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PART ONE

Sonya Hartnett
London, 2002 ~ part 1

ACHUKA interviewed Sonya Hartnett while she was in the UK to receive the Guardian Children's Book award, for Thursday's Child. At the time, that was the only book of hers to have been published in the UK. It has now been followed by What The Birds See (Australian title Of A Boy).
JAN 2003


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You said something at the Guardian award presentation about your impression of the way children’s books are perceived in the UK compared with in Australia. What did you mean by that.  

Here they seem to be taken with relative seriousness, treated with relative respect. In Australia you don’t get that. You don’t get big newspapers, or any serious big organisation sponsoring a children’s prize. Especially not for years and years. A lot of the children’s prizes that are sponsored at all find that someone will sponsor it for a year, then someone will come along and sponsor it for two years, and this is just a sign that… well, when you have a company that says Oh I’ll sponsor it for a year then I’m not going to do it any more, it’s hardly flattering, hardly encouraging. It doesn’t look good to have that sort of turnover all the time.

'when you have a company that says Oh I’ll sponsor it for a year then I’m not going to do it any more, it’s hardly flattering...'

Here there’s a bit of a year-round children's book circuit, with a variety of festivals and events. Anything like that in Australia?  
Oh yeh. Every place has its festival. And all the writers, the children’s writers in particular, tend to know each other. So when you get invited to a festival it’s interesting to see the list of who else is appearing and you go, Oh yeh, Nick’s going, Oh yeh, Glyn Parry’s going that’ll be fun, you know. You also get very used to appearing on stage with someone. If I know I’m going on stage with Nick Earls then I know which order I would like to speak in comparison to him so you become very aware of your fellow writers. I thought when I knew I had to do the talk at Cheltenham, maybe I will struggle to find a place on the stage with Melvin Burgess in particular, but as soon as I met him I thought this is a guy I would get along with quite well. And on the stage we did. I think that’s why people were saying it was lively. It wasn’t really lively. But Melvin and I got along.

'maybe I will struggle to find a place on the stage with Melvin Burgess..'

In an interview you gave in Australia last summer there was a sense of frustration from your point of view about the way your career is perceived there. With only one book published here in the UK do you feel you’re being perceived completely differently?  
Only in that in Australia there’s a big mixup as to what sort of a writer I am. I’ve been perceived as a young adult writer whereas my books have never really been young adult novels in the sort of classic sense of the idea. So I spend a lot of my time in interviews talking not about the books and whether they’re well-written or about the plot or the ideas behind the plot or anything like that but I spend a lot of time talking about where I am as a writer, who I am as a writer, about what exactly I think I’m doing as a writer. And that has been a real bore over the years. Here they’re saying Thursday’s Child is for twelve years and up and I think Mmm, I don’t know if I totally agree with that but at the same time I think well, however the books are done here, it’s important for me they come out the way I want them to in Australia for my own home crowd, but here I prefer to let Walker make their own decisions about it and let the reviewers review it as they choose or approach it as they choose. But I think when What The Birds See comes out, and Walker says it’s an adult book, then you might start to get people saying well is she an adult writer or is she a children’s writer, they’ve both been published by Walker which is a children’s publisher, is it an adult book, what’s the story? And I see myself falling into that quagmire again. In retrospect, if I had my time again I would not publish at such a young age. That was what caused the problem.

'I spend a lot of time talking about where I am as a writer, who I am as a writer, about what exactly I think I’m doing as a writer. And that has been a real bore over the years...'

That’s what we know about you here. That you did have your first book published when you were very young. But because Thursday’s Child was your first UK title we don’t know that much about how your career has gone between the age of 15 when your first book came out and now. How did you develop through your late teens and early 20s.  
Well, certainly those were the years where I learnt… No, in my early 20s were the years I learnt my craft. In my teens I was still just fumbling around. In my teens I wrote a lot of novels that have never been published. And never will be published. But I think those were exercises I had to do to become a better writer. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I really started to understand that a book needs an atmosphere, that characters have to have motivation. It took me years to learn the details of how to write a novel, how to construct a novel, how to pace a novel, and I can write a novel now in a matter of weeks and I can do that because I know, I can feel instinctively now when I am going wrong. In fact, these days I don’t even go wrong any more. I’ve trained myself that well. I spent a long time in those early years writing long bits and pieces and then having to go back and find a point where I took a wrong turn in going off and having to start all over again. So they were years where I made mistakes which I learnt invaluable lessons from. When I think of things like development of a writer it’s not something that I’ve given much thought to. I don’t like to think too much about things like that. It’s like, if you question it, it will die.

'I can feel instinctively now when I am going wrong. In fact, these days I don’t even go wrong any more.'

Did your life get skewed at all? Did you go to university, do the usual young people things?  
I did. I went to university. I did a bachelor of arts in media studies. But I think my personality got skewed. I thought that for a long time, but looking back I think that right from an early age I was the sort of person I still am, but I turned from being a shy child into being a very loudmouthed child. I had to. Because I had to go on national TV and stuff, I had to very quickly go from being a kid who couldn’t string two words together to a kid that was able to come up with a brief concise answer and meet a lot of new people. And that made me into a person I perhaps would not have been had I not been published. But I sometimes think about the life, you know the road I didn’t take, what would I have actually done? I do know that if I had my time again I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t write.

'I do know that if I had my time again I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t write...'

Why’s that?  
Because… because now I don’t get the pleasure out of it that I used to and yet now I’m in a position where I have to… I know I’m virtually unemployable now, I’m not trained at anything, I don’t have experience in doing anything except this. I don’t enjoy it so much but I’ve got another thirty years that I have to do it. I find that difficult to come to terms with. People say you could go and do something else, I think Yeh, but it’s unlikely. I’ve got a bone lazy streak and my bone lazy streak is really what made me become a writer. When I finished my bachelor of arts course, and I thought Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I could always write, so it became Oh well, I’m painting lines on the road but I have this other thing that I do as well. And now it’s become… you know, it’s become who I am. And I never really wanted that. I never wanted to be a writer in the first place. It was just a hobby and it became my career. And that’s not what I had planned. Ironically I now write better than I have ever done.

'I’ve got a bone lazy streak and my bone lazy streak is really what made me become a writer...'

That’s what I was going to say. It’s incredible to hear that you don’t get as much pleasure out of it any more because I would have thought knowing how well you write would give you a lot of satisfaction.  
I get a bloodless satisfaction out of it now. I don’t get that… although I can still get that slight shiver when you think of a new idea and you go, Yeh, that will work… and I can feel things when I put together a sentence the way I’d hoped to be able to do it…

'I get a bloodless satisfaction out of it now...'

That’s what knocks me out about… I’ve only read the two books, and on almost every page you get a sentence that takes your breath away and it’s very rare, particularly with children’s books…  
I know, it’s just an ironic thing… I guess after years and years of doing it I’ve become very… become almost a master of my craft in a way. next part...

Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
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