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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2023 - SWF author interview (secondary) - 04. Jane Godwin

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NIDHI: Hi. My name is Nidhi, and I'm a student from North Sydney Girls High School. I'm here on Cammeraygal land at The Concourse in Chatswood as a part of the Sydney Writers' Festival Secondary Schools Day, and I'm so excited to be interviewing Jane Godwin for the NSW Premier's Reading Challenge. Hi, Jane. How are you today?

JANE GODWIN: Hi, Nidhi. I'm good, thanks.

NIDHI: OK. My first question is, how do you make the switch between writing books for different audiences? Like, books for children and books for young adults?

JANE GODWIN: Oh, that's a really good question, Nidhi. I think it's the strength of the idea. When an idea comes to me, a voice will start to emerge of how to tell the story. It's almost like the idea dictates who it will be for. And also, if it's a smallish idea, it feels like it can be contained in a picture book, and if it's a big, complicated idea, I think, well, that's going to work much better as a novel.

So it's partly the idea, and then when I'm developing the idea, the voice that sort of emerges and I think, 'Is this the voice of a very young child, or is this the voice of a teenager?' It's those things that would help me know who's the story for.

NIDHI: Do you prefer any audience more than others?

JANE GODWIN: Not really. I love writing picture books, because it feels-- you're working in a team, and making a picture book is almost like making a short film. You've got the writer, the illustrator in my case, because I don't do the pictures, I just write the story, and I work with an Illustrator. And then you've got a designer and an editor, so it feels like you're a team making this thing together.

A novel is a much more private, personal, isolating process. But I actually like both. I find them both-- I like having the alone time to write the novel, but I also like the collaboration that comes with picture books. Picture books, actually, I think will always be my first love. I do love picture books.

NIDHI: Do you have any books and authors that have inspired you to create your own voice, or write certain types of books?

JANE GODWIN: I do, Nidhi. OK. I have to lay my cards on the table. I am a person who never read Enid Blyton. Well, I tried to read Enid Blyton, but I just did not like Enid Blyton. All my friends, when I was growing up, loved Enid Blyton. In fact, I have this really strong memory. When I was-- I had a friend, and her family had a beach house, and I've always been someone who wakes up really early. So when I stayed at this friend's beach house, she would sleep until 11 o'clock, and I would wake up at 6:00 am.

And I remember I was on the folding bed in her room, and there was this shelf that I looked at when I was lying on the folding bed, and all there were were Enid Blyton books. So I'm like, 'Oh, she's not going to wake up for 3 hours, and I've just got to sit here with the Enid Blyton books.' So I never liked Enid Blyton.

But I always liked more realistic stories. Like contemporary realism, I suppose you'd call it, which is actually the stories I now write. And there was one writer called Ivan Southall, who was an Australian writer, and when I was your age, Nidhi, there were a lot of books from America and the UK, and not a lot written by Australian writers. And Ivan Southall was really one of the first Australian writers I read, and it was so lovely to read about gum trees, and in January, it was summer. It wasn't snowing, like in all the books-- the English and American books I'd read, which I also loved.

And Ivan Southall also-- he often wrote about outsiders, kids who perhaps didn't completely fit in, and he often pitted them against the natural world. There was one book called 'To the Wild Sky', which was about these 5 kids, and they were in a light plane. And they were from the country, from an outback station or whatever, and on about page 3, the pilot has a heart attack and dies, and so the kids have to fly the plane. They were quite dramatic stories like that. There was another one about a bushfire, called 'Ash Road'.

He often wrote about groups of kids who were quite different from each other having to be pitted against a really big, difficult thing, and he really influenced me. He's no longer alive, but my latest book, 'A Walk in the Dark', that's dedicated to his memory. Because when I wrote that book, I said to myself, 'I want to write a book like an Ivan Southall book.' And the other thing he did was he often set books over a very short time frame, like, over one day or something like that, and 'A Walk in the Dark' is also set just over this one night. So yes, Ivan Southall would be my main influence as a writer.

NIDHI: That's really cool. Your novel 'Falling from Grace' is a coming of age book which focuses on different characters coming to terms with their identity. What do you want young readers to take away from that?

JANE GODWIN: I think with all my books, or my most recent-- so 'Falling from Grace', 'A Walk in the Dark', 'When Rain Turns to Snow', 'As Happy as Here', I think they're all about young people, for whatever reason, on that threshold of growing up, becoming-- yeah. And they are all rites of passage novels, and they are about exploring their identity.

I think one of the things, Nidhi, I think I want-- well, I want people to really enjoy the reading experience. I want them to be exciting stories. But I also-- I think mainly what I'm saying in a lot of my books is, people are complicated, and don't judge people. Everybody has a story, and everybody has a complex way of being, and a complex family or past.

And even people who-- you know how there's some people you think, 'Oh, they've got it all together, everything about their life is really ordered and fine.' It's probably not. I think everyone-- when you get to know all people, they do have complications in their personalities, and so I think that's one of the things I'm really exploring in all my books.

And in 'Falling from Grace', that was a real rite of passage story, in that Grace-- at the very beginning of the story, as you know if you've read it, there's a sandy cliff that collapses down on top of her at a beach. The story is set over 5 days, and we don't really know what's happened to Grace over these 5 days. But that story is-- that is about a threshold. It's a very traumatic incident that happens to Grace, and that is the impetus for her to be growing up.

And there's other characters in that book who are also-- it's like, how do you make that transition? Do you make it through trauma? Do you make it through just maturing and the passage of time? How do you start to work out-- yeah. How do you start to grow?

NIDHI: I noticed in your books, when a significant event is happening, there's usually a large weather event. Is it--

JANE GODWIN: [laughs] That's true.

NIDHI: Are there any other tools writers could use to create tension and foreboding in their writing?

JANE GODWIN: That's a really good-- maybe I should stop using the weather events, Nidhi.

NIDHI: I noticed it in a few of your books.

JANE GODWIN: There are actually quite a lot. Yeah. Well, I do love-- I'm very-- I feel like I'm very-- I get a lot of creative energy from the natural world. When I'm writing-- my favourite thing to do when I'm writing a novel is go and stay somewhere at the beach, and just walk on the beach. And so the natural world is very important to me, and I also do a lot of hiking and walking. I get solace from the natural world.

And I'm also in awe of the power of the natural world. I'm not a religious person, but I would think the only-- a time when I have almost a religious experience is when I'm in the presence of an amazing storm, or the ocean, or-- so I feel--

NIDHI: Like respect, maybe?

JANE GODWIN: Sorry?

NIDHI: Deep respect for the--

JANE GODWIN: Yeah. Yeah, that's a really good way of putting it. Yeah. Like a really deep respect for nature, and also, nature can be a symbolism of your inner turmoil. Like in 'Falling from Grace', there's a character, Ted, who's pretty mixed-up individual, and he is a storm chaser. And so he takes his car out, doesn't he, as you would know, and goes to the eye of the storm, and puts himself in dangerous situations, and when I was writing that I thought, 'The storm is a fantastic metaphor for adolescence.' Sort of the wild, internal turmoil.

And also storms can be so beautiful and majestic, but they can also be so self-destructive, so destructive. I feel like that's almost where you're at when you're starting to grow up. You have so much potential. There's so much you could do. But also, a few false moves and you could stuff the whole thing up. It could be-- and I think Kip in that book, in 'Falling from Grace', he's very much-- he could go one way or another. He could become a successful musician or he could almost become like Ted, who is a bit broken.

NIDHI: It's like a turning point in your life.

JANE GODWIN: Yeah, yeah.

NIDHI: With your picture books, how do you work with your Illustrator and your planning team to create something that's everyone's, not just one person's?

JANE GODWIN: That's a good question. Well, I'm lucky enough with my picture books. An illustrator I work a lot with is Anna Walker. We've made 8 picture books together, and we're working on our ninth one at the moment, and so with Anna, when we first made our first picture book together, I didn't know Anna at all. But now, over the years, we've become really good friends. So now, I always write the story first. But then I give it to Anna, and we work together, and we work very closely, and we also live quite near each other, so we're able to go to each other's houses and have a conversation about the books.

A really important thing, being an author who writes with an illustrator, not someone who does the pictures myself, is I had to learn to let go and to share the vision. And I worked as a publisher for many years, and I really encouraged other writers to do this. As a writer, you can't be too prescriptive. You can't say, 'On page 3, I need the girl with the dark hair to be bouncing a pink ball, and a French bulldog beside her,' or whatever.

It's your book when you're writing it, but then it's the illustrator's book when they're illustrating it, and that will result in the best book, because then the illustrator really feels that they own it. It's not the authors just being prescriptive, telling them what to do. Then they're just like a gun for hire and they'll just do the pictures, whatever. But you want it to be a shared vision.

And so that's what I always try and do. I always try and work with an illustrator whose work I respect, and whose work I like the style of, but then I let them go. And it's not to say-- with every one of my picture books, there's probably a couple of pages where I think, 'Oh, I reckon it could have been a different way,' or whatever. But it's not just my book. It's their book as well. So that's what you have to take into account.

NIDHI: Some of the books you have written were published in the early 2,000s. Do you think your books have evolved to address different issues prevalent in different times, or have you tried to address ideas that are universal?

JANE GODWIN: Both, I reckon, Nidhi. I feel that emotionally, the landscape of when I was a young person is probably pretty similar to you as a young person, even though I'm 58. But I feel like the emotions you feel when you're a teenager don't change. But definitely other aspects of the culture change.

And a really big thing for anyone who writes for teenagers is social media. Because when I was your age, there was no social media. And I might be on Facebook and Twitter and whatever now, but I wasn't when I was 14. So it's a very different experience, being on those platforms as an adult. That's probably the biggest challenge, in terms of the way the culture has changed, and so what I do in that situation, I trust that my memories and my emotions connected with myself as a young person are still true.

With 'When Rain Turns to Snow', a novel I wrote that has-- a whole subplot of it is someone's been cancelled, basically. There's an online bullying situation. Luckily, I have a lot of nieces and nephews who are teenagers, and I talk to them at great length about how they use social media, and I was also just observing it in the world around me.

So yes, I think my books have evolved, and I think if you're writing for young people, they'll smell a rat from a long way off. You have to be authentic. Otherwise, they won't want to engage with the book, because they'll just think, 'This is an old person. She doesn't even know what's going on anymore.' So it's very important that you do. But similarly, you've got to be really careful that you don't mimic the language that young people use. Because then you're just like, 'Oh my god, this person is just such a tryhard.' That's cringeworthy as well.

So you have to be confident in your own emotional memory of teenagerhood, and then you also have to do your research about the way the culture has changed, and I think the main way it has changed is the way you communicate, and through social media.

NIDHI: Yep. Thanks for letting me interview you today, Jane. It's been amazing talking with you, and I hope everybody else watching out there enjoys reading your books for the NSW Premier's Reading Challenge.

JANE GODWIN: Thanks very much, Nidhi. Thank you.


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