Join Tasmanian author, Christina Booth, as she opens a window into her creative world and tells a tale of a story written and a story in the making.
Thank you once again for inviting me to contribute to the CBCA Tasmania blog.
I write to you from ‘The Burrow’, the apartment set up for Australian children’s authors and illustrators in the Adelaide suburb of Norwood by the May Gibb’s Children’s Literature Trust. I am currently here undertaking a one month creative fellowship supported by the trust, who offer a home away from home to focus on a project that would benefit from being away from home distractions and other pressing commitments. Something I am very grateful for.
What am I doing here and why? This sounds like the big question of life and beyond, but I will offer you just a snippet.
Last year I applied for a grant from Arts Tasmania and I also applied, in hope of receiving one, for a Fellowship opportunity through the Trust. To my delight, I received both and as I had applied to do the same project for both, it seemed a confirmation that this story was meant to be.
Many of you will be familiar with my picture book from 2010, Potato Music (Omnibus/Scholastic, illustrated by Pete Groves). If not, go and find a copy now and read it. The journey of writing that story was a long one. As I explained to the students of Adelaide’s Scotch College during the first week of my visit, it took seven years to write, including those long periods of rest and re-thinking as it slept in the deep dark recesses of my stories file on my computer.
It took this long because it was a story very close to my heart. Often, when we first start writing stories, we wreck our brains wondering what to include but the best way to write a story, be it long or short, is working out what not to put in, for that is more important. Potato Music was a career changing story for me. It was like an amazing, tough and effective apprenticeship, where I learnt more about the craft of storytelling than through any other journey or book I have written. I have to acknowledge and say thank you to one tough and amazing publisher and my then agent for guiding me through that process, Dyan Blacklock and Nanette Halliday. It was the story when things really began to click. How to edit, how to use words in a strong and powerful way. The writing of Potato Music set me up for every other picture book I have written and will write.
As you may have noticed, I did not illustrate Potato Music. This was also a difficult pill to take. I had my heart set on it and, had I have illustrated it, it would have looked very, very different. In her wisdom, my publisher felt I was again, too close to the story to be able to step back and see other possibilities for the illustrations, so, hesitantly, I let it go. Pete Groves, an artist from Adelaide (I should look him up while I’m here) was contracted to create the beautiful and ethereal images that accompany my text. It was another journey of learning and growing. It changed me as an illustrator because I now know what it is like to trust someone else with my story. It helped me to become a better illustrator, being able to empathise with the authors I illustrate for.
So why is it I am discussing these things and not the project I am here in Adelaide to work on and, indeed, the year with my grant?
Potato Music is my project. After seven years, I am hungry to be able to retell the story. In its many evolutions before becoming a picture book, Potato Music was attempted as a novel, a short story, numerous variations of picture book texts and chapter books, back to a novel and then, left to rest until reignited by a publisher’s interest. The picture book story so many of you know, is a very condensed and timeless glimpse at a much larger story. It is one I have been itching to tell and also have the opportunity to illustrate myself.
After reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus a few years ago and loving Raymond Briggs’ Ethel and Ernest, I immediately knew what I needed to do next with my story. I have always loved visual forms of narrative and grew up with Tintin, Asterix and Mad Comics. I continue to love them and appreciated seeing the complex art of storytelling in graphic novel form. Working on telling Potato Music as a graphic novel seemed the right step in its evolution.
So, I find myself in Adelaide at the May Gibb’s Children’s Literature Trust burrow, writing away at scripts and time lines and potential story lines. Again, I am plagued with what should I include, what should I leave out, how do I respect this family story and yet make it universal. Slowly, as my head begins to sit comfortably with this style of writing, I’m beginning to see pictures and possible directions. Every now and then I reach a T-junction or a cross road and need to decide which way to travel, but my confidence as a writer has grown since my early days of writing my original story of Potato Music, and I have learnt to leave my pebble trail so I can explore all options and maybe draw them together, or, if I must, remove them from the picture.
It is an exciting journey, slightly sad as it is about war and loss, but also with hope as I bring all of the elements together to celebrate survival and the future.
Even though the graphic novel market in Australia is still comparatively young and there is still a long way to go with convincing publishers to take the risk, I am hopeful of having this work considered and, with any luck, published. It is an exciting new arena to delve into and it seems right for me to combine my love of words and visual story telling into this format. It isn’t new, but it is an exciting journey to be travelling on. I am so lucky to have my peers encourage me and support me and to have the invaluable support of Arts Tasmania and the May Gibbs’ Literature Trust to help me on my way.
If you are new to the idea of reading graphic novels or perhaps think they are for teenagers, young children and are simple, comic strip plots about superheroes, fantastical creatures or Manga then I encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and explore the broad genres represented from the collections of graphic novels. They have been around for a very long time and suite all readers. My recommendations to you are Maus, by Art Spiegelman; Ethel and Ernest, When the Wind Blows, and Gentleman Jim, by Raymond Briggs; Kid Glovz, by our own Julie Hunt and illustrator Dale Newman; and look up your favourite classics and contemporary novels to see if they have been ‘translated’ into a strip style narration. I have Sense and Sensibility, The Magicians Nephew and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children, and a few of Neil Gaiman’s books on my bookshelf along with numerous other examples of wonderful tales told using the graphic novel form. And we must not forget to include our all time favourite Australian example, stepping out of the traditional concept of graphic novels, Shaun Tan’s, The Arrival.
Maybe you have been enjoying graphic novels for years and didn’t even know it.
So, from my desk in Adelaide, in my unit amongst the suburban autumn leaves and quiet surrounds, happy reading. Make sure a graphic novel is on your bookshelf.