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Muselings January 2009

Interview with Christine Harris

 

 

Recently, I took the opportunity to ask Christine Harris, a well-known and much-loved Australian children's writer, about her work. Christine's books have won or been shortlisted for many awards, and published in Australia, New Zealand, USA, Brazil, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Norway, Korea and Italy. In 2006, she was awarded the Carclew Fellowship, the prestigious South Australian Festival award for Literature. But she still remembers the day she won her very first writing prize: a silver star handed out at assembly, for her seminal A Day in the Life of a Rubber Ball.

 

Christine writes because she loves stories: reading, telling and writing them. She believes that "wonderful moments happen when readers laugh, think, and, sometimes, cry." One of her favourite sayings about books is a Chinese proverb: 'A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.'

 

I read and reviewed one of Christine's junior novels on my Book Chook blog. I knew immediately I wanted to get some advice from an author I admire.

 

Susan: First of all, Christine, I loved reading Audrey of the Outback. In my review of your book, I commented that it was so evocative of a bygone era, and had been meticulously researched. How did you go about getting your research right?

 

Christine: When I write about other times and places, I begin with an idea or concept. The events themselves will usually come from the research. I’ve learnt to trust myself in this way as a writer. It may take time, but the story elements will come. I guess it’s similar to meeting someone for the first time. You don’t know them. It takes a while to trust them. I think it’s like that with writing from research. While doubt is always a part of the creative process and, at times, must be so we don’t become arrogant and spoil the story, trust comes from experience. The more you do it, the less nervous you are that you’ll find a plot in stories and characters from the past.

Methods I use for gleaning stories for my historical novels are:

      Read all the non-fiction books I can find about the time or place.

      Read books written at the time, to absorb speech patterns or vocabulary.

      Talk to people who were either there or are experts.

      Read newspapers from the time (public libraries keep these). This gives the events of the time, and also things like the weather, what was on at the movies or what kind of cartoons were popular.

      Look at photos from the time (these can be accessed through library archives or, sometimes, they are online and can be viewed from home).

      I choose a photographic reference for characters.

      There are perennial calendars online for checking the date and day of the week are correct. Courts use them. This is handy if you’re writing in diary format.

      Play music from the chosen time or place for atmosphere.

      Eat food from that time.

      Dress up as the character (and yes, I did do this for the Audrey books).

 

Susan: You have a treasure trove of advice for other writers on your main site.  Can you tell us the most useful piece of writing advice you ever received?

 

Christine: That if you don’t have any ‘rejections’ you’re not trying hard enough. You’re not risking enough. The higher we reach, the more likely we are to stumble. The other piece of advice that fits this beautifully is that both success and failure are only illusions. Writing is like playing Snakes and Ladders. Sometimes we zoom up the ladder. Yay. Exultation. Other times we slide down a snake. Doom and gloom. But, in the course of time, we eventually get there. Expect ups and downs. It’s all part of being a writer.

 

Susan: When you judged writing competitions and reviewed manuscripts, did you find any common problems in other writers' work?

 

Christine: Yes. I find that there are quite a few people who can ‘write’, as in put sentences together and have a good grasp of syntax or spelling. But putting words in a nice way on a page does not make a good story. Readers need to care about the character. We want to love or hate them. Feel what they are feeling. I suspect that people hold back for various reasons, rather than writing with passion. Readers will overlook some flaws if they love the story.

 

The other, and very common problem, is that I see people who won’t go that extra step. Their writing is pretty good. But not excellent. They are almost there. But they give up and refuse to write another draft. Or ten drafts. Or twenty. Whatever it takes. They lack the determination that sometimes separates a hobby writer from a professional.

 

Writers need both passion and determination.

 

Susan: At what stage of your career did you get your agent, Lyn Tranter? How did that come about? In your opinion, should unpublished children's writers try submitting to agents, or to publishers?

 

Christine: I secured an agent after some years. I think I had about ten books out by then. Certainly, I was already established. I was ‘drowning’ in too much work. The administration and contract negotiations were taking up too much time and emotional energy. I began to find it hard to argue terms or finances with my publisher/editor one day, then smile and chat about my writing the next. It was better to separate these and just concentrate on the creative side. Which is not to say that I don’t check on financial or contractual matters. I believe it is important never to hand over all control of your work. I keep tabs on things. I work with my agent.

 

These days, with the increase in manuscripts submitted to publishers, writers sometimes have no choice but to seek an agent. Some publishers will only look at manuscripts which come through an agent. But finding an agent can be just as hard as getting a publisher. It’s good if we do our homework, so to speak, about who to approach and how.

 

Agents can sometimes arrange better deals, are aware of trends in contracts or publishing, can field offers of work, present writing to producers, double check statements and offer writing advice. And once you have one, then they approach each publisher. We don’t have to go through that whole process of submission each time. There is a system in place.

 

Susan: You've written books across the ages in the field of children's literature. Which are your favourite to write? Why?

 

Christine: Certain ideas suit particular ages. Sometimes this decision about age levels is determined by the material. Or by knowing where there is a gap in the market. I only write books that I enjoy, that make me feel something. A book cannot be read with passion if it is not written with passion. But, if I had to choose a favourite target age group for readers, it would be 8-12 years old. They are smart, loyal and yet, they still have the capacity to believe.

 

Susan: I see that you've been published since 1992. What changes have you noticed in the writing scene during that time?

 

Christine: It’s more corporate. I think less people are ‘friends’ with their publishers or agent. Years ago, publishers would take a chance on a new writer, publish their first book, even though it might not be fantastic. It might just be ‘okay’. But the publisher believed nurturing the talent would allow for the brilliant work that writer was yet to do. Few publishers have this attitude now. They can’t afford to do it. Acquisition meetings are often controlled by the ‘number crunchers’, the accountants, not the editing/creative staff.

 

On the other hand, the quality and availability of children’s literature has ‘exploded’. There are wonderful books out there. Which is a good thing. Children who love good books usually grow into adults who love books.

 

Susan: Is there anything you struggle with, as a writer? What helps you?

 

Christine: Administration cuts into creative time. It can take over. A schedule helps, and prioritising.

 

Getting back into a story if I’ve been away from for a while can be hard. It helps to read over what I’ve already written, usually more than once. Or go back to my research notes.

  

Susan: Are there any web sites you visit regularly, or that you'd recommend to other writers?

 

Christine: Jurgen Wolff’s ‘Time to Write’ blog. He is a positive person.

 

I also search around for sites that are encouraging and confidence building. Inspiration is just as important as the skills to write the words. I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of writers, and interviews, like this one. You can learn just as much from the questions as the answers sometimes.

 

Also, I find sites like www.ted.com very inspirational. Some of the speakers are writers, but most are not. They are passionate artists, scientists, architects – all sorts of people – who have something to say about what they do, about the world, the universe, or about the human psyche. Enthusiasm for what we do is contagious. I’ll take it where I can get it!

 

Susan: Which children's books do you wish you'd written?

 

Christine: This question suggests that one person can write the stories of another.  I don’t believe this is possible. We all have our own voice. We need to tell our own stories in our own way. And no one else in the world can do that, except us. I have my voice and I tell the stories that move me. And that’s how it should be. I applaud wonderful stories written in other voices. But I also have my own.

 

Susan: You've published books the traditional way, and you've self-published. My perception is that there is a stigma against self-published books, in both reading and writing circles. What made you decide to self-publish? How has that experience been for you?

 

Christine: More writers are looking at this avenue, given the corporate nature of much current publishing. But it takes a lot of work. To self publish successfully, you either need a niche market (for example, a stamp collector with specialised knowledge could do well with a self published book about the subject that he or she could sell at stamp collecting conventions). You need to pay other experts. Most people don’t have all the skills necessary to edit their own work, type set, design a cover and then market and distribute a book. Unless you choose Print On Demand, you’d need storage space.

 

You can make a book, but then what? How do you get it into shops? All of this needs research and planning. It can be done, but takes commitment and outlay of money to start with. You have to invest in yourself, I suppose.

 

Why did I decide to self-publish? I had a series called Spy Girl, which did well. But the publisher decided they didn’t want to publish a fifth book. By the time I had 2,000 (and that number has grown since) emails from readers begging for another instalment, I decided that I needed to make my fans happy. Especially as the publisher asked me to leave book four open-ended to allow for a fifth. I owed it to my readers to take a chance. I decided not to go with a distributor (although I had one interested in taking that first self-published book ), and do it the slow way. Myself. Sales through talks, word of mouth and my website.  It has worked for me. I’ve self-published several more since then. I had knowledge of the industry and many contacts. It would be harder to self-publish successfully if you were a newcomer to the industry. But still possible. It is always an option for consideration. And there are small printers out there who offer much help and do a great job.

 

Susan: What are your three favourite ways of promoting yourself as a writer?

 

Christine: Talks, website and handouts (put something in the hand of readers, such as a bookmark or flyer that they can read later and remember you).

 

Susan: On your Writers-bitz blog,  you said "To move a reader to an emotional response is the highest compliment." What techniques do you as a writer use to accomplish that?

 

Christine: There are many ways. First, I have to feel something myself. Stephen King says that you make people like a character, then kill them. Extreme, but he does write horror. John Grisham writes his main characters into a corner, where it appears they can’t get out. Then he gives them an escape. I get inside the head of each character, look out through their eyes. How would they feel in this situation, what would they do? I am them when I am writing. I can’t write from outside of a character, only from the inside. With my Audrey series, I created a character that I love. And readers love her too. Different books evoke different fan mail. Readers comments about the Audrey series are not usually about the plot, but the character. One little girl wrote, ‘I love Audrey so ...’  The emotional plot is as important as the sequence of events.

 

I believe the secret is to write with honesty and heart.

 

.......................

 

Have you been to these sites?

 

Silver Blade

Fantasy fiction online. Pays $5.

 

Book Tour

If your book is on Amazon, you can display it here for free.

 

Writing Contest for Kids

WIN Christine Harris!

 

More Writing Contests

 

Learning Through History Magazine

 

Stories That Lift

Paying market for children's stories and other.

 

FuelMyBlog

Blog community to promote your blog.

 

The Book Chook

Book reviews and literacy tips.

 

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Until next month, write on!

 

Susan

(More tips for writers and parents at www.susanstephenson.com.au)