What is your Full name? Do you have any nicknames?
My full name is Jacqueline Anne French. (I don't think I'll mention my nicknames!) (I kept trying to get called Jacqueline in those days.)
What was your favourite book as a child?
Karalta, by Mary Grant Bruce - it's exciting if you ever manage to get a copy. Also Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.
What's your favourite colour?
Dunno, it depends. Very fond of purple but not purple cows or purple skies. Also blue.
What sort of car do you drive?
A very dusty one. (We live on a dirt road called "The Goat Track'.)
What it's like to be an author?
Wonderful. You get to just sit at your computer making up stories... and then get paid for it.
Do you ever get ideas from other writers?
No. Every time someone uses someone else's idea it sort of fades. and there are alawys so many ideas and so many books to write, that sometimes I feel like putting a 'shut' sign on my brain so that I don't start longing to write another book before I finish the eight or so I have planned already.
Do you have any pets?
No...just the chooks and the wombats and the birds and the wallabies and the echidnas and the...well, you get the idea. I'd much rather live with wild animals than pets. Wild animals don't need you, and don't have to suck up to you to get their dinner...it's really an extraordinary priviledge to have a wild animal as a friend.
How do you get your ideas?
From music, walking and chocolate (not necessarily in that order). (A kid sent me half a Mars Bar last week. I'm not sure what happened to the other half, but the bit I got was delicious.)
It's a bit like making compost. When you make compost you throw in anything you can find - dead dogs, old doormats, last night's dinner - and if you've made it properly what comes out the other end is quite different - lovely, rich, fertile muck. When you write stories you throw in everything you've ever known - but what comes out at the end is quite different from the original ingredients.
I love talking to the older people here and hearing their stories (I get a lot of my story ideas that way) - about the time the flood covered all the valley for six weeks and the time a bushranger held up the gold coach just above our gate - but the driver slipped over the edge and over the ledge of the mountain and ran down to get help - and everyone from the pub came up to help the guard, carrying spades and mattocks and anything they had. The bushrangers were so terrified by the noise they galloped away.
I've never met anyone who didn't have stories to tell - but sometimes they think they aren't interesting just because they happened to themselves.
What do you do when you get stuck for ideas?
To be honest my problem has always been too many ideas, not too few. (sometimes I wish I was an octopus and could write 8 books at once)
How can I get ideas?
That's easy. If you want the inspiration for a story you just go to the nearest supermarket and ask the check out person where you can buy half a kilo of ideas.
They'll either start laughing or think you're mad or call the manager and have you chucked out....and any of those will give you a great story to write.
You can't buy inspiration. You can't call it like a dog either. But it's true - sometimes inspiration does just jump on you and you feel you HAVE to write a story.
I have four things I do that ALWAYS provide inspiration. I am perfectly serious about all three of them so don't laugh. They really do work.
Step 1. Go for a walk. I have never gone for a walk without inspiration floating in from somewhere. Humans evolved as walkers..and sometimes I think we function best when we're walking. (Charles Dickens, a great English writer of the Victorian era, walked for enormous distances around London and in the countryside and wrote large rambling novels.)
Don't take the dog for a walk. Don't walk with your best friend or your baby brother either. Just walk, so your mind is open for the stories.
Step 2. Play some music.
Most writers I know either write to music or play music before they start. The area in your brain that appreciates music is very close to the language centre in your brain. Music will ALWAYS give you inspiration.
Play whatever music moves you most - doesn't matter what. If you can, move to the music. Let it flow through you. Don't think of anything but the music - till the idea come.
Then start to write.
The last music festival I went to gave me three short stories. And the last concert gave me a novel and a half. (I didn't go to the last music festival in the country village a few kilometres from our farm - I already had five books I was trying to write..and the last thing I needed was more inspiration.)
3. Have a cup of coffee.
The only time I drink coffee is when I work - and one cup is all I have a day. If you drink too much coffee it loses its effect.
Coffee can also make it hard to sleep... and is not such a good idea till you reach adulthood.
So forget about this bit of advice for a while... but remember it when you're older.
4. Eat some chocolate.
Yeah, I'm serious. That's one of the reasons I'm fat - every book I write demands some chocolate and I write a lot of books. But I gained my fat in a worthy cause - every kilo was a contribution to Australian literature.
I only eat chocolate when I sit down to write which means as I love chocolate I am VERY eager to write my books every day.
Of course if you can reward yourself with an apple instead, it'll be much better for you. And your books will probably be just as good.
You have probably thought of this yourself.
What if your teacher doesn't understand and won't let you go for a walk or play rock music before you write your story in class and won't even give you a bit of chocolate?
Answer: Play the music in your head for a minute and then write what you can.
Remember that the stories you write in class will never be your best stories.
NO ONE could write a brilliant story in a class room full of other kids snuffling and whispering and a teacher glaring at you out the front.
Write a story at home instead, or just a bit of a story, and try the walking, music and chocolate (or an apple) then.
Dear Mrs Jackie French,
My name is Amal and I live in Cape Town South Africa. The other day I was reading your book How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri invaded my maths class and how I became a writer and I thought it was absolutely brilliant. The reason I am writing to you is because of my desire of becoming a successful children's author, but I am terrible at english.
Will reading help me to become very good at English comprehension? Will reading help me to speak fluently with good usage of vocabulary?
Will reading and writing for an hour each day for two years be enough to teach me how to write a story that can be published? And finally, will reading one book per week with concentration be enough?
Yes, reading will help you to score better at comprehension tests and all other English tests, and help you to speak fluently. Reading books is the best possible way to do all these things- and it will definitely help your vocabulary too.
But it isn't necessary to get good marks in English tests to become a successful author. I know many very successful writers who were absolutely terrible at English all through school. I did well at story writing and comprehension, but I was one of the worst spellers in the school- I'm still pretty bad at spelling, and my handwriting has always been almost impossible to read.
The most important part of being a successful author is having a fascinating story to tell. While reading books will help you learn to make up fascinating stories, it's even more important to learn to look around you...to understand the world and the people you meet and why they do things and how they do them....writing is about ideas as much as it is about using words well. No matter how wonderful your vocabulary, it is much more important to have insights into the world that are worth passing on to other people.
Good writers need to LOOK at the world to see the way it really is, not the cliches that people so often put into books...the cranky teacher, the bossy librarian, the kind caring doctor. You will need to spend time examining the world to look beyond the cliches.The most important thing a writer has to do is learn to see clearly.
If your grammar isn't perfect, or your spelling is bad, your book will still be published. It is the editor's job at the publishing house to correct bad grammar and bad spelling.
As for reading books- the more books you can read, the better. The best way I know to read books is to gulp them down, as fast as you can. Don't worry, your brain will soak up the vocabulary and grammar just like a sponge soaks up milk from a bench.
Humans are natural language users, and natural story tellers. You don't have to teach a child to walk- they just copy other people. Well, if your brain is exposed to lots of words and stories and the music of words in poetry too, it will just store all those techniques till it's needed.
Don't concentrate on the books too hard- just enjoy them, and let your unconcious mind do the studying. If you think a book is really good though, it's worth while doing a bit of thinking after you've read it the first time...why was this book so good? (Or why was a boring book so bad?) Did the writer use language in any really effective ways? Were the characters real?Why?
But don't let this interfere with your enjoyment of the books. Just reading them is the most important thing.
As for one book a week being enough...I just don't know. Most writers I know read as much as they could lay their hands on when they were your age. But other excellent writers I've met were never really into books till they grew up. (All of those were men, but that might just be coincidence).
I think your one book a week will give you the word and technique tools you need....but it's still better to gulp down lots than read one book with concentration. And remember...a lot more goes into stories than words.
What other jobs have you had?
Sugar packer, cook, journalist, chambermaid, gopher for a private detective, farmer...
Why did you start writing for kids?
Dunno. Sent my first story to Angus and Roberston..who deliberated about whether it was for kids or adults and then asked for more stories for a book for kids. By the fifth story I was hooked. (My work is often a blend of detailed reality and fantasy: much more easily accepted in kids books than adult's.)
Where do you live?
We live right down deep in the valley, so it's very dark here in the late afternoons by now, with wallabies eating the rose bushes and roos and possums - and a lot of wombats. Rikki the Wrestler, Bad Bart the Biter, Pudge and Megabyte and Chocolate... and a few more too. Chocolate tries to boss Rikki and Pudge likes to chew the doormat and Bad Bart likes to jump out at you from behind the rose bushes and bite your knee.
Pudge also likes to bash up the rubbish bin, especially if we don't feed her rolled oats and carrots whenever she wants them. She's eating all the celery in the garden at the moment - she's the only wombat I know who likes celery. I suppose it's very good for her (she does look very healthy) but it would be good to have some for us too. She likes parsley roots too.
Megabyte is our latest wombat. Her mother was killed on the road and she was brought up in Canberra, then given to us so we can teach her how to be a wombat and learn to go back to the bush. She's still not sure that she wants to (sofas are much more comfortable than wombat holes), but she is exploring all around the garden now, and gossiping with some of the other wombats in the moonlight. She does bite a lot - just gentle nips on your hand. It's one of the ways that wombats communicate.
We live in a house we built ourselves out of stone from the creek, with fruit trees and gardens all around us (Fudge the wombat helped dig the holes - wombats are good at that - but it can be difficult to get them out again).
We've also got a possum who dances on the roof every morning at 4 am, two wedgetail eagles who live in nests on the cliffs above us, 8 geese (one of them only has one leg and none of them has many brains), a lot of chooks and a very handsome rooster called Rodney with long black and green tail feathers (they look like he's combed them) and a loud voice and another called Arnold Shwarzenfeather.
What's you favourite animal?
Well, humans. But after that, wombats.
What are your favourite books?
I'm not sure what my favourite book is - probably Walking the Boundaries is the book closest to my heart, though I think Summerland may be my best book - and Alien Games" and A Wombat Named Bosco and Stories to Eat with a Banana were the most fun to write. Tajore Arkle too- Tajore Arkle was the world I lived in for so long as a child, and even now I sometimes miss it. (Although not so much now I spend such a lot of my time writing stories).
What made you decide to become an author?
For me writing is just like peering into another world - and then trying to describe what is happening as well as I can.
I always wanted to be an author. I think people are born to be writers - you know very early if you love words and stories - and if you do - and you are prepared to work at it - really work - then you will become a writer.
Being a writer is a wonderful profession - you get paid to daydream! I still find it incredible that I actually get paid for doing what I love so much. It's hard work - but then, someone once said that true happiness is the opportunity to work very hard at what you love doing.
I've always told stories, as far back as I can remember. I had an imaginary friend called Maria, at least by the time I was two, who used to tell me stories about an incredible imaginary world, then showed me how I could find out the stories by myself. When I was in primary school the teachers would let me tell stories to the class at the end of the day, if we had all behaved ourselves. Most of my stories had earthquakes, volcanoes or tidal waves in those days.
Even though I always wanted to be a writer, I was discouraged by everyone telling me it was a waste of time, and that you could never make a living being a writer in Australia - so I was over 30 when I sent my first story away. (I wish I had started much earlier.)
I sent my first book off to a publisher because I was broke. All I really wanted to do was get enough money to register the car - and I could think of no other way to earn money with a baby in the bush in a drought. But my first book was accepted - and they sent me some money as an 'advance'-so I went on writing.
How difficult was it to get your first piece of writing
Not hard at all, once I'd summoned up the courage- or desperation- to do it. My first novel Rainstones was shortlisted for the CBC and NSW Premier's awards; my first articles to the Canberra Times, Earthgarden and Hobby Farmer led to regular columns, and my first few gardening articles to a request to do a gardening book.
I was lucky; I was also desperate, and that was probably even more important than luck. I HAD to write publishable material; it was the only way I could think of to support myself and my young son in what was still a primitive shed in the bush. I simply didn't have enough money to relocate. But I was surpised at my success. I sent the first story away simply hoping to get enough money to register the car..and a year later I was making a still small(but to me magnificent) reasonably regular income.
Have you ever studied to become a writer?
No. Yes. I study writing every time I start clicking at the keyboard. I'll never stop studying, working at my writing, and I hope it will continue to improve. And of course everything I see smell hear or think becomes material I'll use. But formal study- no, though a lot of what I have studied formally, from history to psychology to stylistics is useful
How do you become an author?.
Write. re write. rewrite again. And again. And again. Send it off. Be prepared to repeat this process for twenty years. If you're dedicated enough- and honest enough to keep improving your work, and don't close off your mind to the fact that OF COURSE it can be better, you'll get there. (But few people can do this; even fewer want to. If you both can do and want to, you're a born writer.).
How difficult is it for new writers entering the
I don't know. If you're brilliant, you'll have no trouble..well okay, yes you will, but not MUCH trouble. If you might be brilliant with a heck of a lot more work...you may find an editor who'll work through your book with you, but this is less and less likely as editorial staff numbers decline in most publishing houses.
If you're the Duchess of York you'll have no trouble either, no matter how boring your work is. If you're a good middle of the road writer...well, that's where luck comes in. It may also help to try a small publishing house first, or a new one looking for authors; or even self publish. Major publishing houses are more likely to accept you after your first book has been a success. So are agents.
Does writing run in your family?
Well, all the family tell stories..and don't let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote. My sister has written books on sex education for kids (her name is Wendy Darville) and Mum is a journalist, though she wasn't when I was growing up, and Grandpa wrote a book about his experiences as a psychiatrist, and Dad writes decent doggerel and sometimes more serious pieces on management...we all love books, and are all expert with words, but in very different ways. We're all good public speakers too, and that HAS been useful..
Were you good at writing at school?
Yes, very. (She says modestly). My first book was called Tresses and the Unghostly Ghost. I wrote it when I was six and the headmistress liked it so much she had a copy run off for every kid in the school. It was about a haunted horse. (The ghost noises were particularly good). That was followed by Mary and the Disappearing Fish( they were found in a cave below the sea...that one had an exploding volcano too, and a tsunami) and then a couple set in ancient Egypt, also with volcanoes, earthquakes, strange tunnels etc..
What the worst thing about being an author?
People keep giving you spoons. Can't think of anything really bad..
Do you think I could be a writer?
Of course...but I do need to give you a word of warning.
I love playing the violin- but I am a really lousy violin player. That's because I don't enjoy playing the violin enough to ever practise it...I just play when I feel like it. I'm an amateur violinist, and always will be.
Well, it's the same with writing stories. You may love writing stories- but unless you love writing them enough to WORK at them, spend weeks and months or years improving them, going over and over and over them, you don't really want to be a professional writer.
Professional writers WORK at their stories. Yes, of course you need talent too. But just as a professional football player needs to spend years training for every match they play, a professional writer needs to spend years working at their books.
If you don't enjoy the work- and aren't prepared for a heck of a lot of it- don't think of being a writer.
Will you look at my story and see if it is good enough to be published?
Yes...if I have time. But I have to warn you...no one has ever sent me a story that I thought could be published without a lot more work. Some of them were good stories- but not one of those people ever decided to keep working at the stories to make them better.
Lots of people write stories for kids. But very few of them are ever published. PLEASE don't send me a story to look at unless you are prepared to keep working on it for months.
How many drafts do you do of each book?
Dunno. I work on a computer, so I can just go over and over the story making changes, rather than separate drafts. Some books like The Boy Who Had Wings need a lot of rewriting, others like Walking the Boundaries had only about six words changed.
How long does it take to finish a book?
Four weeks or two years or ten years - I write very quickly, and don't like to do ANYTHING else while I am concentrating on a book. But by the time I sit down to write I've been mulling the book over for at least a year - often many years, and sometimes the research can take many months as well.
Soldier on the Hill took a lot of research, especially into the way people talked in 1942 - and to make sure I didn't put in any Americanisms or other phrases not used in Australia back then.
After I finish writing a book I leave it alone for a few months or even a couple of years, then go back and revise it..and rewrite and rewrite till I just can't stand it anymore and shove it off to the publisher.
Some books need very little rewriting. some like daughter of the Regiment I throw in the waste paper bin and do the whole thing again. (I tried to write Daughter of the Regiment as a short story. But it didn't work, because I was hurrying it too much. so I left it alone for a year then rewrote it as a novel...which did work.)
Have you had any problems publishing your books?
Not really. All my books have been accepted as soon as I sent them in and some are translated into French and German or sold in the USA, Canada, New Zealand or UK as well.
Do you like reading?
I am a reading addict. I'll read the phone book if there is nothing else around.
I don't think I'd be able to list all the other authors I admire - there are too many. Patrick White, because he has the power to see things so clearly, and Ursula le Guin and Randolph Stowe... but I enjoy thrillers and romances too and now I write so much fiction I find myself reading it less and less - more biographies and history and natural sciences.
I never read gardening books. They are too often wrong (and I get annoyed) or boring.
What are your favourite foods?
My favourite foods are chocolate, chocolate and chocolate, followed by cherries, watermelon, Chinese cloud swallows and char grilled or marinated octopus - which we hardly ever get here as our town doesn't have a fish shop or a very large supermarket.
What are your hobbies?
In my spare time I read and mooch around the bush and swim in the creek and gossip (gossip is a very good way of getting material for books) but in a sense I never have spare time, as anything that happens may be cannibalised and turned into fiction. I also love cooking and gardening - but they aren't really spare time activities, as I also write gardening books - and my family demands to be fed.
What are your major influences?
Wombats - I'm not joking. Wombats are determined, but have a very great sense of the quality of life - which for a wombat means dirt and food. Also the valley where I live, which is part of my life in many senses. and people... but I'd have to list hundreds. Seasons of Content (which is for adults, but kids would enjoy it too) says more about the wombats and the place and the people.
Attitude to drugs
I drink coffee like a drug - to wake me up to work and chocolate too - I only eat it when I'm working - one novel probably makes me put on four kilos of chocolate.
But as for other drugs - I find it very hard to understand people using them. One of my chief joys is actually looking at the world, smelling it, hearing it, understanding it, analysing it - and using drugs interferes with all of that. I like reality - and daydreams that are made up of bits of reality, made into exactly the sort of world I want.
I've never met anyone who takes drugs that I really respect- though I have met people who've given up drugs (after incredible effort) who I do respect- who have found what's important in their lives and have had the strength to change.
What were your favourite subjects at School?
My favourite subjects when I was at school were English of course, and history and ancient history - maths and art were problems for me, as I am severely dyslexic (you may have noticed some strange spelling in this letter- I don't notice is something is spelt properly or not). I am the worst artist I've ever come across - but I love creating gardens and houses, so it almost makes up for not being able to draw. My son loves drawing though - mostly portraits.
How did you become so informed about aboriginal
Not sure - part I grew up with, part when I worked in an anthropology museum, part study at university, part just asking questions around here, part research - old books, diaries etc, partly from friends and Aboriginal people I've known.
No, none of my ancestors were Aboriginal. At least one had dark skin, but I don't know what her background was. Grandma always said she had dark skin because she was Welsh - and it wasn't till I was an adult and had met many Welsh people that I realised that none of them had dark skin!
Any other details?
I was born in Sydney on 29 November 1953, grew up on the outskirts of Brisbane, left my mother's house when I was 15, went to uni at 16 and went bush at 18 when I got my degree, with a short break when I worked in the public service for a few years to get enough money to buy this place.
My parents separated after many years of unhappiness when I was 12 - it wasn't a happy childhood, which is perhaps one of the reasons I began telling stories.
Who had the greatest influence on your becoming a writer?
I think most people are born writers- the passion for words and stories has to come from within you. I can't remember ever not making up stories, or playing with words in various combinations. But both my parents encouraged me to read- my mother used to scour the bookshops for me to see if another lot I hadn't read had come in, and take me by tram to libraries far afield where there might be a few books I hadn't read. One of my great disappointments was finding out that libraries mostly had the same books...I thought that if I'd go to another library there'd be a whole new lot of books waiting for me! (Libraries weren't as well stocked in those days either- our school library didn't even have enough books for every kid to borrow one!)
My grandmother Jean Mc Pherson French also sent me lots of great Australian books- all the ones that the CBC gave prizes. Books by Australian authors were pretty rare in those days, and I was lucky to be one of the first lot of Australian kids who regularly read words about the land I lived in.
Why did you become a writer?
was broke. I needed $106.40 to regsiter the car, and sending off a story was
only way I could think to do it. (I was living in a shed in the bush with a
young kid at the time. ) The story was accepted, and I went on from
But I had alawys WANTED to be a writer. Just hadn't the courage to do anyhting about it...or possibly the desperation that made me really WORK at my story, to make it the best that I possibly could. i think that bit is what really did it....
you always liked reading?
Yes, passionately. Still do. I'd pine if I couldn't read.
read that you are dyslexic. How has that affected your
I doubt I'd be a writer if I wasn't dyslexic.
There was a study of road accident victims who had certain sorts of brain injuries in the US a few years ago...can't recall who did it now. After their accident their verbal IQ, ort intelligence, went up by an average of 15 points.
The study concluded that it's as though the visual part of the brain suppresses the verbal..in other words, if you are dyslexic you may be much more intelligent with the way you use words than you might have been otherwise.This doesn't mean that being dyslexic makes you a genius! But it does explain why so many good word spinners are dyslexic.
With my form of dyslexia too(t's a very common form) it's as though the brain goes too fast to process the images in front of it. One way to tell if someone has the form of dyslexia I have is to get them to look at a word. If the word blurs before about 10 seconds is up, they have a problem.
´It's much easier for someone with my form of dyslexia to read LOTS of words than to read a single word on the page. (and the sad thing is that so many kids with my problem are given 'Run Spot Run!' remedial books that just make the problem much worse!)
I can still remember the terror in my first year at school when each kid in the class had to read a single word on the board. I didn't even know what they emant! But luckily I had learnt to read when I was about three, just looking at the page while my mother read to me...but the teachers didn't discover I could read till they found me illegally in the library one lunch time, nearly finished Black Beauty! I could read that okay...but not a single word on the blackboard!
Once someone with my form of dyslexia(I won't call it a disabilty, because I don't think it is) learns to read they are usually a very fast reader. I read faster than anyone I know- and the more books you absorb, the more techniques you absorb to write with.
But even if dyslexia isn't a disability (I think it gives me a lot more than it takes away), it is a problem. I spell badly, though I'm improving all the time- I was VERY bad when I wrote my first book. It's almost impossible for me to pick up mistakes when I type (well, that's a good excuse anyway), and I can never work out which way to unscrew a bottle of honey or find my way out of a carpark...but that has probably nothing to do with being dyslexic!
What do you plan to do next?
More of the same, I hope: more books, wombats, fruit trees, long breakfast conversations and swimming in the creek.