Ursula Dubosarsky is the author of over fifty books for children and young adults. She has a PhD in English Literature and has won numerous national and state-based prizes.
Her awarded books include (and are by no means limited to):
- The Blue Cat, shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature in the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2018
- Violet Vanishes, shortlisted for the Western Australian Premier’s Book Award in 2014
- The Golden Day, shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2012 and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2011
- The Word Spy, awarded the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2009
- The Red Shoe, awarded the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award in 2007 and the Queensland Premier's Literary Award in 2006
- Theodora’s Gift, awarded the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2006
- Abyssinia, awarded the Adelaide Festival Award for Literature in 2004 and shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2003
- The Game of the Goose, shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award in 2001
- The First Book of Samuel, awarded New South Wales Premier's Literary Award in 1995
- The White Guinea Pig, awarded New South Wales Premier's Literary Award in 1994.
Alongside her fiction for older children, Ursula has also written picture books including The Terrible Plop (shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in 2010) and Too Many Elephants in This House (Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Honour Book in 2013), which have both been adapted for the stage.
- Morris Gleitzman is another children’s writer well known for dealing with adult topics, including The Holocaust, in his books for children and teenagers.
Nic Brasch: Ursula Dubosarsky is one of Australia's foremost writers for children and young adults. Her list of awards is almost as long as her list of published works and very well deserved. Her most acclaimed work The Red Shoe was included in the International title ‘1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up’. She's won the Premier’s Literary Award for New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, and Victoria (and most or more than one occasion). Everyone loves Ursula. Her most recent book The Blue Cat is an exquisite addition to her body of work. Ursula, welcome to The Garret.
Ursula Dubosarsky: Thank you very much for that very nice welcome.
Nic: Is writing for children a way to avoid growing up? For you?
Ursula: Look, it never feels like there's very much choice, I mean for all I know it might be. But it's not something, for me anyway, that I have chosen to do in that kind of sense, which doesn't mean it's not a way of avoiding growing up but it's just for some reason whenever I sit down to write... that's what comes out, writing for children. And you know, I wanted to be a writer from when I was, you know, as soon as I learnt to read and write. But I never thought – you know, when I was a teenager when I was at school – I didn't think I wanted to write for children. I didn't think like that. But when I actually sat down and wrote something that sort of worked, it was for children. I didn't know I was children but it had a 11 year old is a main character and so I think it's kind of... you just write what you can, don't you?
Nic: Of course, of course. Tell me about your childhood, and in particular your literary writing influences and I assume your parents were obviously two of them?
Ursula: Two of them! Big readers. So you know, certainly a house where reading and writing was valued. I mean, interestingly, I didn't – despite all that great influence – I was quite slow learning to read. I didn't learn to read till about half way through Year One. But obviously I was read to, and I loved books and you know I like all children I love making up stories with my toys and all that sort of thing. And I was just thinking on the way here in the train, I was remembering how even before I could learn... even before I could write or read I seem to have some impulse to put my stories into writing, because you know, I used to make up, you know, alphabets and sort of write them down on pieces of paper or in the mud in the backyard. So, I seem to have some attraction – because obviously I was read written language – and I seemed to, I must have just had some preference for it that I wanted my stories to be in written language.
Nic: Sure, okay. And tell me who were some of the authors or particular books that you recall being read to and making an impact very early on?
Ursula: You know, the ones that stick in my head… there's an American writer illustrator, I'm not actually quite sure how to pronounce her name. As a child I always called her Wanda Gag, but I think it's Wanda Gogg, but sort of from a German immigrant family and there's a particular… Probably the first book I remember adoring and it was called Gone is Gone. And I love Dr. Seuss. As soon as I got hold of Dr. Seuss I love Dr. Seuss. I loved, you know these are not going to sound terribly original, I did love Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. It's a hard question to answer in a way because as soon as I did learn to read, finally, I just became one of those absolutely voracious readers, so I just sort of read everything, not without discrimination, but just absolutely had to. So you know as a child it was very broad reading. A particular novelist I loved when I was a little bit older is a British novelist Ruma Godden, so I was really entranced by her books.
Nic: Was there a particular genre as you got through your teens that attracted you?
Ursula: It's interesting, I really never liked fantasy and I still don't write fantasy, so I just I always had a tendency for realistic fiction in terms of novels.
Ursula: And I mainly, in fiction, I write sort of realist fiction largely. With a sort of, perhaps slightly mystical bent but not fantasy. I loved the Narnia books you know, but they were the only ones and they didn't lead me onto other fantasy books.
Nic: Okay. What's your earliest story you recall writing or telling?
Ursula: I do recall. I guess it was probably connected with that, you know, finally in Year One learning to write. And we had this sort of scary teacher called Mrs. Cameron who used to hit naughty children with the feather duster – because I had very messy handwriting so I was really scared of her – but actually in a sense she was probably in some… I don't know if you could call her kind, but she was… Well, what happened was I wrote a story, which was all about a family of penguins floating around the world on an iceberg. And she called me up to the front of the class, and you know, I shouldn't particularly characterise myself as an anxious nervous child because I guess every single child would be in that situation, so you know I was sort of terrified. And she said, ‘Oh this is a very good story, I want you to take it show the principal’. And so in a sense while she was incredibly mean she was actually, I don't think she, you know, I did have a strong sense that she disliked me.
Ursula: I think she probably did I had sort of dirty, terrible handwriting. But when I look back at it I admire her, despite that sort of perhaps natural dislike of this grubby little child she, you know, encouraged me in quite a deep way I think, because you don't know when you're a child if you're any good at anything and so that must have planted some sort of seed in my head.
Nic: I was wondering was that the moment where you…
Ursula: It must have. I don't know if it was that conscious then but it must have because I always say I really wanted to be a writer from when I was 6 and that was you know…
Nic : Did you ever consider anything else?
Ursula: Oh well not seriously. I mean obviously you know I did lots of other things to earn a living.
Ursula: Not really, no. I guess it was just always in the back of my mind that whatever I ended up doing that was sort of my calling.
Nic: Your mother was a writer?
Ursula: My mother, both my parents were writers of non-fiction.
Ursula: Which is a bit different, but certainly a writing family, and my mother was an enormous reader of fiction, so I spent a lot of time as a child you know lying on the floor looking at all the spines.
Ursula: She particularly she loved Iris Murdoch, for example. I was kind of fascinated. I never read them, but I was fascinated by this terrible titles because it seemed to sort of reveal a side of my mother.
A Severed Head is one I remember, and then The Nice and the Good. They just seemed to have these sort of dark disturbing titles and I kind of, I guess you have that sense when people are reading it's a sort of secret life so I guess it was a kind of fascination with my mother's secret life.
My dad was a barrister for a period, not for very long, but he had been in his study had all these books of, you know, murder trials and or famous British murderers. One I remember as a youngish child about 9, and I recently re-bought it because I thought, ‘Gee, why did that have such an impression on me?’ But it was a book called Hanged in Error, and it was a Penguin, and it was just the account of half a dozen… I guess it was a book against obviously against capital punishment, but it was a book of half a dozen comparatively or certainly twentieth century British trials where the person who was hanged was later revealed to be innocent. And I suppose that is, you know, it's all about storytelling isn't it? And what has been revealed to you and what has been kept from you, and you know, in the course of a trial what you bring to that story and how you interpret it. I think I suppose it was just a very kind of, you know, especially for a child but at any age really, it's a kind of very shocking example of how we interpret stories in what we know and what we don't know and the consequences I suppose.
Nic: Later on when you became published did you use your parents as sounding boards with early drafts for feedback?
Ursula: No, actually I haven't sort of got the self-confidence to. I've never been in a writing group. I think only once did I show a sort of work in progress to an editor, and she made many perfectly valid and useful comments but it completely, so it was not remotely her fault, but I completely lost confidence in the project.
So I think I'm just, because I think when I'm in the state of writing I actually don't know what I am writing about. So, that's sort of very clear probably when I'm in the middle of it. So, somebody asking a pertinent question, then I just kind of… I don't I just crumble. You know, it's not an admirable characteristic but you've got to know yourself. So for me until I show it to anybody I essentially only show it to the editor of a publishing house. You know, I get it to a very, very, very far point…
Nic: Really? Without showing it to anybody, so there's no sounding board, nothing? Wow.
Ursula: No. I must say in the case of The Blue Cat – this is when it was finished – I did because I did have a crisis of confidence about the endings, so I did actually send it to a good friend of mine the writer Kate De Goldi in New Zealand, and another friend of mine in New Zealand. For some reason those two. Maybe it's because they were far away in New Zealand, and I just wanted to know what impression… I sort of lost the ability to know what impression the ending gave.
Nic: Did you get the feedback you wanted?
Ursula: Yeah probably, probably so. And in fact, I think I also showed her an alternative ending, which I had then rejected and it was, she seemed to agree with my decisions. But look, that's dangerous too isn't it? I mean you know, because I actually find it incredibly stressful reading other people's work. Partly I suppose…
I taught creative writing for a while at UTS, not for long, sort of you know not creative, children's writing. And I remember at the time you know, I suppose I felt in that kind of situation I sort of felt it's just my duty to be encouraging, because I guess I know from myself how things can crumble. Of course, not everybody is like me, and for some of the students I think they've just found that irritating. Do you know I mean? They wanted some fierce and stern hard love.
Nic: Hard love.
Ursula: Whereas, I guess I just... I just… It’s such a sort of delicate thing, and you don't… you know, you can just pull out a little pin and then it just goes, so I don't think I'm a natural creative writing teacher in that sense either.
Nic: Tell me about the path towards getting your first book published and the excitement I assume when finally was.
Ursula: Yes look, it was exciting. The first book was actually a picture book that was illustrated by an old school friend, and really it was just I think in fact she suggested it because we'd written a couple of little books when we were at school, and she suggested that maybe I'd like to try writing a children's story and she could illustrate it. So that was like a conscious decision, I'm going to write a children's story, and it was kind of interesting. I remember writing it lying in bed. Because up until then, I'd been trying to write this, try and write that, and nothing ever worked. And it was interesting that this flowed out in such a sort of natural way. So it was like a discovery really. I mean, I guess hopefully I would have discovered it sooner or later but I'm kind of grateful to Roberta for that suggestion because it led to that kind of discovery. And then look really, you know, this is quite a long time ago, and I suppose 30 years ago, and we didn't know a great deal about getting books published obviously. But I knew that in the front of books you had the addresses of publishers, and so I went into bookshops and looked for books that I liked the look of and in some ways I think it's still…
Nic: It's still the same in many ways. You have to go and you see who's publishing what you like, yeah.
Ursula: Yeah, and also what you feel looks a bit like what you've done.
Ursula: So it's common sense in a way. And then I look for Australian addresses. So I wrote six of them down and then, you know, which is sort of not what you're meant to do, but we didn't know that, and we made six copies of the illustrations and six copies of the story and sent them all off in the letterbox. Five of them said no thank you. And one of them, which was then Macmillan Australia, said yes. So it was exciting.
Unfortunately at the time, precisely at the time, I've got an older sister who was exactly at the time I got this letter, which was sort of the fulfilment of the dream, she became terribly ill. She had a brain abscess so she was in a coma in hospital about to die… She did not in fact die in the end. But it kind of, so the memory when you said it was exciting and joyful.
Nic: Yes, that's what you remember.
Ursula: And I remember ringing up my parents to say I got this, and obviously they were excited too, but there was just such a… she was between life and death, so it was sort of an irrelevance in a funny sort of a way.
Nic: Your body of work includes picture books and novels, chapter books, non-fiction, plays. How do you determine which ideas become what? And have you ever started something thinking it's one but then it becomes another?
Ursula: No, not really no. So I must have some even if it's not very conscious I must have some preconceived idea. I guess you have an intuition which is related to the idea.
Ursula: And you must have some sort of intuition that this is going to suit this kind of form. So, that's an interesting question but no, I've not had that experience. I know it's a novel when I'm beginning it or I know it's a picture book when I'm beginning it or play.
Nic: And with the picture books, when you're writing the words have you got in your mind the illustration that's going to go with it to brief the illustrator?
Ursula: I think I'm quite a good person for illustrators to work with in that way because I really have very little visual imagination. So, when I write I'm not visualising anything.
Ursula: Just sort of vague shadows. It's the same for the novels. I can't see the faces you know I don't have much physical description.
Nic: No you don't, but the description that is there is obviously... the things that matter. The things that matter, yes.
Ursula: That’s right. And I don't really see anything so with picture books. I tend to, you know, in fact that's the sort of great excitement and pleasure of working with somebody else, seeing what that other mind makes of it. And I have to say you know I know this sounds like I'm sucking up, but you know it inevitably seemed to me to enrich and enliven what I've written. You sort of feel perhaps aided by non-interference with another sort of mind.
Nic: Yeah, yeah. Tell me about the coming together of The Red Shoe, which really thrust you, took your career to another level really. From the inception of the idea, is it something that had been sitting in your mind for a long time?
Ursula: It was one of those accidents in the sense that I was a bit grumpy really. Somebody had rung me up and said she was, she'd been doing a course about how you should just ring people up and ask them to do things for you. And she picked me to come and talk at her school and I was just sort of at the other end of the phone and I said, ‘Oh, okay’. And it was sort of some distance away. And so I just found myself being part of this lady's course about how to be bold and ask people to do things for you. So, I talked to the children and then I got in the car to go home and I got hopelessly lost. It was in western Sydney somewhere and I just got hopelessly lost. I was listening to the radio in this sort of slightly unfriendly mood and Mrs. Petrov, the wife of Vladimir Petrov who is the Soviet spy who defected in 1954 in Canberra and made a sort of big splash all over the world at the height of the Cold War, his wife had just died. He died some years before but his wife had died in a nursing home in Melbourne.
Nic: Yes, I remember that.
Ursula: That's right. So it was sort of I suppose maybe 12 years ago I'm not quite sure. She was living under an assumed name in order for that quite of thing.
Nic: That's right, no one knew. Yeah.
Ursula: That's right. And so, people were ringing into the radio with their various reminiscences of where was I at the time of this very isolated quiet Australia where suddenly the big world appeared to appear in Australia. And a woman rang up and said that when she was a little girl she and her sisters grew up in the northern beaches and they happened to live next door to one of the, there were several, but one of the safe houses in which... Because when Vladimir Petrov announced his, or told the Australian Government he wanted to defect, he was immediately taken and hidden for some months when they thought perhaps he would you know the Russians would come and kidnap him and take him home or something like that.
So one of these safe houses was on the northern beaches of Sydney, and this woman said she remembered it because you remember they played all this Russian music and they're all these people… Palm Beach at that time was very very quiet and sleepy.
And this is the detail that made me want to write. I was sort of interested because I'm kind of interested in the public and their private life how they kind of you know, what do they mean? What the headlines mean in our everyday life, like how do we understand those sorts of things, particularly children, and they often understand that kind of thing a very surreal kind of way.
But then she said that – you know because there are all these big black Commonwealth cars, which would be these ASIO officers looking after Mr. Petrov – and she said they used to walk up this long hill to school. And in those days they didn't wear shoes to school in summer and she remembered that the pebbles, the gravel under her feet was very painful and irritating. And she was so pleased one day when one of these big black cars swept up and you know one of these men in a hat who would have been one of the ASIO officers said, ‘I'll give you a lift on the road, girls’, and so they jumped into the car and he'd drive to the top of the hill to the school.
Nic: Okay, which makes its way into the book.
Ursula: Which does make its way into the book. So that was sort of, and I guess that's a real... you know, it's a meeting of two worlds. There's the adult world that we're told is very important because of these huge black headlines and newsreels, ‘this is important’, and then this meeting of this other world, which is the private domestic life of these children and, for whom, that world which they are told is important has absolutely no meaning. The things that means a lot to them are totally removed from that. So it's sort of interesting.
Nic: What I think I love most about The Red Shoe but also The Black Cat is that we are seeing and reading about huge stories, huge global issues, but it's all very small and it's brought back to the personal, it's brought back to the general day to day life of ordinary people. And I think it’s a way of teaching, particularly children, about – you've got post-war and pre-war – about those times in some ways in a way non-fiction book does, but with so much sort of engagement. Because it's fiction we can connect with it, the children can connect with it, because you got child characters living under that are these huge things which you refer to be don't make them necessarily the focal point of story.
Ursula: No, that's right. And also children because they're not very long in the world and also because people don't tell them things and also because they're not interested. In a way, they're living through it without consciously really knowing what it is or the implications of it.
Nic: They just want to do their day to day things, no matter what is happening around them. And as children, get on with their day to day lives as huge things are happening within their family sometimes and sort of within, certainly within the country and within that world, but all they're really interested in is going down and making sure they can…
Ursula: Get through the day, that's right. In a way they live in an eternal space, they're not particularly thinking about the future or the past.
It's interesting with The Red Shoe I read quite a lot of non-fiction obviously about of which there is quite a lot about the Petrov affair in particular.
And I suppose… because in The Red Shoe I decided, I then went to the library and read a lot of contemporary newspapers of the time and I got so engaged I could still be there reading these newspapers because I was so fascinated by them. Because in a way, and that's why in the end I ended up including a lot of them in the book, because I guess what I also wanted was for the reader to have their own sort of not unadulterated, uninterpreted experience of that period, because you know what fifty years has passed. So you know, there's so much reinterpreting, we think about it very differently now, and probably with great wisdom. I'm not suggesting that the interpretations are not wise, but I guess I wanted more that kind of... to get an unmediated experience of the time so that you're actually reading what people were reading at the time without any sort of wisdom of hindsight or big picture.
Nic: And at what point did the title come and the connection to the…
Ursula: When I heard the radio.
Ursula: Just because I think people ringing up and talking about how she lost her shoe, and I guess, obviously that's part of the whole sort of, the graphic mythic element of the whole event. It was all over the papers and Mrs. Petrov's red shoe was the subject of editorials and the raising of the shoe in the air at the airport. So I guess, it was just a very natural… because of Cinderella's slipper and this sort of rather you know, a very human thing, this slightly dainty feminine shoe. And then of course because it was red that made me think of the Hans Andersen's story The Red Shoes, which I read as a child and which is like many of Hans Andersen's stories very gripping and disturbing and sort of unresolvable.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Ursula: And I think probably while I was driving in the car I had this idea of a scene where there would be a child – sorry I'm just thinking about it now – a child who couldn't read being read to by her older sister, and the story would be this story of the red shoe. So, that was probably the first scene I would have thought of that somehow. And I think I thought that scene would begin the book but I think it was in the editing process that it actually appears later in the story. I can't remember the reason for that.
Nic: Ok. And your latest one, The Blue Cat, seems like I assume it's deliberately supposed to be like a companion piece if you like, being pre-war but again, big events, the Holocaust and the war and through the eyes of children. It's meant to be a sort of ten years on companion piece?
Ursula: Yes, and I've done another one set in 1967 called The Golden Days.
Nic: Yes, that's right, exactly.
Ursula: So yes, it started with The Red Shoe and then I guess... It's interesting isn't it I suppose... I mean this is how I talk about it to children, that there's just something when you... It's like looking at photos of the past the city where you live now and looking at it how it used to be. It's like perhaps looking at photos of your parents when they were young and you can't believe it's them, but you know it's them. So it's sort of uncanny and also very meaningful I think. If you didn't have any photo albums, the thing that people find is the greatest loss don't they, when their house burns down they don't care about anything but not to have that that knowledge of the past, that's at a family level, is kind of devastating for people.
And I suppose I must feel at some level for contemporary children that we didn't all arrive here like Mr. Bean out of, you know we didn't just drop out from the sky and here we are. And so I must have some sense that not only is it meaningful to them but that it's fascinating as well. I don't get a sense that they're not interested in the past, I think it's just...
In a way with The Blue Cat the character of the little boy Ellery actually appeared as an adult in two books I wrote quite a long time ago. One's called The First Book of Samuel and Theodora's Gift which I wrote during the 1990s, and I always had a sense inside me that I wanted to write a third book about the childhood of this man who is a sort of a grandfather type figure by the time he's in those books.
But I think as I was saying to you before, there's this kind of… it's not just a sort of natural modesty to feel how can you understand the experiences of somebody who's experiences are so remote from your own in a sense. But it's also aesthetic, I sort of feel it wouldn't succeed, it would have a false note in trying to write about the childhood of... the man in those two books is based on, I spent a year on a kibbutz in 1985, and I learnt modern Hebrew while I was on the kibbutz. So in between pulling the grapefruits or whatever we had these classes everyday, these four hour, very rigorous classes. Only six of us in the class taught by a man called Yehuda Artzi, who was also a published poet but he grew up in Munich. And in the course of these quite intimate classes he would start to tell us, which he taught he was so rigorous, it was only in Hebrew. So four hours a day you made a lot of progress. But he'd tell us stories of his childhood, I suppose, in Munich and a little bit of the story also of his arrival in Palestine. And so I guess at a certain age it just had, I'm not Jewish myself, I guess it just had... I'm not quite sure how even to describe the effect but obviously very powerful effect. Because of the intimacy of the situation and of the person himself and of the nature of the story. And I suppose what you're saying this extremely personal story of a child. And so I guess at the same time – I mean he died perhaps ten years after I came back to Australia – but we continued to correspond so I've got all these letters and I asked him often, I would say ‘Could you tell me some more stories about your childhood?’ So I've sort of got all this correspondence. It's incredibly thin paper. Like sort of leaves. So I guess part of..
Nic: Which you describe the paper in the book actually don't you?
Ursula: Yes. And then it's funny actually, because I went – sorry I'm feeling a bit emotional – but I went with my dad we went to an exhibition last year. Or was it the year before? I can't remember, but it's called 'Signs of Life' at the Jewish Museum in Sydney. It's a very, I think it's a permanent exhibition, just quite a small exhibition but it's just of letters that people kept either letters written to children who are now in other countries waiting to be rejoined with their parents or letters from those children. And these letters were sort of signs of life that the people are still alive, because they're writing these letters, so it's just a collection I guess of people living in Sydney who kept these letters.
Nic: And there is a letter that is at the heart of the story.
Ursula: That's right.
Nic: Which I won't say anything about, for those who want to read it, but I was almost crying as I read that bit, it was wonderful.
Ursula: So obviously that was some sort of, there was just something connected with, you heard his letters connected with, then seeing that. The whole thing.
Nic: Was part of with something like The Blue Cat, were you also aiming to teach children about what had happened? Because as I was reading I was thinking this has the potential, not to be in another Anne Frank, but to work in the same ways that Anne Frank’s diary does in introducing young people, probably for the first time, to The Holocaust and what have you, and at least to have them asking questions.
Ursula: I think that's right because it's certainly not, when you say about the asking questions, it's not... the children only know what they know.
Nic: They wouldn't know nothing about it. Absolutely. But the reader will ask questions hopefully.
Ursula: One of the questions they don't even know is what a Jew is, the children. So the friends of Ellery they don't understand how he can be German and Jewish. They don't understand, the whole thing is a mystery to them. And so in a sense I suppose that would be true of many, many Australian children.
Nic: And adults grapple with and question today.
Ursula: But you know I mean, so I suppose in a sense, it's to do with going back to my classes with Yehuda. It must have been something, it must be something to do with that and maybe I'm kind of in a way trying to pass on that experience than I had when I suppose I was 22, so I was quite grown up. But I guess for me despite knowing or whatever you know, I guess that particularly intense and personal experience was just… I don't you know it's just one of those things that affects the rest of your life, and I suppose that's some way of perhaps that's what I'm trying to do in that book.
Nic: Are you a disciplined writer? Tell me about your routine are you...
Ursula: I used to be. I seem to be… growing aged I seem to have got more scattered. Yeah I think I've always quite disciplined, I guess because it's a recognition that's the only way anything will get done. So, I started writing seriously after I wrote that first book I suppose. Then I started children's novels, and then yes I was pretty disciplined, I mean I was working at the time and I would go into work a couple of hours early and work right before everybody came.
Nic: So, what were you working?
Ursula: Oh, well then I was working as a researcher at the Reader's Digest magazine in Surry Hills. So it was very stressful because you had to ring people up and... fact checking. So you know an article would come in and you had to ring all the people involved to make sure it was all true.
Nic: Fact checking. There is something from the past.
Ursula: I have to tell you it was very meticulous. You had to divide every sentence.
Nic: No such thing as fake news back then.
Ursula: Although it's another interesting thing, because I can tell you the facts in all these articles were so meticulously checked, and yet of course it's how the material is presented. So you might have an article in which everything is true and you might still feel well that's still giving a certain impression that might not be the whole truth. So it's an interesting thing.
And then I had three children. So in a sense I think sitting at home with children, is in some ways well for me I think it was fantastic, for a writer. Because when you have small children and everybody leaves you alone, nobody wants to see you, which is completely understandable. So you have a lot of time alone with your children, but they're in another world as we know. It's not like sitting at home with someone your own age who would be constantly interfering with your thought processes. Whereas I found with small children, you know, they're doing their thing I'm doing my thing. You have a meeting of minds but not really because their minds are in some other surreal place they've got their own preoccupations and they're not interested in your mind. That's also a very good thing. So they don't want to know anything about you.
Nic: Of course not.
Ursula: And you are limited in what you know about them because they're so secretive. You know they don't tell you things, what they're thinking. So I mean that's what I sort of love about children, the thoughts of children, which often is a feature in the books actually is they often don't express them so they never find out. So they continue thinking something that might be quite wrong but they never find out about it because they never actually mention it to anybody.
And I remember that for me was actually with the children was a very fertile time. I think because of that silence, and also possibly because you're doing something, you know just sort of at the heart of the human experience or something. Looking after little children it's just sort of some elemental, maybe that all, I don't know. So that was there was a good period and then they sort of started to grow up and I then got a job typing court cases in the Attorney General's Department, which in a way is a fantastic job for a writer because it's all words. It's all story telling.
Nic: The stories you get are amazing.
Ursula: And yet you're very anonymous. You're just sitting in the courtroom and you're invisible. And so if you're a bit of an introvert it's fantastic because nobody talks you don't have talk to anybody but you're sort of in the heart of the conflict.
Nic: Did you ever use any of the what you heard as sparks as threads in any of your stories?
Ursula: With The Golden Day, which is sort of about a kind of disappearance or about a crime, there was one morning when I came in because we used to tape the proceedings in the court and then we'd come back to this room of 45 ladies sitting in silence with our headphones on. It was a very disciplined work environment. You weren't allowed to talk, typing up what happened.
And I remember I came in one morning this was all – you know it's not that long ago, it was all on tape – and I came one morning there was this terrible atmosphere in the room like completely depressing. And I'm not normally sort of very fanciful about atmospheres I suppose. But anyway I thought, ‘Ooh God, there's just something bad in this room’. Anyway, I went over and picked up my tape and sat down and started to type, and it was actually the committal trial of, I don't know when you last lived in Sydney, but in about 1996 there was a little girl called Samantha Knight who disappeared and was murdered in Bondi, and it was the committal trial of the man who eventually confessed to the crime and so there was no further trial. But the committal was very detailed and there was something about that experience which definitely formed The Golden Day. It was absolutely nothing to do with that little girl or, no connection but there was something I always... to me the two are very connected.
Nic: In what ways do you think you are a better writer or a different writer than you were earlier? If we take you know the difference between say writing The Red Shoe and The Blue Cat, what have you learned along the way that, either the mistakes you don't repeat or things that you've changed? Whether it's to do with your process or whether it's to do with the content or the storytelling?
Ursula: It's interesting when I talk to children in schools I always say, ‘I've written about sixty books’ and so I should be really good at it now I should just down write another book. But as I say that it honesty is true but I find everything I write seems to be the same struggle. I feel as if I'm not making any progress.
Although, the other thing is too that you know I've got several sort of out of print books and when you look back you think I wonder if I should you know what should I do about these. And I think, ‘Oh dear this is not very good I think I should start rewriting that’. And then you also realise that rewriting something, you're probably going to destroy it. It's true, I would write it better, but whatever it had might not survive the process.
So I can see when I look at these they're sort of better in one sense. I don't even know what I mean by that they're more... but then when you look at the novel as a whole it may not be more successful. So I am being a bit vague then.
Nic: No, no I know what you mean because as I recently re-read The Red Shoe and then just read The Blue Cat one after the other, and even though you were a mature writer when you wrote The Red Shoe and I think that's why I asked you, I couldn't quite put my finger on The Blue Cat almost from the beginning seemed to me like a better written book and I'm not sure why and that's why I'm...
Ursula: Very interesting. Well that's so encouraging!
Nic: So your next one is going to be a bloody ripper.
Ursula: It's going to be a masterpiece. It's interesting I think probably not so much The Red Shoe maybe, but some of the earlier novels I did have a more of a helter skelter approach to writing, like you just have to almost like... I think possibly also because I did most of the writing when the children were asleep. Like writing an exam, just got to write as much as possible in the time. Whereas I guess I'm at a different stage of life now. I mean the terrible thing about my books is they're so short and they nearly kill me to get to that many words.
Nic: Well have you thought, have you ever had a go at writing an adult novel or have you thought about it? Have you got one in you? Are you interested in it?
Ursula: It's funny isn't it because when I think about that sometimes I think, ‘Well it's just because I don't have ideas for adult novels’, but sometimes I do. And yet I have an absolute intuition that I can't write them. So that's going back to your first question is that, you know, is it an escape from adulthood? Perhaps it is, perhaps I just don't want to. I'll live it, that's fine, but at some level perhaps I don't want to confront it which you have to do when you write. You know you have to really...
Nic: I just made the point an adult novel is not necessarily more difficult than children's because there's lots adult novelists who could not write a children's novel.
Ursula: Quite. That's really true. I think the thing about children's books is like many things in life and I guess probably also like adult novels, but it's probably not that hard to write a not very good one. Do you know what I mean? So in some sense it's a total… write this not very good book. But if you want to write something good I think in any field, it's hard and not everybody can do it. And as you know the human being is noted for extreme specialisation. That's our thing isn't it?
Nic: Do you find it quite easy? About how many drafts does it take to get to the point where you give it to the editor?
Ursula: Oh, no it's sort of... this one was scattered. But partly that was because life circumstances change and there are different sorts of things that you're doing and I found it difficult to. And also I think, to be perfectly honest, the arrival of the internet scatters your concentration it just actually does. I know it sounds silly, just don't look at it. But it's just a reality.
And that sort of self discipline… because I think with novels you just need a zone that goes on for quite some time, a clear zone in your mind. And so you know doing school visits and things like that, it might not sound terribly onerous, oh you're just going to school on Wednesday but in a weird sort of a way it means you're thinking about it on Monday and Tuesday and Thursday and Friday you're recovering. And so, you kind of lose this sense of the zone.
And I think with The Blue Cat I thought actually I was suffering early dementia or something because I thought ‘I just can't write this book’. And then I set myself two weeks of sort of nothing, and I realised that actually that was the problem, I was just trying to do something that probably was… You know some writers can, I'm aware of them, they write on the train you know. They're amazing! But I don't seem to have that capacity. And I guess that's what I mean, you just have to deal with what you can do and you have to face it. You know, I don't have that capacity.
Nic: Do children as readers need protection from adult concepts? Do you keep things back or do you... or is this a way of couching them or?
Ursula: I always think you can write about absolutely anything to be perfectly honest, absolutely anything. But it depends how it's presented. I suppose the issue is how does a child understand it? So you might have something, I think in all three of those colour books they're pretty...
Nic: There's no question there's some very strong things you discussed.
Ursula: Strong things. And I think it's hopefully presented as a child might, sort of with cognitive ability of a child. Which, I mean sometimes I think when writers write about very strong things for children or teenagers I think sometimes they're just completely missing the boat because they think that the child is understanding what they're saying but in fact they're not understanding what they're saying. You know, like things happen to children and they don't actually understand them because they don't have that context of knowledge. So it's sort of both psychologically and I suppose aesthetically not what I want to do. I want the books to be in the minds of those children, I want them to be the perception of that child, not the perception of the adult thinking about that child. That's what I'm trying to do.
Nic: Absolutely. But have you ever had pushback from the so-called gate keepers? Have you had criticism for some for broaching some of the topics that you do from people that don't have that sort of level of understanding?
Ursula: Well perhaps they don't say it to me. The only time I've ever gone to a school where my book was not allowed in the library, which made me laugh was, a very nice Catholic school, a primary school. And the librarian apologised to me and she said, ‘Oh the principal won't’, it was a book I wrote called The First Book of Samuel. She won't allow it in the library because you've got this divorced couple.
Nic: Oh my goodness.
Ursula: And the funny thing about the divorced couple was that book is sort of, follows... It's set in contemporary Sydney but it follows the story of the first book of Samuel where Elkanah, the patriarch of the family, has two wives, because you're allowed to have two wives in those days. I remember thinking ‘Well you can't have two wives, I better make one of them divorced’.
So there was I trying...
Nic: Trying to make it better.
Ursula: Trying to make something biblical. Which I'm sure they've got the Bible in library, into something more acceptable and somehow it broke this other code.
Nic: Goodness. In fact as you were just saying I think if they've got the Bible in there they should be able to have anything in the library really.
Ursula: That's so true. Yeah exactly.
Nic: Just finally, are there particular Australian children's authors you ... there must be a lot that you admire obviously, but who are some of your favourites?
Ursula: Lots of names flood into my head. For some reason I'm more likely to read picture books than novels, and I'm not sue why that is whether that's a kind of anxiety or something or, I don't really know why that is. So even you know great novelists like Sonya Hartnett, I'm more drawn to her picture books. Even though obviously I really admire her novels but when I think of it I think of the picture books and... you know it's funny even just sitting here it's illustrators that keep popping into my head.
Nic: Which is funny because you've said before you have no visual literacy whatsoever.
Ursula: I don't have it myself but I totally appreciate it in others. And so I love illustrated books. Maybe I love so much because I don't have that, I don't know. I'm hopeless naming names, so...
Nic: There's a million of them in Australia. We have some great ones. Thank you very much for coming in and spending time with us.
Ursula: Thank you.
Nic: It's been a joy and I can't wait to read another colour novel of yours. Have you got one coming?
Ursula: Well I'm thinking about one called Green Eyes. It's in the 1970s.
Nic: I look forward to it. Thank you Ursula.