Tania McCartney writes children’s and adults’ books and was an ACT Ambassador for the National Year of Reading 2012. Her latest children’s book is Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline.
Tania is our featured author in the autumn 2013 issue of Alphabet Soup magazine. We can only include part of the Q&A in the magazine, so we’re sharing the full version with you here.
Can you tell us about where you live?
I live in Canberra with my husband and two kids (Ella, 12 and Riley, 9) in a paper house at the base of a book mountain. That’s what it feels like, anyway! There is so much paper and so many books, I could open a bookstore or run an origami festival. I’ve lived in lots of different places through my life, and my little family unit and I have so far lived in Melbourne, Adelaide, Beijing and Canberra—so we do feel like wanderers. Canberra is fun—we have so many cool things to see and do here, and of course, my favourite place of all is the National Library of Australia on Lake Burley Griffin.
How did you come to be a writer?
It chose me. My favourite possession is my grade three English book with the doggy sticker on the front—filled to brimming with creative stories. I’ve always loved to write and had my first poem published in a Tasmanian newspaper when I was 8. Since then, I’ve never stopped writing but it wasn’t until I was about 38 that I took it up full time. I feel very chuffed to finally say that my full time job is an author. It took a long time to get there (which is really why you absolutely must stick with your dreams—they do happen).
Is writing a nonfiction book very different from writing fiction?
Writing nonfiction is a little different because you may have to do lots of research (Australian Story involved around 8 months of research) but you still have lots of creative licence when you write the words. I actually find nonfiction easier to write because the bones of your work—the structure—is already there, and you can just pad it out with your research finds and all the fun bits. With fiction, you need to create everything—and that can be both thrilling and scary. The great thing about fiction though, is that you have full use of your imagination—and that basically means you can do and create whatever you want. I love that about writing.
Was it easy to get your first book published?
My publishing journey has been kind of odd and very untraditional. I sent an adult novel to a publisher when I was about 20 and they liked it so much, they sent it to an ‘outside reader’ which is basically a good sign. Because I was still so new to writing, they thought I needed more time to develop my work, so I wasn’t offered a contract. I remember being devastated and although I kept writing, I didn’t submit to any other publishers for a very long time. Then in my late 20s, I had the opportunity to take 8 months off to write my first nonfiction book—You Name It. I sent it off to about 8 publishers and had TWO acceptances (I chose the first publisher—Hodder and Stoughton), which was a real thrill. So, having my first book published was not too hard. Since then I’ve been published by four other publishers, but each acceptance was after building a relationship with the publisher. I send manuscripts to publishers all the time and still receive as many rejection letters as everyone else! but I’ll never, ever give up.
Where do you find your ideas/inspiration?
From everyday life—those little moments you experience on any given day. I also find lots of inspiration in children, particularly my own—the things they say, the things they do. My other big inspirations are travel and photography. I created my Riley the Little Aviator books from a love of travel and I also use photographs in the series. I’m a very visual person, so beautiful pictures and photos inspire me to create stories. I LOVE picture books—yes, even as a grown up—and have thousands of them in my house.
How do you do your research for a nonfiction book?
It really depends what the book is about. For Australian Story, I researched Australian history, so I scoured websites (mainly government and educational sites, because they are much more accurate) and read books and watched documentaries and talked to people. I also used Trove, which is the National Library’s online search engine for a mass of historical information. As I gathered the information, I kept it in a Word document on my computer. I collected as much info as I could, then when I was done, I began editing the information down into bite-size pieces. That’s the way I work best.
When you are working on a book like Australian Story, do you have to find your own photographs and images?
Most children’s books published by the National Library require the use of pictures from their very impressive image collection. I was tasked with wading through almost 130 000 online images—photos, maps, paintings, drawings, diagrams—in search of the perfect pictures to go with my text. It was a lot of work but I loved it! I found some really cool images—some really funny ones, too. Some of the illustrations in the book were done by the book’s designer, Peter Shaw. Of course, there are no existing photos of dinosaurs! so he added illustrations whenever we needed them. [Check out this earlier post for a peek inside some of the pages!]
Would you like to have lived in another point in history?
I would have loved to live between the 1920s and 1960s. Excluding the World Wars, I think this was a fascinating and creative period of time, when mankind made so many leaps and bounds across all areas—from film and culture to human rights. Ancient civilisations also fascinate me. How cool would it be to spend a day in Ancient Rome or Machu Pichu with the Incas or outback Australia with the Aborigines or Ancient Egypt … although I would have liked to take rose-petal milk baths and not have to build those pyramids!
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I like to read. No—I LOVE to read. Being an ACT Ambassador for the National Year of Reading 2012 was a huge thrill as I’m passionate about books—and will seriously read wherever I can, whenever I can. I even read on the treadmill. I also love to travel, take photos of anything and everything, and bake delicious things with my children.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I really loved the Amelia Jane books by Enid Blyton but my favourite series of all time is the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Write what you know and love. Just like reading, you need to focus on something that makes you smile—something you enjoy. Reading really, really, really helps you become a better writer. It expands your vocabulary and your understanding of word placement. It also helps you create really cool sentences. Writing what you see in your head rather than what you ‘hear’ or think you should write, is also vital. Write as though you were talking to a friend—use your own voice, invent your own words, don’t be afraid to be a little kooky. And when you’ve finished writing, be sure to re-draft. No one writes the perfect story first time. Write your story, let it sit awhile, then go back and make it even better. I think three or four drafts should do it.
Are you working on a book at the moment?
I’ve just finished writing my first junior fiction historical novel for New Frontier. It’s on Caroline Chisholm and I loved writing it, so I’d like to do more in that style. I’m also finishing up two more books for the National Library. One of them features the really beautiful botanical paintings from their image collection and the style of this book is unique and fun. I photographed my son and some other kids, and I’ve cut and pasted them into the pages of the book so they are adventuring through the paintings. It looks amazing! The second one is also a picture book about the evolution of the Aussie child. It’s being illustrated by one of my fave Aussie artists—Andrew Joyner, so that’s super exciting. I’m about half way through the next Riley book—about a jumpy kangaroo in Canberra (you can see her in my photo!)—and I’m spending the rest of the year working on my first junior fiction series—in fact, two series … one is a really kooky style of book showing kids how to act their age, and the other is for my very patient daughter, Ella, about a girl who loves animals. My Riley series is about my son Riley, so now it’s Ella’s turn!
Find out more about Tania and her books on these websites: