- Where and when were you born?
I was born in Melbourne, Victoria in Australia on 21 November, 1960.
That makes me a Scorpio, born in the Chinese astrological year of the Rat. I don’t really believe in astrology but I like the idea of having such scary and smart creatures as my birth signs.
- Where do you get your ideas?
If you look out into the world around you, you’ll find there are a million fantastic stories waiting to be told. Each and every person I meet can provide me with inspiration for a new story.
Coming up with an idea for a story can be as simple as looking into the face of the person sitting next to you and imagining what it would be like to be them.
- Where did you go to school?
I attended Brighton Beach Primary School in Melbourne. Back then it was an old redbrick building with a huge playground and a big peppercorn tree beside the football field.
Later, I went to Brighton High School for a few years. In Year 9, I had an amazing English teacher called Mr Civaligia and he encouraged me to think about books and writing in new ways.
My family moved to Toronto, Canada when I was fifteen. In Toronto, I attended Humberside Collegiate Institute. I was on the Student Council, worked on the school yearbook and scored a role in the school musical. I graduated in 1978.
I didn’t go to university when I finished high school because I was keen to go travelling but in the 1990s I studied at RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) to gain a Diploma of Professional Writing and Editing.
- What were you like when you were growing up?
I was the middle child in a family of seven kids. I have four sisters and two brothers who are now all grown-ups with children and grandchildren of their own. It was great growing up in such a big family because it meant there was always something exciting happening. It also meant that I could get up to a bit of mischief now and then without anyone noticing. I loved climbing trees and going on adventures around my neighbourhood, which was close to the beach.
My father was an artist who had a studio in our back garden where he made sculptures. My mother was very busy looking after all us kids but she still always found time to read and taught us to love books. I loved to read and visit the library from when I was very little. I could never get my hands on enough books.
- What did you do before you were a writer?
I had lots of different jobs before I became a full-time writer. My first job when I was a teenager was in a bookshop called The Book Barrel in Toronto, Canada. When I left high school, I worked in offices, restaurants, bars and anywhere else I could find work while I travelled. Because my family had always worked in the arts, I often found work in art schools and in artists’ studios. I even worked for a dolls’ house maker, helping him finish the tiny furnishings that went inside the dolls’ houses.
One of the most interesting jobs that I had which shaped me as a writer was working at the University of Melbourne Archives. Helping archivists and historians with their work helped me understand the importance of research.
The most important job I had before I started writing professionally was parenting my children and later my stepchildren. They taught me the importance of books for young people and inspired me to write brave and complex characters.
- When did you write your first book?
When I was in primary school I wrote a very bad version of an Enid Blyton story about five children finding a secret cave in the bush. One of my sisters did some drawings for it and I stapled its binding to make it look like a proper book. It was very badly written. I wrote several books that I never shared with anyone before I began having my work published. My first three published books were non-fiction. My first novel was published in 1999 – Zarconi’s Magic Flying Fish.
- Have any of your books won awards or prizes?
For a full list of awards and commendations click here.
- What were your favorite books when you were a kid?
I could probably list a hundred different books that I loved when I was a kid. There wasn’t really one book that was my most favourite. If I discovered a book I enjoyed, I liked to read everything else I could find by the same author.
Some of my favourite authors from when I was growing up included E. Nesbit and Lewis Carroll for fantasy, Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling for adventure, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Esther Forbes for historical fiction, Astrid Lindgren and H.J. Kaeser for their spunky characters, and Alan Marshall, Hesba Brinsmead and Ethel Turner for Australian adventure.
I wish there had been more Australian children’s books around when I was a kid. I also enjoyed reading authors like Colin Thiele, Ivan Southall and Nan Chauncy but there weren’t as many Australian children’s books available when I was growing up as there are now. I still read stacks of children’s as well as adult books and am always on the lookout for new authors.
- What's your family like?
I am married to a fantastic man named Ken Harper. Ken is a puppeteer and performs his puppet shows all over Australia. We have six children between us. They are called Ruby, Billy and Elwyn Murray and Isobel, Romanie and Theo Harper. They are all grown-up now and are starting families of their own. All the Harpers and the Murrays love to read but, so far, only Ruby is a writer as well. Ruby’s first novel, Running Dogs, is a political thriller set in Jakarta.
- Has your family always lived in Australia?
I am the fifth generation of my family to be born in Australia and have lived here for most of my life. My ancestors began arriving in Australia in 1827. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany.
I’ve lived in many other countries and travelled inside Australia for years on end. Here’s a list of all the places I’ve lived in my life:
Melbourne, 1960-1976; Toronto, Canada – 1976-1979; San Diego, California, late 1979; Around Australia in a kombi van 1980-1982; Sydney, Australia 1982; Melbourne, Australia – 1983-1990; Tourrettes-Sur-Loup, France – 1991; Presteigne, Powys, Wales, UK – 1992-1993; Melbourne, Australia 1994-2010; (three and a half months in 2007 in Chennai, South India); Around Australia in a caravan with a puppeteer and a bunch of puppets – 2011/2012. Melbourne – 2012 to present.
I also love to travel so have visited every state in Australia and many places around the world. Although I travel for a few months every year, I always come back to Melbourne because it’s my true home.
- Do you have any pets?
No. I have owned many dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, goldfish and mice at various times in my life but I don’t have any pets at the moment. It would be difficult for me to take care of a pet these days as I often go travelling for long periods of time. There is a family of ring-tail possums who live in my garden but they take care of themselves while I’m away.
- How do you decide where to begin?
Sometimes I don’t begin at the beginning. Sometimes a really good, strong scene or image comes to me and I write that first. Then, when I’ve re-read it, I can see what should have gone before it and what needs to happen next.
- What's the hardest part of writing for you?
The hardest aspect of writing is having to sit still for hours on end. Sometimes I have to get up and go for a walk, just because my body gets so stiff from being at the desk all day. The other hard part is not writing. Sometimes, I let too many other things distract me from getting into the office and that puts me in a very bad mood.
- How long does it take you to write a book?
Every book is different. Some books take many years, especially if they require a lot of research. Other books come together in only a few months, though that’s usually because they are smaller books.
No matter what sort of book or story I am writing, I always do a lot of research into the background of my characters. Bridie’s Fire took a long time to write because I had to find out so many things about Ireland and the Irish people; sea travel, early Melbourne, the goldfields and 19th Century theatre. India Dark also took many years to write because I needed to do so much research about India and South-east Asia.
- Do you have a favourite place to write?
I write my books in my office which is right down the back of our garden. It has big windows looking out onto a plum tree and a tiny verandah that runs along the front. When I’m in the early stages of a book, I often work in either my local library or in the State Library. I also sometimes use private libraries, archives and museums to do some of my research and then I write parts of the stories there. I love having piles of books around me as I write.
- Are you going to write more books?
Definitely. I have a special folder in my computer that is full of ideas for new books. I hope I can turn them all into finished books one day.
- Of all the books you have written, which is your favourite, and who is your favourite character?
There are different things that I love about each book I’ve written so they are each special to me in different ways. As to a favourite character, it’s always the one I’m writing about at the moment that I feel the most in love with.
- Do you have any advice for people who want to write?
The most important thing to do if you want to write well is to read. Writers and readers go together. You can’t have one without the other. If you want to write well, then read as much as you can and as widely as you can. Set aside time to read every day. There are many different ways to tell a story and the more you read, the more you will understand how good writing works.
The other important thing to do is to sit down and write something every single day. Nobody thinks they can become a great athlete by simply daydreaming. Even though daydreaming is an important part of the job for writers they also need to train like athletes, using words instead of weights. Putting words down on paper and then reworking them again and again until they sound exactly the way you want them to is like training for an event.
When you finish a story it can feel as if you’ve run a big race. It doesn’t matter whether you won the race. Writing isn’t about winning. It’s about making the best possible story you can and having faith that there are readers somewhere in the world who will want to read what you write.