Celebrated Tasmanian children’s author Lian Tanner has done and lived through some amazing things. Tourist bus driver? Tick. Juggler? Tick. Teacher? Tick. Been accidentally dynamited while scuba diving in Papua New Guinea? Triple tick. I was lucky enough to have a chat to Lian about her hilarious and heart-warming new book, A Clue for Clara.
I’m always curious about the ways inspiration visits upon writers. My first question for Lian was therefore, how long had she had the idea for this book, and where did it come from? Lian told me that when she finished The Rogues, she was at a bit of a loss as to what to do next.
“I’d been writing trilogies… that was my thing. And I really loved the the form, I loved what you can do with it, the physical and the emotional journeys that you can take the characters on over three books. But they are such a massive time investment. You start one but it’s a good four years before you can look at doing something else.”
Lian says that while she was writing The Rogues she kept having other ideas for stories, but it was another three years before she could even look at them. “It was frustrating,” she says. “I thought it would be really nice to write a stand-alone book that I could add to if I wanted, but that was an entire story in its own right.” Lian’s books tend to come out automatically at around 60,000 words. “That’s the level of complexity,” she says. “That seems to be natural for me.” But Lian says she’d been thinking for a while about how that length can be intimidating for some children. “60,000 words is a big book for a lot of kids. It’s fine for confident readers, fine for kids who just want to dive into a book and disappear for a while, but for kids who aren’t sure of their reading, you want something smaller.” Lian’s publishers had been telling her how much they loved the way she writes animals, and suggested she write a story from an animals point-of-view. ”I adored writing the chook in The Rogues and, I don’t know where it came from, but this idea popped up of a chook who really wanted to become a detective. I started thinking more about it, but I couldn’t find the right voice, so I went back to another idea. There then came a point where I was feeling a bit frustrated with that idea, and this chook’s voice came into my head, and I wrote it down, and I just loved the voice so much I kept going.” And that’s how A Clue for Clara was born.
I asked Lian what her favourite part of the writing process is. She says:
“I like the sense of things falling into place. But what I find very frustrating about that initial stage is you can’t just sit down and do it. It’s not a matter of getting your bum on the seat and doing the hard work, because it’s so airy fairy….it’s looking for those strange bits that come out of nowhere. The writing itself can either be really fun or really frustrating, but I always enjoy the editing, and I think it’s because when you’re writing the first draft you’re discovering lots of stuff that wasn’t in the outline and that’s really fun, but there’s no real sense of shape in that writing, whereas once you start editing you get that lovely mixture of inspiration and craft. That’s the thing I love about writing. Editing brings those two things together so beautifully, because your intuition is listening for the shape of the story.”
“Editing is a feeling,” Lian says, “not a kind of, oh yes, my head says this this is where it should go. Editing is listening and thinking, this feels too slow here, something needs to happen there. Editing is my favourite part.”
I wondered whether Lian draws on her childhood more when writing for kids, or a combination of childhood and general life experiences?
“Both,” she says “But particularly my general life experiences.” Lian has drawn on some of these in very specific ways. Her series Sunkers Deep, for example, is set on a submarine. When Lian lived in Papua New Guinea in her twenties her friends took her scuba diving. She drew on that experience, but also on being dynamited during. “It was absolutely terrifying, I very nearly died! So I drew very strongly on the emotions of that experience, the sounds. But I also drew upon my visit to Chicago where the science museum has a WW2 German submarine in their basement. I went on a tour and as soon as I walked through the hatch I thought, I have to write a book set on a submarine. So it’s a mixture of things I’ve seen and done, experiences I’ve had, some stuff from my childhood. I think I go back to a lot of things that I was fascinated by as a child.”
I commented on the varied nature of Lian’s CV. Her response was to say that a lot of writer’s resume’s sound similar. “People who are going to end up writers, even if they don’t know it, tend to have these peripatetic lives… partly because nothing suits them, but also because they’re unconsciously picking up knowledge because they’re building up that greater well of experiences that you need to be able to draw on to write.”
I asked Lian what she thought was the biggest issue facing young people today.
“Too much input. There’s so much information coming at them all the time whether it’s news or the internet. Parent’s expectations are often high and anxiety levels amongst kids are very high these days. Kids are being sent into their heads too much, and they’re being separated from nature, which we are an essential part of and need for our mental health. I was an anxious child, and when I think of what it would have been like having the internet and social media on top of what was just my standard shy, anxious life, then I would have been a mess. Having said that I think social media can be brilliant. Because you’ve got really unhappy kids who can find an online tribe. You know, if you had a gay kid growing up in Ouse, years ago, they would have though they were the only gay kid in the world, but now they’ve got the ability to discover that they aren’t alone.”
I asked what Lian thinks is the best way to include messages in her books without sounding didactic. She says:
“I think particularly when you write for middle grade there’s a moral obligation to think about what you’re telling kids, the message that’s coming out of your book.” This first struck Lian when she was writing Museum of Thieves. She tells me that she’d spent several years working on it, and was nearly at the end when it struck her that here she was writing this book that glorified thieves. “I thought, is this what I believe? This can be interpreted in so many different ways and I need to tie this in with my morality. So with that book I did do it in a fairly didactic way, but it worked because I had a fairly didactic character in it… who was in a teaching position,” she says. “There’s a lovely speech where she says ‘I’m talking about stealing people from out under the boot of the oppressor, stealing important things that are about to be destroyed.’ That’s probably the most didactic that I’ve been. Usually I try and make it part of what the character learns, because the character has to go through an emotional journey and a journey of learning. The message becomes part of their growth. Sometimes it’s a big message and sometimes it’s a small message. The message in Clara’s story is you don’t have to be beautiful and popular to have friends. The big value in the chook yard is having beautiful glossy feathers and laying big beautiful eggs, and Clara can’t do any of that, so she’s going to go about it another way. She’s going to be a detective, she’s going to become famous, she’s going to have her own tv show, and then the other chooks will love her. That’s her premise,” Lian says.
One my favourite questions to ask authors is what books have inspired them?
“Rudyard Kiplings Jungle Book was a really major part of my childhood.” Lian says she also loved Violet Needham, an early 20th century author. “She’s out-of-print now, but she wrote these children’s books that were wildly adventurous, set in an invented European country full of lost princesses and midnight gallops across country in a horse and coach being chased by assassins. I absolutely adored them and I think they had a really strong influence on the sort of adventure that I like writing.”
Lian then tells me she discovered the Narnia books in early high school. “I loved them to bits and still do,” she says. But the book that propelled her into writing for children was Morris Gleitzman’s, Blabbermouth. “I read it and I thought, I could write something like this. It really inspired me. That was the book that made me sit down and actually set out to write a book. On top of that there’s every book I’ve ever read, but those are some of the most important ones.”
TasWriters thanks Lian for taking the time to sit down and answer our questions.