AUTHOR INSIGHT: MEET TEENA RAFFA-MULLIGAN

This is a special author insight for me because Teena is a woman close to my heart – she’s my mother-in-law. We met when then newspaper editor Teena needed a casual journalist – that would be me – and her training and encouragement led to me taking on the senior journalist, then editor role, within a relatively short period of time. Teena taught me to stop and breathe (I’m still learning) and gave me a gift like no other: her son. Here’s an insight into this lovely woman. Note: this was written in 2012.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? 

I was quite young, probably about seven or eight and absolutely loved getting lost in books. While other kids my age were playing games I was writing stories and creating magazines, newspapers and cartoon strips. One day I left my friends at the park down the street to rush home and write a poem that was running through my head. I thought I’d become a ballerina and write novels in the dressing room between performances. At 13 I wrote a romantic historical novel in one of my school exercise books – I’d started other books over the years but this was the first one I finished. I still have it.

By the age of 16 I knew the ballerina dream wasn’t going to come true but the writing ambition proved a stayer.

Tell me a bit about your writing journey. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
Reading bedtime stories to my children inspired me to write my first picture books but after a year or so of rejections, I decided it might be easier to write articles for magazines and newspapers – and hit the jackpot. My work sold, I was asked for more articles and within a few years I was a freelance journalist, fitting in my writing around the demands of bringing up three young children. I went on to work extensively in newspapers and magazines, but never lost my dream of becoming a “real” writer and continued to write fiction and poetry for children and adults. Some sold, which gave me the encouragement I needed not to give up. My first picture book was published in 1982, so that was definitely a highlight. It was a stranger danger tale called You Don’t Know Me? and I had about five minutes of fame due to the topic. I was interviewed for TV, radio, newspapers and magazines and the book was used in schools around the country after being endorsed by the WA education and police departments. I thought I’d arrived as a writer but my next two picture books didn’t come out until 1995. It’s always a thrill to receive a manuscript acceptance or an invitation to speak to school groups about writing. Finding publishers can be tough and the market is highly competitive so I get regular rejections, which of course are disappointing. I am fairly philosophical about them these days and my policy is to send the manuscript off to the next publisher or editor on my list and write something new while I’m waiting for the response. That’s another downside of being a writer…there’s usually a long wait for decisions.

One of your current projects is called Who Dresses God? What can you tell us about this book?
When I became a mother I had no idea how much mothers need to know, from where to find the lost sock in the sandpit to why dinosaurs became extinct. One of the questions my younger daughter asked me when she was small was, “Who dresses God?” After a discussion with her nanna she also wanted to know the answer to other vital questions such as who looked after God and how He could see, hear and speak without eyes, ears or tongue. Her questions inspired me to write a rhyming picture book in which a mother and daughter have this conversation about God while getting ready and making their way to kindy. The book remained unpublished until this year and the little girl who wanted to know who dresses God is now answering questions from her own children.

One of your books is called Getting Rid of Wrinkles. What is your remedy for wrinkles? 
My personal remedy is to take off my glasses when I look in the mirror but I had to come up with some more creative ideas (in Getting Rid of Wrinkles). Great Grandma Em had just 10 days to get rid of her wrinkles so I had her try standing on her head, drinking lots of fruit and vegetable use and wearing mud and yoghurt masks, all unsuccessful. Great Gran also found that while steam irons the creases out of shirts and a windy day is brilliant for unwrinkling sheets on the clothes line, neither will work on faces. I had fun with that story. A gypsy’s miracle potion finally did the trick.

Out of your children’s books, which is your favourite? Why?
This is probably the question I’m asked most often during school visits and my answer is always that I have three children, eight grandchildren and no favourites. They’re all special. Of my books, my picture book Big Nanna, Little Nannais special because it’s about my experience having grandmothers from different cultures and I do like Grandpa Goes to Marsbecause it has such a positive message about following your dream. But then I think of all the other stories I’ve written — and it’s too hard to choose one.

What plans do you have to write for adult readers?
I’ve always written short stories and poetry for adults as well as children and some of them have been published. A few won awards in competitions. Every so often I start writing a novel but I don’t usually get far with it because I get sidetracked with a new children’s book idea. A few years ago I set myself the challenge of completing one and I’ve just had an offer from a publisher who is interested in releasing it as an e-book. It’s women’s fiction and in a nutshell it’s about a woman who loses her marriage and finds herself.

Getting rejection letters seems to be part and parcel of the publishing process. Think back to the day you received your first rejection letter  –  what words of wisdom would you give yourself?
Dry your tears. Rejection isn’t personal, it’s a business decision. It doesn’t mean you can’t write, simply that what you wrote didn’t suit the publication so learn from the experience. It’s OK to put creativity ahead of commercialism but know that only by writing what publishers want will you become a published author.

In Mad Dad for Sale, the young boy wants to sell his cranky dad. Did you ever want to sell your dad? 
Never. In fact I thought – and still do- that I had the best dad in the world. He was a sensitive, gentle man, unfailingly patient and always ready to listen to any concerns we had. I never heard him speak ill of anyone and I can only remember him losing his temper with my brother and me about twice during our childhood. On one occasion we were arguing over a comic and Dad’s solution was to tear the book in two and give us half each. He could get angry but it was usually about bigger issues such as poverty, human rights and warfare. Generally he was a cheerful, happy man whose most annoying habit when I was a kid was singing at the top of his voice early in the morning and waking me up.

What’s your favourite word?
That would have to be ‘interesting’. It’s a word I use often and expresses how I feel about my life. (MM – It’s true, she does!)

If you could pick five writers to have dinner with you, who would you choose and why?
John Wyndham, author of science fiction novels including The Kraken Awakes, The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids. My high school English teacher introduced me to the joys of reading science fiction in general and Wyndham’s books in particular. I’d like to find out what he thinks about the changes that have taken place in the world in the past half century.

Dr Paul Brunton and Krishnamurti. I was fascinated by Dr Brunton’s encounters with yogis, mystics and holy men and his intellectual approach to the path to spiritual understanding appealed to me. Krishnamurti was widely recognised as a leading spiritual teacher of the 20th century and I found the simplicity of his writing inspirational. Dad and I had many discussions about the meaning of life and he had most of their books in his bookcase. I began reading them from the age of 14 and eventually bought my own copies. In those days I was committed to seeking spiritual truth and hoped to find guidance in the pages of their books. I’d like to find out how they felt about their experiences.

Julia Cameron’s books The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write struck a real chord with me and inspired me see my writing from a different perspective.

Natalie Goldberg shared her spiritual and creative journey in The Long Quiet Highway and Writing Down the Bones and I’d be really interested in finding out how her later experiences have continued to shape her as a person.

For more information about Teena and her books, visit her website.