Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Nikki Gemmell, about The Icicle Illuminarium (Random House Australia) and your other books.
It would be fascinating to look inside your brain. Your stories are bursting with interesting, unusual and unexpected ideas, such as the room of a thousand glow worms and the zipping ladders on rails in the Reptilarium. How do you develop your creativity?
Well, I guess my mind never stops whirring. I’m constantly seeking inspiration from everything around me, and jotting it down in a journal that’s always close to hand. I’ve been keeping my notebooks since I was 14. They’re more like scrapbooks, actually; full of clippings, title ideas, character descriptions, quotes, overheard conversations and various nuggety enchantments. It might be a decade or two before an idea in there is actually mined for a book, but I’m constantly dipping into my seventeen (and counting) journals. The aim with all my writing: to enchant, in some way. I have four kids and they’re a good sounding board as to whether I’ve succeeded or not. They’ll tell me quick smart (quite bluntly, actually, the little buggers)if something doesn’t work.
Boys and girls, particularly in mid to upper primary school and junior secondary, will love The Icicle Illuminarium. What bait have you used to get them (and keep them) reading?
I need a story to gallop along. I live in fear of boring the reader. Kids are the most exacting critics and I find kid’s fiction much harder to write than adult’s. The aim, constantly, is to get your reader to turn the page – and children are much quicker with putting a book down if they’re not interested. I remember the books I loved as a kid – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, the Silver Brumby series, Little House on the Prairie etc. They’d moved me. Make me cry as well as laugh. I aim to do that with my own books, too. Lure readers by moving them, enchanting them, and keeping them obsessed with the story. I love it when I hear kids have stayed up really late, or finished my book in one or two feverish reading sessions.
There are references to war, which add intrigue as well as depth to the story. When are the books set?
The Kensington Reptilarium and The Icicle Illuminarium are set immediately after World War II, in December 1945 and January 1946. It was a time when the world was finding its feet again; a changed world, a dazed, broken world, working out how to get itself back into normality again.
Your two children’s books are set in the UK, as well as in Australia. What are some differences between these places and what sort of children do they breed?
So many differences! Which is what this series is all about. It basically transplants four loud, sparky, resourceful Aussie bush scamps from the outback into the genteel world of upper crust England – where children are meant to be seen and not heard. Imagine four Ginger Meggs types ending up in a Downton Abbey world. What results is a huge culture clash, but I do have to say that I think that the Aussies have the upper hand in it (well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?) The differences of climate, convention and attitude are enormous and a lot of fun to write – there are lots of laughs along the way. A few tears as well.
And, are your books selling equally well in both places?
I sell more kids books in Oz and more adult books in the UK – but weirdly, one of my strongest markets is France.
Your writing is superb, combining fast-paced plot with strong characterisation and well-placed insights and descriptions to create literary merit. How carefully do you craft the writing?
Thank you so much! I work really hard at it. I want my sentences to sing, and craft them carefully. This involves draft after draft after draft; and I welcome a rigorous edit. I love beautiful writing and use poetry as a tuning fork. I don’t think kids should be denied beauty in their writing – as long as the prose is clear and simple to understand.
I do love your weekly column in the Weekend Australian Magazine. How invested in people do you feel yourself to be?
My weekly column feels so different to my fiction, but once again I aim for beauty in my writing, and to move readers. To complete 700 newspaper words about life, the universe, and everything else week after week, means you have to be passionately invested in people and the world around you, in all its minutiae. I live by Edna St Vincent Millay’s lines: “O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!” I feel that so strongly. There’s so much to be wondrous and grateful about. At this very moment I’m typing under a tree laden with ripe mulberries in the front garden – working under a gloriously nodding, bowing umbrella of green. Tasty, too! It’ll be in a column on Aussie nostalgia sometime soon, no doubt.
You must be incredibly organised to achieve so much – you’re on the Today program also. Do you have a tip?
Tip: there is no social life. I dream of this one day changing, but am too exhausted by the evenings for anything but a glass of wine and a good lie down. With me, something has to give in that great female triumverate of family/work/social life – and it was the latter in my case. My other tip: when something comes in (like this blog request, for instance) jump onto it immediately and just get it done, or else – sigh – it will never be done (I live in horror of vast piles of to-do stuff cluttering up the place.) You should see the dormant volcano that’s our washing basket of clean clothes in the main bedroom. Just can’t face it – would much prefer to be writing.
Some of our readers will know you for your books for adults. Could you give us a quick run-down on these?
I seem to write in trilogies. First of all there was the trilogy of coming of age stories about young Aussie women in different landscapes: Shiver (set in Antarctica), Cleave (Central Australian desert) and Lovesong (England’s Cornwall.) Then there was the trilogy exploring female sexuality – The Bride Stripped Bare, With my Body, and I Take You. A one off novel dealing with religion in a post 9/11 world, The Book of Rapture. And a few non fiction books made up of columns and essays: Pleasure, Honestly and Personally. Phew. I feel exhausted just typing all that.
Will we see the characters of The Kensington Reptilarium and The Icicle Illuminarium again soon?
Yes! I’m working on a third book, bringing my four sparky, scampy Caddy kids home to central Australia – all in search of their missing mum. A few of their English friends will be in tow, too, along with Bucket the dog of course. This family will not let me go!
Thanks for you incredibly generous – and speedy – answers, Nikki.