Children’s Questions Answered
Question: Where do your ideas come from?
Answer: Real life, books, memories and feelings of the deepest kind.
Question: How many books have you written?
Answer: About 45-46, I think, with a few repeats. (That’s in September 2021.) I sort of lost count after a while! A full list of my books appears in section on the website called ‘A List of all the Books.’
Question: Why don’t you stick to the same illustrator?
Answer: The publisher and editor choose the illustrator. I can have some say in that decision, but it’s best to leave the choice to them. Anyway, artists can pick and choose the books they want to illustrate. If they don’t like my stories I have to grin and bear it and find another clever person. Boo hoo! There isn’t much I can do about it. I can’t draw for nuts.
Question: What do editors want from an illustrator?
Answer: They look at the feelings in the story and then try to find an illustrator who can best express those feelings in their artwork.
Question: How do you work with your illustrators?
Answer: I don’t. I leave them alone. I let them get on with the pictures by themselves because their ideas are always more brilliant than mine could ever be.
Question: Where do your characters’ names come from?
Answer: Real life, such as friends and family, or workmates; or the phone book; or from my head.
Question: Have you won any book awards?
Answer: Not very many, sadly. Not enough! We all want to win, don’t we? That’s what Koala Lou is about. But I do know that awards for books are not as important as the number of copies a book sells: that’s what really tells you if you’re a loved and adored author, and happily, my books sell. Thank heaven for that!
Question: How long does it take to write a book?
Answer: From seven minutes for Tough Boris, to two years for Koala Lou, and seven years for The Goblin and the Empty Chair. Koala Lou is only 487 words. I re-wrote it and re-wrote it and re-wrote it for two whole years, can you imagine?
Question: Why do you have so many different publishers?
Answer: Because no one publisher likes everything I write. Also, different publishers have their own special ‘list’ and will only publish books that fit the feeling of that list. My major publishers are Omnibus/Scholastic, and Penguin, in Australia; and HMH, and Beach Lane Books in the USA.
Question: Have you always been a writing sort of person?
Answer: Yes. I wrote a book about soil erosion when I was ten, although it was only six pages long; and I wrote another much longer book when I was seventeen. I used to like writing letters best of all, and long daily entries in my diaries. I wrote letters to lots of friends and relatives in Australia because I grew up a long way away in Africa.
Question: What made you become a writer?
Answer: I was studying children’s literature as a mature-age student at university\, and I had to write a children’s story as an assignment. My story, Hush the Invisible Mouse, later turned into Possum Magic. After that I felt like a writer. Ideas for books kept popping up, so I carried on writing and writing and writing. I’m still writing in 2021.
Question: Do you write full time, or do you have another job?
Answer: Writing is my major activity. Most of the time these days ((2021) I’m a grandmother. I used to love travelling around the USA and Australia talking to parents and teachers and children about reading, writing, and teaching. I was a university lecturer/professor at Flinders University for 24 years until the end of 1996, teaching writing to people who were going to be teachers. I also taught them how to teach reading, writing, speaking and listening. I’m crazy about teaching. It’s much easier and, for me, much more instantly rewarding than writing because I love interacting with people and laughing a lot.
Question: Which was your first book?
Answer: Possum Magic, published in 1983.
Question: Of the books you have written which is your favourite?
Answer: I love them all, really, although the latest is usually my favourite. Secretly I do have favourite, but if I told you what it was all the other books might burst into tears. (Well, just this once: it’s CAT DOG, my latest book, illustrated by Mark Teague.)
Question: Who is there in your family and what are their names?
Answer: I have a husband and we have one daughter, Chloë to whom Possum Magic is dedicated. She was born in 1971. She is a teacher of French in a girls’ high school and she’s also a well-being counsellor in the same school. She has a son who was born in 2010. He’s my favourite human being in the whole wide world. I also have a sister called Jan, who lives in Italy. Sadly, our other younger sister, Alison, died a few years ago.
Question: Was Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge really your father’s name?
Answer: Yes. And in the same book, Nancy is my mother’s name, and Alison Delacourt Cooper is a combination of my two sisters’ names.
Question: What is your life story?
Answer: I was born in Melbourne on March 5th, 1946. I grew up in Zimbabwe, where my parents were missionaries. From 1965-68 I went to drama school in England. In 1969 I married Malcolm Fox. We came to Adelaide, in South Australia, in January 1970, because my grandfather aged 90 was all alone. We have lived and worked here ever since. I became a writer in 1983 but I taught at Flinders University long after that because I loved teaching. I retired from the university when I was 50.
Question: What is your real name?
Answer: Aha! Mind your own business. I detest my real name! I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been ‘Mem’ since my early teens, so my real name doesn’t sound like the real me anymore. My dad used to call me Memzi, which I love.
Question: Are you writing anything at the moment?
Answer: Yes. I usually write three or four books at once. There are at least four more in the pipeline. I’ll be nearly 80 by the time they’re all published. Hah! Who said people have to retire?
Question: How should I go about getting a book published?
Answer: Type your story neatly, double-spaced on one side of each sheet of paper. Put a copyright sign beside your name like this © (option G on an Apple computer). Then ask a bookseller or a librarian to recommend suitable publishers, and to give you their addresses if possible, or else find the addresses in the back of already published books. Send off your story with a covering letter and wait to see what happens. Because the only thing you ever pay for (in getting a book published) is the cost of a postage stamp, there is no reason not to send off a manuscript, no matter what age you are. These days you can send it as an email attachment. The only problem is that you should have read hundreds and hundreds of books and poems before you start writing yourself: only reading teaches you how to write
Question: When you write for kids, do you only write picture books?
Answer: Yes, except for my autobiography: Memories, which is no longer available.
Question: Will you ever write a kids’ novel?
Answer: Probably not. My talent is writing picture books.
Question: Will you ever write an adult novel?
Answer: No, no! I’m not interested in writing for adults.
Question: How long does it take for a book to be published?
Answer: It varies wildly. For example, the first draft of Koala Lou was written in September 1983. It came out in October 1988.
Question: Do you enjoy writing picture books?
Answer: I am passionate about writing anything except picture books! When I’m writing them, I detest it almost every minute of the way, because I’m allowed so few words and it’s so easy to write badly! Writing them well means re-writing and re-writing. My hand gets tired. My brain gets tired. Even my bottom gets tired. I do it because I love it when kids say, ‘I really love your books, Mem Fox!’
Question: Where do you write and what do you use?
Answer: I write at the computer, unless it’s an early draft. I usually hand-write my early drafts at a different desk in the bedroom. I write with a 4B pencil (4B pencils are soft and stop your hand from hurting) and then I go to my office desk to type the later drafts on to the computer. I work in total silence because writing picture books is like creating music. I hear the words in my head. I read my drafts aloud, over and over again. If there’s a fly buzzing in the room I have to kill it. Sorry!
Question: Did you write all the stories you told on ABC television in Australia in the 1980’s?
Answer: No. Those stories were mostly fairy tales and folk tales from around the world. Only Possum Magic and Koala Lou were my own.
Question: What is your favourite picture book that you haven’t written yourself?
Answer: I have many but let me name four that immediately come to mind: John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat, by Jenny Wagner, illus. by Ron Brooks; Owl Babies by Martin Waddell; The Very Best of Friends by Margaret Wild, illus. by Julie Vivas; and Monkey and Me, illus. by Emily Gravett.
Question: Which football team to you support?
Answer: None. I know absolutely zero about football, tennis, baseball, rugby, cricket, netball, tulip throwing, fence-leaping or cabbage kicking. Watching sport is not my thing. I prefer walking on the beach, gardening or reading
Question: Do you have any pets?
Answer: Yes, the cutest dog called Mitzi. We love pets. We once had three dogs and cat. We used to have old excitable little dog called Nellie-Belle. I have written a book about her, called: Nellie Belle, but we haven’t found an illustrator yet.
Question: Do you have any unfulfilled personal ambitions?
Answer: Not really. I’m content!
This is a portrait of me painted in 2004 by Henny van den Wildenberg for the Archibald Prize, the big annual Australian prize for portrait paintings in Australia.
I love it because I do speak with my hands.