Friday, 21 March 2008

Jackie French

How many writers’ careers can be described as spanning 39 wombats, 3,721 bush rats and 6 possibly insane lyrebirds? Jackie French has written 116 books and won over 40 awards. Like her other readers, Trevor Agnew was intrigued by those wombats.


Jackie French is elated. Six weeks after a heart attack put her in hospital, she has been given permission to travel to Christchurch for the Heritage Storylines Festival. “The surgeon actually put his hands in the air and laughed at the suggestion,” she says. “But ‘cautiously, at my own risk’, I can go to New Zealand.”

An army of readers will be waiting for her visits. Jackie French is one of Australia’s most successful writers for young people. She also boasts of being the earliest-banned author in history. At the age of three, she was forbidden to visit the boy next door because her stories of Shadow Men frightened him.

Dyslexic, she had difficulty with spelling but read voraciously, completing Jane Eyre at seven. A sensitive teacher in Jackie’s Brisbane school spotted her need to tell stories, and rewarded her class by letting Jackie tell them a story at the end of each day.

After she graduated from the University of Queensland, Jackie and her husband tried market gardening in the Araluen Valley, south of Canberra. When her marriage broke up, French found herself living in the packing shed with her baby son Edward. The shed was also home to a wallaby, a snake and a wombat. French laughs at the squeamish New Zealand response to snakes as lodgers. “The snake was an accident. I tried very hard to get rid of her but she was far more scared of me than I was of her” The wallaby was a friend but French gives Smudge the wombat some of the credit for her literary success.

Broke and facing a drought French used a typewriter that she rescued from a dump to write the stories that saved her financially. French now jokes about how the manuscript of Rainstones caught the nose as well as the eye of her publisher. Her dyslexic spelling wasn’t the only problem. Her paper was yellow with age, and Smudge the wombat regularly relieved himself in the typewriter (which was already skipping the letter e). “All of the ‘e’s were written in with biro. They said it was the messiest worst-spelt manuscript they had ever seen.”

Rainstones was a success, shortlisted for two major awards. “It was a magic difference. Within about six months, the publishers offered to accept as many books as I wanted to write.” Soon French was offered columns in newspapers and magazines. “I went very, suddenly from being totally broke to doing very nicely thank you.”

When her son Edward was three, she met her present husband, Bryan Sullivan, a computer technician who had helped monitor the moon landings. “Within about half an hour of Bryan introducing me to a Macintosh computer, I’d written my first story on it. It was love at first sight – both for Bryan and the computer.”
French adds that it was probably love at first sight for Bryan too: “for me and my power system. He discovered I had a solar power system” Bryan revamped her solar system, and then built a waterwheel with a generator.” So French’s books are now produced on a solar-powered computer, with a creek-driven waterwheel as a back-up.

Bryan is co-author with French of To the Moon and Back, about Australia’s role in the Apollo programme. He is described by his wife as “a deeply tolerant man who accepts marsupials in the kitchen.”

Passionate about her garden and its inhabitants, French points out that her garden has an advantage over New Zealand ones: huge owls swoop down to dispose of possums!
“Yes, you hear these disappearing shrieks going up the valley.”

Inevitably the conversation turns to wombats.
“Wombats are extremely intelligent but it’s a very different form of intelligence to that of dogs or humans. Wombats probably have ten thousand times the ability to smell that dogs have.” Her next book, due out in August, is The Secret World of Wombats, illustrated by Bruce Whatley. Their previous collaboration was the award-winning Diary of a Wombat, about Mothball.

Long observation means French has unusual insights into wombats, and has even seen them use tools. “One wombat, for example, used a lever. Her name’s Moriarty and she used a tomato stake. It was extraordinary. I’ve even seen Mothball move a cardboard box so she could stand on it, so she could reach a mop, so she could destroy it.” French laughs, with the resigned note of one who has had 28 doormats destroyed by wombats.”

Jackie French writes light-hearted fantasies which are funny but also have an internal consistency, like Phredde and the Zombie Librarian. Phredde (pronounced Fred) is a punk fairy. French, however, stresses the importance of a range of reading for young readers.

“I think we often underestimate kids. The books that we often hook kids into reading aren’t the short funny ones, like My Dad the Dragon. They are the complex ones that kids get involved with on several levels.”

Her more serious books include Lady Dance about the Black Death and Hitler’s Daughter where children weave stories that echo truth. “Hitler’s Daughter was my greatest gamble. It was very difficult to write, making it a narrative thread that kids would like. But Hitler’s Daughter is far more popular with kids than the Phreddie books.”

“Kids are really apprentices at being adults. They are also very moral creatures. They want to make sense of the world on many levels. They find books that engage them on those levels, far more gripping than the very simple ones.”

French thinks this explains the popularity of Harry Potter. “It is no accident that the kids’ book which has taken the world by storm is a long and morally complex book. A Harry Potter book is one that kids will read, and have their tongues hanging out for more.”

Trevor Agnew

Note: This article was published on 4th June 2005 in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand. Jackie French spoke at the Heritage Storylines Seminar, along with Joy Cowley and V.M. (Vicky) Jones, on Thursday June 9th 2005, at the Heritage Hotel, Christchurch.

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