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Sonya Hartnett
London, 2002 ~ part 4

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



You went to a Catholic school. So were you brought up as a Catholic?  

I was, but from a very very early age I thought there is something very dubious about this. As somebody who right from an early age looked at the world and said, Yes, I see how it works, you know, I see how the colour of a kitten reflects the colours of its parents not the fact that a God has gone 'I deem you to be a black kitten'. I could see a way that the world works that made sense to me but no sense in terms of there being a greater power out there. So right from quite a young age I felt this is wrong, this is not true. People say isn’t it sad that you don’t believe in God or believe in anything like an afterlife, and I think No it’s not sad, it’s essential. At the end of the day I think you’re just kidding yourself. Why are you doing this to yourself? Live life like this is all you get. And always be aware of what you’re leaving behind. Because you’re not coming back again. And once something is done it’s done, you can’t change it, so be careful what you do.

'I could see a way that the world works that made sense to me but no sense in terms of there being a greater power out there...'

However, when reading the new book, I found there was a very similar atmosphere in it to Cormier’s books. The sense of evil being around.  
Well, Rober Cormier and I have a very interesting history. One of the books that really showed me how to be the writer I wanted to be was After The First Death, which I read when I was about 15 or 16. As soon as I read that, I thought this is the sort of book I want to write. I want to be this kind of writer, that you just go, like, Wo, unbelievable! And I think that’s why for a lot of the time I haven’t minded being seen as a writer for young people because if I can make someone else read a book at 15 and go, Wow, I can’t believe I’m reading this, then that is achieving something in life. And as I wrote Sleeping Dogs I thought oh God they’ll never publish this, I can’t write this, and then I’d think No, that’s not what Robert Cormier would do, he would write it. So I wrote it and when I got to the end and it was going to be published, I wrote to him and said, Look Mr Cormier, A thousand apologies for sending you my manuscript, feel free to chuck it in the bin, etc, but when I wrote this book, time and again I thought of you and thought of how much you inspired me when I was young, how you changed the course of my career...
I don’t know if you ever spoke to him or anything…

'I want to be this kind of writer, that you just go, like, Wo, unbelievable! '

I interviewed him shortly before he died...  
An incredibly generous man. We corresponded for years after that, until he died. He would always send letters and Christmas cards, nothing was ever too much trouble for that man. So we do have a background between us. I’m a tremendously moral writer, without even meaning to be, and I think he was too. That’s where we’re similar. I don’t know how much of a religious man he was… I don’t know that I see Evil. I see what I think is an evil thing, when people do things without giving any thought to the fact that what they’re doing is usually to a living creature, whether it be human or animal - and to me they are cruel, wrong things to do, and people do them without any thought, and that is an evil thing, but I don’t think there is an actual force of evil. I think people inadvertently, not even inadvertently, but thoughtlessly do wrong, and if that’s evil you can call it evil. One of my most favourite descriptions in any piece of literature is when Scott Fitzgerald calls Daisy and whatever the husband is ‘careless people’. That’s my most hated type. Careless people. People like Martha are careless. I think carelessness is very wrong. I think Robert Cormier would have agreed. He was an incredible man, a great man really. He did a great service to teenagers. Although even now, when I speak to schools, I rarely come across any teenagers who are aware of his work to any degree. They’ve heard of things like The Chocolate War and I Am The Cheese but they’ve not always read them…

'I’m a tremendously moral writer, without even meaning to be...'

In America he’s taught in schools.  
Yes, in America it’s probably different. But in Australia, blank faces.


He stays in print over here.  
Yes, he stays in print. That’s something.
Did you ever meet him?  
No. He’d been to Australia before I got in contact with him. And he never came again.

He mentioned you when we spoke.  
Did he? You know I’ve often thought on what an ungenerous sort of person I am compared to him. He was an incredibly gracious man. You rarely see that level of decency. I try to live a decent life. Even in books like Sleeping Dogs which are quite black, horrifying in a way, they are not so without reason and I think in those days, I wrote Sleeping Dogs for a purpose, which suddenly became clear years later, it was a book that Australian children’s literature needed. Maybe I flatter myself, but I think young adult writing is a very different thing post Sleeping Dogs from what it was before.

'Maybe I flatter myself, but...'

Someone e-mailed me to say they thought that was the book that should be published in the UK next but that it had difficult content. What is it about that book that’s contentious?  
Well I don’t think myself it’s a particularly difficult concept. It’s been called the incest book. I had a man come into the bookshop and he goes, I want that book by Sonya Hartnett and I say which book is it you want and he goes, you know the incest one. It’s about a family who lives on a farm who take in holiday caravans on holiday to supplement their income and apart from the caravan people they live very much isolated from the world. The father has always taught them the outside world is a bad place and they don’t want to associate with it. A brother and sister are in an incestuous relationship, but it’s used a bit like Tin in Thursday’s Child - only in little touches and there’s nothing… you know, it’s quite tame. A lot of the time kids read the book and it takes a long time to dawn on them what’s going on. Then an artist comes to the farm and he gets pissed off about something and ends up telling the father what’s happening… The book would be much more crafted if I wrote it now, but I think it benefits from the fact that I was relatively young and it’s kind of raw. It’s a book I like and hate. Sometimes I think I wish people would talk… Until Thursday’s Child came along nobody would talk about any of the other books andf Thursday’s child has recently outsold Sleeping Dogs but I think Sleeping Dogs will be the one I’m remembered for.

'[Sleeping Dogs is] a book I like and hate...'

You said something about Australian teenage or young adult fiction needing it, needing that book…  
Because in Australia it was… I’d applied for it before and eventually got one of the biggest Arts Council grants and it was the only time that a children’s writer had been given it and one of the questions was (it was 80,000 dollars which is really only about 25,000 pounds but for me that was enough to live on for several years…)…Often when you apply for a grant they say what is your idea, what are you going to use it for, they don’t care what you’re going to write, they ask what’s your greatest achievement as a writer, what are you proudest of, and I spoke to Julie Watts at Penguin and said do you think this is a valid thing to say or am I getting a bit carried away with my own glory, that Sleeping Dogs changed the way publishers in Australia viewed what could or couldn’t be published as a teenage book and when they said OK we’ll go with it as a teenage novel it opened at times a painfully tedious floodgate of teenage novels but they had been very set in their thinking. It took me eighteen months to convince them to publish Wilful Blue, the book before it, which was much tamer, but once Sleeping Dogs had been published they started to think outside the traditional ways… books no longer had to be either for children or for teenagers or for adults they could cross, they could float in between, there was an area in between. But in fact my books in Australia are read mostly by academics, teachers, librarians. People write theses on them and stuff like that.

'It took me eighteen months to convince them to publish Wilful Blue...'

Do you get any response from younger readers?  
Not that much. I’m not a John Marsden or somebody who gets vast bags of it every day. Not a lot, but I’ve had my fair share of hate mail, always from born-again Christians, who don’t sign their names or put an address on it, unfailingly. I have a lot of that sort of stuff. I hope your publisher burns. I hope you never write another book. That’s not very Christian! Wanting my publisher to burn down and me to have my hands chopped off! final part...

Editor: Michael Thorn
Contact: 07803605045 or email
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