Last year, I was sent a copy of Susan Green's The Truth About Verity Sparks to review for Sisters In Crime. It is not only a mystery, it has touches of fantasy and goes into the Victorian fascination with spiritualism and seances, and it was short listed for a CBCA Award. Also, I found myself on a panel with Susan at SheKilda, where I discovered she had also written books for Dolly Fiction many years ago. Here she is, to tell us more about herself and her writing. Enjoy!
GR: Tell us a bit about yourself - your background, what you enjoy doing when you aren't writing, where you live.
SG My mother was a teacher and later, school principal, and my father was an artist. I have two older brothers. We lived in Chelsea, a Melbourne suburb on the bay, and our back gate opened directly onto the beach. Then when I was 7 we moved for 3 years to Castlemaine in Central Victoria. I spent a lot of time in the bush – actually, in the local cemetery, which was near our house. I loved the Castlemaine area, hated leaving and always wanted to return. Lucky me, I have.
It was an idyllic childhood in many ways, but the teenage years…? All that angst! Books were the great escape. They still are. When I’m not writing, I work part-time in the local bookshop. Apart from that, I’m fairly domestic - I am pretty slapdash at them, but I love cooking, gardening and especially knitting.
GR: when did you realise you were a children's writer?
SG: I was late learning to read (in fact, had to repeat Preps) but as soon as I could – around the age of 7-8 - I was hooked and I wanted to write books too. The Secret Seven series by Enid Blyton were my first great inspiration.
GR: What was your first book? Tell us about it and how you came to sell it.
SG: My first book was a picture storybook called The Possum Charmers, published in 1987. It was a joint effort with the illustrator, Stuart Billington. It was due to sheer luck and short-sightedness that it came to be published. I was trying to find a seat on a crowded train home to Castlemaine but without my glasses, it was a struggle. A man patted the seat beside him and we got chatting. He and his wife were having a picture storybook published by Greenhouse Publications and they’d just been to see their editor. I told them about my story and they gave me an introduction to her.
GR:How did you celebrate your first sale?
SG: To tell you the truth, I don’t remember, but we were both very excited and happy.
GR: You once had a gig as a Dolly Fiction writer - how did this happen? (And which one was it? I bought some of the Dolly Fiction books for my school library and there were some big name writers doing it under pen names!)
SG: I wrote 5 in all. Is He For Real?, So Hard to Leave You, The Worst Best Year, The Summer People and Runaway Girl. My Dolly name was Suzanne Lennox – Lennox is my middle name. My editor for the picture storybooks asked if I’d like to make some money. The answer was yes! For Dolly Fiction titles, authors were paid a flat fee instead of royalties. I think it was around $4000, which seemed like a fortune. I enjoyed writing them; I learned a lot.
GR:Who, if anyone, influences your writing style?
SG: I’m not sure – the true answer is probably every writer I’ve ever read, even the ones I didn’t like much. For example, when I was 12, I started to re-write The Magic Faraway Tree because though I loved the story, I thought it wasn’t very well written! In my work for children, I try to write prose that makes you want to keep turning those pages…
GR: How did you get the idea for The Truth About Verity Sparks?
SG: I was walking in East Melbourne and looking at the Victorian architecture – you know, the columns and fancy mouldings and ironwork and stone. Those buildings told a story all about power and money and class. I began to think about what the city would have seemed like to a child, especially a working class one. How you’d have to be very strong not to feel overwhelmed and ground down. The character of Verity just insinuated herself in to my mind from that beginning. She almost told her own story. It was definitely one of the easiest books to write.
GR: What kind of research did you have to do for that novel?
SG: I read a lot - lots of books and websites about Victorian London. There were so many things to find out about – transport, manners, shops, servants, fashion…as a milliner’s apprentice, Verity is very fashion conscious. I found myself investigating topics like plumbing and hot water services for Verity’s first ever bath. I love research because I’m always getting ideas that move the plot along. For instance, a book called The Ghost Hunters Ghost by Deborah Blum, about the Victorian obsession with life after death, sparked the fictional Society for the Investigation of Psychic Phenomena. I love using visual aids too, and I pinned up illustrations by Gustave Dore showing the 1870s London slums. I also used paintings by James Tissot of wealthy Victorians to help me with the Plush family, and actually ended up making Tissot and his doomed mistress Kathleen characters in the story.
GR: How did you celebrate the novel's CBCA short listing?
SG: We flew over to Adelaide for the awards. I had lunch with my editor, Mary Verney and with Bob Graham, another prize-winning Walker author/illustrator. Then my husband and I had a weekend at a B&B in Angaston in the Barossa. When we ventured outside early on the first morning to admire the mist over the dam, I managed to lock us out of our B&B. We were just wearing our PJ’s and it was very, very cold. We laugh about it now.
GR: I see there's a sequel - can you tell us about it? And when it will be out?
SG: The sequel is called Verity Sparks Lost and Found and it will be released on May 1st. It’s about Verity’s adventures in Australia. She, along with Papa, SP, Mrs Morcom, Judith and Daniel, travel to Australia and settle in Melbourne. As the story starts, Papa still wants her to be a perfect young lady. But that’s not our Verity… Even though she feels she’s lost her gift, she manages to solve a tricky mystery when she’s briefly at a posh boarding school. Then she and her new governess tackle an investigation for the Inquiry Agency in Mount Macedon. I won’t spoil the mystery - but I will say that I just love an insanely complex plot.
GR: Are you working on anything right now?
SG: No. This is the first time in more than 8 years I haven’t had a book on the go. I’m taking a short holiday in Canada in May. There was a whisper at Walker Books about maybe another Verity, so perhaps when I get back from my trip I’ll start jotting down one of the plots that I’ve got floating around in my head.
Thanks for visiting The Great Raven, Susan!
The Truth About Verity Sparks is available in your favourite book shop now and keep your eye out for the sequel!