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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2021 - Author talks (primary) - 03. Jessica Townsend

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MATILDA: Hi, I'm Matilda and I'm from Ebenezer Public School. We're here today at Riverside Theatre Parramatta on [inaudible] as a part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Primary Schools Day. And I'm here with the fantastic Jessica Townsend. Hi, Jessica. How are you?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: I'm very well, thank you, Matilda. How are you?

MATILDA: Good. So when did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: I think I could pinpoint it as age seven. It was when I wrote my first story. I had a teacher who took us through story writing in class one day. It was our first time doing it. And she said, 'I want you to write a three-sentence story. It has to have a beginning sentence, a middle sentence, and an end sentence.'

And I wrote a mammoth, three-million-sentence story because I couldn't stop because I was so excited I got to write my own story. And that was probably when I made the connection that all of the books that I loved to read were actually made by real people. And they got to do that as their job. And so, yeah, from about the age of seven, I thought, that's what I want to do. I want to write things down and force people to read them. [laughs]

MATILDA: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: I always wanted to be an author from age seven. However, I will say also at that age, I had a bit of a list. I wanted to be an author, a violinist, a singer, a dancer, an actor, and a polo player. And I did not know what polo was, but I really liked horses, and I knew that it involved horses. And disappointingly, I have not grown up to be a polo player, but this is an OK fallback.

MATILDA: If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Oh, gosh. I wouldn't want to give any spoilers. I would say, 'Kid, the best is yet to come.' I would say-- if I could-- I guess I would sort of say, 'Keep doing what you're doing, and you will get there. And finish things, and work hard. And it's going to take you a long time to write a book, but you're going to get there and get to the end of it. And keep going.' That's what I would say to any kid. Just keep going. If you have a dream, if you have a plan, hold on.

MATILDA: What kind of research do you do before writing the Nevermoor book?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Well, I'm a little bit funny. With the big, important things that you would think you should research, I don't do that. For example, I recently wrote a book called Hollowpox, and it is about, unfortunately, it is about a disease outbreak, which is a massive coincidence. But you would think that I would research what happens when a disease comes out in the world and explodes everywhere. But I didn't, I just guessed. And I annoyingly guessed a few things quite correctly as I found out in the last year and a half or so.

But then there'll be really tiny, specific things that I will waste a lot of time researching in very minute detail. For example, there's a scene in my latest book that's set at an opera house. And there's this one line, it's a one line, and they're backstage, they're waiting for the show to start, and it says something like, 'A stagehand sent out the 15-minute call, and you could hear the sounds of an orchestra warming up outside.'

And I was like, would that work? Is that how things work? Is how that works in our brass? Would there be a 15-minute call? Would you hear the orchestra from the dressing room? And I have a friend who has done a lot of work in theatres. And I called her, and I made her talk to me for about 45 minutes so that I could just get the details. Would this be accurate, for one line? [laughs] So, I don't know.

MATILDA: So, how long did they take to make? How long did it take to write them?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Sorry, Nevermoor took a long time. Nevermoor took 10 years. In my defence, I was procrastinating for a lot of that time. So, I first got the little kernel of the idea for Morrigan when I was about 18. And then I wrote three draughts over a period of about a decade. And finally when I was about 28, 29, I was sort of done.

But in that time as well, it's kind of hard to say how long it took to write that specific book because in that time I was also planning the entire series, which is hopefully going to be nine books. And I was sort of plotting out the world and doing a lot of the world building for that. But then my second book took about a year and same with book three, took about a year.

MATILDA: Have you read anything that would change your-- make you think differently about fiction?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: So, there are a lot of books coming out at the moment that are novels in verse, which I think is really, really-- I think that's, it makes me think differently about how we write novels and how we sort of consume language and words and I've-- it's never occurred to me before that you could do that. And I guess that's probably people have been doing it for a long time, but it feels very new to me in the last few years.

So there have been some amazing novels in verse that have come out. And I just think that's an exciting thing that you can do. And graphic novels, as well, they make you sort of think about the format that you're writing in and just how many kind of exciting things and exciting ways that there are now to consume stories and poetry. Yeah, so there are lots of ways to consume stories. And a novel does not just have to be prose, which is pretty exciting.

MATILDA: How do you select the names of your characters?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: That's my favourite thing to do. So I've always been really obsessed with names. Even when I was a kid, I used to write just lists of names. I would get them from baby naming books and from the names of my friends' pets. And you know when you watch a movie and at the end the credits roll and it's just all of the names of people who worked on the film, I used to just be the weirdo who would sit in the cinema. I wouldn't leave at the end of the movie. I'd sit there watching the credits roll.

But I was looking for cool and interesting names. And this was a little trick that I had for myself. I wouldn't write them down as I was going because the credits move so fast. I would just watch them, and anything that looked really memorable I would try to keep in my head. And if it was still in my brain when the credits finished rolling three years later, because that's how slow they are, then I would write it down. And I've gotten some really cool names from the series like Jack, character called Jack, goes to a school called Graysmark Academy. And that was from and that.

But I also really love getting names from mythology. So Morrigan is from Irish mythology. I have Irish roots, so it's a little hat tip to my background. In Irish mythology, Morrigan is-- They have a few different names for her, but she's the phantom queen or the queen of death, and she has the ability to turn into three crows. So that's how I got the name Morrigan Crow.

And Jupiter North is one of my favourite names as well. and Jupiter was very carefully chosen. In Roman mythology, Jupiter is the father of the gods. And Jupiter was always going to be this kind of father figure for Morrigan. And his surname is 'North,' which felt sort of vaguely explorer-y because he's from the League of Explorers. And that felt like north on a compass. But then also in like an emotional sense, he's kind of the moral compass of the story. And he's Morrigan's true north, so the person that she looks up to and the person who kind of sets the moral terrain for the book. So, yeah.

MATILDA: Do you try to be more original or to deliver to readers what they want?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Well, I mean I guess in terms of originality, everyone's heard the expression, 'There are no new ideas under the sun.' Originality comes in the execution of an idea. And I guess when you're saying, do you deliver readers what they want? I mean, I hope so. And I think that the use of what we call tropes, which would be plot devices, I suppose.

So for example, one of the tropes, or plot devices, that I use in my series is the found family plot device, which means that Morrigan came from a family who didn't love or understand her, much like Matilda before her, much like Harry Potter before her. And she ends up going to this magical place called Nevermoor where she finds a new family who, kind of her chosen family, and they love and appreciate her for who they are-- for who she is.

So that particular trope has a long literary tradition. But it's all about how you treat it and how you can change and tweak things and make it very personal to your story and your characters. So it's great to-- originality is something that can be done sort of more in the execution of things. People don't necessarily need to worry about coming up with a brand new idea that literally no one's ever thought of because I can guarantee you someone's probably thought of your idea. But it doesn't matter because it's going to be about the way that you write it and the way you treat it.

MATILDA: Where do you get the inspiration for your books?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: From everywhere. So your inspiration comes from all sorts of places. I've gotten a lot of inspiration from places that I've travelled to. So I had the idea for Morrigan. So I had this character, and then I needed something to do with her. I needed to put her in a place. I needed to put her in a situation that was going to challenge her and be scary and kind of put her through the wringer a little bit so that she could kind of step up and have courage and become this person she was supposed to become.

And so when I was 22, I moved to London. And I came from a little beach town in Queensland called Caloundra, which is a lovely place and very dull. And it's a little bit boring. Nothing much happens. It's a little bit sleepy. But when I came to London it just felt so exciting and so magical. And it felt a little bit dangerous. It felt like a place that had a long history of fascinating things and fascinating people who had been there before me. And in a weird way, it also felt like it belonged to me and I belonged there.

So that was the experience that I wanted to give Morgan. So much of the weird, wacky, magical, spectacular things in London are sort of a little bit inspired by-- oh, sorry in Nevermoor-- a little bit inspired by London and also from other places that I've travelled. There's a big market in Nevermoor called the Nevermoor Bazaar, and it's very much inspired by markets like the one in Marrakesh, for example, in Morocco, that I visited many years ago, which is just, it feels like you're walking through the scenery of 10 different plays from one part of the market to the next. And there's animals and spices and baskets and all sorts of lights and amazing things. And so there are little things like that I've sort of taken from real life and put into the books.

MATILDA: So how do you get your books published?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Oh, great question. So for me, I think there's no one path to being published. I think that every author probably gets there a slightly different way. For me, I finished my books. So the most important thing was to finish the book, and I polished it, and I wrote three draughts of it. So I revised my work on my own. And I made it as good as I could possibly make it by myself.

And then I got a literary agent. The literary agent is someone who works as part of the publishing industry, but they themselves don't publish the books. They will represent an author. So you wrote a book, for example, and you wanted to get a book deal, you might get yourself a literary agent who would then say, 'I love this book. I'm going to represent this book for you, and I'm going to shop it around to lots of different publishing companies and find you the best publisher and the best book deal that you can get.'

So I got my literary agent by sending my book out. And then together we worked a little bit more on the book. And then she sent it out to lots of different publishing companies in Australia and the UK and the US. And there was an auction between eight publishing companies because I was very lucky. They all wanted to publish it for me, which is nice. And then we chose the winning publishing house.

And then you do a lot of work with your publisher on the book. So you edited it. They have some ideas for maybe you could make this a little bit shorter, or you could get rid of this character, or maybe this chapter doesn't need to be in there, things like that. And then they do lots of work on marketing the book and putting it out there on ads and on television and on social media. And they make beautiful covers, and they engage an artist to illustrate it. And it's very collaborative. There are lots of-- in a publishing company there are lots of different people who work on a book to make it beautiful and get it out into the world.

MATILDA: If you weren't a writer, what would you do?

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Not much. [laughs]

I've always sort of written in some capacity. Before I was a novelist, I was a copywriter. And I also at one point was editing a children's magazine about wildlife and animals and stuff. So I think I would probably, like realistically, I think I would probably be doing some other kind of writing, maybe travel writing or back to copywriting or something. But a dream job would be just probably someone who gets to hang out with dogs all day and play with them and run around at the beach with dogs. That would be my job if I could monetize that somehow. Maybe I could be a dog walker. I would be a dog walker. [laughs]

MATILDA: Thank you so much, Jessica, for your time.

JESSICA TOWNSEND: Thank you. What a great interviewer. This was lots of fun. Thank you, Matilda.

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