WHAT IS BEHIND THE DESK?
Behind the Desk is a new monthly series in which I interview amazing published authors, librarians, teachers, book designers, etc. so that we can learn more about the intricacies, struggles, and excitement that goes on in the world of books and literature. Feel free to contact me with suggestions for future interviewees!
behind the desk: jaclyn moriarty
There are many reasons Jaclyn Moriarty is one of my all-time favorite authors. Aside from the fact that she is an incredibly lovely person with excellent taste in chocolate who wrote her undergraduate thesis on Roald Dahl, her writing is so thoroughly enchanting and gripping that I constantly find myself wishing I was living in one of the many extraordinary worlds she has created. From the pie-loving Farms in the Kingdom of Cello to the home of the Zings and Listen Taylor, Jaci's imaginative plots and unique voices will keep you enthralled time and time again.
What do you hope to put out into the world with your books? What have been the most memorable reader responses you've had to your work?
I forget that my books are going out into the world. THANKS FOR REMINDING ME. Ha ha, no, seriously, I don’t really think about the world when I’m writing books. Its weight would be too heavy on my keyboard. I just think about the world of the story. I guess I hope I’m sending out stories that will make people happy.
My two favourite responses from readers are (1) a letter from a girl in Brazil who said that she thought she was the weirdest person in the universe until she read my books and then she realised that I am just as weird, and (2) a woman who named her daughter Listen, after the main character in The Spell Book of Listen Taylor, because, she said, that book was so important to her as a teenager.
As you're writing a new book, what is it you're trying to find out, either about the world you're creating, your characters, or yourself?
I think I’m trying to find out how we all actually feel, and who we all really are, behind the ways we pretend to feel and be.
Reading about the cafes, colored pens, tea, and chocolate involved in your working life sounds as magical as Roald Dahl's writing hut or as fun as Agatha Christie pondering her plots in a bathtub. How did you come to find the routine and rhythm that works for you? Did you know that Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll also used colored pens to write?
I did not know that Virginia Woolf and Lewis Carroll used coloured pens! Thank you! I’m very happy to hear that as I love both those people.
I also didn’t know that Agatha Christie pondered plots in the bath tub. I do that too, and also come up with a lot of ideas in the shower. I was talking to a software designer the other day who told me that he solved many of his IT problems in the shower, so it must have universal application. Looking at the ocean seems to inspire me too. So maybe it’s all about water.
The routine and rhythm of my writing is partly dictated by my 9-year-old’s school days, partly by trying to incorporate exercise and inspiration into the day, partly by superstition, and partly by the fact that too much time alone would send me mad. So I walk up the hill with Charlie and drop him off at school, and then I walk back down the hill, past our place, and all the way into Kirribilli, which is a suburb on the harbour. Then I walk over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and back again (for exercise) work in a Kirribilli cafe for a couple of hours, listening into people’s conversations and chatting with strangers/cafe friends, (for inspiration/to avoid going mad) and writing ideas in big notebooks using colourful markers. In the afternoons, I work in my own study for a couple of hours, always with a blue bowl of fruit and chocolate beside me (superstition). And then I collect Charlie from school.
The plots in some of your books have been so intricate and twisty and surprising. Do the plots come together before or during the writing process for you?
Thank you! And both. I usually do a lot of planning (with coloured markers and chocolate) before I start—sometimes a year of planning—but then I wonder why I bothered because as soon as the book starts it gets its own ideas and the plan falls to pieces.
Based on your witty and whimsical blog posts and utterly creative books, it seems as though you must have so many snippets of ideas for stories and characters floating around your head all the time. What's the step-by-step process for you to turn those snippets into manuscripts?
Thank you again for being so kind! When I get an idea for a book or story I usually do nothing with it for a few weeks, or months even, and just let it clang around in my head. To see if it might make friends with anybody in there. Then I try out the idea in one of my big notebooks with the colourful markers, just playing with it and drawing pictures for it, and mostly scribbling half-sentences about it. Then I quickly close the notebook and forget about it. A few days later I might do the same thing, and a few days after that the same again. And so on until eventually I open the computer and try writing a chapter.
As an Australian writer who's lived in England and had books published across three continents, in your experience how does the publishing industry differ between Australia, the US, and the UK? Are there any particular habits or practices you'd like them to pick up from one another?
I’ve had great publishing experiences with editors in Australia, the UK, the US and Canada. In the book industry itself, I had the sense that there was much more pride in local authors in Canada than in Australia. Although it is getting better lately, Australia still has a strange and completely groundless inferiority complex about its own cultural achievements.
How have the editors you've worked with shaped your books in various ways? What would you advise new writers to look for in an author-editor relationship?
There’s been a huge variety—some of my books have been very lightly edited; with others, I have made substantial revisions. Almost always, the editing has targeted exactly the aspect of the book that I’ve been uncertain about myself, so I’ve been lucky to have such perceptive and bright editors. I’m also lucky in that I have trusted my editors so far, and respected their opinions. So that would obviously be advisable: finding an editor whom you trust and respect. I’ve heard of editors who rewrite passages of books themselves, and I don’t like that idea at all. Instead, I love it when my editor points to an issue and makes a couple of suggestions for how I might fix it—even if I don’t follow the suggestions, they can be a great starting point.
Whenever I get an editorial report, I read it and then do absolutely nothing about it for a week. This is because I’ve noticed that my initial reaction is to object to every single thing in the report but that, over the course of a week, every single thing begins to make perfect sense.
Many of your books have been epistolary in nature. Do you still have any pen pals? Have you ever wanted to write a book with someone over letters (much like Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin in P.S. Longer Letter Later, a book I loved as a child)?
I don’t have many actual penfriends any more but I have email-pals. I miss sending and receiving paper letters—I really like the idea of a ‘correspondence hour’ in which everyone sits in the drawing room writing letters. I am always, always a long way behind in answering emails, and keeping up with all the other administration, so that letters fall to the back of the line and never get done. This makes me feel like a bit of a fraud as the author of epistolary novels.
And, finally, how hard was it to learn to play the cello? I've been wanting to learn but am convinced I'll be as bad at that as I am at singing.
I bet you sing better than I do. I dream of getting singing lessons and being able to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ in tune at birthday parties. And I loved learning the cello but I was terrible at it. I had an effusive Polish cello teacher who would watch me play with such fierce concentration, waiting, waiting, waiting for me to get a single thing right and then, if I happened to hit the right note, even for a fraction of a second, he would shout,’ Yes! Yes! Now you are a cellist!'