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INTERVIEW: Nick Earls, author of 'Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary'

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I really loved Nick's most recent book - his first for children - which is called 'Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary', and is the first in an action-packed, timeslip adventure about twins who whirled back in tiem in order to save certain key words from extinction. My review of 'The Curious Dictionary' can be read here, while below Nick answers a few questions about the writing of this book:


Are you a daydreamer too?
Yes. It’s sometimes sounded like a romantic term to me, like someone gazing at clouds and thinking in elegant couplets, but my mind is often away somewhere, so that’s a yes. I can’t help picking up small ideas and following their drift, but I guess that’s one of the things that lets me do this job. It’s a wandering mind that finds things it otherwise wouldn’t. It can be irritating for the people around me who, if they didn’t know me better, might think I’m not paying attention to real life.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Yes. I’ve told stories since I was four and wanted to be a writer since I worked out that the person whose name was on the book got money for it.
How did you get the first flash of inspiration for this book?
I’d been interested in etymology for a long time, but didn’t think I’d have a way in to writing about it. Every ABC radio station has its etymology pro, and I wasn’t planning to turn pro. The idea of using stages in the evolution of a word as stepping stones for an adventure story occurred to me one day in a park with my son in late 2010. We were on our way back to the car. I went home, made some notes, got online and hunted down the histories of some words. That made the idea look even better, though I knew it’d surprise people if I said I was going to write something like that. For weeks I told no one, and then I accepted that the idea wasn’t going away. I talked to Terry Whidborne and, with him on board, I put the idea to my agent.
How extensively do you plan your novels?
Extensively. Each pile of ideas grows over a couple of years or more before I give it serious attention and put together my outline. The outline tends to be around 1/4 of the length of the novel, with fragments of conversations, a lot of detail and quite an understanding of the characters already in place before I’m ready to write. I realise some people do it very differently ...
Do you ever use dreams as a source of inspiration?
I’ll use anything that won’t cause anyone any harm. I’d be happy if more of my dreams turned out to be useful. Unfortunately they usually don’t.
Where do you write, and when?
I write in a purpose-built shed in my backyard, 10m from my house. It’s the ideal arrangement for keeping work and life separate but minimising the commute.
What is your favourite part of writing?
I love a new idea and I love playing with ideas and working out what I might get out of them. I also love finishing. It’s that big slab of toil in between the ideas and the finishing that seems to make up most of the job though. The other part I particularly like is when someone reads a book of mine and gets it. They’re written to be read, after all, so it’s great to hear when one of them’s worked.
What do you do when you get blocked?
Because of all that planning, that doesn’t seem to happen often (now I’ve said that I’m afraid I’ve jinxed it). I always have ideas waiting ahead of me in the outline, and any new ones that come along once I’ve started are a bonus. That doesn’t mean every day’s a breeze – far from it. I often used to hit a sludgy patch maybe 20,000 words in and think that particular book would be the one that would bring me down, but each time I got through and the final version of the book didn’t have a sludgy patch there after all. Maybe, as well as loading my outline with detail, I’m also better now at giving myself permission to make a first draft a first draft.
How do you keep your well of inspiration full?
In the early 90s I worked out how to drill it a bit deeper. I got better at noticing and not losing small ideas, and I worked out that sitting around waiting for novel-sized ideas didn’t have to be what novel writing was about. My problem tends to be that I have more ideas than I can manage to write.
Do you have any rituals that help you to write?
The main thing I do is try to block distractions – no music, a blank wall in front of me and I try to persuade myself to stop checking email, tweeting, etc. The last one of those has become the hardest.
Who are ten of your favourite writers?
Richard Ford, Wells Tower, Michael Redhill, Tara June Winch, Melissa Bank, Michael Chabon, Andrew Bovell, Aaron Sorkin, Alice Munro. I’m going to stop there. I know I’ve missed plenty of people I’d like to include, but this way I can convince myself each of them might have ended up with the last spot.

What do you consider to be good writing? 
Writing that does its job without ever looking like writing.
What is your advice for someone dreaming of being a writer too?
It’s not a rational career choice. I’ve made one of those before, when I did a medical degree, so I know what they look like – the odds of long-term employment are much better. Writing is a job for people who can’t stop themselves. Who have a compulsion to do it – to take the next idea and turn it into something.

If people can’t stop themselves, they should read and think and work on their craft. Work our what works and make more of it. Work out what doesn’t and find something that does. Find the voice the story needs and use it. Show restraint. Show, don’t tell. Try to write without leaving any fingerprints.

There’s nothing revolutionary there, but it took me years to learn it rather than just hearing it.
What are you working on now?
 Word Hunters 3. Nearly at the end of draft one.

What began your own personal fascination with words and their history?
I can’t say that one thing did it. I’ve always been into stories, and fascinated by history and the way things work. Etymology feels like the place where all of that overlaps. But I’ve kept quiet about it because other people have actually studied in the area and made themselves experts.
What was the most difficult challenge for you, writing a novel for this age group for the first time?
Getting out of my head the idea that it was a radically different thing and one that I wasn’t equipped to do, and getting back into my head some of the things I’ve learned over the previous 15 books. It is different writing for this age group, but sometimes I freaked myself out by over-emphasising the differences. It worked better when I told myself to create and connect with my characters and tell their story. That at least got me started. I also wanted to make sure I worked with editors who really knew this area and who I trusted (Kristina Schulz and Mark Mcleod). I’ve tried to learn a lot from them, and there’s been quite a lot to learn. This is just about the only time I’ve sold a book (in fact a series) based on a pitch, and that’s the reason – I wanted editorial input from the start, to get me on the right track and keep me on it.
I love time travel stories! Did you love them when you were a kid? If so, what are some of your favourites?
I did. I loved stories that took characters not a million miles from me into an alternative reality, whether it was through the back or a wardrobe or into a different time. I’d secretly harbour the hope that my turn would come. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen was definitely one of those books. Wikipedia tells me it was volume one of a trilogy and came out in 1960. Volume three is due out soon. I don’t think UQP will be prepared to wait 52 years, so Terry and l will be aiming to keep the Word Hunters momentum going until we cross the line.

Will you keep on writing for this age group?
If the right idea comes along I probably won’t be able to stop it.


BOOK REVIEW: 'Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary' by Nick Earls

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Title: Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary

Author: Nick Earls

Publisher: UQP

Genre: Children’s Fantasy


The Blurb:

Lexi and Al Hunter are twins with almost nothing in common – except their parents and their birthday! At school Lexi hangs with her friends, while Al hides in the library reading about history, battles and faraway places.

When the twins stumble upon an old dictionary, the world as they know it changes. They are blasted into history to hunt down words that threaten to vanish from our past and our present. Their lives and the future of the world are at stake. Can they find a way back home? Or will they be trapped in the past? For once, they’ll need to depend on each other if they want to survive


What I Liked About This Book:

I really loved this book. It’s fresh, funny, a little quirky, and is bound together by a true passion for words and their importance. Nick Earls is best known for writing humorous popular fiction for adults, many of them set in his home town of Brisbane. He has also written for young adults, winning a Children’s Book Council Award in 2000 for 48 Shades of Brown, which was made into a movie called 48 Shades.

This is, however, his first foray into children’s literature. Since 'The Curious Dictionary' is the first in the Word Hunters series, it’s obviously not going to be his last. I’m very glad, because the genre really suits Nick’s writing. 'The Curious Dictionary' is quick-paced, and the characters are sharply drawn and very likeable. And you all know how much I love a good time travel story! This book really reminded me of a few old, old favourites – Rudyard Kipling’s Pook of Puck Hill, E. Nesbit’s The House of Arden, and Nicholas Stuart Grey’s The Apple-Stone. In each of those books, ‘modern-day’ children are taken back in time to various different historical eras, where they experience a short vignette that illuminates a momentous event in history, without once veering into preachiness.

What I most loved about this book, though, is that it is full of big ideas. Fantasy needs big ideas if it’s going to work at its optimum best. So many people think they can toss off a quick fantasy adventure to tap into the genre’s massive fan base, but a good fantasy novel is one that is heartfelt and full of deep thinking. Nick Earls has managed this brilliantly. Here’s a quote to show what I mean:

“(Caractatus) explained that, while some words fade out of use naturally, living words might be lost from the language if not pinned down by word hunters … ‘That mightn’t seem like much’ he said, ‘but you haven’t lived through the 5th century. I’ve seen languages lost. I know it can happen, and I know what’s at stake when it does … Writing, reading – they can be crucial  ...think about your country … think about your time. If only a thousand people could read and you weren’t two of them … what would you know? … which of your fancy machines would help you? Which of them could you work out how to use? … Language is fragile … if too many words are lost, the Dark Ages will come back. And look at it … mud inside, mud outside, and I live with pigs.’


What I Didn’t Like About This Book:

I would have liked a little longer spent in each different historical period, too get to know it just a little better. For example, the twins Lexi and Al go back in time to the moment in which Thomas Edison decides to use the word ‘hello’ when answering the new invention of the telephone, rather than ‘ahoy’ as Alexander Bell wished. So fascinating to learn this - something I didn’t know! But Al and Lexi are whisked away to their next adventure before they got to meet Mr Edison. I’d have so liked to have seen him as a character in a children’s book, and to know just a little more about him and his invention!

Saying that, however, the book’s hectic pace is part of the book’s charm and is probably perfectly matched to its readership – and a novel should never be az history lesson.

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