The first time I wrote about Betony was in 1990, in a short story called Betony’s Sunflower. That became the last chapter in my first book, The Willow Tree’s Daughter, which started as a collection of short stories. Allen & Unwin asked me to turn it into a novel, as almost all of the stories were about Betony as she grew up. I did that, and went on to write two other books set in Floramonde, Windrider and The Centre of Magic.
In The Willow Tree’s Daughter, Betony doesn’t know that her mother is a willow tree dryad, and the story arc of that book involved her finding out about that – and that she, therefore, was partly magic.
The Floramonde books went out of print (although two other books set in the same universe, Victor’s Quest and Victor’s Challenge, are still available). When I moved publishers to Walker Books, I gave them the Floramonde books in case they wanted to reprint them! Together, we decided to split the first book back into its original short stories, make them longer, and publish them as separate books.
However, as separate books, the long story arc about her mother didn’t work, so I changed it substantially. In this incarnation, Betony has always known about her mother’s background, and the stories involve her exploring this part of her heritage. Each of the stories is at least twice the length of the original short story. I think of it as ‘alternate universe Betony’ – two different versions of the same life, both ‘real’, each with their own flavour.
As for how she’s changed – well, the storytelling style in The Willow Tree’s Daughter was very fairy-tale-like. A kind of oral storytelling style. But times and writing fashions change (and I hope I’m a better writer now) so the style in the new books is much simpler and more active.
I think also, when I first wrote about Betony, the fashion in writing ‘adventure stories for girls’ was very much to denigrate ‘girlie’ things. I’ve grown a bit older and wiser and I think that you can have adventures and nice frocks, too! So one of the background themes of these Betony books is that you can go and have a great adventure in your overalls and boots, but when you come home, you can enjoy a nice frock and a delicious afternoon tea with your best friend in the second best afternoon tea room on the right of the palace entrance! In other words, you don’t have to turn yourself into a boy in order to be a strong girl. And I guess it’s also about a good relationship between a mother and a daughter, as Betony’s mother trusts her to go off on adventures and return safely.
You have written for both children and adults. When you begin writing a story do you have an audience in mind, or does the story guide you?
There have been stories where I thought I was writing a book for kids or young adults and found out I was writing one for adults – like The Black Dress, which was published as a YA book but which is overwhelmingly read by adults. I’ve never had one go the other way, though – that is, I’ve never started a book for adults and realised it was really for kids.
I teach at the Australian Writers’ Centre, and I tell my students: write the story first, and then figure out which age group it’s for. I try to follow my own advice!
What books did you read as a child? Do you write books now that you think you would have liked as a child?
I certainly try to write books I would have liked as a child – but my tastes haven’t changed all that much, because as a kid I read everything I could lay my hands on, from fairy tales to non-fiction to Shakespeare. I had basically read everything in my school library and everything in the children’s section of my local library by the time I was in Year 5. So ‘What books did you read as a child?’ isn’t a question I can answer easily. This is one of the classic signs you might have a writer on your hands – almost all of the writers I know were obsessive readers as children.
The news! I was watching the news after the Queensland floods of 2009, and it showed images of the water reaching Lake Eyre (now Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre) and mentioned the way the lake came back to life when the waters arrived. I’d heard about the lake before, but this inspired me to pitch the idea of a non-fiction picture book to Walker Books; and I went on a trip to the lake for research before I wrote the first draft.
I’ve always loved the Australian desert, and that trip confirmed my feelings about it. I couldn’t live in the bush, but I could so easily live in the desert. The animals and plants which survive in such tough conditions are amazing.
Liz Anelli has done a fantastic job recreating the feel of the area; the book is like having a portable art exhibition! I’m in awe of her talent and rather humble that it was my words which started her off on that artistic journey. Of course, she also went to the lake to research before she did the illustrations.
I took a lot of photos, not only of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, but of the desert surrounding it, and I’ve put some of them up on my Pinterest page: https://au.pinterest.com/hart0760/ Look at the boards Why I Love Australia and Australian Birds, as well as the Desert Lake board. These images are free to use for non-commercial use, and I’m very happy for kids to use them for projects.
I have lots more – so if any teachers would like more, I’m happy for them to contact me through the Contact Pamela page of my website.
How does your writing process differ when writing fiction and non-fiction?
I guess it’s backwards. With non-fiction, you have an overall idea and then you do the research, figure out a structure and write the individual pages. In Desert Lake, there was a ‘story’ to follow: the story of the lake being woken from sleep by the flood waters, going through the amazing explosion of life which followed, and then slowly going back to sleep as the waters dry up. In much non-fiction, this isn’t true – you have to find some way of organising the information in a way which makes sense to the reader – the story of the book, in other words.
So in non-fiction, you have the research and then have to find the story. In fiction, you start with the idea for the story, and then do the research you need to tell it.
Certainly, with the Betony books, the story ideas came first. Did I have to do research for those books? Of course! The country is called Floramonde, after all. And one of the main characters is Rosemary Cecily Marigold Angelica Primrose Lavender, the Chief Palace Gardener. I’m not a gardener – or, at least, I wasn’t when I started writing Betony. I know a little more now, because of all the research I’ve done! I’m really good at the botanical names of trees, because the dryads all have the Latin name for their tree. So Betony’s mother is Salixia, after Salix Alba, the white willow.