary. It was a house my parents were happy in and relaxed, and from where we children could roam into the countryside, free of the anxious worrying which  in Australia kept us to our immediate surroundings. It was a good-fairy kind of house, the sort that is deeply loved by all who live in it, but that nevertheless had many strange, mysterious and even frightening stories associated with it. Stories of the haunted red room, where a young man had hung himself, a hundred years before; of the well, where a witch had been thrown, centuries ago; of the enormous elm tree outside my parents’ bedroom window, planted by one of Louis XIV’s ministers. The stairs creaked, the attic was spooky, the cellar dim and creepy; there were storage antechambers to every room. Each of these storage rooms had its own strange cargo: a huge oak wardrobe full of old fur coats, including my great-grandmother’s Canadian wolf-skin coat; pottery jars full of goose and duck confit in the winter; an old wicker doll’s pram with my aunt’s doll in it, sporting a wig made of her own, blond childhood hair; and in another, the baskets brought back by my parents from Indonesia, full of red and gold and green and gold costumes, filigree jewellery, and two sinuous plaits of black hair, wigs made, so my mother told us in a thrillingly bloodcurdling tone, by cutting off the hair of corpses.

In Australia, I’d scribbled and told stories of fairies and knights and monsters. But  in La Nouvelle Terrebonne, and the rural world beyond it, we discovered the actual homes of those fairies and knights and monsters. We headed out on our bikes to neighbouring villages, past deep rustling woods, fountains and castles and ancient churches; we went to school in the little village school across the road where they still had ink bottles and slates; we found eighteenth-century books on the rubbish tip and picked cherries and apricots and greengages and figs in our own parkland. Looking back on it, and now that the house has long been sold on, there is a golden Le Grand Meaulnes nostalgia about it, an enchanted space which stayed forever not only in my own heart, but those of all of my family. We sometimes visit the village just to look at the house; and my mother told me recently, that of all the many houses she’d lived in in her life, all over the world, La Nouvelle Terrebonne was the only one she ever had dreams about.

Of course, for a budding writer, an enchanted space like that is very important. Stories don’t need to be looked for; they are thick on the ground, in the air. But if that space is only chronologically a small part of your childhood, then you must also find stories wherever you are. And that’s how a writer’s mind works—you see stories everywhere. Back in Sydney, we might be more restricted than in the village, but there were still lots of magical stories to be found, even in our small radius. Coming home from school, we passed a house on the corner that was covered in vines and creepers, its garden full of roses. A couple of elderly sisters owned it, and often in the afternoons they were out in the garden in flowery flowing dresses and girlish hats. One had dyed her hair lilac, the other pale blue; to me they looked just like the good fairies in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty film, and we used to call their place the ‘Sleeping Beauty house’. Or there was the old lady who lived in the block of flats next to our house. Her late husband had been something important in India and her beautiful apartment was crammed with such things as a jewelled sword and a whole family of carved ivory elephants, arranged in a row from the large to the tiny. Once she took us for a ride in her ancient, magnificent Rolls Royce which scarcely ever poked its nose out of the garage. Though she was a tiny woman, she navigated the roads with great aplomb, sitting on a cushion at the wheel of the vast car that to me felt like a royal carriage in a picturebook.

I was always doing that as a child—transforming the world with the ‘language of astonishment.’ It didn’t even need to be as glamorous as a Rolls Royce or a fairytale garden to be turned into something magical. That technique I’d learned, about abstracting myself into imagination, came in very handy indeed-in maths lessons, long sermons, school assemblies, on unwilling bushwalks at the Blue Mountains block my parents bought; and just hanging around at home on a rainy day. My sister Camille said to me once that what she most remembers of her childhood is being bored; and that amazed me. Because boredom was something that I don’t associate in the least with my childhood; many other emotions, yes. But boredom, never. I was on journeys all the time, in my mind; whether in books written by other people, my own stories, or daydreams. Always escaping into other worlds…

As a child, though, the fact that even in reality I lived in two worlds—a French one at home, an Australian one at school—did not strike me as unusual, intriguing, or weird. It was just what life was like. I spoke in French to my parents, frangarou to my siblings and my diary, and English to my classmates and the exercise book I kept for my stories. I didn’t wonder at it, back then. I just switched effortlessly without thinking about it, just like the child Alyosha in Le testament francais. Yes, there were certain things I didn’t like, about times when the worlds collided, like the fact our sandwiches were different to our classmates’ or the truly cringe-making experience of the teacher picking me out of the class, saying to the rest of them, ‘Sophie’s native language isn’t even English and she writes it better than any of you!’ Yes, I might dream of having blond hair as well as magic powers(one of the characters I created as a child, Princess Alicia, had both!) But mostly, the differences didn’t worry me. I was simply hardly even aware I was different. Was I French? Was I Australian? I didn’t know and didn’t care. At home, my parents were always enjoining us never to forget we were French; at school we were always having it reinforced that this was Australia. At home, my parents sometimes talked about ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in disparaging terms; outside of home you sometimes heard disparaging—or conversely—adoring– remarks on the French, both of which surprised and confused me. But it didn’t really cause any conflict in me, as a child, it just seemed like one of those boring things that adults thought about but I didn’t. My mother would sometimes say, ‘Why are you always writing make-believe stuff? Why not write about what you know?’ but I had no interest at all in writing about my actual experiences, which to me were much too humdrum. Even if I was writing about the ‘real’ world it was always set in places I’d read about. Never places where I’d actually lived.

That all changed in my teens. I still loved fantasy but went from wanting to write dashing adventurous tales to dreamy meditations and mystical poetry which tried to express everything I felt about the mysteries of life. But I also became intensely self-conscious about the two worlds I lived in every day. Became aware that it wasn’t ‘usual’. I started questioning. Rebelling. And that meant challenging my parents, because it was the school culture—the cool Aussie teen culture I really wanted to belong to in those years. Like Alyosha in Le testament français, I really wanted to ‘expiate my marginality’ in the merciless ‘mini-society’ of adolescence. So I read mostly in English, at least where I could be seen, and my diary and my stories were always written in English, though I didn’t quite dare speak to my parents in anything other than French. When we went back to France on holidays, I took to calling myself ‘Australian’, to the sardonic jokes of my relatives who took all this teenage hoity-toitying much less seriously than my parents did.

And I laboured incessantly to keep my worlds strictly apart, impermeable to each other, an effort constantly frustrated by my father’s mischievous antics: for instance, I remember mortifying expeditions to the beach in the early morning—avoiding the very hot sun–and Dad, wearing on his head a clean but very shabby handkerchief knotted at the corners,  speaking loudly to us in front of the surfies I’d hoped to impress, and who would then, I just knew, dismiss us as a bunch of ridiculous wogs.  And neither of my parents always refused to bow to our pressures to hide, or reinvent themselves as Australians, New or otherwise. Stiff-necked in their pride, and determined to teach us a lesson in identity, they made us, instead, toe the line, and refused to change.

But at school it wasn’t always plain sailing either. Occasionally my wish to belong ran up smack bang against visceral feelings, such as in the mid-70’s when there was one of those periodic anti-French-nuclear-testing episodes which pepper the memories of many French Australians. Just as in the 90’s, the whole issue was personalised in a quite inappropriate way, with local French people targetted with things such as mail bans, and rude comments in the papers that appeared to make no distinction between an attack on French Government policy and the French themselves. My parents were up in arms: and though I shared my school friends’ anti-nuclear stand, it stuck sharply in my throat that we should be targetted in this way, and that even people I liked thought it OK to make sweeping generalisations about French people. But that was a rare if uncomfortable episode. Mostly, it wasn’t the fact of being French that caused me any angst; it was more a case of not being ‘mainstream’. Being a ‘frog’ was rather better than being a ‘wog’–there were many more romantic cliches attached to it–but most people outside those who knew us personally thought we were ‘wogs’ anyway, because of our olive skin and dark hair; so that made no difference.

But though I tried so hard to be a real Aussie, I began to see after a while that there were advantages in my unusual situation. Adolescence is often the time when budding writers, bilingual or not,  first learn that the storyteller has a special place, even amongst the cool groups, even amongst the scary types. And the skills they learn in the jungle of adolescent society not only help them to survive it, but can be carried right through into adult life and the honing of the writer’s craft. And so I soon realised that quite a lot of my schoolmates were actually interested in France, and Frenchness. To them, it was a glamorous other world, and they never tired of hearing stories about it and our periodic disappearances there. I began by recounting fairly straightforward stories of our holidays, of people we knew, of the family; and then expanded, embroidered, taking in stories I’d read, and ‘remembering all kinds of things that hadn’t happened,’ as my husband calls it. I wrote a good deal of it down, too. And as it does for Alyosha, France became for me material for storytelling, and gave me an unexpected cachet amongst my peers, especially in the last two or three years of high school, when peer-group pressure is towards individualism and not melting into the mass as it is in early adolescence.

But it also led me on to write not only about France, but about my life in Australia too. And not only focussed on me, either. I started keeping voluminous notebooks of observations of people I knew or had briefly come across or seen from the windows of the train on my way to school. I imagined how their lives might proceed in the future. I wrote down columns of descriptions of places and objects, for the sensual world, which I’d observed so closely in childhood through a fantastical prism, became ever more sharply important to me as a teenager. Going on several holidays to northern NSW—my first real contact with rural Australia outside of the books I’d read set there—I was utterly fascinated by its village life. At sixteen, I wrote an impressionistic short story called ‘Sketches’, about the lives of people in one small timber-milling village. To me, that place was as exotic as something I’d read about in John Steinbeck’s novels or Chekhov’s plays; but it also had an odd familiarity, not only because it was Australia but also because of its occasional, unexpected similarities with rural France and the village we’d known. Yet there wasn’t a single mention of France in this story, and I didn’t bring in my own experience at all. It was rich material for the ‘language of astonishment’, and it’s one of the things I wrote at that age which still remains with me. Indeed, Sketches eventually morphed into my very first novel, The House in the Rainforest. (UQP 1990).

Was I French? Was I Australian? I still wasn’t entirely sure, despite my efforts to fit in. But I wouldn’t have answered at that point as I might have done in childhood, ‘Who cares?’ I did care. Part of me wanted to reject France, to pretend I could only speak English. But another part refused point-blank. It was all part of the painful chrysalis process of adolescence. Every teenager asks ‘who am I?’  In my case, like that of so many others, it was complicated by the fact of those two worlds, that’s all. And as I wrote my way through mystical Celtic-flavoured poetry and Steinbeckian realism and French fancies and Russian-inspired sagas, I was also making my way through those questions without even knowing it. When I left home soon after leaving school—the strains between my two worlds had become too much—I took the big step of becoming an Australian citizen, something that my parents, who never came as migrants but on work contracts, had never encouraged. It caused a stir in the family. I was deemed to have chosen, to have turned my back on France(though I still had my French citizenship.) I knew they’d see it that way, though consciously I’d never intended it. But unconsciously? I don’t know. It was confusing, and all mixed up with the fights I’d had with my parents, or more particularly, my father, over our very different expectations about my post-school life. But leaving home actually meant moving in with my eldest sister Dominique who had come to Australia after she’d finished university. And she was much more French than I was, because she had spent her entire adolescence and early adulthood in France. Living with her, I couldn’t have escaped from the French side of me even if I’d tried! Not only that but I’d become very interested in languages generally—not only did I enrol in French at university, but also a range of ‘English literature’ subjects which in fact weren’t English at all—Middle Welsh, Old Norse sagas, and Anglo-Saxon. All, as you note, fodder for the ‘fantasy’ side of me, the side that also sent me to weekly Irish classes at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. But also fodder for that ‘language of astonishment’–the writing voice I was groping towards.

So I went to uni, patchily, and to work, patchily too, and wrote and wrote, very assiduously. At school, I’d never really tried to send anything out. Now I began blizzarding magazines and newspapers with ideas, outlines, finished pieces. I pestered my sister and her friends to read my work and offer advice. I borrowed umpteen books on how to get published and sent my verse to poets whom I’d read at school and admired—AD Hope, Judith Wright, and later, Les Murray. I will always be grateful for the generosity with which they responded to the naïve young enthusiast with her palimpset poetry modelled on ancient forms. AD Hope in particular went way beyond the call of duty, critiquing lines and giving advice, not just once, but three times. That was an important experience—my first exposure to the idea of a community of writers, and of the continuity of literature, too, as older, more experienced and sophisticated writers pass on hints and encouragement to a new generation. It’s something I’ve been mindful of myself, passing on those things, as my status has changed over the decades from ’emerging’ to ‘established’, and I get letters—or rather, emails, these days!–from naïve newbies myself.

But it took years, many more years than I’d have cared to imagine, as an impatient eighteen year old, to go from the occasional short piece in a student newspaper or the occasional poem in a local magazine, through short stories accepted for magazines, newspapers and anthologies, and through many rejections of the first two novels I wrote, to that magic moment when I got the letter which told me that an editor actually wanted my book. Lightning struck twice for me that year; for only a few months after getting that letter, I got another, from a different publisher, accepting another novel of mine. Both were published the same year, in 1990.

The first was The House in the Rainforest, that very realistic Australian drama with not a skerrick of Frenchness  in it; the other was Fire in the Sky, my first children’s novel which combined my love of the fantastic, of history, and which from the start melded France and Australia, past and present, as a modern French-Australian family is confronted through a time-slip with events in medieval south-west France. Domi and Tad in that novel have elements of myself at their respective ages—pre-pubertal, enthusiastic Domi, who doesn’t think or care about questions of belonging; and surly, frustrated teenage Tad, who’s uneasy in his own skin. But Kate in the first novel, though her background is nothing like mine, does carry elements of  my life, especially that after leaving home. By the time I wrote those books, in my late 20’s, I had still not answered that abiding question: Was I French? Was I Australian? But it no longer preoccupied me as it had done in adolescence. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, as it had been the case back in childhood. It was just that I’d decided it was a lesser question than the ones that had become much more important to me: was I really a writer? Did I really have an original voice that people would want to listen to? Or was I just kidding myself and day-dreaming again?

Being published, especially with two such different books in the very first year, settled those questions very satisfactorily indeed! But some of the reaction to those first books also re-opened those old questions of identity. My background was mentioned in reviews, and as time went on and more of my books for young people were published, they started appearing on lists of multicultural children’s literature. I was asked to speak at conferences on ‘writing from another culture’ and asked questions about what it was like to write in a language that wasn’t your mother tongue. And I found myself both welcoming and resenting these things. Just as in those long-ago primary school classrooms, I hated to be hauled out in front of everyone as some kind of demonstrative specimen. I squirmed at awards ceremonies focussing on ‘multiculturalism’, feeling I was getting stuck in a ghetto. But equally I didn’t want to pretend that it didn’t matter at all, that I’d come to this country without any English. Meanwhile, going back to France periodically, as I continued to do as an adult, meant that I could not clothe that part of my identity in either a rosy glow or a black veil, but had to deal with its reality.

Slowly, I came to grips with the idea that I was simply a hybrid. The answer to the question, was I French, was I Australian? was: both. And neither. I was in an in-between stage, unlike my parents,or my children. And I probably always would be. My parents never thought of being Australian; my children were, naturally. Though they acknowledged their heritage, it did not trouble them at all. It still did trouble me, a little. I was glad of my acceptance in Australia—as time went on and my books grew ever more varied in scope and genre, the ‘multicultural’ tag was no longer automatically attached to them—but I longed for my books to be published in French, in France. But that did not happen for many, many years: it appeared that though French publishers were mildly interested in Australian fiction, it was only of the kind that was ‘exotic’, i.e recognisably Aussie. An author with a French name writing in English about frangarous like Domi and Tad, or even true blues like Kate in The House in the Rainforest, was clearly not high on the agenda. Perhaps it was confusing. Perhaps it was deemed not exotic enough. In any case it wasn’t until 2010 that a book of mine appeared in French. And even then it was one I’d written under the pseudonym of Isabelle Merlin! But by then things had changed for me, and instead of being troubled by this as I might once have been, I found it amusing, for the last trace of that self-consciousness has quite gone.

For it’s one thing to feel you’ve answered a question. It’s quite another to feel comfortable with the answer. When I first read Le testament français, back in 1995, I had already accepted the fact of my hybridity, but I still wanted somehow to pin it down, analyse it, worry at it. Makine’s novel, with its extraordinary evocation of the essence of bilingualism and how it affects a budding writer, struck deep echoes in me. Because it linked those questions—the bilingual identity, the writer’s identity—and answered them with great simplicity and yet great depth. At the very end of the novel, in a spine-tingling and pitch-perfect twist, Aloysha discovers something about his mother which will not only show the past in a new light, but also propel him into the real discovery and mastery of the ‘language of astonishment’ by exploring that past and making it live again. The novel ends with the words: Seuls me manquaient encore les mots qui pouvaient le dire (Le testament français, page 309): Only the words with which I could express it were missing… And as the young man, on the cusp of becoming a writer, walked out of the pages and into this reader’s memory, I knew that was precisely what had happened to me, as a young writer. I had gone looking for those words; and I had found them. And ever since then, that knowledge has been with me. I don’t need to labour those questions of identity any more. The language of astonishment has become my native tongue.