When I started illustrating I had no idea that I would ever be an author, even though at school I'd always loved writing. Composition, as we called it then was one of my favourite subjects.
I illustrated other people's books for about five years and it was actually two authors who prompted me to start writing. One of them was really stingy about sharing the royalties. Usually, you split the royalties 50/50 between an author and an illustrator but he thought he should get 70 percent and I should get 30 percent. Just after that book I worked with someone who was really bossy and kept telling me how to draw. I complained to my editor one day and she said "You should write your own story if you don't like illustrating other people's books."
Where do you get your ideas?
They come from everywhere but a lot of themes come from my childhood. I grew up on the southern part of the Victorian coast. Until I was a teenager, life centered around our farm and that section of my childhood has stayed with me. The freedom and adventure of riding horses and all that sort of stuff is a big part of my imagination. But often it's things like dreams and snatches of conversation that inspire me. I once got an idea for a book from of a label on a jumper. The tag read called 'Kissed by the Moon', and I thought 'Wow, what a lovely title for a children's book'. So I came up with this sort of a ballad to a new born baby that they would be kissed by the moon and warmed by the sun and washed in the river. My ideas do really come from all over the place.
When starting a new book, where do you begin the writing process?
Usually, I have a bright idea. For example just last week in the paper there was an article about a Tasmanian man, an Indigenous man who had been orphaned when he was little and had grown up in an orphanage in Tasmania and ended up playing AFL football. He was one of the first Indigenous players to play in Melbourne. He described going back to Cape Barron Island, where he was born and he hadn't been since he'd been taken away as a little boy and his only memory of his childhood was kicking a football at a big pine tree. When he went back he found that pine tree. Things like that often will trigger something and I can imagine them turned somehow into a beautiful book. So, I start off with the idea and then can usually see what the book is going to look like well before I've written any words. I can see the pictures and the size of the book and how it will fit together. Then before I actually start drawing, I will write it out and put into some sort of form.
How much research goes into developing your work?
'Imagine', for example which is a book about animals, which I did a long time ago. I had massive piles of animal encyclopedias and National Geographic's to figure out which animals lived in which places and to make sure that I actually got it right. Quite often a book will come after I've become interested in something, After I went to Antarctica in 2005 and visited Macquarie Island, I wrote Sophie Scott Goes South and One Small Island ( with Coral Tulloch ).
Sometimes the research comes before I even think about turning it into a book.
Who else contributes to and influences your work?
My editor is really important. I've got three editors that I've worked with for a long time and they're friends as well and I really trust them. If I work with an editor and I don't like their judgment it's almost impossible. You need someone who can really connect with. My family all put their two bobs worth in but they always say ridiculous things and it's almost like the opposite is true. If they think something is good I know it's bad and vica versa.
What do you draw on for the characters and events in your work?
Pretty much from people around me. Often, I don't realise until well after the book's come out that a character I've drawn is actually a person I know. Someone will say 'Gee that really looks like so and so' and I'll say, 'Oh well, maybe it is'. I don't think I could just make them up out of thin air. All my characters, if I think about them, have some sort of start in a real person. I just put twists and bends on them to make them a bit better or worse.
How has your experience as a reader influenced your work?
I'm a mad reader. I read all the time. I can't sit at a table without picking up something to read. I think it's made me a much harsher editor on myself. I get really impatient with books when there's sloppy writing or when things need to be tightened up.
I think also when you read you learn about narrative and how to tell a story, which you might not learn any other way. I think it's very important for young writers to do a lot of reading.
How do you think creative writing should be taught to young students?
My advice would be, write about something you know. Even if you're being really imaginative, base that imaginative work on something that you understand.
Don't write too much. Whatever you write, cut it back by a third. Quite often I'll do that with a book. It's like polishing a stone that started off rough.
I think one good way of telling a story and being able to write a story is to actually tell it to someone. Often kids are expected to sit down and write a story but if you ask them to tell it they go, 'Umm, well uh, we went to the ...'. They actually don't have it in their head yet. Whereas if you go away and just think about the story so you can tell it, it's going to be much easier to write.
I think it's really important to give your work to someone else to edit. If you're looking at your own work quite often you can't see the forest for the trees and my editors have saved me from making really embarrassing mistakes that I just was too involved to see.
What are your work habits when you write?
They're terrible. They're really, really bad. It's my full time job so I really should work nine to five but we live on a little farm and we've got horses and dogs and I like doing things with my kids who are all adults now. When Mum was still alive I used to go and spend time with her and I like working in the garden and riding my horse and I'm always happy to talk on the phone so there's many, many distractions.
Even when I force myself to sit at my desk, there's always interruptions during the day so I'm a bit of a night owl. l like to work late at night after everyone else has gone to bed and often will still be up at two o'clock in the morning when it's quiet and the phone's not ringing.
It frustrates me like crazy because nothing makes me happier than actually getting work done but on the other hand it's always last in the queue of things to be done. So it's a bit of a catch 22. At the moment I've probably got about three years worth of contracted work waiting for me to do.
What tips would you give to young students who want to write professionally?
Be persistent. To write you have to be fairly thick-skinned. You have to be imaginative and hard working and sometimes people will say hurtful things to you about your work. You have to be prepared to polish your work until it's as good as you can get it. Then you have to be brave enough to show it to someone. There's many people who have written things that they've never shown anyone in case their dreams are dashed.
So, it's really important to be strong enough to show it to someone and then do whatever you like with their criticism. If you think it's worthy take it on board and change what you have done or it might just make you clear about what you want to do. But you do have to keep your nose to the grindstone and work at it.
What message do you want young readers to take from your books?
I guess I never actually work towards creating a message when I'm writing stories, but when I look at them as a whole they're generally very happy books. I'm not interested in reading books about sad things. I look at some kids books and think, 'Who would want to give that to their child?' I know they have their place in the world but they don't interest me.
I like books where kids are being adventurous and doing exciting things and somehow forcing themselves to do stuff that they might be a bit scared of, but winning. Books that are happy and entertaining like 'Clive Eats Alligators' tell a story and are quite nice because they are all about being an individual and following your dreams and that it's okay to be different, so that's the message in them.