#LoveOzYA Author Q&A With Jackie French

Jackie French AM is an award-winning writer, wombat negotiator, the 2014–2015 Australian Children’s Laureate and the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year. In 2016 Jackie became a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to children’s literature and her advocacy for youth literacy. She is regarded as one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors and writes across all genres – from picture books, history, fantasy, ecology and sci-fi to her much-loved historical fiction for a variety of age groups. ‘Share a Story’ was the primary philosophy behind Jackie’s two-year term as Laureate.

Welcome to the LoveOzYA blog, we’re so happy to have you here!

Let’s go back to the beginning…have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?

Great Grandma told me stories. Grandma told me stories. I told my first stories to the sparrows on our front lawn. By the time I was six, I was allowed to tell the class a story for the last 15 minutes of school if we had all behaved that day.

Tell us about your new book.

The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is based on Great Grandma’s and Grandma’s stories – the coming of age of a girl and the new nation of Australia in 1901. Sharks circle the stranded ship as Hannah and her family try to reach the NSW cane town where her father will be in charge of the one teacher school. They’re rescued by Jamie, a Pacific Islander boy, and Port Harris seems like paradise, with the family showered with luxury. But local fortunes are based on slavery and the whip.

As the new Federal parliament passes its first law – not votes for women, but one that will force Pacific Islanders from their homes in Australia – Hannah and her mother risk everything to run a secret school, while Hannah and Jamie must fight for their rights to education and equality. Can friendship and love win against prejudice and power?

The ‘schoolmaster’s daughter’ was my grandmother, and much in the book is true, and the rest inspired by real events. But though they happened more than a century ago, they give insight into – and inspiration for – the challenges of today.

Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?

No one had ever used the term YA when I was growing up! There were ‘kids’ books’ that had pictures and ‘books’ for when you had grown too old for those. (I’ve never grown too old for picture books). But there were books with young protagonists, like Karalta by Mary Grant Bruce which I adored, or Lord of the Flies which I despised, as I believed then and still do,  that the young people stranded on that island would have cooperated. Both hatred and kindness are contagious, but kindness is more powerful than hate. If it wasn’t, humanity wouldn’t have survived so long.

Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?

I think Great Grandma must have taught me to read – she was NOT a schoolteacher, as married women weren’t allowed to be employed as teachers back then, but as a school master’s wife she taught reading and writing. She cared for me till I was nearly four when I left with my parents for Queensland. I could read by the age of three, despite being dyslexic, but couldn’t write or spell. (I still can’t spell, and no one can read my handwriting).

Dad read me poems every night and sang songs where the words had as much melody as the music. My mother scavenged Brisbane for books I hadn’t read, mostly to keep me quiet. Relatives sent me boxes of old books from attics or under the house. My English teacher, Mrs Pauli, lent me armloads of books every Monday, almost enough for a week. My paternal grandmother, Jean/Jannie, sent me every book shortlisted by the newly formed CBCA, as well as every book of Australian poetry too.

But they all told me I couldn’t make a living as a writer. “Aim for another profession when you leave school.” So, I did. I only sent a story to a publisher because I was broke, desperate, living with a baby in a shed in the bush and needed to register my car. That’s a long story involving bad spelling, a wombat and an old typewriter, but within three weeks, I had three regular columns and my first book, Rainstones, had been accepted.

What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?

‘Diverse’ is a dry word. ‘Rich’ is better, and in the context of Australian writing means the same thing. We are rich in varied landscapes, cultures, one the most ancient of all human histories, as well as disasters like floods, cyclones, bushfires and the harsh terrains that help forge cooperation in our culture. We’re interesting, original, and those who buy books here don’t mostly buy movie tie-ins. But we also need to keep fighting not just to keep our own literature, but our own Australian culture.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?

I live at the bottom of a gorge in rural Australia and it takes a day to reach a bookshop and come home again. I love every bookshop, and rarely pass one without being sucked in and coming out with a tonne or two, but my books are mostly bought online from my six favourite bookshops there. I miss the smell of new paper though, and book shop owners who say ‘you MUST read this one.’

My favourite library is the National Library. It has a glorious bookshop, excellent coffee, a view of the lake, and every book and most newspapers ever published in Australia, as well as a photo and manuscript collection and vastly more. How could I not love it? I feel terror as its work is being so deeply diminished by repeated funding cuts.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?

Jodi Taylor’s Plan for the Worst

Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?

I cook – never to a recipe. I grow 260 kinds of fruit, as well as herbs and vegetables, and use them. Bryan and I built most of our house, a waterwheel to power the house, and now I’m designing a bushfire proof study/library with an expert builder in Victoria. There are games to play with grandkids and stories to tell down by the creek. In ten minutes, I need to mooch around the garden to imagine what I’ll cook for dinner…

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

Best advice? Why don’t you try sending something to a publisher or magazine?

Worst advice? Don’t waste time writing when you could so something useful instead.

What do you love about OzYA?

The stories’ (I hate this next word – we need a new one to say the same thing) diversity. Most of all, I love that OzYA exists. I grew up at a time when the books we read almost always were written and published overseas. Those who told me I couldn’t ever be a professional writer were right – back then. We had to work hard to establish Australian children’s literature as a major international industry, as well as a deep part of our culture. It took decades – and my other grandmother, Jean, was part of that fight. And now OzYA is flourishing, and glorious, and all around us. But what was so hard to win may still be lost if we fail to support and celebrate it.

To find out more about Jackie and her writing, visit her website and follow her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Photo credit: Kelly Sturgiss

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