Interview with writer Hazel Edwards
by Marjorie Coughlan*
Australian author Hazel Edwards has written more than 150 books, ranging from the picture-book There's a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake (1980), now considered a classic, to fast-paced young adult novels, such as Antarctica's Frozen Chosen. This was one of several books to come to fruition following her time spent on a resupply expedition to the Antarctic. Her books have been filmed, animated and dramatized; and several are available in braille and Auslan (Australian Sign Language).
You have written many books for all age groups. How do you go about deciding what you’re going to write and who for?
I create a character dossier, like a CV with physical details but the character’s age does not necessarily indicate the reader age group. Sometimes I start with an idea, like what motivates people to work in isolated and dangerous Antarctica or what might happen if a pandemic threatened Darwin. I think in abstract, not in visuals. Crucial decisions are the viewpoint and the setting. Coping successfully with being different intrigues me and this is often reflected in the viewpoint.
My YA readership is 13 plus but adults read my novels as ‘cross over’ fiction too. For example, genealogists often read my Fake ID for cyber family history sleuthing, because14 year old Zoe learns on the day of her grandmother’s funeral that her Gran had Fake ID for years.
One YA challenge was to write from a young male’s viewpoint in Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen, as I am female and NOT 21. Realistically, the young scientist needed to be male and at least 21 to be skilled enough for an expedition. I included younger Jade as his eco- activist, international- student girlfriend as a way of providing another e-mailing viewpoint. Antarctica is hi-tech, so e-mails and digital photos are the currency of communication and the official expedition photographer often shot 360 degree photographs.
The format has to reflect the subject, therefore 360 degree VR (virtual reality) was part of the ‘Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen’s’ structure in the flashbacks providing perspectives from the eco-terrorist and the girlfriend as well as the mutineers. ‘Mateship’ or how far you’ll go for a friend, is relevant to YA readers and to expeditioners wintering in the Antarctic. This also reflects the gap between expectation and reality
Often I write for a type of sense of humour rather than an age group. I am conscious of shaping a story for an audience, but often it’s a matter of making the humour appropriate The pandemic eco-issues in Outback Ferals were appropriate for a YA audience, but I also had fun creating the eccentric locals like AN Zac and his dog Old Nick and the scratch Under-14 footy match when most weren’t. To me, the YA novel Outback Ferals was about friendship and respect between unlikely mates.
A mystery is a plotting discipline which enables me to utilise specific details in different settings. Having a new experience and paying particular attention to what could go wrong or to ethical dilemmas is part of my participant-observation research. And it makes general life more intensively lived. All of which is relevant for a YA novel. I try to have a strong male and a strong female character in each novel but my YA Stalker has a female twist at the end.
In my younger picture book fiction, often characters are animals because then they are no age. Cartoon-style illustrations for ‘tall’ stories work in the same way of being ‘no-age’ and occasionally of no particular gender and this can be relevant for YA readers.
What does it mean to hold, as you do, the Australian Society of Authors’ education portfolio?
ASA is the peak national book writers’ organisation. Although I’m not a ‘committee person’ (and have even co-authored the satirical Committeeitus about a virus which affects committees with rash decisions etc.), being an ASA ‘committee’ portfolio-holder is a practical way of supporting other writers as originators of intellectual property and publicising financial recompense like ELR (Educational lending right) and PLR (public lending right) or CAL ( digital copying fees). Often writers and illustrators are good at creating but naïve about business and need help about rights and skills that will enable them to survive financially as solo practitioners in the creative business of ideas. I see authors as professionals on a par with doctors, and readers are their ideas-clients. But occasionally they need to form an ideas lobby. I also co-hold the Children’s Authors Portfolio with illustrator Ann James.
Your time in the Antarctic in 2001 was obviously a very fruitful time for your writing. Can you tell us a bit about the role of an Antarctic Expedition Writer and what it felt like for you as a writer to be there? Are you still influenced by the time you spent there?
Yes, I’m ice-affected. Fell in love with the icebergs and they even named one the Hazelberg! ‘An Antarctic expedition’ is the ultimate adventure for those with an overdose of the adventure gene but I was more interested in WHY others do it:: their motives and how they coped together for 14 months in isolation. There’s a camaraderie amongst all Antarctic expeditioners….and others are Fantarctics (fans of the Antarctic who love to read about it as the last frontier).
You have talked about the iceberg as a symbol for the craft of writing – how does that relate to the way you go about your writing?
Nine tenths of the work is under the surface, and research or re-working is needed to sustain the idea. It’s a mistake to judge by length or size. Often an apparently simple final version has been reworked many times. Usually I do ten drafts as well as workshopping and running past my naïve (who read purely for the story) and expert readers. The Antarctic ‘boffins’ (scientists) checked my Antarctica’s Frozen Chosen facts for me and have helped with subsequent Antarctic writing in varied media. ‘Frozen Chosen’ is the colloquial term used for those chosen to work in Antarctica and many of the expeditioners helped me with the plotting as we were beset in the polar ice for weeks: I was lucky to have world experts on glaciology, elephant seals and polar medicine alongside; and wanting mental stimulation, they helped with technical aspects.
Its sequel Outback Ferals brings the action back to Australia and there’s plenty of it! Running parallel with the plot, there is an interplay of different cultures and self-awareness, with aborigine, Chinese and Japanese ethnic backgrounds woven into the psyches of the characters. What made you choose this multicultural theme?
Cultural differences have always interested me and our children attended a Jewish school even though we are not Jewish. I had been to Darwin several times on author tours and my son works there. It is a culturally rich and well integrated society, but I was also challenging racial stereotypes in my characters such as Coco the part aboriginal entrepreneur, who utilised traditional designs.
When my novel Fake ID was scripted for television, I became aware of the need for varied but realistic settings and that the story sequence in a script could be different from the original book. So I wrote Outback Ferals sequentially, so it could be filmed later against real Darwin NT settings such as the Beer Can Regatta, Night Markets and even the low flying chopper spotting of feral pigs. Casting might be a challenge!
I believe your son Quest (a wonderful name – did you know he would grow up to be a cartographer?!) was involved in helping you research the book; and you both also co-authored Cycling Solo: Ireland to Istanbul, based on the blog diary of his solo cycle ride across Europe. In an interview about that writing experience, you said “the family that electronically writes and explores together, stays together”. In the context of your, and his, writing, could you say a bit more about that?
‘Quest’ is actually Trevelyan’s real middle name but he now uses ‘Questie’ as his electronic writing name. The family call him ‘Velyan and his mates call him Trev... As a family we used to orienteer which involves running through the bush finding controls using a map and a compass, so I guess his career choice of map maker or cartographer is not unusual. As a three year old, he inspired There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake when he thought workmen fixing the leaking roof were the cake eating hippo.
Trevelyan had read my e-mails when I was stuck in the polar ice and I used the e-mails subsequently in the serendipitous Antarctic Writer on Ice book. This gave him the idea of blogging instead of trying to write multiple e-mails. Initially we didn’t set out to write a book together, but others were enjoying his blog instalments because of his humorous style and mishaps. All I suggested was that he tried to write about a different aspect each time he blogged.
My daughter Kim travels internationally for work, and she e-writes vividly too, so it’s the way our family keeps in touch. We also Skype and talk via the computer.
Was it challenging co-authoring the book with your son?
In some ways as I now talk about his ex-blog writing in public, it’s almost as if he is a fictional character, but doing this book has made us closer.
Basically, he wrote all the blog intransit across five months and many countries. I just tidied up repetitions, arranged a structure with a reversal at the end for ‘Down Under responses” and edited out a few mates’ comments and added catchy headings and sorted his photos for a cover. Trev checked the tracked edit, but by then he was working in the outback again and was willing to leave all business decisions to me.
He did ALL the 9,000 km plus detours cycling-research!.
As you may know, we at PaperTigers are fairly new to the blogging experience. From your experience of editing your son’s blog, is there any golden advice you would give us? How has the concept of blogging affected the art of writing do you think – especially as regards writing for Young Adults?
Blogging is electronic autobiography in the NOW! The strength is the immediacy. The weakness is that it is unedited and public.
Many adolescents are blogging, but as therapy, not considering their potential reader. A professional writer crafts, with a reader in mind. I crafted Trev’s blog with corporate cyclists, bloggers, backpackers , wannerbe travellers and writers in mind because these were the readers who had already shown interest in his extracts. He also has a candid and humorous style which helps and as a cartographer he notices details. Since he was broke, he also had to be creative in surviving en route and this has provided humorous moments.
I think there is increasing interest in the PROCESS of how something was created, which is surpassing the creation.
Trevelyan’s Cycling Solo: Ireland to Istanbul was very timely because of the educational and adolescent interest in blogging, but few others have been crafted later into books. We have since taken down his blog because the book is now so popular. I’ve collaborated with other writers, but this was very satisfying for us and we’re still talking!
In your opinion, what are some of the reasons for how popular or not a YA book becomes?
- A high level of emotional identification with the major character or the novelty of the format such as graphic novel, maga-book, novel length poetry or blog.
- Insight into another culture or extreme lifestyle.
- Genuine tone and a distinctive ‘voice’.
- Personal recommendation. Keen fans will follow sequels by a favourite author such as Australian John Marsden.
- Genre fiction such as science fantasy is growing and eco-thrillers or cyber crime might be a new interest area.
- Design: I think maga-books with a high level of cartoon or illustration or photographs will grow for YA readers.
- Cover design will increase in importance. The cover of Outback Ferals was a first for a young work experience student. Preparation met opportunity when the publication date was advanced.
Some say this is a golden age for YA literature in the United States. Is that also true in Australia? How is the YA books scene there? Could you suggest some good authors writing for young adults?
I recommend Wendy Orr, John Marsden, Margaret Clark, Jeni Mawter.
Seeing from another’s perspective continues to be important. Vicarious experience of another’s world matters.
Eco-issues, awareness of cultural or medical differences and historical settings such as in Goldie Alexander’s Body and Soul seem to be growing trends in the Australian YA scene. But I think the expediential speed at which these stories are shared in new audio and graphic formats is the most intriguing development. More adolescents are listening to podcasts, stories on Ipod and reading e-fiction; and blogging is the new electronic autobiography whether fact or faction.
I would tip that a book such as Susanne Gervay’s That’s Why I Wrote This Song, co-written with her daughter Tory, is indicative of future cross media collaborations, with its rock songs and a rock girl band with links to the music world via video clips.
You have been involved in the opposite side of the equation, judging writing competitions for Young Adults’ writing and have co-authored an article highlighting concerns about the increased levels of violence depicted and the “twin themes of despair and death”. Where they are not drawing on their own experiences, why do you think young people feel the need to express themselves in terms of violence?
If you read widely, you develop ways of evaluating the effective from the rubbish. Some young writers read only texts prescribed on curricula and have less basis of comparison and copy sensationalised news items as the only form of drama: melodrama rather than subtle conflict. It would help to model and publicise subtle conflicts in local settings. Young writers tend to think it has to be exotic and violent rather than write sensitively about what they know.
In the article you have brought together the “distilled wisdom” of literary competition judges as to how to separate the act of writing from the content. One of these is for writers to experiment with “the viewpoint of protagonists who are old, disabled or don’t speak the language” – how do you get under the skin of your characters?
A writer needs to be androgynous and create believable male and female characters of any age or culture. This is possible. How? Observation. Listening. Participant observation. Being willing to explore other cultures: for example, I’ve been mentoring a young writer whose sight is fading and another who recently changed gender.
In the teaching notes you have written to accompany some of your YA books, and which are available on your website, you raise many questions about ethics, opinions and mores, which should promote solid, and I imagine at times heated discussion. Do you yourself have a clear notion of what answers you are trying to provide through your writing - [For example all the abstract notions of smuggling secrets and ideas across borders in Duty Free].
I’ve been a problem writer for Tournament of Minds for years, providing scenarios for gifted students to solve and enact. Often their solutions are more skilful than mine and support my view that a book belongs to a reader and not the writer once it is published. A writer provides clues and a code of words and emotions. The reader has to crack the code and apply it. I’m delighted if a reader becomes so involved in the ideas and characters in my story that they want to argue. Great!
Your books have been translated into many languages, your Grandma Leaps the Antarctic is available as a reading on a DVD with captions and sign language for the deaf; many of your books are available in Braille – how does it feel to be reaching out to an audience beyond the printed page?
Translations are always a gift of ideas. Braille has given me more pleasure than my Finnish, Korean, Japanese, French, Chinese or American translations. The Braille version of the factual ‘Antarctic Writer on ice’ has reached many who have not had the Antarctic experience in other ways. And the tactile ‘feelie’ edition of “There’s a Hippopotamus on our Roof Eating Cake’ has been the first book for some pre-schoolers who are blind.
Can you explain the term “Stickybeak”, which you have used to describe yourself as a writer? What are you using it for at the moment and what can we look forward to in the future?
A writer needs eternal curiosity. This excuse to ask questions is what the colloquial Australian term ‘stickybeaking’ means.
I’d like more of my YA novels to be adapted into other media such as television, film, theatre or animation, but prefer them to be scripted by others. Often scenes from my YA novels have been dramatised by young actors as part of touring ‘Page to Stage’ programs, so I’m open to directors’ offers.
I’ve been doing some work for the Children’s Hospital and have become interested in the issue of children who are born of indeterminate gender. To write sensitively about such a character may be my next challenge.
I'm also interested in compulsive gambling – for a character, not personally, although I have started my participatory-observation research and lost a dollar! Being a writer is sufficient gamble!
* Marjorie Coughlan is PaperTigers Associate Editor
Posted July 2007
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