The following is an article that I wrote for an Australian Children's Literature e-zine, Pass It On. I hope you enjoy it, dear reader, and if you are an aspiring children's author or illustrator I hope you find it encouraging. For those of you who do not live in Australia, I apologise for being parochial. xx
Whenever I smell Tommy Girl perfume I think of black dog books. I was an editor and jillaroo at bdb when it was just a fledgling publishing house in an old two-story terrace in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. Those were the days before Gertrude Street was gentrified. When one literally had to step around abusive ‘deros’ to get to the post office. When drug deals were done in the back lane, and drunken women occasionally stood at the window and ‘flashed their girls’ at us, so to speak. In those early days, bdb was basically a packager for the big education publishers. There were only five of us to begin with. Maryann Ballantyne and Andrew Kelly were the owners and they proved to be the most amazing mentors. What they didn’t know about kids’ publishing wasn’t worth knowing.
Being a packager did not mean we put books in boxes. It meant that we produced books for the bigger companies. Entire series such as Just Kids for Pearson Education, 76 (if I remember correctly) full-colour chapter books which drew on some of Australia’s best up-and-coming illustrators and authors such Mitch Vane, Leigh Hobbs, Gus Gordon, Anne Spudvilas to name a few; Fast Tracks for Rigby; The News for Horwitz Martin. We wrote, edited, designed and typeset. We organised and directed photo shoots, did picture research, commissioned and briefed illustrators and authors. We also cleaned the toilets, smoked in the back lane, quaffed cheap wine from Swords and always, every day, lost track of the time. It was fast paced, crazy-making, immensely satisfying and creatively all-consuming. Of course, throughout all this I was an aspiring author myself, and had been since primary school. But for the time being I was happy to be a novice. Happy to watch and learn and soak it all up.
Eventually bdb developed a small trade list, nurturing new authors such as Carole Wilkinson and Danny Katz, and later Karen Tayleur and Michael Wagner. It was while working on a little trade series that my desire to write myself really came to the fore. I was editor and project manager on a series of sixteen books by a then unknown author, Phil Kettle. The books were about a boy named Toocool who was basically a legend in his own lunchtime. It was all sport, sport, sport but I had a ball working on that series (forgive the pun). To see it develop from a few scratchy ideas into one of Australia’s best-loved series for boys was astounding. Furthermore, to work so closely with Craig Smith, one of Australia’s most talented (and often subversive) illustrators, was an honour. I was perpetually starry eyed. I simply could not believe my luck. I still have an original piece of framed artwork from that series. It is on my studio wall. Andrew and Maryanne gave it to me for my birthday. It is to this day a ‘save from the burning house’ treasure.
But to get to ‘my first publishing experience’. Late one afternoon as I was sharing a wine with the others at bdb and we were laughing (once again) about the irony of moi being project manager on a sporting series, I became exasperated. ‘I hate sport!’ I said. ‘And I hated it even more as kid. Someone should write a book about that…’
Over the next few months, at weekends and whenever I could find a moment, I wrote a series of little stories about a girl named Karen Keen, an aspiring author who hated sport. I fiddled about for ages and by the time I finished the stories I had left bdb and gone to work for Mimosa Publications. But I did not give up on my stories. I sent them to several trade publishers and got several rejections. Then, one day, precisely six months after I had sent my stories out, I received a letter from Lisa Riley at Penguin Australia. She said she loved the stories, she thought they were hilarious and ‘the voice’ was perfect for the age group. Would I consider working these stories up into an Aussie Chomp? Would I! Lisa sent me a copy of Ruth Starke’s, Catland and I pored over it, picking it to pieces in my attempt to understand the narrative arc and pacing. Then away I went.
I Hate Sport was published about a year later. My career as a children’s author was officially launched. I was forty-one, and finally starting to find my voice.