Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Frances Watts (AKA Alex Ratt) and Jules Faber

Back to video Back to NSW Premier's Reading Challenge (PRC) 2017 author interviews

- Hi everybody. I'm Yvette Poshoglian. Welcome to the Premier's Reading Challenge Book Fest.

We're so excited here today, because we've got, not just one, we've got two amazing guests, the collaborators and creative geniuses behind 'The Stinky Street Stories,' which I'm sure you would have seen in your library. And if you haven't, you should go and find them. And I'm going to tell you who these wonderful people are now so that you can look them up and then go and grab their books.

So with me I've got Frances Watts, who is the writer behind this particular book, and lots of other books, too, and is going to tell us a little bit about her pseudonym. And then we've also illustrator, Jules Faber, whose work you might recognise with loads of different books, but very hard to miss on these super cool, bright covers.

- Yes.

- Welcome, guys, and thank you so much for joining us for the book fest.

- Thank you.

- All right. Thank you.

- It's great to have you. So you've got this brand-new series out.

- Yes.

- Frances or Alex?

- Well, in the case of this series, I've actually adopted in new name. I am Alex Ratt. You can tell the difference between Frances and Alex.


- Let's see if I can-- Frances. Alex. Frances. Alex.

- I get it. I don't know how that moustache stays on, but all of a sudden, I was talking to Alex just then.

- Exactly.

- So could I just call you Alex for--

- Please do, yes.

- Great. Alex and Jules, how did these stories, collaboration, come together?

- Well--

- Where do 'Stinky Street Stories' come from?

- 'Stinky Street Stories' started-- it's an Australian Christmas tale. See--

- I wouldn't have thought so, looking at this.

- I know, it's not obvious. But I was walking down the street, having a bit of an evening stroll one evening, about three or four days after Christmas, and all of the bins had been put out along this street, with all the kind of leftover Christmas feasts in them. And, in particular, they were filled with prawns. Now, imagine a street full of bins stuffed with rotten prawns. So I was on the street, saying, this street is stinky, stinky street. Went, oh, that sounds quite nice actually, stinky street, because I love alliteration.

So then I started imagining the whole, you know, suburb as stinky, so I was thinking, yeah, this is Stinky Street, it's in Stinky Heights, and over there's Lower Stinky, Upper Stinky, East Stinky, Stinky Parade, Stinky Boulevard, Stinky Circuit, Stinky Crescent, and a world was born.

- My goodness.

- Yes.

- A stinky world.

- A very stinky world was born.

- And, Jules, how did you visualise Stinky Street or the stinky neighbourhood in your mind? Or was that easy for you to just conjure up?

- When-- when I was young, I grew up with eight kids in my family, and so I was very familiar with stink. And so when I read the story-- I've always found it the funniest of all things, that and being hit in the head. And so when I read this, I just laughed. I just laughed so much, and so it was really easy to visualise from that.

Like the background characters were really easy, but the focal to the characters, because they're very articulate boys. They're dumb, but they're so melodramatic.

- Yeah.

- You know? And they're such overactors and so serious about their stink-free life, that as soon as anything stinks, they can't handle it. And so it was-- it took a little bit of conjuring to sort of bring them to life, but, yeah, it was-- it was a pretty easy process.

- I have to say what I love about working with Jules, too, is that I find he has this real spirit of adventure with his illustrations. So I can dream up some read bizarre images, safe in the knowledge that I then don't have to illustrate them myself. So I can be saying oh, all right, and now they build a sculpture of a rocketship made entirely out of carrots, and then it's Jules's job to draw it up.

- It's his job.

- And the thing is Jules goes, yeah, I can do that. My-- for the next book--

- I'm dying on the inside.

- But he maintains a happy face. That's how I'm completely fooled. For the next book, I said to him, Jules, I've got a great image here, it's a chicken dressed up in a knitted penguin suit. And I'm really looking forward to seeing that, Jules.

- I can see it so clearly in front of me right now.

- Well, Frances, tell us about-- or Alex, tell us about our hero, Brian.

- Our hero, Brian. Brian has a very confident sense of himself and is very smart. So he's always saying, you know, I'm Brian. Just call me Brain. Everyone does.

In fact, no one calls him Brain. It's actually his sister, Brenda, who's the really smart one. Everyone calls her Brain. But Brian is desperate to make everyone call him Brain.

So he and his best friend, Nerf, who-- Nerf has two sisters, Petal and Leaf. And his parents were going to call him Third, if he was a girl, but he wasn't.

So Brian and his best friend, Nerf, as Jules said, they have this very dramatic, theatrical kind of sense. I mean, it's like they're in a war film or some kind of action thriller or something, and it's really quite ordinary daily situations, but the way they enter into it is with kind of complete seriousness and purpose, which is what kind of makes it really funny, as well.

- Were you both adventurers or adventurous people growing up?

- I'm adventurous now.

- Now. OK.

- Now I'm always the first person, when someone says, you know, do you want to go to this remote location and visit a school? I say, yes, please. I love going out to far-flung locations. Yeah, I loved exploring.

- Yeah.

- And I suppose, like them, I probably, you know, was pretty serious about it, too. What about you, Jules?

- I did a lot of escaping from five older brothers.

- Oh, yes.

- So I discovered a whole neighbourhood out there that was free of beatings and being sat on and stuff.

- That must have added a couple of years.

- Yeah, that was my psychologist's viewpoint. So yeah, so I guess I was sort of adventurous. You know, I've sort of lived here and there, all around. I haven't travelled the world so much as Frances has, but, yeah, I like adventure.

But I can adventure, too, in the work that I do. You know, there's so much-- because it's like you're own an entire universe, and you can do whatever you like in it. You know, if you want time to stand still there, boom.

FRANCES WATTS: That's true, isn't it? Like kind of the great thing, I think, about-- do you find this as well-- about writing and illustrating, is you can draw everything that you want, or that you're interested in or excited about, into your world that you're creating.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: I see. Well, a lot of the readers out there that contact us often are asking questions. As much as they love reading, some of them want to be writers and illustrators themselves.

- Yes.

- So maybe could we give them-- or you give them a little bit of an insight into how that works for you, Jules. With your illustrations, were you always somebody that was drawing or writing things down or carry-- do you carry a sketchbook everywhere?

- Practise is essential. That is the single most important tool in becoming an illustrator or a cartoonist. In anything really, a musician or a lawyer or an astronaut, whatever.

So when I was very little, I saw this wonderful old television show called Mr. Squiggle. And I was about four years old. And I was watching this character make some sort of magic happen right there on the screen. And then he'd turn it upside down, and there was a picture there, you know, a wonderful picture. And so I was very inspired to draw, as well. I could do that.

And I couldn't, but I kept practicing until I could. And that was-- and then, you know, I got to about the age of ten, and I was-- this is what I want to do forever. This is the thing that I love. And so I still wasn't very good, but I kept practicing and practicing and practicing and practicing.

And, you know, and I've gotten to a certain level now, but there's still levels above that I want to get to. So it's all about practicing, and constant Practise. The Practise is never done.

- Yeah. And you've illustrated everything from children's books to-- you're a cartoonist, as well.

- Yeah, yeah. Versatility is fun. That makes it really interesting to enjoy yourself, enjoy your career. You know, I worked in animation, and I worked for newspapers, and I draw people at events. You know, and it's all-- which is a really great way to meet people, as well. It was great when I was single.


- But the thing is the versatility keeps it interesting, just like in anything. And I'm sure Frances and you would say the same thing, that you don't want to write the same thing all the time, you know, and to draw the same thing all the time. To do new things all the time keeps it interesting and alive, and that's integral as well.

- Well, we're going to show the book fest viewers, a little bit later, about some of your techniques of drawing and watch you do some drawings.

- Cool.

- So I'll be excited about that. And, Alex, with you, too, you've written lots and lots of books, and for different kinds of age groups.

- Yes.

- And is it the same thing for you that there's a lot of-- you know, obviously 'Stinky Street' came to you around Christmas time.

- Yes.

- But then a book can come out much later after that initial idea, doesn't it?

- Much later, yes. But I do find that my ideas often come by doing something as ordinary as walking down the street. My very first book actually was an idea I had while walking down the street. That was a book called 'Kisses for Daddy.'

And I was walking down the street at the shops near my house, and I saw this dad walking along, and he had this little boy riding on his shoulders. And the dad's walking along, and he looked up at the little boy, and he said, kiss for daddy? It was such a sweet moment. And the little boy looked at his dad, and he said, no, no kiss for daddy, which just made me laugh. And it became this kind of idea running through my head.

And often my ideas come from words, actually, just language. And Jules was talking about Practise, and I think, for me, the first thing is reading, as a writer, reading, reading, reading. It's the best way to learn about what makes great writing and great storytelling and great characters.

And so as well as doing a lot of writing, I'm always doing a lot of reading. I find that really contributes to my understanding of how to write great books.

- And working together on a series like 'Stinky Street,' it must be a fun experience, because when I imagine authors and illustrators sort of working in your own world, but then you're actually working together towards publishing a book together.

- Yes.

- How does that actually work? A lot of the times we get lots of questions asking how books actually get put together.

- Well, it works differently for different books. I know that in a lot of cases, authors and illustrators never meet, and they never talk. They have an editor who's kind of, I suppose, managing the process.

And there are good reasons for that, because I think the important thing that you need to do, as an author, which is really hard, is once you've written your manuscript, you need to be able to step back and let the illustrator respond to your words from their own kind of creative place. And you can't have the author come in and saying, oh, you know, draw this and do it that way, because, you know, if I could illustrate, you know, I would be illustrating, but I'm not an illustrator. I need to let, you know, the illustrator exercise their amazing talent. So oftentimes you never actually talk to the illustrator.

But Jules and I, we kind of-- since we first met, we've always had this kind of great rapport, and we like to kind of bounce ideas around and things. So we actually did talk quite a lot during the illustration of this. And one of the things really fantastic, though, when you really kind of work well with someone, is when you have kind of a vague idea in your mind of what a character or scene might look like, and then when you see it illustrated, you go, yeah, that's exactly it.

I mean, a good example, for me-- I'm sorry, I'm just going to reach over and spoil the set, because I can see an example here. There's a pig in 'The Stinky Street Stories' called Porkules. And he's a diving pig. And in my mind-- and I never mentioned this to Jules, but in my mind, I imagined Porkules as very dignified. And, you know, he wasn't a wacky diving pig, he was, you know, serious about his diving.

And then when the-- I'm going to hold that open and see if can zoom in there. When the illustrations came to me that Jules had done, it was exactly right. Porkules has this kind of wonderful dignity about him, as he's kind of, you know, walking up the ramp, approaching the edge, diving off. And it was just this perfect moment of, oh, that's exactly the feeling that I hadn't mentioned, and that's all so exciting, as an author.

- Such a brilliance. And did that character come to you straightaway?

- Yeah, that one was simple.

- That was an easy one?

- But it's Alex's writing, too. You know, it's not-- it's not just that-- I haven't just plucked it magically out of the air. It's the way that Alex has described it that makes it so much easier for me to find that character exactly.

You know, sometimes the character is harder, as I said before, because, like the two leads, they're important characters. They carry us through the whole series. So you want to ensure you get that right. But sometimes, yeah, you just walk straight into it because the writing was so-- oh, it's a pig, it's not that hard.

- It could have been that the pig was a completely different character.

- Well, that's true, and an angry pig.

- That's right. Well, this has been a real insight into kind of a mysterious process, I think, for a lot of people, what do they have, what gets to its finished product. And I know that kids are going to absolutely love reading about Brian and his adventures on Stinky Street, and we wish you all the best for it.

- Thank you so much.

- Thank you.

- Thank you.

- So I'm here talking with Frances Watts now about her amazing books. You've written so many books. How many have you written?

- I've written-- well, 21, as Frances Watts, and then one as Alex Ratt, makes 22.

- My goodness. And have you always written?

- Yeah. I can definitely remember when I was about eight would be when I first started writing just for fun, for myself, to entertain, not for school or anything, but just as, you know, something I loved to do at home.

- And I'm guessing that you're a massive reader, as well?

- Massive reader, yes, always have been.

- And, you know, the more you read, the more, you know, you understand and learn about the craft of writing.

- Very much so. For me, that's one of the most important things in my kind of writing life is actually learning so much about what makes a great story, what makes kind of good plots and keeps a pace moving quickly, and how to use language wonderfully. It all comes from reading.

- And it's very hard to ask someone what their favourite book is, because I know that authors love their books equally--

- [inaudible].

- -- and they mean different things to them.

- And they mean different things to me.

- But your first book was a picture book, was it?

- My first book was a picture book. It was a book called 'Kisses for Daddy,' illustrated by David Legge. And it was really lovely, because I always used to say-- I worked as an editor before I was an author. And when you're an editor, people always come up to you and say, oh, I have a great book idea. And I always used to say I was the only person I knew who did not have any ideas for books.

Even though I always loved writing, I just never thought of being an author as something that I could do. I think we never-- we never met an author at my school. We never had one come, and so I just didn't think of it as something I could do.

But I knew I wanted to work with books, so I became an editor. And it wasn't until I had the idea for the 'Kisses for Daddy' that I suddenly realised, actually, I could be an author. And once I'd written that book, well, as you can tell by the fact that I've now written 21 more books, it was like just unlocking or opening a gate or something, and then all of these ideas came flooding through. And I just still have so many ideas for stories that I want to work on.

- Oh, wow. Are you working on more at the moment?

- I am. I'm actually working with Jules Faber on a second 'Stinky Street' book, which is a lot of fun.


- I'm also working with David Legge, who I've done four picture books with David Legge, and we're working on our fifth together at the moment.

- Gosh. And, obviously, when you're doing the picture books, you know, you're writing the text, it's got to be perfectly worded and crafted.

- Yes.

- And then, you know, the story is also told by the illustrator.

- Yes.

- But some of your other books that you've written are historical novels--

- Yeah.

- -- for slightly older readers.

- Yeah.

- And one's set in Japan. And one's set in--

- Ancient Rome, yeah.

- -- in ancient Rome.

- Yeah.

- Do you have a passion for history, as well?

- I really do.

- Yeah.

- And I guess, for me, one of the wonderful things about writing is how I can bring the things that I'm really fascinated by into my books. And I always had this fascination with ancient Rome, so to actually be able to just immerse myself in that world for a year, writing 'The Ravens Wing,' which is the book set in ancient Rome was just such a thrill. And then Japan, for 'The Peony Lantern,' admittedly that started because I really love sushi.

- OK.

- And I thought, oh, I'd quite like to go to Japan. And then as I began to research the history, it's set in the Samurai period, and I got so excited about it, and about the art and the literature and the food and the landscape. And I just love bringing in those.

But the other thing I love, too, is that I started with picture books, and I've been getting older and older and older, and it's because I really love to challenge myself as a writer, too. So once I've done, you know, one kind of book-- I actually started writing historical fiction with the 'Sword Girl' series, and I had always loved history, but I was a bit scared of writing something kind of long and that needed so much research, so I started a bit smaller with the 'Sword Girl' series, and I loved doing that so much that then I thought, OK, I think I'm ready to try something harder.

- Well, I'm intrigued to think about what might come next for you. It's a challenge. You've conquered different kinds of books and age groups.

- But then I went from 'The Peony Lantern' to 'Stinky Street.'

- There's something that just seems to me so much fun to be a children's writer.

- Yeah.

- And, you know, I think it must be just fantastic to live in your imagination.

- Yes.

- I love hearing the story of actually how the story or the narrative comes together, because as a writer, you obviously have to plan what you're going to write. Are you somebody that plans your-- or plots, or somebody that the story comes together in a bit more of an organic way?

- Yeah, so it's that question, the plotter or the pantser, as in do I plot or do I fly by the seat of my pants? I'm a bit of both, actually. For me, every story, it might start with a memory, it might start with something I'll overhear on the street. It might start even with language. I love language. I love thinking about how words sound when you put them together, or, you know, double meanings and things like that. So I always start with maybe a set of words in my head.

And then whatever idea, whether it's something that I've seen or heard, or words that I've dreamed up, I put it-- I've got a book that I carry around with me everywhere I go. This book I started-- I can actually look at the first page and go, oh, yeah, I was working on the 'Gerander' trilogy when I started this book, because it's got some notes from 'The Spies of Gerander,' which I was writing in 2010.

And every book that I've written since then, which I don't know how many, but has its beginnings here. So I can show you there, this is actually a scene from the 'The Stinky Street Stories.' And the writing's really messy, and, you know, it's all just kind of crossings out and everything, but it's just for my own purposes. But I always carry this notebook wherever I go. Every idea goes in there.

- Well, thank you for giving us a sneak peek. I guess the thing that's sort of left to cover is the students who are watching book fest are sort of halfway through the Premier's Reading Challenge.

- Yes.

- And if you've got one piece of advice for them to keep going with the rest of the challenge now, because most of the readers in, you know, the years three and above are aiming to read 20 books, and the kindergartens to year two are reading 30 books.

- Wow.

- So have you got any pieces of advice to give to the readers doing the challenge?

- Yes. I'd suggest actually reading something that you wouldn't ordinarily read, something that takes you a little bit out of your comfort zone, because that can actually be really exciting and kind of open up a whole new world of books to you that you hadn't considered before. So that's what I would suggest.

- Well, thankfully lots of your books were on the Premier's Reading Challenge, so they will be quite easy for them to go and seek them out. Thank you again.

- Thank you.

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