How did you become a writer?
From as far back as I can remember, the thing I loved most in the world was listening to my mother read books to me, and tell me stories.
Because of this, I knew that the only thing I wanted to do in my life was to write stories myself. I still have a notebook in which I began writing a story when I was four or five years old. I called it “My Novel”. I kept writing the story over a couple of years.
Throughout the rest of my childhood and adolescence I wrote stories all the time, just for myself. I was an only child, and after the age of seven I was often a very lonely child, because at that time my mother started to spend long periods in hospital. When I was nine, she died, and I went to live in a foster family. After that, reading and writing became even more important in my life. If I hadn’t been able to escape into made-up stories, I don’t know how I could have survived.
Writing as an adult is, of course, a different matter to writing as a child.
In 1975, after completing a postgraduate degree in history, I went to Greece, where I spent the next two years trying to find my voice as a writer. At the same time I began developing a rhythm of writing regularly for about six to eight hours every day.
It took five years to get my first book published, and a few more years before I managed to scrape a subsistence wage as an author. During that time I occasionally had a part-time job, but I didn’t want to do anything that would stop me writing.
Nearly forty years later, I still write every day, and I am still trying to become a writer.
Where do you get your ideas?
I never set out to find ideas for stories, but occasionally a house or a piece of land will suddenly seem to speak to me. When that happens, I start drawing little maps and/or house-plans. As I draw and re-draw the maps and write notes directly into them, imaginary people start living in place. Once I have characters interacting with place, I have plot.
The purpose of this mapping is to allow the characters and the story to come out of the land, rather than being put into it arbitrarily. The country has to tell its own story. This is true for just about everything I have written. The picture book, My Place, is of course a prime example, but the method is also true of my history book, Australians All.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Read... garden... learn Italian... spend time with my friends.
I am also very involved with community and environmental work in my local area — the Cooks River Valley of south-west Sydney. As part of this commitment, I co-ordinate a group of volunteers who are creating a patch of bush beside the river.
Do you collect anything?
Of all your books, which one are you most proud of?
Pride isn’t really the right word, but I certainly feel honoured to have been part of the team of forty or so staff and students from Papunya School who produced the Papunya School Book of Country and History.
Papunya is a small Aboriginal community in the Western Desert, about 250 km west of Alice Springs. Over the years 1997 to 2001 I used to go there for a few weeks every school term to help the Anangu staff and students make resources for the special curriculum they were developing (known as the Papunya Model of Education). The Papunya School Book came out of this amazing collaborative process.
Were you involved with making the television series of My Place?
I was the historical and story consultant to the series over about six years of script development, but the script-writers and directors had the freedom to develop new stories based on the characters and place of the book. I agreed to allow the producer, Penny Chapman, to adapt My Place because I knew that she would employ Aboriginal scriptwriters for the episodes that have Aboriginal families in them. Because of this, I feel that the theme of belonging to country, which is at the heart of the book, really comes through in the TV series.
Do you have any advice for people who want to be writers?
If you are an adult: Just write! Set aside a slot of time every day — even if it is only an hour — and write. You are the only person in the world who can find your voice as a writer, and it is only by writing and writing and writing and writing that you will ever find it.
If you are young, probably the best preparation you can do is read widely. Reading and writing are like breathing in and breathing out. You can’t do one without the other.