For those unfamiliar with your books, how would you describe your fiction?
I am now working on my sixteenth book for children. These range from picture books, to fantasy adventure for primary school kids (The Sun Sword Trilogy) to historical adventure and time slip for early teens (books such as The Ivory Rose and The Forgotten Pearl). With all of my books I write exciting adventure stories that I hope kids will love. I want my books to be fun and joyful, but also to help kids think about their world.
The set up for your recent novel The Forgotten Pearl is: “When Chloe visits her grandmother, it unleashes a flood of memories, not discussed for seventy years. Chloe could never have imagined how close the second world war came to destroying her own family so many years ago. Could the experiences of another time help Chloe to face her own problems? In 1941, Darwin is a remote outpost in the far north of Australia – a peaceful paradise far from the war. Poppy is a mischievous, fun-loving girl, with a menagerie of unusual pets. Her life seems perfect but when Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, then Australia, Poppy’s world is torn apart.” How did you make this novel primarily set in the 1940s appeal to contemporary readers?
With The Forgotten Pearl, I wanted contemporary readers to really empathise with my main characters, to perceive Poppy as an ordinary teenage girl who experienced extraordinary events. To do this I began by setting the domestic scene in Darwin in the early days of the war. Poppy, like many teenagers, is busy with her family, her chores, her pets, her friends and her dreams. She and her friends talk about fashion and music and fun. But then overnight Poppy’s world crumbles as Australia declares war on Japan and Darwin becomes a war zone. Her sisters leave to help the war effort. Her brother is taken prisoner-of-war by the Japanese in Singapore. Her dad is a doctor at the hospital. Poppy and her mother are on the verge of being evacuated when Darwin was bombed. It was important to me that the action was inspired by historical events, and that that the events are realistic and believable. The other strategy I employed to make the action appeal to contemporary readers was to set part of the action in the present day, and to make my modern day character Chloe, discover her family’s hidden past through the stories and letters shared by her grandmother.
The Forgotten Pearl has been your most popular book so far. Do you think there is something in particular that makes this novel stand out and connect strongly with more readers than your previous novels, or do you think it has more to do with your readership growing over time and being larger with each new book?
Yes The Forgotten Pearl has been my best-selling book so far, although The Ivory Rose and The Locket of Dreams are not far behind! I think that is partly because as each book comes out, there is a greater awareness of the books amongst readers, teacher/librarians and booksellers. Quite a few readers wrote to me to say they read The Forgotten Pearl first, then went back and read all my other books. I also think that The Forgotten Pearl had a great appeal with readers because it was about a period in Australia’s history which has rarely been explored. Several adults in Darwin wrote to tell me that they had learned so much about Darwin that they had never known before. I also had an amazing experience with a retired teacher who I met in Darwin at the launch of The Forgotten Pearl last year. She told me she had been staggered by the coincidences between her own life and my main character Poppy. Like Poppy she had grown up in Darwin before the war and was evacuated south, her father was a doctor at the hospital and she even lived in the same tiny street as Poppy! Like Poppy she grew up to become a teacher and came back to Darwin. Lastly her grand-daughter was also called Chloe. We were both incredibly moved and amazed by these coincidences. I was so thrilled when she told me that the story really rang true to her.
You recently appeared at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, an annual literary festival primarily for school aged readers, held at Somerset College on the Gold Coast. What was a highlight or two from your time at the festival?
The Somerset festival is fantastic. One of the highlights was meeting so many kids who had read my books and loved them. Some of the children came to see me every day just to have a chat. I also came home to find my inbox full of emails from children, teachers and parents saying how much they had enjoyed the presentations and workshops. One boy wrote to say he had read my whole trilogy in four days and loved it, so when was the next one coming out? My favourite however was from a girl who wrote a lovely, long email (she bumps into everything because she can’t stop reading my books even when she is walking around!). Here is a short extract:
“I LOVED YOUR WORKSHOP. It inspired me to write, so at the moment I’m writing a piece I’m dedicating to you. It will be my 3rd finished book, I hope. You are my favourite author AND ALWAYS WILL BE. You are so inspiring, kind and funny, plus your books make me bump into everything!!!”
What is one of your favourite fiction books you have read in the past year or two and what made it work so well for you as a reader?
I read lots of books every year, so it is always difficult to pick favourites. I have just finished reading The Wild Girl, by my sister Kate Forsyth. This was a wonderful story about Dortchen Wild, who lived next door to the Grimm Brothers in the early nineteenth century and told them many of the fairy tales which went into their famous collection. It is a fascinating insight into a period of German history which I knew little about. It is also a beautifully told love story. Other books I loved recently include The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. I loved the way it slipped back and forth between the stories of women in different generations of the same family, to reveal the hidden secrets of a family’s past. Finally I was fascinated to read A Mother’s Offering to her Children, the first children’s book published in Australia. It was written in 1841 by my great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Waring Atkinson. I re-read this as part of the research into my new book The River Charm which comes out on June 1. My new time-slip book is inspired by the amazing true life adventures of my ancestors, the Atkinson family in the early 1840’s in colonial Australia. They were one of Australia’s earliest literary and artistic families.
The cover for your novel The Locket of Dreams was recently redone by Sarah Davis, and I think many would agree it’s a nice looking cover. What do you think makes a good novel cover, or what is an example of a novel cover you especially like and what makes it so appealing to you?
Covers are very tricky. There is no doubt that the success of a book is hugely influenced by its cover, which is why my publishers at Random House spend so much time and research when deciding on the cover. To me, a really good cover must be beautiful and enticing. It needs to reflect the experience that the reader will have when they read the book. Some of the words that describe covers I love include – mysterious, exciting, intriguing and utterly gorgeous! Not surprisingly, this is exactly how I’d describe the beautiful new cover for The Locket of Dreams by Sarah Davis. I adore the covers which have been done for my books by Nanette Backhouse – especially for The Forgotten Pearl and my new book The River Charm. I also love the covers done by Serena Geddes for my new Lulu Bell series. Lulu just seems so full of character and life.
If you could bring any fiction author back to life for one day for the sole purpose of discussing fiction writing who might you choose and why?
I would love to have afternoon tea with Jane Austen! I discovered Jane Austen’s novels when I was a teenager and immediately loved them. I particularly enjoyed the satirical humour of her novels, the witty dialogue and the insight into late eighteenth century English society. Elizabeth Bennett has always been one of my favourite protagonists and I imagine that in many ways, she was based on Jane Austen herself.
Most of your books are generally considered to be more suited to girls whereas your Sun Sword Trilogy is generally considered as more suited, or equally suited, to boys. To what extent do you treat these books as primarily for girls or primarily/equally for boys when writing them and use that to help guide your creative decisions, or is your approach something more like writing the story of your characters and leaving it for others to decide if it appeals to them (and to your publisher to decide where to put the emphasis in the cover design and marketing, which can influence who is likely to pick up your book)?
With all my books, I generally write the sort of stories that I love to read. But I also have a certain reader in mind. With my fantasy adventure series, the Sun Sword Trilogy, that reader was my son Nick, who was ten and eleven when the books were published. I deliberately included many elements that he loved in books, such as bows and arrows, swordfights, a dangerous quest, codes and puzzles, and magical gems. My time-slip books were written for my daughter Emily who is now fourteen. Lots of girls read my Sun Sword Trilogy and love it. Likewise boys also read my time-slip books, but there is probably less cross over. With the time-slip books, my publisher Zoe Walton and I discussed how they should be pitched, and decided I should focus on girls. I think boys and girls definitely tend to like different things in books. Most boys love fast-paced, action packed adventures with lots of humour. Lots of girls love that too, but they also love books that explore emotions and relationships with family and friends. With my new Lulu Bell books, I talked to my eight year old niece Ella. She told me she loved stories about friends, families and animals. With the covers she loved anything as long as it was pink! So Lulu Bell is the story of an eight year old girl called Lulu growing up in a vet hospital having lots of adventures with family, friends and animals. And no prizes for guessing the colour of the first cover!!
What is next for your fiction writing?
This year I have five books coming out! There are four books in my new Lulu Bell series, with another two planned for early next year, plus my new time-slip book The River Charm is released in June. The River Charm is a very special book for me because it is based on the true life battles of my ancestors, the Atkinson family. The book is set in the 1840s and told from the perspective of my great-great-great grandmother Charlotte Atkinson, the eldest of four children.
Belinda Murrell’s author website: www.belindamurrell.com.au
The Australian Literature Review