Thursday, February 28, 2013

The End of Summer

Today is the last day of summer and even though it's been a hot and dry one, I always feel a little sad to see it end. The long cicada-filled evenings, picnics by the creek and lost days on the beach - I find everything about summer so languid and glorious and I'm yet to be convinced of the virtues of winter. Give me a cotton dress over a woolly jumper any day.

However, before winter there is Autumn, and I am looking forward to seeing how all the young trees I have planted in our new garden perform and which will put on the brightest show of colour. There are daffodils to look forward to and enough rain to make the creek swell and creep out over its banks to flood the bike path. And lots of writing to do. My garden is a much less distracting place when the clouds loom grey overhead and the wind is too bitey to venture outdoors. LOTS of writing - and hopefully even a book of illustrations to squeeze in, if I can manage it.

There seems to be a sudden burst of book launches over the next few weeks, as if all us writers in our self-inflicted solitude are desperate to capture a little bit of summer spark before we all hunker down to our winter's nest of many, many written words but very few spoken. I am looking forward to Melissa Keil's tonight, but sad to be missing Simmone Howell and Kate Constable's next Wednesday. Nick Place has written a GROWN-UP book and will be launching it next Tuesday and Susanne Gervay will be coming down to Melbourne especially to launch her new picture book next Saturday. Lili Wilkinson will be launching her new book at Readings on the 21st which I can't wait to read.

So, if that's not enough bookish love for you, can I let you know about a little Meet Lina preview I have lined up at Readings Carlton on the 7th March. I'm very excited about it and have been collecting all sorts of 1950s treasures to share with you. Bring along a primary-school aged girl to share Italian treats and she will take home her own home-made diary to record all her secrets in. I will read a little from Meet Lina and chat about the book and all things 1950s - you may even see me in a 50's style frock! (Weather permitting) It should be a really lovely event, from 4.30 - 5.30pm, organised by the delightful Emily Gale, and very different to the big OAG bash to be held at the convent later on. Hope to see you there!

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Story of my Book

The Story of my Book – Sally Rippin on Our Australian Girl: Meet Lina.
From the Readings blog Feb 7, 2013

There is an imaginary laneway off Rathdowne Street, probably not far from the Readings Carlton store, where, fifty-seven years ago, Lina Gattuso would have played cricket with her brothers. When it began to get dark, the four of them would have stashed the old plank of wood they used as a cricket bat behind the dented garbage bin they used as stumps. Their precious ball, a faded red six-stitcher, would have been safely tucked away in someone’s pocket to be pulled out again the following day.

I have been working on Lina’s story over the last couple of years, wandering through the streets of Carlton, imagining what it would have been like to live there fifty years ago. Carlton was a very different place in the 1950s, a refuge for migrants, first Jewish, then Italian, making a new life for themselves in the crowded little terrace houses, often crammed with several families and sometimes no proper bathrooms. Wealthy Melbournians looked down on Carlton as a filthy slum and there was pressure to have it razed to the ground. Others joked that by the late 1950s it was so heavily populated with Italians that you needed a passport to enter Lygon Street!

It was Carlton’s Italian history that I particularly wanted to explore in my writing. My partner’s family is from Italy and came out to Australia in the early 1950s, living in Carlton when they first arrived. When I met Raffaele, his family would regale me with stories of their early lives; some hilarious, others heartbreaking, but all of them so different to the childhood I’d experienced. When I was asked to write for the Our Australian Girl series I knew instantly that I wanted to write about an Italian-Australian girl growing up in Carlton as I already had so many great stories to inspire me.

The year 1956 was a big one for Melbourne. Not only was it the year we hosted the Olympic Games, the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere, but it also marked the arrival of television. I was particularly thrilled that these two momentous occasions happened to coincide, as I am embarrassed to admit I’m not a huge sports fan, but I am fascinated by the history of television! Another lovely thing about having 1956 as my designated year is that there are still plenty of people around I can talk to about this era (including a couple of very helpful Readings staff members!) I collected many stories orally but there was also a lot of information available on the internet including original footage of the Melbourne Olympics and our very first television broadcasts.

The Immigration Museum and the National Sports Museum at the MCG were also great sources of information and I found some fabulous books on the history of Carlton. My favourite was Per l’Australia: the story of Italian migration published by a division of Melbourne University Press with heart-breakingly beautiful photographs from the archives of the Italian Historical Society (Co.As.It). However, when I was touring schools in Darwin last year, I happened to mention to a teacher-librarian I was researching the 1950s and the next day she brought me a whole stack of women’s magazines her husband had found under the linoleum in a house he was renovating. Of all the documents I had come across, these were the most revealing of Australian life at the time.

I am still only a third of the way through the series, editing book three and about to embark on book four, but already Lina and her family have become such a big part of my life. I can’t wander through the streets of Carlton without seeing things through Lina’s eyes and every time I look at an Italian woman in her sixties I picture her as a young girl, like Lina. All my characters in all the books I have written feel real to me as I am writing them, but having spent so much time with Lina and her family and having lost myself so completely in the research, I would have to say Lina feels the most real of all. I know I will be relieved, but also a little sad, when I finish book four as it’s hard to leave a character’s world when you have spent so much time there. I have loved getting to know Lina, I hope you will love getting to know her, too.

Friday, February 8, 2013


Champagne, cupcakes, charm bracelets! What more could you want? Come! It will be fun, I promise!

Here are the details if you can't read the invite:
3 - 5pm, Sunday March 17th
St Heliers Street Store, Abbotsford Convent
RSVP by March 10 to

Friday, February 1, 2013

Happy not-so-new year and other lovely things

I don't know about you, but I always feel like my year begins properly on the first of February, rather than the first of Jan. My kids are back at school, I can begin to get stuck into work again and start to cross things off my list of things to do.

February is also the time new books come out, to coincide with the beginning of the new school year - at least in the southern hemisphere. This month, I am excited to have two books released into the wild, on opposite sides of the world. Meet Lina arrives in bookstores across Australia today and Angel Creek should be making an appearance on bookshelves around the UK any day now. I have my fingers tightly crossed that these books will find readers who love Jelly and Lina as much as I do.

There are three more Lina books on the way, but meanwhile, here is an interview I did with a UK publication about Angel Creek. Happy not-so-new year!

1. What sparked the idea of ‘creek angels’?

One summer, I had been grappling with a longer, older novel that was causing me much anguish, when I was contacted by a newspaper to write a fiction story for children. To clear my head and get some ideas, I took my youngest son for a long walk along the Merri Creek, which runs not far from our house. We started chatting about what a mystical, magical place the creek was and what incredible things might be lying in its muddy depths without us knowing. I wrote a short story for the paper about some children finding an angel in the creek, then tried to turn my attention back to my novel. To my delight, over the next few weeks I received so many wonderful letters from children about my angel story that I decided to abandon my angsty novel for good and instead began writing what eventually became Angel Creek.

2. What process did you go through in creating your ‘angels’, which are very unlike the traditional images of angels?

Even though I read a lot of literature about the depiction of angels through the ages, it was very important to me to create something new and unique. I love the idea of nature being wild and unpredictable, full of beauty but also frightening at times, so I decided to make my angel become a reflection of its earthly surrounds. Rather than the ephemeral celestial beings traditionally depicted in art and literature, my angel is mangy and feral, voiceless and terrified, with breath like dirty vase water. But it is worth noting that the angel the children find is only a baby angel, yet to develop its full powers – unlike the force that eventually comes looking for it.

3. Why did you want to include this fantasy element alongside very real issues such as starting a new school, family, bullying and illness?

Though I admire writers who can create whole worlds from scratch, I like to work with something familiar and add a fantastical twist. I didn’t intentionally set out to cover a list of particular issues, these are just things I remember being important to me as a child and I imagine are very recognizable to most children. My aim is to create the most believable characters I can so that my readers might ask themselves, ‘What would I do in that situation?’

In some ways, the angel in my book can be read as an allegory for the natural world; scientists are still discovering creatures they could never have dreamed existed, so why not a baby angel? One of the questions in my mind when writing Angel Creek was if you were to find something wild and beautiful would you leave it alone and perhaps risk it dying, or would you interfere with the delicate balance of nature and then face the unknown consequences of your actions?

4. You explore the transition from childhood to early teens – what interests you about that age range?

I remember as a child being fascinated by the story of Puff the Magic Dragon and could never understand how Jackie Paper could abandon something so wild and magical. Of course as an adult I understand that he was giving up his childhood to become an adult. While there is obviously much to be gained by growing up, there is also an enormous amount lost, in particular the creativity, imagination and a deep sense of wonder that we are all born with but eventually dies if we forget to feed it. Often this happens during that transition period from childhood to teenager, when we become so quick to scoff at things that had once been so fundamental.  Then, as an adult, we can only strive our whole lives to try to gain some of this back again. As Picasso famously said: ‘We are all born artists, the only difficulty is how to remain one’.

5. You also explore how actions and even thoughts have consequences – do you feel that learning this is an important part of this transition?

Oh boy, this is something I think we never stop learning. I wish I could have learnt all that I needed to know about this when I became an adult but I’m afraid I still have a long way to go! The idea that we can change our thoughts to change ourselves, not just mentally but also physically, is something that is both inspiring and daunting.

6. There are quite profound questions around death in Angel Creek – how hard did you find it to tackle this in a way that worked for children?

I think we often underestimate how much children think about death – I was certainly more preoccupied with death as a child than I am as an adult, but often as much out of curiosity as fear. I don’t believe there are any areas that are necessarily out of bounds in writing for children, as long as this is done with sensitivity and insight. Birth and death are fascinating themes to explore for all writers, whether literally or metaphorically, and most authors I admire would never shy away from tackling profound questions just because they are writing for children. In fact often these momentous themes are explored more directly and with more honesty than in adult literature.

7. Your favourite character?

Jelly, naturally comes to mind first, because she is the protagonist and we see the whole story through her eyes, but I also have a deep fondness for Gino and Pik. Gino, because he is trying hard to work out what it is to be a man while growing up in the shadow of his bullying father, and Pik, just because he is adorable.

8. Is the book reminiscent at all of your own childhood?

Everything I write for children stems initially from my own childhood then takes on a life of its own, often fed by the experiences of my own three children. Beginning with my own experience helps me write from a child’s perspective with authenticity and not trivialize what might seem unimportant now. However, unlike Jelly, I spent much of my childhood living in South-East Asia, moving almost every two years because of my father’s job. Even though we mainly lived in apartments in very big cities, my father still managed to find us scraps of nature to explore and instilled in me a deep love of the natural environment that I think comes out in Angel Creek.

9. You are both an illustrator and writer – how visual are you when planning / writing stories for older children, as well as your picture books?

Being able to visualize my story is very important to me. I know things are working when I can see the setting and characters as if they were real and my job is only to write down their story.

10. What are your links with Italy, as you feature Italian characters in your stories?

My partner was born in Melbourne, Australia, but his parents were born in Calabria, Italy. They speak little English and remain very traditionally Italian even though they have been living in Australia for almost fifty years now. I love being a part of Raffaele’s big, loud extended family as they are so different from mine and many of the characters in Angel Creek are inspired by his family.

11. How does your writing day go – any bad habits?

I am an awful procrastinator. I begin my day by spending way too much time on Facebook, reading stuff on the internet and feeling sick with guilt about wasting time. Then, when half my day is gone and it is almost time for my kids to get home from school, I’ll have a sudden burst of productivity and usually just be getting into a flow by the time they come through the front door, wanting my attention. Occasionally, if I have a deadline I might make myself go to the public library where I can’t get onto the internet and force myself to concentrate solely on my novel.

12. What do you do to relax when you’re not writing?

Spend time in the garden, walk along the Merri Creek, visit friends, hang out with my kids. Bungee jump – (no, not really. I hate heights!)

13. What are you writing now?

I am writing a series of historical fiction novels set in Melbourne in 1956 – a big year as it was the year of the Olympic Games and also the arrival of television. My character is a twelve-year-old girl called Lina whose parents have recently arrived from Italy. I am also always busy writing more books for my Billie B Brown and Hey Jack series for younger readers.

14. There are a number of very inspiring Australian writers – what did you read as a child / teenager (I remember reading My Brilliant Career then), and which writers were most inspiring to you?

I think I read mainly American and English books when I was growing up. I loved Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton when I was younger, Judy Blume and Paul Zindel as a teenager. I never really got into The Muddle-Headed Wombat or Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, though I do remember loving Colin Thiele’s Storm Boy. Really, I only came to appreciate Australian authors when I began to write myself. A publisher I first approached at Penguin in the early 1990s, handed me a stack of Australian YA including Sonya Hartnett, Gillian Rubinstein, Melina Marchetta and Robin Klein, and from then on I was hooked. Now, many of my favourite authors are Australian and I think the children’s writing scene here is a particularly exciting one to be a part of.