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INTERVIEW: Michelle Cooper, author of 'The Montmaray Journals'

Friday, June 07, 2013

Today I interview one of Australia's most talented writers for young adults, Michelle Cooper, the author of the charming trilogy known as 'The Montmaray Journals'. 

Michelle was born in Sydney, Australia but went to school in Fiji and rural New South Wales. She worked as a speech and language pathologist for fifteen years. 

Her second novel, A Brief History of Montmaray, was awarded the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People's Literature in the NSW Premier's Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Gold Inky, Australia's teenage choice book award. In America, where it published by Alfred A. Knopf Books , it was named in the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults list. 

The FitzOsbornes in Exile, the second book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, was shortlisted for the Ethel Turner Prize  and the Western Australian Premier's Young Adult Book Award, longlisted for the Gold Inky Teenage Choice Award, and named a Notable Book for Older Readers by the Children's Book Council of Australia. In the US, it was listed in the Best Teen Books of 2011 by Kirkus Reviews and in the American Library Association's 2012 Best Fiction for Young Adults.

The FitzOsbornes at War, the final book in The Montmaray Journals trilogy, was published in Australia and New Zealand in April 2012 and in North America in October 2012

Here Michelle is kind enough to answer my usual questions: 

Are you a daydreamer too?

Of course! At school, I’d finish assigned tasks as quickly as possible, so that I could spend the rest of the lesson gazing out the window and making up stories in my head. (I was an inconspicuous child, so teachers didn’t usually notice what I was doing.) I still drift off into imagined worlds when I’m doing tedious chores like grocery shopping or cleaning the bathroom, although now I call it ‘planning a new book’ rather than ‘daydreaming’.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Almost always – ever since I realised that the books I loved reading had actually been created by a person called an ‘author’. I dreamed that one day I’d have a book of my own published, although I didn’t truly believe that would ever happen. Except now it has! I feel very fortunate.

Tell me a little about yourself – where were you born, where do you live,
what do you like to do?

I was born in Sydney, but my family moved to Fiji when I was young, and after that we lived in various Australian country towns. I changed schools frequently and often felt lonely and unhappy, so I escaped into the world of books. It all worked out well in the end, though, because if I hadn’t been an avid reader then, I wouldn’t have grown up to be a writer. I live in the inner west of Sydney now and I still love reading books.

How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?

The first book in the Montmaray Journals trilogy, ‘A Brief History of Montmaray’, began with a picture that appeared in my mind of a teenage girl sitting on the wall of a castle, writing in her diary. I decided she was an impoverished princess and suddenly all sorts of other characters – pirates, ghosts, aviators, sea monsters, Nazis on a quest to find the Holy Grail –started clamouring to join her story. 

The following books, ‘The FitzOsbornes in Exile’ and ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, were inspired to a large extent by real historical events – the political turmoil of 1930s Europe, and then the cataclysm of the Second World War.

How extensively do you plan your novels?

I had to do a lot of planning for the Montmaray books, because I wanted my fictional characters to witness actual historical events and interact with real people from the time. For ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’, I spent about eight months researching life in wartime Europe and thinking about the roles my characters would play, then trying to fit all of this information into a cohesive, compelling narrative.

Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?

I’ve noticed that since I started writing novels, my dreams have tended to follow a standard narrative structure, with an initial complication, escalating tension and some sort of resolution. Sometimes, even deep within a nightmare, my dream self will think, ‘This would make a great book! I just need to think of a happier ending!’ I did recently write a short story based on a dream I had, but it’s a very weird story so I haven’t let anyone read it yet.

Did you make any astonishing serendipitous discoveries while writing this book?

Yes, I uncovered some intriguing stories about the Second World War while doing research for ‘The FitzOsbornes at War’. For instance, I already knew that the Duke of Windsor, who gave up the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, had Fascist sympathies. However, I was fascinated to learn of a Nazi plot to lure him into Fascist Spain, where he could ‘hold himself in readiness’ until the Nazis conquered Britain. The idea was that the Duke would then resume the throne as Hitler’s puppet king and appoint a suitably Fascist Prime Minister, such as Oswald Mosley. 

That same year, there was a spy scandal at the American Embassy, involving a glamorous White Russian with links to Wallis Simpson, an American cypher clerk and a virulently anti-Semitic British MP. This was all rather embarrassing for the American Ambassador, Joseph Kennedy (yes, one of those Kennedys), who’d had no idea that top-secret communications from President Roosevelt were being stolen from the Embassy and handed over to the Nazis. This wasn’t very serendipitous for Mr Kennedy (or the Duke of Windsor or Oswald Mosley), but it was very helpful for my plot.

Where do you write, and when?

I write at my desktop computer, in a cramped corner of my bedroom, with my research notes spread out on the bed behind me. As for when I write, I’d like to pretend I work from nine to five, with a brief break for lunch, with absolutely no messing about and wasting time on the internet. I don’t think anyone would believe me if I said that, though.

What is your favourite part of writing?

The times when I’m completely engrossed in the story – when I’m chortling at the funny dialogue, or sniffling because my narrator’s feeling sad, when I glance over at the clock and realise I’ve been caught up in my invented world for hours. I also love the part when the writing is done and the book is out in the world. I’ve had such lovely emails from readers and read some wonderful reviews. It’s such a thrill to realise the characters in my head have escaped and set up camp in other people’s heads.

What do you do when you get blocked?

Fall into a pit of despair. Become convinced I will never finish writing this book. Moan about this to my friends, who remind me that I said exactly the same thing when I was writing my previous book. If a publishing deadline is looming, I usually manage to climb out of my Despair Pit fairly quickly and get back to work.

How do you keep your well of inspiration full?

I’m inspired by lots of things in real life – reading newspapers, eavesdropping on conversations at the bus stop, looking at old buildings or at ancient artefacts in museums and wondering about their histories. I’m also inspired by reading books, fiction and non-fiction. I don’t tend to find myself at a loss for new ideas – the difficulty is working out which of these many ideas can be turned into a viable story. 

Do you have any rituals that help you to write?

No, unfortunately I don’t. Do you know any effective ones?

Who are ten of your favourite writers?

Anne Tyler, Sumner Locke Elliott, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Stella Gibbons, Zoë Heller, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Rumer Godden, Peter Cameron . . . Wait, I can only choose ten? This is so unfair!

(I love Rumer Godden too, particularly The Greengage Summer)

What do you consider to be good writing?

I like reading about characters who have something interesting to say, who act in plausible but unexpected ways, who make me want to follow them on their journey – whatever form that might take – because I absolutely need to know what will happen to them. It’s more difficult to describe ‘good writing’ at paragraph, sentence and word level, because it depends so much on the narrator’s voice and what the author is trying to achieve. Sometimes ‘good writing’ is beautifully ornate, and sometimes it’s stark and confronting. But if I keep getting thrown out of the story because I’m constantly questioning the author’s word choices or sentence structures, then I tend to classify that as ‘bad writing’.

What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?

Anyone can be a writer. All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper (or a computer, if you want to get all hi-tech about it) and a burning desire to turn your ideas into words. Being a published writer is more difficult, especially if you want to be published by a large traditional publishing company, but there are lots of self-publishing options these days. My advice to aspiring authors is to read as widely and thoughtfully as possible; to write about what fascinates you, rather than what you think will sell; and to be willing to accept editorial advice and write draft after draft until you get it right. Be persistent and stubborn, but don’t forget to take pleasure in the process of writing. Your finished manuscript probably won’t make you rich or famous, but there are other, less tangible, rewards for writers.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing a novel for teenagers about science and history, set in Sydney. My last novel had a lot of sad bits in it, so this one is full of jokes.

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