THE WRITING LIFE ... Alison LESTER
THE FREEDOM TO DREAM AND IMAGINE
ALEXANDRA WONG speaks to ALISON LESTER, one of Australia’s most popular and well-loved authors of children’s picture books and novels
ALISON LESTER is a leading Australian author whose picture books such as Clive Eats Alligators, Tessa Snaps Snakes and Rosie Sips Spiders, among others, are known to a whole generation of Australian children—acknowledges that there is a perception that picture books are “all bubsy stuff and therefore anybody can do it” but points out that a skilful illustrator has to be able to combine line, colour and observation very subtly in order to pull the reader into the book.
When it comes to producing a fabulous picture book, it isn’t enough to be a spectacular illustrator, or a great writer. In a picture book, both text and illustrations share the task of telling a story equally: one tells or shows what the other is silent about. Through pictures, a whole gamut of subtext has to be added to the words: the size, shape, colour and position of an object, its cultural and symbolic implications, a specific attitude towards the subjects being depicted and the relationship of the pictures to each other. Or as Alison Lester would put it: “In a picture book, any weakness stands out and can kill it.”
In between offering intriguing insights into a genre that’s somewhat of a dark horse, this Australian author offers glimpses into her incredible journey—in the most literal sense—from a happy, dreamy child growing up on a farm, to a best-selling author whose own adventure-filled life is worthy of a movie. Then again, perhaps it is to be expected from one who is often heard saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
Today, you are one of Australia’s most popular and best-loved authors. Your books have been published in many languages around the world. Did you ever imagine that you would reach this point in your life?
I guess I always hoped my books would be successful and I think I would have given the game away if they hadn’t been. It’s very pleasing that so many people love the characters and stories. My daily life is pretty normal but I get to travel to fabulous places (like Bali) through my books.
You began your career illustrating children’s books and wrote your first children’s book in 1985. What prompted you to make the leap to writing? Was it a natural progression or did a particular incident nudge you in that direction?
I was illustrating a book for a bossy author who was driving me crazy. When I complained to my editor she suggested I write my own stories, and it took off from there. Clive Eats Alligators doesn’t have many words, so it was an easy start.
What kind of difficulties did you encounter (if any) in the process of making that transition, and how did you overcome them?
I had a wonderful editor who steered me in the right direction, so it was very straightforward.
What was the path to publication like for you? Was it difficult securing a publisher for your first book?
Because I was already working as an illustrator, it was easy. I told my editor the idea for my book and she told me to go for it.
You’ve mentioned that often truth is stranger than fiction and that many of your books grew out of things that really happened. It must certainly help that you have led a pretty colourful life yourself. Not many people would have had the chance to travel to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow, for instance. That must have been an amazing experience! Could you share some of the highlights of that trip, and talk about the resultant works that stemmed from it?
I became instantly addicted to Antarctica on that first trip and have returned four times, working as an artist or photographer on tourist ships. The project that I did for my fellowship, Kid’s Antarctic Art, became an exhibition and has had numerous shows in Australia and two books—Snoopy Sparks Goes South and One Small Island—inspired by the trip are underway. I loved the wild ocean, the ice, how remote it was, and travelling with a gang of strangers, some who became my friends.
The Antarctica trip inspired thousands of schoolchildren to make drawings of the South Pole based on your online diary and photographic journal. It must have been gratifying, to know that you had such a massive impact on children! When did you realise you had the gift of communicating with children through your stories and pictures?
I had a wonderful time working with kids and I am constantly blown away by the beautiful things they create. I don’t talk down to kids and maybe that’s the secret.
You have said that your heart is always with the little kids, but as your own children get older you find yourself more and more interested in novels. How has your writing style evolved over the years, and what do you see yourself working on in the next few years? What other genres would you like to try your hand at?
I have a couple of adult novels in my head but I’m not sure if I will ever write them.
I understand that picture books are very different from illustrated books, where the pictures take a back seat to the text. With picture books, both text and illustrations share the task of telling a story equally.
I try to use as few words as I can in a picture book and I try to make them as perfect as possible. The book I’m working on now (Running with the Horses) has heaps of text as well as pictures, and it’s tricky getting it right.
In the process of creating a picture book, how do you ensure that you devote equal weightage to both the writing and the illustrations? Do you ever find yourself feeling more inclined to labour over one or the other?
When I’m writing, I think all the time about how nice it would be to be drawing, and when I’m drawing, writing seems like a nice thing to do. Generally I find writing much easier than drawing, but I think I’m a better artist than I am a writer, if that makes sense.
You write chapter books, picture books and children’s novels. How do the creative processes and challenges differ?
The idea is always the easiest thing and the writing is straightforward, though I am the Queen of Procrastination. Picture books take me ages because I am such a perfectionist.
Author and book critic Karla Kuskin has said that “A picture book is a complicated form of collaborative art. When it is very well done, it is an artistic achievement worthy of respectful examination and honour.” Conversely, I’ve read that picture books tend to get sidelined because some people believe that they are of inferior literary merit. What do you think?
I think a picture book has to be fabulous to be worthy. Any weakness stands out and can kill it. There is also a perception that it’s all bubsy stuff and therefore anybody can do it. There are some truly horrible picture books around that give the genre a bad reputation.
Good illustrations are not just a literal translation of words into pictures. If this is true, what sets a skilful illustrator from a mediocre one?
It’s a very subtle combination of line, colour and observation that pulls the reader into the book. If the pictures don’t engage the reader, it doesn’t matter how beautiful they are. On the other hand, sometimes my kids loved illustrations that I thought were ordinary. I think it’s a bit of luck, really, whether your illustrating style is what people like.
Your picture books mix imaginary worlds with everyday life, encouraging children to believe in themselves and celebrate the differences that make them special. How can good children’s books develop a child’s psychological and emotional faculties?
Kids can travel in books, away from whatever their life is. They can see bits of themselves and their lives reflected, take heart from a character they identify with and be inspired. For those of us who live large portions of life inside our heads, books are a framework for our fantasies and dreams.
You grew up on a farm overlooking the sea and first rode a horse as a baby in your father’s arms. How has your childhood influenced your growth as a writer and illustrator?
It was a childhood full of adventure but also responsibility and it gave me a basic belief that if something needed to be done, I could do it. It linked me firmly to landscape and the ocean and I don’t feel happy being away from either for too long. I spent a lot of time alone and I think that gave me the freedom to dream and imagine.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up?
Anything I could get my hands on. I recall my mum telling me I shouldn’t be reading James Bond when I was in the sixth grade, but I wasn’t going to stop. I thought that’s what my life would be like when I grew up.
What is the most memorable feedback that you received from a child reader?
I get very sweet letters and drawings from kids. One picture showed a glamorous me in the Antarctica, in a black cat suit with Barbie hair.
What would be the ultimate prize as a writer—the Nobel Literature Prize, maybe?
The prize would be nice, but the money would be even better. A big readership is a nice reward.
Which author occupies the most space on your bookshelf and why? Who is your favourite Australian author?
My house is groaning under the weight of books, but I can’t think of one particular author. For a long time I was crazy about Cormac McCarthy but I’ve gone off him a bit since he stopped writing about horses and cowboys. Books I love are Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex, Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, Augusten Burrough’s Running With Scissors, and recently, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire, but there would easily be a hundred books that I like as much as these. My favourite Australian book is probably Daryl Tonkin and Carolyn Landon’s Jackson’s Track.
What are you reading at the moment?
Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, and the latest Janet Evanovich.
Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
William Steig, Chris Van Arlsberg and Dr Seuss.
Lastly, how would you encourage young writers who want to follow in your in footsteps?
Have faith in your own voice and your own drawings, observe, listen, read, take advice and be persistent.
ALEXANDRA WONG, a former corporate sales manager, took a leap of faith to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a writer in 2005, and since then her works have been published in more than a dozen local and international publications. Wong, whose motto is “carpe diem,” writes passionately about people, places and life, and believes there is always a fascinating universe waiting to be explored and shared, even in the tiniest grain of sand.
Reproduced from the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine