For those unfamiliar with your published work, how would you describe your fiction?
Difficult question! Varied is a word that springs to mind. Varied in genre: I write picture books for both infants and secondary school age readers and novels for primary to upper secondary/YA level. Obviously the works differ in thematic content – from a hen laying an egg, to a long nonsense verse about the machine in your head that makes the noises, to a rat-dealing gang of kids and, at the more adult end, an aboriginal massacre. The work covers a very diverse field. One editor described my work as eclectic which I thought at the time was amusing as my writing is always about what interests me and I thought then, and continue to think, that my interests are pretty mainstream. My YA novels though are uniformly based on historic incident so I suppose that’s something consistent.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing your novel To Die For?
The process began many years ago with a story from an old newspaper read by our teacher to my class at Emu Park Primary School. The story went something like this. Two men, a boy and a dog set out in a small sailing skiff from Rockhampton on the Fitzroy River to sail across Keppel Bay to Great Keppel Island for a camping holiday. After clearing the mouth of the river they were hit by a storm which capsized the boat. The men decided to swim to the nearest island which was only a mile distant. The boy could not swim so they tied him to the mast of the skiff. Taking the dog they struck out, leaving the boy. As a kid my heart went out to that boy – what choice did he have?
The first to die was the dog. One moment it was swimming strongly out in front of the men, the next it disappeared. Surely it succumbed to exhaustion? They men were dog-tired too, the heavy sea pounding them, wave after wave. The island only a hundred yards distant. Each now swam their own race against total exhaustion. One man had fallen behind, his strength failing. He felt something below his foot. A sandbank? He tried to touch it again, stretching his toes downward. Nothing. Waves broke above his head. He struggled to the surface only to find himself alone. He looked towards the shore.
Imagine … nothing but an empty stretch of water before him and beyond it the white beach where turtles laid their eggs. Imagine swimming that final stretch.
But he made it ashore and, after an unimaginable night, so did the young boy, washed up on the rocks at the main swimming beach in Emu Park where an early morning walker rescued him from the wrecked skiff and raised the alarm.
Since then I wondered what that night was like for that boy. How did he feel that night? But I wondered even more what swimming the last hundred yards alone felt like for that man.
I put my answers into this book.
To Die For follows a fourteen year old boy alone on a boat. How do you sustain a reader’s attention for 192 pages with a story based around a boy alone on a boat?
With a great deal of difficulty! Initially I wrote the narrative in the third person, which gives me an extra voice in a narrator, but I quickly realised that I had nothing to say authorially to give the voice interest or command and secondly the third person telling slowed the narrative which, due to the nature of the story, is leisurely enough to begin with. So I used flashback conversations between the boy, Christos, with a range of characters from his life in a range of situations, all commenting on his current problems. I also used internal monologue and made the boat into a character so some direct speech was also possible between Christos and the boat, L’il Bit. The plot closely follows a rising tension short story model with a series of climaxes which obviously works well in sustaining interest. But interestingly I found myself having to rewrite most of the minor climaxes to lower the tension level so it could be sustained across a fairly long time, narratively speaking, before the final big one. Pacing also tended to lag in the first drafts so had to work on that a lot. Putting flashbacks in present tense alleviated this problem considerably. Finally a lot of descriptive writing was used to illuminate Christos’ character over the course of the book, This helped greatly to sustain psychological interest.
How did you come to write your first fiction book and get it published?
Snigger James on Grey was my first book of fiction. I was successful in receiving a grant from Arts Qld to write a series of short stories. The second one I wrote extended itself and turned into the second chapter of a novel. Arts Queensland accepted this happy serendipity as an acquitted grant. These things happen. I was very inexperienced then and didn’t realise that different story ideas need differing word counts to express themselves in a satisfying manner both for the writer and the reader. I sent the ms to Lothian who received glowing reader’s reports and the rest as they say … is cliche!
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters, and what makes that character work so well for you as a reader?
Be warned I become very twitchy when asked for a favourite anything. I’m utilitarian in my liking. I like many characters and the way they work within their fictional settings for many different reasons. At different times of my life and when different emotions predominate in my day to day life I find thinking about different writers and their fictional creations most satisfying. That said I like many Ray Bradbury characters as they seem to naturally inhabit their parallel universes, sliding between them in a ‘realist’ manner. I love the character of the diviner in Randolph Stow’s, Tourmaline, a character who doesn’t speak on his own behalf really but his story is constructed around him in wild conjecture. I love reading ‘writer’s writers’ for whom building a character is an exercise in craft from which I can learn. Such as Frodo Baggins, for whom an entire world and its history is created by Tolkein to explain and sustain just one character’s story.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I enjoy science fiction, reality-based fantasy and historical and other ‘literary’ novels. Because a lot of my fiction has an historical base I like reading history, particularly history with a strong emphasis on story. Creative non-fiction is a real highlight, if done well – though many write it very poorly. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Kite Runner, Gilead are all the types of books I enjoy reading. Wretched confession – I don’t particularly enjoy reading y/a novels. Doing so is too much like work!
What is it like for you being an author living in Emu Park, Queensland, on the coast just east of Rockhampton?
It’s pretty isolated here from the mainstream of book publishing but I don’t really enjoy all the politics of publishing and the ‘literary life’ and am by nature a solitary being, so I quite enjoy living here. The main downside is that I don’t get too many schools visits to supplement my income. But there’s a lot of unexplored history so that keeps me happy and there is a vibrant and growing writing culture in the community.
What advice would you like to give for writers working on their first novel or children’s book manuscript?
Wait for a while before you attempt to get your work published. The book industry is in such turmoil with ebook and other electronic issues to which are added major economic uncertainty around the world there has never been a better time to wait! But use the time to ask professional and non-professional advice from readers. I use the lady who runs the local shop, a friend who is as blunt as a lump hammer and my wife and daughters, none of whom let me get away with anything, to give me feedback which I use to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite.
The synopsis for your upcoming picture book Not This Little Black Duck reads:
Bullies create more bullies. It takes a very special individual to stand up and say, ‘I will not be like you. I will not do as you do.’ To break the cycle of abuse takes strength, determination and self-knowledge – it takes Duck, the Wonder Duck! Our Hero!
What can you tell us about Not This Little Black Duck and any other upcoming fiction projects?
What is there to tell about a duck named Duck who lives on a golf course? You’ll have to figure that one out yourself! As to other projects I have quite a few at different stages from 50k words in to only just begun but I’ve become rather chary recently about putting the themes of my work out there for public attention. I worked a long time on researching a historical novel and writing half of it, only to find that a big-name writer had just published a work based on the same history using similar characters. I don’t think that one’ll see the light of day now. But call it superstition if you like!
You can read more about Mark Svendsen and his fiction for children, teens and young adults at www.marksvendsen.com.
The Australian Literature Review