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- How did you get started in writing?
Via a long and scenic route. Before becoming a full-time writer, I worked in many different industries, cities and countries. My first job out of school was as wardrobe girl and later scriptwriter on the children’s TV show Here’s Humphrey. I worked in London music pubs, behind the bar and then in the office booking bands. I did publicity and marketing for the music, arts and publishing industries in Australia, England and Ireland. At the age of 30, after moving to Tasmania with my Irish husband, I started writing short stories for magazines. After many rejections, in quick succession I had three accepted for publication. That gave me the confidence to start writing my first novel. I entered it in a Write a Bestseller competition, in which it came runner-up. This led to publishing deals in Ireland, Australia and beyond. That was 21 years and 14 books ago. I’m now published in more than a dozen different languages.
- Growing up being taught by Josephite Sisters had a big impact on your writing career, could you elaborate?
I actually wrote my first book at the age of 8. It was a holiday project at my school, St Joseph’s in the Clare Valley of South Australia. I wrote the story and also did the illustrations, on A4 yellow paper stapled on one side. It was about a family called the Smiths who take a train trip to Perth. (My dad was the Clare railway stationmaster.) After much consideration, I called it The Smith Family Go to Perth on the Train. I showed it to my school librarian and she did a wonderful thing – with my permission, she covered it, catalogued it and put it on the shelves of our school library. For the rest of my time at St Joseph’s, a book I had written was available for borrowing, alongside all the other ‘real’ books. I know that planted a seed that one day I might be a ‘real’ writer too.
This week I had the great joy and fun of returning to St Joseph’s in Clare to talk to a lively group of Grade 4 and 5s about being a writer. It meant so much to be back in the school’s library, recalling my time there. I could see the students now are also being encouraged and supported in the same way.
- Have you based any characters in your books on your teachers?
Not consciously but I describe writers as ‘walking compost bins’, in that we take in details from so many parts of our lives – life experiences, people we’ve met, conversations we’ve had. It mulches away, becoming the material from which we draw our fictional characters and stories. So I may well have used elements of my teachers.
- Were there any traits / characteristics you learnt from the Sisters?
I think a message that runs throughout the Josephite teaching has been integral to my writing career: ‘put yourself in others’ shoes’. We were all taught to think of how other people might be feeling, what hardships they might be undergoing, to be sympathetic. That was not only good grounding to be a kind human being, but I discovered it is an ideal starting point to creating characters in fiction.
- After writing 13 internationally bestselling books for adults, why did you decide to delve into the children’s market?
I have 18 nieces and nephews (in Australia, Ireland and Germany). All the while I’ve been writing my novels for adults, I’ve been writing short stories for them for their birthdays or Christmas – short tales full of magical adventure, daring feats and fun, with them in starring roles. About 8 years ago, one of those stories planted the seed for Marcie Gill and the Caravan Park Cat. I’ve been working on it on and off since then, often using my nieces and nephews as reading guinea pigs, in particular my niece Ruby (who was 12 when I started it, and is now 20!). I had so much fun writing Marcie Gill – I drew on all the memories I had of my childhood reading of Enid Blyton books, that mix of real life and magical, and made it as fun, page-turning and Australian as I could.
- Did you base Marcie Gill and the Caravan Park Cat on your own childhood and if so what aspects?
My husband thinks Marcie Gill is the most autobiographical of all my books! Marcie is the middle child, like me (she’s one of 3, I’m one of 7). She loves lists (so do I). She likes to try and fix everything (So do I). She is a fervent cat lover. (Me too.) Growing up, I’d love to have had a holiday in a seaside caravan park, but with a family of nine, there were just too many of us to easily fit. So I made it Marcie’s family’s business and all these years later, I’m having a vicarious caravan park stay.
- How did you find the experience of writing for a younger demographic?
I’ve loved it. I didn’t think at all of writing ‘down’ to the readers, I wanted to write a fun, action-packed story that has many of the elements of my adult novels – family fun but also family tensions, twists and turns. I also had great guidance from my Puffin Books editor Mary Verney, on questions of vocabulary, pacing etc.
- You divide your time between Australia and Ireland, how and where will you be spending Christmas?
My Irish husband and I usually live in Dublin, but in February 2020 I came out to Australia to visit my Mum, family and publishers for a month. The day I was due to fly home, the borders were closed and flights grounded due to COVID. I’ve been ‘stranded’ here ever since. Many more twists and turns ensued, including my husband being able to join me here in Australia in November last year. He’s flying back to Dublin in December. I’ll spend Christmas with my Mum and family in Adelaide, and then return to Ireland in January, swapping the hot South Australian summer for a chilly crispy Irish winter.
- If you had the opportunity, what advice / words of assurance would you offer 13-year-old Monica?
Keep reading. Keep writing. Stop worrying.
- How does 2022 look for you?
I hope it will be full of stories and storytelling. I currently have three book projects underway and I am itching to get back into my attic office at home in Dublin to work on them. My Mum made me a gorgeous hot water bottle cover from red and green wool. I love to sit at my desk, hearing the rain patter on to the skylights above me, hot water bottle on my lap, and a new story unfolding on the computer screen in front of me.