Interview: Simon French

Simon FrenchOne of the aspects of your books that seems to resonate most with readers is that tension between belonging and not belonging. I was really struck by the fact that you have these characters that are outsiders, yet most of them seem quite comfortable in this – like Bon [from Other Brother]. He’s excluded and outside the group, but he doesn’t seem to have this great desire to fit in or change himself; it’s not the usual type of conflict that we’ve come to expect in novels.

No, well I think that in part he’s a little oblivious to it. The clues are there that he’s had – well, not a dysfunctional background exclusively, but he’s a bit enigmatic. Even by the end of the book, Kieran is only just on the cusp of finding out where Bon has been and what he was doing when he wasn’t going to school. And the book sort of tracks Bon’s entry, or re-entry, into a social environment because at the outset, as Kieran says, it’s like he’s not used to talking to other kids. He’s got his own way of talking and it’s very precise…

Yes, it’s very courtly almost…

Yeah, yeah, so in a way Bon’s a little bit oblivious perhaps. And he just stays true to himself and he wins Kieran over really; Kieran just winds up realising that they’re more alike that he might have ever admitted, and also that Bon is not unlike the friend that Kieran has been missing, the friends that’s moved away. And in real life it’s a hard thing to do, to be different and yet be able to connect with other kids, other adults, and stay true to yourself. It’s much easier to… become part of the backdrop, try and be like everybody else.

There was a comment one of the character’s, Julia, made in Other Brother, and it was something like, if you do the right thing and you don’t give in, people will respect you for that – they will see you and like you and want to be Other Brotheryour friend. Is that something that you believe yourself?

I suppose I do, and I mean, assuming Julia’s character, I felt that would be something that she would say, you know? I mean, she felt empowered by Bon, she could see what sort of situation she was dealing with in his own family life when they first met, and of course, she was dealing with a very stressful situation too. I mean, she was at the point of thinking ‘I don’t want to do this anymore, this is too hard, being with my mother and knowing that I shouldn’t be’, and she could see how stoic he was in dealing with his mother, and so she connected with him and they just liked each other unconditionally. As Bon says towards the end of the book, ‘Julia was my first best friend, my first best friend was a girl’, and then leaves the next part unspoken. You know, Kieran’s just waiting for him to say something, so it’s almost ‘Ok, whose your second best friend?’ and Bon doesn’t say, he just smiles, and the inference is that the boys’ friendship has really cemented itself, it isn’t just the burden that Kieran found it to be in the early stages of the story.

One of the other themes that I thought was interesting – and I remember hearing you say previously that you don’t want to write overtly “theme-y” books, so without it being a theme that hammers you over the head or anything – one of the themes that I did like was the whole itinerancy idea and the fact that you’ve got someone whose an outsider coming in and seeing things with fresh eyes, and giving a sort of glimpse into a community that the reader shares – you don’t know it, they don’t know it… What attracts you about that sort of dynamic?

I love the idea of travel, I really enjoy packing a bag and driving or flying or catching a train, and while it’s certainly not something I’m able to do much at the moment, I just love that idea. And there’s certainly been books, movies that really captured my attention, my imagination; just that idea of arriving somewhere and leaving your mark, leaving an impression and then going somewhere else – and Trevor in Cannily, Cannily does that which I went back and read for the first time in 20 years a few months ago…

That would be a strange experience.

It was, and there were some thematic similarities between that and Other Brother that I had totally forgotten about, really – I mean, I still had in my head the very general overview of Cannily, Cannily, but to read the story right through… the themes of bullying say. In Cannily, Cannily it’s almost an institutionalised bullying; it seems to come from the adults down, whereas in Other Brother, the bullying is happening in the playground and it has the effect that it would have in the confines of a rural community, where these kids are going to have to put up with each other probably all the way through high school as well. It’s just that small community thing, but the adults in Other Brother are very decent people. They’re all very – not saintly, they’re just real people who care about their families and care about other people’s families too.

Kieran’s father for instance.

I tried to make him a more rounded character: you know, he works in the engineering shop in town and rides his bike to work and plays sport on the weekend, but he’s not a boofhead, that doesn’t make him a ‘blokey bloke’…

Change the LocksYes, he was quite nuanced – he could be one of the boys or he could be really sensitive.

Yeah, well like a lot of the characters I write, he’s based on an actual person, a father of some kids I used to teach. He’s also a tradie, and you know, to look at him at first glance you’d expect him to be very macho, and he’s not. He’s a plain-talking guy who loves his kids dearly and is actually quite a tender guy.

Would he recognise himself in the book?

Oh, he might. But I mean, the character happened without me really realising who I was writing about and then I thought, Oh, that’s a bit like Dave…

Do you base many of your characters on real people?

Mostly, yes. Sometimes exclusively, but more often they’re combinations of characters, combinations of kids. I can’t think of a particular child I would have based Kieran on. I used that sort of friendship triangle that I encountered when I was teaching at my previous school: three boys who were great friends, but two of them were particularly close and there were times when the third boy wasn’t part of things that the two were doing, you know, outings on weekends or sleepovers at each other’s houses and stuff like that. And the parents all knew, the parents were really good about it, but there was just nothing they could do; it was just sort of the way the friendship formed. So that aspect was what I thought about when I put Kieran and Bon and Julia together as a little friendship triangle and Kieran’s the one who wants more, but it’s not his for the taking. You know, he’s learning how to be a friend, and Bon is too, but Bon has his own ways of doing it.

Yeah, it’s almost like they’re learning different things about friendship: one’s learning the social graces and the other the heart…

Mmm.

I know we spoke about some themes before, and just to return to that: what are the things you would like to make people think about through your work, if your aim was to make people think, rather than be, say, entertained?

I guess the thing that is in every story is the nature of families, the diversity of families… the way friendships work, the value of accepting other people for their differences and the wonderful things that come with those differences. That’s probably the thing that runs through my stories, to varying degrees. I mean, the whole thing of Kieran having lost a friend, of the family just having took off. I mean, teachers have that from time to time: have a child just land on your doorstep and sometimes not stay very long. A few years ago I had a little girl in my year 1 class, Hailey, who was a real dynamo: she was very loud, very fast and very energetic, and then the family had to move. And I had most of her year 1 class in tears. I mean, they liked her, and they were really sad when it was her last day of school, and that sort of really stayed with me. It showed what sort of impression someone can make just by being themselves.

And is that Julia to some degree?

To a little degree, yes. I mean, in the story Julia just sort of blossoms in the school setting as well. She starts coming up with all these really fantastic ideas, you know – why can’t we have a campout and school and can we have an excursion to the beach? Why don’t the big kids have an adventure play area in the playground too? And you can see she’s bringing some really fresh things into what’s a very steady, familiar environment.

I wanted to ask about narrative voice, given that you’ve written books in both first and third person, and in All We Know, even alternated between first and third. Is there a particular voice you’re more comfortable with?

My first first person narrative was Change the Locks in 1991. If I was writing All We Know now I’d actually write it in first person. I’ve got the confidence and I think enough of the technique in hand to do it.

Do you find first person is a more difficult voice then, when you say you would write it ‘now’ in first person?

Ah, no – I’d have trouble writing third person now, certainly for a novel. I’m just so used to and so content with adopting the voice of the character. And it’s a challenge too, because some of the things that happen and some of the issues, the character doesn’t always understand like a reader might, so it’s a nice challenge to witness situations involving other kids, sometimes involving adults, that you don’t necessarily always understand or have power or control over, and I like that, yeah. I enjoy slipping into character a bit – when it works, it works really well. And of course, there’s also the challenge of being literate, but being true to the voice of the child. Sometimes I see an adult’s narration, and it doesn’t always work, it doesn’t always ring true – not that my writing is a model of child’s voice, necessarily…

But you do know kids, so it’s not imitating necessarily, it’s more understanding…

Yeah. And there is that challenge of having a literate narrative and not dumbing it down with lots of slang and what you think might be fashionable to the audience – those are the challenges I like about what I do.

Your teaching and your writing seem really closely intertwined: to what extent do you think you get your ideas from your work? And I know you were also a social welfare worker before you were teaching…

I taught for about four years and then I took leave to write a book and was offered part-time, which became full-time work at a children’s refuge in Sydney’s inner west. And I did that for four-and-a-half years, and that experience really informed the story behind Change the Locks.

Do you think you’d still be a children’s writer if you weren’t teaching, if you weren’t working with kids, say at school or in social welfare? Has that drawn you to children as an audience rather than say, adults?

Ummm…

Why are you a children’s writer is I guess what I’m asking.

Well, I was a child when I started writing stories. I mean, my first story was written in the back of school books in years 7 and year 8 at highschool.

What was that about?

It started as a diary of highschool life. I worked on it over a couple of years then put it away for months at a time and got it out again and was encouraged to polish it and finish it by a couple of my highschool teachers. And it turned into a third person narrative which I was happy with at the time, but I found it excruciatingly embarrassing to read again about twenty years ago.

But that was the one that got published, wasn’t it?

Yeah, it was published the week before I did my HSC… Yeah, you know I’d grown up reading books, and after a certain point when I was writing the first book, I could see what I thought was lacking in novels for Australian kids. The voices didn’t ring true for me, the voices were for the Australia of my parents’ growing years perhaps, and I thought there was a great virtue to capturing the way kids really talked and really conversed, so the first book was actually quite conversation-driven.

And there was that visual component of the conversation as well: that came from a lot of the kids I was at highschool with who weren’t into reading at all. They’d open a book and it was just a lot of text, whereas the conversation made it a bit more approachable, and I realised that at a certain point when I was drafting it. Because a lot of kids in my year 7 or 8 class – each time I typed a chapter up it would get passed around the class and read because they were all in the story. And I also realised that they enjoyed reading about themselves and they enjoyed reading about what life was like at a western suburbs highschool. So it gave me an increasing sense of purpose: where I started doing it simply for enjoyment, I started thinking maybe I can do something with this, it’s not just to please me, there might be an audience out there.

So when you’re writing now, are you subconsciously imagining the kids that you teach now hearing the story, sort of passing it around?

No, no. Since I’ve left highschool I’ve started writing in grand isolation. I like the peace and quiet part of writing. I like almost meditating my way into the heart of the story. If you leave it for days and weeks at a time as I have to, because I work full-time, it can take a little while to pick up on the voice and the thread of the writing again, so no, I really write by myself in that sense and I don’t circulate drafts far and wide. It might be Donna [Simon’s wife], who read an early draft of Other Brother. And a friend who’s a primary school teacher in the Hunter Valley took an early draft to read because he uses my books in the classroom, and I value his comments as far as how receptive the audience will be to the ideas and the styles and the characters. So no, I don’t distribute my drafts. I much prefer to work on them till they’re very close to the point where they need to be.

A lot of the settings of your books are quite rural, but you grew up in the western suburbs. Is that somewhere you feel drawn to spiritually – the more rural settings?

Well, although we were in the outer western suburbs, we were actually in quite a big block. We had a quarter acre block – there were several in a row on my street. There were several housing commission houses with much smaller settings, but I got used to the space at a young age. And from a young age we spent annual holidays up the north coast in my father’s home town which I loved from the outset. We still go there, and I always loved the proximity to the bush and the river and the beach. I had a lot more freedom up the north coast then I enjoyed as a child in the suburbs.

Do you have particular places in mind when you write your stories?

In Change the Locks, I used the Hartley Valley between Victoria and Lithgow. I had a friend there at the time. I like to have a very strong visual of my setting, even though I won’t name the setting necessarily. Other Brother’s setting is a town like Gundagi, which I particularly like – it’s a great little country town, and in the story it works well because it is halfway between two capital cities and does have a highway to the west.

What about the city in Change the Locks? Was that Sydney?

Yes, the city was very much Darlinghurst. I’ve got a friend who used to work at the old in the old double J studios in William St. We did a bit of a walk around where she worked and where she lived in the mid-70s and it was the right landscape, the right streetscape for that part of the story. So all I need is that visual landscape to work with, and I’m quite happy to describe it without naming the place. And sometimes I’ll compress landscapes and locations in texts.

In terms of what you read yourself, do you read children’s literature?

I try to, when time permits. I like to keep track of what’s being published, but it doesn’t get reviewed very often in the newspapers. Because I do teach kindergarten/year 1/year 2 children, a lot of what I might borrow from the local library or purchase, are picture books rather than novels. But I’ve got a couple of favourite writers and favourite titles that are books I’d quite happily go back and read more than once.

Such as…?

E.L. Konigsburg, an American author, who I first read when I was 10 or 11 in 1968. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler I remember reading then, and then years later I read Father’s Arcane Daughter by her, which is a fantastic little mystery. And Silent to the Bone is a more recent title. The protagonists are all children and E.L. Konigsburg writes in third person, but she’s a very engaging writer, you really get the voice and the feelings of the characters, her adult narration doesn’t get in the way, and I like that. And I loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I thought that was a very fine first person narration by a boy with Aspergers and I thought it was really, really beautifully done.

And now, because as you know it is the Year of Reading: how do you get kids excited about reading, whether it’s your own child or students?
Well, I like to bring books into the school setting. From a teaching point of view I’ll connect them to themes or things that just come up in general discussion. I’ll borrow from the local library a dozen picture books for the book corner, so there’s always a variety of books moving through the classroom. And the settings can really vary: very realistic artworks and stories to things that are totally fantastical – animals with voices. And I’ll make a point of reading them – and I do try to choose books that read well out loud too. I think that’s really important: to be able to read the story and bring it to life, not by sort of ham acting but by using language. And for the kids who don’t always come to school with good receptive and expressive language skills, I think that sort of thing brings a lot to them, hopefully.

When I run writing workshops, I’m always interested to hear what the children are reading as well. I work at a writers’ camp once a year in the Hawkesbury and I’m invited to schools as well, around Sydney and NSW, and that’s often one of the first questions I’ll ask: what do you enjoy reading, what genres are you really enjoying at the moment, what titles, and what are the titles that you’ve gone back to and read again? And then we lead into: OK why? What’s made you read that book more than once? And then we’ll start talking about style and characterisation and reading quickly first sometimes: when you’re reading a book you’re really enjoying, you’ll sometimes read quite quickly, you want to find out what will happen in the next chapter. And the second and third readings are a bit more measured: that’s when you start picking up the little nuances of plot and the techniques of writing that the author’s brought to the page …

But writing and reading, I don’t really step back and analyse it: it’s so much a part of what I do.