It was a very happy day on Sunday for the launch of The Beast of Hushing Wood. Thank you to everyone who came and to those who couldn’t make it but sent their well wishes, thank you also.
The Beast of Hushing Woods is set in a world that weaves together a variety of mythologies. Were there any particular myths or cultures that inspired the story?
A trip to Morocco planted the seed for this story. The landscape, the colours, the people so filled my imagination that I knew one day a novel would emerge. What I didn’t know, however, was when an idea would come.
Morocco is awash with tales of the jinn (or ‘djinn’). They are part of everyday life, and the rich and fascinating world of the jinn goes far beyond the ‘genie in the bottle’ trope. In earlier drafts of the novel, my jinn was a one-dimensional antagonist, just plain bad. But successive drafts revealed his back story and with it the reasons for his evil ways.
There are two main characters in the book—Ziggy Truegood and Raffi Tazi. Raffi is the outsider, the foreigner, feared by the small conservative town of Dell Hollow. Although Morocco is never mentioned in the novel, in my mind’s eye Raffi is a Moroccan boy.
Ziggy is a girl dealing with some major challenges. Do you feel a responsibility to balance the darker elements with lighter scenes when writing for children?
I’m not conscious of balancing dark scenes with lighter scenes and do not feel a responsibility to do so. The only given is a happy ending. After 16 novels perhaps the balance comes naturally.
Although my novels are written for children aged eight to 13, the stories are never simple plot-driven stories but deal with the problems that many children face: death, loss, bullying, family breakups, feelings of alienation, of being ‘the other.’ I never shy away from writing about the darker side of life. Novels can be powerful things. They have the ability to transport a child to another place and bring them back with renewed inner strength.
The novel is a mix of both the problems that might come out of small town life, combined with something more mystical. What appeals to you about writing in the magical realism genre?
Growing up as a Chinese-born Australian, I am fortunate to have two ways of looking at the world. There is the saying ‘seeing is believing’ but I think really it’s the other way around: what you believe is what you see. For example, the ancient Chinese belief that strange beasts existed in the mountains led to the classic Guideway Through Mountains and Seas (Shanhaijing) This book was written as a guide for travellers to safely navigate the areas these creatures inhabited. Europe had similar texts, as we know from Borges. Who’s to say that the ancients got it wrong? Maybe we have blinded ourselves to realms existing only an arms-length away, as it were. The Moroccans and many other nations certainly live that reality even today. So it is not so much that I choose to write in the magical realism genre, it is more true to say that this is how I experience the world.
You spent time in the Berkshire Woods in Massachusetts while working on the book, and it seems heavily influenced by this setting. Did Hushing Wood change before and after your time away?
Yes, it changed immensely. The early drafts for Hushing Wood lacked authenticity; the feeling of ‘the woods’ just did not emerge, because this type of landscape did not live inside me as do the forests, bush and scrub of Australia. When my publisher saw the first draft, she too was unable to get a sense of place. After some thought, it became clear that the only thing to do was find some woods, to live and breathe them.
I have a friend who lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with a house on a hill, a meadow in front and acres of woods around. I saw deer and a momma bear with her two cubs. There were humming birds and chipmunks. A groundhog lived under the house. Instead of eucalypts there were oak, birch, and sycamore. There were maple trees that bled real maple syrup.
I learned that if leaves turn over to reveal their silver undersides there will be a storm. I learned that the rows of holes on the trunk of a tree were made not by insects, but by woodpeckers. I dined in a log cabin by a stream full of brook trout. A tiny local school formed the backdrop for Dell Hollow Elementary.
Back home, I wrote about the woods with gusto. I now knew the animals, the smells, the sounds they made. I could write from the heart.
The book is also beautifully complemented by watercolour illustrations that you’ve drawn. Is a visual component a big part of your writing process?
I have always loved to draw and used to be a graphic designer. Later I lived in China and studied Chinese painting at an arts academy, both the fine-detailed painting called gong bi (‘labour brush’) and also the freer, more impressionistic landscape painting shan shui (‘mountain and water’). Being a highly visual person, when I sit down to write, the scene is as clear in my mind as if I’m watching a movie.
Once the story has been written and the novel is in its copy-edit stage, the illustration process begins. I go back through the story and look for scenes that inspire a painting. Brush and ink is the first stage, then watercolour.
What was the last book you read and loved?
I loved Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train (various imprints), which I just finished. The book is better than the film, which deviates greatly from the original toward the end. It’s a classic in noir fiction, a psychological crime thriller, as much driven by character as it is by plot. I highly recommend it if you enjoy this genre.
I painted a fire rooster with two little dogs in attendance. They can’t wait for 2018 when it will be their turn. I do love painting dogs.
This year Chinese New Year falls on January 28th
Those born under the sign of the Rooster are easygoing and never shy. They like reading and travelling so they are very knowledgeable. They also have good memories and are brave, resilient, independent and lucky.
Rooster Years are: 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017.
I have to admit that I am very superstitious.
It goes hand in hand with believing in hidden dimensions and magic which is why I write the kind of books I do.
But when it comes to Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival or chun jie as it is called in China, I am pretty practical about it and only go with the traditions that are easy for me to follow.
1 Wear something red
If it’s your year wear red everyday until the year ends. This is not as hard as it sounds. I’m an Ox and when it was my year I wore a red silk thread around my wrist. Some people sew a red thread in their underwear.
2 Clean the house
Clean your house before Chinese New Year to sweep away all the negative energy. Don’t sweep on CNY day or you will sweep away all your good luck for the incoming year.
3 Pay back your debts
I like this one but of course it’s impossible to stick to in our society with mortgages and credit cards and the like. I do make sure I pay off my credit cards and any amount that I’ve borrowed from friends. It’s also wise not to lend money on New Year’s day or you’ll be lending money for the rest of the year.
4 A new and happy beginning
Don’t swear or say negative things or mention death or ghosts on CNY day. Everything you say should be directed towards a new and happy beginning.
5 Hair cut, wash and blow wave
Have a hair cut and wash your hair before CNY day or you will wash away your luck.
6 What to wear
Wear something new, preferably red. Red is a bright happy colour so it welcomes in a bright, happy and prosperous year. It is also a lucky colour which is why, traditionally, Chinese brides wore red. I usually wear something that has red in the pattern.
7 Give Red Envelopes (hong bao)
Give children and unmarried friends little red packets of lucky money. My children love this time of year as they receive quite a bit of cash.
8 Say nice things
Say something nice to the first person you meet. I like this custom. It should be a rule for everyday of the year.
9 Hearing birdsong
It is lucky to hear birdsong on CNY. Living in Australia, where we have so many birds, this is an easy one.
10 What to eat
Chinese like to make dumplings or jiao zi on New Year’s eve because they are in the shape of an ingot which used to be the ancient Chinese currency. A whole fish is also eaten. There is a saying, nian nian you yu which means every year there is fish. But nian nian you yu also sounds like every year there will be leftovers. It’s always good to have a surplus in the coming year. One thing you must not do is turn the fish over.
Xin nian kuai le! xx
Be kind and true. Let us celebrate diversity, nature, art, imagination and creativity and maybe the world will be a better place.
2016 has been a big year – a year of travelling, of finishing a new novel, of publishing an old one, of making new friends. But sadly, it has been a year where we have lost two very special people, both who were also wonderful illustrators and authors – vale Narelle Oliver and Kevin Burgemeestre.
The Beast of Hushing Wood is almost done. I sent off copy for the dedication and acknowledgements today. Three and a half months ago, while staying with friends on Kangaroo Island I was struggling with a major structural edit. I was in such a mess I thought I would never get it done. But thanks to my friend, Paul who did an NLP (neurolinguistic programming) session with me, and thanks to a new way of working, I managed to pull myself out of the quagmire. This is what I discovered.
Being a visual person, I did a single picture for each of the 26 chapters I’d already written. Then I moved them around to fit a new structure while at the same time adding new scenes.
It worked brilliantly and from now on, I will use this technique with every novel I write.
Here is the cover of The Beast of Hushing Wood. I’m pretty happy with it. There are also 52 black and white internal illustrations which I painted with brush, ink and watercolour.
My travels in China
In October, I visited Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuzhen as well as several other water towns. Barking Gecko Theatre Company are adapting my novel, A Ghost in My Suitcase to the stage in 2018 so they invited me to go along as cultural consultant while they did research. They are a fantastic, innovative and creative theatre company and I can’t wait to see what they do with the story.
I travelled with Matt Edgerton, the Artistic Director and Felix Ching Ching Ho, Assistant Director. I was sick with the flu for most of the time and hardly ate anything which was torture as this region of Chinese cuisine is my favourite. But it was a fantastic trip. Being in on the creative development of the play has given me new insights into writing fiction too.
I first visited China with a group of overseas Chinese in 1977. Since then I’ve been to China many times. The changes I’ve witnessed over these past 40 years have been immense. And all for the better. When I lived in Hangzhou and Nanjing in 1981 and 1985, no ordinary Chinese citizen could travel freely, only us foreigners. The local Chinese weren’t allowed in the foreign hotels unless they had special permission. Now everyone can travel and it is a joy to see.
This time in Shanghai, we stayed in an airbnb in the French quarter in a charming four story art deco house. You would think that Shanghai, a huge city with a population of fourteen and a half million people would be chaos. But walking around the French quarter was so peaceful. The motorbikes and scooters are all electric, so even the traffic is quiet.
My beautiful bed in Pingjiang Lodge, Suzhou. I felt like a character in the Chinese classic, Dream of the Red Chamber.
Standing at the entrance to Pingjiang Lodge with Matt Edgerton, Barking Gecko’s Artistic Director.
My Travels in Japan
Last month I joined a group of fellow writers led by Jan Cornell. Jan takes writing groups to many places in the world. This trip was a Haiku Writing Walking Tour following in the footsteps of Basho. It was fabulous and highly recommend Jan’s writing journeys. You can view the trips here
This is not haiku but called a haiga. It’s when you marry a haiku with an illustration. Most of these I did while travelling on the trains.
It was autumn. The colours were spectacular.
Jan and myself with Basho
A new life for Poppy
The Poppy books, part of the Our Australian Girl series has a new life. It’s now a gorgeous hardcover with all four Poppy books in one. And it has a lovely magnetic clasp too. You can find a copy in all good bookshops now.
See you in the Year of the Rooster!
The Beast of Hushing Wood
In May, I travelled to the US, to the Berkshire woods to further research my forthcoming novel The Beast of Hushing Wood. I saw squirrels and chipmunks, woodpeckers and deer.
I stayed with a friend in her beautiful house on the edge of the woods overlooking Williamstown in Massachusetts. Her very first airbnb guests arrived one week after I left and were treated to a mother bear and her two cubs ambling across the meadow in front of the house. They had just emerged from hibernation. I wish I had seen them too.
But I did capture this somewhat magical photo of a squirrel who looks like he has a small creature riding on his back.
I had a lovely day talking and illustrating with the kids at the local Pine Cobble School. It is such a cute school and now I have a setting for the school in Hushing Wood.
Can you guess what made these marks? If you said a woodpecker, you are right. If you go for a walk in the woods, you can hear their sounds echoing through the trees. And here is a painting I did of a woodpecker.
Here I am in the woods picking ramps. Ramps are yummy wild plants with a taste similar to chives. Stirfried they are delicious.
The view across the valley at sunset from my friend’s balcony was stunning!
Some other paintings I did while I was there.
For the next few days, while the current edit is back with my editor at Penguin, I will work on the internal illustrations.
Little Bee – a new picture book
Varuna, the Writers’ House in the Blue Mountains has enveloped me in its magical mists once again.
Whenever I go on a writing retreat, I set myself a specific project. I know where I’ll start and I know what I want to achieve by the end of it.
For example, with my novel The Wishbird, I set myself the task of completing all the illustrations. This was easily achieved at Varuna. If I had been at home, the finished illustrations would have taken me six weeks to complete instead of just two. It’s the quiet, it’s the mountains, it’s the walking, the air, the knowing that other authors and illustrators are working in this beautiful shared space. It’s having your dinners cooked and not having to go shopping, and gathering with like minds at the end of the day to share the joys and heartaches of the creative life.
And so, this time as I set off on the journey from Melbourne to the Blue Mountains, I had in my suitcase a picture book with the working title The Runaway Zoo. I’d been grappling with the story for about 6 months. I knew there was something wrong with it, that it lacked a deeper meaning so I promised myself that I’d come away with all its problems solved.
What happened instead was a whole new story starring my three-legged dog from The Runaway Zoo.
Uncovering a story usually takes a very long time but the magical mists were definitely at work.
On the first day in the mountains, I thought that my three-legged dog would look cute in a yellow and black stripy jumper so I painted him in my sketchbook.
The next day I thought, what if I gave him wings. And so I painted wings on Little Bee and he was born.
That same night, while lying in bed until 2am trying to get to sleep, the story came to me in a flash. I didn’t have pen or paper so I wrote it on my phone.
If only we could open this portal into the imagination at will.
So now, Little Bee is in the hands of my new literary agent, Jacinta Dimase. I am thrilled to be a part of her agency.
Who knows what lovely flower Little Bee will settle upon next.
I’ve been illustrating a lot lately, working on a picture book just for fun. I remember how I used to love drawing when I was a kid, filling many books with pictures of dogs and horses.
This is one I drew when I was 10 with my 72 Derwent pencils.
And now I feel as though I’m back in that place once again.
Illustrating is such a refreshing change from writing. I love playing around with composition using brush and ink and watercolours. My favourite things to paint are animals.
I’ve been feeling quite neglectful of my novel Hushing Wood though. I’m editing the story at the moment and some days I have to force myself to work.
So I’ve devised a way to trick my brain.
My writing tip
I select a paragraph, two if they’re short, and copy and paste them into TextEdit. Now I treat it like a short story, making each word pull its own weight. I find it works great for me. It means that I don’t feel daunted by having a whole chapter to edit.
Befriend a Child in Detention cards
These greeting cards, which I illustrated for BCD are once again ready for purchase. They are to raise money for Befriend a Child in Detention organisation which I am part of. If you would like to purchase a pack of four cards for $24 please email me.
Chinese painting workshops
Melbourne – I’ve been conducting a number of Chinese painting workshops for the City of Melbourne Libraries. There’s a lovely new library called Library at the Dock and this is the view. Tomorrow I give another workshop at City Library.
Canberra – I’ve been invited up to Canberra by the National Library of Australia to conduct 2 workshops one for children and one for adults to coincide with their Celestial Empire – Life in China 1644-1911 exhibition. If you live in Canberra and would like to attend here are the booking details.
Some illustrations from my picture book The Runaway Zoo
A writer’s life
This is one of the reasons I love my writing life. No, I’m not on holidays, I’m attending a mini children’s literature festival and staying at Mission Beach in beautiful Queensland. This was taken on my morning walk before my school visit.
This closeup shot looks like a mini city in the desert. They are tiny balls of sand made by little crabs.
Ideas are everywhere
While I was speaking at the school, showing the students my picture book, they said they’d like me to illustrate a panda. So I did and now it’s in the book.
And this illustration was inspired by a gorgeous little girl in my Chinese painting class
Have a wonderfully creative week.
I hope you get in touch with the child inside you!
She’s right there waiting.
I have just completed a new commission for a friend. She requested it to be in black and white so I thought pencil with a soft watercolour outline would be best to communicate a dreamy feel.
I also have this illustration for purchase called Tiger and Baby as an art print at Redbubble
The first day of 2016 and I’m sitting at home, alone. It is lovely and peaceful. The local magpies are carolling in the paper bark tree and a single crow caaws in the oaks that line the street. I’m at my desk looking through the door of my writing room down the kitchen to the back garden.
Christmas day was a disaster day. My sister and her family lost their home to the Wye River fires on the Great Ocean Road. As I write this the fires are still burning in the Otway Ranges and other towns are being evacuated. I love Melbourne summer but fear for the people and animals who are at risk to the bushfires.
This is for my sister, brother in law and family. The golden cocker is her dog Billie, the black cocker is my dog Hero. I call it Pool of Tears.
I have painted a lot this past year. Not having a major publication out in 2015 meant that I could spend more time at my painting table. This doesn’t mean that I’m not working on words, just that deadlines are not so pressing.
“The Two Faced Boy” is a short story in a 2015 anthology called Rich and Rare published by Ford Street. The book is a great buy for lovers of short story and for libraries. It has had some fantastic reviews and features many of Australia’s finest writers for young people.
A painting for Christmas and a Christmas Wish
Two Thylacine riding on the backs of deer. They look pretty regal as if they belong to a royal party. I’m not sure if they do. Ideas come and I don’t try and explain why.
The last Tasmanian tiger died in a Hobart zoo in the 1930’s.
I have an impossible wish and that is to bring them back from extinction and have them roam the wilds of Tasmania once more.
Projects on the Go
First up is a new Poppy hardback omnibus of all four stories in one volume, with a magnetic clasp. I can’t wait for this to come out. It will look gorgeous. If I take myself back to when I was eight years old, which is easy for me, I would have treasured something like this. I’ve almost finished writing the extra chapter which takes place 2 years after the final book ended. I’ve enjoyed revisiting my characters, thinking of where their lives would be and how important it is for them to be in Poppy’s life once more. Of course Noni from Poppy at Summerhill had to come back as well as her ‘bad’ brother Joe to add tension to the chapter.
There will also be a short paragraph on what happens to Poppy when she grows up. I wonder who she will marry. You’ll have to wait until November to find out!
Here’s a pic of all four books which will end up as one in the omnibus.
The new Poppy hardback will be out in November 2016!
Two Tales from China
Another project that I have been working on is for Christmas Press Picture Books in which I have retold two ancient Chinese folk tales. Did you know that the first Cinderella story came from China? I found several versions of this story on the internet but they all tended to pander to the western version. And then I discovered the original in Chinese which is more than 1000 years old dating back to the late Tang dynasty. My husband is not Chinese but can read and speak perfectly so he translated it for me. What is interesting about this version is that the focus is not on the girl but on magic – a fish and its magical bones. I believe that when the story is published it might be the very first English translation. The other folk tale is The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, a story that every Chinese knows.
These two illustrated stories will be published by Christmas Press Picture Books in February 2017.
The Hushing Wood – a novel
This is my major work in progress. The story is finished, now it’s down to the refining. But first I’m changing the point of view from third person subjective to first person and the tense from past tense to present. What’s exciting is that I’m off to the woods of Massachusetts, (must learn how to spell this name without having to google it every time) to do some research.
As with most of my novels I’ll be including black and white illustrations. This is the fun part. Not that writing isn’t but illustrating is by far the easier of the two. I’m also illustrating and designing the cover and have about 10 ideas so far. It will be hard when it comes down to choosing but at least I’ll have the team at Penguin Random who can help with that.
The Hushing Wood will be out in February 2017.
I have wanted to write and illustrate a picture book since I was in my twenties. Finally I think I have a style that I’m happy with so I’m off to Varuna very soon to work on a story. Varuna is a wonderful writers’ retreat in the Blue Mountains, the legacy of Eleanor Dark to the writers of Australia.
Befriend a Child in Detention
And lastly. Thank you to all who supported Befriend a Child in Detention and bought my cards. Together we raised $975!
And don’t forget to pick up an Avant card from public places and send it to our Prime Minister.
Well, that’s a wrap for now.
Happy New Year to you all!
In the words of Neil Gaiman –
…I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.