How the Voyage Began: Part 1

This is an article I wrote for the NCACL‘s journal, Notes, Books and Authors, in 2009, when I donated my collection of letters from Australian children’s authors. Formerly the Lu Rees Archives, founded in 1974, the NCACL has been shepherded for many, many years by the wonderful Dr Belle Alderman.

School Magazine is where it began. I won’t be alone in attributing my love of literature to the New South Wales Department of School Education’s four-part, monthly publication which began in 1916 and happily still exists today. I would soon lose track if I tried to count the number of wonderful authors I encountered through its pages during my primary school years but perhaps the most important was Robin Klein.

In the mid-80s, my friends were raving about Hating Alison Ashley, but already I knew her work from School Magazine, where she’d first been published in 1978. As well as stories, poems and now book extracts, there was an author profile. Robin seemed as friendly and funny, scatty and scathing as her books. Greedy for more stories, I was greedy for instalments in-between publications. Perhaps that’s why I first wrote to her in January 1986.

There were other reasons, of course. I knew I wanted to make books – physically create them – and somehow I thought it would be sensible to get to know other creators to find out how it was done. That this seemed possible reveals that the notion of ‘author as performer’ and ‘author as public property’ which is so prevalent now is long-established. Nearly every author visited schools and not just in Children’s Book Week. (Amazingly, this must have seemed new and somewhat bewildering to the authors. I can’t think of any of the people I corresponded with who, when young themselves, conceived of writing as a viable profession because they didn’t know it could be done. None of them had written to authors, let alone met them. Books just appeared on the shelves, as if by magic.)

Also, I’d just read Beverley Cleary’s Dear Mr Henshaw – another School Magazine recommendation – in which a primary-school-aged boy corresponds with his favourite author. So off I wrote to Robin Klein, care of School Magazine, whose staff I also befriended and visited each school holiday. Robin quickly wrote back a courteous, neatly-typed letter on patterned notepaper. There was no invitation to keep in touch – but none was needed. I wrote back and she replied and over the next twelve years, we exchanged forty letters and cards. There were always new books to talk about and I feel very privileged to have witnessed the conception and publication of Came Back To Show You I Could Fly, All in the Blue Unclouded Weather and The Listmaker. Always Robin’s letters conveyed the hectic nature of her life – the births of her four grandchildren, three house moves, and the increasingly demanding nature of the publishing world. She never complained of being overburdened by my and other fans’ letters, although I knew she received vast swags of mail and invested huge amounts of time and money in replying to them. (Though at least she got a book out of it: in 1988, Allen & Unwin published Dear Robin, a picture book that included extracts from a decade’s worth of fan mail, including a few pieces of mine.)

Robin was so generous and forthcoming that I was inspired to write to other authors. I had discovered Colin Thiele’s books and wrote to him. Again, there followed a decade’s correspondence. Like Robin Klein, Colin was badly afflicted by arthritis but his replies seemed to arrive almost as soon as I’d sent my own letter. Our friendship was renewed on annual visits to Adelaide where my grandparents lived, and I got to know his lovely wife Rhonnie and, back in Sydney, his publisher, Walter McVitty as well. In April 1988, I was involved in making a Film Australia documentary about Colin, and visited the farms of his boyhood in Eudunda. (My letters to Colin also ended up in a book. His biographer, Stephany Evans Steggall, published, after Colin’s death, a final tribute, entitled Yours Sincerely, Colin Thiele. It is a happy notion that readers’ letters are forming an important part of the archives of lives and careers of Australian children’s authors.)

Nadia Wheatley and Paul Jennings soon became regular correspondents, then Victor Kelleher, Gillian Rubinstein and Margaret Clark. Across the Tasman, Margaret Mahy decorated her letters with her felt-pen drawings. In England, I began a correspondence with Joan Aiken which resulted in a memorable meeting many years later and, years after that, a book of her stories which I compiled just before her death. In 1990, I wrote to Jan Mark – because she was Robin’s favourite author and soon became my own favourite – and another enduring, significant friendship began.

I can’t recall the impetus to make this private correspondence public and begin Rippa Reading, which lasted for 52 issues over nine years, but I think it must have been part of that culture of making authors available. So many of the letters I wrote from that first issue in November 1986 onwards were with a view of making copy. I would send a ‘personality prober’ questionnaire and request for a photo and ask specific questions about their latest – often their first – book. Over the years I would stay in touch with many of them – Libby Gleeson, Dianne Bates, Allan Baillie and Caroline Macdonald – but somehow these correspondences ran alongside my letters from my regular friends. If I wanted Colin, Robin and Gillian, for example, to contribute to the magazine I would ask specifically. I wanted our private correspondence to remain precisely that.

Over the years I made other bonds and friendships in the Australian book world – primarily, the staff of School Magazine, especially Cassandra Golds who like me had been a fan of the publication as a child, and who has published four works of fiction of her own. Publishers and publicists around the country were people I kept in touch with and enjoyed seeing. When SCECGS Redlands, my school and the publisher of Rippa Reading, decided we could widen the readership and embarked on a massive marketing campaign, led by librarian Virginia Allman, I appeared on radio and TV – including two regular reviewing slots – and spoke at conferences and wrote for other publications. The early 90s were an exciting time.

 By the mid-90s, I had begun writing to more and more British authors, which had begun with Jan Mark. Back then Australian readers were regularly treated to Arts Council-funded author tours and I met Anne Fine, Berlie Doherty, Michael Morpurgo, and others. British publishing subsidiaries kept a steady flow of books and authors coming to Australia. English life and writing became a preoccupation of mine and I decided to make my home here after university – again, inspired completely by books. (I knew too that though the Australian publishing scene was buoyant job offers would not be thick on the ground.) So my career as an editor in publishing began.

Apart from the best training – reading – writing to authors was ideal preparation. Quickly I realised I had learned so much through my correspondence. Working with authors, I began to relish afresh the privacy of reading and writing lives. Of course, it’s wonderful to have books recommended and in turn to share novels we’ve loved with people we think will enjoy them. Going to book groups can be entertaining and rewarding. Attending festivals and readings and seeing authors on TV adds other facets to the reading experience. But there’s nothing like curling up alone with a book and immersing oneself in another world.

As an editor, mine is a kind of midwivery role which balances the private world of the author and reader with the public side of conveying the story to other editors, the art department, the production controller, sales and marketing, publicity and, increasingly, the trade. But for as long as possible, I need to maintain my privacy with the author, allowing them to make changes and reshape their view of their work until, at the last minute, the most definitive version of the text that seems possible to us is sent to the printer. Many authors say they write for themselves. It’s the publisher’s job to conceive of and find them an audience. So it’s my job to encourage them to tell their story in their own way, but to remind them that soon that story will pass into the public domain; that people who do not know them, who aren’t them, will take the book and interpret it in their own way. So is it as lucid, as accessible as it can be? Often it’s a tightrope on which I walk.

So I think about the reading public and the trade but I always think, too, of my letters from authors – because through them, I learned that writing is a solitary process, that authors can feel quite isolated, lonely and doubtful that the readership on which they depend really exists. I can understand that many of the writers I corresponded with appreciated my interest and enthusiasm.

But most of all – and not just because so many of my correspondents are sadly no longer with us and their books have slipped out of print – I feel extremely lucky to have been welcomed so generously into their quiet, private worlds.