In every issue of Alphabet Soup magazine, you’ll meet an Australian writer or illustrator. In the spring issue we talk to Jen Banyard about being a writer and about her books—Spider Lies, and Mystery at Riddle Gully. We can’t fit everything into the magazine (so many interesting answers!) so we’ve posted the whole interview here on the blog. Read on!
Where do you live?
I live in Floreat (in WA), which makes it nice and easy to go walking on the Bold Park bush trails (I love going after dark!) or to swim at City Beach. Until last year we had a Kelpie-cross dog but she died of old age; now we just have a tabby cat and a noisy family of possums in the roof.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I usually carry a small notepad with me and jot down interesting things about people (not while they’re looking!), funny names or phrases, or quirky ways of looking at things. I keep an ‘ideas box’ and fill it with ideas I’ve written on bits of paper, newspaper and magazine clippings (articles and photographs)—anything that might kick off or spark up a story. A story is usually a combination of a few ideas.
I like to read magazines or books about the craft of writing, too. Sharing the experiences and advice of successful writers keeps me keen.
How did you come to be a writer?
I used to write and edit pretty staid stuff for government departments, universities and such. Eventually, I decided to do what I’d wanted to do for ages—write fun, lively stories. I guess that’s how I ‘came to be a writer’—by deciding to do it and giving myself a chance. (I wasn’t all that good at first … but I’m learning!)
Was it easy to get your first book published?
Yes and no (mainly no). I sent quite a few things to publishers before anything was accepted. But I wasn’t doing my research and sending the right piece to the right publisher (they all want or like different things). Also, adults played too big a role in my work. The first time I got both those things right, a major children’s magazine in NSW bought my story. That opened doors which led to the publication of Spider Lies.
How long does it take you to write a book?
The first draft is usually pretty quick (and fun), but the fine-tuning can go on forever—until the editor says ‘Enough!’ and drags the manuscript from under your hand. Spider Lies (21,000 words) took nine months or so, spread over about 18 months. Mystery at Riddle Gully (38,000 words) took about 15 months, spread over two-and-a-half years. The long time spans are partly because there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing with the editors and publisher, and things don’t always happen quickly with those busy people. So between bursts of working on one story, you go on with something else. I know someone who wrote a novel in a weekend. I’m not like him!
Do you prefer to write with pen & paper, or on the computer?
Pen and paper wins hands-down for the first draft. I scribble away (trying to stay in ‘the zone’), crossing out and adding in all over the place. Then I type what I’ve written into a computer, usually a few chapters at a time. The tinkering after that is mostly on my laptop. Before I submit a manuscript to a publisher, I print out the whole thing and read it through, ideally aloud. Doing that, I usually find a heap of things to change that had looked fine on the screen.
What did you like to read when you were growing up?
I ate up the Famous Five mystery series by Enid Blyton (all those smugglers and treacherous tides) and, later, Rider Haggard’s African adventures, King Solomon’s Mines and She. I remember being very moved (another way of saying that I cried like a baby) by Jack London’s The Call of the Wild and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
Are you working on a book at the moment?
A quarter-length version of Mystery at Riddle Gully is being serialised in The West Australian newspaper’s ‘Ed!’ section at the moment. There’s also a shorter novel starring a terrorising cat that’s probably ready to be sent into the big, wide world. I’m busy at the moment with my PhD project for university—a historical novel for adults and an academic study—but I’m also mustering ideas for a sequel to Mystery at Riddle Gully.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
- Collect ideas like a magpie.
- Write little and often.
- Be yourself (aim to sound like ‘you’, not a ‘proper writer’, whatever that is)
- Push on when you’re feeling a bit flat and you think you’ll never finish your story—it’s just a rough patch, and who said writing was all a bowl of M&Ms anyway?
- Don’t aim for perfection in the first draft—it’s way too inhibiting. Be happy to throw out some (or a lot) of what you’ve written if you have to.
- Lastly, read a lot. Bit by bit, some of the good writing will rub off on you.
Oh, and lastly-lastly, don’t beat yourself up if something you send to a competition or a publisher gets rejected. It means you can call yourself a real writer!
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I love anything to do with the water, especially the ocean—swimming or snorkelling in it, kayaking or sailing on top of it or watching it. With the rest of the family, I’m into the sport of lacrosse. When there’s no-one around to laugh or groan, I sing and play my ukulele (but don’t tell anyone!)
Is your writing influenced by any writers in particular?
Hmmm … that’s a toughie. I know by whom I’d like my writing to look like it was influenced, but whether it does is another thing entirely! Ideally, my stories would be a mind-blowing mix of the styles of Dav Pilkey, Sonya Hartnett, Andy Griffiths, Tim Winton, Paul Jennings … and me.
Check out Jen Banyard’s website to learn more about her and her books.