A Chat With Lisa

Where do you get your ideas?

Like most writers, I tend to gather inspiration from the world; from things I hear, see and feel. In the main most of my books have started from some small thing that would have been easy to overlook, like the time I saw a silverback gorilla hugging a hessian sack as if it were a security blanket at Taronga Zoo or the conversation I overheard at playgroup about a little boy who was convinced that his daddy was pregnant with a horse. I think it’s an important skill for a writer to be able to look at ordinary things; at ordinary moments, ordinary places and ordinary people and see an alternative story underneath.

I always carry a writing journal—so that I can write anywhere.  In the main the things that I write are just snatches. Snatches of conversation. Snatches of description. Now some of these snatches go on to become stories. But many of them don’t. And that’s okay because in some ways the snatches that don’t become stories are just as important as the snatches that do. Because it’s in these snatches that don’t become stories that I’m training my creative muscles!

When did you first begin writing?

I first began writing for young people when I was training to be an actor in my early twenties. I taught drama to a group of children with quite mixed abilities and they wanted to be in a play. After searching around for one that was exactly right for them, I ended up having a go at writing one. Those kids were so enthusiastic, kind and committed, that it became a turning point for me. When I finished my acting degree, I enrolled in a writing course with Libby Gleeson and workshopped a picture book text I had written on my honeymoon! After I finished that course, I was fully committed to the long haul adventure of writing books for young people.

What is the best thing about being a writer?

The best thing about being a writer is that I can legitimately daydream and claim it as work, without anyone saying, ‘Stop imagining bears can talk!’ or ‘Grow up, it’s not sensible to be so silly over a gorilla’ or ‘Do you really think that little boy could believe that his daddy was expecting a horse for such a long time?’

One summer, I can remember the day as clear as a bell, when I was about thirteen, one of my best friends turned to me and said, ‘Enough of the mermaid thing! I want to swim in your pool without having to pretend that I have a scaly tail.’ That moment came as a real shock to me. I couldn’t believe there came a day for some people where they wanted to switch off a part of their lives. I guess part of the reason I became a writer was that I wasn’t willing to give up those moments, where just for a second I could pretend I had a tail or a secret third eye or an invisible laser gun in my pocket.

Which do you prefer, writing novels or picture books?

I love both. But both are slippery and difficult to write for different reasons. It surprises people when I say that writing a picture book is often more difficult than writing a novel. A picture book must be evocative and muscular; it must read out loud well and leave space for the illustrator. In such a short amount of words there is no place to hide sloppy writing. Having said that, writing a novel is no easy feat either. There is a lot of skill needed to fill out a fictional world so convincingly that readers believe the characters are alive.

How can I improve my writing?

In some senses, all writers examine common terrain. Picture book texts often explore how to avoid going to bed, having baths, being scared of the dark, waiting for a sibling to be born, losing a precious object, getting lost, loving our grandparents, hoping for friendship, going to school, being left out and lonely. So, if all our stories are derived from a common terrain, in the case of picture books, the experience of childhood, of being little, lost and sometimes least, then what makes a story attractive?

For me, it’s always the language, the way the story is written, the inventiveness and the originality of the line-by-line writing. It’s liveliness: the use of word play, rhythm, alliteration, refrains, patterns, echoes, onomatopoeia, personification, and a vivid evoking of the senses. To write like this requires attentiveness and playfulness. If a text is going to sing off the page, then the writer really needs to develop poetic imagination and practice. A writer needs to see the world afresh, so they can write about the imagined with greater originality.

Here are some practical suggestions I hope might be of help to your writing life!

Read broadly. Examine the way great writers work to influence the way you feel.

Keep a journal.

Be attentive. Don’t get so busy that you don’t have enough time to pay attention to the world around you.

Daydream. Writing is one of the only jobs where you can lay down on your bed and legitimately claim it as work.

Join a writing group. Read your work aloud. Listen respectfully to criticism.

Find a friend or a relative who will be your champion. It’s good to have at least one person who believes wholeheartedly in what you are doing.

What is it like to work with an illustrator? What happens if the pictures are not how you first imagined them?

It’s probably an unusual thing to admit, but my stories are more likely to be inspired by a snatch of dialogue than by some haunting visual image. I think I am more influenced by the sound of a story than in pinning down a concrete visual image. I am more concerned with the way words unfold, the way they link, leap, crash, flow and weave, and the silences in between. This reliance on the auditory has been both a blessing and a curse. It has meant that I have rarely been disappointed with the final images created by an illustrator because they don’t exactly match my initial imaginings.

Strangely, throughout the production process, the way I first imagined my characters grows hazier by the day until I find myself, by the end, adopting the illustrator’s visual interpretation as my own. This ability to forego my initial vision has been helpful in developing and maintaining a good functioning creative partnership.

I am incredibly grateful to the magnificent illustrators I have had the privilege of working with over the years; Kerry Millard, Eric Lobbecke, Emma Quay, Wayne Harris, Bettina Guthridge, Sara Acton, Gus Gordon, Leila Rudge and Binny Talib. I have learnt so much from them. I am completely in awe of the elegant way they use light, line, colour, perspective, point of view, body language and composition to capture character and place. How they so effortlessly blend the physical action and comedy of a story, whilst simultaneously extending and deepening the emotional subtext.

 What I love most about collaborating with illustrators are the unexpected surprises that come like gifts; the tailpiece at the end of ‘Daddy’s Having a Horse,’ the endpapers of ‘Big Pet Day,’ the hilarious deer in ‘Gordon’s got a Snookie,’ the tiny baby in the pram on the last page of ‘Daisy and the Puppy’ and so on and so on! I love how on nearly every page there are always so many sly, secret visual treasures waiting to be discovered by the most astute of readers!

If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?

When I was a teenager, I longed to be Jo from ‘Little Women’ or Anne from ‘Anne of Green Gables’ (even going so far as to rename myself Cordelia.) On re-reading these books as an adult I had new empathy for the struggles of Amy in ‘Little Women’ and even a fresh attachment to Emily from ‘Emily of the New Moon.’

What have you never been able to do?

I have never been able to water-ski, do aerobics in a coordinated fashion, understand physics, hang washing in a straight line or sing a solo in public without forgetting the words of the song at least once.

What might people be surprised to know?

I once made numerous appearances as a talking sunflower at the Art Gallery of NSW and I was known to roam the Rocks Markets in Sydney, dressed up as a Licorice All Thought, spouting wisdom to shoppers, during my tragic but fortunately short-lived life as a street performer.

How do you know when you’re in love?

Ahaaa! The thing I’ve learnt is that life is beautiful. And funny. And terrifying. And joyous and sad, sometimes swinging between the two, with such ferocity, it can leave you dizzy. Sometimes it’s very difficult to come to terms with this and this is something I explored in my teenage novel ‘My Big Birkett/The Sweet Terrible Glorious Year I Truly Completely Lost It.’ Of all the books I’ve written, this is the one I receive the most email about, from teenagers across the world. Here’s a tiny snippet, from a moment where fourteen-year-old Gemma is speaking to her plain, ordinary, no nonsense Mum about true love.

I traced my hand over the scratches on the dining table. I hesitated. ‘Does…does life get easier as you get older?’

            Mum hugged her mug and leant back in her chair. Her slippers whispered over the lino. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Well, as you know, as you get older, life becomes like…like marbled chocolate. When you’re younger, it’s like Top Deck. The white chocolate sits flush on the dark chocolate but separate from it. The joyful things in life are clear and distinct from the sad. But as you get older, it gets muddled. The good comes with the sad. The sad with the good. And it’s not so clear. Life’s not harder or easier. It’s just both, all whirled into one.’

            I sighed and rubbed my forehead. ‘Don’t you wish life could stay Top Deck?’

            Mum fished in her pocket. ‘Not really.’ She piled up little scraps of old tissue that had been living in the depths of her dressing gown. ‘Marbled chocolate is richer, creamier, sometimes harder to take in one go, but in the end much more satisfying too.’

            I ran my finger around the rim of my cup. My throat felt scratchy. ‘When you were my age…did you ever…was there anyone…did you ever really like a boy who didn’t know you existed?’

            Mum sighed. ‘I liked a different one every week.’

            ‘How do you know when you’re in love?’ I asked.

            Mum stood up and popped her cup in the sink. ‘Oh, that’s easy. I know a good test. You’ll know you’re in love when you meet someone and—despite his faults and flaws—you’ll happily clean his shoe for him after he’s trodden in dog poo.”

            ‘That’s the test?’ I asked. ‘Dog poo? That’s the test you used on dad?’

            ‘Your father had a lot of flaws,’ said Mum. ‘He hocked up his phlegm in a way that made my skin crawl. He wasn’t a good listener. He was tight with his money. His hair was oily and he always seemed to have a speck of red capsicum caught in his front teeth—but one day we went for a walk and he trod in a mountain of poo, and I couldn’t clean it quick enough. It was a delight. A pleasure. After that, I knew he was ‘the one.’ And twenty-six years later, he’s still ‘the one’, even though the flaws are the same if not worse.’ She dipped her hands into her pockets and beamed at me. ‘The moment that something like the dog poo happens to you and you don’t care, you’ll know you’ve found ‘the one.’’

            ‘But what about the fireworks, the heart thudding and the legs trembling like jelly?’ I asked.

            ‘They’re important,’ said Mum. ‘But they’re not always the most reliable hallmarks of enduring, true love.’ She patted my head. ‘No, Gem. You can’t go past the dog poo test.’