Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Jackie French

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

[music playing]

- Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Premier's Reading Challenge Bookfest. We're so excited to have you joining us this morning and to be with Jackie French. I'm Yvette Poshoglian. And I might just start with your tagline, which I love, which is that you describe yourself as an author, ecologist, and honorary wombat. And I just love that. Is that how you see yourself in the world?

- Probably, but I don't think that's how the wombats see me. I think the wombats see me more as actually that nuisance who does not give us carrots nearly often enough. And why doesn't she understand?


- I know wombats are pivotal to your life. And I know you adore them. And I know, actually, you're working on the stage adaptation of 'Diary of a Wombat.' It's just about to happen in Sydney. It's just very exciting.

- Oh, it's absolutely thrilling. But the other fascinating thing about wombats is that some of them love to be read to. And look, if you have got a dog, try reading to your dog. Now, my brother did not believe this. My brother's dog has got a very, very small brain and a very, very short attention span. And I really hope my brother is not watching this.

But I said, read to your dog. And he did. And he sent me the most wonderful video of this dog looking with absolute ecstasy-- why have you never done this for me before? So try reading to your dog.

You can try reading to your cat, but I'm told that cats are actually very fussy. And one girl did tell me that her horse loved books, but only books about horses, so you may need to be very choosy there. But dogs love to be read to.

- I know that a lot of people who are watching us this morning also want to write. And so I think you've given us some great tips there on how to make a story grab hold. I know that you've got a new picture book out called 'Millie Loves Ants.' Can you tell us a little bit about it?

JACKIE FRENCH: Many decades ago, I was a professional echidna milker.

- [laughs]

- Now, I wasn't an echidna milker for very long-- I usually say because the funding dried up and so did the echidnas. But that's really because it sounds good. But the funding did dry up. It was an academic project.

By studying echidna milk, you could see what echidnas eat. And back then, people thought that echidnas only ate ants. But because of this study, we discovered that they eat all sorts of things, and also at different times of the year. So when they're feeding their puggle, they'll be eating very, very high protein things, like termites.

So that was why I was an echidna milker. Do not try milking an echidna. First of all, the echidnas do not like it. Secondly, echidnas are protected. Thirdly, you're not going to get much milk, for it is extremely difficult to milk an echidna, and it's not like the way you milk a cow or a goat. And lastly, do not think you're going to have echidna milk in your tea or on your cereal, because guess what echidna milk tastes like.

- I don't know.

- Ants.

- Ants.

- Yes.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Ant-flavoured milk. Yeah. That makes sense, doesn't it?

- Anyway, decades after that, Sue deGennaro and her daughters came to our place. And we have got hundreds and hundreds of echidnas. And we've got one that's living around the house.

And her girls became fascinated. They started following the echidnas very, very, very quietly so the echidnas didn't know they were there, and eavesdropping on the echidnas, and spying on the echidnas, and seeing what the echidnas ate and what they did, like wriggling their noses under the pot plants so the pot plant would go crash and they'd get the ants underneath.

But also, they discovered why Millie loves ants. And if you want the secret of why Millie likes so many ants, you're going to have to read the book. But that was the secret that Sue's daughters discovered-- why Millie really, really loves ants.

- I can't wait to read this book. Do you have a notebook that you carry around when ideas strike? Or do they just sort of sit, as with that idea, for a while in the back of your mind, and you're thinking about how you're going to tell the story? What kind of a writer are you? Do you have those ideas you jot down as you go along, or--

- Always. I always have notebooks, always putting ideas on scraps of paper. The only problem is I am dyslexic. And no one can read my writing, including myself. So those notebooks and those scraps of paper are completely and utterly useless. But there's something about writing the idea down that helps develop it.

When you create an idea, the first idea you get is probably going to be a cliche. Look, think of a pirate. It's probably Johnny Depp looking very, very sexy in long, leather boots and white silk shirt. The more you think about a pirate, the more original they're going to be. So I always think about a book for at least three years. And scribbling down notes, it's just a way of really cementing those ideas in my mind.

When you go from home to school, you don't have to follow notes. You've got a vision of what the world is like there in your brain. And it's the same for me when I write a book. I'm not ready to write a book until that world is complete. And I know if I walk here, I can see this. This person will say that. If something happens, this is what they're going to do. So once you know a world, you don't need notes.

And if you don't know the world so well that you don't know what someone has for breakfast, or for that matter, what their dinner smells like, you're probably not ready to write the book. Writing is that important. Thinking is that important. And rewriting is that important. And I don't just mean rewriting this word and that word.

Look, every time I send a book to the publisher, they ring me up and say, oh, we absolutely love it! It's wonderful! We adore it. It's just, the ending doesn't really work, and, look, we think probably it needs another beginning. And look, quite a lot of the middle probably doesn't work either, if you don't mind redoing that. But we really, really love the book.

So again, of course, you rewrite the whole thing again and again and again. And that's the difference between a professional writer and an amateur writer.

I've been writing novels since I was six years old. But I wrote them for myself and for friends and people in the class because I was allowed to tell a story every afternoon if the class would behave themselves. But I didn't work at my stories. I just told them for fun.

It wasn't until I was absolutely desperately broke. I needed $144.60 to register my car. I had a baby. I was living in the bush. There was a drought. The only way I could think of making money was sending a story to a publisher.

And it's an old story now, actually. I had a wombat to help me. And the wombat left his droppings on the keyboard. And so the letter E was soft and squishy when I pressed it. So when I wrote 'Rain Stones,' I had to write it without using the letter E and then write in all the Es.

And when the editor picked it up, they gave a scream of laughter and said, hey, everyone, look at this! It was the worst-spelled, messiest book they had ever seen. Now, the mess, of course, was the wombat's fault, not my fault. But I'm also dyslexic. I can't spell. And I think I thought magically I'd learned how to spell since I'd left university. But I hadn't.

But they picked it out from the pile because it was so messy and so badly spelled. And they thought it would be unintentionally hilarious.

And so the editor read a little bit aloud to everyone in the office so they could have a giggle at it. And she read the first paragraph and then the second paragraph. And then there in the office, she read the entire book aloud and then went to ring me up to offer me a contract to publish it. And that's how I became a writer.

- Incredible story. You know, you've mentioned your dyslexia. When you were growing up, was reading a challenge for you? Or were you always able to read? Or you always enjoyed books? How was it for you?

- No. Reading was never a challenge for me-- always an absolute joy. My reading, on the other hand, was a challenge for my teachers. I managed to convince the entire year 3 that the word was 'orge,' not ogre, and various other mispronunciations. So look, I was fine. The teachers, however, did have a few problems.

I learned to read before I went to school. I'm still not sure how I do read. I'm the fastest reader I've ever come across. I think I read not just by word recognition, but probably by phrase recognition. Now, this does take a long time.

I have to emphasise there's really no such thing as dyslexia. Dyslexia is just a phrase that means that you have problems reading when you don't have problems with other areas of learning, except possibly things like maths. So it means that you are not dumb, but you do have problems reading.

There is no one solution for everyone. There is no one way that everyone who is dyslexic is going to learn. No one can say, this will cure every dyslexic. In fact, you won't be cured. You'll just learn to cope with different ways of seeing things.

Some people, too, all say that if you're dyslexic, you are going to be a genius, even though you're not very good at spelling, or sometimes arithmetic or writing. And I don't believe that, either. But talent is two a penny. Many, many people are talented. What makes genius is talent and perseverance-- keeping on going and focusing. And no matter how many times you fail, you will try over and over and over again until you get it right.

And that's the choice you've got if you are dyslexic. If you're dyslexic, you can just say, oh, that's too hard, too hard. I'm not even going to try. Or you can keep trying.

Now, I can't promise it's going to be easy. I can't even promise that the first person who will try to help you is going to be able to help you. Sadly, there are some schemes out there that are still being used that really don't help you if you are dyslexic.

But I can promise this-- everyone can learn to read. Everyone can learn to read incredibly quickly. And the more you do it, the faster and the faster and the faster you'll get.

And the same with writing. Sometimes I'm writing a book, and it's so exciting. I don't want to go and read another book. I'd rather keep on writing. And I can write almost as fast as I can read.

But while you are learning, you are learning to focus and to persevere. Talent, focus, and perseverance-- that is what makes a genius. And that's really the choice you've got as a dyslexic.

If you're not a dyslexic, or for that matter, even if you are a dyslexic, have you ever wanted a potion to make you more intelligent, a magic potion so you do better at school? Well, I've got one for you. It's called a book.

Years ago, we used to think that only intelligent people read books. These days, we know it's exactly the opposite. Particularly when you're young, every single book you read makes you more intelligent. It increases the neurons in your brain and the connections between the neurons.

Look, you know when an athlete pumps iron, their muscles get bigger and bigger and bigger? It's exactly the same when you're reading. Reading is muscle-building for the brain. And it does happen a little bit for adults. But it mostly happens when your brain is growing when you're young. If you read books, you will be more intelligent.

But reading does other things, too. Every time you read a book, you are every character in that book. You are every place in that book. You have to think about every decision in that book. Reading means you'll understand yourself with a depth you will never get in any other way.

When you read a book, or many books, you're 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people. You've lived in ancient Egypt. You've lived 2,000 times in the future. Reading makes you understand other people, why they do things, how they do things. Reading also gives you the confidence to know that tomorrow is not always going to be like yesterday.

Humans have always faced challenges. But we are descended from the people who have survived those challenges. Every single one of us is descended from people who survived floods or the Black Death or war.

We're descended either from heroes or people who were good at running very, very, very quickly, or smiling and saying, I am a really nice person. Please do not kill me. I am a friend. We are descended from heroes. And that is something that reading books shows you, too.

Now, look, as an adult, as a parent, I would love to promise you a perfect world when you leave school. I can't. But I can promise you this. If you read books, you are going to learn the techniques to survive as the world changes. If you read books, you are going to find 1,000 futures that you might like to choose.

If you read books, you are going to get the confidence to know that whatever life throws you, life can be very, very, very good. I cannot promise you a perfect world. But I can promise you, it can be fascinating.

- Well, very powerful. It makes me want to go out and read straight away. I've got some of your books off the shelf. And are you able to tell us a bit about your new books, your new historical novels that are coming out this year? For instance, I'm thinking of 'The Secret of the Black Bushranger,' in particular. That was a story I didn't know much about the history of.

JACKIE FRENCH: Neither did I. I knew that Australia's first bushranger was black. I thought he was probably Afro-American, had been maybe a slave who'd been freed when he went to England. So I started to research. And it was fascinating.

And no, he probably wasn't. He probably came from Madagascar. He probably wasn't born a slave, because he was massive. He was nearly twice as tall and wide as anyone else in the colony. He was an absolute giant.

He probably-- and I am saying probably-- the most likely way he went to England was if he had been captured as a slave or sold into slavery to the Dutch. And the Dutch were at war with England, so probably an English pirate ship would have captured him, taken him with the loot to England.

But once he was in England, he would have been free, and free to starve. He was enormous. And most English people back then were actually pretty small. So he stole food. And that's what he was convicted of-- stealing food. And time and time again in Australia, he was convicted of stealing food.

But that's where the mystery really begins, because Australia, back then, was a prison without walls. The convicts were immediately free. The only ones who were chained or given the lash or hung were those who committed new crimes in Australia.

And yet John Caesar, or John Black Caesar, committed crime after crime. He was certainly chained. He was sent to Norfolk Island. On Norfolk Island, he even married. Now, that was pretty incredible, because there weren't very many women to marry. So he must have been very, very impressive.

He was given a cow. He was given a pig. He was given a farm. But he kept on stealing. He was whipped so many times that no other man had survived being whipped so often. And yet, despite committing crime after crime after crime, they didn't hang him.

So who was John Black Caesar? Was he a [? plausible ?] criminal? Some of the officers described him just as being animal-like. And yet someone who is animal-like does not convince people not to send him to prison or to give him a farm at Norfolk Island. At one stage, he had an enormous gang of men who was following him. He was obviously an incredibly intelligent, charismatic man.

But the other mystery about John Black Caesar, when he first escaped from Garden Island, he has to have had help. He must have been helped at several times in his life.

So that is the question for Barney in the book. Should he do what Mr. Johnson, the clergyman, taught him-- help those who are hungry, help those who were in slavery and want to be free? Or should he have obeyed the law of the colony and turned in a man who had escaped?

Was Barney right? What would you have done? Would you have helped a slave who had sworn he would never wear chains again? Or would you have given him up to the authorities? Which is right?

- Stories, and particularly my class, when we was reading 'Hitler's Daughter' together, we had so many deep questions and conversations about what we learn from history or people in history, and stories whether humans can change themselves or whether we can improve ourselves or learn from our mistakes. I mean, books have a really powerful place in the world.

- They do. And it's one of the reasons I like writing in the past, because we can ask these powerful questions. And they're not political. If we talked about good and evil today, there might be a debate about which politician is good and which one is evil. But when you're talking about Hitler, most people do agree that what Hitler did was evil.

But so many people, too, have actually asked me, yes, was Heidi Hitler's daughter, et cetera? So this book really does answer that. But for me, it also answered one of the major questions that I had.

So many of the people I had met who had been in the concentration camps were such good people, starting with the wonderful man who taught me the violin. This was a man who-- the ultimate evil had been done. He managed to survive. But he had played with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.

By the time he survived the concentration camp, his hands were swollen and twisted, and he could never-- he could certainly never play to concert standard again, though he could teach students. And yet he was a man of so much love and patience and happiness.

And I wanted to know, how can people who have suffered the ultimate evil of torture and genocide become people who give so much love? And I thought they would probably say, oh, look, if you were really nice, loving people, you had a better chance of surviving. And no one said that. They all said, in fact, often it was simply luck.

But they also said they had to make a conscious decision to forgive. Every single one of them said, after the war, they were filled with so much hate for what had been done for them.

But as one man said, the morning they put my son into my arms and I looked into his eyes and I realised I had no room in my heart for love because it was filled with hate. And in that morning, I decided I must become a man of love. I must become a man of love for my son. And he said, every day, I must wake up, and I must make that decision again. I must forgive, and I must become a man of love, not hate. And that is where the book came from.

When evil things happen to you, when horrible things happen to you, if you keep remembering them, if your heart is filled with the hate that someone else put it there, then they are always going to be part of you. But if you can forgive them, if you can become a person of love, then yes. You will be a person of love.

Now look, I'm certainly not saying don't fight against wrong things. I'm certainly saying don't pardon someone if what they have done is wrong. I am definitely not saying that. But I am saying it for your sake and for the world's sake. Whenever ogres rise in our midst, we need to fight them. But when we have finally defeated them, no one fights an ogre and comes away unscathed.

And so we owe the ogre hunters this. When the ogres have been defeated, sit down upon the quiet ground and try to understand the ogres' anger and their twisted fear, because only by doing that can we stop the ogres rising again in our midst. And when you have understood, forgive. And then stand up and live. Live well.

- Very, very powerful words. Thank you so much for sharing your stories with us and your thoughts on why books matter, because they really do. And your books, too, I know from my reading enjoyment and working as a teacher, just watching kids come to your books, the conversations we've had, I wouldn't be the only teacher out there thinking that right now.

I want everybody, wherever you're watching, to give a massive cheer and clap for Jackie French. We'll be doing it here as well. Jackie, thank you so much for your time. I just love talking to you. And thanks for being part of Bookfest.

- Absolutely. Absolutely.

[music playing]

End of transcript