Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Elizabeth Fensham.
My Dog Doesn’t Like Me (University of Qld Press) resonated with me because I also have a puppy, Floyd (whose middle name is Pink)– a spoodle who is easier to train than Eric’s dog, Ugly, but I have used one of the dog-training tips described in the novel.
Tell us about your dogs.
My family had a string of black and tan mongrels. They were faithful, reliable dogs. We later had a Gordon Setter – and I did most of the training. I was a young teenager and loved the process of training and the reward of having such a responsive and easy to live with pet. Much later my son saw some black and tan pups at our local craft market. The Border Collie/Belgian Shepherd pup grew huge. He was very easy to train and, again, that makes a dog so pleasant to live with.
This is not a typical dog story. It sounds like real life, with Eric having to work hard to keep Ugly. Why do you write contemporary realism for younger readers?
Several aspects of the story are from real life. A young boy once told me his dog didn’t like him – in exactly those words. I instinctively thought that this boy was probably not doing very much for his dog. Children need a lot of reminding to take responsibility for their pets. However, Eric’s tribulations are fictitious; I just used my memories of doggy dramas.
I don’t consciously decide on a particular genre when writing. Ideas just spring to mind. I write about the problems that I’m aware of in a child’s life – from my own experiences and those of children I know – and then I enjoy working towards realistic solutions – and this involves character growth, too.
How do you incorporate humour?
Humour is important to me. I see it as necessary to living life as joyfully as possible, to getting things in perspective and, thus, to coping with tougher times. I enjoy the company of children because their honest and original insights on life are often both true and amusing. Humour in a story gives necessary relief to serious moments. I suppose a writer’s personality comes through in their style. I enjoy laughing, telling funny stories and making others laugh or smile. I’m embarrassing to go to the pictures with to see a comedy because apparently I laugh very loudly – and a lot. This is a balance to a part of me that feels the sadness of life deeply – which I suppose describes most people.
Your writing is a perfectly calibrated mix of story telling, character building and great writing style – writing that gets your books onto literary award lists. How carefully do you create this blend?
I consciously try to craft stories with a recurring pattern of tension followed by some sort of relief. A character goes through this and learns along the way. The style is dictated by the spirit of the story, my intended audience, as well as the personality and age of the protagonist.
The novel jumps straight into the action. How deliberate was this?
I have to give my editor the credit for beginning with the running away episode of the story. In my first draft, this came later in the chapter. I have enormous respect for editors; I appreciate that period where one works alongside someone else to improve a story.
Eric was looking forward to turning 8 and describes 8 as looking like a racetrack. What is your favourite number?
Favourite numbers! I’ve liked the number 3 since childhood. It seemed balanced to me. I also like the number 7 as I’ve heard it has significance in the ancient traditions of the Old Testament. Those numbers pop up in fairy-tales, too.
What have you won awards for?
I’ve had eight novels published. ‘Helicopter Man‘ won the CBCA award for Younger Readers. ‘The Invisible Hero’ (which deals with bullying and finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts) won the Speech Pathologists of Australia Award. The same book was listed as an Ibby Book; when I knew what it stood for I was thrilled – it’s a Swedish collection of international books that contributes to discussion of peace. ‘Goodbye Jamie Boyd‘ (a young adult novella that deals with mental illness) was listed for the Bologna White Raven – another international collection. ‘Miss McAllister’s Ghost‘ was awarded with a CBCA Notable Book. ‘Matty Forever’ was short-listed by the CBCA and its sequel, ‘Bill Rules’, was short-listed for the Queensland Premier’s Award. And one of the Matty books was short-listed for the Psychologists for Peace award. Goodness, looking at this I feel so encouraged – for someone who was first published quite late in life.
Thanks very much, Elizabeth.