Q & A with Sonya Hartnett
Your first book was published at the age of 15 - how did that happen?
I had no plans to publish it but a friend of mine suggested I should send it to a publisher, 'You've got nothing to lose.' So I looked up 'P' for publisher in the Yellow Pages. I was going to school in Camberwell and I couldn't afford to post it very far so I narrowed my search down to ones I could afford, which knocked out places like Sydney.
And they were interested?
Yes, a lot of our correspondence wasn't preserved but I do have a draft of the very first letter I sent them. It went on display in an exhibition about Victorian writers in the State Library a few years ago. I remember asking the publishers how would they like the manuscript presented? It was already typed up on letterhead from my Dad's friend's car-yard so it had 'Frankie's Car-Yard' on every page. A friend of my brother had thrown it on the fire so it was a bit burnt and tatty looking. I know it went back and forth a few times between us. They said they liked it but it needed a lot of fixing up here and there. After about a year of working on the manuscript they agreed to publish it.
Must have been exciting?
Well yes, it was exciting to have a first book published but it was a gradual process. To this day there remains a part of me that just stares in gob-smacked amazement that any of it is ever happening, even 30 years later.
Your family and friends must have been amazed?
Some people were probably a bit surprised. At the time it wasn't something that we ever really discussed. I know people were thrilled at the time and have always been very enthusiastic.
Perhaps back then people didn't celebrate kid's achievements to the extent they do today?
Certainly schools didn't - mine didn't take much notice of it.
Was it your dream to become a writer?
I think I did it because it was one of the rare things I felt I was competent at. And I enjoyed doing it. I had started when I was about 9 when I realised I could not only do it, I could do it reasonably well. I think it gave me a feeling of power in an otherwise powerless life. I wasn't sporty or tall or handsome and funny. I was a nothing kind of kid and when I discovered something I could do it was very pleasing to me. My Grade 5 teacher read out my first ever short story and I think as soon as she did that my fate was sealed.
But I can't say I really wanted to be a writer, I only wanted to do something I wasn't completely hopeless at.
Where do you write?
On a laptop on my bed. On a creaky $2 plastic table with fold-out legs. There you go - with a cup of coffee and a steady supply of chocolate and the animals crowding up on the bed around me. And that's how we do it.
I write for about three hours in the morning and that's about as much as I can do.
Do you work in silence or have music on in the background?
If you get stuck do you walk away or what do you do?
I try not to get stuck. I try to know what I'm writing in advance so there is no 'stuck.' I can get stuck in the planning sometimes but even then, my tendency is to abandon ship. I don't waste a lot of time nutting something out. If it doesn't come easily then it tends to mean that it's bad. But if say I can't work a sentence out then I'll just fill it in as best I can. Every time I touch the manuscript I like to get it as right as I can at that time. On the rare occasions if it's being really recalcitrant I will just put it down. Say 'fine…if you're in a bad mood…' You've got to treat it like a child I find. And if it's misbehaving you ignore it.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I read really quite widely. Certain things I'm not all that mad about like science fiction. But I think it's important if anyone wants to be a writer that they have a vast general knowledge and are prepared to soak up information about everything including things that don't interest you. So I've read a lot of stuff over the time right down to ads for cars in the newspaper to the history of Henry VIII's wives to - right now I'm reading the George R.R. Martin Game of Thrones series.
I have my preferences but I think you should never say 'no' to anything. I'm mostly prepared to give anything a go. Right through my childhood and even into my 20s and 30s, a lot of the time I couldn't afford to buy books so I've read what has come my way and it's been a tradition that's just continued all my life.
Life outside work?
I'm the second eldest of six. There're four girls and two boys. I have a dog, a husky cross called Shilo and Morgan the diabolical Siamese. She kind of rules, she's the boss. I'm the bottom of the pack, below the fish. I have about 47 fish in the pond in the garden. So I can spend an awful lot of time 'maintaining' the pond. Sometimes I wonder what on earth I do with my time. I get up and potter around and then its lunchtime and there's more pottering and so on. I like to go shopping, I love to spend money, I'm a great haunter of antique shops and I also like to garden. But my main outside hobby is buying houses, fixing them up and then selling them. And all that is associated with that.
So what number house is this?
Perhaps number 11. Every day I scan real estate.com in the hope the next house has come up for me because I get very bored - I've owned houses where I haven't bothered to unpack because I know I'm not going to stay. Sometimes I've been known to be packing up thinking about the house I'm going buy after the next one! I used to think I was looking for my dream house where I would be happy forever but now I have accepted the fact that there is no such house. I think when you work from home you need a change of a scenery. Otherwise I just get sunk in boredom.
What kind of childhood did you have?
I was a shy kind of kid and in some ways I still remain that kid. As soon as the first book was published I had to get over that in a big hurry. I think inside still I'm still deeply unsure about everything I say and do. And kind of like my privacy the way I did as a child. I wasn't the kind of kid that liked parties or to stay overnight at other people's places. I liked to be at home, left to my own devices. But when you've got 5 brothers and sisters in a small fairly impoverished family, life is noisy and cheap. At the same time there was a great deal of freedom. Because I was one of the elder ones and Mum was very preoccupied with the younger kids, when I was about 10 or 11 I was well able to roam around by myself. We were quite free children. We were raised to be independent and I think that has seen us well through life.
Did your mother work?
Not always but she had been a nurse and when I was about 10 she went back to work.
He was a proof reader at the Sun Herald and I think that gave me a lifelong love of newspapers and in some ways, the media as a whole. Every morning you'd get up and on the kitchen table would be a beautiful, fresh copy of the newspaper, unread, untouched by human hands. In retrospect it was probably read by everyone but because I was generally up first, it always seemed the newspaper was there for me alone.
So it's not surprising I found a future in words, I suppose.
I love Siamese cats…just watching mine walk out the window into the garden…she's so beautiful. I love animals. I love it when you're walking along the street and something like a smell reminds you of another time. And I love pasta.
I hate cruelty whether to animals or people. I dislike lamb's fry. And I dislike screaming children.
Off the Shelf : Q & A with Sonya Hartnett about her new book The Children of the King
What is The Children of the King about?
It is about three children who are evacuated from London during the Blitz and sent to live in Yorkshire. While there, they find two mysterious boys living in the ruins of a castle nearby.
Is the book part ghost, part war story?
It is both those things, but it is also a historical novel and a coming-of-age story.
Why the Blitz and WWII?
War puts people in a situation that isn't typical. The London blitz must have been an incredibly demanding time in which to be alive. Relentlessly frightening but also relentlessly challenging and interesting.
And a shocking experience for children?
I think childhood is a powerless time anyway, but to have been a child during the war would have been doubly disconcerting. Although at the same time they surely became used to it and probably thought nothing of, say, going every night to sleep in the underground. Many children would have grown up thinking that was quite a normal thing to do.
The book has a sub-plot set in the 16th century – was that always your intention?
Yes. The ideal approach to a novel, I think, is to have it planned very well before you begin. I was a little worried with this one because although I knew I was going to combine the war story with the Richard III story, right until the end I was very unsure how it would tie together. But in the end it found its own way. Some books are self-reliant and this one looked after itself.
The story of the Princes being imprisoned by their uncle, Richard III in the Tower then disappearing is an unsolved crime?
I don't think it's unsolved. Anyone who doesn't think Richard killed his nephews is kidding themselves. The evidence is circumstantial but it is extremely strong. If he got off today it would be on a technicality.
What about the story appeals?
I've been interested in the Princes for years and this is not the first time I've used them in my work. It's a very evocative story – all that money and those two children, power, murder – it's dramatic and colourful.
You paint an almost sympathetic portrait of Richard III in your book?
I do have some sympathy for Richard – I believe he was very much a product of his environment. I don't think he was an intrinsically bad man. He was brought up to be able to do bad things.
In your re-telling of his story he is pained to realise he's done all that for nought?
I'm sure he felt a real sense of frustration and futility, and disappointment in himself. He was smart enough and sensitive enough to know that everything - his whole life, really - had gone terribly wrong.
I love the character Uncle Peregrine - his name is perfect for him!
(Laughing) I wasn't sure about the name and then I thought no, use it with confidence and it will be all right.
When Uncle Peregrine tells the story of Richard III, the children learn a lot about things like the corrosive nature of power, how the past impacts on the future... ?
And how our knowledge of history can be influenced by the input of people who have their reasons for taking a certain position, like Shakespeare writing ‘Richard III' under the queen-ship of Elizabeth who was a Tudor and obviously very anti-Richard. Shakespeare's depiction of Richard has coloured our view of Richard in every single way.
At the time, people were horrified by the murder of the Princes?
I am always surprised about that because this was a really bloodthirsty, barbaric time and for a King to assassinate a couple of children seems minor given what else was going on. Yet people were appalled by the thought that he'd killed them.
Maybe killing children of your own flesh and blood was the breaking point?
As opposed to killing someone else's child? No, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the boys were the sons of what had been a very beloved king; and also, I think people were looking for a reason to get rid of Richard. They didn't like him. No matter what he did - and he was actually a very decent king, he did good things for poor people, for the arts, for education - the population was set against him. If he'd been much loved then it's possible people would have found a way of excusing his treatment of the princes.
Your description of the bombing of London felt very authentic.
When you approach a big subject like that it can be overwhelming. I tried to think along the lines of what would have an impact on me if I was a 14 year old, as is Jeremy, the older boy in the story - how he would have felt seeing the little things like towel railings torn from houses and thrown over the road. You use a collection of details to build up a picture.
Parents must have found it difficult to send their children away to the country?
No doubt it was awful for a lot of parents but I bet they had a very British, chin-up attitude, the overriding conviction that it was hard, but it was for the best.
It must have been hard on the children?
Had I been an evacuee I would have died of terror, I wouldn't have been able to endure it. But some kids would have accepted it, even revelled in it. Also, we shouldn't confuse the mollycoddled kids of today with the children of 70 years ago. They were a completely different species, I suspect.
Some evacuees had bad experiences?
Some of them looked back on that time as the best years of their lives and remained lifelong friends with the people who took them in. For others, it was utterly awful.
Before writing did you talk to evacuees?
No. A book is not real life. It's a work of art. I could talk to 100 evacuees, but if their story doesn't fit the book's requirements, it's a waste of time. I make sure anything I want to write is realistically feasible, but I don't fit the story around reality. I fit reality around the story.
War forces children to face some very unpleasant facts.
Of course. War is essentially about death. It is also about courage and stoicism, but it's mostly about fear and loss and deprivation. You're only a child once, and it's unfortunate for anyone to have to learn about those things during their childhood. The kids in the novel don't suffer as much as many did. Cecily has to leave her beloved father behind in London, knowing that the city was being bombed. I tried to imagine the constant worry and confusion she'd endure.
Cecily is an interesting character.
Cecily very much wrote herself. I started our thinking I didn't like her, but as she came alive I became very fond of her. She's funny and stupid and kind.
She's awful one minute, lovable the next?
Cecily has been brought up in an indulgent family. Her mother is quite cruel to her at times, but she's nonetheless a spoiled child and used to getting what she wants. The world has always fallen into place for her: Cecily wouldn't know any way of thinking other than if you want something, it's yours and it's yours for as long as you want to play with it and when you throw it away you can have something new.' So when she gets given a child, the evacuee, May, and discovers she's not pliable, like a doll, it gets a bit ugly. Cecily's wealth makes her feel superior to May and although she thinks it will give her the upper-hand, it doesn't. May is smarter than Cecily, that's why. It's brains versus brawn.
Part of your story sees the children realising their parents aren't perfect?
Most particularly in Jeremy's relationship with his mother, yes. He begins to think, ‘Hang on a minute, you actually aren't as smart or as great as I have been led to believe.' Which is always a painful thing for any child to realise about their parent.
His conflict with his mother is over his desire to do something to help with the war despite only being 14 years old?
I suspect young men innately need to test themselves and war is one of the ways they do it. If a young guy can't test himself in battle then he's going to drive his car really fast - they have to do it. It's tempting to say they're just foolish, thoughtless, reckless, but I don't think it's that - I think young men have a primal drive to push their abilities in dangerous ways.
The reader is left with the feeling there's a link between Peregrine and Richard III?
Peregrine is very dark and strange; his character deliberately echoes Richard's. He leaves May a locket with the portrait of Richard III in it, as if he does have a deeper connection with the king. Cecily sees him as Richard in that he is regal and crippled (Shakespeare wrote of him as a cripple but he wasn't in reality). One of the reasons Peregrine likes May is because she's open to hidden layers in the world - to ghosts, to history. If Peregrine is in some way also Richard, May is the one who'll understand that. She is the link between the ghost world and the real world.
Cecily and Jeremy's father Humphrey is involved in secret war stuff?
Humphrey and Peregrine are both involved in some sort of high level intelligence. When I called the book Children of the King I wanted there to be many ‘kings', not just Richard, which is why Jeremy and Cecily worship Humphrey and why they find it appalling to discover he's just a tired man. But in my mind, Humphrey isn't the most kingly of the kings in the book.
Who is the most kingly, then?
That would be telling.