Filling the Well

Writing can drain your brain. Well, it certainly can drain mine. I try to keep topping up during a project, but when I’ve handed in a project, or finished editing I find that it’s helpful to consciously refill the well. That means walking and really looking at what happens around me. Whenever I find myself worrying that I’ll never have another workable idea, I look intentionally. It’s one of the reasons I take photos. I want to look at the everyday, the otherwise invisible and see just how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Or what we take for granted.

Okay, this set of stepping stones is never ordinary. I just love the way they seem to float in the 3m water. They’re rock solid (see what I did there?) and big enough for giants.

Sometimes there’s too much noise, too much to look at, to be able to see anything. It’s just the same in story. Too much detail can swamp a story, and I find it useful to really think about how much of a story is enough. What is left out or taken out is as important as what is left in. Rather than crop this photo, I framed it with the tree. The picture is within the picture. Inside the frame is more important for this image than what’s outside. For this picture. This story.

Autumn has offered us the most amazing sunsets this year. This wasn’t the best picture I took, but it’s the one that really sets the cars on fire and that was interesting to me. I’m not sure why, but it just was.

In this in-between-story-well-filling time, I had the chance to be part of an art project. Each participant was given some clay and some pigment powder. The idea was to represent their grandmother/s or a significant female in their life. The results, a photo of the clay and the explanation for the piece will be part of an online exhibition through Kingston Council. I used some handmade lace from my one of my grandmothers (representing the finework she made, and the strength inherent in the delicate frame) and strong seams from my other grandmother (who made suits and could be very direct).

I’m not quite sure why I like this picture, and perhaps it would be a face if I rotated it, but the knots look like they are pupils in the middle of crusty eyes – perhaps a monster, perhaps just a reminder of how trees work when they lose branches.

I take pictures sometimes only discovering afterwards just how marvellous things are. Look at these ants! I didn’t even see them when I framed the shot, but I think they’re quite happy not to be noticed. I’d been entranced by the curling, the unfurling, the flame colours. The ants are a bonus.

I often write at the junction between fiction and non fiction. My inspiration comes from reality and the spinoffs it allows me.

And at the end of the well-filling, I’m looking forward to starting a new project. It’s nothing to do with stepping stones, trees, sunsets or flowers, but it’s inspired by them all.

Ta-da! Dingo and Kookaburra

That sounds like the title of a book, don’t you think? Perhaps I need to write it, but in the meantime, it’s actually about two books.

dingo                   kookaburra

Dingo will be released in paperback with a gorgeous new cover on June 1 and Kookaburra, also illustrated by Tannya Harricks will be released on 1 August. Because of the virus that has already had too many mentions, there are no teacher or librarian conferences to showcase new titles and Walker Books have been gathering videos from authors and illustrators with upcoming titles. Take a look here to see who’s been doing what and how fabulous their work is. My video is here.

Another visitor! It’s Beyond Belief

It may not be ideal to launch a new novel in the middle of a pandemic, but there are worse things. Like being a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Paris in WWII. Dee White’s new middle-grade novel, ‘Beyond Belief’ introduces us to Ruben, who is living that troubled life.

So, I invited Dee to come along and answer some questions about the writing of ‘Beyond Belief’. But because it’s my blog, I get to tell you a bit first. 🙂

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In Paris, 1942, 11 year-old Ruben is hiding from the Nazis inside the Grand Mosque in Paris. His parents have fled south to Spain, but it’s too dangerous for a child like him to travel with them. For now, Ruben must abandon his Jewish heritage and take on a new identity. He must learn to be Muslim while he waits for someone called ‘the Fox’ to fetch him and take him to his parents and his sister. But it’s taking too long. Each day, life becomes more dangerous for him and for the community hiding him. When the Nazis raid the mosque yet again, Ruben can no longer wait for the Fox to arrive. He flees Paris, determined to find his family.

There are many, many novels written about WWII, but ‘Beyond Belief’ tells a less-familiar story. Based on a true story, Dee White constructs a compelling narrative about good people resisting and fighting evil. Though their faiths might be considered very different, the people of this Muslim community put their own lives in danger in the protection of Jewish children. This is a story of secrets and dangers, of sacrifice and kindness. Ruben moves from childhood innocence to adolescent understanding, from the safe world of his immediate family, to a larger global family determined to help those who need it and to do the right thing. ‘Beyond Belief’ is a captivating story about compassion and bravery. Published by Omnibus Books

Okay, now it’s Dee’s turn.

Welcome Dee.

This is not a story that is well known, or perhaps it is more accurate to say I’d never heard about this story. How did this story find you? What was the impetus and/or entry point?

I was working on a middle grade historical adventure called Paris Hunting (still a work in progress) and was doing WW2 research and I stumbled across the story of Muslims at a Paris Mosque who saved Jewish people during and after the Vel D’hiv roundup in July 1942. It was such a fascinating and inspiring story and I had to tell it. During my research I discovered a number of instances where Muslims had saved Jews during the Holocaust. I was very moved by these stories of people helping people regardless of race or background.

Once I’d found the premise, I needed a character. My father had escaped Nazi occupied Austria with his parents and we had talked often about his WW2 experiences so this could be why Ruben appeared as a boy in my mind, and claimed this as his story.

Apart from Ruben, who is your favourite character and why?

That’s a tricky question, like asking a parent to name their favourite child. All the characters are special in their own way and they became like family as I was writing their story. But I must admit that Amra holds a special place in my heart. She’s a lot like me at twelve. She’s clumsy and exuberant, a bit like a bull at a gate sometimes. But she’s clever and courageous and I love her sense of humour.

You spent a month in Paris researching ‘Beyond Belief’. Can you talk a little about the research process for this story – both in Paris and at home? 

The month in Paris was amazing. I walked in Ruben’s shoes. I spent three days at the mosque but I didn’t speak French or Arabic so although I could immerse myself in the atmosphere and tapestry of the mosque, I wasn’t able to talk to the people there about the history. Then I went on a tour of the Paris sewers and was given an amazing interpreter, Laetitia who happened to be Muslim and also spoke Arabic. She was fabulous. She helped me to verify the historical authenticity of the story.  She also knew a Rabbin so was able to get me into a synagogue. But it was very opulent and not at all like I’d imagined Ruben’s synagogue. In my last week in Paris an orthodox Jewish man came up to me and asked if I was Jewish. I explained to him that my grandparents were married in a synagogue but I hadn’t been raised in the Jewish faith. He showed me his synagogue, ‘the 17’, the oldest one in Paris and as soon as I walked in there I knew that this was Ruben’s synagogue.

I also did a lot of research online and connected with a group called, I am your protector who share stories of people who have saved or been saved by someone who would have been a ‘traditional enemy’ and it has completely changed their attitude towards that race.

I found this myself … that stories like these can really change people’s thinking. I spent some time at the Holocaust Centre in Melbourne and they were very helpful and interested in the story I was writing. They connected me with two Paris Holocaust survivors, Esther Wise and Paul Grimwald who spoke to me about what it was like to be a Jew in Paris in 1942. They both read my manuscript for cultural and historical accuracy and provided some important details. At first, Esther couldn’t believe that Muslims would have helped Jews, but my story completely changed her thinking.

Does research stop when writing begins? What sort of planning/drafting process did you follow? 

No, I don’t think the research ever stops until the novel is written. You constantly have to find things out, and check and recheck details. For instance, I had to find out what vegetables would have been grown at the mosque in summer and autumn of 1942. I needed to know when Ramadan was and Rosh Hashanah. I needed to make sure that Ruben’s escape from Paris was plausible in the weather conditions of the time.  I needed to find out which way the Seine flowed and where the sewers went under it. Every part of the journey for my characters involved more research. But I loved immersing myself in it.

Once I discovered the historical story of the Muslims saving the Jews, I had to create a character to ‘tell’ that story. Ruben is purely ficttitous, but was inspired by a number of people in my life. I think his story was inspired by my father, but his personality is a combination of my eldest brother and my two sons.  This was a very emotional book to write. Some of the research was heartbreaking. At the Shoah Memorial in Paris and at the Holocaust Centre in New York which I visited, the magnitude of what was done to these people is overwhelming. And to see photos of young children who were taken to concentration camps is heartbreaking. I wanted to capture this innocence and vulnerability with my character, Ruben.

The historical story came first and then the character, Ruben and then I planned his story, but only in general terms. I think I knew how it would end quite early on, but how Ruben got to that point did change a little. Some things changed as a result of new information I uncovered during the research process. Other things changed because of the actions of the characters and how they responded to what was happening to them.

Rosa, Ruben’s sister is based on an actual historical figure so her journey didn’t change a lot.

Once I had a rough plan, I just sat down and wrote … and rewrote. There were probably about ten drafts of the story. I got it to a certain point, with all the essential elements and then my fabulous editor, Kristy Bushnell helped me shape it into the finished book.

How is writing historical fiction different to writing contemporary fiction like ‘Letters to Leonardo’?

To be honest, I don’t think it was that different. Letters to Leonardo involved a huge amount of research as well because I wanted to accurately represent the mental illness suffered by Matt’s mother and the consequences of it. I also did heaps of research into the works of Leonardo da Vinci so that I could incorporate them in my story. I guess that’s how I write though. I love to do in depth research and hang my story on the gems that I uncover.

How long from idea to book?

Four years. The idea came to me in 2016.

Who do you think is the ideal audience for ‘Beyond Belief’

Booksellers are shelving it as a 12 + book. It’s something that could be read and discussed as a class novel or at home. But adults are really liking it too, which is fantastic! One adult reader wrote to me and said, “I loved the book: despite the suffering and loss experienced by the children, there was such courage and an underlying spirituality and wisdom passed on to them by their parents and the Muslim community. This imbued them with amazing strength.”

I didn’t really think about the age of my readers when I was writing Beyond Belief. I just wanted to create something that might change the way people think and make them question their own preconceptions.

Thanks for stopping by, Dee. I wish you the best with getting ‘Beyond Belief’ into the hands of many readers.

For more about Dee and her work, pop over to her website. To purchase her books, contact your favourite independent bookseller, or mine. 

 

No Small Shame

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‘From the harshness of a pit village in Scotland to the upheaval of wartime, No Small Shame tells a moving story of love and duty, loyalty and betrayal, and confronting the past before you can seek a future.’

In ‘No Small Shame’ Mary travels from Scotland to Australia as the world moves towards war. She travels from childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood, compelled and not always supported by family. Dreams are such tricky things to keep hold of.

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I was really looking forward to attending the launch of this book, but of course it was unable to proceed as expected. I’ve known the author, Chris, for a long time, and this launch has been a long time coming. I really wanted to be able to celebrate this achievement.

Undaunted (or perhaps daunted but even more determined), the launch was transferred online. And it was a brilliant launch, with launcher and author in their own homes, and questions typed in and then answered live.

I ordered ‘No Small Shame’ from my local bookseller once it became clear I wouldn’t be able to get it at the launch. I held off reading it until after the launch because I wanted to hear Chris talk about it first.

And then I held off again. I couldn’t articulate why, but I’ve heard from other bookish types that they too have not been reading at their usual rate during this pandemic.

And then I began. And continued, with only meal and sleep stops, until the last few chapters. I slowed down, because I was so invested in the lives of Mary, Liam and Maw. I knew what I thought was going to happen, and I was terrified it might not. Suddenly, I found I had time to make that really simple apple cake/slice that’s doing the FB rounds. I cleared another cupboard. I had checked to see where the story ended (and acknowledgements began) to make sure I didn’t arrive unexpectedly.

Finally though, I needed to read those last chapters and close the book. Enormous congratulations, Chris, for showing the same determination and tenacity as Mary. It’s a wonderful story, full of timeless struggles between love and loss, bravery and responsibity. Thank you.

There Was an Old Sailor

Last year, ‘There Was an Old Sailor’ was released with a fresh new cover. The original was published Feb 1 2010. I had planned a birthday celebration, but yano, things happened.

Old Sailor Kids Can     there-was-an-old-sailor new

As a belated Happy 10th Birthday to my rosy-cheeked sailor, I’ve attached a make-a-sailor-and-feed-him activity. At its simplest, there’s a bit of cutting out and a bit of glue or stickytape. But you could also add colour and texture – everyone likes a fancy bite or two!

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I’d love to see what you make of him!

Anzac resources

Anzac Day is fast approaching and it’s going to look different this year, particularly for teachers and students.

‘Meet the Anzacs’ is a nonfiction narrative picture book about how Australia put together a first national army to fight in WWI. There are teaching notes here, and a video here

Meet the ANZACS

‘The Anzac Billy’ is a picture book story of a boy missing his dad, and the story of the filled billies that were sent to Gallipoli in 1915 from Australia and New Zealand. Teachers notes can be found here.

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‘Haywire’ is a middle-grade novel about the Dunera, and the 2500 + internees she carried to Australia in early WII, told from the persepectives of two young teenagers caught up in the maelstrom of war.

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Please contact me for more information.

Time travel

Today, I’m visiting Allison Tait’s Writing for Kids blog, talking about time travelling to the past.

I talk about what it was like to research Haywire, a novel set in 1939 and 1940, and the things that helped me ‘inhabit’ another world.

I don’t mention some of the things I got wrong and had to fix after a visit to Hay. For example, my character hides in a big roadside drain … except there are no drains like that in Hay. Not one!

And then there was the river, which I imagined as having boulders at the water’s edge. Oh, no, no, no. The banks were sandy – not a boulder in sight!

And we won’t even mention the internment camp fence – ah – fences.