Anna, when and where were you born?
I was born in January 1957 in Melbourne, Australia
Tell us about your childhood
I was brought up in a house without television so my sisters and I were very creative – drawing, writing stories and acting plays. My fondest memories of primary school are of playtimes, curled up on a shelf under the coathooks in the hall, absorbed in a book. Teachers would tell the pale, dark-haired little girl to ‘go out and get some fresh air’ but I hated to be dragged away from the world of the story. I’ve drawn on some memories of my childhood to create the incidents in 52 Mondays.
Did you always want to be a writer?
No, my first career was as a senior school maths teacher, but when I got married and had children I decided to have a go at getting a book published. Since then I have written and illustrated over 50 books on topics as diverse as Vikings, Irish druids, Australian history, travel, and toilets.
What do you like about being a writer?
I can spend as much time as I want reading, ‘surfing the net’, or just daydreaming, without feeling guilty!
Where do you work?
When I first started writing, over thirty years ago, I worked in a corner of my kids’ playroom. I had one desk and an old manual typewriter with sticky keys. When my children were little there were many advantages to being a mum working from home, but also lots of distractions! I spent one summer holiday getting up during the night and working between 2am and 5am in order to get a book illustrated.
Nowadays I have my own study with three desks, a Mac computer with two screens, a lap-top, a scanner-photocopier machine, an overflowing filing cabinet, and LOTS of bookshelves (but never enough). I have boxes and papers piled everywhere including all my artwork and my notes for all the books I have written and illustrated. I constantly refer back to notes from earlier books when I work on new books.
Does it take a lot of discipline to write at home?
I find it suits me well. My office is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and I use it round the clock! I can get my cleaning, cooking and washing done while I think about my work, and I can run to the computer and jot down inspirations. The advantage is that I can manage a home without leaving my office. The disadvantage is that I never escape from either the housework or the office, so whichever I’m spending time on I always feel guilty that I should be doing the other one!
Where do you get your ideas?
As a child, I always wondered how people lived in ‘the olden days’. How did they go to the toilet? How did they cook? What underwear did they wear? I was disappointed when history lessons at school only taught me dry facts about kings, queens and wars. So I did research on my own, devouring anything I could find about life in the past, and the first books I created were filled with the fun stuff about history I didn’t learn at school.
This obsession has continued, and has inspired many of my books – both fiction and non-fiction. The only problem is, I love research so much, I always have to drag myself away from it to force myself to do the writing! I love being a detective and I enjoy the excuse that being a writer gives me to intrude in other people’s lives and ask questions. It even gives me the opportunity to travel. When I was researching for The Family with Two Front Doors, a book about my Nana’s childhood in Lublin, Poland, I flew across the world to Lublin to do my research. It was amazing to visit the apartment block where my Nana used to live, and to buy bananas at the market where her family did their shopping nearly 100 years ago. Click here to find out more about the book.
Students inspire me too. I do a lot of workshops in schools and many of my ideas come from the students’ questions, or their reactions to things I tell them about.
Can you give us some illustrating tips?
Always draw from real life or a photograph. I keep all our albums of family photos in my study and look through these for pictures to draw from.
For my latest book, 52 Mondays, I did all the artwork on a Surface Pro laptop. I used one layer to do a rough draft and then another layer for the finished artwork.
For my earlier books, I used to do rough drafts in pencil and then use a light box to trace through onto good quality paper using black ink. If I wanted a coloured picture, I photocopied this blackline onto watercolour paper and coloured it with watercolour paints. You can see one of my blackline drawings here, and print it out to colour in yourself!
Can you give us some writing tips?
Again, the tip is to use real life as your model. You might find ideas on the news or in history books, But the best place to find them is in your own life.
It is the little details that make the story come alive, so picture the scene in your head – like watching a film – before you start to write it down. Don’t just write: ‘The boy walked down the street.
- who was the boy?
- what did he look like?
- how was he walking?
- what did the street look like?
- what was the weather like?
- who else was in the street?
- what was the boy feeling?
Have you won any awards or grants?
In 2003 Runestone was chosen as a Notable Book by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, and all the Viking Magic books have been shortlisted for various children’s choice awards. In 2005 I was very fortunate to be awarded a 2-year grant by the Literature Board of the Australia Council to work on my new book Night of the Fifth Moon, which was chosen as a Notable Book by the Children’s Book Council of Australia in 2008. In 2017 I was amazed and thrilled by all the recognition achieved by The Family with Two Front Doors. It won a Notable Book Award, a shortlisting for the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year, and a selection by the prestigious Junior Library Guild in America prior to its release in the US!
Does your family help you with your work?
When my children were little they posed for all my illustrations and I used them to test out my stories. These days my inspiration and advice comes from my very precious grandchildren and from children I visit in schools.