For those unfamiliar with your books, how would you describe your fiction?
I would describe some of my books as social history picture books. Flame Stands Waiting for example is a totally imagined story about a horse that stands on the carousel at Luna Park in Melbourne, a real place. With The Dog on the Tuckerbox I’ve woven a story around the legend, which has been told through poetry, song and word of mouth since the late 1800s. There were probably many loyal dogs who waited for their masters who never returned. Queenie: One Elephant’s Story is a non-fiction work, the true story of an elephant who gave rides at the Melbourne Zoo for almost 40 years. Queenie was an icon in the days when zoos all over the world offered elephant rides.
So although I say these books are fiction, faction and non-fiction, they all required an enormous amount of research. As authors, anything we write requires checking, double-checking and research. My latest title Hey Baby! is a love letter to baby, a poem really, assuring a baby or small child how much they are loved and reminding adults – parents, grandparents, aunts and loved ones – of just how precious our babies are.
You hold a position with the Victorian chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). For those unfamiliar, how would you describe the SCBWI and what you do with the Victorian chapter?
Yes, I am the Assistant Regional Advisor – Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia (a mouthful, I know) for the SCBWI, which is the largest group of professional children’s book writers and illustrators in the world. Writing and illustrating are solitary and often lonely professions and the SCBWI provides a professional friendship group where we can share our passion and be supported in our work. My role is to offer regular gatherings where members can meet and share their ideas, struggles and achievements in a positive way. We meet 4 or 5 times a year in Victoria and in the last year we have also had gatherings in Launceston and Adelaide, where members and some non-members interested in the world of children’s books can gather and hear from other professionals in the industry, such as publishers, editors and representatives from other similar organisations.
You have written, “I often get ideas when I’m walking along the winding country roads where I live…” To what extent does where you live play a part in how you write, what you write about and your overall lifestyle as a fiction writer?
When I am presenting to school children and encouraging them to write, I explain that stories can be written about anything: “There are stories all around us waiting to be written – about what you ate for breakfast, your friend sitting next to you or the ant crawling along the windowsill.” Apart from being good exercise, I find that walking clears my head and because I only usually write picture books, I can often carry those few pages with me and make changes as I walk. I’m fortunate to live on the edge of the city, so five minutes from the back door I find myself walking along bush tracks. In fact, that’s exactly where I wrote several passages of The Dog on the Tuckerbox. The bush surrounding me gave me a sense of place and I imagined I was in the 1860s bush – although I did have to squint my eyes almost shut to hide a letterbox or two. I often write stories of the animals in the bush and if ever I am stuck on a word I take the story for a walk.
There are some nice looking covers amongst your books, such as the covers for Flame Stands Waiting, The Dog on the Tucker Box and Queenie. What do you think makes a good fiction book cover, or what is an example of a fiction book cover you like and what makes it work so well?
I think covers are vitally important in any book. They are the reason a book is first picked up, whether it’s in a library or a bookstore and whether it’s a book for adults or children. Although I am always involved in the decision of the cover, it is the publisher and illustrator who initially work on this. Flame Stands Waiting is a good example where the decision on covers took a while. I actually liked a more distant view of the carousel with Flame as the focus, standing out from the rest, but the publisher pointed out that the cover which was ultimately chosen asked more questions. Who was Flame? Who was the girl and what was she waiting for?
You have recently been doing appearances for your latest book, Hey Baby! How would you describe your balance of book store appearances, school visits, etc to help connect readers with your books versus things like writing, research, working with editors and illustrators, etc to create your books, and which parts of it all do you find most enjoyable?
I wonder whether any writer today is finding the right balance between the actual writing and the promotional side of what we do. With so much technology and ever-changing tools, writers are more than ever operating their own businesses and we need to be constantly aware of what the latest trends are. I will never stop talking to students in schools, libraries and book festivals, and visiting bookshops to connect with my audience because without an audience there would be no point in writing.
There is no nicer feeling than engaging a group of students or seniors in words you have created but I also crave those precious days where I can stay in my dressing gown and fluffy slippers writing as fast as my typing fingers will go or spending the morning pondering on that one elusive word.
If you could bring one fiction writer back to life for one day for the sole purpose of discussing writing fiction, who might you choose and why?
I actually wouldn’t need to bring her back to life. I would love to spend an hour or two with Margaret Wild, talking about her stunning picture books, her beautiful words and sharing her passion.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading, and do you have some favourites?
I constantly read whatever are the latest children’s picture books on the market. I return each Wednesday morning from the local mobile library, which parks two doors away, with an armful of books and stagger back down the hill with them. I think we have some wonderful children’s authors and illustrators in Australia but I also love to read anything by Kate DiCamillo and Jane Yolen, who are masters at what they create. Books for adults that I love include The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman and The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony and my favourite always, To Kill a Mockingbird.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I always carry whatever I’m working on around with me – often on a piece of paper but now usually on my iPad, and that’s the advantage of writing picture books. Whenever I’m waiting or have a moment to spare, I can always go over a word or a sentence and make changes. I have a mixture of picture books on the way, some fiction, others based on fact, but all of them have taken time. It’s such a common belief that picture books are easy and quick to write and anyone can pen 5 or 600 words for kids, but it’s making those words the best they can be that’s both the struggle and the joy.
Corinne Fenton’s author website: www.corinnefenton.com
The Australian Literature Review