Talking about crime with Sue Bursztynski

I’m a firm believer in the old adage that “the truth is stranger than fiction”. In fact, I’ve living proof. Not too long ago I was swimming at Four Mile Beach in North Queensland when a garfish, not much bigger than my middle finger, jumped out of the water and speared me in the ear. I needed a three- hour operation to remove the spear! While I was in hospital, my son fell out of a tree and broke his wrist. I couldn’t make that stuff up!

Sue BursztynskiChildren’s author, Sue Bursztynski clearly has an eye for bizarre true stories, too. In her book, Crime Time, she’s unearthed the antics of Australia’s weirdest criminals – from the poison toting granny to the robbers who wore name tags. There are more than a hundred crime stories in the book, all packaged up for children.

Sue joins me today to share an insight into writing non-fiction.

JF: What prompted you to delve into Australia’s most notorious characters?

SB: I was commissioned to write a companion volume to Meredith Costain’s book Fifty Famous Australians, as Fifty Infamous Australians. I said, “Okay, but that title has to go! Kids will think it’s for helping with their homework.” As it happened, I’d just done a piece on forensics for the NSW School Magazine, which covered everything from Otzi the Ice Man (a 5000 year old murder victim) to the murderer who was caught because of some white cat hairs, and I was absolutely thrilled to be able to continue the crime theme. And there’s an embarrassment of riches in Australia’s crime history.

JF: Can you share a couple of the more unusual stories that you unearthed?

SB: One I liked was the story of the con man Murray Beresford Roberts, who actually wrote a book about his crimes! Out of print, but I found a copy online. He tells of the time when he was in India and managed to con a jeweller into giving him a diamond tiara, which he broke up and swallowed. Then he took a plane to England, where he went to the toilet to expel the gems, cleaned them up and sold them.

I had been asked to write something about Tony Mokbel, who was in the news at the time. I couldn’t think of anything about him that would entertain children, but I was having a coffee one day and reading the papers, when I found a double page spread about his bizarre escape from Australia and knew I had my story.

Crime TimeJF: How much time did you spend researching the book?

SB: I spent about three months reading and reading, choosing and drafting. I have a full time day job, but I was on long service leave when I was commissioned, so I could go to the library for books and read newspapers both print and online. The editing continued after that, of course, and I went back to research some more. I had fifty main stories and was asked to also add some “Did You Knows”. There must be around a hundred stories, long and short, in the book, and I researched them all thoroughly. I wouldn’t write a chapter unless I’d read a bare minimum of two sources, usually more, because of potential bias. That takes time – and when my leave was over I’d have to go back to work. So it was an intense three months.

JF: Did you ever find yourself so disturbed by the subject matter that you questioned the project?

SB: Sometimes I did feel queasy, though never to the extent of wanting to pack it in. My poor editor, Saralinda Turner, was a lot more stressed than I was, after I’d turned in several chapters about serial killers, and she asked if there was a lot more of this stuff coming, but she bravely kept going, bless her. I asked my friends to suggest crimes that weren’t serial killing. Kerry Greenwood suggested the story of the murderer who got his idea from a campfire discussion with the novelist Arthur Upfield. She said it was every crime writer’s nightmare. There was a murder, but it was so over the top, I couldn’t resist going off and researching it. And my friend Chris Wheat (author of the YA novel Screwloose) told me about the April Fool’s Day attempted robbery at the Cuckoo restaurant at Olinda, where a couple of klutzy robbers escaped with a bag of stale bread rolls and one of them was accidentally shot in the backside. I have that chapter up on my blog, if any of your readers want to look at it. There were other quirky crime stories in the book, so that helped keep it balance.

JF: How did you convert the information into a book suitable for children?

SB: I had to tread carefully. On the one hand, kids simply love gruesome tales. On the other hand, you do want parents and libraries to buy it – and you want the kids to say, “Oh, brilliant!” and not to get nightmares. There were things I had to leave out – but not enough to lose my readers’ interest. This isn’t a book to help with homework. It’s reading for enjoyment. I chose a lot of quirky stories, especially for my “Did You Know?” sections. In the Ned Kelly chapter I added a “Did You Know?” about a Kelly brother who lived a quiet, law-abiding life and died in about the 1940s. I wrote about the Dumb And Dumber robbers, who kept on their name tags while committing a robbery and flashed their staff passes to use transport after. The kids to whom I read this, love it. One day, at a bookshop event, I found myself surrounded by a bunch of children about five or six years old and simply couldn’t read to them from the book, so I told them, instead, about the “very naughty nana” who poisoned her family (“YOUR nana wouldn’t do that!”). That got a lot of giggles and some older siblings who were listening bought the book.

JF: Tell us about some of your other work?

SB: For many years, I wrote fiction and non-fiction for small-press science fiction magazines before I won the Mary Grant Bruce Award for children’s literature and realised that what I enjoyed most was writing for young people. I have written ten books, one of which, Potions to Pulsars: Women doing science, was a Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council Awards. Another, Starwalkers: Explorers of the Unknown, was nominated for the NSW Premier’s History Award.

When not writing, I work in a school in Melbourne’s western suburbs. I enjoy reading, music, handcraft and old science fiction movies. My current books are Crime Time and Wolfborn. 

JF: What’s next for you?

SB: Mostly short fiction, possibly including a story for the next Ford Street anthology – that will require research too, because I’ve been asked for historical fiction. I have a story coming up in the Christmas Press anthology, Once Upon A Christmas, and I’m working, very slowly, on a prequel to my novel Wolfborn. There’s not much market for non-fiction in the trade publishing industry, alas, and it’s very hard to get into the education industry these days, as they tend to have stables of regular writers. So it’s fiction for now.

JF: Thank you for joining me at Boomerang Books, Sue. All the best with Crime Time.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Crime Time

Crime. Violence. Nasty things. Could there be anything more appealing to kids? Crime Time by Sue Bursztynski has it all… and here’s your chance to win a copy.

Crime Time is a who’s who of Australian crime. From infamous past criminals such as Ned Kelly, to more current underworld figures such as Tony Mokbel, there is plenty in this book to entertain and horrify kids who are hungry for a little mayhem and blood. Sensitive parents need not fear too much, as the book doesn’t get overly graphic.

Sue is visiting the Boomerang Books blog today to give away a copy of her book.

Crime Time giveaway
By Sue Bursztynski

A while back I received an email from Paul Collins of Ford Street Publishing. His partner Meredith Costain had done a book called Fifty Famous Australians — would I be interested in doing a children’s book on the theme of fifty infamous Australians, as a sort of companion volume?

Was the Pope a Catholic?

I’d written several non-fiction books and plenty of articles, including one on forensics. Research was second nature. For the next few months I plunged into books, websites and newspaper articles about the most evil and the plain silliest criminals this country has produced, starting from the Batavia hijacking in 1629 and going right up to the story of Tony Mokbel, who had just been arrested in Greece. When I was sickened by serial killers I found ridiculous stories like the one currently on my website about two idiots who tried to rob a restaurant and got away with … Well, check it out. There were fifty main stories, but a whole lot of snippets as well. There was no shortage of stories to choose from, and I made sure I chose those which kids would find most entertaining. Adults have also found them entertaining; I know of one who bought a copy for her nephew and never passed it on.

Now you can win a copy of Crime Time: Australians behaving badly, by leaving a comment at the end of this post and answering one of the following two questions:

In one or two sentences, name your favourite Aussie crime story, eg “The story of Snowy Rowles, who used an Arthur Upfield plot to commit the perfect murder, because he nearly got away with it.”

OR

Which Australian criminal would you invite to dinner, eg “the runaway convict Alexander ‘Cannibal’ Pearce, but I would supply the meat.”

These are two stories from my book, but you can use any name you like, including ones from the newspapers — I can look up any I don’t know. I will choose one entry and explain why.

Good luck!

George’s bit at the end

Okay everyone, getting your criminal mastermind thinking caps on and start writing those entries. Post your answers in the comments section below.

Entries close on Friday 5 October 2012 at 5pm Australian Eastern Time.

Thanks for the giveaway, Sue.

Catch ya later,  George

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Check out my DVD blog, Viewing Clutter.

Latest Post: DVD Review and Giveaway  — Doctor Who: Planet of Giants

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Goodbye 2010

2010 is almost over. For me personally, it was a bit of a mixed bag — some good stuff; some not-so-good stuff. As for writing and reading, it was a pretty damn good year. So, let me sum it up for you. Yes, that’s right — if Literary Clutter were a tv show, then this post would be the flashbacks episode. 😉

I got to do some fun school visits (check out this post on Dee White’s Kids’ Book Capers Blog), some bookstore signings (check out my Shameless Self-promotion post) and I participated in the Pigeon Letters literacy project (check out my Pigeons post). I had the honour of launching issue 2 of [untitled] and Sue Bursztynski’s new YA werewolf novel, Wolfborn. I also spent the second semester teaching a creative writing subject at the University of Melbourne (a HUGE learning experience for me). But top of the list for 2010 events was Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention (check out my Aussiecon 4 Memories post), held here in Melbourne in September.

It was a good year for books, with lots of great titles released during 2010. My top 5 for the year are as follows: (keeping in mind that there was an awful lot of great stuff I didn’t get around to reading)

  1. Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (I’d also include Leviathan, which was published in 2009, but which I did not get around to reading until 2010)
  2. Trash by Andy Mulligan [read my review]
  3. The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger [read my review]
  4. Wolfborn by Sue Bursztynski [read my review]
  5. f2m: the boy within by Hazel Edwards and Ryan Kennedy

I started blogging in 2010 with Literary Clutter and I’ve really been enjoying the informal writing approach that it offers. My teen novel, Gamers’ Quest, continued to sell steadily. I had six school readers published. I wrote another seven school readers, as well as a six book kids’ library reference series called What’s In My Food, that will be published next year. I wrote a whole bunch of short stories, some that I’ve managed to sell, and some that are now languishing at the bottom of my crap drawer. And I’ve been working on a sequel to Gamers’ Quest. I’m very excited about this and will undoubtedly post about it in 2011. I’m on the home stretch at the moment, so my blogging will be taking the back seat for the next few weeks. Don’t expect more than one post a week until I’ve handed the novel to my publisher.

So, what sort of wonders does 2011 potentially hold? I’m REALLY, REALLY, REALLY looking forward to the publication of two books — Goliath, the third book in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series; and Liberator, the sequel to Richard Harland’s Worldshaker. I’ve got some more school readers lined up, and hopefully another library reference series (I’m still waiting on the publisher to get back to me on this one). I’m planning on starting a new novel. And I plan on continuing to blog — assuming, of course, that the lovely people at Boomerang Books still want me to. 🙂 I’ve got some interviews lined up and I’ll also be reviewing a stack of books. And then there are the videos I’ve been promising — little author interviews that I recorded at Aussieon 4. I’m afraid I still haven’t finished editing them… so you’ll have to wait a little while longer for those. Sorry!

So folks… Happy New Year. May 2011 bring you lots of exciting new books and many hours of reading pleasure.

Catch you all next year.

PS. Follow me on Twitter… quickly, before the year ends!

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Sue Bursztynski talks about werewolves, part 2

Today I continue my interview with Sue Bursztynski — author of numerous non-fiction books for kids and the new YA werewolf novel, Wolfborn.

Who is your favourite character in Wolfborn and why?

I have a lot of affection for Armand, the hero’s best friend. It’s not easy being a sidekick, especially when the hero drags you into everything and you’re poor (as aristocrats go, anyway) and can’t yet afford the armour you’ll need to be a knight and the only horse you can ride for the moment is a hill-pony which turns out to be a damned unicorn – do you know how embarrassing that is for a teenage boy? But Armand isn’t dumb. He knows when the time has come to go for help and insists on it.

You’re best known for your non-fiction books, the latest being Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly. How did you find the experience of writing novel-length fiction?

It’s very different. The research process is different. Non-fiction of the kind I have written can be done in bits and pieces. If I’m writing about spies or crooks, there’s a different spy or crook in each chapter. It’s a lot of work, but when you’ve finished that bit, you’ve finished and can go on to the next story. A novel is like a tapestry you’re weaving and you can’t afford to put in a wrong thread or the whole thing comes apart. You have to be consistent, not only in the facts you’ve researched but in what you’ve said about the characters and their backgrounds. And you have to make sure something you’re doing isn’t wrecking the story. I had written and re-written this several times and only in the last draft did I realise I still had an awful lot of “had I but known” bits. I cut all but about two of them. And because of something I changed early on, I really had to re-write the ending. My beta readers – three of them – won’t recognise the ending! The editing of non-fiction is often a case of  “Have you checked this fact out?” or “Can I have more information about that?” but obviously there’s a lot more to fiction editing. Sometimes I had to re-write because something obvious to me wasn’t obvious to the editor. Other times I stuck to my guns, saying, “This character wouldn’t talk like that” or “Yes, yes, show, don’t tell, but this bit is just not worth several pages of show when I can get the important information across in a few lines of tell.” I have to say, the editors at Woolshed/Random House were very good about this. If I said, “I think it’s better this way and here’s why” they said, “Fair enough.”

What’s next for Sue Bursztynski?

Who knows? I’m still working full-time in the school system. My writing has to fit in around that, but at least I can learn what teens are reading. When the time comes that I leave full-time work, I hope to sign up for a speaker’s agency – I can do this because as a teacher I know how to speak to children – and spend more time on the writing.

Meanwhile, I’m slushing for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, I’m writing short fiction, I’m reading plenty of history and science and folklore – right now, Montague Summers’s book on werewolves. He did the most famous book on witchcraft. And I’m playing with a prequel to Wolfborn, which is already almost as long as the whole of Wolfborn and nowhere near finished! I have a lot to do on that one.

George’s bit at the end

My thanks to Sue for taking the time to answer my questions. To find out more about her and her writing, check out her blog, The Great Raven.

And tune in next time for a guest review of The Wildkin’s Curse.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Sue Bursztynski talks about werewolves, part 1

In my last post I reviewed Wolfborn, the new YA werewolf novel by Sue Bursztynski. This time, Sue joins us at Literary Clutter to answer a few questions about her book.

Can you tell us how you first came across the medieval story that was to inspire Wolfborn?

I found it in a book on the remainders pile in a bookshop. It was an illustrated translation of the Breton Lais of Marie De France called “Proud Knight, Fair Lady”. I had heard of the Breton Lais and I’d also read other versions of some of the stories, some of which appeared in Middle English romances that I’d studied during my university years, but never actually read the Lais themselves. There are some wonderful tales in there, and they all have a bit of cheeky humour about them, but that one leapt out at me and made me wonder what more could be told about it.

Why did you decide to give the novel a fantasy setting rather than a purely historical setting?

Setting it in my own universe – one actually created for another novel that never worked out – gave me more flexibility. I could play around with whatever bits and pieces from our own world I wanted, that fitted into the story, instead of being limited to what could happen in even an alternative universe version of mediaeval Europe. I could stick in whichever gods I wanted because it was my world, thank you! And Celtic gods – the real ones – were pretty damned scary and this wasn’t a horror novel. That said, I did my research. The clothing, armour and culture are not unlike twelfth century western Europe, but with a lot more paganism. At one point, my editor said something about the armour being too heavy to do this or that and I said, “At this time it wouldn’t have been plate armour,” even though it wasn’t set in our own world! Oh, and I checked out what a world might be like with three moons. I couldn’t find everything I wanted, but a book on science fiction writing said, “When in doubt, be vague”. Just because it was fantasy didn’t mean I was happy to break ALL the laws of physics!

Did you read much other werewolf fiction while writing yours? If so, do you have any favourites?

I do have a favourite, which I read some years ago. It was Charles De Lint’s Wolf Moon, which may have been his first novel. In any case, it’s very different from his urban fantasy and his tales of Native American trickster spirits. It was about a werewolf who is being pursued by a bard-type with a harp – the sort of character who would normally be the hero, but is the villain in this one. It was the first story I read where the werewolf was the good guy, though there have been others since then. Of course, there are the werewolves in the Twilight series, but I’ve only read the first of those novels. I have read quite a few since I wrote the book, but I was busy doing research and didn’t want my book to look too much like anyone else’s.

George’s bit at the end

That’s it for this post, but tune in next time for the conclusion to this interview. In the meantime, check out this recent review of Wolfborn on Buzz Words Books.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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Wolfborn

Werewolves — humans that have been cursed to change into wolves whenever there is a full moon; they go around biting other humans, destined to pass on the curse. It’s been done countless times in books and films. While I was looking forward to reading Sue Bursztynski’s new YA werewolf novel, Wolfborn, because I like her writing, I was a little worried that the novel might be a case “same old, same old”. So it is with much delight that I can report that Sue has taken a fresh approach to whole werewolf mythology and written an enjoyable novel.

In the Kingdom of Armorique, a young knight-in-training, Etienne, encounters some werewolves and is soon embroiled in a story of betrayal, adventure and romance. Inspired by a medieval romance, Lai Le Bisclavret, it transposes the story from its original historical setting to a fantasy world. But it is a very familiar world, with many parallels to the historical. It’s an engrossing story with strong characters and a vivid setting. The tale is told in first person from the perspective of Etienne. The author does a terrific job of getting into the mind of this teenage boy. He feels real.

Pivotal to Wolfborn is the idea that there are two types of werewolves. The Loup Garou are humans who have made a deal with “the dark one” to gain the ability to change into wolf form. By the very nature of their transformation, Loup Garou are inclined towards evil. They are the werewolves that kill people and terrorise the countryside. Then there are the Bisclavret. Born with a dual nature, their ability to change into wolf form manifests itself when they reach puberty. Their ability is natural and there is no inherent evil in the process. Having two different types of werewolves makes for a really interesting dynamic. The Loup Garou have given werewolves as a whole, a bad rep, and there is much prejudice against anyone who can change into a wolf, with most people not recognising a difference between Loup Garou and Bisclavret. Being born a Bisclavret is a distinct disadvantage, and so many of these people choose to keep their heritage a secret, sneaking off into the night every so often to run through the forests as wolves.

What I love most about this novel, is its ability to defy expectations. Firstly in terms of what werewolves are, but also in terms of the actual story. I expected a coming of age story about a teenager trying to cope with his newfound ability to change into a wolf, with the whole werewolf transformation being an unsubtle metaphor for puberty. But that’s not what the story is. And I’m not going to tell you anything more about it, because I don’t want to spoil it. You’ll just have to take my word for it — that it’s a well-crafted, exciting and intriguing read that does very well in avoiding the werewolf clichés.

Has anyone out there read any good werewolf novels? Leave a comment and tell us about them.

And tune in next time for an interview with Sue Bursztynski. And yes, yes, I know… last post I promised videos. I’ve put them off for a couple of posts while I edit them. But they’re coming soon. Promise!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter… otherwise I may have to bite you.

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Blogging about blogging

In recent years, blogging has become the in thing. It seems that every man and has dog is getting in on it. People blog on a HUGE range of topics, from the intensely personal (often fitting into the “too much information” category, thus only able to be read whilst chanting “la-la-la-la” really loudly) through to public commentary. Seeing as Literary Clutter is a blog about books and writing, I thought I’d focus on author blogs.

There are lots of authors out there who blog regularly. Reading their blogs can be a great way to introduce yourself to their writing. Chances are, if you like their blog, you might like their books.

Authors blog for a variety of reasons. It can be a way of promoting themselves and their books. It can be a way of keeping themselves writing regularly, even when they are not working on a new book. It can be an outlet for opinions and a testing ground for ideas. And it can be a great way for them to interact with their readers. I asked a couple of author-bloggers to briefly tell us about their blogging.

First up we have Karen Tayleur, whose latest book is the YA novel Six. You can read her blog here.

Blogging is a way to hook into the writing universe in a way that you can’t do on Facebook. Unless your readers click a followers icon, you’re never sure who, if anyone, is listening. The best part of blogging is the interaction with your readers. I’m always surprised when someone in real life mentions reading the blog. I wish they’d leave a message online. I like to talk about writing and stories, although home life sometimes creeps in. It’s all grist for the mill. I like reading other writers blogs. It’s interesting to see what makes them tick.

Next up we have Sue Bursztynski. Her most recent non-fiction book is Crime Time, and her new YA fantasy novel, Wolfborn, is to be released by Woolshed Press in December. You can read her blog here.

My blog,The Great Raven, mostly reviews children’s and YA books. I started it because January Magazine, for which I review, is overflowing with material and doesn’t publish more than one review at a time per author, so can take a while to publish your stuff.

I don’t post as often as many other bloggers; I’d rather throw my energies into writing books than posts. But blogs are easier to update than other forms of web site if you’re not an expert, and they’re a great way to publicise.

My “followers” include two of my former editors, some friends, a bookseller and fellow writers. Some of them aren’t on my visible followers list, so it’s a wonderful surprise when they pop up with a comment now and then. When I announced proudly that I’d sold my first novel, to Random House/Woolshed, I got some very enthusiastic congratulations.

I like the immediacy of blogging – and it’s becoming, more and more, a mainstream form of writing and publishing.

Thanks you, Karen and Sue, for visiting Literary Clutter.

There are lots of author blogs out there that are worth reading. If you’ve got a favourite author, why not Google then and see if they write a blog? I read quite a lot of author blogs, some more regularly than others. Here’s a small selection of those:

If you know of any other good author blogs, leave a comment.

And tune in next time for some of my favourite book covers.

Cheers,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.

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