Belinda Murrell Makes it a Family Affair.
Belinda Murrell’s The River Charm reads like a Victorian melodrama that seems too outrageous to be true; but it is. Belinda is part of a writing dynasty that stretches back nearly two hundred years. Even the delightful ‘Lulu Bell’ series is based on Belinda’s childhood experiences in the family veterinary clinic. So whatever the era, Belinda’s family, which includes Kate Forsyth (who I interviewed a short while ago), have plenty of material to draw on for literary inspiration.
I didn’t realise until I’d finished reading The River Charm that it’s actually based on your family history.
Writing this story is something I’d wanted to do for a long time, but I did talk to my sister Kate before I started, because I wanted to make sure she supported me.
Initially I was inspired to write The River Charm because in 2011, it was the 170th anniversary of my great-great-great-great grandmother, Charlotte Atkinson writing the first Australian children’s book in Australia. So Kate and I were invited to speak at lots of events about this amazing family history. The more we talked about it, the more people kept saying ‘Wow, that would make a fabulous book. Have you ever thought about writing it?’
In that same year, we were invited to go and see Charlotte Atkinson’s sketchbook from the early 1840s. I went with my daughter Emily Charlotte, my mother and my sister Kate. We opened the sketchbook and there was an inscription from Charlotte to her daughter Emily on her thirteenth birthday and my daughter Emily had just turned thirteen the week before. At that moment I felt that Charlotte was reaching out to me across the centuries and saying something important. That’s when I thought I would love to write her story.
There’s a strong literary background to your family isn’t there?
We laugh and make jokes about it. I’m the eldest and I’m currently writing my nineteenth book, while my sister Kate has written more than 30 books. My brother Nick is also a writer, but he’s a lawyer and writes non-fiction books. So between us we’ve probably written 60 or 70 books.
What is even more exciting is the history of writing goes back several generations. The first writer that I know of in my family was my great-great-great-great grandfather, James Atkinson, who wrote one of the early books about Australia called An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales, written in 1826. He had gone back to England after immigrating to Australia, and everyone asked him lots of questions about colonial life. So he wrote a non-fiction book about the colony, the landscape, what you need to take with you, the indigenous Australians, how to establish a farm in the bush, and so on. It was a huge bestseller back then. Then a few years later, his wife Charlotte wrote the very first children’s book that was published in Australia. Their daughter Louisa was the first Australian born female journalist and novelist, so she was also very important. Kate and I used to joke that because they were all called Charlotte and Emily, they were like the Brontës of Australia. This literary history is something our family has always been very proud of. There have been many other writers in our family, whether writing textbooks, academic papers or articles.
Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a vet, like my Dad, when I was growing up. Kate always had a very clear idea she was going to be a writer, from quite a young age. Kate and I grew up writing together, strongly encouraged by my mother, and it was something we did for fun. If someone was coming for dinner mum would always say ‘Why don’t you write them a poem?’
I remember from the age of seven or eight, filling exercise books with my stories, poems, plays and illustrations. My early writing was heavily influenced by my favourite authors such as Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis.
Were there a lot of books in your house, and were you encouraged to read, as a child?
Yes, we had heaps of books. We were always given books as presents and awards. We had a huge library in our house and we were the sort of kids who would bump into lampposts reading while walking home from school, or were caught in maths classes reading under the table. Our mum would put us to bed and we would be reading under the bedclothes by torchlight, and not finishing the book until three in the morning. My brother Nick was a few years younger and he was also a mad keen reader.
When you were at school, was writing encouraged?
It was strongly encouraged, because I can remember loving creative writing at primary school. My friends would say I was a good writer, but it never occurred to me I was, because it was something that happened really easily.
I never thought of being a writer when I grew up because I always thought it was something you did for fun. It was only as I finished high school, when we had serious conversations about careers and the Principal of my high school said to me ‘Really you should think about writing, because you write so well and it would be such a shame if you didn’t continue with it.’ I think it was important to have someone outside the family, as well as somebody who I looked up to, reinforcing the fact that I could write and making me consider it as a serious career option.
So I went to University and studied a double major in communication and literature. The communication major covered the practical, vocational subjects such as journalism, while the other side was the subjects I loved such as Australian literature, children’s literature and creative writing.
Did this have an influence on where you were going to take your writing?
I found it fascinating. I’ve always loved children’s literature and loved the thought that it was considered something important enough to be studied at university. I really became fascinated by the theory behind it and what my lecturers had to say about it. So the effect the University course on me had was that it was an awakening to the fact that writing for children was something you could do for a living.
How do you think the approaches to children’s writing has changed?
Now I’m out in schools all the time talking to teacher librarians, teachers, educators, publishers and other writers about writing children’s literature. I think there has been a real move back towards making writing for children fun and playful, so kids have books they love to read. I feel that a few years ago there was this trend in children’s literature, when a lot of kids stopped reading for pleasure because so many books were about ‘worthy’ issues and nasty realism. Then suddenly along came Harry Potter and changed all that, making books fun for kids, as well as exciting and magical again. It helped children and writers rediscover the sense of wonder in children’s literature. So one of the joys I have now is that I get hundreds of emails from kids, about how much they love my books, which is really inspiring to me.
I suppose it’s important, when you’re encouraging a child to read, to help them find something they really like reading?
Yes I think that’s important. I know with my three kids (they’re in high school now) that my son is so thrilled, after reading all the set texts throughout the year, to be able to grab something that he really wants to read. He’ll curl up in the corner in the sun and read for pure pleasure without having to analyse it or think about it. My daughter Emily, just wants to read something that she loves and not something she’s been forced to read. She is now reading something at school which she hates because it’s very violent and full of traumatic issues.
Has the type of fiction (time slip and fantasy) been influenced by the many experiences you’ve had travelling with your family?
Yes, I think all my books have been inspired to varying degrees by our travels. My first series was a fantasy adventure series, The Sun Sword trilogy and I wrote that primarily for my children. I remember at the time they were avid readers but they were young and reading beyond their age. So a lot of the books they were bringing home were full of things I wasn’t really thrilled about them reading at the age of nine or ten, because they were books designed for teenagers, and so had subjects like sex and drugs and violence in them. While I didn’t necessarily want to completely forbid them from reading certain books, I thought they weren’t ready for reading them, just at that moment.
I was talking to Kate one day. At that stage she hadn’t written for children and was writing adult fantasy books. I asked her ‘Why don’t you write some books for kids? I’m really struggling to find books for that age range that are rich in details and full of different levels and quite challenging to read, but essentially quite innocent.’ Kate just turned around to me and said ‘Why don’t you write books for kids like that?’
That was what inspired me to start writing that particular series, because I wanted to put into it all the things that my kids loved about books at that stage. So I wrote a fantasy adventure – a dangerous quest, with codes and puzzles, bows and arrows and sword fights. It was really driven by what my son wanted to read at that age. I was very fortunate because the trilogy was picked up straight away by Random House. As soon as I finished my first book, I signed a three book deal. That series was really successful here in Australia and then released last year in the US. It’s being translated into Turkish this year, which is really exciting. Lots of kids write to me about it and say how much they enjoyed it, which is fantastic.
Then I began thinking about my daughter Emily, who is now 15. I was looking at her reading and for some reason at that stage she was reading nothing but the classics. So I began to wonder what it was about those books that she really loved, and what it was about books now that she missed. It seemed to be good old-fashioned storytelling, a bit of romance, as well as a sense of history.
That’s when I set myself the challenge of writing a book that Emily would love. I thought if she loved it, then there would be other girls who would love it as well. So I started with The Locket of Dreams which is my first time slip novel set in the 1850s, in Scotland and Australia. It was basically the idea of a modern day girl discovering an old piece of jewellery that was a magic talisman, which she fell asleep wearing. This made her travel back in time to solve a mystery and have lots of adventures.
When I wrote that book I think my publishers were hoping I would do more fantasy adventure, like ‘The Sun Sword’ trilogy. When I told them about this idea, they were initially a little unsure, but when I wrote it they really liked it. That’s when we started getting a lot of feedback from kids all around Australia, particularly girls, saying how much they loved the book and how they hadn’t read anything like it and how much they enjoyed the time slip element and please could I write more time slip books. With my time slip novels, I was inspired to write stories set in different periods of history. It wasn’t so much about the battles, the great inventions and the explorers, activities that are usually occupied by male heroes, it was more the forgotten stories of the women and children that really inspired me. The Locket of Dreams was actually shortlisted in the 2011 Australian KOALA Awards, where the books are nominated by kids who then vote on them. This meant it was voted one of the top ten most popular kids’ books in Australia for that year, which was a great thrill. My time slip books have been shortlisted in the KOALA awards again in 2012 and 2013.
In The River Charm you’re dealing in an era where if a woman wasn’t married, and they didn’t have any money, their life was very difficult. If they did get married then everything belonged to the husband. You’ve put your main characters in a position where they realistically can’t fight their way out and can only really resist passively. They’re largely having to live by their wits. Was that situation something particularly interested you?
Yes, I actually couldn’t believe what Charlotte Atkinson went through. It made me angry the way she’s been written about sometimes. She’s been called a ‘She Dragon’ and all sorts of other names by the men recording history at that time, because she did not just passively accept her fate. These were men who were very famous in Australian Sydney society. That wasn’t how I saw her. I had stories that had been handed down through the family, which talked about how incredibly strong she was. What true grit she had. I guess I wanted to re-examine the sources and the writings of the family and rewrite the story, thinking about who Charlotte really was, what she achieved and how incredibly brave she was, fighting for her children like that. So many other women would have given up. In fact many did. That’s why I thought it was a fascinating story. I really found it difficult to believe that all of those things had actually happened to one family in the late 1830s and early 1840s in Australia. When my publisher read it she couldn’t believe it had all really happened and I had to reassure her that all the key events were true.
What sort of resources did you use, because although there are genuine facts in the book you also have to blend in fictional elements?
Because the whole family were writers, there is an enormous body of work still available that’s been written by them. There were novels, sketchbooks, their own books and newspaper articles. There were also letters that were written to various people, like the executors of Charlotte’s husband’s estate. James (Charlotte’s husband) was a magistrate and a very respected member of the local community, so he was writing concerned reports on the local indigenous people to the governor in Sydney.
The other fantastic resource I used is called Trove where the National library of Australia has digitised all the early newspapers, so you can go back and read Sydney Heralds dating right back to the beginning of the colony. That was invaluable, because you could look up births, deaths and marriages, bushranger attacks, news items and reports on the court trials. The legal case of ‘Barton versus Atkinson’ was a landmark case in Australia, so there’s a lot of documentation. They went through many court trials, to establish if Charlotte could have access to the money her husband had left, and whether she could actually be guardian of her own children. So there was a lot of information available to me.
I asked my grandmother so often about stories of the family that when she died she left me her collection of books written by Charlotte and James and various bits and pieces including an old painting of Oldbury which hangs in my office.
I also spoke to various members of the family. There was family folklore that had been handed down from one generation to another. I was able to verify the story that one of my relatives told me had be passed down to her. She told me that when Charlotte Waring met James Atkinson on the boat coming out from England, he tipped his hat to her and later on wrapped her in his cloak. This seemed a very romantic story, in fact like many family stories, too romantic to be true. But then I actually read a copy of Charlotte’s Journal of the journey out, I was able to verify this account. So it was very exciting to see that sort of family folklore actually being based on fact.
I felt incensed by Barton’s (Charlotte second husband) behaviour, but he really was a terrible man.
I had a beautiful letter from a girl and she said ‘Belinda, I was reading it on the bus and kicking the seat in front of me every time Barton was horrible until I had a bruised foot.’
It was a very intense book to write. I spent a year consumed by it. So it’s really interesting afterwards to have all these people saying how emotionally intense they felt while they were reading it. It was almost a bit of a surprise to me because I thought it was just me being immersed in that world while I was writing it, but I don’t think I realised it packed such an emotional punch.
When you wrote it, did you write it straight through, because you have a lot of research to put into it? Or did you do it in sections?
I did a lot of research first and then tried to piece this together. Real life is very untidy, and for a story you have to structure it in a nicely formed narrative arc. So I had to look at the actual events to see which bits to put in and which bits to leave out. The whole family led very complex lives and lived a long time.
Also it had to be a children’s book, because I have a history of writing children’s books with Random House and I really wanted to write it as a book pitched for children to young adults. Primarily again I was again thinking of my daughter Emily, who was then 14, as my reader.
I planned out the main events that happened and tried to think about what might have triggered Barton in his plunge into insanity. Some of those things I didn’t really know, but it seemed to me that it happened at about the same time as the estate was being continuously attacked by bushrangers.
I went down to visit Oldbury, the estate near Berrima in the Southern Highlands, which is now owned by another family. My grandparents used to take us down to see the house when we were quite young. We’d drive down a rough, dirt road, and peer through the gates. At that point it was shabby, weed infested and very neglected. I would say ‘One day I’m going to make lots of money and buy it back for the family.’ I always had that dream, from when I was about ten years old. So that memory was very strong.
I wrote to the man who now owns Oldbury and who has renovated it beautifully. He invited me to a charity garden party at the house, with my sister Kate and my mother. For me, the visit was very emotional after spending a year of my life researching the book. I walked through the front gate with Kate and burst into tears. I felt as if I’d actually walked back into the past.
Children’s authors will often write for a variety of age groups. You’ve also written books for a much younger age group that are far less intense than The River Charm. How did the ‘Lulu Bell’ series come about?
Over the last couple of years, people have suggested I try writing for a younger age group, including a friend of mine who owns a bookstore here. Then I was talking to my agent about what I was going to do and said I felt like writing something a little bit different. I’ve done fantasy adventure and several time slip novels and put so much into The River Charm that I felt like writing something lighter and not so difficult or research driven. She also suggested I should write something for younger children. The fact that a couple of people said it in a short space of time made me think that I ought to give it a try. My brain started buzzing and I spoke to my seven year old niece, Ella, as well as lots of friends with younger children. I asked Ella ‘What do you love about books?’ I thought she was going to say something like ‘fairies’ or ‘mermaids’. Ella thought about it and said ‘I like books about friends, and family, and animals.’
I remembered when my kids were growing up that their favourite stories were the ones about me growing up in a vet hospital. They loved stories about our cat having kittens in the washing machine and the time the pony broke into the kitchen and ate our dinner. I would tell them about all the pets we had and my kids were so jealous, because even though we have a few pets it’s nothing like what I had when we were growing up. As our dad was a vet, we lived right in the vet hospital. It was a big old house and the vet hospital was in the rooms at the front, with just a door separating it from the rest of the house. Mum worked as a nurse there as well so we were in there all the time.
Dad hated putting animals down and he was always bringing animals home. At any one time we might have four dogs, four cats, piglets, calves and lots of really interesting animals like turtles, a diamond python, ponies, ducklings and lots of wildlife, like little baby possums (the mother had been killed on the road and the babies would be brought in). At one stage we had a baby wallaby called Christabel who used to hop around the back garden and live a sack on the back of the kitchen door.
I thought that living in a vet hospital would be every little girl’s dream. So this is where the inspiration came to write about Lulu Bell. Her father is a vet, her mother’s an artist and she lives with her brother and sister in the vet hospital. I went to Random House with the idea for the series and we took it from there.
How did you gauge the right level of writing for this age group, which is about six to nine years of age?
I am good at talking with kids, because I visit schools all the time. I also spend a lot of time talking to my nieces and nephews and friends’ kids of that age. I carry my notebook around with me everywhere, writing down the funny little things that kids might say. In fact I’ve done this for years. I’ve got journals going back from when my kids were born and when they first started to say their first words. So the things Lulu’s brother, Gus, says are things that I’ve heard either my children or someone else’s children say. They’re based on real conversations.
It did take me a little while to pitch the language at the right level, because in the beginning I was writing at a slightly too complex level. This meant I had to go through and shorten the sentence structures – breaking long sentences up into two or three sentences. I also had to simplify the vocabulary where I had automatically used a complex word. For example I had to change ‘Lulu examined the cat’ to ‘Lulu looked at the cat’, or ‘art exhibition’ to ‘art show’. I’ve always enjoyed using a richer vocabulary with my books for older children, because I felt that with too many kids’ books the language is ‘dumbed down’. Occasionally I do leave in some of the more complex words with the ‘Lulu Bell’ books, especially when it gives a poetic sense and lyricism. For example in the first book, when the mum is welcoming all the little mermaids into the mermaid party she says ‘Please place your kind offerings on the table for the princess to peruse at her pleasure.’
I found the first two books more difficult to write, but after that I got into a natural rhythm. What I did with my work was to split it up so I worked on The River Charm for several months, then I wrote quite a few Lulu Bells at one time. Otherwise it was difficult to move backwards and forwards between the older and younger books at the same time.
Dialogue and interactions between all the different characters is very important in books for younger children. In an adult book you may have a rolling dialogue without the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ in it. How do you do this in a book for younger children?
There is a lot of dialogue and for younger kids it is particularly important to attribute the dialogue continuously. But even with my books for older kids I do make sure that there is signposting there. In the older books I try and avoid the word ‘said’, because it is a boring word. This may come from my journalistic background where everything had to be ‘said’. You couldn’t have any sense of emotion in there, whereas I quite enjoy using more interesting words attributing dialogue. This is something I had to change with Lulu Bell, because if you wrote something like ‘he murmured’, it would be too complex a word at that stage to use. I left ‘replied’ or ‘asked’ in to give a bit of variety.
Because Lulu Bell is for younger readers, you have illustrations. How important do you think it is to get the illustrations right, because they might be so distracting that the children won’t read the words, or make them very confused?
I was really nervous when we first had to decide on the illustrator for Lulu Bell. I had already written the first three books. Initially it was going to be a four book series but now it’s gone to an eight books series, with probably more in the pipeline. Random House went to a lot of effort looking at different Australian illustrators, trying to decide who would be right for Lulu Bell. We wanted the illustrations to have a certain classic feel but also be a little bit quirky. Random House felt that there was a trend back towards a classic presentation of these sorts of books. Classics are doing very well at the moment in Australia, with many vintage classic books being reissued for kids and adults. Because Lulu Bell has a warm, joyous family feel, that’s what we were looking for in the illustrations.
When they first introduced the idea to me of using Serena Geddes I wasn’t quite sure. I was really scared of how someone else would interpret my creation. I’d heard some horror stories from other authors of how they’ve spent years working on a book, only to find the illustrator taking it in a completely different direction which they disliked. But I have a really great relationship with Random House, so choosing the illustrator was a joint decision. Serena was asked to do some roughs for us to approve, and fortunately I absolutely loved them.
Serena is lovely. I knew her, so she came over to my house and met my kids and my dog. We had cups of tea and cake together, and spent time looking at photos, so she could incorporate the essence of my family into the illustrations.
When she did the first sketches I was overwhelmed by them. Now every time I get the roughs from Serena for a new book I just get goose bumps, and get so excited. So it really is a perfect partnership.