The words of an honorary wombat

Her first book was written on a typewriter covered in wombat droppings to pay for her car registration - and now Jackie French is an acclaimed author of both children and adult books, launching her two latest releases at this weekend's Savannah: Townsville's Festival of Stories. IMAGE: Jackie French

Jackie French is a name synonymous with Australian literature: she graces the by-line of over 200 books, which range in genre from historical non-fiction, right through to fantastical picture books about the animals she grew up surrounded by. 

And the books aren’t stopping anytime soon. We caught up with Jackie and found out a bit about the 2017 Townsville Savannah: Festival of Stories guest speaker, her two latest releases, and what she believes kids today are missing out on. 

There are a large number of people, myself included, who have grown up reading your books. Have you seen your stories and writing practice grow too?
​I think I am only just beginning to learn my craft as a writer. And in the last couple of years I have actually learned to add a page-ripping plot. ​

Even though a lot of your stories are fantastical and out-of-this-world, there are others that look like they would have taken years to research. What are your usual writing processes for your adult novels and children’s books?
​Every book is made up of real events​. Good historical fiction wriggles between the cracks in history, but it can also show events more clearly and vividly than nonfiction. History is, of course, a story, but in fiction you can cunningly cut out the boring bits.

Do you still  feel a sense of trepidation in the lead-up to new book launches after all your experience?
My book launches ​ have always been accidents: I happen to be somewhere when the most appropriate talk is about the book … and it is launched. But it’s the story that matters, the theme, the secret bits unearthed from the past, not the launching.

You’ve had a couple of books illustrated by Sue deGennaro now, with ‘Millie Loves Ants’ the latest – is the inspiration for each of those books a collaborative process between the two of you?
​The first two books with Sue were written by me, then Sue accepted the collaboration to turn them into joint works. But Millie was different. Sue and her daughters came to stay with us, in the valley; they met Millie [an echidna] and became small eager zoologists, following the echidna, discovering the secret world of ants. We agreed we had to do a book about an echidna, her ants, and two small children (who later became one) who​ enter into the true and magic world of animals.

Animals and environmental adventures are recurring themes in your children’s books: is that mainly drawing on your own childhood experiences?
​The adventures are not over yet, she says, scratching a leech bite​ and watching Wild Whiskers the wombat mooching out the window. As long as she doesn’t climb up on the chair again and try to leap through the window…

But yet, this is the world I had as a child, that kids today are banished from. It is the world where we are happiest as humans, with trees and animals around us. You only have to watch the glow on a child’s face as they pick a piece of fruit, and eat it, to know that humans deeply need to know how generous our small blue miraculous planet, spinning in the darkness, can be. Know this land, and you will love it. Love it, and you will fight for it. Strive for the world and life you dream of, and you will not be bored.

Some tips on #howtoenjoyreading on your weekend:1. A book is not a crocodile. It won't snap your fingers off. Stop…

Posted by Jackie French on Thursday, 11 May 2017


Your #howtoenjoyreading tips on Facebook are incredible, and probably not what people would expect to hear from an author! Do you abide by all the tips that you post?
​I don’t think when I write​ – the tips are trying to retrospectively work out how I created something. When I was seven years old an imaginary friend showed me how to send my mind with the wind, to find the land where stories came from. Or I think she was imaginary…

What advice would you give to others out there who are looking to find a creative outlet through their writing?
​Write if you long to write, and have found a lodging in the world of stories. But I think you will learn more judging your own work, thinking about it, savaging it and trashing it then writing it fifty times, and every one quite different, plotting and theming them for years before you begin, than reading writing tips. A writer must be their own teacher. Others may help a little, but each of us must find our own​ way to send our minds upon the wind.

For those that haven’t had a chance to read the two books you released last month, what can they expect from them?
​Passion, love, adventure, heroism and espionage …and that is just the picture book about the echidna. But the same themes are in Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies​. I hope that it is impossible to stop turning the pages of each.

Two books are built on secrets: the first is the unknown world I discovered when (briefly) employed as an echidna milker, dispelling so much of what we thought we knew.

The second is the mystery of how the female “battalions ” of World War One have been forgotten: probably not deliberately, but because the official war historian’s job was to record only those who were there officially. Even the Red Cross did not recognise the unofficial hospitals, ambulance brigades, feeding stations, canteens, first aid posts. They were planned, financed and run by women. Until the US joined the war in 1917 nearly all the hospitals were unofficial – after the first battle of the Somme almost every home with a spare room in Britain was turned over to the wounded or to refugees. The official record is of deep, repeated incompetence on both sides…perhaps if Gallipoli had been accessible to the female volunteers, the nurses, stretcher bearers, cooks, telegraphists,  we would have won that campaign, where twice as many men died from disease and thirst  than from their wounds. If there had even been women offering cups of tea – boiled water – instead of the filthy water from the trenches, dysentery would not have decimated our forces; they may have reached Constantinople…and history changed.

Savannah: Townsville’s Festival of Stories begins this Thursday night at the Mercure Hotel with an author talk by Mem Fox, before an official launch on Saturday morning by Magda Szubanski. A full program can be found here, and bookings are essential for each session. Catch the launch of Jackie French’s two latest books, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies and Millie Loves Ants, at 11:15am on Saturday, before a Q&A and book signing at 2:45pm. 


More from Nathan Toll

A Letter Home

Dear sister, Last night, I was lucky enough to go to a...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *