Your Lulu Bell illustrated children’s books have been quite popular. What, in your experience, makes a good author/illustrator/publisher team for producing an illustrated children’s book series?
Of all my books, the creation of the Lulu Bell series has definitely been a collaborative effort. The series is about a girl called Lulu, growing up living in a vet hospital and it was partly inspired by my own childhood as the daughter of a vet. I wrote the first four books initially before pitching them to my publisher Zoe Walton at Random House. We then worked closely together to refine the language, tone, positioning and title of the series. When illustrator Serena Geddes was originally briefed to create the roughs she came over to my home, met my children and pets, and took some of her inspiration from family photographs. Serena and I have a very close working relationship where we frequently get together or chat on the phone to discuss the illustrations or ideas for covers, and have lots of laughs. The close relationship between author, illustrator, publisher and editor means that we share ideas, listen to feedback and work together to create the best possible series. There are now 11 Lulu Bell books, with another two being launched at the Sydney Writers Festival in May. The books have been translated into Afrikaans and Portuguese, so I am thrilled that kids as far away as South Africa and Brazil will be reading my stories. It is so exciting to see the books doing so well and I feel very lucky to have such a strong team working with me on Lulu Bell.
You have a series of time-slip novels for readers aged about 10-14. For those unfamiliar with time-slip novels, how would you describe the concept of time-slip and the appeal time-slip novels have for readers?
I love the concept of time-slip, and it obviously appeals to many readers as well, as I get hundreds of letters from children telling me how much they love them. My time-slip books each tell the story of a modern day child who finds an old piece of jewellery which is a link to someone who lived in the past. The protagonist then goes on a voyage of discovery, slipping back in time, to solve the mystery, find out what happened to the historical characters, and explore what life was like back then. I’ve always been fascinated by history and the idea of travelling back in time. I also love the idea of taking a modern day character, with all their experiences and foibles, and putting them in a completely unfamiliar environment where they have to deal with the dangers and difficulties that were faced by our ancestors. Through this experience, each of my modern day protagonists discovers something about their own life, strengths and inner courage. Each one is a stand-alone book, with a different setting and characters. My time-slip books have been recognised with various awards, and I am particularly thrilled that for the last four years, one of my books has been shortlisted for the KOALA and YABBA awards, where thousands of children around Australia nominate and vote for their favourite book.
You have described the character dynamics between two characters in your novel The Sequin Star, set in Australia during the Great Depression, as: “One is escaping poverty and the other is escaping wealth – can the two find happiness together.” What were some of the joys or challenges in depicting these character dynamics?
My character Rosina is a real battler, but a chameleon, who is very good at reinventing herself. She was a wonderful character to explore because she is strong and confident and resourceful, largely because of her tough life and having to fend for herself with limited resources. Kit on the other hand, has grown up in a wealthy family, but with his own challenges, particularly a distant father, the early loss of his mother and the weight of family expectations. Kit is very drawn to Rosina’s strength and flamboyance, while Rosina appreciates his sensitivity. I particularly loved creating the character of Rosina, both for her personality and for her occupation as a circus performer. Some of the challenges were researching and understanding traditional social expectations in the 1930s to ensure that my characters were believable and their relationships reflected these values.
What are your thoughts on the relative importance of historical accuracy and entertaining storytelling in historical fiction?
This is a tricky one. Firstly, it is very important to me that my books are as historically accurate as possible – and I do often get people writing to me to check tiny details. For example, were egg beaters invented in 1895? Or would a 15 year old girl really drive a circus truck without a license in 1932? So it’s important that I do thorough research over many months and double check my facts – reading memoirs, historical texts, letters and interviews, and visiting the settings. However I also believe that my primary purpose is not to deliver a history lesson. My primary motivation is to create a vivid world and to write an enthralling story, which children will want to keep reading. So the history needs to be accurate, but I need to tread lightly so that the story is not bogged down by the facts.
You have written: “Elizabeth Bennett has always been one of my favourite protagonists and I imagine that in many ways, she was based on Jane Austen herself.” To what extent would you say that any of your own characters are based on yourself?
Lots of my characters have a little spark of me in them. One of the obvious ones is young eight year old Lulu Bell, growing up living in a vet hospital just like I did as a child. She is the eldest child in her family – practical, caring, creative, sometimes a little bossy, and a tomboy who is good at solving problems. Like me she has a father who is a vet, a mother who is incredibly patient with all the animal chaos, a younger sister who is dreamy and imaginative, and a little brother who is funny and naughty, plus of course loads of loveable animals. Likewise some of the characters in the time slip books have elements of me – sometimes shy and awkward, sometimes bold and adventurous. But one of the characters that I admire the most is Charlotte Atkinson, the Mamma in The River Charm. She is a woman with true grit and courage, who would do anything to protect her children, and while she was not based on me, I like to think I too would be a formidable adversary if anyone was threatening my beloved children.
You speak often at schools, conferences and literary festivals. What are some of the things about your writing that people ask about most at these events?
People are fascinated by the process of creative writing – how do I research, how long does it take me to write a book, do I plan a book, how long does it take, where do I work, what do I do about writer’s block and the editing process. I often show them my notebook, which I carry everywhere with me – filled with jumbled notes, ideas, research data, character sketches, mind maps, lists of names from different historical periods, photographs of settings or people, and diagrams where I plan out my story arc. This is my first stage of planning a book and it looks rather disorganised. Next I write a synopsis of the story, covering the setting, characters and the basic plot, which I share with my publisher before I begin writing. Once I have signed the contract with Random House, I begin work on writing the story, setting myself word goals – for example 5000 words per week, to help me meet my looming deadlines. I often emphasise that for me, the researching stage and the editing stage each take about three or four months, almost as long as writing the first draft. And my number one tip for writers block? Just keep writing!
If your next book had to be science fiction, what do you think it would be about?
I worry about what the future will be like for coming generations, as our current first world lifestyles are simply not sustainable. Issues like climate change, loss of species, pollution, over population and the misuse of resources, mean that life will be very different for future generations. So if I was to write a science fiction book, I think it would focus on how life and technology changes in the future to manage these problems, and perhaps encourage readers to think what they could do now to protect our planet. And it would definitely have robots to do the housework!
What can readers look forward to from you over the rest of the year?
This year will be a busy one!! The six books in my time slip series has just been re-released with beautiful new covers, plus I have four new titles being launched in the Lulu Bell series, (two in March and two in June) which means lots of touring. I have trips planned to the Somerset Celebration of Literature, the Historical Novel Society Australasia Conference, Voices on The Coast, Sydney Writers Festival, Geelong festival and book tours in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria visiting lots of schools, so I will be away for about one week every month for the next few months. In addition I am also actively involved as an ambassador for Room to Read, Books In Homes and the CBCA, doing various events to promote children’s literacy. After writing five new Lulu Bell books last year, I have just started work on writing another book in my time slip series, set in Melbourne during the 1920s, exploring rebellious teenagers, Russian spies and an abandoned mansion. It’ s due out in March next year so I really need to get cracking on it!!
Belinda Murrell’s author website: www.belindamurrell.com.au
Belinda Murrell on Facebook
The Australian Literature Review