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Sonya Hartnett
London, 2002 ~ part 2

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



The character in the new book, What The Birds See, is 9 years old and there’s a passage in Thursday’s Child about being 9 years old and how that’s very different from being an adult. Is there something special about being a nine-year-old in your own memory?  

There is. When I was nine my extended family would go up to Surfers Paradise every Christmas where we stayed… Surfers Paradise is on the Queensland coast, it’s a holiday resort. It’s quite ghastly in its own way, but in those days it wasn’t too bad, in the seventies, and it still had a lot of its original fifties style building. My family would have one apartment and my aunts the next and my grandparents another. My two uncles were quite young, in their twenties. They went out on the town one night and me and my brother and my two cousins went into their room and trashed their room. And we did it thinking, Won’t Brian and Paul think this is funny when they come home, Won’t they’ll think that it’s just hilarious! And of course when they got home they called the police. For a child who was always quite scared of authority it was just horrendous. I can remember as clearly as if was today thinking, I am a kid and I don’t understand the way that the world works. I remember feeling just so crushingly embarrassed to be that stupid that it hadn’t occurred to me that that would be what would happen. And I think that’s why 9 has always been an interesting time for me. I was 9 when that moment happened that I suddenly realised the world was a place in which I was just a very insignificant thing who had no idea about the real way it operated. I realised in a flash my own stupidity and innocence and ignorance. Also, I was 9 in grade 5 and a lot of the things that happen to Adrian – I was quite young, I went through school a little bit younger than the rest of my class – and in Grade 5 my friend’s mother was very ill with multiple sclerosis – and that appears in the book. Nicole’s mum has the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, although it’s never mentioned. Her mother was practically dying and Penny got sent to live with relatives. That year I was just alone and had no one. I was friends with no one. And when Adrian talks about those long luncheons and the dreading of the bell to go out to play, all that happened to me when I was 9. And I chose 1977 simply because I was 9 in 1977. I thought that would make it easy to work out. And at first I thought nothing had ever happened in 1977 until I started coming across things like Elvis dying and Star Wars coming out.

'I can remember as clearly as if was today thinking, I am a kid and I don’t understand the way that the world works...'

So you chose the year first?  
I chose the age first. It made no difference to me what year it was. It could have been 79, 78, 76 whatever. But it just happened to be 77. .


Did you have any other holiday destinations?  
My mother would shovel all six kids in the car and drive up to Gullywhingie which is on the Queensland border about 2 or 3 hundred k inland, where my great-aunt lived in an ex boarding house, a huge rundown wooden thing. In Queensland they build houses quite high off the ground and there’d be space underneath them, just for the heat you know. This place was old and ramshackled and it had a multitude of rooms and all the floors sloped. Some had great vines growing through them, in through the windows and up through the ceiling and there were always wild kittens running around and stuff. For a kid I just adored that place. It taught me to love the country, to the point where I have a little house in the country and I would really like one day to live in the country and a lot of my books are set in the country. We’d stay in Goondiwindi for most of the holiday and then we’d drive up to Surfers Paradise, about another 400k north, but to me, once we went from Goondiwindi the holiday was over. Surfers Paradise was of no interest to me. And still that sort of lifestyle isn’t. I still prefer a rural life to the flashy idiot life lived in Surfers Paradise, with the sun and the surf and the sea. We went to a lot of other places as well. Mum used to take us everywhere. It may have been something I inherited, a love of the countryside, from her. But also I’m interested in extreme situations. And I think isolation, whether it be in the suburbs like Adrian’s, is always an interesting thing in which to put your characters because it makes life very difficult for them. It heightens all the things that are going on in the book. And in the country, definitely in Australia, you can be miles from anywhere. You know, people live in the outback on stations that are as big as England. They have helicopters to get through to the milkbar! I love nature and I love animals so I try to inform my work with that kind of affection for nature.

'I still prefer a rural life to the flashy idiot life lived in Surfers Paradise, with the sun and the surf and the sea....'

I was going to ask how a book like Thursday’s Child comes together but you suggested that it comes quite naturally to you now.  
I have a strand of books that are quite internal, books like Other Voice, and I have a strand of external books in which I would class Thursday’s Child and several of the others. So putting together the plot of Thursday’s Child was very much like… I think of them like big Hollywood movies versus independent French movies or something. And they’re approached in different ways. In a book like Thursday’s Child everything is finely balanced. The same with What The Birds See. I had to stop half way through Thursday’s Child because I had to work out, I had problems working out in which order several of the incidents should happen. What would exert the most pressure on the character?

'I think of them like big Hollywood movies versus independent French movies...'

How much of the book do you have in your head before you get started?  
In terms of major incidents in the plot, with that book almost all of it. But there’s always a lot of space in between the major plot points. I used to write books that I would start and then I would just keep going and hope that something would happen, but now I tend to plot them all very carefully before I start. So although there’s room to move, there’s not very much room to move. Because I’ve got to get to the next, you know, like joining the dot. But the one I’ve just written this year I actually went back to writing a kind of freeform novel like I used to write. But I did know what was going to happen in the end. I knew where I was going, I just didn’t know how I was going to get there. What I do is get the plot into plot strands and give them a different colour and cut up little bits of card and spread them out on the floor and spread them so that it’s read the way it should be. Methods have to appear so there’s a distance between them each time they appear. It doesn’t have to be an equal distance but it has to be a balanced picture.

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

And these coloured bits of card. Is there a system to the colours?  
No, I just have whatever the newsagent's got. Although I try and fit the colours, like I gave Adrian at home a pale blue and Adrian at school was red, and his methods were a very garish orange. So I don’t choose them completely at random. They have to feel right. There was also something that was green. Nicole and her family were green. A lime green. It was quite a ghastly sight to see them all spread out.

'I just have whatever the newsagent's got...'

How long have you been using that system?  
About for or five books. I should have started using it a long time ago. It’s a very workable system but with the one I wrote this year I bought the cards but I didn’t bother to use them. They’re still sitting in my drawer.

I haven’t come across many authors who work in that way, but I remember the X-Files writer plots using cards…  
It’s very much… I majored in film-making and storyboards was the thing before you start.. and basically that’s what they are – they’re storyboards. They’re not set in concrete right from the start. I do allow a bit of freedom to shuffle around. But there always tends to come a point where they become final. By about half way through there’s no more shuffling around. At that stage I get a pencil and make sure I’ve written the number on them in case they get blown away. next part...

Editor: Michael Thorn
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