Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ivory Rose by Belinda Murrell

What a huge honour - Belinda Murrell, author of this new Australian History timeslip fantasy, has asked me to do an interview with her and publish the answers here on my blog. This was quite a different experience for me. I read this book nearly all in one go and kept a set of post it notes beside me so I could jot down my questions as I thought of them.... Belinda has been very generous with her answers and I think they will give you a revealing insight into her skill as a writer and some of the themes and ideas behind this book. I know quite a few of my senior girls are huge fans of Belinda Murrell and her sister Kate Forsyth.

I asked 13 questions because the first 50 or so pages of this book are slightly spooky! I could have kept on asking more and more questions but I did not want to spoil the story too much....

1. Do you think your own childhood reading has influenced your style, themes, plots etc. Are all the books/any of the books you refer to eg Lion the Witch and wardrobe childhood favourites....

As a child I was an avid reader, often getting into trouble at school for having a book hidden in my lap during maths classes. The sorts of books I loved were exciting adventure stories, pony books, mysteries, fantasy, historical novels but most importantly books where children were empowered to act to change their lives. I loved the joy of escaping into another world that was completely different to the world I lived in. As I writer, I try to write books that children love – that make them laugh and cry, that make their pulses race and their hearts sing, and hopefully to make them think as well!!

Yes – the books I referred to in The Ivory Rose I loved when I was young, but they are also favourites of my own three children, so I felt that they could realistically be read by Jemma as well.

2. Do you see similarities between your last three books - time slip fantasies - will this be your trade mark story or do you plan to explore other narratives - your earlier books The Sunsword trilogy was not a time slip I know.

My last three books have been time slip adventures because I was intrigued by the idea of taking a modern day girl, and whisking her back to the past, where life was so different and seeing how that modern child would cope and react. While the books have a similar concept – all three are quite different, as my heroines all have different personalities and challenges to tackle. The feedback I’ve had from kids has been fantastic – they seem to love the time-slip concept. However the book I am working on now is not a time slip book at all. This will be a straight historical adventure, called Poppy, set in Australia during the 1940’s.

3. Do you think we need to visit the past to heal the present? Is this a deliberate theme? Jemma's mum was so awful (almost a caricature) and then she is transformed I think I wanted to know a little more about this - she was obviously shaken by the coma - also I was sad the dad was missing from the final scenes. Alternatively do we need to visit the past to discover ourselves?

I have always loved reading (writing and learning) about the past. My favourite subjects at school and university were English and history. However while I have always found history fascinating, one of the most important concepts of the books is taking a child away from everything familiar, so that she must dig deep within herself to find unknown strength to solve the problems she faces. The past appeals to me as an opportunity to do this because life seemed to be so much tougher in the past, and it is a way of removing Jemma from her parents’ protection.

While I do think we can learn a lot from the past, there are also many other ways to discover ourselves, to learn and to heal and most do involve exploring a different perspective of life, gaining empathy for other people, and experiencing diverse ways to live.

With Jemma’s mother Elizabeth, I have quite a bit of sympathy for her, because I felt she was working hard, trying to do her best for Jemma, but too busy and too caught up in her career to see what Jemma really needed. I have met mothers like this, and I feel this is one of the greatest challenges of being a busy, working mother. The accident does give Elizabeth a nasty shock, and makes her evaluate what is important to her. To me, at a very simple level, the book is about Jemma finding her voice, and about Jemma’s mother learning to listen. I did love Jemma’s dad, but it is the mother-daughter relationship I really wanted to focus on.

4. Do you have any concerns about overseas sales? - I love the way this book is firmly set in Sydney and in Annandale and in 1890 Australian history.

Yes – I do have concerns about overseas sales. I feel that writing about Australian history and themes is unlikely to win me a huge overseas publishing deal!!! However I am also driven to write about Australia – its landscape, culture, people and history so that contemporary Australian kids can read and enjoy stories firmly rooted in their own country. I feel I must be striking a strong chord, because out of my six children’s novels, I have definitely had the greatest feedback from the two which are primarily set in both contemporary and historic Australia – The Locket of Dreams and The Ivory Rose. One of the things I love about my work is all the lovely emails I get from kids telling me how much they love my books, or my characters.

5. How much research did you do? At times there seemed to be so much history in this book - were you setting out to teach a history lesson? 1890 certainly had some issues... Federation, Parkes, Suffrage, baby farms, medicine, child workers, depression, strikes and even Banjo Patterson!!.

I always do lots of research for my books, and this process is one of my favourite parts. It takes months – whether it is reading books and anecdotes set in the period, visiting historic homes (and kitchens and gardens!), reading and creating Mrs Beeton’s recipes, wandering around Annandale, reading reports of ghost encounters, researching poisons and how they were used, or visiting museums. However the history, while fascinating to me, was secondary. I didn’t set out to teach a ‘history lesson’. I set out to write a ghost story adventure and chose the Witches Houses as an evocative, spooky setting. The history was discovered as I researched first the houses, then the suburb of Annandale, then the era. I discovered so many interesting things that then became threads in my story.

6. I love the way you do not talk down to kids. Do publishers ever question your word choices?.... accoutrement's, damask, chastened, rebuke, brogue, crenellations, assiduously and many more I am sure the average 2011 senior Primary child would not know these words - congratulations on having the courage to include such a rich vocabulary....

When I was growing up, my mother always encouraged us to have a rich vocabulary. She challenged us to find words in books we didn’t understand and write the words and their meanings up on a noticeboard in the kitchen. I remember English teachers commenting on our strong vocabulary at school. When my children first started reading, it irked me that many of the books for their age group had such a simple and even boring vocabulary, which I felt was aimed at reluctant readers. I felt that over the years there had been a ‘dumbing down’ of language for kids. As a journalist, the first lesson I was taught was to write very simply – most newspaper stories are targeted at the reading level of an average 10 year old, but I can’t say I enjoy writing like that! So when I first started writing for my own children I was determined to include lots of beautiful words. My Australian publishers are usually happy with my choice of words but I did have my Sun Sword Trilogy rejected by an American publisher because it had too many complex words!!!

7. You are very good at giving us a sense of place - have you ever considered writing for television?

Setting is very important to me. At university I majored in television, as part of my communication degree, and as a twenty-one year old had originally planned to write for television, as one of my many dreams. I then spent two years travelling around Europe, and started travel writing, which I absolutely loved. I think it is my years of writing travel articles, which influences how I try to evoke a strong sense of place and landscape. I want my readers to feel like they are really there.

8. Is your song on page 116 Lost in the moment a real song?

Yes. It was written by my nephew Daniel Lee Kendall, who is an up-and-coming musician who is one of Triple J’s ‘discovered hot new talents’. My daughter and her friends love this song so it seemed a fun detail to include.

9. I did have a little trouble with those scones - not something I have mastered did you consider giving Jemma an easier cooking task? I do like the references to the ice man, milk pail, and Mrs Beaton. Were egg beaters invented by 1890?

I chose scones because when my son and daughter were in years 4 and 3 respectively I went with them on a school excursion to Elizabeth Farm, where the kids had to make scones to a nineteenth century recipe and cook them in a wood-fired stove. I couldn’t believe how easy they were and how delicious! So the kids and I went through a real scone baking phase at home for while – we even had a go making them in a coal fired Aga, when I was researching this book. My kids are also keen fans of Masterchef, so they all love cooking!

Yes – eggbeaters were invented about 1870 but that is the sort of detail I have to be really careful about checking. That kind of research can take ages!!

10. Did you consider calling your heroine Jemima when she was in 1890 I felt the adults especially might not use the 21st century 'nick name' Jemma.

Aunt Harriet and Agnes always called her Jemima if they used her name at all, never Jemma. Although Agnes usually called her derogatory names! The only adult who really uses her nick-name in 1895 was Doctor Anderson as I felt he was one of the few adults who really showed her any sympathy or respect. Nicknames were commonly used in the nineteenth century, especially for servants so I felt that the other children would have happily have used her preferred name.

11. Did you choose the cover? Did you have input into the blurb?

The cover was designed by Nanette Backhouse, who designed all the covers for my timeslip books, and this one is my favourite! With the covers, I usually suggest ideas, together with my publisher, and I have the chance to comment at the approval stage, but the decision is ultimately made by the marketing team, considering its sales appeal, other covers around at the time, and fashions in design. Likewise, the blurb is written by my publisher from a marketing perspective and I leave that to her!

12. Is it difficult to cover all bases in a timeslip - anomalies of clothing, language, manners etc. I did like your resolution of her worn out hands.

It can be difficult to cover everything, and I do try very hard to handle the historical details as lightly and naturally as I can. I don’t want the book to sound didactic or to bog the story down so much in historical accuracy that kids are bored rigid!! However it is important to paint a strong sense of life in that time.

The other difficulty is language. People spoke much more formally in the nineteenth century in a way that would sound very stilted to modern day readers, so I try to evoke a sense of that rather than being strictly accurate. So Jemma uses contractions much more than the other characters in 1895 and speaks less formally, Ned has an Irish brogue and Agnes frequently uses insults.

With Jemma’s hands I wanted her to have a physical reminder of her adventures, so she knew it was not a coma-induced hallucination.

13. You clearly love gardens and flowers. I seem to remember the garden was mentioned in Locket of dreams. Do you have a lovely garden yourself?

Yes – I do have a beautiful, old fashioned garden, full of herbs and vegetables and flowers – although nowhere near enough time to look after it properly!!

There are teaching notes for this book too.

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