An Interview With Me For Shelf Awareness by Maureen Eppen

SHELF AWARENESS — NORMAN JORGENSEN

Norman IMG_1164Children’s author Norman Jorgensen has been writing stories since he was in primary school, and his latest story, The Smuggler’s Curse(Fremantle Press), details the rollicking adventures of young Red Read, whose mother “sells him to an infamous smuggler, plying his trade off the north-west coast of Australia in the closing days of the 19th century”. Norman’s first picture book, In Flanders Fields(with illustrations byBrian Harrison-Lever), set in World War One, tells of a homesick young soldier who risks his life to rescue a robin caught in the barbed wire of no man’s land. In Flanders Fields won the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year Award in 2003 — the first of many awards for Norman. He has since written a dozen books for children and young people.
Born in Broome, in Western Australia’s tropical north, he now lives in a 100-year-old house near Perth with his wife, and his collection of books and old movies. He loves to read, travel and take photographs, especially of castles, cathedrals, villages, battlefields, sailing ships and all the things that make history exciting.

Norman Jorgensen will be the guest author at Koorliny Arts Centre’s Stories on Stage on Wednesday, March 29, from 7pm. If his responses to my questions are any indication, it will be a lively and highly entertaining event.

Norman Scan.-The-Last-Viking-Returns-

Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. Chaos is probably the best description. My mind flits from one shiny thing to the next, looking for a distraction, and then, somehow, among all the mental noise and confusion, the faint ideas for stories appear. After the really enjoyable time writing the first draft and creating the characters, the plot and locations, the hard slog of reshaping and polishing the sentences into something hopefully readable takes over.
Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline? Norman The-Smugglers-Curse-1-780x1100.jpg
A. The Smuggler’s Curse was published in October, and is the story of young Red Read from Broome, who is sold by his mother to a sea captain in the dying days of the 19th century. Black Bowen, the captain, turns out to be an infamous smuggler plying his trade off the north-west coast of Australia and up to Singapore. From terrifying encounters with cut-throat pirates to battling the forces of nature in a tropical typhoon, to encounters with head-hunting guerrillas, and even being nearly hanged by colonial troops, Red is in for the adventure of a lifetime. As the newest member of the crew of The Black Dragon, a sleek, fully-armed clipper, he is forced to quickly grow just to even survive.
I have started the sequel to The Smuggler’s Curse. I had left the ending open for the next adventure, and my editor suggested I get on with it reasonably quickly so that any young fans of it will not grow too old before it comes out. I am also working on a non-fiction book called In Search of Constable Jack Kelly. Constable Jack was the half-brother of Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger. Unlike Ned, Jack had a glittering career as a world-famous circus performer who travelled the world and became rich and successful. For a couple of years, though, from 1906, he was based in Perth and had a job as a mounted policeman with the WA Police Force, before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and travelling throughout the USA.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)? Norman IMG_1149
A. Jan and I have a dining room lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, a spare room with more shelves and my writing studio has three walls lined with shelves as well. We both have been collecting books all our lives, cannot bear to throw books away, and even get upset seeing them mishandled or damaged in any way. I am in favour of capital punishment for people who mistreat books — or at least, public flogging, stocks, branding and medieval pillories for public abuse, attack and ridicule.
 Norman IMG_1174
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. The non-fiction books are in very rough order of subject, and the fiction is everywhere – anywhere I could find a space to squash them in. Even though Jan was a librarian most of her working life, she has resisted Dewey-ing them. I have a large collection of film history books that take up several metres of shelving. Other than that, I can never find the book I am looking for.

Q. What sorts of books predominate? (ie general fiction; specific genres such as romance, science fiction or historical fiction; non-fiction; reference books; short stories; novels; poetry; drama; children’s or young adult fiction; picture books, etc.)

A. All of the above. We have a great collection of kids’ books signed by the authors, having met loads of them at festivals and on book tours over the years. I also love historical fiction, especially 18th-century sea stories like those of CS Forester and his Hornblower series, Julian Stockwin’s Kydd series, Alexander Kent’s books featuring British naval hero, Captain Bolitho, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books. I like too the historical novels of CJ Sansom, like Dissolution and Lamentation, set in the times of King Henry VIII. They are so descriptive of Henry’s London that you feel grubby just reading them, and nervous that the king will come after you next — after he has finished chopping off the heads of those close to him. He was certainly keen on that.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. My favourite place of all is soaking in a hot bubble bath with water up to my eyes, soft music playing, and me lost in the story in some exotic location. The only downside of this is dosing off, dropping the book in the water and nearly drowning. And if you do that you deserve to drown. Having said that, I cannot sit anywhere alone without reading something, even if it is a newspaper, a 10-year-old magazine, a menu, street signs or even a Vegemite label.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I am reading ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire about him and his son visiting Istanbul, describing it now and writing about what the same place was like during its years when it was named Constantinople. Even being addicted to history as I am, I had little knowledge of the Byzantium Empire of Constantinople, so was surprised to find out about the huge numbers of mad emperors, unhinged queens and countless other crazies who lusted for power over the 2000 years of its turbulent history. I’ve almost finished it, and have been fascinated by every page. Why did I choose it? It was new, historical and I enjoy Richard’s interviews every day on ABC Radio. He is a clever, interesting bloke who shows plenty of care and kindness with his guests. I’m also re-reading an old 1980s adventure called High Citadel by Desmond Bagley, about a group of plane crash survivors sheltering in a mine in the Andes Mountains and under attack by Communist forces. I picked it up in a second-hand bookstore just for nostalgia’s sake as I remember enjoying it when it was first published during the Jurassic period.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. My favourite authors are Leslie Thomas and Tom Sharpe, both British  writers who generally wrote satirical comedy novels about ordinary people living suburban lives while mayhem surrounds them. When Leslie died in 2014 and Tom in 2013 I was shocked at how saddened I was each time, as if I had suddenly lost a part of me and a whole chunk of my early reading years. I didn’t know either of them, though I met Leslie Thomas briefly at a book signing after a talk he gave here in Perth. He answered ALL my questions then afterwards signed my book, “To my greatest fan, Norman”, and he wasn’t the least bit wrong.

I love the work of Bill Bryson and have read every word of his. We are much the same age, and his gentle sense of humour matches mine exactly. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, about him looking for the small town America of the old movies, is funny but also so sad as he slowly comes to realise that it has been lost and the towns have been devastated by enormous Walmarts, huge car parks, endless fast-food joints, closed factories, empty shops and despair. His most successful book, Notes From a Small Island, about him revisiting the places he went when backpacking around Britain in the 1970s, is a joy to read. He gave his humour free rein, and I loved it, as I did with all his other books. He has since written 20 more.

The first writer to keep me awake all night was John Steinbeck and his book The Pastures of Heaven. In his interwoven stories in this one, nothing much happens, but you become trapped in the lives of his characters and can’t stop reading until you find out what happens to their dreams and plans. After that, I read The Grapes of Wrath, and then all his others. I greatly admire his spare style. Most of all, though, I love how he treats ordinary people, giving them a voice and highlighting their suffering and the widespread unfairness of their situations, caused, usually not by their own fault, but by uncaring banks, greedy landlords, exploitative employers and even just sandstorms, bad weather and bad luck.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them

A. I’d save my signed Leslie Thomas book, The Dearest and the Best. After that, The Million Pound Bank Note, by Mark Twain, that my great grandfather, John Hansen Jorgensen, was reading when he was killed in a mining accident in Coolgardie in 1906. He signed his name in the front of it and, other than his wedding photo, it is the only keepsake I have of him. Finally, I’d save Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. That, along with RSL’s other pirate book, Kidnapped, was the inspiration for The Smugglers’ Curse. If I could have a fourth, it had better be The Coral Island, by RM Ballantyne, as I suspect that may be a major influence on the upcoming Smugglers’ sequel.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Winston Churchill, war correspondent, England’s First Sea Lord, wartime prime minister, Nobel Prize-winning author of more than 30 books, including The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and deeply flawed genius. I wouldn’t talk to Winston very much at all. I’d just sit and listen. Can you imagine what it would be like? The huge intellect, the voice, the history, and people he must have known over his long career. What would I serve him? Pol Roger, his favourite champagne, then his usual whisky, Johnny Walker Red Label, then, finally, Hine Brandy and a big fat cigar. I don’t imagine he’d be bothered with tea or sandwiches too much.

A fictional character I’d like to meet would be Captain Blood, the original swashbuckling pirate who was created by Rafael Sabatini in 1922. Actor Errol Flynn played him perfectly in the movie made in 1935 by Michael Curtiz and co-starring Olivia de Havilland. In fact, sharing afternoon tea with the three of them at the Admiral Benbow Inne, at Port Royal, Jamaica, would be so much fun. We’d have to be served up pewter goblets overflowing with Captain Morgan Rum, of course – arrr! And what would we talk about? In a pirate bar? In Jamaica? You wouldn’t be able to shut me up.
Then, like most people, I think I’d like to have afternoon tea with Atticus Finch, the hero ofTo Kill a Mockingbird. We’d discuss dignity, bravery, compassion and empathy, and all the other decent attributes that Harper Lee gave him in spades. We would discuss the Great Depression and Prohibition, which I find fascinating, and am intrigued at how those two elements led to an upsurge in socialism in America in the 1930s, as well as the appearance of the gangsters. And we could talk about Deep South racism, white poverty and the intolerance of the time. I think it would be a pleasant, warm afternoon chat on his verandah with Scout sitting and listening nearby. Oh, and I’m sure he would serve up Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and Filé Gumbo, all washed down with Mint Juleps or Moonshine. Perhaps we’d even drink some Tequila Mockingbird… For more from Norman, visit his website.

20 Questions from 'Write Note Reviews' by Monique Mulligan

  1. Your latest novel for children is The Smuggler’s Curse. Tell me a bit about it.

The story is set in 1896 and tells of a boy called  Red Read who lives at the Smuggler’s Curse tavern in Broome with his single mum. One day he discovers she has sold him as a cabin boy to a Captain Black Bowen, a notorious  smuggler, and before he can even believe it, he is whisked away on a sleek sailing ship to perilous adventures in Singapore, Sumatra and the South China Sea. Along the way, he is forced to grow up quickly in the rough and dangerous world of the smugglers especially when all hell breaks loose, with cannons and guns firing, cyclones at sea and facing murderous pirates and deadly head-hunters.

 

  1. What’s the feedback been like for this book? What do you think the attraction is for younger readers?

The feedback has been fabulous, and the half-dozen reviews have all been wonderful. I’m not sure of the reason, but maybe the old-fashioned plot and the relentless action. I tried not to leave room for the reader to get bored.  Boys, mostly that I have talked to have loved it, including one who said it was his favourite book, ever, in the entire universe.

 

  1. Do you prefer writing novels for children or picture books?

Even though the word count is horrendous, I think I actually prefer writing novels. Picture books are told using both words and pictures, so many of my original words have to be cut out as the pictures take over.  And that can hurt when you’d spent hours carefully choosing them. Also, most picture books are restricted to about 600 words, and that takes an awful lot of skill to get across a plot in such a small number. You have so much more freedom in a long novel.

 

  1. Do you have a favourite character in your books? Which one are you most like? (You can tell me.)

 I like Nell, Jack’s mum from Jack’s  Island. She is based directly on my beloved grandmother and in the book she is actually as she was in real life - no exaggeration necessary for dramatic purposes. Red, the hero from the Curse and my latest creation,  is a bit of a favourite too as I love how he grows from been a skinny little weakling afraid of everything into a fully-fledged, swashbuckling pirate.

 

  1. What draws you to writing stories for children rather than adults?

My family all think it is due to my arrested development. Even at Christmas, they sit me at the kids’ table.  Childhood was a  special time for me and was the time I developed my love of books and reading. The books of that time still influence me greatly when I’m writing.  For some reason too, every time I have an idea for a new book, it mysteriously seems to be for a children’s book. It is not a conscious choice

 

  1. What are some of the challenges children’s book writers face? Do you think children’s books harder to write than adult fiction? If so, why?

The biggest challenge is having to think like a child all the time and, unfortunately, or fortunately, it tends to rub off and become the new reality.  Another is the amount of time you get to actually write. Earning a living means that you have to accept every request for school or library talk or paying festival event, which takes you away from your writing desk for days at a time.  Royalties are small, and I get only $1.70 for each novel sold or $1.24 for a picture book, so unless a book is a huge bestseller, poverty is the biggest challenge.

I’ve tried writing adult novels, and that is a hard task as there are no restrictions on what you write, so you have too many choices, while kids’ books are more difficult in that they involve a lot of self-censorships and boundaries. Keeping to a consistent reading level and being aware that parents and teachers don’t want their children exposed to too much of the seedy side of life can be difficult. For instance, in reality, people swear a lot, and  I was writing about sailors, famous for it, so making their dialogue sound realistic without including any swearing proved bloody challenging.

 

  1. How do you start a new story?

I start with one word or a few notes on the closest bit of paper, usually an envelope or a napkin. Next, I’ll expand it in my trusty old notebook, the one I try and carry everywhere, but, of course, it is always somewhere else when I really need it.  I make as many notes as I can longhand and even try out a few sentence or chapter headings. Often too I will take loads of photographs of where the story is to be set, or trawl back through older photos that may have twigged the setting.  As a novel usually takes such a long time to write, in that time,  I will try and visit the places I'm going to write about. I believe you need to be on the ground, searching the landscape, breathing the smells, hearing the noises, watching the people and soaking up the atmosphere, so your story will sound authentic.

 

8. What have you learned about writing over the years? I am amazed at what appears on screen as I type. It is as if someone else is controlling my fingers. Images and scenes that have nothing to do with any of my experiences suddenly appear, and then characters I’ve just invented take control of their own lives, leaving me surprised and often dumbfounded at the things I do.
I’m also a peaceful, gentle sort of bloke, so the total mayhem and wholesale murder that appeared in The Smuggler shocked me. Where for the life of me did that all come from, I found myself asking over and over.

 

  1. What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?

Desert Rose is a YA novel set in the Coolgardie goldfields just after the pipeline arrived.

Dessert Island is about kids marooned on an island made entirely of sugar, lollies, chocolate and lemonade waterfalls.

In Search of Jack Kelly is a non-fiction book about the brother Ned Kelly who grew up to become circus performer and a policeman in the Western Australia police.

Mary Christmas is about a little girl who is accidently appointed the next real Santa when the current old man retires.

 

  1. Where did your desire to write spring from?

The desire came from my earliest years while I was reading Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven. I loved the series so much that I wanted to be a member of the gang, even though I lived 12,000 miles away and didn’t own a thick gabardine raincoat or a red Cub cap. I started writing little stories where I was the eighth member of the Secret Seven - it never occurred to me that seven was important to the title. The new eighth member, Norman,  turned out to be the real hero of the books and solved all the crimes and captured the wicked smugglers single-handed. I haven’t progressed very far in 55 years,  have I?

 

  1. What do you do when you're having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?

Every time I read something by one of the ‘greats’, I have a crisis of confidence, and then, luckily, I’ll read something really poor and think, maybe,  I’m not as bad as that. When I get stuck, I go and have a long, hot bubble bath. All my best ideas have come when I’ve been up to my eyes in steaming hot water.

When I get stuck, I just write any old drivel knowing that I’ll be back to edit it out before too long. I also try and kid myself that I am writing just to keep myself amused and not really for publication, so as to relieve the anxiety. Though, if that were really the case, I’d be bitterly disappointed.

 

  1. What’s your typical writing day like?

I sit in my studio in the back garden on an old armchair with a board across my knees, and a dozen sharpened pencils...  no, that’s Road Dahl.  I, Norman,  sit in my studio in the back garden in darkness with all the lights off, so there is just the screen and whatever is at the ends of my fingers and slam away at the Apple keyboard. I need one with big letters, like Apple’s,  as I can’t type very well. At school, I had a choice of  Woodwork or  Typing, and, like an idiot, didn’t choose Typing. I never really needed the skill until quite late in life, but now I live by it and could really use an increase in speed and accurayc.

 

  1. What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?

How much money we all earn. Most of us would be financially better off working at Maccas. True.  We have way more fun, though, so I shouldn’t complain too much.

 

  1. What has writing taught you about resilience?

It has taught me that at least I have some resilience. Bouncing back from rejection with your enthusiasm intact is hard, as is ignoring lukewarm reviews, but I keep doing it, just as I keep on writing.   Writing has also taught me patience, lots of patience. The book world moves at a snail's pace. I have grown old polishing manuscripts, waiting for publishing decisions, editing, waiting for production and distribution, for the royalties to be paid, Public Lending Rights payments to come, and everything else that takes so much longer than you’d like.

 

  1. When you write, what is your biggest weakness?

At present, it seems to be over-researching. I spend hours on Google finding obscure facts that are not worth the amount of time it took to search for. Just write the bloody book,  Norman!  My other weakness is I am easily distract...oh look, a shiny thing.

 

  1. What do you think about the phrase ‘write what you know’?

It’s a great start. Later on, you can research, travel and find out about things, people and places you want to write about. Even then, after a lot of research, you’ll still be writing about what you now know.

 

  1. Which authors / books do you admire the most?

Once, when I was still a teenager, I was reading John Steinbeck's Pastures of Heaven and didn’t realise until the sun came up that I had been reading all night, I was so engrossed.

 

 

I also love historical fiction, and I admire comedy writers.  Comedy is so hard to do well and is often underrated. Tom Sharpe, Leslie Thomas and Bill Bryson are all heroes of mine. There is also an editor from the 1920s and 30s called Maxwell Perkins. No one has heard of him, but he discovered and edited Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, William Fawkner and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who wrote The Yearling. 

 

  1. which book are you reading now?

Several at once. Richard Fidler's’ Ghost  Empire, a fascinating book about Constantinople and the Byzantium empire.

The latest Brotherbond by John Flanagan.

Lamentation by CJ Sansom,  a crime novel set in the time of King Henry VIII.

I just noticed writing this that they are all historically based.

 

  1. Which “must-read” book have you not yet read?

I’m not that hard on myself. I read enough of the books I've chosen not to need the latest dinner party flavour-of-the-week. Slap me if you want.

  1. Describe yourself as a writer in three words.

Storyteller, aged twelve.  (Tthe photo is me about 17.)