I am in the Edge Theatre, in a room full of primary school students, and I have tingles running over my scalp and hot tears in the corners of my eyes because I’m looking at a theatre full of school children and I can see more patiently raised hands than I can count. This is a question and answer session for Emily Rodda. I’m sorry, Emily, but I had never heard of you until a few weeks ago when I scanned the festival program to find sessions that I could attend within my child based time constraints. I’m twenty three minutes in and this is by far my favourite session.
Emily started the session with a story about picking up her three year old twins from preschool and the story they told her that went like this: “Tom’s granny fell in the freezer at the supermarket.” “Yeah and she got stuck in the ice.” “Yeah and then the supermarket man came and chopped her out.” “Yeah and then he chopped her all to bits.” And then they went inside and had afternoon tea.
For Emily the magic words are: what if? They’re the beginning of any good story. And I am entranced and the most comfortable I’ve been at the festival yet. The supermarket story could have been one of the stories that Monkey tells me every day. All day. From the moment he opens his eyes. His is a mind pulling narratives from the air, making his world literally new every day. I could have brought him to this session and he probably would have liked it (at the very least he wouldn’t have annoyed anyone).
“I’m very interested in doors I want to see what’s behind them. Books are like doors.” I remember The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That one day whilst reading it my grandmother suddenly loomed over the top of the book. “Karina, answer me!” She had been calling my name for five minutes and I hadn’t heard. I was literally in the wardrobe, down the rabbit hole, discovering, finally, the safest place in the world. Words.
“When I was a child I wrote all the time and then I stopped. I thought there were too many wonderful writers in the world, which is a shame.” I’ll be thirty seven this month, and I’m only just able to call myself a writer. It is a shame, Emily, to be stopped by the critics in our heads. I wrote all the time too, and then stopped. I vow, now, to continue. There is a jittery excitement in me. You wouldn’t know from looking, but I could do a happy bum dance right now (these are usually reserved for Friday night family hallway dances to the Indigo Girls, Monkey’s favourite band). Because? Because a children’s author and a room full of enthralled kids has inspired me. This is exactly where I want to be. Emily is dispensing valuable advice for any writer, of any age.
How do you get publishers interested in your work?
“Some publishers won’t look at books that don’t come from an agent… With unsolicited manuscripts, what they’re looking for is a good, clean, typed manuscript… I have to say it’s very rare for a very young person to get published. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try… If you enter competitions and don’t win them, or try for publications and don’t get them, please keep trying. And do it for your own pleasure.”
“Write what you love to read.”
Why did you start writing books?
“Because I love to read so much… I write every day and I read every day, wherever I am, whatever’s happening. I think if you love reading, you often feel the urge to write as well.”
I’ve been to some amazing sessions so far at MWF, but they have sometimes felt a wee bit stuffy. Or cool. Or something. Not on the stage, but more in the audience. Like we were all aware of being an audience at a writers festival and must be intelligent and well turned out. So at the end of each session there’d be a call for questions, and out of that call a stifling silence. It was like pulling teeth to get anyone to speak. And when they did it was halting and self-conscious. So now, today, I look up from my keyboard and see all these hands. The child in front of me is wearing a blue jumper with ‘Grade 6 Stars’ printed on the back and the hair around his crown is sticking straight up. He’s had his hand up for so long that he’s getting fatigued and has to keep swapping arms. I would love to know what his question is. And is his heart beating rabbit-like against the bones of his chest with the anticipation of asking it?
“I always wanted to be a writer… and I hadn’t formed any other plan at all. And I wanted to have children. I ended up with four of them so I guess I succeeded in that.”
The boy is picked. “Um, were you good, when you were at school, when you started writing?” His voice is raspy but clear.
“I was always good at composition and creative writing and English. I also knew I was supposed to be good at it. I had a teacher who helped me because I used to use lots and lots of long words and lots of adjectives and she’d tell me to just pick the ones I really wanted. Mrs Williams her name was. She was a really good teacher.” Do all of us have that one English teacher that we can’t forget? Barbara Crawford, if you’re out there, thank you. You made me want to be better. You made me lose adjectives and adverbs, you asked me to write cleanly, to read with grace. You didn’t blanch when I handed you morbid and melancholic verses after class. You didn’t pay lip service to talent. You required improvement and striving. You invited me to your house with some other students and played us The Moonlight Sonata and served scones. You had permanent spittle in the corners of your mouth from chewing Nicorette gum, which you were addicted to. Occasionally you would seek me out at lunch time, down the back of the oval, and bum one of my menthol cigarettes. You let us call you by your first name. Barbara, if you’re out there, thank you.
Have you had any difficulties with your writing?
“Every author must get to some point in a novel where they wonder what they’re going to do… If all else fails, push through it. And even if you’re unhappy about it, go on. You’ll find that you’ll be able to go back, and you’ll fix that bit easily… If I don’t know how I’m going to start the book, I start in the second chapter and go back… The great thing is to get something down on paper so that your confidence will sweep you on.”
There is a huge, spine tingling clap, and cheers, and I’m having trouble holding back a sob. Thank you, you wonderful, enthusiastic, gorgeous, brave, bed-haired and blue-jumpered kids. I’m honoured to be amongst you. Write, and think, and play, and read, and write. I can’t wait to see what you do. Thank you.
PS: After I left the session, I thought I’d go and say hi to Emily. All the other author signings I’d seen so far had maybe four sheepish grownups with freshly bought books in their still hands. I had half an hour to the next session, but there was no way I’d have time to meet her. The line of kids waiting stretched through the Atrium, all of them holding dog-eared copies of her books. I sat, and grinned, and ate a late season tangelo, and took a photo of the line, and felt thrilled to have stumbled across the schools program.