Interview with Sonya Hartnett

Congratulations! What was your reaction when told you were the winner this year?

To tell the truth, I thought it was a weird and very elaborate joke, or some kind of strange misunderstanding. The night the jury rang, the Astrid Lindgren Award was very far from my mind - I was actually worrying about the fact that the books weren't making much money and I couldn't pay my bills. Then, when they rang, I thought they were going to ask me to contact another nominated Australian writer, John Marsden, and tell him he had won - I'm not sure why they would have asked me to do this, but it seemed the only likely explanation for them ringing me. When they assured me that I had really won, I just stared at the wall, stupified - it seemed so crazy and strange and amazing. I am not the sort of person who has fabulous things happen to me. Even now, weeks later, it's still hard to believe.  

What kind of reactions have you received since, both in Australia and internationally?

People have been amazingly kind in their response - I have had so many cards and flowers and phone calls and emails, it has taken me weeks to reply to it all. There was quite a bit of media coverage in Australia when the prize was announced, which is unusual for children's literature to receive in this country. It meant that lots of people heard about it, and many of them have taken the time to congratulate me in some way. I think everyone is proud because it is really good for Australia to have won - we are far, far away from the rest of the world, and it's sometimes a struggle for Australian writing to get noticed, so the prize is something that everyone in the industry seems pleased about.

Your books often depict the dark side of life. Where do these stories come from? How do you manage to describe these emotions and actions that are often difficult for the reader to endure?

I guess I have always had a natural leaning toward the darker elements of life - although in my day-to-day life I am actually quite idiotically cheerful. But I am interested in characters and landscapes and historical eras that are right on the edge of what it's possible to bear. In my books, I like extremes, and the simple truth is that extreme wickedness/difficulty is more interesting to write about than is extreme goodness/content. Also, I like to include the natural world in my books, and I think that animals and insects and weather and forests can come across in literature as being more forboding than they are in reality. I think a novel should really make the reader feel something - at the end of the book, they should be a slightly different person than they were at the start. So it is important to write about things that elicit an emotional response, be that fear or sorrow or jubilation or whatever. Sometimes I feel sad when I have to write the things the book wants me to write, but I always say that the Book Is The Boss - what the book wants, the book gets, and I have to write it whether it makes me sad or not. The good thing is that if I feel sad or horrified, I know the reader is going to feel that way too. And in making the reader feel something, the book will have done what every creative piece of work should do. 

What does your writing process look like?

I start off with a core idea that catches my interest - an idea for a character, or a scrap of plot, or a theme I like. It has to be something that appeals to me, otherwise I wouldn't be able to put in the required energy - I could not, for instance, write a book about sport, because sport bores me. Over time I gather extra ideas around that original core idea, and once there are enough ideas gathered to support a book-length work, I buy a notebook and lots of different coloured pieces of cardboard, which I cut up into smallish squares and use to make a storyboard for the novel, in much the same way as a film is storyboarded. I can always see very clearly in my head the location in which the book is set, the various landscapes and houses - mostly I use places that are familiar to me. I don't visualise the characters well - I tend to imagine them as blobs of colour, rather than as people, and each character is a different colour that matches their personality. I write on a laptop on my bed, often with coffee and chocolate to help me along. I make notes in the notebook as I go, things that need to be changed, little ideas that come along. I do a few hours in the early morning, then a few hours in the late afternoon. In between, I walk my dog, and think about what I've written in the morning, and how it needs to be fixed in the afternoon. It usually takes about 2 or 3 months to write the original draft. But the ideas can take months, even years, to gather in numbers large enough to make a novel.     

Which authors and books do you like to read yourself?

I will read just about anything that crosses my path, although I tend to stay away from romance and science fiction. However, I have even read some of that over the years. I like the Southern American writers best, probably, particularly William Faulkner and Truman Capote. I like classics, including modern-classics. I don't read much light fiction - no chick-lit or that kind of thing - but I'll really try anything that comes my way. I think it is important for a writer to read widely, because it helps to have a good general knowledge, as well as a knowledge of what can be done with a book. At the moment I am reading The Talented Mr Ripley and a nonfiction book about zoos.

Animals play an important role in your books. What is your relationship to animals?

I have always loved animals - my mother and father like animals, and I think that is something that is passed on to children. I was a timid, shy kind of kid, and I often felt stupid and boring and awkward around people - I still do feel that way, quite often. But, as a kid, I found a sense of peace around animals, a relief from the constant worry that I wasn't a very good or worthwhile person. I still get that sense of peace from watching and being among animals. I have always kept pets, and I like looking after them, keeping them healthy, keeping them beautiful. I like trying to understand how animals think - I am not a strict pet-owner, and I like seeing my dog use his mind and make his own decisions. I like, too, the idea that the world is a very different place for other creatures - that we see only the human version of life, but that there's many other ways to live, and each of them are perfect for the animal that is living that way. I think animals are really the best thing about this world.   

Is there anything you are specifically looking forward to about coming to Sweden?

I think there's probably lots to look forward to about going to such a beautiful country, and such a spectacular city as Stockholm, but I have to confess, as a lifetime fan of Abba (they make an appearance in the next book), it is going to be very exciting to be in the same country as Agneta, Benny, Bjorn and Annifrid. I will be searching for them everywhere.