Sunday 29 September 2013

Author Interview: Tania McCartney

Prolific and acclaimed children’s author Tania McCartney has recently published a book in New Frontier’s Aussie Heroes series. The fifth book in the series of junior historical fiction, Caroline Chisholm: The Emigrant’s Friend is an illustrated chapter book for children aged 8 - 12, and covers the remarkable life and work of one our Australia's greatest philanthropists. The book features beautiful illustrations by Pat Reynolds.

Here Tania talks about her research and writing of this book as well as other aspects of her writing career.

Why did you chose Caroline Chisholm to write about, or were you assigned her?

 I have always admired New Frontier’s Aussie Heroes series. I approached publisher Sophia Whitfield about doing one of the books for her, and offered up several suggestions, including Caroline, which was who Sophia eventually chose. I was delighted. In a way, I guess Caroline (via Sophia) chose me.

What impression did you form of Chisholm? Do you think you would have liked her if you’d met her?

Caroline was a woman of ‘pleasing disposition’. She was polite, pulled-together and proper, but she was also adventurous, gutsy, fearless and tenacious, with a deep passion for family, community and human rights.

In her portraits and in the newspaper articles written on Caroline, she comes across as a rather formal woman, but she was well-educated, well-married and well-travelled, so formality was indicative of her status as well as the time.

As I got to know her, however, I saw a real passionate side. Caroline was selfless and immensely courageous. She moved around a lot and dealt with tens of thousands of impoverished or displaced people and plenty of bureaucrats, so I’m sure she would have had a healthy sense of humour. And I also sensed an almost ‘playful’ side. She adored her kids.

 I think I would have loved her.

 What do you think was Chisholm’s biggest achievement?

 Oh gosh, there were so many. I guess her Family Colonization Loan Society was one of her finest achievements, most especially as it helped populate our country with strong, determined workers, who helped shape our farming land and towns.

 Emigrants received funding from the Society to cover part of their passage to Australia. Once the families were settled, they could pay back the Society with earnings. This allowed broken families to reunite, and helped so many people begin new lives that were a vast improvement on the appalling conditions they lived under in the UK.

How much research was involved in the book?
This book took a lot of research, even with its relatively low word count. I researched in depth because I owed it to kids to cover all bases of Caroline’s story but also because I found it vital in terms of getting to know Caroline.

When you write faction, and you spend time surmising certain scenes, you really do need to know the character well. I researched her life in many different places—I read existing books, I scoured newspaper articles and letters ( and I studied (authenticated) websites.

Rodney Stinson of was priceless—he shared much of his extensive knowledge with me.

Can you name five other Aussie Heroes you think deserve a book? Any in particular who interest you?

I have more than five! But I’d love to write a book on May Gibbs, Dorothy Wall, Miles Franklin, Florence Broadhurst, and Ethel Turner.

Yes, I know they are all women, but I find females so underrepresented in Australian history. When I was researching Australian Story for the National Library, it struck me how unbalanced the representation of male/female stories and achievements are. Yes, men achieved a lot, but so did women—they just received less press and less roles of status. There are many, many women who worked behind the scenes in our history, who will never be known.

With my choices, above, all but Florence are writers, and not much at all has been written about them (for children). I love that these women helped shape Australia’s literary scene. At one stage, Aussie kids had not much more than American and British books to read—May Gibbs was instrumental in creating Australian-themed books for our children.

How long did the book take to research and write?

This book probably took around three or four months of researching, writing, redrafting and fact-checking. Editing to and fros added another few months.

What are you working on at the moment?

 I’m so happy to be working on more historical books. The first is a classic narrative picture book on Captain Cook for the National Library of Australia (illustrated by multi-talented friend Christina Booth). The second is a book on the Aussie child called Australian Kids Through the Years, also for the National Library and illustrated by the divine Andrew Joyner.

 I’m working on some trade books, too—Tottie and Dot—my second picture book with dear friend Tina Snerling (for EK Publishing) and a junior fiction series called Ella McZoo: Animal Whisperer. I’m very excited about these books as they are really central to who I am as an author, and are fiction (which I write far too infrequently). I’m also hoping to start on a faction book on May Gibbs shortly.


What are some other non-fiction titles you’ve published?

Australian Story: An Illustrated Timeline is a non-fiction, high-image picture book for the NLA and my second book for them--Eco Warriors to the Rescue!—has just been released. It’s a cross between faction and fiction in that it contains much fact but with a fiction narrative. An Aussie Year: Twelve Months in the Life of Australian Kids (EK Publishing) is out this October and it is also a non-fiction book, hosted by fictional characters. I love blending genres!

My adult non-fiction titles include You Name It, Handmade Living and Beijing Tai Tai.

Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction? Why?

I love them both almost equally. I really subscribe to that old nugget: ‘fact is stranger than fiction’, and I find researching non-fiction and faction immensely rewarding. I also love the educational components of non-fiction books, and how attracted children are to them. Kids are on an endless quest of discovery, after all, and non-fiction books are like adventure/discovery guidebooks.

Having said that! I have to be honest and say fiction is my true love—an irony because I rarely write it, and so desperately want to. This is why Ella McZoo was such a joy to write because it really fulfilled me, and I’m feeling the call to write adult fiction again, too.

 I was at a school yesterday and the gorgeous teacher-librarian told the children I was unusual because I write across multi-genre. I found this really interesting because writing across genre is normal to me. I think there’s always a little bit of fiction in fact and a whole lot of fact in fiction. When you’re telling stories you love, sometimes the genre pales, and I must admit, I love that thought.

Tania McCartney is an author of both children’s and adult books, and has been writing professionally for over 25 years. An experienced magazine writer and editor, she also founded respected literary site Kids’ Book Review. She is passionate about literacy, and loves to speak on reading, books and writing. Her latest books include Eco Warriors to the Rescue! (National Library Publishing), Riley and the Jumpy Kangaroo: A journey around Canberra (Ford Street) and An Aussie Year: Twelve months in the life of Australian Kids (EK Publishing). Tania adores books, travel and photography. She lives in Canberra with her family, in a paper house at the base of a book mountain.

Caroline Chisholm: The Emigrant’s Friend (New Frontier, Oct 2013, $14.95, paperback, 9781921928482)

‘If Captain James Cook discovered Australia––if John Macarthur planted the first seeds of its extraordinary prosperity––if Ludwig Leichhardt penetrated and explored its before unknown interior––Caroline Chisholm has done much more: she has peopled—she alone has colonised in the true sense of the term.’
—Henry Parkes’s Empire newspaper, 15 August 1859

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