Sonya Hartnett – “Thank God, Pippi has come to save me!”

It soon turned into a bit of a farce, when ALMA winner Sonya Hartnett talked to Agneta Edwards, of ALMA, in Lund. The conference room was full of keen librarians and teachers and other book people, when Agneta Edwards was overcome with a coughing attack and hurriedly left the stage, asking guest of honour Sonya Hartnett to cope on her own. Unfortunately, she was still wearing her microphone, so the coughing stayed with us, even though Agneta didn’t. Sonya was soldiering on quite nicely, but was in turn overcome with the giggles, like the rest of those present, and laid her head, face down, on the table in front of her and howled.

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Once order was restored the Litteralund event went well, as Sonya finished her last public appearance in Sweden after receiving the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award earlier in the week. The awards ceremony took place at Skansen, the outdoors park and museum in Stockholm, on a beautiful May evening, with music and speeches, before Sonya Hartnett received her award from Crown Princess Victoria. The Princess, in the time honoured tradition of her great grandfather, spoke to Sonya without microphones (note the contrast).

Having always been curious as to what is said at this point, it was one of my first questions when I met Sonya at the Grand Hotel in Lund. She “wished me well, … she spoke to me quite a lot, but mostly I was standing there hoping I wouldn’t trip over the Princess or knock her out or something.” She was “really nice”.

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I wasn’t sure whether to ask Sonya for her opinion on Sweden, but she said that she has “long learned not to come with expectations to anywhere. I’m finding it incredibly beautiful. It’s cultured and clean, and there’s an innate kindness in Swedes.” Sonya and her sister have spent the week in Stockholm, which is nearly always beautiful, and visiting during the time of year that Swedes reckon is the best, it’s hardly surprising that it’s made a good impression.

She is a bit rushed, but says she’s “happy to talk to everybody”. Sonya says “In Australia, all they’re really interested in talking about is sport, and that couldn’t interest me less”. Though having said this, Sonya claims that people have been pleased for her, after her win. In a programme on Swedish television the viewers got to see what happened when Larry Lempert from the ALMA jury phoned to let her know she’d won. He took so long getting to the point, that Sonya thought it was her writer colleague John Marsden who had won, but when the penny dropped she is reputed to have asked “Are you shitting me?”, which apparently is Australian for “are you joking?”

She had to keep it secret for a while, but after it was made public she sent a group text to everyone she could think of, to say she had been awarded US$ 600,000, and not even her own mother believed she had got the figure right. The phones didn’t stop ringing, particularly with Swedes forgetting the time difference and calling her in the middle of the night.

Sonya seems very sure that she doesn’t write books for Harry Potter fans – which I happen to think isn’t entirely true – so I ask her who does read her books. She reckons she writes for “Columbine kids”, those who feel “they don’t have a place in mainstream life”. I suggest that Columbine kids aren’t necessarily readers of books at all, and she agrees that they “probably play computer games” instead. Her readers aren’t interested in “things they are generally expected to be interested in. That’s why my books will never make me a fortune.” Except now her books have done just that.

To find out how Sonya decides who her readers are, I ask where she meets them. She doesn’t do many school visits, although there was a time when she had to, for the money. She’s always had a part time job, too, to make ends meet. “It’s not worth it” she says, referring to schools, and how most of the pupils don’t have an interest in seeing her. “When they make a special effort to come and see me at a festival, it’s always a pleasure to meet them.”

But “it’s a long time since I was a teenager. Maybe the kind of teenager I write for doesn’t exist any more…” Sonya herself hasn’t read Harry Potter, and doesn’t want to. She says about people who read her books, that if they don’t like it, they should look for another book, and she will look for another reader.

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Sonya has written eighteen books, and interestingly, only two have so far been translated into Swedish, which makes you wonder how and why the ALMA jury picked her. Rumour has it someone found one of her books on the floor at a party, and took it away with them to read. She says it has been a long way from writing in her bedroom at home, to that Swedish floor.

The bedroom can be found in the house in Melbourne which Sonya shares with her dog and her cat. Winning the Astrid Lindgren award isn’t her first contact with things Swedish. Sonya adores Abba, and like the rest of the world, has Billy book cases in her house. At the time of the visit from the Swedish television team, her house was also covered with a blue and yellow tarpaulin, because her roof needed fixing.

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Her next book, which will probably be out in February 2009, is partly about Abba, as one of the characters is a big Abba fan. Sonya says she has had dreams that Frida turns up on her doorstep to save her, and takes her home with her to Sweden, where they live happily ever after in a Swedish cottage.

Her first novel was published when she was fifteen, and she is 39 now. She claims that she can’t write when she’s in a relationship, and that she has stopped writing when she has been in one. Sonya can’t see herself having a husband and children, and if she did, then that would be the end of her writing. She reckons she has always been alone, despite being one of six children.

I ask Sonya about how she writes. She spends “ a lot of time thinking of what I’m going to write, and while I’m doing that, I kind of lead a normal life, doing things like gardening.” When it’s time to write “I clear the desk, don’t bother doing things like vacuuming the house, tend not to go out”. She writes fast, she calls it “feed coming in”, with some books, and others are like “dragging a boulder uphill”. With Surrender she was also filled with doubts about the whole thing. And after the writing she has time for “doing things I LOVE to do, like gardening.”

Sonya doesn’t believe in writing a series. She wants every book to be finished, and sees a book as an “enclosed work of art”. She always tries to write something she hasn’t done before. With time she has learnt to know what’s good and what’s bad. She sits at home with the dog and says out loud “this is good”, but in Australia, as in Sweden, you aren’t supposed to think that you are good. Maybe that’s why Sonya has saved the message on her answer phone from the ALMA jury? She listens to it now and then, but “not every day”.

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There is one adult book among the ones Sonya has written, Landscape With Animals. This had to be published under the pseudonym Cameron Redfern, as the contents are very adult. Her mother refers to it as Sonya’s “sexy book”, and hasn’t read it. It’s supposedly about real people in Melbourne, and was written for one particular person. Sonya says it’s difficult to write erotically, and is intrigued to find that people assume it’s about herself. But it’s understandable that the publishers couldn’t risk any of her younger readers finding it by mistake.

“It gives no satisfaction to write for adults any more”, she says, and she is interested in writing for younger children now. She is very proud of her recent Silver Donkey, for younger readers. It took her a long time, and she studied how “younger” books are written before she started. Sonya wants to write books that will still be read in thirty or fifty years’ time.

Referring to how her US publishers wanted to change her story about Gallipoli in Silver Donkey, “because “we don’t know about Gallipoli”, Sonya says “I think it’s important to write books that a child can grow into”. She leafs through my copy of the book to find the offending page and shows me the picture of a boat from D-day, which is altogether the wrong war, seeing as the book is about World War One. “I did a lot of research on what I could and couldn’t use and when they showed me the illustrations, I said ‘no you can’t have that’ and they said ‘put up with it, we’ve already paid for the pictures, so we’ll use it anyway’. And you know who gets the blame for it if it’s all wrong? The person whose name is on the cover. That makes me angry.”

The stories from Silver Donkey that the soldier tells the children are true stories, but Sonya has adapted and condensed them for her book. It’s easy to think like a young child would, and feel that at the end of the book the soldier will be fine, but I compare it with Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful, where the adult reader knows things are far from OK. She says “Pascal understands what happens to deserters”, whereas his younger sisters are more naive.

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In Sonya’s latest book The Ghost’s Child we meet a creature called a nargun, which I suspected must be something or somebody well known to Australian readers, so I ask about that. Traditionally a nargun was a crazy old woman who lived in a billabong and kidnapped Aboriginal children. The well known Australian children’s writer Patricia Wrightson wrote The Nargun and the Stars, and she changed the nargun into a big rock monster, and that’s the version Sonya used for her book. “I like the idea of paying homage to a great Australian writer, a ground breaker”, from the 1960s and 1970s.

The Ghost’s Child is the next to be translated into Swedish, but Sonya feels that so far the choice of what to translate, has been a strange one. Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf and The Devil Latch are the only ones. Sonya says that not only are they not her best books, but they are fairly old as well, and less representative of her work. They are the most ordinary of her books, and she feels that now she writes unusual and adventurous stories. “I’m a better writer now”. Among the Books Sonya feels to be her best are Thursday’s Child, Surrender, Of A Boy (What the Birds See) and The Ghost’s Child.

Sonya sometimes uses houses as characters. For atmosphere she likes things to be “enclosed”, like a forest, unlike the open sea. She goes for close, intense groups, such as a family or a small town, both of which can be explosive. Animals are important in her books, and for Forest she did a lot of research on cats. Sonya hopes her books will give more respect for animals. The idea of the feral child came from something she read in National Geographic, and she quite likes the idea of being a wolf.

“I’m more painter than writer”, is how Sonya describes herself. When asked for explanations to her books, she says that she always replies “no, it’s up to you, my job is done”. She recounts how “women of a certain age” would come up to her and ask “Why did you do that to that child?” about Of A Boy, and says that she “can’t be held responsible for it”. Many of her characters die in her books, especially the girls, but she feels she has become kinder towards girls now.

Sonya’s mother says in the television interview that she can recognise herself in the books, but mainly in the first two. Sonya is used to putting her own life in the books, and that of friends and family. And she really doesn’t like it when people write the same again and again. Sonya has been described as writing Australian gothic, and has been compared to Faulkner. At a school reunion some time ago, she was very conscious of “everyone” having married and having had children, until her old teacher pointed out that anyone can have a family, but not everyone can write books.

I ask if people recognise her in the street in Australia, but she says “Nah, if I was a football player they would. Wrong occupation.” She may have been recognised a handful of times, say, after she’s been on television. Her name is better known than her face, “but even my name isn’t very well known”. Sometimes a friend will text her to say they are sitting opposite someone on the train who is reading one of her books, and it makes her happy that someone is using her books for pleasure.

One fear the ALMA jury always have is that getting the award will be the end of someone’s writing career. After all, with five million kronor in the bank you can afford to relax. Sonya knows what they mean, but for her the relaxing means that she can enjoy writing once more. “I won’t have to dredge another idea out of my tired brain. That’s an amazing thing to be able to buy with money.” She was going to have to borrow money to pay for her new roof, and she has never had a pension. After the initial pleasure at feeling financially secure, Sonya has found that her thoughts keep going in the direction of a sports car. A red sports car.

And she’s pleased the award means that she has done something that has mattered. Sonya feels that support for children’s writers is bad, and that in Australia the promotion of books is very poor. Her reaction to getting the prize was to say to her publishers, “See, you didn’t even try!”, meaning that they weren’t the ones who nominated her for the award.

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All the time we have been talking my photographer has been busy snapping away with the camera. Sonya claims that “when I talk I look hideous. I look hideous at the best of times”, but she’s wrong about this. The only personal comment I can make other than that she is very pretty, is that this has been one of very few occasions when I have been able to tower over another adult.

“I’m being told I have to go now”, Sonya says suddenly, so I hurriedly get in a last, very important, question. Which is her favourite Abba song? She can’t have been asked this too often, because she has to stop and think. “Waterloo, Chiquitita, Fernando. So many. Probably if I had to choose one, … , Waterloo.”

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“Sorry it’s been so rushed” she calls, as she disappears into the waiting limousine outside. Her sister struggles getting into the car carrying all the gifts that have been showered on them, but it’s good to know that the new roof stands a good chance of being paid for now.

All photos by H Giles

7 responses to “Sonya Hartnett – “Thank God, Pippi has come to save me!”

  1. Hi!
    Since being the coughing interwier and jurymember mentioned I would just like to state that everyone, especially myself, am, are or should be very grateful that the laughing audience back in the conferenceroom made me realize my mistake so that I did turn the microphone off before I wiped my nose after the coughing attack. That should have made everyone howl, not just Sonya Hartnett, in that state of my typical colds it´s more like an earthquake :-) But, more importent to note, the thing about the few translations and how we could find our award winner: dear everyone, even if a lot of great books are translated into Swedish, the ALMA-jury sends it´s argus eyes out in the world to find what´s not, and always prefer reading in the authors original languages – as far as it is possible – so, two books from Sonya Hartnett in Swedish or eight translated titles of for example Mr Pullman is of course not our basis for selecting the winners. And English is kind of our second language, lucky us! But the party story is great – and at least partly true.

    Greetings from – at the moment – sunny Sweden,
    and Agneta (isn´t it great to be known in Bookwitch as The Cougher…?)

  2. A shared laugh or giggle is always a good way to start, so thank you, Agneta, for a happy moment! I think we were all worried about how or when you would discover the mike was still on.

    Ja, Agneta, det var antingen hostan eller ditt magnifika hår (nytt varje år) som måste nämnas. En ung man i publiken ritade av dig…

    I think Sonya was less worried about the translated books for the sake of the jury, and more concerned that any new fans in Sweden would have a less good selection of books to read. Not all Swedes read in English.

    The good thing about ALMA’s choices is that more books get translated afterwards. In our Pullman mad family we have long felt that he has been ignored for too long over there.

  3. A really fascinating interview. Thanks Bookwitch! I am very glad you sent me here.

  4. I don’t know how I found you but I’m so glad I did – Even though I’m 2 years late to this post. It was a pleasure to sit back and stay reading an online page and not feel the urge to click away. Wonderful interview and photos. Thanks!

  5. Me too! And there is no such thing as too late.

    The Resident IT Consultant is always telling me my interviews are too long, and that people will get tired, so I’m glad you didn’t click away.

  6. Yes, as Sue Eves says, thanks for the interview even though I’m coming to it late too.
    I’m an Australian children’s author and adore Sonya’s books, especially her stories that scar your heart and you know you’ll never forget. Yes, she is a brilliant writer.
    But I have to jump in here and ‘stick up’ for Australians – Sonya says “In Australia, all they’re really interested in talking about is sport…’ I’d suggest she is making a huge generalisation.
    Yes, many Aussies are into sport (just like many Brits) but there are legions of us who value the arts, and especially the writing industry for young people.
    Sonya also “feels that support for children’s writers is bad, and that in Australia the promotion of books is very poor”.
    Yes, promotion of children’s books in the Australian media is difficult, but we have in this country thousands of Teacher-Librarians, and (unfortunately, a decreasing number of independent booksellers) who treasure children’s and YA titles and their creators, and who tirelessly promote books to young people and their parents.
    We also have Federal Government support through grants and the Educational Lending Rights – every year we authors get a cheque (worked out on the number of our books borrowed from school libraries), that ends up, for most of us, better than royalties on our books. Brought in by a Labor Government, this support may be destroyed by a future conservative government though! Boo hiss!
    I hope I can convince your readers that Aussies aren’t all sport-mad bozos as Sonya’s comments may suggest. We must be doing something right. After all, look at the number of brilliant Australian writers and illustrators who are winning awards and accolades and fans globally – from Shaun Tan to Morris Gleitzman, from Freya Blackwood to Kate Morton, from Sonya Hartnett to Michael Gerard Bauer, and the list could go on. :)

  7. Thank you for that very long and really helpful comment. I don’t know much, so am relieved I ‘know’ people who do.

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