You began your career as an illustrator. What prompted you to make the transition to writing and illustrating your own books?
When I started illustrating I had no idea that I would ever be an author and I didn't have that sort of confidence, even though at school I'd always loved writing. Composition, as we called it then was one of my favourite subjects. I illustrated other people's books for about five years and it was actually two authors who prompted me to start writing. One of them was really stingy about sharing the royalties. Usually, you split it 50/50 between an author and an illustrator and he thought he should get 70 percent and I should get 30 percent. Just after that book I worked with someone who was really bossy and kept telling me how to draw. I complained to my editor one day and she said "Look why don't you write your own story if you don't like illustrating other people's books.
Where do you get your ideas?
They come from everywhere. I think I'm quite stuck in the young section of my childhood. I grew up on a farm right down the southern part of Victoria on the coast. Until I was a teenager, life centered around the farm and that complete section of my childhood has stayed with me. The freedom and adventure of riding horses and all that sort of stuff is a big part of my imagination. But often it's things like dreams. I once got an idea for a book out of a label on a jumper. The label was called 'Kissed by the Moon', and I thought 'Wow, what a lovely title for a children's book'. So I came up with this sort of a ballad to a new born baby that they would be kissed by the moon and warmed by the sun and washed in the river, so my ideas do really come from all over the place.
When starting a new book, where do you begin the writing process?
Usually, I have a bright idea. For example just last week in the paper there was an article about a Tasmanian man, an Indigenous man who had been orphaned when he was little and had grown up in an orphanage in Tasmania and ended up playing AFL football. He was one of the first Indigenous players to play in Melbourne. He described going back to Cape Barron Island which was where he was born and he hadn't been since, he'd been taken away as a little boy and his only memory of his childhood was kicking a football at a big pine tree. When he went back he found that pine tree. Things like that often will trigger something and I can imagine them turned somehow into a beautiful book. So, I start off with the idea and then can usually see what the book is going to look like well before I've written any words. I can see the pictures and the size of the book and how it will fit together. Then before I actually start drawing, I will write it out and put into some sort of form.
How much research goes into developing your work?
'Imagine', for example which is a book about animals, which I did a long time ago. I had massive piles of animal encyclopedias and National Geographic's to figure out which animals lived in which places and to make sure that I actually got it right. Quite often a book will come after I've become interested in something, After I went to Antarctica in 2005 and visited Macquarie Island, I became really interested in that island so just by learning more about it has then made me think about doing a book about it. Sometimes the research comes before I even think that I might turn it into a book.
Who else contributes to and influences your work?
My editor is really important. I've got two main editors that I've worked with for a long time and they're friends as well and I really trust them. If I work with an editor and I don't like their judgment it's almost impossible. You need someone who can really connect with. Ros Price is one. She's my editor at Allen and Unwin and she was the first person who interviewed me when I went to get some work as an illustrator nearly thirty years ago. It's a nice connection that has stayed over all these years. When she became a good enough friend she told me that she actually didn't like my work very much that I showed her that day but she and I got on really well and she thought she could get me to do the sort of work that she wanted. Rita Hart who is my other editor, lives in the United States so we do all our work via phone and email. I'll email her stuff and she'll ring me up and we'll talk about it and work that way. The distance doesn't seem to matter at all because we understand and trust each other. My family all put their two bobs worth in but they always say ridiculous things and it's almost like the opposite is true. If they think something is good I know it's bad and vica versa.
What do you draw on for the characters and events in your work?
Pretty much from people around me. Often, I don't realise until well after the book's come out that a character I've drawn is actually a person I know. Someone will say 'Gee that really looks like so and so' and I'll say, 'Oh well, maybe it is'. I don't think I could just make them up out of thin air. All my characters, if I think about them, have some sort of start in a real person. I just put twists and bends on them to make them a bit better or worse.
How has your experience as a reader influenced your work?
I'm a mad reader. I read all the time. I can't sit at a table without picking up something to read. I think it's made me a much harsher editor on myself. I get really impatient with books when there's sloppy writing or when things need to be tightened up. So it's been good that way, but I think also when you read you learn about narrative and how to tell a story, which you might not learn any other way. I think it's very important for young writers to do a lot of reading.
How do you think creative writing should be taught to young students?
My advice would be, write about something you know. Even if you're being really imaginative, base that imaginative work on something that you understand. Don't write too much. Whatever you write, cut it back so that it's a third. Quite often I'll do that with a book. It's like polishing a stone that started off rough. I think one good way of telling a story and being able to write a story is to actually tell it to someone. Often kids are expected to sit down and write a story but if you ask them to tell it they go, 'Umm, well uh, we went to the ...'. You know they actually don't have it in their head yet. Whereas if you go away and just think about it so you can speak it, it's going to be much easier to write. I think it's really important to give your work to someone else to edit. If you're looking at your own work quite often you can't see the forest for the trees and my editors have saved me from making really embarrassing mistakes that I just was too involved to see.
What are your work habits when you write?
They're terrible. They're really, really bad. It's my full time job so I really should work nine to five but we live on a little farm and we've got horses and dogs and I like doing things with my kids who are all adults now. And my mum's really old so I go and spend time with her and I like working in the garden and I'm always happy to talk on the phone so there's many, many distractions. Even when I force myself to sit at my desk, there's always interruptions during the day. So I'm a bit of a night owl and l like to work late at night after everyone else has gone to bed and often will still be up at two o'clock in the morning when it's quiet and the phone's not ringing. It frustrates me like crazy because nothing makes me happier than actually getting work done but on the other hand it's always last in the queue of things to be done. So it's a bit of a catch 22. At the moment I've probably got about three years worth of contracted work waiting for me to do, so it's kind of frustrating.
What tips would you give to young students who want to write professionally?
Be persistent. To write you have to be fairly thick-skinned. You have to be imaginative and hard working and sometimes people will say hurtful things to you about your work. You have to be prepared to polish your work until it's as good as you can get it. Then you have to be brave enough to show it to someone. There's many people who have written things that they've never shown anyone incase their dreams are dashed. So, it's really important to be strong enough to show it to someone and then do whatever you like with their criticism. If you think it's worthy take it on board and change what you have done or it might just make you clear about what you want to do. But you do have to keep your nose to the grindstone and work at it.
What message do you want young readers to take from your books?
I guess I never actually work towards creating a message when I'm writing stories, but when I look at them as a whole they're generally very happy books. I'm not interested in reading books about sad things. I look at lots of kids books and think, 'Who would want to give that to their child?' I know they have their place in the world but they don't interest me. I like books where kids are being adventurous and doing exciting things and somehow forcing themselves to do stuff that they might be a bit scared of, but winning. Books that are happy and entertaining like 'Clive Eats Alligators' tell a story and are quite nice because they are all about being an individual and following your dreams and that it's okay to be different, so that's the message in them.
Taken from an interview for The Sydney Writers Festival - 'Writers Talk'
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all images copyright ©Alison Lester 2008