Today at Kids’ Book Capers we’re talking with JE Fison, author of the new hugely popular Hazard River series published by Ford Street; books packed full of fun and adventure.
How did you become a writer?
I started my career as a television news reporter for a regional television station in Albury in 1986. I guess I’ve been writing ever since. I was a television reporter and presenter in Hong Kong for Asia Television, then a reporter and producer in London for Worldwide Television News. Since moving back to Australia, six years ago, I have written travel stories for newspapers and magazines. I started writing fiction a few years ago during a family trip to the Noosa River. My two sons teamed up with some friends and spent the summer holidays building camps, pulling down camps, setting up new camps, building rafts, discovering sand banks, dodging snakes, avoiding sting rays, jumping off jetties and generally having a Boys Versus Wild adventure. I was inspired! I decided to write a series of children’s adventure books about three boys and a girl on an endless summer holiday adventure. I set out to make them fast-paced and fun, easy work for reluctant readers. I also added an environmental theme to each story so readers don’t just get a fun story, they can also discover a little bit more about the world they live in.
What did you enjoy most about writing the Hazard River books?
I had a lot of fun writing the Hazard River books. I live in Brisbane, but I do most of my writing when I’m on the Noosa River. I have a desk overlooking the river. In between boat trips on the river, visits to the beach and bike rides through the bush, I write. The part about writing I enjoy most is my sons’ involvement. My twelve and nine year old sons’ adventures provide the basis for some of the action in the stories. Oliver and Max are also astute critics. One of my sons reads my manuscripts at bedtime with a red pen in one hand. The boys, along with my husband, are also my greatest supporters. The path to publication has been very much a family affair.
What was the hardest thing about writing the Hazard River book?
I don’t find writing hard. Once I have a story idea in mind, it’s just a matter of getting it down, then reworking it, until everyone is happy with it. The biggest challenge, of course, was finding a publisher. Luckily Ford Street Publishing loved the stories. Paul Collins saw their potential for reluctant readers and liked the fact that the series had an environmental theme, so it appeals to kids and the parents and schools that actually buy the books.
Do you have any tips for new writers?
I’d say the most important thing about writing is having a complete package to offer to a publisher. I went to Ford Street Publishing with four stories (rather than one book and a few ideas for more). I had a clear idea about my market. I knew a gap existed for my series and I was confident that the Hazard River stories would be popular in my chosen market. New writers need a great story or series of stories and a good marketing strategy.
Is it true you shook hands with an Orangutan? What did it feel like?
I visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary in Sabah (Malaysian Borneo) when it was little more than a boardwalk through the jungle. Each morning a park ranger put out food for orphaned orangutans and they would come out of the jungle to eat. On the morning I was there, a youngish male was misbehaving. He stole a tourist’s scarf and wiped his bottom with it, then took an interest in a friend’s money belt. He unzipped it and ate a handful of cash before something else caught his eye. I thought this was all very funny until I was leaving the sanctuary. The same orangutan took an interest in me. He grabbed my hand as I walked along the boardwalk and wouldn’t let go. My friend tried to distract him with pens and other shiny objects. He just grabbed them with his spare hand or foot and continued to cling on to my hand. It must have been half an hour that I spent trying to talk the orangutan into letting me go. He was too strong to push off and the park rangers and other tourists had disappeared. I was beginning to think I’d be spending the day on the boardwalk when the orangutan got bored. He let go of my hand and disappeared into the jungle to find some other hapless individual to taunt. I understand the Sanctuary now has viewing platforms and supervision. I’d like to go back there, but I’ll be keeping my hands to myself.
I hear you have eaten Wok-fried grasshoppers. Can you tell us about the experience?
I had an amazing trip through Laos when the country was just opening up to visitors. I travelled with my brother from the capital Vien Tien to the old imperial city of Luang Prabang by plane and then took a boat on the Mekong further north. We disembarked and headed into the local village in the back of a ute, along with everyone else. When we arrived we found the only guest house in the village was full. Our driver, very generously, offered to put us up for the night at his house. He invited some friends to his house, in our honour, and there was music, singing, laughing and flash-fried grasshoppers in garlic and chilli. My brother spoke a smattering of Thai (similar to Lao) and our host spoke a handful of English words which seemed to be enough to get up through the evening. Later on that trip we took a river barge to the Thai border. The trip was supposed to take a few hours. But possibly we had misunderstood our captain. The trip took two days and we dined on rat and river-weed soup and slept on salt sacks. Another memorable experience.
Is Hazard River based on an actual place?
Hazard River is inspired by the Noosa River in Queensland. It’s really a stunning place and it’s impossible not to be inspired. Most people who visit Noosa see the Main Beach, Hastings Street and the National Park. But the Noosa River is every bit as beautiful. And the north shore of the river, which is accessible only by car ferry, is really special. It’s largely undeveloped and there are endless opportunities there for adventures. You won’t find rogue fishermen, smugglers, nasty developers or too many nasty sharks there, but you’ll find a lot of other things from the books.
Where is your favourite place to go for a holiday?
I love holidaying in Noosa. I love the beaches, the bushland, the river and the restaurants. I also love to explore a new city or country on holidays, but I spent a long time away from Australia, exploring other people’s countries and cities. Now I’m enjoying exploring Australia. I recently had a family holiday driving around the centre of Australia. I would thoroughly recommend it.
Do you try out Jack’s adventures before you write about them or have these things happened to you already?
Many of the incidents in the Hazard River series have taken place – a dead shark (a small one) washed up on the riverbank, so did an old houseboat and a lot of thongs and other things. And the themes in the books are all based on real issues. But the main action is fictitious. I have warned my children that these books aren’t manuals for misadventure and there’ll be serious consequences, if they try to copy the adventures of Jack, Ben, Lachlan and Mimi.
Has your curiosity or sense of adventure ever got you into trouble? Can you tell us how?
I’d say naivety or just plain stupidity has got me into more trouble than curiosity. I can remember being very scared when I was camping in Kenya one night when two male elephants started fighting outside the tent. It was lucky we weren’t trampled, but staying in the tent was safer than making a run for the car. Generally, though, I’ve been in more trouble in cities than in remote places – getting hopelessly lost in Beijing, ripped off in Bangkok, robbed in Hong Kong, robbed in London, robbed in Seville and in Phuket. I didn’t have a good track record!
What’s the wildest thing you ever did as a child?
I wanted to be an explorer in Africa when I was young. I’m not sure I knew what that meant, but I did a lot of exploring on family holidays to prepare myself and read a lot of wildlife magazines. I led my brother and cousins on many intrepid bush expeditions and rowed them around Moreton Bay on marine excursions. Nothing too wild, though. It was my parents who packed up and sailed around the world in a 40ft yacht. That was pretty wild. I joined them when I could. I’d given up on becoming an explorer by then and had become a television news reporter. A newsroom – that’s also a pretty wild place to be!
On Friday at Kids’ Book Capers, we’ll be reviewing the Hazard River books.