Books

The children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky says books can be like cats, sitting at the back of your mind demanding your attention. By Kate Holden.

Ursula Dubosarsky

Acclaimed children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky’s writing desk.
Credit: Ursula Dubosarsky

One of the greats of Australian children’s literature, Ursula Dubosarsky showed early creative licence when she changed her first name after reading D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Her family was full of writers. She produced her first work at six, and wrote stories through school and university, where she studied several languages including Latin and Old Icelandic. Her first published novel, Ziggy Zing, was written while working in the public service in Canberra, and a picture book made for her baby daughter came out in 1990. Since then she has written dozens of books for all ages of children, collaborating with illustrators such as Ron Brooks, Terry Denton and Tohby Riddle.

Dubosarsky has won every major children’s literature prize in Australia – including the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award more times than any other writer in the prize’s history. She has also been nominated for prestigious awards internationally, including the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (nine times) and the IBBY Honour List.

She is the Australian Children’s Laureate for 202o-21, and lives in Sydney.

 

Thank you for making the time.

Thank you for asking to speak to me. It’s a pleasure for me.

I’m not interrupting great thoughts?

No. I’m an old lady now, but when I was a mother it was so hard to get the writing time, it made you extremely tense and protective of those minutes. Now I’m a bit of a slob about time. 

When you have children you might be with them, but in your mind you’re alone. And you’re sort of out of the world. You’re in this kind of nest, and it’s a very creative nest in a way, with its own silent mystery.

What are you working on now?

I know I want to write another novel and I have written bits of a beginning … I might even have written several thousand words. But in this improvisatory way that I write, this period of the novel writing is a bit hard. I’ve written a kind of group of books – not about the same characters, it’s not a series – all set in Sydney, so I suppose this last one is my own childhood, in the 1970s. Maybe it’s harder to get into that freer mind-space when it’s about yourself.

I guess it’s like trying to find one thread among the big mass of confusion in the sewing box. You’re pulling it out, and getting stuck, abandoning that one and picking up another colour and pulling again… And it’s not like when I pull the thread out it’s all plain sailing from there and off I go! The tugging continues for the whole process. And after it’s published you realise there are bits you didn’t tug hard enough at. But at this point you don’t even really know what colour scheme it is. In terms of nerve it’s probably the most nerve-racking phase, isn’t it? You want to write it, and you sort of know you can, but you’re still tugging at everything. So it requires nerve, and just sticking at it: stamina.

Isabel Allende advises us to just turn up. Keep turning up.

I haven’t worked on this book for a while, but it’s sitting there in the back of my mind, worrying at me. Like a cat – the way they just sit there and wave their tail looking mournful and unimpressed: “You need to pay me some attention.”

And what’s the other, the picture book you’re onto?

It’s called Mary and Marcus. And I have a book coming out in two weeks, called The March of the Ants, illustrated by Tohby Riddle, and it’s a story about some little ants on an expedition, and one of them wants to bring her book. It’s one of those books that’s almost like a poem: it either works or it doesn’t, and that one came out in a peaceful way. It began as a story to read aloud to children at the ceremony where I was announced as the Australian Children’s Laureate.

Was it easier to write children’s literature when you were spending time in that child space?

I’m not really sure; when I started writing children’s novels I didn’t have children. But when you have young children then you’re wandering through the library picking up books, you’re exposed to something you’d forgotten. You start getting ideas. And you’re wanting to communicate with your own children and it makes you think more on what that act of creative communication is.

You’ve been writing for such a long time. You’ve made over 60 books!

It’s 60 books and there’s probably a dozen novels, but they’re shortish novels. It’s perhaps more like being a poet: a poet, over 25 years, will have written hundreds of poems. That’s not to say they didn’t each require all the reaches of their concentration, but it’s a different project to a long novel. I was saying to a friend, isn’t it strange how all my novels end up being about 30,000 words? And she pointed out that’s probably the cognitive limit of somebody’s brain if you’re not going to plan it. If you want to write something of 80,000 words, you can’t just feel your way, you have to think a bit harder. Whereas I tend to write the novels in much the same way I write the shorter books. A more improvisational writing, I suppose. With masses of rewriting: I’m not just churning out my various impressions; but you’re never sure what you’re going to write that day.

Some people have a narrative voice in their head – just in normal life – and some don’t. When you’re working are you a vessel? A conduit? Are you the typist?

It always sounds slightly ridiculous when writers say that, but that is the sensation: of not quite being in control. It’s all coming out of you, but you don’t feel you’re making conscious decisions. It’s like dreaming.

Susan Sontag said writing is like following and leading, both and at the same time.

Yes… In a sense it’s not quite like dreaming: you can’t fully get rid of the leader. You do need somebody a little bit ahead of you in the dark with a lantern swinging.

So with all your practice are you able to just plonk down and enter that right-brain, intuitive place?

For whatever reason that’s been one of the easier things for me to do. You know as a child when you make up imaginative games in your head and it’s very easy, to sit in the bath with toys and tell a story. It’s not as completely natural now as it was, but I’m generally confident that if I give myself the time and the space something will be produced at the end. That’s doesn’t mean that every time I sit down I’m at all satisfied with what I write. I find it an effort. I find it draining. After two hours you look at yourself in the mirror and you’re haggard, empty.

Congratulations on being the laureate, it sounds grand. Do you have to bustle off and do a lot of things?

Yes, it’s been hectic, but it’s only for two years. My view was I wouldn’t be writing while I was doing this. I thought I must throw myself into the public aspect of it, and couldn’t see how I could combine the two. So that’s what I’m doing for the two years, and my main thing is getting children into libraries. But I’ve been doing little bits of writing, and tugging at the strings. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Ursula Dubosarsky".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.