Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Lauren Child

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

- G'day. My name's Rob Stokes. I'm the New South Wales Education Minister. And I'm here to lend my support to Bookfest as part of the Premier's Reading Challenge. Reading is so important to all of us. It's something that I really enjoy to do. It's a way in which I relax and unwind. One of the things I love about reading is the opportunity gives me to visit places and to meet people that I would never otherwise get to meet.

What do I mean by that? Well, I like reading historical fiction and things about geography. That gives me the chance to imagine places or worlds that may or may not exist, but also places that did exist in the past but don't exist anymore, but give me the chance to unlock some of those mysteries and some of those untold stories to learn more without realising that I'm actually learning.

That's one of the great things about reading. It's a way in which we can relax, and unwind, and escape, but at the same time we're learning. And we don't even know it. So reading is a wonderful pastime. It's a wonderful way to learn. It's a wonderful way to grow, and to meet people, and go to places that we'd never otherwise get to visit.

- Hi, and welcome to Bookfest. And congratulations, we're about halfway through the Premier's Reading Challenge. Already so many books read, and so many books still to read in the time that lies ahead. I hope you really enjoy these next few days of Bookfest, so many new books to discover, great authors to listen to, and a great opportunity to share good reading ideas with our friends.

Reading is such a wonderful part of my life. And I know it's so important in your lives as well. We only get to live one life ourselves. But through reading, we can explore so many other lives, the lives of great people who've gone before, and fabulous new worlds, new lives, that are created by wonderful authors in their fiction. So thanks for being part of the Reading Challenge. Enjoy Bookfest, congratulations on all you've achieved so far. And all the best for the rest of the Premier's Reading Challenge.

- So Jemima, tell me what you were deeply engrossed in here.

- I am reading 'Ruby Redfort,' the first one, 'Look into My Eyes.'

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: So Ruby Redfort is a character from Lauren Child. And what do we need to know about her?

- First of all, she found out that she likes spying on things. And that was just kind of her hobby. But then she realises that she's actually really good. And someone tries to employ her to a big detective spy kind of agency.

- So a child being employed as a spy?

- Yes.

- Incredible. Do you think that you would make good spy?

- Probably.

- Probably. So would you recommend these books for anybody that's interested in spying as a future job/hobby?

- Yes. It actually kind of taught me some techniques and stuff.

YVETTE POSHOGLIAN: Fantastic. Thanks Jemima.

- No worries.

- Hello, everybody. We are here in Sydney at one of my favourite events in the year. It's the Sydney Writers Festival. And we've got a really special, special event for you today. The Premier's Reading Challenge have buddied up with the Sydney Writers Festival to bring you an interview with one of my favourite authors ever. I hope you really enjoy it.

- Hello everyone, and welcome to Bookfest. I'm Deborah Abela, children's author. And today we're going to meet someone very, very special. Now Lauren Child used to be a lampshade maker. She also once painted dots for a very, very famous artist. And she was actually named Helen. But she thought Lauren actually fitted her much, much better. Since then, she has created characters that millions and millions of people all around the world just love, like Charlie and Lola, like Clarice Bean, and the intrepid Ruby Redfort. We are so incredibly lucky today to have here with us Lauren Child. Welcome, Lauren.

- Thank you.

DEBORAH ABELA: Welcome to Australia.

- Thank you very much.

DEBORAH ABELA: Have you been here before?

- I've been here a couple of times, actually, but not for a long time.

DEBORAH ABELA: Time, OK, but we're very, very lucky to have you. So can I ask, what would your younger self think about your older self, who gets to travel all around the world talking about books? What do you think she'd think about that?

- Well, I had a lot of years of things not working out so well. And so I think I'd probably be quite surprised and very relieved.

DEBORAH ABELA: --That it all worked out, OK.

- Yeah.

- Did you always know that you were going to do something creative, but weren't quite sure? Or you weren't sure what you were going to do?

- I really didn't know what I wanted to do. That was one of the big problems. I knew that I wanted to do a job that involved drawing and designing.

DEBORAH ABELA: OK, that's good. That's good to know, OK.

- So I was always interested in making things. But it was almost as if there were so many things I wanted to do that I couldn't focus on one of them, which of course leads you to actually doing nothing, making no decisions. It was really bad.

DEBORAH ABELA: Were you always a drawer, then, as a kid?

- I was always a drawer. That was my big thing. And I loved making things. So I remember when we moved town, I was a bit, sort of, down about that. I wasn't very good with change. I think a lot of children feel like that. And it's all a bit too much. And so I didn't want to join anything. I wasn't a good joiner.

But I did manage to sort of start-- I don't know how this happened. But my parents went and talked to the local carpentry teacher at the school where my father worked. And he asked him if he would teach me carpentry. Which that was probably quite life changing, actually, because I really liked sort of one-to-one things. And I really like learning something that was beyond what where people expect you to be. And I did the same with jewellery making as well.

- So it was just you and the carpenter--

- --me and the carpenter.

- --in a little workshop, hammering and sawing.

- Sawing, and he let me use the band saw.

- Oh, fantastic.

- Because I was about nine. And I think my parents were very, very brave to let me go off and do that. But it really built my confidence. It was probably exactly what I needed.

DEBORAH ABELA: Right, and you kept all your fingers.

- All my fingers are here.

- So look at that! It worked out fine.

- It was absolutely fine, yep.

- So but before then, obviously, you wouldn't have thought about carpentry as a thing you wanted to do.

- I was interested in, I suppose, I like the idea of making real thing.

- Oh, so that's--

- Yeah, so I think probably I wanted to do it for a little while. Yeah, anything that was actually a real, proper thing.

DEBORAH ABELA: Yes. So we know a little bit about you, then, as a kid so far. So you weren't really a joiner. You didn't like change too much. How else can you describe yourself to us as a kid? Did you like books as well? Was that a big part of your life?

- I did like books. My mother was a primary school teacher. And she is a very, very bookish person, loves books, loves reading. So we always read to every single night.

DEBORAH ABELA: Oh, how lucky.

- And that was really nice. And we went to the library probably twice a week, because my mother was so passionate about it.

DEBORAH ABELA: Twice a week, oh that's good.

- We did. And so I think that taught me was the pleasure of ordering books. I began to realise that you could, if you were interested in a subject, you could talk to the librarian. And you could order-in books. So I loved that. And because my father was an art teacher, we got sent all these sample materials for him to test out. So I had some really interesting things to use when I was making things. So that was good.

- And is that when your love of fabric and little fabric swatches came from?

- Oh, the fabric thing, that will have come from my mum because she was a sewer. So we had really good scraps drawer because she made all our clothes. So then I realised that you could do things with those.

- And you had a whole drawer just full of these beautiful, oh, OK.

- So that was good.

- Oh, I can see that. That's too cute. So how old were you then when you started to dabble in writing your own stories?

- I was quite little. My mum would always buy us a scrapbook whenever we went on holiday. And the idea was to sort of encourage us to buy postcards and then write a little bit about where we'd been. And then I got very interested in this thing of if we went on holiday, sort of making me into a cartoon strip what we'd done. We were never allowed to go abroad because my mother was a great believer in explore your own country, which is all very well, but we were desperate to go abroad.


- We really want the sun.

- Please, mum, please take us.

- And so we spent a lot of time in the car, as you can imagine, driving up to Scotland or somewhere. And so a lot of my pictures involve drawings of cars, and people in cars. And then I'd write a caption underneath. But I was always more interested in the drawing, then I was in the writing.

DEBORAH ABELA: Yes, OK, do you still have the scrapbooks?

- I do. They are somewhere.

- OK, in a box, or in a chest, or something somewhere.

- Yes, I don't know. But I'm a real keeper of everything, sort of person. So I think somewhere I've got them, yeah, yeah.

DEBORAH ABELA: Because they would be amazing to look back and see the young Lauren's view of the world.

- Well, I don't think you'll be as impressed as you think you might.

- Oh no, I'm expecting to be very impressed.

- No, I mean, but I think that's what's really interesting about them. And I always say this to children. That your work doesn't have to be really amazing, and sort of, wow, what a genius. Because actually it's the very fact of doing it that's important. And it's always about practise. I mean, if you look at my early picture book ideas-- which did not get published-- you would realise why they didn't get published. And you just have to keep trying.

DEBORAH ABELA: OK, but then Clarice Bean, you had Clarice Bean for about five years before somebody said yes to it.


DEBORAH ABELA: So for some reason, publishers turned it down. What were the reasons that were given for turning down such a beautiful book?

- Well, I think that's the interesting thing. The really useful thing about failure is that I don't know. It builds up a picture of what people do want, don't want, how they react to it. And so people were reacting to my early work. And they were picking up things that they liked. But it was very clear that whatever I was doing wasn't going to make it. And then they would suggest what I should do in order to improve it and make it publishable. And that was just making it blander.

And then I realised no one can actually tell me how to make it better. I just have to write about something that really mean something to me. And so it was only when I gave up on writing a book that I wrote a book. And I think that's because I was writing something in order to make a film. And because I was passionate about film, and I really, really wanted to do it, I wrote something that I really believed in. And then when someone said, actually, I think you've written a book.

Then when it was then submitted to publishers, I heard a different rejection. So they weren't rejecting it because it wasn't good enough. They were rejecting it because they thought it wouldn't work. And so that was quite helpful because I could hear that in their voices. And so I thought, OK, I'm not going to do the things you want me to do. Because all of them wanted me to change one very large thing about that book. So they said, either you need to get rid of the pictures, and keep the words. Or you need to vise versa, do the other. And I just thought, do you know what? I think this is the best thing I've ever done. So I'm not going to do it.

- But also like you said, if it's not your story anymore, or you're not writing from your heart, then kids are going to know that, aren't they?

- They are. And why would it be interesting to them if it's not interesting to you? And in the end, you can only work for yourself. Because you can't write for everybody. So, yeah.

DEBORAH ABELA: No, it doesn't work. So you've got this beautiful, beautiful quote in Clarice Bean, from that 'Utterly Me' book. And it says, 'and it is amazing what you can learn from any books you enjoy. And you don't necessarily realise you are learning something because you're so busy enjoying it.' And that's the point, isn't it? Isn't that the point in why we make books, why we create books, and why we want kids to read? And I'm constantly saying to kids, if you're not enjoying that book, that's actually OK. Put that one down and try and find another one. Because there will be one out there you love.

How important is it do you think that kids read for just pure pleasure, and pure joy?

- Well I think it's the very beginning of becoming a reader. I mean, if you're struggling with something, and you feel you have to finish it, it can really sort of kill off that pleasure. And I'm terrible myself, sometimes, just thinking, you can give up on this. Time is limited. Read something that you want to read. Unless you're having to read it for a reason that you have to research something.

- I read though, that you got your first book offer when you were only 18.

- That's true.

- Which I know might sound old to the audience listening. But it really isn't.

- It's really young.

- It's very young. It's really true. And so Lauren, and some friends, is that right? You got this book idea together. And a publisher was very, very interested, took you to a lovely, lovely lunch.

- Yeah, what happened was me and my friend Bridget decided that in our gap year we would write a book. And so we did this. And we were quite good. In that, I don't mean the book was good. I just mean we actually did the work. And we were quite excited about the idea. And we totally believed that we could do it.

And then we got, someone put us in touch with a publisher. And she read it. And she really liked it, which was quite amazing. And then she brought us out for business lunch in London. And we were so excited by the lunch that that was it. That was all we wanted. And so when she said, would you make these changes to the story? And could you tweak this? Oh, no, we've had the lunch now. We're not bothered. So that's what happened. We never did anything with it.

- Was it a picture book? Was it a novel?

- It was a picture book, yes. Yeah, it was.

- So it still has never, ever been published?

- No, nor should it be.

- Nor should it be, OK. But what you said, I love that part that you just believed you could do it. And both of you just sat down. And you focused. And you did it.

- Oh, yes.

- And that's, this is part of writing, isn't it, and creating, and illustrating. You just have to, almost just suspend any of those voices that say you're not good enough, or no one will publish you. Why would anyone-- look, you've just got to do it.

- You do. And I think one of the-- oh, we say that there's three things. And I think this is a very common feeling that there's three things to really making you a success. You've got to have some talent, or a good idea. But it's not all about that. You definitely need some luck, because it's about the right moment for people to understand what you trying to say, like with Clarice Bean. It took five years.

But you've also got to have that self-belief and determination. So when someone says no to your idea. I could easily have just thought, OK, no one wants Clarice Bean. We've done the rounds. That's it, give up. But if you do that, then you're not allowing the door still to be open for someone else to come in and say, oh, actually, now is the moment.

- And I love Clarice Bean. So I'm very happy that you were persistent.

- Thank you.

- I'm very happy you pushed. And one thing I love about Clarice Bean-- there are so many things I love about her-- but I love your playfulness with words. I love the way you make up words. And you've got like exception-ordinarily nice, which is really hard to say. I even rehearsed it. And I still got it wrong.

- Well done.

- And words like pesky, and thingamabobby, and [inaudible], but you make up words, of course. And so I was wondering when I was reading your books, like, did your editor ever get cranky when you make up words?

- No, like I think I've been very lucky because the people I work with tend to be kind of pro- all that sort of thing. I have had, in the early days, people say, oh, you can't use big words because there are words that are quite sophisticated in some of the books. But then I just think, well, how are you meant to learn new words? So I'm a great believer in having big words in books because I'm still reading. And I'm still learning new words. So why not?

And then making language up, well, that's been going on since the beginning of time. There's still new words being made up.

DEBORAH ABELA: Yes, but each year they announce the word of the year, or the new word, yeah, and then constantly adding words. It's a movable feast, isn't it? And I love that about Clarice because it's like, it feels like she gets quite excited by that. And she plays in it. It's like she plays in these kind of words.

And this is, for me, to your books, particularly your picture books, for me, they feel like jumping into these great colourful jumping castle. Like I just feel this colour, and movement, and excitement. But it makes me think at the end of the day you're exhausted when you have a full day of, cutting, and glueing, and [inaudible], gorgeous little [inaudible] and stuff. Does it really take it out of you?

- Oh, yeah, no, it really does. I mean, it's a different-- I think writing, so writing a series like the Ruby Redfort series, which is crime and thriller, that's exhausting because it's like doing a very complicated maths equation or something.

DEBORAH ABELA: And a puzzle, yes.

- Because it is a puzzle. And every single thing has to pay off. You can't just say something and it doesn't lead anywhere. So not only are you trying to remember everything, but you're trying to figure out how to pull all the threads of the plot together. So that's exhausting in a very particular way. And you often can't just push through.

So right at the end of-- there are six books. And as each one is drawing to a close, I am working all through the night for several days. Because that's the only way I can keep it in my head. But you can't do that forever because you do need to sleep.

But with the illustration, it's a different kind of tiredness. It's a physical tiredness, a very physical job. And I'm probably, most of the time I'm standing up. And I like it because it allows the mind to move in a different way. So I really enjoy doing it. But it's very, very tiring.

DEBORAH ABELA: OK, do you have then, so for example, for Ruby Redfort, do you have a chart, then, of, oh, I've got to remember that I, they saw that figure in the darkened alley up here, or are they-- do you have to keep--

- Oh, you do have-- I do have some of that. What I don't do is I don't know what's going to happen before I begin writing. So I might have a vague idea. So when we got to book five, I decided it was all going to be about poison. And I wanted to write about snakes, because I'm interested in snakes.

And so I had a sort of idea what the code might be. And I had a kind of idea of what the beginning might involve, the beginning of the-- because it always opens up with a back in time thing. And that was it. I don't know. I didn't know anything else other than that. I just had that in mind. And then I just start anywhere in the book and start writing.

- So you don't necessarily start at chapter one.

- No, I just try and-- well, I just hope it's going to lead somewhere. And so I write all these different pieces and then see how they might fit together. And that's how I do it.

And it's the same, really, with illustration. I see something in my head. And then I start drawing. And because each piece is drawn separately, I can then resize it, and move it around, and change my mind.

- I read, too, that 'The Princess and the Pea' took you two years.

LAUREN CHILD: That is right, yes.

DEBORAH ABELA: So does it-- I guess there are so many questions that can offshoot from that. But one of my questions is, so does it get easier?

- Well, 'The Princess and the Pea' was very long-winded because it was all made in miniature. So I had to make everything.

- So did your carpentry skills come in handy?

- They really did. Yes, and I mean, obviously, I also managed to buy some pieces of doll-sized furniture, or borrow it.

- And little tea, the gorgeous little tea.

- Oh yes, this amazing china maker who did that. And I like [inaudible] to make all these tiny peas. And he said, I've never made peas before. But it was beautiful, really beautiful. So I was sort of collecting up all these lovely things. But it took ages because I always make the sets.

And then Polly is my photographer friend who is very famous in this country, Polly Borland, who's a portrait photographer. And she'd always want to do a children's book. So we decided we were going to do a book set in a doll's house because we thought it would be really easy.

- No, you didn't. It would be fun, I could imagine. But even in my head, it wouldn't be so easy.

- Yeah, we had this idea, oh it'll be really quick. And then of course, two years later, we finished it. But I loved working with her because she's marvellously funny as well. So I just really enjoyed it. But we had this idea. We were going to do all the fairy tales in miniature. As soon as we'd done that first one, we said, never again. So yeah, that's that.

- So with Ruby Redfort, she was, of course, originally part of Clarice Bean. And she was a book that Clarice Bean loved to read. When did you decide that Ruby Redfort should have her very own series and be independent of Clarice?

- When people started writing to me and saying, are the books real? And we actually even got a letter or a phone call from this librarian in Kentucky, saying, this child keeps coming in asking for the Ruby Redfort books. And where can I get them? And so that's why. And again, I thought it was going to be really easy because I'd written them as sort of slightly nonsense books in Clarice Bean. Because the whole idea is that they're sort of Pulp Fiction. And her teacher, Mrs Wilberton, the horrible Mrs Wilberton thinks that they're just, there's no worth in these books. There's no value. And you can't learn anything from them.

And I did that because of this ongoing debate that we have in the UK, as well, about what books are worth reading and what books aren't. And it makes me very cross. And so I decided that Clarice would prove Mrs Wilberton wrong.

DEBORAH ABELA: Which she did.

- Which she did.

DEBORAH ABELA: Because she learned a very valuable lesson when she was reading Ruby Redfort.

- Yep.

- You got to illustrate Pippi Longstocking. And you loved Pippi Longstocking as a kid. What was it about Pippi that you loved? And what was it like, then, as an adult being asked to illustrate?

- I loved Pippi because she's quite an anarchic character. I mean, she doesn't live by the rules. And yet she's a very nice character. She's a disturbance in a way, but not a bad sort of disturbance. I like the way that she stirs things up a bit, when she comes to live in the town. I love that she has her own house. I used to dream of having my own house.

- It's perfect.

- And she doesn't have a mum or a dad, which is sad. But she's not lonely because she sort of thinks about them a lot. And she feels good about where they are. And she has the monkey.

DEBORAH ABELA: Yes, of course.

- I mean, how lovely.

DEBORAH ABELA: Who wouldn't want one?

- Exactly, and she has a horse of her own that she can actually lift up, and put on her veranda. And I sort of loved all that. So she is like a superhero because she has a chest of gold. So she never has to worry about money. And she's very generous as well. So she's not sort of bothered about having money. But she has it. And she has total strength and total confidence. And you just think, that's everything. What more would you need?

- We're going to have to say goodbye. And can I tell you I have way more questions. Like I've got lots, lots, more questions that I wanted to ask about all sorts of things. But, can I, I've just got one more question I want to ask you. And then I've got quickfire questions. If you had a chance to go back to your younger self, say your eight-year-old self, and say anything you like to her, what would you say?

- I would have said enjoy your 20s. Because I think I rather enjoyed a lot-- I worried too much, definitely, when I was eight, and all through my teens I worried a bit too much. But at least I was able to sort of embrace childhood.

I think when I got to 20, I started to worry that you're meant to be doing things, and doing things right, and know what you want. And I would say pick things because you think they might give you pleasure as well.

- Just to finish off, it's been so lovely to chat with you. But I've got just some quickfire question, quickfire answers, see how we go. And you can pass on any of the questions.

- Oh good, OK.

- Don't feel like it's a test. All right, favourite book of all time?

- I think probably 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' by Florence Parry Heide and Edward Gorey.

DEBORAH ABELA: Brilliant, OK. I haven't read it. I'm gonna have to look it up.

LAUREN CHILD: It's brilliant.

DEBORAH ABELA: OK, I'll have to look it up. What's your most creative time of the day?

- Oh, I think it begins at sort of four o'clock.

DEBORAH ABELA: In the morning?

- No! No, of course not, I'm terrible in the morning.

DEBORAH ABELA: OK I got a little bit scared there. Four in the afternoon.

- Unless I've stayed up all night. But I'm a sort of night owl. So yeah, I get better and better. And then annoyingly, you're meant to have dinner, and that's probably when I'm at a good moment.

DEBORAH ABELA: OK, all right, favourite piece of art equipment?

- Oh, I think probably my Caran d'Ache pencils. And so they're those coloured pencils. I've had them all my life. And you can blend them. And you can-- they become watercolour if you use water with them. They're brilliant.

DEBORAH ABELA: Yes, I've got illustrator friends who adore them. Yes, OK, and just name one thing that you have loved about being a kids book creator?

- I think time to stare out the window without anyone telling you off.


- Yeah.

DEBORAH ABELA: That's great. So you would recommend that?

- Yes, I think it's a very important part of being an Illustrator or a writer, actually.

DEBORAH ABELA: There you go, so lots of staring out the window, that will help you.

- It's good, yep.

- Thank you so very much for making the time away from your beautiful characters to come and talk to us today. And I hope you have a really, really wonderful rest of your time in Australia.

- Thank you.

[music playing]

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