Jackie French is a prolific and beloved Australian author. She has written over 200 books spanning multiple genres, topics, and audiences. Jackie was kind enough to lend ScratchThat her time for this online interview. We picked her brain on topics that would interest our readers, like how to make it in the Australian writing scene. Over her career of nearly 30 years, she’s amassed plenty of tips and tricks to make it as a successful Australian author in the recent home-grown publishing boom.
Interviewer: So let’s just jump into it then. You’ve written over a large range of topics and genres over your years, usually at the same time. Do you find it difficult to remember whose voice you’re writing in or do you find it difficult to switch between them?
Jackie: No, um, look. So I’m writing different books at the same time; that’s the publishing schedule. My writing schedule is one book, another book, which will be a very different book, then another different book, et cetera. I can only write, for example, one adult historical novel a year, one YA mystery novel a year, probably one picture book a year, possibly two, because a picture book is often more inspiration than perspiration.
Interviewer: So you don’t really have that, there’s no real reason to switch. Like you’re writing this one, you write in one character, you’re writing one book and then you stop and then you go into another book.
Jackie: Yes. But also too it’s like writing is essentially. A very, very expert daydream. A Daydream, where you haven’t decided, just to revive the vast romantic movies, or the last thriller you saw and you become the hero.
Before I got with the hero or do interesting things for the hero, it’s more where you create a daydream which is original, which absolutely fascinates you about the subject that is nibbling the back of your neck. Like a hungry vampire saying ‘write me’, or you will never get another good night’s sleep.
You can’t write a book vividly, unless you’re really know the person you’re writing. If the person you’re writing isn’t vivid, if they’re forgettable, if you can forget them, there’s no way on earth your book is going to work.
There is a problem, particularly for a historical writer is that people thought differently and spoke differently, even in English. Even when I was a child people spoke, not so much in remarks, the kind of Twitter thing, et cetera. On Sunday afternoons, people would even talk for about an hour without being interrupted, just with things that they remembered and everyone would be quiet and listen to them, where it become a much faster back and forth.
Conversationalists or even not conversationalists, people will watch a spree and they’ll make remarks, or they’ll be doing something like that and make a remark while they doing it. We don’t have that. Sense of conversation often anymore. When you go back a hundred years or 200 years, the characters are going to speak often in dialects that the reader will probably be able to interpret, but like reading Shakespeare, a lot of the words they won’t understand.
I always find it very funny giving, often quite obscene passages to high school students to study Shakespeare where neither the teachers nor the students have any idea quite how rude what they are reading is. But that is the problem. Often the characters I’m creating, particularly if they were illiterate, or from an isolated area their accents and their dialect would be almost impossible for the reader. To decipher or even just, yes, they’d get distracted by it. So how do I give a small wafer of the character, um, but only a small amount of afraid, but keeping, keeping true to it, but nonetheless translating it into English, but losing track of a character
Interviewer: You’ve mentioned Shakespeare as an inspiration, like just his words and all that, but who would you say are your other literary influences today? And have you noticed a change between them today and when you first started?
Jackie: No, the influences I’ve got today are the ones from my formative years. I think they probably always will be. I was brought up in a family of storytellers, my father, particularly my grandmother and my great grandmother, they would tell me stories from their grandparents and parents who retold stories of their great grandparents. So I had family stories, passed over hundreds of years.
My father would read me story poems in bed. Both my parents would sing, even doing the washing up, everything was accompanied by music with boys, by the beauty of words. My grandmother Janny, um, sent me the first of Kath Walker now known as Oodgeroo Noonuccal’s tribe, spoke saying ‘Australia finally has their Bobby Burns’, which is the greatest compliment Janny could ever give to someone and Judith Wright’s books again, poetry books. So, for Kath and Judith, they joined and became close friends. When she moved to this district, I lived with her poems and some of Kath’s when, during an often very difficult childhood, they would be the poems I would go to to actually give me courage to go on, give me clarity to go on.
I think that is actually a poet’s duty to see the world and its people clearly, and to pass that on to other people. But the other one was Patrick White. I don’t enjoy reading his books very much, but reading them as a teenager, I realized there is not a single cliché. In them, no character, no sentence, no description. Everything is absolutely as he observed, he never lets himself go into the default mode, which is just so easy. So the words just spill out of us.
Interviewer: Yeah, that’s interesting.
Jackie: Actually, other people’s insights, other people’s stories, and reading his work always makes me ashamed of the lack of rigor of mine, and to go back again and make sure no, this image, this phrase, this character, this cliché, and also too, that I never have spear carriers via carriers.
The characters who are developed just to be sported by the hero as he escapes from the bad guys, that’s the only role. To never have, even if someone appears in the most minor roles, they actually have to be an individual and a character.
Oh, and Winnie the Pooh. Definitely Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner.
I loved that. I loved it all through school. In year 12 we had to study a classic and we were given a list of very worthy classics. And I argued that I should be allowed to read, to study The House at Pooh Corner because it was obviously a classic because it had survived so long and to the credit of my school, they let me do The House at Pooh Corner.
And as I got complete high marks for it, I mean, for possible marks for it, obviously the examiners agreed that The House at Pooh Corner was a classic, but we’re not talking about Disney’s version, which is absolutely awful.
The understated humour, the way that there are funny things, but the character that said it never realizes the humour. Everything is left to the audience and that wonderful sense of narrative; we’re going on an expedition! That sense of narrative, I was incredibly lucky.
Instead of being given, I’ve got, in fact, a few fairly cliché books where nothing much happens or the expected always happens in the end. And Winnie the Pooh in fact, the originals, the expected never happens, whether it’s trapping a huffalump or trying to give Eeyore a happy birthday. A.A. Milne always breaks the reader’s narrative imperative.
Whatever they expect is going to happen. It doesn’t happen. So I was very lucky with one of my first books. I was trained by a master to actually write and create the story well.
Interviewer: No worries. Well, speaking of how to create a good book; at Uni, we’re just starting to learn how to write good books. And because of that, a lot of us want to go into the writing and publishing industry.
So, with your many years of experience, what would be one thing that we have to look forward to? And then one thing that we should be aware of, like maybe something that we’re not really thinking of at the moment.
Jackie: Okay. Publishing in Australia is incestuous. Everyone knows everyone else. An editor with one company may very well end up being the head of another company. Never, ever be nasty to anyone because sometimes your career is going to come back and bite you.
Basically we are also a very small country. We’re a country where no government has actually realised the contribution of Australian literature. Australian literature employs more people than the mining industry. We’re valued – well, actually we’re not valued – but we’re seen as being these nice. Cultural people who had a nice cultural course, but we never actually seen as this extraordinary industry.
I don’t know if you read Donna Leon, she writes the most wonderful detective stories set in Venice and a few books ago, she had the Count, the rich Count, et cetera. He is taking all of his money and he’s investing in Australia. Because it’s one of the most, the only stable country he can think of in the world to invest in. No advertising campaign could do as much for the Australian economy, as one mention in Donna Leon of ‘liquidate everything and please invest in businesses in Australia’. We are an incredible export earner for Australia, we are an incredible employer in Australia, and this is something, as an industry, we have to keep making care that we are essential to the Australian culture.
We are essential to good escapism because, after all, it is so much easier to actually escape where something is familiar. We are idiosyncratic. If you look at, authors like Shaun Tan, I could go on with half a dozen authors. Australians and new Zealanders are very good at creating the kind of genre, which the world has never seen before.
We are incredibly original, but we are also a small market. And a small industry because of the population. And that means not just for your own career, but for the sake of literature, we actually have to work together as one industry. Our books don’t compete with each other, unless you’re unlucky enough to have a book with the same subject, much the same title or released as yours in the same fortnight.
But apart from that, if someone enjoys one of my books, they’re far more likely to buy another book by an Australian author. If they read another Australian author they’re far more likely to buy mine; we’re not competitors. Um, 99.999% of the work in industry, it’s doing it for each other and we need to do it together.
And most publishing companies realise that as well; they help each other.
Interviewer: Okay. leading on from that, you know, cultural cringe is the big thing that gets brought up on when discussing Australian literature. So, do you think nowadays cultural cringe is as prevalent as it once was? Or do you think it’s like slowly receding back?
Jackie: Um, it’s definitely slowly receding.
When I was at school, it was taken for granted that you had to go overseas. To succeed as a writer or even to succeed as an academic or a filmmaker, even if eventually you came back after you made your name or you had a really good C.V. I assumed in my first year at university, in fact, even my second year at university, that I would need to go and get a PhD scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge before I would be taken seriously, particularly as a female.
Back then before I’d be taken seriously to become an academic, or to become a writer, it was assumed that the only way of affording to be a writer, was to become an academic and then to writing my sabbaticals; that was not true. It actually vanished quite quickly, but certainly the generation before me, the generation before that, many generations before me. I think I’m probably the first generation who stayed in Australia and succeeded.
Interviewer: Yeah, you’re very lucky to have done that, it’s inspiring
Jackie: I am very lucky indeed, that I coincided a time where actually female writing was finally being taken seriously. Also, the internet has made the most extraordinary difference. It now means that a lot of my books are published, not just by HarperCollins Australia, but by Harper 360.
It means they can be accessed anywhere in the world. By the 1990s, Australia was regularly represented at the book fairs overseas. And that meant if your books were good enough, they would be sold overseas. My first book, as far as I know, has never been France gated overseas, but my second one Walking the Boundaries, was immediately taken up for overseas distribution.
Yeah, in fact, it’s still, I still get the occasional sort of $11. 50 brail Brazilian royal rights from that one. So the internet made the most enormous difference to having a global book industry rather than just a bitty one. Having said that. We are always going to be at a disadvantage because we’re not in the UK or the US.
Interviewer: Because we don’t have those big connections essentially.
Jackie: I’m speaking to an Irish author who in fact has got her own publishing company. And yet she publishes her own best-selling books through England and she says, look she’s actually embarrassed. She’s slightly ashamed, but she simply cannot afford to be published as an Irish writer, not through a large English company, because they have got such enormous distribution.
So we are always going to be a disadvantage because we’re not British. And because we’re not American, however again having said that, 70, well, sorry, I’m speaking probably 10 years ago. Maybe even more now, more than 60% of Us book titles are movie tie-ins. We’re not talking about books that have been turned into movies, and then people suddenly discovered pride and prejudice again and read that. We are talking about movies, particularly the Disney count of movies, which are then written as actually very, very bad books.
And that is more than 60% of the market. And that doesn’t leave very much of a market for other books. The diserfication also means that the US market, particularly for young people, expects that books will be nice; the hero will be nice and handsome, and the female will have a small waist or possibly have an extremely large waist, so that we can actually show we’re being diverse. But she will never have a medium-sized waist. She’s either going to be diverse or she’s going to be absolutely classic, the plastic surgery. So that doesn’t leave a lot of room for innovation. The USA is the only country which censored Diary of a Wombat.
Diary of a Wombat has been published in more than 40 countries and look, I’ve lost count how many languages, more than 40 languages. But in the USA, sorry, in France, they added more carrots. They did, they did change a bit in France. They thought we were very stingy with the carrots. In the USA, the wombat isn’t about to destroy things because the wombat is a nice little animal and nice little animals, couldn’t possibly destroy things, and the line that ‘I can’t believe that humans are so stupid’ was cut out because it blames someone, i.e. a human being.
Interviewer: Well, let’s bring it back to the Australian front. How does it feel knowing that the next generation of Australian authors regard you as an inspiration, an influence, and a role model in their own careers in writing?
Jackie: I didn’t know that.
Interviewer: Oh, well, I’m one of them
Jackie: If that is the case, I feel, I feel honoured and privileged and very slightly terrified. And it will also mean that when I go back to writing a book in 10 minutes’ time, I will probably try and do a slightly better job than I did before, just in case someone decides to make it a role model.
But I live in an isolated part of Australia, due to COVID the next surgery isn’t for a couple of years. I’m going to attend my first literary festival in about two or three years this weekend. I don’t, I don’t have a lot of contact, apart from writers, from friends, publishers, editors et cetera. But, no, that’s about it.
Interviewer: No worries. Um, well, we’ve gone 10 minutes over. Sorry about that. I did say 10 minutes, but –
Jackie: That’s fine.
Interviewer: Did you have any parting was of advice or just any little tid bits of information?
Jackie: Very, very much so.
Write in your own voice. Write in the subject that nibbles at the back of your neck and never, ever, ever be persuaded by publishers or by agents or by writing groups to write in a genre because it’s been successful. And there will be pressure to do that.
But the problem is that book that was successful probably came out last year. The year after, there have now been 1,001 pastiches of it, which your book is going to be competing with and it’s going to be second parent. The books, which really succeed are the original ones.
Write the book that you need to write, don’t bother about the genre. The genre is up to the publisher or the book seller to work out where it belongs. And if you’re lucky they’ll decide it belongs in two genres and put it in two places in the shop. Your job is to communicate whatever you feel is important to the reader.
That can be as simple as the way of communicating between two people. It can be as simple as, as observing the world around you and acting a bit like a window washer and just making the world clearer. There is no such thing as one theme for a book, a book is always got a thousand themes. It is always going to reflect who you are or it’s going to be an empty book, a cliché and a pastiche.
Having said that, the better your writing, the probably the longer it’s going to take you to be published and to establish yourself as an author. Don’t panic. It’s always going to take much longer than you think. Don’t panic after five years or even 10 years. It’s a bit like being a brain surgeon. You don’t just give a kid with talent, a brain saw and say, ‘start cutting’. The better, the better you’re going to eventually be as a writer, the harder it is, and the longer it is going to take for you to find your voice and your style and your originality. It is difficult to say, ‘look, have courage’ when you think ‘there is no hope. There’s no hope. I will never write a decent book. No publisher is going to accept this. I’ve wasted 10 years of my life.’
Just remember that just about every other successful author in the world has actually felt bad and this is just something you’re going to have to take on your shoulders. But, look don’t stop. If you can, look at some of the first drafts of people like Steinbeck, or, if you can get a hold of even Patrick White, et cetera. The earlier work of great writers is usually awful because they are trying to do something different.
They don’t have the skill to do it. They don’t have the experience and then make it absolutely appalling. Your early work is probably going to be absolute trash. That’s what the trash is for. If you stick at it for 10 years, it’s pretty certain that you’re going to get there.
Interviewer: No worries. Well, thank you for that. And thank you so much for those extra 15 minutes of time. We’ll let you get back to your very important writing and I wish you good luck. I can’t wait to read more of your work.
Jackie: Okay. And we’ll put good luck to you too.
And just, just to repeat, I’ve never meet anyone who hasn’t stuck at their work for 10 years, who actually hasn’t been successful. One of the things about old age; you do get to actually see the careers of a lot of writers and those who think they’re brilliant and they’re told they brilliant and skilled and probably are brilliant.
And yet fail, year after year after year, to get a book published, do eventually make it as extraordinary successful writers. I have never, ever seen any of those fail, but I have seen just about all of them fight for 10 years. And be sobbing, and be sobbing into their glass of orange juice at the festival going ‘I’ll never do it, I’ll never do it.’ It’s never easy.
Interviewer: No worries.
Jackie: Ok, good bye
Interviewer: Thank you for that. See you.