A Retrospective Look at My Writing Life
When I was eight, I wanted to be a butcher, for some eight-year-old reason that escapes me now. Later on, in my teens, I thought about becoming a librarian, because I liked the idea of handling all those books while their covers were still shiny, their spines still uncracked, and their pages still emanating the indescribable smell of new paper. (My favourite smell, even better than baking bread or frangipani trees or the finest of French perfumes.)
Apart from these two diversions, though, I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer. Sometimes this single-mindedness worries me and I find myself wishing that I was one of those writers who can list a broad range of interesting occupations on their back covers. You know the sort of thing I mean – ‘Chris Smith worked as a taxi driver, oboe teacher, fruit picker, tour guide and film subtitler before completing a successful first novel.’ When I’m in worry mode, I read biographical notes like that with a sense of wonder and envy, thinking, ‘What a fascinating life! What an incredible source of material!’
But at other times, I just feel grateful that I’ve been able to spend most of my life doing the things I love best. People-watching. Talking. Reading. And writing, always writing.
I don’t remember much about my early childhood but among my small handful of memories is the memory of the first story I ever wrote. I’d found one of those big old ledgers – a masterpiece of bookbinding, with a marbled cover and mysterious blue and red lines across the pages – and in large laborious letters I scrawled:
“Once there was a dog and a pig and a hen. And they went. And they lived happily ever after. The End.”
Not noticeably different from any five-year-old’s first story, except for the way it has stuck in my mind ever since, which seems to indicate that it must’ve given me a particularly high degree of satisfaction at the time. Certainly, I went on making up stories – telling them to my younger sister at bedtime, turning them into plays and bringing my friends home from school for lunchtime rehearsals, going over my favourite bits before I went to sleep and writing down one story in ten. It took no effort; the stories seemed to well up from somewhere inside me. I could shut my eyes, anytime, anywhere, and tune in to a never-ending movie that was always playing inside my head.
I was also hooked on books, right from the start. My mother told me that as soon as I could crawl, I headed straight for the bookcase where I pulled out the paperbacks, one by one, ripped them in half and threw them over my shoulder. (For some reason I’m convinced that there’s a connection between this story and the fact that I went on to become a speed reader, capable of reading four or five books in a night when I was on a roll.) My parents were both scientists, my mother with a degree in biochemistry, my father lecturing in chemistry at Melbourne University, but they both read widely as well and they enrolled me at the local library the minute I was old enough to join. We used to drive down there after dinner to collect our next batch of books and I can remember pottering around the picture book section in my red dressing gown and bunny slippers, staring at Orlando the Marmalade Cat, wondering whether I ought to go for two of my old favourites or take the risk of trying two books that I hadn’t read before.
From the moment I learned to read, I became a collector of books. I borrowed my friends’ books, I culled the book tables at church fetes, I asked for books as birthday and Christmas presents, I worked my way methodically through every library within reach. The public library. The school library. My father’s joke books and puzzle books. My nearby grandmother’s art books and musty, red leather classics. My other grandmother’s lovingly preserved school stories and annuals. I read everything that came my way, from encyclopaedias to the backs of cereal packets, and if I liked a book, I read it again and again.
Mind you, I didn’t spend my entire childhood reading. I used to roam round the streets with my friends or play in the backyard with my brother and sister. At weekends we would all pile into the family car and go for drives in the country, where we picked blackberries, climbed up the sides of waterfalls and (on one momentous occasion) watched a few pale flakes of snow drift down through the chilly air on the hills just outside Melbourne. On winter evenings we sat by the open fire and sang from the family songbook. My father taught me how to throw a basketball, and I watched him working in the garage or helped my mother in the kitchen – more fun than it might sound, because it gave me a chance to talk to them and hear some more stories. There were a lot of good storytellers in my family. I enjoyed my father’s bedtime stories, complete with on-the-spot cartoon illustrations; I loved listening to my grandparents’ stories about the past.
But despite all the competition, the printed word always had a special kind of power over me. Books were icons from the beginning, and reading stories and writing stories came to seem like two facets of the same process. So, much as I’d like to know why I became first a reader and then a writer, I can’t go far enough back in time to look for the reasons, because no matter how far I go, books are already there.
On the other hand, I know the exact point at which books and writing stopped being important to me and became absolutely crucial. When I was ten years old, my father died and his death split my childhood in two. On one side there were country drives, winter evening sing-alongs, games and jokes and storytelling at bedtime – memories that have blurred and fragmented in my mind but happy memories all the same. On the other side there were shadow and silence, three children trying hard to be good, a mother who slept a lot in front of the gas fire. She was depressed, I can see that now. And we were all in shock: it was shock that wiped out my memories of the year before I was ten. But of course I couldn’t have used words like “shock” or “depression” at the time. The words came later, after I’d bungled through the experience.
It’s hard to explain that era to anyone who didn’t live through it. These days, there are books about grief, support groups, telemovies, articles in magazines, a whole common vocabulary and set of common understandings – not that any of this takes the sting out of grief but at least it opens up the process of grieving. What’s more, the whole tenor of the times is different. Parents talk more freely to their children; schools take students’ home lives into account; talking to a counsellor is a pretty ordinary sort of thing to do. And families are acknowledged as coming in all shapes and sizes.
Back in 1959, however, people worked from a completely different set of values. My mother sat us down and explained the circumstances of my father’s death, but after that she hardly ever mentioned him and none of the adults around us talked about him either. At the same time, some of the kids at school were making it clear that being fatherless was a major stigma, so we had to deal with that, as well as coping with our own reactions. A difficult business, in a time when the stiff upper lip ruled; when expressing emotion was seen as a sign of weakness; when family problems were supposed to be kept private; when therapists were few and far between and a need for therapy was equated with complete mental breakdown; when children were seen as cheerful innocents, untouched by adult emotions; when everyone was striving continuously to conform to a monolithic norm. I still get angry when I hear people eulogising the fifties as a simpler, more uncomplicated time. Simpler, maybe – but anyone who didn’t fit its uncomplicated definitions was made to pay for it.
Inside my family each of us went through our own separate and lonely struggles to deal with the loss of a father or husband. For me, the first escape from loneliness came when I read Tove Jansson’s Moomin series and came to the part in Tales from Moominvalley where “it so happened that Moominpapa went away from home without the least explanation and without even himself understanding why he had to go”. For a moment there, I found a set of images that allowed me to escape into a world where I could finally express my secret grief for my lost father, until the story ended and I had to return to my own world again. Although not for long, because there was always something else to read, from Agatha Christie’s detective stories, which reduced death to a cosy formula, through to my grandmother’s Women’s Weekly magazines and classics like Dante’s Inferno.
The best escapes were the ones that steered me back towards myself. I still remember how I felt reading Eleanor Spence’s The Green Laurel for the first time – surprised, pleased and almost awed to realise that it was possible to write about the Australia that I lived in, as well as about England and Narnia. All the other Australian children’s books that I’d come across had focussed on the bush but Spence, H.F. Brinsmead, Joan Phipson, and Ivan Southall wrote about town as well as country – the hills outside Melbourne where we’d gone for our weekend drives, the view from my bus where it crossed the bridge over the Yarra – and though I went on reading and writing fantasy, their influence started to percolate quietly in the back of my brain.
In secondary school, I wrote a dictionary of mythology, numerous poems and short stories and various skits, including a novel-length joke in which some of my fourth-form classmates became The Knights of the Square Table with a Hole in the Middle. I also planned at least a dozen novels, mostly about magic – time machines, Narnia-like magic lands, a quartet about the mythology of Elmansor, the planet that a friend and I had invented, and a strange, short book based on a dream I’d had about a girl who found herself in a land of rocks. I usually wrote a summary of the plot and the first chapter or so, then ran out of steam, but in my final year at school I actually completed a fantasy novel about an episodic quest for a ring of power. (Yes, I’d read Tolkien by then.)
At first I was severely practical about my reasons for having the manuscript typed and sending it to a publisher:
“A. I want money. B. I want to start my writing career now. C. I want to finish the series, i.e. go on writing, which I can’t do if this doesn’t get published. D. I wanted to read this book when I was younger and someone else may want to read it now. E. I want – not fame – but to hold a published book of mine in my hands. F. It will show I can write. G. It may save me from having to work every holidays. H. It may get me into meeting other fantasy writers. I. It’s my last chance of being anything approaching an infant prodigy.”
Scrap the last reason and that still stands as a pretty fair description of my reasons for becoming a freelance writer fifteen years later. But within a few months, as the typing was delayed, the diary entries became more anguished and confessional:
“I must get it published. Oh, I must. I’ll be worth something at school too, like all the capable people.”
I took my bundle of manuscript pages to the office of Oxford University Press at the start of the summer holidays and got it back early in the new year, along with one of the world’s gentlest and most encouraging letters of refusal. Frank Eyre talked about the difficulties of writing original fantasy and suggested that I try “a realistic story of a contemporary kind,” which was both kinder and more specific than the usual “Write about what you know” – and lucky for me, because I’m still not exactly sure what I do know. So, even though my first novel didn’t change my life in the way I’d hoped, I learned a lot, helped by some advice from the British fantasy writer Alan Garner.
In the process of writing Garner a fan letter, I’d asked whether I should send my novel to his publisher and received the following reply:
“This is the first lesson in writing. Don’t think that a refusal from your publisher has necessarily anything to do with the merit of the book: there are so many things to be considered. I write green books, say, and you write green books: well, the same publisher won’t take both: it could upset his spectrum.”
Garner was right – this is the first lesson in publishing. Without it, I would’ve started by seeing publishers as arbiters of merit – English teachers on a grander scale, marking my books out of ten. Between them, Alan Garner and Frank Eyre taught me that publishing was a business enterprise and they also taught me to expect and request and make use of honest feedback. Altogether, not a bad set of lessons to have learned by the age of seventeen.
Books and writing brought me through the hardest seven years in my life. During that time I found out how much fun writing could be; I learned the discipline needed to finish writing a novel; I began to get some sense of the publishing business; I developed an eclectic respect for myth, genre fiction and the classics. As a method of surviving isolation and grief and depression, it wasn’t bad.
Although, as Diana Wynne Jones says at the end of my favourite book, The Homeward Bounders, “You wouldn’t believe how lonely it gets.”
From a storytelling point of view, I’d say it was time this narrative took a happier turn – and indeed it does. Once school was over, I headed off to study English language and literature at Melbourne University, where I lived in one of the university colleges and started to meet people who were interested in the same things I was. Swapping life stories late at night with the other young women in college, tasting my first pizza, listening to my friend Glen’s collection of opera records, arguing about literature with the other students in my year – all of a sudden I was accumulating new experiences for myself, instead of reading about them.
Still, studying English had its confusing side. I’m glad to have been introduced to earlier writers like Chaucer and the Elizabethan dramatists. I’m glad I read so much poetry at a time when my rote memory was in good working order, because I can still recite huge chunks of Donne and Yeats, Hopkins and T. S. Eliot. At the same time it was unnerving for a beginner writer to be confronted with so many of the giants of literature, all in one go. Simultaneously comparing myself to Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, and D. H. Lawrence, I ended up feeling very small.
Nonetheless, I kept on writing. First another children’s book, a “realistic story of a contemporary kind” called The Edwardian Set, this time under the influence of Eleanor Spence and H. F. Brinsmead, although in another kindly rejection letter the reader at Angus and Robertson commented, “One feels as though Leith and her companions have been reading Henry James and that some of James’s unique conversational style has rubbed off on them, in thought and speech.” After that, I started a novel about university life but it stalled when I took it and my M.A. scholarship to London, because in London I finally caught up with the counterculture – anarchism and socialism, Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation, Black Power and flower power, and protest against anything and everything, all combined in a heady mixture.
Brought up by scientists, I’d always prided myself on my logical and analytical approach to life but I soon found out there were hundreds of things about myself and my society that I’d never even begun to question and I had to work harder in the discussions around my household’s kitchen table than I’d ever worked in the tutorials at Melbourne University. At first I was disconcerted but then I realised that all these people, from Ivan Illich and Kate Millett to the men and women in my collective household, were telling me that I wasn’t alone – that other people had felt stifled by the postwar ethos too and that there were dozens of alternative ways of doing things.
Mind you, I can’t help smiling at the memory of my first tentative protest. I’d gone to an exhibition of women’s portraits at London’s National Portrait Gallery, which was decked out for the occasion with artificial flowers, and I suddenly found myself ripping a page from my notebook, scrawling “Why flowers, just because these are portraits of women?”, furtively tucking the note into one of the garlands, and dashing out of the gallery as fast as I could. Back in Australia, however, I soon became involved in a range of more effective action groups – a women’s health group, a rape crisis phone line, Radicalesbians, counselling at an abortion clinic and discussions at the women’s centre, along with consciousness-raising groups and conferences on sexuality, socialist feminism, or women and madness. Inevitably my ideas about writing came under scrutiny, along with everything else. With initial resistance and eventual relief, I decided that the whole idea of great art was nothing but bourgeois elitism, designed to reinforce one set of experiences and exclude all the rest. I ditched my Dickens-Eliot-Tolstoy-Lawrence novel and planned to dedicate myself to social change.
That was probably the only time in my adult life when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. It lasted for about three months, until I spotted a notice for a Children’s Book Group that met at the women’s centre. Hmm, I thought, maybe there’s a place for writing among these new ideas, after all. I turned up at the centre and met a bunch of women who had started out as a suburban consciousness-raising group, talking about the effects of sexism on their own lives, before agreeing that they wanted to do something about it. They’d already discussed the way they changed boys’ names to girls’ names when they were reading to their kids, because the roles generally allotted to girls were so limited. So they decided that it would be a good idea to work on some picture books of their own, about strong, interesting, active girls.
It seemed like a good idea to me too. After years of regarding writing as a strictly private activity, I suddenly found myself part of a group that was looking at the sexism in current children’s books, tossing around ideas for positive alternatives, reading each other’s stories and analysing them in detail. Some women wrote or illustrated a few stories and then went on to different things; others, like Judith Crabtree, Rae Dale and Mary Pershall, continued to work in the field of children’s books. I passed on Alan Garner’s first law of writing and we sent our books to publisher after publisher – with some interesting results, like the publisher who said of Judy Bathie’s Alison and the Bear, a kind of feminist Peter and the Wolf, “Why couldn’t Alison be nice to the bear, instead of lassoing him and tying him to a tree?” Finally Wren took half a dozen of our books as the basis for a new series and at the same time we started to experiment with self-publishing under the Sugar and Snails imprint, which was to continue for over a decade, producing book lists, kits, picture books, and an extensive range of career books.
My first published book came out of a group discussion about fairy tales, where we’d moved on from the obvious points about active princes and passive princesses to wondering why giants and dragons always seemed to be male. I went straight home and scribbled down the first draft of a story about a young girl who met up with three iconoclastic dragons called Bertha, Beatrice and Blackberry and learned how to breathe fire. The group offered its usual ruthless, perceptive and affectionate criticism; Rae Dale pared the story down even further – “Cut the description of the golden wattle; I’ll do that in the illustrations.” The Three Dragons was published by Wren in 1975 and Rae and I collaborated on another picture book, Nicky, published by Sugar and Snails, about a less than perfectly confident boy.
It was exciting to see my books in print. It was exciting to earn my living as a writer for a year when, with funding from the Schools Commission, I worked on a countersexist book list and a booklet about Women’s Liberation for secondary schools. But that was during International Women’s Year, a one-off event. I still didn’t see any way of making a career out of writing, so I went back to doing what I knew best – another postgraduate degree, this time a doctorate on children’s literature at Flinders University in South Australia. I’d tried once before to make children’s literature part of my academic life, in my fourth year at Melbourne University when I’d wanted to write my undergraduate thesis on Tolkien, Lewis and Garner. In 1970s Australia, however, children’s books weren’t considered a suitable subject for literary criticism, so I forgot about that particular ambition until years later on a visit to Adelaide, when I heard about a woman called Felicity Hughes who was running a course on children’s literature in the English Department at Flinders – a radical move at the time, when the study of children’s literature was mainly still confined to vocational courses like education or librarianship.
Felicity had become interested in children’s books as an offshoot of her own feminism, because she believed that society’s attitudes towards women and towards children were closely linked. We liked each other immediately, and during the five years in which she supervised my thesis, she hammered my prose style into something clearer and more communicative, debated half a dozen issues over every lunch and taught me to like William Mayne. For years I resisted strenuously but by now I’d have to admit that Mayne’s stringently minimalist style of writing had a greater effect on me than many other writers whose work I initially enjoyed far more.
My Ph.D. thesis started out as a comparison between the school story, as one of the oldest genres in children’s fiction, and the young adult novel, as a developing genre. I spent a lot of time in secondhand shops buying fat, musty books with comic titles like Tony Makes the Team or Evelyn Finds Herself for twenty cents apiece, and within a year or so I was saying, “It’d be funny if I ended up writing an entire thesis on the school story” – which is exactly what happened. It puzzled me for a while, because I’d never been a particularly avid reader of all those books about boarding school life. But when I finished my thesis, I insisted on having it bound in green and gold – the colours of the private girls’ school I’d attended for four years, between thirteen and seventeen – and I finally figured out part of my motivation. It had been a mistake to change schools at that particular point in my life, cutting me off from an established friendship group while I was in the middle of grieving for my father, but I’d gone along with my mother’s suggestion because I (wrongly) thought that the new school would be like Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers school stories. In its usual oblique and underhand fashion, my subconscious had apparently decided that analysing the school story genre twenty years later was a kind of exorcism of that time. (A successful exorcism, too: looking back, I see that I didn’t even mention changing schools in the description of my adolescence.)
There was another reason for my focus on the school story as well. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, I couldn’t have chosen a better place for studying the way that genre works. The school story was launched by books like Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1885) and Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899); the next fifty years saw the publication of literally thousands of formula school stories and then, in the later part of the twentieth century, writers as different as William Mayne in his choir school books, Jane Gardam in A Long Way From Verona, and Robert Cormier in The Chocolate War appropriated the formula and adapted it to their own purposes. In other words, the history of the school story was a history of continual crossovers between literary fiction and popular fiction, challenging the received wisdom that these two forms of literature were completely separate, with nothing in common. So my research sent me back to take another look at my own sense that I had to choose between high art (exemplified by the books I’d studied at university) and entertainment (exemplified by my work with the Children’s Book Group). Gradually this began to seem like a false choice and I decided that somewhere, somehow, I was going to find a way in my own writing to cross the divide between literary and popular fiction.
But that was a long-term decision. In the immediate present I was experimenting with another new form of writing. I had been in Adelaide for less than a year when Jude Kuring, a school friend who had become an actor, turned up with plans for a feminist revue and announced, “Okay, Pausacker, you were good at English – you can write it.” So everyone told me their favourite feminist jokes or the songs they’d always wanted to send up and I pieced it all together in some semblance of a plot for The Carolina Chisel Show. The group and our audiences had such a good time that, over the next few years, we went on to produce The Redhead’s Revenge, a feminist melodrama; Chores!, a musical comedy set in a suffragette household, and Out of the Frying Pan, another revue.
Writing for the theatre gave me a much better ear for dialogue. (Nothing, but nothing, improves your dialogue-writing skills more than seeing some poor actor struggling with some tongue twister of a line that you’ve landed her with.) I was interested enough to try writing a few scripts for the Australian Performing Group and Troupe theatre but before long I discovered that I was basically dramatising scenes from an imaginary novel, rather than making any truly creative use of the theatre space. Clearly, I didn’t have the same feeling for the stage as I had for books. But that was okay, because with customary good luck I’d been given the chance to write another book for young readers.
When Felicity Hughes and I went to give a paper at the Frankston Seminar on Children’s Literature in 1978, I was cornered by Rigby editor Leone Hendry. She’d read my picture books and wanted to know whether I’d be interested in writing a junior novel for the reading scheme she was developing. “What should I write about?” I asked, and she grinned and said, “Anything you like,” which sounded good but in practice turned out to be rather scary. I’d thought about my three unpublished novels for years before I finally started writing. My picture books and my plays had been developed with a group, even though I was the one who actually set the words down on the page. Now I was on my own, facing a deadline and a blank sheet of paper. As a delaying tactic I went for a walk, noticed a factory, wondered why its lights were on so late in the evening … and went home to start Mary Hollitt and the Amazing Games Machine.
After that I wrote three more novels for the Reading Rigby scheme, finding ideas in all sorts of places. The Go-Cart Kids came directly from a story that a friend told me, about that archetypal moment when young boys decide that they can’t play with girls any more. Fat and Skinny brought to life the characters from some Australian playground rhymes:
Fat was never seen again.
And so on – a series of comic incidents that gave me the licence to play around with kids’ notions of body image. Then there was Hunt the Witch, sparked by feminist research that uncovered the historical reality behind the storybook witch. By 1980 I had written two of these novels and lined up the commissions for the other two. I was also about to finish my Ph.D. thesis and I had to decide what I was going to do next.
So I decided to write for a living.
Within a few months I learned the second lesson of writing: never count on anything. I’d been one of the first writers on the Reading Rigby scheme but by the time I presented a proposal for my fifth book, every children’s writer in Australia had heard about the series and there wasn’t a vacant slot in their publishing schedule for over a year. At this point, fortunately, I discovered that I had the right temperament for a freelancer. Echoing Dickens’s Mr Micawber, I told myself firmly, “Something will turn up.” And for the next twenty years, from 1980 until 2000, it always did.
There are lots of different ways to become a professional writer. You can learn to survive on next to nothing. You can hang on to your day job and write part-time till your advances and royalties are substantial enough for you to live on them. You can accept support from your partner or friends or family. You can supplement your writing income by talking to schools or teaching other people how to write. And so on.
Myself, I’d worked hard to get rid of my early sense that writers were a special kind of people, along with my university-taught notions of a high art that was inherently superior to popular culture. I no longer wanted to suffer in a garret: I wanted to see writing as a job like any other. So I set myself the task of earning a reasonable income from writing alone. I took any job that was going – educational kits, teachers’ notes, proofreading, readers’ reports, training films, an interview book, dialogue for a piano bar duo and, one of my first and favourite jobs, editing a book by my chiropractor on how to manipulate dogs’ spines. (Dachshunds, for example, can have severe back problems.) I moved back to Melbourne and for the first few years I continued to do a bit of teaching and lecturing on children’s literature but before long I was supporting myself purely by my writing.
This was all very satisfying but there was still something missing. I remembered how, working on my thesis, I’d decided I wanted to develop a writing style that blended elements of the literary and the popular. I remembered how, when The Redhead’s Revenge was playing at the Festival Theatre, I’d sat in the audience night after night, listening to the laughter, realising that I could reach people by making them feel relaxed and comfortable and, right there on the spot, developing another ambition: to hold an audience while making them feel uncomfortable, to provoke them into questioning their own realities. I had been distracted by the need to earn a living but now both these resolves came back to me in full force. Clearly this new enterprise was going to require a whole new set of skills, so in 1982 I applied for a Literature Board grant from the Australia Council, got it and spent most of the next year figuring out how to start writing from a different perspective.
I came to What Are Ya? from a number of different tangents. In part, I’d been drawn to American young adult fiction while I was working on my doctorate: since I hadn’t managed to write about young adult fiction in my thesis, I decided to write a novel for young adults instead. In part, the book was the repayment of a debt of gratitude to Henry Handel Richardson, whose novel The Getting of Wisdom had kept me going while I, like Richardson’s Laura, was a square peg in a round hole at a Melbourne private girls’ school. It was also in some sense a rewrite of my second novel, The Edwardian Set, although the characters no longer talked or thought like Henry James and my understanding of the central theme was very different. Because in part What Are Ya? was a logical next step from the countersexist book list I’d written for Sugar and Snails, when I’d found that there were very few novels for young readers about gay and lesbian experience. A couple more books had appeared since I’d worked on the book list but I wasn’t entirely satisfied by any of them and I decided that it was time to write my own version.
I’d planned to write a straightforward coming-out story but at the last minute I realised I didn’t want What Are Ya? to read like a “problem novel”. (Being gay has never seemed like a problem to me, although other people’s attitudes to my sexuality have at times concerned me or constricted my opportunities.) So, instead of concentrating on one character, I decided to write about the range of choices that face young adults – choices about study, work, pregnancy and the overall direction of their future lives, with a focus on two friends, Leith and Barb, who both question their sexuality in the course of the book and make the choice to be, respectively, lesbian and heterosexual. I spent a lot of time talking to young women, showed the manuscript to at least a dozen people and went through some major revisions before the book was finally accepted for publication.
Since What Are Ya? first appeared, I’ve often been asked to speak on panels about censorship, presumably on the grounds that a book with a gay main character must have been censored somewhere along the line. In fact, this wasn’t the case. True, one publisher said, on rejecting the first draft, “Though it isn’t the way I’d like things to be, I’m afraid a book like this has to be twice as good as the next book” – but after some initial despondency, I chose to regard this as a challenge. And when Jennifer Rowe rang to tell me that I’d won the Angus and Robertson Junior Writers Fellowship for the second draft, she went from talking about the book’s literary merit to telling me that she was particularly pleased to be publishing it, because a school friend of hers had killed herself as a result of the pressures involved as coming out as a lesbian, and she felt that, if books like What Are Ya? had been around at the time, her friend might still be alive. So, rather than having to fight against censorship, I found myself with a publisher who was unequivocally supportive. A lot of school libraries wouldn’t stock the book, setting an inevitable limit on sales, but in general What Are Ya? was widely and well-received, shortlisted for the children’s literature sections of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the South Australian Festival Award, and taken up by publishers in England and Germany, which wasn’t bad going for my first young adult novel.
In my second novel for older readers, I thought I’d try something completely different – a historical novel about a boy in the 1930s Depression. Graham discovers that his father, fearing a Communist uprising, has organised a secret army: Graham is enlisted to spy on the Unemployed Workers’ Movement and ends up in the unenviable position of sympathising with both sides. Can You Keep A Secret? was drawn from my mother’s memories of her childhood and my fascination with the heroes in the boys’ magazines that my father used to read but basically it’s a ripping yarn, full of chases and mysteries and quests across the city, and I expected it to be far more popular than What Are Ya? However, I was wrong.
I’m still not entirely sure why Can You Keep A Secret? failed to find an audience. It was published without much publicity in the middle of a merger between Angus and Robertson and HarperCollins. It was a traditional historical novel and at that time most of the other Australian children’s books with a historical background were “time slips,” where a modern-day kid is sent back in time to interpret the past for the modern-day reader. It dealt in part with the history of the Communist party in Australia, which may have been more controversial than I realised. (As you’ve probably noticed by now, I have an instinctive attraction to controversy.) And Can You Keep A Secret? also represented a marked change of direction in my writing, when readers and critics may have been looking for something similar to What Are Ya? The poor sales could have reflected any combination of these factors or maybe there was some other reason altogether. At any rate, Can You Keep A Secret? turned out to be an excellent illustration of the second lesson of writing: never count on anything.
At this point I took a holiday from young adult fiction and wrote Fast Forward, a video recorder fantasy for junior readers about a boy who finds a magic remote control unit that allows him to fast-forward and rewind his own life. In a way, this is one of my most strongly autobiographical pieces of writing. I’m a natural Luddite (no car, no fax, no modem, spent years without a computer). But I’m also very easily bored, so I loved my video recorder right from the start and often wished I could use its remote control during long meetings, boring conversations, and time wasted waiting at the bus stop. At the same time I had a nagging sense that there was something inherently dangerous about this wish. I sent young Kieran off with his remote control unit to investigate the possibilities for me, and by the time I finished Fast Forward, I’d changed my mind and decided that waiting at bus stops wasn’t so bad, after all …
Fast Forward was later taken up by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and has become my best-selling book to date: there are a lot more readers in America than in Australia. It was published in the same year as Can You Keep A Secret? but after that there is a noticeable gap in my curriculum vitae, because in 1985 my mother died, and, probably not coincidentally, I developed chronic fatigue syndrome. Although I spent the major part of every day lying on my couch and staring at the wall, I didn’t stop having ideas altogether – I just lacked the energy needed to get to my desk and the concentration needed to write the ideas down. I was about to become seriously worried when, once again, something turned up.
This time Belinda Byrne, an editor at Greenhouse, rang to ask whether I would be interested in writing a book for their new series of teenage romances. I said yes straightaway, partly because I was broke but partly because, given my ongoing interest in genre fiction, I liked the idea of trying my hand at one of the most popular genres of all. I borrowed a pile of Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High books from the library, read my way through them and then, with some trepidation, sat down to see whether I would be able to write a romance of my own.
To my relief, I tapped straight into the compulsive storytelling of my childhood. I drew my basic plot lines from my life or my friends’ lives, from listening to songs or from trying new twists on the standard romantic conventions. (What if the story was told by a guy? What if the heroine was fat? What if the hero was Indigenous? and so on.) After that I just relaxed and let the words reel out, inventing episodes as I went along. It worked. Over the next five years I proceeded to write fourteen more romances for the Dolly Fiction series, as well as four romance thrillers for Penguin’s Hot Pursuit series, which I developed in collaboration with Merrilee Moss.
Having wandered into the genre more or less by accident, I had to think a lot about the issues surrounding romance and I ended up as somewhat of a militant romance writer. Feminist theorist Sheila Jeffreys talks about the need to “eroticise equality,” which was precisely what I tried to do in my Dolly Fictions. People often asked how I could consider myself a feminist and write romances but it never seemed like a contradiction to me – after all, this wave of feminism has involved some serious questioning of romantic love and romance fiction is one of the places where you can investigate romance in detail. It was great to get so many letters from young (and not so young) readers. It was fun to challenge people’s preconceptions about romance writers – for example, on a panel at a writers’ festival where, after one of the panellists had offered a devastating and hilarious parody of the Barbara Cartland syndrome, I pushed back my shaggy hair, hitched down my baggy windcheater and got a laugh simply by saying, “I’m a romance writer.”
Still, as far as I was concerned, the most interesting part of the whole experience was finding that I had developed a whole new writing persona, both literally and metaphorically. Literally, because all my romances were written under pseudonyms. (More or less by accident – I remember Belinda Byrne telling me I had to use a pen name but she claims that she said no such thing, and, considering that I had chronic fatigue syndrome at the time, I’m inclined to trust her memory over mine.) And metaphorically, because Jaye Francis, Mary Forrest, and my other alter egos wrote in a way that was very different from Jenny Pausacker.
All of my novels up to that point had gone through four to seven drafts, taking months or years to write, and both What Are Ya? and Can You Keep A Secret? then needed to be drastically revised before they were accepted for publication. My teenage romances, however, flowed straight onto the page and were written in a fortnight, so I was surprised to discover, when I came to check the proofs, how well they read. I started to wonder whether my obsessive revision meant that I was losing something in spontaneity and narrative impetus, at the same time as I gained in levels and patterns of meaning. I also started to wonder, cautiously and tentatively, whether I was on the brink of a new development in my craft. Maybe my intuition had been working overtime when I accepted Belinda Byrne’s offer. Maybe my nineteen teenage romances had moved me a few steps closer to my long-term goal of bridging the gap between literary and popular fiction.
Mind you, it took me a while longer to find answers to those questions. By the end of 1991, with the help of acupuncture and Chinese herbs, I had pretty much recovered from chronic fatigue syndrome but I was also facing the fact that my novel Street Magic – a complex multicultural fantasy, researched and written and rewritten during the occasional lulls in my struggle with CFS – had just been knocked back for the fourth time. What’s more, the fourth rejection had come from Aidan Chambers, a writer I greatly admired, who sat down with me in the foyer of a Melbourne hotel and said earnestly, “Come on, when are you going to let the real Jenny Pausacker show through?”
A simple enough question and yet it rocked me to my foundations. I went around for weeks in a haze of confusion and self-doubt. I’d been longing to start work on some of those books that I’d planned while I was lying on my couch, but now, all of a sudden, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Then, of course, something turned up – in this case, the offer of a loan from my partner Nancy, which allowed me to stop work for six months and take a long hard look at myself and my writing. I read a lot, concentrating on writers whose style and approach were very different from my own. I wrote in my journal and worked out that I’d come to a standstill because I’d been expecting to take up where I left off, ignoring the fact that the CFS years had changed me and that I needed to find a way to reflect those changes in my writing. I went for long walks; I watched a lot of movies; I talked with my friends. And I also had the good luck to be given a three-week placement at Footscray City Secondary College, arranged by the Artists-in-the-Schools program, where I spent a lot of time with students in their final year of school who were working on pieces for their writing folios as part of their English assessment.
In my time at school, we’d been confined to a very formal kind of essay writing and I was starting to feel very envious of the way these students were encouraged to write in a range of styles, when I suddenly thought, “Hold on, there’s no need to be jealous. I can write a folio of my own.” It was a magic moment. At that point a whole lot of different ideas and directions came together for me. I had a story waiting in my head, characters and incidents all there, but I couldn’t work out how to tell it. My reading had led me to think about the notion of gaps in writing – I’d always tried to tell my readers everything but I was intrigued by the idea of shaping a narrative that encouraged the readers to fill in some of the gaps for themselves. And now Footscray City Secondary College had presented me with the concept of a novel written in the form of a writing folio – the perfect form for the story waiting in my head, the perfect way to construct a narrative full of provocative and interesting gaps.
By the time I came to the end of my six-month break, I was desperate to start writing again. Not surprisingly, the result of all this thought was a novel about writing itself. In Mr Enigmatic, Rhett Foley explores himself and his world by testing out different kinds of writing styles, from a film script and a story in the style of Raymond Carver to – you guessed it – a chapter from a teenage romance. The novel was set in the same school as the school in What Are Ya? but a year later, making it the second in a planned quartet about four successive groups of kids, in four successive final years at Central Secondary College.
I dreamed up this idea as a cynical marketing ploy, designed to get What Are Ya? back in print, but as it turned out, the results went way beyond cynical. The crossovers between What Are Ya? and Mr Enigmatic allowed me to create a richer world, where characters reappeared from book to book, themes continued to develop and I was able to zero in on specific aspects of young adult life in each novel, knowing that the companion volumes would provide a counterbalance and alternative commentary. And in planning a series of school stories, I was also placing myself in the genre tradition that I had studied for my thesis, although, as usual, I didn’t notice this until much later.
After I finished Mr Enigmatic, I spent the rest of 1993 writing an adult romance (A Shoulder to Lean On), four novels for a series about junior detectives, masterminded by Jennifer Rowe, and a combination cookbook-and-history-of-the-detective-story called Recipes for Crime, written in collaboration with detective-story writer Kerry Greenwood. (I seem to have done a lot of collaborative writing, with Merrilee Moss as well as Jennifer and Kerry, and also with Sugar and Snails and the Women’s Theatre Group – I suspect I enjoy it because I’ve spent so much time writing on my own.) It was exhilarating to be able to make plans and meet deadlines, after so many years of minimal and unreliable energy, and it was also a relief to finally pay back my loan from Nancy and start work on the third book about Central Secondary College.
If What Are Ya? was about choices and Mr Enigmatic was about love, then the key word for Getting Somewhere was work. Just as I’d deliberately chosen a male narrator as my focus on love, so I deliberately focussed on a female main character for the book about work. Dinah Carr has always taken second place to her more extrovert twin sister Stacy – partly because she had meningitis as a child and had to repeat a year of school, which meant that she was always a year behind her twin. But now Stacy has left school and gone off to study drama, leaving Dinah on her own at Central Secondary College and confronting her with a whole lot of questions about who she is and what she wants to do with her life. Her story is told as a collage of disconnected episodes, one for every month of the year, each featuring a character who in some way extends Dinah’s sense of her own possibilities – ambitious Leon, who plans to become the first Greek-Australian prime minister; laid-back Lina, who does office work for a living and makes stained glass for her own satisfaction; Dinah’s parents, who are both reassessing their career choices; bitter, angry Bailey who works hard at being a failure, and so on.
It would be nice to be able to say that I enjoyed writing Mr Enigmatic and Getting Somewhere, but as a matter of fact I found myself thinking continually of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, who was given the gift of graceful movement with the proviso that she would always feel as though she was dancing on knives. Still, where my previous novels for young adults had all required drastic revision, Mr Enigmatic and Getting Somewhere were accepted straight away and published almost exactly as I had first written them. I had a feeling that I, like Dinah, was getting somewhere – maybe even letting the real Jenny Pausacker show through – but it was hard to know whether this assessment was accurate or just hopeful. So I was delighted (and even a bit overwhelmed) when Mr Enigmatic won the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for children’s literature in 1995. Although in a way I was even more delighted when one of the judges said to me afterwards, “Mr Enigmatic isn’t just a good book, it’s a good read as well” – in other words, a combination of the best elements of literary and popular fiction.
Which was exactly what I’d set out to achieve.
In 1996, Getting Somewhere was shortlisted for the older readers’ section of the prestigious Children’s Book Council awards and the anthology Hide and Seek: Stories about Being Young and Gay/Lesbian, which I edited, was published in a flurry of enthusiastic media interviews and reviews. At that point, I thought I had established a place for myself as an Australian children’s writer but, in fact, the publishing industry had already begun to change. Up until then, publishers had to some extent seen themselves as caretakers and shapers of the culture, using the books that made serious money to underwrite books that contributed to their cultural capital – for instance, poetry, experimental writing, books dealing with controversial subjects or books for minority audiences. But now publishing was being taken over by the multinational corporations of the new capitalism, who responded to algorithms that charted consumer demand, rather than initiating projects, and transferred responsibility and costs to their workers, wherever possible. The transfer of costs meant that writers were increasingly required to plan and implement their own publicity campaigns and the algorithms meant that mid-list writers started to disappear.
As a publicly gay children’s writer, whose initial sense of purpose and sense of audience had come from a feminist children’s book group, I was definitely mid-list.
Over the next ten years, I tried three ways of responding to these changes. To begin with, I just worked even harder at producing books. At the time, received wisdom indicated that a novel would sell far more copies if it had the benefit of extreme publicity or a shortlisting for the Children’s Book Council Awards but neither the shortlisting of Getting Somewhere or the unprecedented publicity for Hide and Seek had much effect on their sales. So I shifted from the literary end of my writing spectrum to the popular end and pitched the ideas for two separate series (the Blake mystery series and the Home Grrls romance series) to two separate publishers. During the eighteen months that followed, I wrote twelve novels, five short stories, four script treatments for a TV series, thirty seven reviews, thirteen conference papers and some editing jobs – a total of nine hundred thousand words, I discovered when my brother made me count it.
It was an exhilarating experience, one that helps me to understand how professionals in the early twenty first century have been lured into working fourteen hour days. But, in my case, at any rate, productivity was as illusory as publicity or CBC shortlistings as a formula for success. Reed commissioned the Blake mysteries and published the first two books but was then taken over by Hodder Headline, which broke the series’ momentum. Although the first Blake novel was a finalist in the 1999 NSW Children’s Choice KOALA Awards (Kids’ Own Australian Literature Awards), none of the gatekeepers for children’s books took an interest in the Blake mysteries or the Home Grrls romances and no publishers commissioned any further series from me.
So I tried a different approach. In 1996, I had started working as a mentor to beginner writers and it occurred to me that established writers needed mentors as well. I began by asking for ideas from an editor and old friend, who suggested writing a novel about a girls’ militia. It was an interesting project but it still felt closer to my usual process – pitching a story and incorporating the editor’s suggestions – than to full-on mentoring. So in 2001 I approached another well-respected children’s editor and over the next three years we worked on three manuscripts, using as my main guideline the advice that Aidan Chambers had given me back in 1991 to ‘let the real Jenny Pausacker show through’.
Sadly, my unofficial mentorships were even less effective than my productivity binge. The girls’ militia novel went through a major rewrite before being accepted and I was given a kill fee a year later, after its editor had left the company that held the contract. The second editor also asked for a major rewrite of my first manuscript but rejected it and the other two manuscripts. (The first manuscript was later taken up by another publisher.) Both editors gave me perceptive feedback on my writing style, some of which still guides my practice today, but by the end of the process I’d realised that I had been looking for help in the wrong place. Editors in general aren’t necessarily equipped to explain what would make a novel more acceptable to them and/or their marketing departments. Their job is to recognise a publishable manuscript when they see one: it’s the writer’s job – my job – to come up with attention-grabbing ideas. And while my genre fiction and my writing for the education market could still find publishers, it was becoming increasingly clear that the publishing industry no longer saw the books that only ‘the real Jenny Pausacker’ could write as publishable.
At that point I came up with a third strategy for dealing with the changes in publishing: I ran away. When I was invited to a UK conference in 2002, I met a British academic, Ika Willis, fell in love and moved to Leeds to live with her in 2004. I made one last attempt to write for young adults, using my geographical distance from Australia as a way to refocus the girls’ militia novel as a parable of recent Australian history, but the response was even more discouraging than before. My literary agent recommended that I pay a freelance editor to help me turn the book into an adult crime novel, focusing on one of my minor characters, and the only commissioning editor who read it told me that her marketing department’s verdict was ‘This may be the Great Australian Novel but there isn’t a market for it’, adding ‘I think the climate for the great Australian novel has problems with the economic times. Publishers are publishing less but expecting to sell more books. This makes a lot of sense but it does cause the publishing scene to become safe and not take risks.’
I’d like to say that was the moment when I decided to quit while I was ahead but in fact I went on believing that I had some sort of residual stake in the children’s literature scene until I returned to Australia in 2012, when a series of snubs from the gatekeepers and, even more conclusively, from other writers demonstrated that I was no longer part of that world. It was time to accept the verdict of history and move on – but before I did that, the academic in me insisted that I archive and make some provisional assessment of my achievements.
So, okay, is there anything I can identify, with the benefit of hindsight, that might have saved my work from disappearing? My writing skills hadn’t declined – of my last two books, Dancing on Knives was shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature in the New South Wales Premier’s Awards in 2005 and Crime Seen was one of The Age’s top three children’s books of 2007. I might indeed have gone on publishing genre fiction and educational texts, if I was still financially dependent on writing, but fortunately for me, Ika was willing and able to support me. And given the choice, I found it was more important to me to write the books only I could write, even if there was no market for them, than to earn my living by writing.
The one strategy I never tried was the received wisdom current in the early twenty first century, which advises writers to build a fan base across social media platforms, in order to show publishers that they have a guaranteed audience. I’m old school: I come from a time when writers were mostly introverts who had been sustained by books in their early years as outsiders – a mindset that isn’t compatible with becoming a master of spin, making personal contact with the public on a daily basis and focusing on personal popularity. Even for an introverted outsider, I’m particularly bad at publicity. The first time I did a radio interview, I had a great conversation with the interviewer about the state of Australian writing for children and only realised afterwards that I’d forgotten to mention my own book. And here and now, in my last opportunity to shape public opinion of my writing career, I’ve turned out to be more concerned to meditate on the disappearance of my books than to cover up my failures and spin myself as a special kind of winner …
But I want to end by remembering the good times. It was exciting to start out as a writer during a period of immense social change, when all the assumptions that had sustained the 1950s were being simultaneously and vociferously questioned. Questioning my own assumptions about writing led me first to the Women’s Movement Children’s Literature Cooperative and then, as I became a fulltime writer, to a new generation of Australian children’s writers. In these collaborative environments, I was able to test my ideas and contribute to new ways of thinking. I was one of the pioneers of the second stage of Australian young adult fiction and I worked with other young adult writers of the 1980s and 1990s to expand the world of Australian children’s literature, making room for stories about people who weren’t straight, white and/or male and, more generally, redefining what counted as ‘suitable for children’.
As a professional writer, I had two ongoing goals: to write the books only I could write and to earn my living by writing. I modeled myself on what I knew about the Australian writers of the previous generation – Charmian Clift and George Johnson, Ruth Park and Darcy Niland, Kylie Tennant – who trained themselves to write anything and everything. Apart from the six years in which I had grants from the Literature Board, I relied on my versatility as a writer: the only forms of writing I never tried were advertising copy and journalism, both of which were comparatively closed shops. Being a pen for hire was as exciting as being an activist and it saddens me to think that I may be one of the last writers who were able to earn their living by writing alone, rather than supplementing it with a day job, working as an unpaid publicist, teaching creative writing or otherwise monetising the role of writer.
Still, you can’t miss what you never had and the next generation of writers will, inevitably, work with what they’ve got. Mourning the mid-list writers and the culture that supported mid-list writing is a job for the people who knew that world – in other words, for people like me. I started my account of my writing life by saying I’ve only ever wanted to be a writer and that remains true. But this archive serves as a memorial to my life as a writer for children and young adults and, since there’s usually an inspiring quotation somewhere on a memorial, I want to close with T.S. Eliot, speaking (I believe) for all the writers who want to write the words only they can write:
The life of significant soil.
Or, if you’d prefer a briefer epitaph, I can ventiloquise Douglas Adams’s dolphins and say, “So long, and thanks for all the fish”.