Norman Jorgensen was born in Broome, the eldest of four brothers, and has lived in several country towns since. At a young age he developed a love of books, especially historical novels like Treasure Island, and old movies. At age thirteen Norman learned to sail. These days he loves travelling and researching exotic places for his books. His latest book is The Smuggler’s Curse.
His books also include The Last Viking and The Last Viking Returns. The Last Viking won the 2012 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Crystal Kite Award, the 2012 WA Young Readers’ Hoffman Award and a 2012 Children’s Book Council of Australia Junior Judges Award. Jorgensen won CBCA picture book of the year for In Flanders Fields.
Monique: Your latest novel for children is The Smuggler’s Curse. Tell me a bit about it.
Norman: The story is set in 1896 and tells of a boy called Red Read who lives at the Smuggler’s Curse tavern in Broome with his single mum. One day he discovers she has sold him as a cabin boy to a Captain Black Bowen, a notorious smuggler, and before he can even believe it, he is whisked away on a sleek sailing ship to perilous adventures in Singapore, Sumatra and the South China Sea. Along the way, he is forced to grow up quickly in the rough and dangerous world of the smugglers when all hell breaks loose, with cannons and guns firing, cyclones at sea and facing murderous pirates and deadly head-hunters.
Monique: What’s the feedback been like for this book? What do you think the attraction is for younger readers?
Norman: The feedback has been fabulous, and the half-dozen reviews have all been wonderful. I’m not sure of the reason, but maybe the old-fashioned plot and the relentless action. I tried not to leave room for the reader to get bored. Boys, mostly that I have talked to have loved it, including one who said it was his favourite book, ever, in the entire universe.
Monique: Do you prefer writing novels for children or picture books?
Norman: Even though the word count is horrendous, I think I actually prefer writing novels. Picture books are told using both words and pictures, so many of my original words have to be cut out as the pictures take over. And that can hurt when you’d spent hours carefully choosing them. Also, most picture books are restricted to about 600 words, and that takes an awful lot of skill to get across a plot in such a small number. You have so much more freedom in a long novel.
Monique: Do you have a favourite character in your books? Which one are you most like? (You can tell me.)
Norman: I like Nell, Jack’s mum from Jack’s Island. She is based directly on my beloved grandmother and in the book she is actually as she was in real life – no exaggeration necessary for dramatic purposes. Red, the hero from the Curse and my latest creation, is a bit of a favourite too as I love how he grows from been a skinny little weakling afraid of everything into a fully-fledged, swashbuckling pirate.
Monique: What draws you to writing stories for children rather than adults?
Norman: My family all think it is due to my arrested development. Even at Christmas, they sit me at the kids’ table. Childhood was a special time for me and was the time I developed my love of books and reading. The books of that time still influence me greatly when I’m writing. For some reason too, every time I have an idea for a new book, it mysteriously seems to be for a children’s book. It is not a conscious choice.
Monique: What are some of the challenges children’s book writers face? Do you think children’s books harder to write than adult fiction? If so, why?
Norman: The biggest challenge is having to think like a child all the time and, unfortunately, or fortunately, it tends to rub off and become the new reality. Another is the amount of time you get to actually write. Earning a living means that you have to accept every request for school or library talk or paying festival event, which takes you away from your writing desk for days at a time. Royalties are small, and I get only $1.70 for each novel sold or $1.24 for a picture book, so unless a book is a huge bestseller, poverty is the biggest challenge.
I’ve tried writing adult novels, and that is a hard task as there are no restrictions on what you write, so you have too many choices, while kids’ books are more difficult in that they involve a lot of self-censorship and boundaries. Keeping to a consistent reading level and being aware that parents and teachers don’t want their children exposed to too much of the seedy side of life can be difficult. For instance, in reality, people swear a lot, and I was writing about sailors, famous for it, so making their dialogue sound realistic without including any swearing proved bloody challenging.
Monique: How do you start a new story?
Norman: I start with one word or a few notes on the closest bit of paper, usually an envelope or a napkin. Next, I’ll expand it in my trusty old notebook, the one I try and carry everywhere, but, of course, it is always somewhere else when I really need it. I make as many notes as I can longhand and even try out a few sentence or chapter headings. Often too I will take loads of photographs of where the story is to be set, or trawl back through older photos that may have twigged the setting. As a novel usually takes such a long time to write, in that time, I will try and visit the places I’m going to write about. I believe you need to be on the ground, searching the landscape, breathing the smells, hearing the noises, watching the people and soaking up the atmosphere, so your story will sound authentic.
Monique: What have you learned about writing over the years?
Norman: I am amazed at what appears on screen as I type. It is as if someone else is controlling my fingers. Images and scenes that have nothing to do with any of my experiences suddenly appear, and then characters I’ve just invented take control of their own lives, leaving me surprised and often dumbfounded at the things I do. I’m also a peaceful, gentle sort of bloke, so the total mayhem and wholesale murder that appeared in The Smuggler shocked me. Where for the life of me did that all come from, I found myself asking over and over.
Monique: What other writing-related projects are you working on at the moment?
Norman: Desert Rose is a YA novel set in the Coolgardie goldfields just after the pipeline arrived. Dessert Island is about kids marooned on an island made entirely of sugar, lollies, chocolate and lemonade waterfalls. In Search of Jack Kelly is a non-fiction book about the brother Ned Kelly who grew up to become circus performer and a policeman in the Western Australia police. Mary Christmas is about a little girl who is accidentally appointed the next real Santa when the current old man retires.
Monique: Where did your desire to write spring from?
Norman: The desire came from my earliest years while I was reading Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven. I loved the series so much that I wanted to be a member of the gang, even though I lived 12,000 miles away and didn’t own a thick gabardine raincoat or a red Cub cap. I started writing little stories where I was the eighth member of the Secret Seven – it never occurred to me that seven was important to the title. The new eighth member, Norman, turned out to be the real hero of the books and solved all the crimes and captured the wicked smugglers single-handed. I haven’t progressed very far in 55 years, have I?
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Norman: Every time I read something by one of the ‘greats’, I have a crisis of confidence, and then, luckily, I’ll read something really poor and think, maybe, I’m not as bad as that. When I get stuck, I go and have a long, hot bubble bath. All my best ideas have come when I’ve been up to my eyes in steaming hot water.
When I get stuck, I just write any old drivel knowing that I’ll be back to edit it out before too long. I also try and kid myself that I am writing just to keep myself amused and not really for publication, so as to relieve the anxiety. Though, if that were really the case, I’d be bitterly disappointed.
Monique: What’s your typical writing day like?
Norman: I sit in my studio in the back garden on an old armchair with a board across my knees, and a dozen sharpened pencils… no, that’s Road Dahl. I, Norman, sit in my studio in the back garden in darkness with all the lights off, so there is just the screen and whatever is at the ends of my fingers and slam away at the Apple keyboard. I need one with big letters, like Apple’s, as I can’t type very well. At school, I had a choice of Woodwork or Typing, and, like an idiot, didn’t choose Typing. I never really needed the skill until quite late in life, but now I live by it and could really use an increase in speed and accurayc. (Monique laughs at Norman’s obvious accuracy here – #dadjoke.)
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Norman: How much money we all earn. Most of us would be financially better off working at Maccas. True. We have way more fun, though, so I shouldn’t complain too much
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Norman: It has taught me that at least I have some resilience. Bouncing back from rejection with your enthusiasm intact is hard, as is ignoring lukewarm reviews, but I keep doing it, just as I keep on writing. Writing has also taught me patience, lots of patience. The book world moves at a snail’s pace. I have grown old polishing manuscripts, waiting for publishing decisions, editing, waiting for production and distribution, for the royalties to be paid, Public Lending Rights payments to come, and everything else that takes so much longer than you’d like.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Norman: At present, it seems to be over-researching. I spend hours on Google finding obscure facts that are not worth the amount of time it took to search for. Just write the bloody book, Norman! My other weakness is I am easily distract … oh look, a shiny thing.
Monique: What do you think about the phrase ‘write what you know’?
Norman: It’s a great start. Later on, you can research, travel and find out about things, people and places you want to write about. Even then, after a lot of research, you’ll still be writing about what you now know.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Norman: Once, when I was still a teenager, I was reading John Steinbeck’s Fields of Heaven and didn’t realise until the sun came up that I had been reading all night, I was so engrossed. I also love historical fiction, and I admire comedy writers. Comedy is so hard to do well and is often underrated. Tom Sharpe, Lesley Thomas and Bill Bryson are all heroes of mine. There is also an editor from the 1920s and ’30s called Maxwell Perkins. No one has heard of him, but he discovered and edited Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, William Fawkner and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings who wrote The Yearling.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Norman: Several at once. Richard Fidler’s’ Ghost Empire, a fascinating book about Constantinople and the Byzantium empire. The latest Brotherbond by John Flanagan. Lamentation by CJ Sansom, a crime novel set in the time of King Henry VIII. I just noticed writing this that they are all historically based.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not yet read?
Norman: I’m not that hard on myself. I read enough of the books I’ve chosen not to need the latest dinner party flavour-of-the-week. Slap me if you want.
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Norman: Storyteller, aged twelve.