Jacqueline Harvey’s bestselling Alice-Miranda series began as an idea for a picture book but it soon became apparent that this perpetually positive seven-and-a-quarter-year-old had a lot more to say. The series has been sold to the United States, United Kingdom, Indonesia and Turkey and has been shortlisted for children’s book awards in Australia. Her first and only picture book, The Sound of the Sea was an Honour Book in the 2006 Children’s Book Council Awards. Jacqueline has spent most of her working life teaching in girls’ boarding schools and has been a Deputy Head and Director of Development. She is passionate about improving educational outcomes for Indigenous students. Jacqueline lives in Sydney with her husband Ian and is currently working on more Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose adventures. She’s just launched Alice-Miranda in the Alps. Check out her website here.
Monique: Your latest novel in the Alice Miranda series, Alice Miranda in the Alps has just been released. Can you tell readers a bit about it?
Jacqueline: Alice-Miranda and her friends are off to Switzerland to ski, sightsee and experience the unique White Turf racing event. St Moritz is as glamourous as they expected and their hotel is beyond belief – as are its owners, the overly friendly Otto Fanger and his frosty wife, Delphine Doerflinger.
Mid-holiday, the Baron, a close friend of Alice-Miranda’s family, reappears after being mysteriously uncontactable, and the group head across the country to stay at the Grand Hotel Von Zwicky. The resort town of Zermatt is full of charm, but underneath the picturesque exterior are glimpses of shady dealings and unsavoury characters. Can Alice-Miranda work out who is involved in time to save the Baron’s beloved hotel? It’s a great mystery full of spies, smuggling and snowy escapades.
Monique: How did the Alice Miranda series come about?
Jacqueline: I wanted to write a book that I would have loved as a child. Before I started Alice-Miranda I sat down and wrote a list of the ingredients of my favourite books from childhood – things like adventure, mystery and the kids being in charge. I was also keen on the idea of a school story because I was a teacher and it was a world I knew so well. I wrote the first book over about a two year period – as I was Deputy Head of a school at the time and could only write in the holidays or on the weekends.
Monique: Was there a particular inspiration for Alice Miranda, the character?
Jacqueline: Originally I took inspiration from some little girls I had taught, but then over time Alice-Miranda really came to be the best bits of so many children I’ve known.
Monique: What do you like most about Alice Miranda, the character? What can she teach young girls?
Jacqueline: I love that Alice-Miranda is kind to everyone, even the bullies. She looks past bad behaviour and tries to work out what motivates people – what makes them tick. I admire that she’s such a good friend, that she’s adventurous and brave and she doesn’t give up on people.
Monique: You also have a series based on Clementine Rose. What do you like most about this character? When is another book due in this series?
Jacqueline: Clementine is adorable – she likes to be helpful but that doesn’t always work out and she has a tendency of putting her foot in it at times. I love that she’s so bubbly and enthusiastic about everything. Her family is a little unusual and so is her home life as they reside in a big old mansion that her mother has converted into a hotel. Her great aunt Violet is a crusty old woman to begin with but I adore how over time Clemmie is really winning her affection and vice versa. Clementine also has the best pet – a teacup pig called Lavender. I’ve just started writing Clementine Rose and the Special Promise which will be out in January 2016.
Monique: Are you surprised by the popularity of the series with children?
Jacqueline: I’m thrilled that both Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose seem to have struck a chord with young readers. It’s very humbling to write books that are enjoyed by so many and I love meeting the readers. I pinch myself all the time to think I’ve been able to make a career of writing.
Monique: What made you decide to write for children rather than adults?
Jacqueline: I think I was always destined to write for children. I enjoyed writing for the kids I taught and in my head when I write a book I think I’m perpetually about nine years old. I love the innocence and fun of writing for children and that I can also inject some jokes for the parents too. Reading aloud was one of my favourite daily activities and I quickly discovered that some books work really well as read alouds but many don’t. I write my books ‘aloud’ always revising sections with the accents and voices – I want adults to enjoy reading them to kids as well as kids reading them for themselves.
Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
Jacqueline: In 2000 after a few very pertinent questions from my husband I decided that I was going to give writing a ‘proper go’ with a view to (hopefully) being published. I had written lots of things for my classes and for school by this time but had never sent anything to a publisher – but I had reached a point where I didn’t want to die wondering. We moved to Byron Bay for a couple of years and I stepped away from full-time work. I was doing lots of casual teaching which was great – all care and no responsibility – and time to write. I worked on a few different things but it was a picture book manuscript that was very close to my heart that opened doors for me. I had entered a competition with the NSW Branch of the Children’s Book Council and much to my surprise, I won. The competition was aptly named the Frustrated Writers’ Mentoring Competition. So as a result of that prize I got my first glimpses into the world of publishing for children. While that book wasn’t published until 2005 and went on to become an Honour Book in the 2006 CBCA Awards, in the meantime I had three junior fiction books in a series published by Lothian in Melbourne. At the time I really hoped that I was on my way as a writer. But the series had the ugliest covers in Australia – and that’s a problem. My picture book was lovely but it was a sad story and one I never expected to have published let alone win two awards. From 2005 I spent quite a while in the writing wilderness. I was working on a range of different things and wondering who I was as a writer, too.
It was during this time that I decided I should just write the type of book I would have loved as a child and that’s when Alice-Miranda began. But it wasn’t smooth sailing there either. Loyalty is really important to me and I suppose I always wanted to be one of those authors who had a long term relationship with one publishing house. But when Alice-Miranda was rejected by my first publisher I had to find a new home. It was a stroke of very good luck that a friend introduced me to Linsay Knight at Random House and that Linsay could see what I saw in Alice-Miranda. We met and within a few weeks I’d signed a contract for two books. I still remember the first time I walked into the Random House office in North Sydney and felt instantly at home – it just felt right. And it has been. From the start, I have loved working with everyone at RHA. Darling Linsay retired not long into the start of the series but I’ve been so fortunate to work with brilliant people at every point in my journey. Chris Kunz looked after me next and now I have Holly Toohey, who is a force to be reckoned with. I have also had two fabulous editors, Kimberley Bennett and now Catriona Murdie. I love that they have always challenged me to be a better writer – that was something I craved and didn’t get in the early part of my career. The publicity team at RH is second to none as is sales and marketing. It really is a brilliant place to be.
Monique: What were your favourite books as a child?
Jacqueline: Heidi, Black Beauty, The Famous Five and The Secret Seven. I loved Paddington Bear too and lots of Colin Thiele books.
Monique: Do children ever give you writing advice?
Jacqueline: Funny that you should ask that. Just this week I’ve had several suggestions regarding things I should write about and where I should head next when I develop something new. I love that kids feel so connected and confident that they can tell me what they think.
Monique: How has your past career in education benefited your writing?
Jacqueline: Working in schools has inspired many ideas for the books. I was fortunate to start my career in a very creative school where I had quite a lot of flexibility. I’d often push the boundaries with experiential learning – from yabbying on the school dam to cooking, building gardens, running the ski team and being part of some fabulous trips including one to Japan. When I was developing the Alice-Miranda series I used to read the material to the children and get them to tell me what they thought. I know that can be a dangerous place to go as you worry that children will tell you what you want to hear but I worked hard to develop the notion of authentic feedback so the kids would tell me when they really didn’t like something. I knew it was working when I tried out a picture book manuscript with a class of Year 6 students (they were doing a unit of work on picture books at the time) and one girl put up her hand and prefaced her comment with, ‘You know I really like you Mrs Harvey…’ What came next was a very honest appraisal of how it was pretty much the most boring book in the world (and I suspect she was right!).
Monique: Describe yourself as a writer in three words.
Jacqueline: Honest, funny and optimistic (and if I could add two more, determined and hardworking!)
Monique: How do you start a novel?
Jacqueline: I usually think about a theme or idea first (particularly as I am writing series’ with an established ensemble cast). I jot some ideas on my giant Post It notes in my office and the whiteboard then I have a notebook where I handwrite a bit of an outline. I think about what new characters are required and I search for the perfect names on baby name websites, online phone directories and random lists of names. I plan the big ideas in the book and like to have a strong sense of the ending before I begin. Then I type and revise frequently along the way. I will read the work aloud and print it off and do revisions numerous times. I often go back to the whiteboard and the Post It Notes and the notebook during the process too.
Monique: What do you do when you’re having doubts about your writing? What happens when you get stuck?
Jacqueline: I talk to my husband and my publisher. I always find it helpful to talk through problems I’m having. I’ll distract myself doing other things like housework or go for a walk to try and get the thoughts flowing. I don’t get stuck terribly often – which is good because I am working to tight deadlines.
Monique: What has writing taught you about resilience?
Jacqueline: The first years of my writing journey were really hard. There was lots of disappointment along the way and I learned that you had to dust yourself off and get back out there. There are no free passes and largely you make your own luck. Because the Alice-Miranda series came out just over five years ago and I became a full-time writer almost three years ago, many people have a perception that it’s been a meteoric rise. They don’t know or remember that I was writing for a long time before that and that when I was developing Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose I was also working sixty hours plus a week in another very demanding job. Writing was a hobby and had to be, as my school job came first. But when Alice-Miranda began to do well, I decided that I wasn’t going to die wondering and I took the huge step to leave a very secure job that I loved, to give this my all. I have no regrets whatsoever and feel so fortunate to be able to do what I do.
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Jacqueline: That’s a hard question – probably that I make things too complicated. I always think ‘oh there’s not enough mystery in here – I probably need some more characters and complications’ and then I have to cut things back and remove characters and complications because it’s just too unwieldy.
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Jacqueline: That it’s a guaranteed path to fame and fortune and that writing for children is somehow a lot easier than writing for adults.
Monique: Which book are you reading now?
Jacqueline: Liane Moriarty’s Three Wishes and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. I recently met Ms Lee’s UK publisher from Random House who had visited her at home in Monroeville. It was exciting to meet someone who has met her and find out how she feels about the new book.
Monique: Which authors/books do you admire the most?
Jacqueline: My favourite authors are Liane Moriarty and Kate Morton and I adore The Book Thief – Markus’s writing is like music.
Monique: Which “must-read” book have you not read?
Jacqueline: Lord of the Rings – I’ve seen the movies but I have to say they’re not really my thing and I don’t think they ever will be.
Thank you, Jacqueline.
What a lovely interview. Jacqueline seems like such a nice person. Thanks for sharing.