Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Deborah Abela

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INTERVIEWER: Debra, thanks for being here.

- You're welcome.

INTERVIEWER: You've been writing for a long time. First of all, you wrote for children's TV. Now you've written many books. Are there similarities with what you've written with those different formats, or how is writing books different?

- Yeah. I first got a job working in kid's telly. And it was writing every day. So it was a different kind of writing, cause it was morning kids television, a cartoon hosting show called Cheese TV. And so you would write these brief three or four minute segments that would go between cartoons. And it was six days a week. So you had to have an idea. It was almost like this conveyor belt of writing. But the great thing about it was, you were forced to write. You were forced to just come up with ideas, and so you had to practise writing every single day. So that was really good. And it has the same kind of basics, I guess-- even a three or four minute segment of telly, or even a one minute segment of telly still has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It still has to have some kind of story structure to it. But it's quick and it's fast. And then it's over.

And so I remember when I left Cheese TV and got my first book signed up, I thought, oh my gosh, I can spend more than five minutes on one idea. Like, I can spend a year on a novel and really flesh it out, really get into the characters. So it was a good training ground, I think, for then launching into the much longer form, writing a novel.

INTERVIEWER: When you wrote your first book, had the idea been in your head for a while?

- Yeah. Yeah. So I went travelling for a few years. I went to uni. And then got the job in telly. And then, years and years later, I thought, I want all of those adventures I had as a kid, as a uni student travelling, I want all of those adventures to be in my very first series. And I want it to be about two kids who go travelling all over the world. And because I had things happen to me, like, I was caught in a desert sandstorm, I was thrown in gaol twice by a military man, I woke up beside alligators. And I thought, this would make a good story.

INTERVIEWER: One thing that I've heard is it's a common thread throughout all your books is adventure, the sense of adventure.

- Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: And it sounds like it's true to form to you. And even your most recent book, Teresa, which is a historical story, maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you came to write her story?

- Yeah. So all my histories, there's an element of adventure in it. And partly because when I read-- as a kid, they were the books that I gravitated towards. So Teresa-- so it does have a sense of adventure and a sense of a lot of trouble, but it's my dad's story. So my dad was born in a cave during one of the heaviest bombing raids of World War II in a country called Malta. And Malta was wedged between the European theatres of war, the North African campaigns, and Hitler had his sights on Malta, because whoever controlled Malta basically controlled the Mediterranean, that area of the world. And they could win the war.

So my dad's country was bombed relentlessly for three years straight. And the way the Maltese people survived was way by carving out these series of caves in the rocky island of Malta. And that's how they survived the biggest army in the world at the time, the German army. They didn't capitulate. They didn't surrender.

But of course, after the war, the country was completely destroyed. And luckily, at that time, Australia-- massive country, very small population-- said, why don't you come and live here? So between 1950 and 1960, a million people from Europe travelled to Australia. And my dad as a 7-year-old boy was one of them.

And I-- just-- that story just completely excites me. And I just think, wow, what would it be like to wander through that kind of warfare, then leave your country, everyone you know, travel to somewhere you have no idea about at all, get here and be excited, but then treated as someone different. Because Australia was in the grip of the white Australia policy. So anyone who looked different, they were often bullied and they were often picked on. And so it's a story of this really resilient, cute girl who just decides she wants to-- she wants to make Australia her home.

And it's an important story because, I think, Australia is a nation of migrants. All of us have either come here because we came here or someone before us came here. And I think it's still a world story today. It's happening today. People are leaving their country because they have to, to find safety for their families.

INTERVIEWER: Well, I'm really interested in the way you wove the story together. And maybe I'm interested in hearing about you how you researched it. There's one particular line, when your character Teresa is travelling to Australia by ship, she gets to taste a banana for the first time. And I wondered if that was something that actually happened in your family or was a family story.

- That's-- one of the great things about this novel is I'm writing about a period of history where people are still alive who lived through that history. And that was one of the great things. They're in their '70s and '80s, largely. But I interviewed a lot of Maltese people. And there was a woman who told me-- of course, coming from Malta, and war-torn Malta, they didn't taste things like grapes, like bananas, like pineapples, like mango. So when they were on the ship coming over here, well, they stopped at lots of ports on the way to Australia, as well, they would taste a grape for the very first time and think, what is this? Because they would have this explosion of juicy, lovely flavour in their mouth.

And it's funny talking-- during oral history gathering to write a novel was completely fascinating. I was so humbled by these amazing people who told these quite incredible stories. And they're the things I often remember. They remember the food. They remember-- they do remember being scared through the war, but they remember starving. They remember not having food. But then coming to Australia and seeing butcher shops filled with meat and fruit shops bursting with oranges and mangoes and pineapples. And they're the things they remember about it.

It's funny. I didn't think they remembered the bad stuff in a way, as much as the amazing things that met them when they finally arrived.

INTERVIEWER: One of the challenges, I guess, with writing historical fiction is that-- I like the way you've woven a real life person into the story, Arthur Calwell. And maybe you could talk about the research process and why did he end up in the story? Did you want to include him? Because he does have a part to play.

- He does have a part to play. Teresa, as she arrives, meets Arthur Calwell, who was Australia's very first minister for immigration. Because Australia knew they needed to populate or perish. So basically, if we didn't get more people living in this country, we weren't going to build enough schools or houses or roads or dams. We weren't going to grow as a nation. And so, Arthur Calwell was made the first minister of immigration to ask people from overseas to come and live in Australia. Because our natural population growth wasn't doing it.

He had to be a bit careful, because Australia was a little bit racist back then, with the white Australia policy. And so he initially asked for British people, for blonde haired, blue eyed people, to come over this. Or whoever looked a bit Anglo. But of course, a lot of people weren't like that. So he had to try and convince the Australian population that just because these people looked a bit different from us, it's going to be OK. They'll still make our nation great. And so, as-- when I knew about his passion to really populate Australia, but I knew that he was up against some racism and some fairly heavily entrenched policies. I knew I wanted to put him in the story.

So as Teresa gets off the boat, there's noise and people looking for family and there's ship horns going off, and streamers and balloons. She gets off completely overwhelmed by these. But then a man comes towards her with a camera crew in tow. And says, hello, lady, I'm Arthur Colwell, and welcome to Australia. What do you hope most to have and see when you're here? She doesn't really know anything about Australia. So she says, I have meat pies. So, I want to eat a meat pie. And then [inaudible] and say, good lady, good on you, little lady.

So it was part of a PR campaign from the Minister for Immigration, Arthur Calwell, to say, see, look at this little girl who's coming here. She will help to make Australia great. So I really wanted him to be in it, because he was part of the pioneering movement to make Australia a great multicultural country.

INTERVIEWER: Which raises a really spirited character. And I really related to her. And I guess just more broadly, as an author, when you're creating your characters, how do they come to you? Do they just appear? Do the names come to you? And maybe, I'll ask you some questions about how you write?

- Teresa's my nana's name. So she was always going to be Teresa. That's my dad's mum. And she-- as I did the research-- I really concentrated on the research first and talking particularly to Maltese people who came here. They would tell me little snippets and I'd think, that can be a saying, oh, that would be a lovely moment between a mother and daughter, that would be a really frightening story to tell that would go well with a narrative. So I waited first before I formed too many opinions about Teresa. But gradually, she did just grow. So as I found out more and more stories, knew that I wanted to put that in and that in, and the story started coming to life, so did she. She just almost in the background almost came to life and went, yeah, I'm ready for my starring role in your book now.

It was really sweet. Each character comes to me so differently. And this one, again, came slowly but confidently.

INTERVIEWER: Well, so many readers would know your Max Remy stories and Max's amazing abilities. You write-- you've written a lot of books, you've written Ghost Club, you've written Grimsdon-- how long does it take you to write? What's your process? Is every day the same? Do you wake up and start writing? How does it work?

- Gosh. Each book's slightly different, because each book has a different story, and it comes together. Sometimes the problem will come first. Sometimes the research will happen first. Sometimes the setting will happen. So each book is its own little animal. I get up every morning around six and wash my face, make a cup of tea and then go to my desk straight away. So my brain thinks better as soon as I'm awake. I'm not one of those people who can work until 4:00 in the morning, no, can't do it, can't do it.

INTERVIEWER: Are you somebody that plots things out?

- Definitely. Definitely. So I do a lot of research first and then the story forms around that research. And then I make sure absolutely I have a beginning, middle, and end. And in fact, Patrick Ness, who's a very famous British author who I love, says he won't also start that book until he's got two or three big moments. So whether it's physically big, emotionally big, but moments where the reader's going to go, oh. Like, moments where he knows is going to be so exciting not only to write but hopefully to read. And I tend to do that, as well. I wait until I've got those big emotional moments or big climactic moments. And then once I've got those, I go, OK, I think I'm ready to start.

INTERVIEWER: And what would you recommend to young people that want to write?

- Write about stuff you love. Stuff you get excited about. Even if you don't know it very well first. Like, I read a bunch of soccer books with Johnny Warren, who's a famous soccer player, and I didn't know anything about soccer, but his passion for soccer made me think, oh, this is going to be fun. Write about stuff you love. Practise, Practise, Practise. Read as much as you can. And try and read widely, too, even if you think, I never usually read that book, but my best friend says it's OK. Try it out and see if you love it. My biggest tips would be that.

And if you get stuck, make trouble, because there are three elements, I think, to every story-- characters, interesting, fascinating setting, and there's lots of trouble. So if I ever get stuck, I think, wow, what can I make going wrong next? And hopefully, that will make you unstuck and make something exciting happen.

INTERVIEWER: Great. Well, maybe rather than putting you on the spot about your favourite books or favourite authors, what's your earliest memory of reading?

- I remember picking out picture books and the beautiful pictures. And I remember seeing squiggly lines, and thinking, wow, what do those squiggly lines mean? I want to know. And like, I almost taught myself to read, because I thought, I have to know what those little black marks are. And my mum-- we weren't-- we didn't have much money as kids. But my mum, at the supermarket stand, there used to be Golden Books, little Golden Books-- today, there's chocolate and stuff-- but when I was a kid, there was a little Golden Book. And every week, she would buy one little Golden Book, which was about $0.10 back then, and she slowly built up this little library of Golden Books. And I just read them and read them till they literally almost fell apart. And my favourite book as a kid was the Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: That's all we've got time for. I could keep going. But thank you so much.

- Thank you. You're very, very welcome.

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