Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Judith Rossell

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- Hi everyone, and welcome to Bookfest. We're really excited to be here today. Bring you the author and illustrator extraordinaire, Judith Russell. And I'm Yvette Poshoglian with the Premier's Reading Challenge in New South Wales. And, Judith, [? we're striked ?] to meet you. And we're excited to talk about your amazing character, Stella Montgomery, and hear about how you write, illustrate, all the things that you do, help bring you stories together.

- Well, thank you.

- Thank you for joining us.

- I'm really excited to be here. This is great. It's great to meet you and to be part of the Premier's Reading Challenge. Thank you.

- That's good. You're welcome. I just, I must confess, just picked up 'Wormwood Mire' yesterday and I can't believe I let it go too long between the adventures of 'Withering by Sea' and 'Wormwood Mire.' And I still need to know what happens to Stella and her family and who she is and where she comes from.

But where does Stella Montgomery, this amazing character, has she been living in your imagination for a long time? Where does she come from?

- Stella was funny to write actually because, to me, she just arrived. I think thinking it through, she's probably me, with a couple of really good qualities. So she's me plus bravery and kindness. So if I was braver and kinder, just a bit better basically, that would be Stella. Yeah.

- Well, some of the adventures that she gets up to in 'Withering by Sea,' I mean, she just powers on. She's just such a strong, strong girl.

- She's very tough.

- She just meets some incredibly nasty people along the way. Not mentioning her aunts, but--

- They are dreadful.

- Her family situation is kind of fascinating as well. So with Stella, when 'Withering by Sea' came out, had you been drawing her, or how did it all come together?

- Well, it's interesting, isn't it? Because I've always worked as an illustrator. And so the way an illustrator works is you get sent a story from the publisher. And then you read the story and you draw the pictures, which is great. It's a great job, especially for someone like me, because I was the kid at school that always liked to draw when I was meant to be doing other things. The teacher would say, 'Let's do some math,' and I'm like, 'Yeah.' And I'm drawing a picture. I'm sure some of you kids listening are like that too. You guys are the best.

So when you work as an illustrator, you get sent the story and you draw the pictures. But, sometimes you have ideas for pictures which are quite different from the stories you get sent. And so I drew a picture of a Australian sort of Gothic characters, sort of Victorian. I drew a little girl hiding behind an urn in a greenhouse. That was all I had and it seemed like a great idea for the start of the story. And I thought from that position, she could see something she wasn't meant to.

- I love it. I wonder if you can tell readers, those particularly who either read the story or have agreed to jump into it after hearing you talk about it, that The Victorian Era is very interesting era, is a very interesting period of time.

- So interesting.

- Tell us a little bit about why that period fascinated you or why that makes a great city.

- It's so interesting. I am a bit obsessed with the Victoriana, and I read a lot of history books. And I always think for us, you hear people say, 'Oh, the pace of change today is just exhausting. ' But what do we mean? Since I was a kid to now, which is obviously about 200 years. There haven't been that many changes, not really. We've got computers in our houses. We've got mobile phones. I can't think of anything else that's really significant.

But if we were living in 1885, which is the year my stories are set, we would have seen so many changes. We would have seen the-- what would we have seen? The invention of electric light, can you imagine how enormous that would have changed our lives? Telephones. The first time you could speak to someone when they're not standing in the room with you, ever. In 1895, there were about 100 telephones in Melbourne.

- Really?

- Yeah. I don't know how many there were in Sydney.

- Incredible [inaudible]

- I only know about Melbourne.

- Could be more actually.

- I think there probably was about 50. You probably just threw rocks at each other [inaudible] you're asked to think. What else? The first motor cars. The very first experiment in motor cars. Roller skates. Big dippers, like roller coasters were invented. Ferris wheels. We would have seen the first chewing gum, the first milk chocolate, the first corn flakes. Coca-cola was going to be invented next year in 1886.

- All the best inventions, really.

- And radio, moving pictures, recorded music. All those things we would have seen for the very first time. And all those things would have changed our lives. For you kids, school was kind of an invention of the 1870s, 1890s. Before that, there was no feeling that all children should go to school. All children should learn to read. And that was an enormous revolution.

- Is that amazing. Actually, I was talking to other teachers recently about the reason why we have rows in classrooms and that was directly as a result of kids working in factories. That's how they would sit up, and I'm sure you know, to sit and face the front of the room, to be in front of the machine.

So one of the things I loved in 'Withering by Sea' is your description and illustrations of the aunts taking a bath. I just absolutely loved it. And I know that we're going to have a look at some of the illustrations, but when you were writing those scenes, did you know instinctively what you wanted to draw alongside those particular scenes?

And the scenes in the greenhouse, in particular for me, I just love that whole idea of mystery with the plants, and the glass, and the conservatory, and people tail, chasing for something.

Do you think visually when you are--

- I think I really do. Yeah. And if I can imagine the scene, if I can imagine what it looks like, I find it easier to write as well. So I picture it in my head. And then just try and describe exactly what's in my head. And then I usually save drawing pictures to later because I like doing them better. And then it's just easy. That's like a little treat for me to draw the pictures.

- And one of the things that our readers often ask me about is how a book comes together. So when you're working with the publisher, do you discuss where you want the pictures to go? And particularly with your books, they're such beautiful looking creations, beautiful hardbacks. They're vintage-looking to me.

- Yeah, they are very pretty.

- --to hold the place here. There's so many books that aren't like that today. It's a really special looking package that your giving, in particular, 'Withering by Sea,' the cover, the hotel that the aunts and Stella live in. Purely, I just want to pick that up and that remind me-- I was just talking to someone before about books we loved to read when we were growing up-- it's just so much, such sense of adventure and history from the cover illustration.

How long would it take you to make, draw that cover, or paint that cover? Or does it go through several processes?

- It does. The way-- can you see if I hold it up like this? It's a piece of artwork that runs across the back like that. So I drew this and I would do a pencil drawing of what I think would look good. And there's a designer involved, so she is in charge of the text and how it will sit, and the type of font that's chosen, and also how much text there needs to be. So obviously, I have to leave space for these different things to fit on. And then the publishers need to think of how the book will look in the shop from whether it will catch people's eye and whether they want it to look like that. And, of course, there has to be room on the spine for all this information. There's quite a lot involved with designing a cover. I'm lucky, as a writer, because most writers don't get to draw their own covers. But I do, which is really cool.

- That's kind of cool.

- Yeah. I like that. Because it feels, to me-- I didn't know what it would feel like to other people-- but to me, they really feel like my books because I drew all of the pictures on them.

- You're super lucky. The other thing thing that I love in your books is there's lots kinds of types of text. And sometimes you've got character's names, for instance, or signs that you're illustrating that spring out across the page, and I just think it really draws your eye to it. Is that something you decide or you're involved with it?

- A little bit. The designer is particularly involved with deciding the font and how it'll all work on the page. But because I'm also illustrating the books, I do get a bit of a say. And I decide where my pictures will be on the page or the designer decides and I annoy her by moving things around a little bit.

I have this idea that when you're reading a story you like, if that describes something and there's a picture of that thing, I would like the thing to be right next to the description where it appears in the text. So that when you're reading, you can see the picture right there. That's a little thing I have. And the designer often wants the page to look good, as a whole, so there's a couple of conflicting views there.

- One of the things actually I wanted to ask you, when you were growing up, did you have favourite book or favourite authors, or books that you just coveted all around the house that you drew.

- I was quite a [inaudible].

- Yes. Can you recommend-- [interposing voices]

- When I was a kid, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' the Roald Dahl book was huge when I was about, I guess, eight or nine, and I adored that book. That was one of his earlier ones. His first kids' book? I think it might have been his first. And I just loved it. And I used to write stories at school, where in my story, I just went to sleep, and woke up in the chocolate factory and witnessed various scenes from that book and then woke up back here at home.

- I'm wondering if sometimes when I'm opening up a chocolate bar, I just wish there was that golden ticket.

- Yeah, imagine.

- I don't think even as a grownup, you ever lose that hope you would win a golden to a chocolate factory.

- I suppose that this generation, it would be wanting the owl to come and bring an invitation to Hogwarts--

- That would be awesome.

- --when you turn 11. There must be kids waiting for that on their eleventh birthday.

- Have you been to Platform 9 and 3/4 in London?

- I haven't, unfortunately.

- That's one of the one places I didn't go to.

- And bash your way through the--

- I don't know how I'm going to Hogwarts, but we'll work it out when we get there.

One of the-- well, actually just [inaudible] so 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' is our most popular on book list three to four has been for the last few years. And so you know, everybody still loves Roald Dahl's books and I don't think that's going to change. We still love [inaudible].

- I think there was something about that scene with the chocolate waterfall and the magical meadow with the flowers you could eat so.

- It does, takes you somewhere. And that's what books can do. Do you have everywhere in your house?

- I do actually, but I have a new rule which involves-- I have quite a lot of bookshelves, and if the book's don't all fit on the bookshelves, then books have to go.

- Oh my gosh. [inaudible]

- So I take them down to the op shop. Well, I pick them up and I say, well genuinely am I going to write this again? And if not, I give it it's freedom, out into the world to have a life in someone else's life. It's actually quite therapeutic in a way. And you can guarantee that every box I take out of the house, I'll want something in that box a week later. I just will. I'll say, oh I had a book with that in, oh it's gone.

- Always the way.

- But otherwise, I think they can sort of start to--

- When you're writing, do you make notes or snippets of conversation you might need? Are you that kind of writer that jots things down along the way?

- I really recommend it to people who, because I teach adults who want to write children's books and that's one of the things I would recommend to them, to keep a notebook and write things in it all the time. I don't actually do it myself, but I do it in illustration way, so I would always have a sketchbook that I carry around and I draw in that, which I think is the same.

- I think it's the same. It's actually quite advanced. If I drew every idea that I had, I would just be [? nailed ?] to put it down. That's quite a skill.

- I like the idea of writing things down, but when you have the ideas you think, oh, of course I might forget that. But yet, yeah.

- One of the things, actually, that I've been dying to ask you about, is how you come up with your characters' names and place names. They're so funny! So funny. And sometimes I know that you just join words together that sometimes don't match. Or there's expressions in there that I-- are they expressions that were use back in Victorian Era?

- Some of them are. And some of them I just make up, so a bit of a mixture.

- So you obviously love words as well? I do and I like the idea of making up slang for characters. So I have a character in 'Withering by Sea' called Gert and she's a dancing girl. And I think she would use a lot of slang. And she probably use quite a lot of rude words, if she was speaking how she actually would. But I'm not going to fill my book with rude words, so instead I made a list of words that I just gave her that sound a bit like they would be rude words. She says the word, what else, what do I have her say 'skitching,' she says a bit, which sounds quite rude.

[interposing voices]

- And so I just made a list of words that sounded a little bit like that. That sounded a little bit like rude words and I give them to Gert, so every time she speaks I look at my list and pick out another word for her to say.

- Well, without giving too much away, because we don't want reveal all your amazing writing and illustrations secrets, but while I've got you here, I'm going to ask you, were you ever worried about Stella's fate? Because it gets into some very hairy situations with some very interesting and diabolical characters that she has to escape from in both books. And find information, and not quite know where she's going next. So this whole sense of adventure, I mean I was worried about her in parts.

- Good. You should be worried.

- Do you know where her adventures are going to take you or do your characters kind of take you on their own journey?

- It's a little bit more like that. Again, if I was advising people about writing , I would say make a good plan. And plan your story scene by scene, and make a nice shape to it, and then write it. And that is excellent advice. It's very good advice. But I don't work like that myself. I write a scene and then I think, what would be something interesting to happen next. And then I write that. And then I think, OK. And it's a difficult way to write because you often find yourself in a bit of a dead end. You can't think how your character would get out of the situation. Or you can't think of anything good that will happen next. And then you have to go back.

- Also, there's so many surprising characters in your book. And so many interesting things that happen like, for instance, in 'Wormwood Mire' when Stella looks into the lake, and she sees the goldfish and then she looks again, and it's made of stone. That was a cool idea. I mean, what's happening in that lake is very interesting in itself.

- Yeah, there's something going on there. Definitely.

- I mean, monsters and interesting creatures and, I mean, Victorians were quite fascinated by nature and understanding natural world. It's a big part of your books and Stella's atlas as well, [inaudible] It's all about really discovery as well.

- Well, there's a lot of exploration still going on and people were still discovering new things. And if you think about the Victorian times, things like electricity and radio. It must have seemed like miracles. Or even the telephone, that you could hear someone's voice coming on the wire. It must have seemed like a miracle. And so at that time, a bit like now in some ways, people were also fascinated by the supernatural, because if you're getting miracles happen in your life, like, technological miracles, you don't know what might be possible. Like, if you've never heard someone on the telephone before, maybe ghosts are real. Maybe fairies are real. People believed a lot of these things. Quite eminent people. Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, famously believed in fairies. And all these children, these girls, who took photos of-- it turned out to be paper cut-outs of fairies-- which they pinned onto bushes and took photos of each other with these fairies. And he believed they were real fairies. A lot of people did.

That's extraordinary, isn't it? Now it seems like a bizarre thing to believe, like you think. But if you think, back then there were so many exciting and miraculous inventions happening. And people doing experiments, like they'd get twins and then put one of the twins in India and the other one in England and make, sort of impress some thoughts on the one in England and see if the one in India could detect the thoughts of their twin. [interposing voices]

- What were the results?

- Well, not great. Because it doesn't actually--

- --twins fascinating. Obviously, I'm not a twin.

- Twins are very interesting.

[interposing voices]

- I've given Stella a twin. Potential twin, maybe.

[interposing voices]

- And non-twins that are interested in twins.

- Especially, identical twins. There's this thought that that's one person, isn't it? Originally one person and became two. That's weird.

- It is weird.

- And good.

- Are you going to write more in Stella's adventures or any other stories in this era?

- We are planning one more book. And in that book, Stella will reach some sort of conclusion. And in 'Wormwood Mire,' Stella is reading a book. It's a book of morals, so it's just a list of children who do the wrong thing and die, unfortunately. The Victorians were quite strict with their lessons, and we're making that book, so that's fun. It's going to be called 'A Garden of Lilies.' And it's just 17 little stories of children who-- and then each story has a moral.

- Oh, that sounds scary--

[interposing voices]

- And interesting.

- I was explaining it to a girl who's emailing me about my work. And she, I think she's about 10, and she wrote back and said, so basically it's going to be posh and fancy, but really depressing.

- Some of our favourite books are.

- Yeah. That's pretty much it.

- Sounds like my perfect book, actually. And what about other things? Are you working on lots of different projects at once or are you just focusing on one book at a time?

- At the moment--

- Books take sometimes a long time--

- They really do. They really do. And I'm quite a slow writer because of the way I write, which is unfortunate.

But, I have ideas for other projects, definitely, which I'm trying to put aside for the moment, because I really do have to focus on this. But sometimes ideas come to you, don't they? You go, that will be excellent.

- That's why you need a sketchbook or a notebook.

- That's right. [interposing voices]

- Lots of students who are great readers, obviously, people would love to have a go at writing or are writing things. And so, some of your advice has been about making notes, drawing, making little sketches of things you see along the way, but also that idea of really working on something until it gets to a good point. Is that how you work with your writing? Draughts?

- Oh yes. And the advice that again, the proper advice, would be write the whole thing. Write a draft all the way through and then go back and fix it up. But the way I write is, I like to fix it as I go, which is also quite a lot time consuming, but I like to make it seem good. And I'm happy with it. And then I read it and think, oh, that's good and move on. Probably rewriting four, or five, or six times.

- Yeah. It's a big job, isn't it?

- Yeah. It is.

- Takes a lot to make a book happen.

- It does. But I think that sometimes when you see finished things you think, oh if your first draft isn't as good as this finished thing, it can be discouraging. But my first Draughts are dreadful, like really dreadful. They're all over the place and they don't make sense. And they're not nice to read. And I think-- because we never see that. We think that writers are people who can write beautifully from scratch. But, no. You just have to get used to the idea of re-writing and re-writing.

- What would your advice to be to somebody who's stuck with what they've written. Maybe they've written a great first line, or paragraph.

- I've so been there.

- I guess I might be speaking from my own personal truth there, but what would your advice be if you're feeling like you've still got a great story to tell, and you're finding it hard-- not everything you're doing is perfect. Got to keep trying.

- You've got to keep trying. And I think I tend to hate what I write, certainly to start with. And I think it's good to just sort of accept that. Failing is part of the process and go, OK, well you know I always hate it. That's fine. Just keep going. Keep going. Think, what if? What could happen next? What if this happened? What if that happened ? And give it a try.

And remember that everything you write, nothing is set in stone. You can change it all. So it's a process. I'm used to illustrating. And with drawing, you don't sit down and do a finished piece of art. You do a sketch. And you cut it out, maybe, and move things around a bit, and have another look at it. And one of the things you can do with drawing is, you hold your drawing up to a mirror, and you'll instantly see if you've made any mistakes with it, because when it's flipped you can just see all the errors.

- That's fascinating. That's such a good tip.

- But because you're so close to it, you can't see it normally. So writing is very much the same you. See, the first draft is like a sketch. You're just working out what might be there, what characters might be there. And then the second draft, you're sort of moving them around and trying something different.

- One of the things the mid-point while we're doing Bookfest, it's half way through the challenge. And the students are feverishly reading. And they are pushing themselves to try lots of new kinds of books or genres that they haven't tried before. Are you somebody that reads a lot of different kinds of things? For instance, you are interested in Victoriana. Victoriana's probably led you down the history path or nonfiction. What do you like to read in your down time?

- I do read quite a lot of Victorian nonfiction. It's true. I just got a new book the other night called 'Great Victorian Discoveries.' And it's all things that were discovered at that time, but most of them were things that were not quite right. So they discovered-- what was one of them? Most of them were just wrong, but they're really entertaining. Different scientists had ideas of how the body worked or how the space worked and had theories. It's really interesting. So I'm reading that at the moment. I do like a bit of a crime thriller.

- Yes. Again, that's another kind of adventure, mystery to unravel.

- The easy, exciting read. [interposing voices]

- No, I don't like the gruesome ones. I like more of the psychological ones.

I read quite a lot of children's fiction to see what other people are working on and also, to tell you the truth, just because I enjoy it quite a lot. [interposing voices]

- I read also quite a lot of young adult, at the moment. Because those books, right I mean they're just--

- There's so much to read out there. There's just not enough time.

- And yeah, I enjoy also-- I have like at home, I books which I must have read about 20 times. It's relaxing to read. You know, your old favourites.

- Oh, I know. I thought I was the person that re-read my favourites. But the more I spoken to authors, the more it seems like-- you're one of them-- [inaudible] people like me.

- I have a shelf of Agatha Christie's which I just read in the bath.

- Judith, it's been so exciting and just revelation to talk to you and understand how your books have come into the world. And really be excited to see the third instalment come out of Stella's adventures. And thank you for being a part of Bookfest.

- Thank you so much.

- A little wave.

- Bye. Bye-bye.

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