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Sonya Hartnett
London, 2002 ~part 3

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



‘wrestling with peevishness and awe’ – I thought that was a fantastic phrase, to describe the well-digger in Thursday’s Child. Does that sort of writing just come out?  

I have a list of words I like and ‘pevishness’ would certainly be on that list. So any opportuinity to use a word like that I’ll take! In every book there are sentences that I’ll think Yeh, I really like that and it’s not necessarily a sentence that jumps out at anybody else. In Of A Boy/What The Birds See, where Adrian’s at a shopping centre with his grandmother, there’s a very off-the-cuff sentence in there that’s probably my favourite and I can’t even remember what it is – if I could see it I could show you… but certainly peevishness and awe… I never went back and rewrote that sentence. It came out that way.

'I have a list of words I like...'

Why has the title of Of A Boy been changed to What The Birds See for the UK?  
I think it was because of the Nick Hornby book. Nothing interesting. I did warn Penguin AUS that the movie was coming out at exactly the time we were releasing it at home and they didn’t care. But What The Birds See had been my preferred title. There were certain people that just wanted to call it Adrian but I didn’t like that.

'What The Birds See had been my preferred title...'

At the front of the book it says that a lot of the things in the book happened to you. Presumably that’s meant pretty loosely.  
I feel it was a silly quote to have put on. They happened to me in a way, but I was never a nine year old boy hanging out with other nine year old boys…

And your family life had no resemblance to…  
No. One of my younger brothers had a friend who was in that situation. His mother was a junkie and he was growing up with his grandparents but it wasn’t me. And when I wrote that I didn’t know they were going to put it on the back of the book for a start, and I kind of meant Adrian’s emotions more so than the actual things that happen. That feeling of being very… that terrible sense of Oh God I am not equipped as other children seem to be to get through life. Is my life always going to be like this? How will I survive? I remember being a little kid looking at women and thinking how do they make it so that their legs are so long and shaped like that with no hair on or anything like that. It looked as though the world is beyond me – I can’t do it! That kind of feeling that Adrian has that he doesn’t know how to live in the world. Although one of my friends did a very similar thing to where Paul jumps out of the stuff in the garage – a version of that happened to me in real life. When you say something is true, there’s degrees of truth. Of all my books I think it probably mines my real life the most deeply. All your books are informed by the life that you’ve lived but that one is very close to the bone at times. And I don’t think you can write many books like that in a lifetime. Not because it’s particularly excellent or anything, just because you can only use that degree of emotion once. I couldn’t write another book about a nine-year-old suffering that kind of loneliness and confusion. You can only do it once and hopefully do it right the first time. Because you don’t get to do it again.

'that terrible sense of Oh God I am not equipped as other children seem to be to get through life...'

You talked about your view of Surfers Paradise when you were young. There’s a bit in What The Birds See that’s, by implication, quite critical of that way of life. Is it an attitude you hold quite strongly?  
Is that Martha in Of A Boy?
I must say I have a good deal of contempt for people I look at and think, You live life as if you have opportunities to do it again over and over and over. You skim the surface of existence. I really dislike people who are ignorant of very basic things like… I remember once saying to a character… they said Isn’t that a nice dog, isn’t she pretty? And I said, Well she isn’t a she for a start she’s a male. And she goes, How can you tell? And I just thought… !!! I really do have contempt for people who live in the world without knowing anything about it, without having any interest in the way things work, or where things come from. People like Martha I guess kind of represent that. To live a life of wine drinking and going out and false laughter and stuff makes me ill to my very core. They probably go, Well your dour humourless life rather bores me as well. If I do anything with my books I want to encourage people to think more deeply and to look at the world more closely. I would rather be remembered as somebody who taught one person to look at nature more closely or to treat animals with more respect than I would to be remembered as someone who wrote interesting stories. There’re enough books written in the world. I try to write books that do more than just tell a story. I try to make them worthwhile by doing something more.

'To live a life of wine drinking and going out and false laughter and stuff makes me ill to my very core...'

There’s a lot about school life in the new book. There’s a madness and lunacy about the character called Horsegirl which… Am I right in thinking that the way in which she’s portrayed, the manner in which she’s handled in the school suggests you have a view about the way some adults and some systems refuse to face up to reality?  
I guess the only thing that interests me about Horsegirl – she’s very much based on a kid we used to call Horsegirl. I’ve been amazed by how many people have read the book and gone How did you know about the Horse Girl at my school? There must be whole herds of Horsegirls out there, although where do they go, what happens to them, you don’t see adults, you know they’re always girls, adult women showing signs of having a Horsegirl history. But where do people like that go? I don’t know. I went to a very small primary school. It was a hundred kids. And it was a little Catholic primary school that took in these kids from the orphanage. And they were all mad. Horsegirl was only one of them. And they were all aggressively mad like that. But now I think a child like Horsegirl would never be allowed to exist and what I’m really only interested in is that now, by not letting a child like Horsegirl exist, by drugging her up and all that, we disencourage harmless eccentricity in anyone these days. If a child seems to be mad, it’s a huge worry. In those days, and it wasn’t that long ago really, a child that appeared to be mad was left to be mad. But, as I say, where are they now? Did they all end up prancing along the traintracks? Or did they just grow out of it? One of my best friends is a psychiatrist and even she said I’ve no idea where those people go. But then one of the editors at an Australian publisher goes I used to be a Horsegirl! Oh well, that’s what happens then, they turn into children’s editors! But I thought my Horsegirl would not have been capable of doing that. I would say she had a very limited ability to read or do anything like that.

'There must be whole herds of Horsegirls out there, although where do they go, what happens to them...'

I was interested in your story about trashing your uncles’ room. Was there a boy involved?  
There were three boys. The only girl was me.  
Because there is a sense that comes across in the book that boys, some boys at least, are instinctively destructive.  
I think they kind of naturally are. Especially when they get together at that age. But even when they get together at any age they can be like that. I’m interested in the very essential animalness inside humans. It’s never more obvious than when we’re children. Children live by animal rules. They’re as quick as anything to turn on somebody that they think is weak and rip that person apart. Quite mercilessly and without giving it a second thought. That’s why when Horsegirl’s on the roof, Adrian had to say, had to encourage her to jump, because I wanted him to appear like a normal child. I didn’t want him to be a saintly child, I wanted him to be a real child. Even then he feels bad about it. The fact is he managed to say it. I think all children and all humans are essentially quite vicious given the chance. If they think they’re in a situation where they can get away with it they often are. And it shocks and horrifies us but you see it happen. We have a long history of treating people badly. We are quite a vicious, aggressive species. But I don’t think boys are necessarily more so than girls. There’s boys in this book because it’s a book about a boy. Little girls are extremely vicious creatures. As are young ladies. Nothing is more vicious than a young lady. No, I don’t have a special thing to say about boys. But that does interest me, how readily we will turn into nasty little animals.

'Children live by animal rules. They’re as quick as anything to turn on somebody that they think is weak and rip that person apart...'

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