Saturday, March 29, 2014

Author Chat - Rivertime by Trace Balla

Living in Australia I want to be engaging with it as a culture, rather than assuming it is the same as NZ or assuming it's all about the sport. (I think we can all safely assume I'm not interested in engaging with the sport). So having an opportunity to read a truly Australian picture book was a real treat.

Rivertime is sort of a cross between a comic and a picture book. It documents a little number lover's (we like the main character already) slightly reluctant family trip down the Glenelg River, which is near us. What Clancy thought would be an afternoon trip with Uncle Egg was instead a 10 day sojourn down the river.

This is a book I can see my 7 year old spending a lot of time in, soaking it up, relating to Clancy and spotting the myriad of Australian birds and wildlife that appear on it's pages. It's a book to take time over, a book to digest and absorb. It has a slightly hypnotic feel to it - as you read it you feel yourself actively slowing down and floating along at river pace.

I got to ask some questions to the author/illustrator Trace Balla and this is what I asked. (Slightly edited for space).

1. How is it to have a book you've written published and in your own hands? 
It feels good, but even better was witnessing a friend’s child (who got an early copy of the book ) being totally absorbed in it. My childhood dream was to get a kids book I created in the I got an isbn! that was a really lovely moment for me.

How important was it for you to write something that really reflects Australia?
I think it's great for people to find a book they can identify with, as well as to inspire them to take a closer look at and appreciate whats around them.

When I was a kid I remember the stories by May Gibbs with the gumnut babies, and  Storm Boy by Colin Thiele, which was my favourite. Otherwise most of the books I remember weren’t set here. These days there are much more Australian settings and content in childen’s books, which are inspiring readers to appreciate this country and it’s creatures and cultures.

I was really pleased that the Gunditjmara Elders group (aboriginal people from the area where the book is set) were happy to have some Gunditjmara kids depicted in the story. I hope the Gunditjmara kids (and other aboriginal kids) will be pleased to find that in the book as often if you are not the mainstream, you are a bit invisible in the media. It was really important to me to include the indigenous subject matter, and without taking their stories. (yes I love this!!)

2. How long did you spend writing the text for the book and how long for the illustrations?
I wrote journal entries with images for the book whilst I was on a ten day canoe trip on the Glenelg river. Putting the story together took at least a couple of months, maybe 3 or 4, its hard to say as there was a lot of editing and communications with the publishers. I used a lot of sticky notes all over the wall to help me structure the story. The final illustrations took about 6 months. I think I’d done most of the storyboard by then… the whole thing took about one and a half years.

3. What is your main hope, as the author, for this book?
I would love for readers of all ages -… to take some messages from the book..or lessons from the river, as I did on my canoe journey. These are mostly about appreciation of nature, facing challenges, not needing so much, connecting with the earth…. I would also love the readers to get a feel for the journey, I guess I would love to be able to share the experience in this way, for them to get the feeling of slowing down..And be inspired by the story to take a closer look at this beautiful planet…and then care for it more…

I’d also love them to enjoy the humour and have a chuckle!

4. How closely does the book follow your own river experience and how much do you use creative license?
The story is based on a canoe journey that I did with my partner.I created to a boy character so that kids could relate to the book, and also to change the boy to more of a reluctant urban kid. My son Joey loves maths and numbers so he inspired a lot there. Uncle Egg is very similar in some ways to my partner Greg, they both loved bird watching and slept a lot! 

I did see a lot of birds and animals, but not quite all of those depicted. I wanted to include endangered and threatened animals of the area. And yes, I did see a swimming wallaby! Twice. And a running koala! 

I liked finding little jokes and puns I could add that may not have been my own experience. However much of the action where Clancy had trouble getting off the jetty’s, and when he made a sail from the tarp were from my journals of what actually happened. I named the locations creatively in the book, as well as on our journey, so there are times when experience and creativity overlap!..Whose truth is it! 

I didn’t meet those Gunditjmara people. But I didn’t want the characters to just read some signs about them like we did, I wanted the aboriginal content more tangible and to do so in a respectful way everyone was comfortable with. I went and spoke with the Elders about it and got their blessing. 

5. What is your favourite Australian bird?
Oh I’m not wanting to have favourites…but I’m quite partial to the Nankeen Night Heron...and I’m really excited when I see Emus running..oh and that spotted pardalote is just so gorgeous…..and what about the dawn chorus…ahh... don’t get me started’.. I knew I couldn't have a favourite!

6. If you were a bird which would you be and why?
oh too many choices...maybe a Great Crested Grebe..they look a bit wacky and they love to swim…and sometimes I’m a bit of a galah! oh or maybe one of those bowerbirds... I’m a hopeless collector of junk.

7. What parts of the process from idea to published book were the most enjoyable, and which were the toughest?
Being in the canoe with Uncle Egg (woops I mean Greg!) amongst the trees and birds all those days, just living a version of the story was so brilliant... I love to sketch and write snippets when I travel, it connects me to the place and the moment… so that was all just such a lovely part of it.

I found structuring the story quite challenging, but at times when it came together was really pleasing. Now and then when I was writing or drawing or both I had these magical little creative moments where things just worked so well, so satisfying.  Storyboarding was pretty good, but with the editing sometimes it was like canoeing into a headwind!  I really enjoyed inking up the final drawings, and coloring them in. It was like entering a little refuge from some really hard stuff going on in my life at the time.

I really had a great rapport with my lovely Editor Elise Jones. It made the whole publishing side such a friendly supportive experience. We have now got these “characters” of ourselves that have a connection... she’s the wombat, and I’m the possum… I think the poss and the wombat both had a bit of excitement to see the finished book. It was also an exciting moment to receive an email telling me that David Suzuki, one of those people who I have so huge a respect for, was endorsing the book. It felt very encouraging like getting a pat on the back saying, you’re on the right track here kid…  

8. How much does storytelling play a role in your day to day life?
I love to catch stories. They are everywhere. Its like having a butterfly net. I have made stories for different reasons, like when someone dies, or to honour something special. I often have a journal of words and images going... I’ve written lyrics for a few songs too. I’m more into making things though. I like to sketch and weave and play with clay and make stuff. 

9. I see you are an art therapist, what is your approach for getting children to engage with and make art?
Don’t be too precious - wonky is the way! Art making is an adventure - and a great way to express!

10. What adventures should every Australian child have?
Ooh! Apart from art adventures… to get into nature..camping, waking up with the birds, cooking on a fire,  gazing at the stars, spending slow time in the bush , leaving all those electrical gizmos back home… having enough unstructured time to explore and relate to what’s around us …  simple things like being up a tree or paddling in a creek… climbing on rocks…  getting muddy…tasting bush tucker… 

Trace’s new book, Rivertime is published by Allen &Unwin and will be available at all good bookshops and online. RRP $ 24.99. You can also download a free bird watching guide from their website to go with the book.

What questions have you always wanted to ask an author you love?

love you more than losing a hour immersed in a lovely book xxx