What authors/books did you read as a child? When did you first discover your love of books?
One of my very earliest memories is of snuggling up, reading picture books with my mother. I don’t remember a life before loving books! As a child I loved books by Enid Blyton, C.S Lewis, L.M Montgomery, Louisa May Alcott and Tolkein…. The book that most fired my imagination was The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. I loved its enticing mixture of adventure, action and fantasy. My sister and I would dress up in silver chain mail, with swords and bows and arrows, and play Narnia. I was enraptured by the idea that it might be possible to pass through a secret door into a magical world, full of talking animals and adventure.
When did you first realise you were a writer? What do you hope your readers will take away with them from reading your books?
Writing was one of my other favourite activities as a child. From about the age of eight, I wrote poems, plays and hand-illustrated adventure stories, heavily influenced by Enid Blyton. When I was younger I wrote purely for my own pleasure, but as I have had my own three children, my writing has been influenced by what they love to read.
Firstly, I hope my readers really love reading my books. I hope they feel a sense of joy and fun, adventure and excitement, and ultimately share a belief that an individual can change their life for the better.
Do you find it difficult to read purely for pleasure? Does everything you read come under your ‘writer’ microscope?
Yes, it can be difficult to read for pleasure, partly because there is so much reading to do during the research for my books, or to keep up with what other children’s authors are writing. Life is so busy with three children, working, writing, running a house and family, that it is hard to find time to do anything just for pleasure! However during holidays, I just love escaping into a really good book. For some reason on holidays I find it much easier to suspend my ‘writer eye’ and stop trying to analyse what the author is trying to do.
Do you have to avoid reading certain types of fiction while writing your own? Does what you read while writing have an effect on what you write? In what way?
When I am writing I tend to choose books that I feel will help me with my own book, whether that is historical research or just trying to analyse what I love about someone else’s writing. For example when I was writing The Ruby Talisman, which is set during the French Revolution, I read biographies of Queen Marie-Antoinette, memoirs written by her ladies-in-waiting, eighteenth century etiquette manuals and French history books, as well as a variety of fiction set during the late eighteenth century. I am searching not so much for historical facts but for details about everyday life during that time and how people felt and behaved.
I also try to keep up with what my own children are reading so we can talk about what they love and why. So I am influenced not just by what books I personally enjoy, but also by what my children love to read.
Name five authors or books that have influenced or inspired your own writing in some way.
Enid Blyton – as a young child, Enid Blyton was the author I first adored. Her books had humour, adventure, excitement, magic, friendship and a delightful absence of interfering adults, which I still believe are all wonderful ingredients for an enthralling children’s book.
C.S. Lewis – talking animals, children who could be kings and queens of a magical world, adventure, danger – the Narnia books have it all. My 10 year old son said the other day that if he could have one wish, it would be that he could slip into Narnia any time he wanted! That’s exactly how the books made me feel as a child.
J.R.R. Tolkein – my other favourite otherworld is Middle earth. As a teenager, I loved The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit. The world and creatures which Tolkein created are so incredibly vivid that details of the books have stayed with me for many, many years. Our family still makes jokes about hobbit breakfasts and furry feet.
Emily Bronte – The history of the Bronte sisters has always intrigued me – the three sisters living their isolated and tragic lives on the wild and blustery moors of Yorkshire, writing their amazing novels. For many years, my sister and I imagined we would be modern day Bronte sisters creating fantasy worlds and writing masterpieces! With its dramatic themes of passion, tragedy, destructive love and a twist of the supernatural - Wuthering Heights has always been my favourite Bronte book. As an adult I travelled to Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire to pay homage to these inspiring sister authors. By the way, my daughter is called Emily Charlotte!
John Fowles - The haunting image of The French Lieutenant’s Woman standing on the Cobb at Lyme Regis, staring out to sea has lingered with me for many years. I loved this book because of its mixture of nineteenth century themes, including passion, obsession, and rebellion, and its innovative modern twists. John Fowles presents three alternative endings, each equally feasible, and laments the disobedience of his characters, celebrating that his creations have a life of their own, which he cannot always control. How right he was! I first read this novel at university and it has remained one of my all-time favourites.
If you were travelling and were told you could only take one book with you, what book would it be and why?
It would be an empty notebook so I could fill it up with ideas, descriptions, experiences, images, impressions and hopefully, a concept for a new book of my own.
What makes a book ‘too good to put down’?
Characters that are so vivid, they seem to come alive so you really care what happens to them. An interesting plot filled with surprising twists and turns. An evocative setting which makes you feel like you are really there. Finally language that is beautiful and and clear and sparkling.
What makes you put down a book without finishing it?
Characters that I couldn’t care less about. Boring, pompous writing. Writers who seem to love the sound of their own voice. And depressing books – books that make me feel that there is no hope for the world!!
Do you have a favourite author? Who is it and what is it about their writing that draws you to them?
That is such a hard question! I love so many authors!!! If I had to name just one, I would have to say my sister Kate Forsyth. She has inspired me in so many ways. Her writing is beautiful, intelligent and so vivid that I feel like I am actually there with her characters.
If you had to list them, what would be your ‘top ten’ reads of all time (excluding the classics) and why?
This is an almost impossible question!! When I think of my all-time top ten books, I realise that so many of them are ‘classics’ – books like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, (I adore nineteenth century literature) so I am going to cheat and list the top 10 books I have read more recently (in no particular order)!
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls - a fascinating memoir about Jeanette’s life growing up in a wandering, homeless family in America. This book enthralled me because the author never wallows in self-pity or misery, yet her life was both incredibly difficult and very rich. I can both understand and abhor the irresponsible choices made by her parents, particularly as we chose to travel for two years with our own children. One of the best memoirs I’ve read.
Juliet by Anne Fortier. This book is set in stunning Sienna in Italy, and is a parallel story of the original Juliet, made famous by William Shakespeare, together with a modern day Julie who is on a quest to lift an ancient family curse and discover the truth about her family.
The White Queen by Philippa Gregory. This was an excellent book about Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the two princes who were imprisoned in the Tower. I loved the rich historical detail about a strong woman fighting for her children and her family against the intrigues of the royal court during the War of the Roses, as well as the twist of the supernatural.
Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner. This was one of my favourites as a child, and I reread it last year as part of the research for The Ivory Rose, about family life in Sydney around the turn of the nineteenth century. I love her cast of irrepressible characters, especially the mischievous Judy. The moment when Judy saves her baby brother must be one of the most heartbreaking scenes I can remember reading.
The Thief Lord, by Cornelia Funke. This children’s book is set in the romantic city of Venice and is about a gang of runaway children, led by the Thief Lord, who live in an abandoned cinema. The book is an enticing mixture of adventure, mystery, magic and tantalising twists. I read it with my family in Europe, and we explored Venice, searching for all the settings described in the book.
Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulkes. I love Sebastian Faulkes, and I reread Charlotte Grey recently for my book club. This is one of my favourites – the combination of the interesting historical details of the French Resistance during the Second World War, its evocative setting in one of my favourite countries, a strong, determined heroine and the frustrated romances of the main characters.
The Letters of Rachel Henning edited by David Adams. I discovered this collection of letters while I was researching The Locket of Dreams a couple of years ago and I find it a valuable resource for researching Australian domestic life in the nineteenth century. I am intrigued by the everyday lives of ordinary people in different periods of history.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. This book was delightful, funny and heart-warming. Set on the tiny island of Guernsey, after the Second World War, it is a story of the importance of books, love and friendship and how these have the power to transcend the horror of war. I loved everything about this book and was touched by the story of its author. It is the first novel of a 70 year old former librarian, who achieved her dream of writing a successful book, only to die just before publication.
A Mother’s Offering to Her Children by Charlotte Waring. This book was the first children’s book published in Australia and was written by my great-great-great-great grandmother in 1841 – our family is celebrating the 170th anniversary of its publication. I often dip into this book because of its intriguing history and quaint old fashioned style. I’m also fascinated by the history of writing in my family which goes back more than two hundred years.
What was your 2010 ‘best read’? What was it that made it number one?
Again – such a difficult question. I adored Kate Morton’s book – The Forgotten Garden. It was a fascinating tangle of family secrets, the mysteries of the past and its impact on the present, with interesting historical detail and evocative settings. It is exactly the sort of book I love to read.
What do you think of the non-traditional publishing methods – eBooks etc? Do you think the new technology will encourage more people to read? Do you think there’s a future for print books?
I believe there will always be a future for print books, at least this century! For those brought up on books, there is something so special about owning and reading a book printed on paper, curling up somewhere cozy and turning the pages. I love seeing children in bookshops or libraries – they cuddle books to their chests.
I think eBooks are wonderful and I can see how this generation of children use the internet so efficiently and easily. There is no doubt that eBooks will become more and more popular and accessible – especially non-fiction books. The internet has made being a writer so much easier – in moments you can be reading the firsthand memoir of one of Queen Marie-Antoinette’s ladies-in-waiting or looking up the nineteenth century remedy for arsenic poisoning in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.
Some of my latest books are available as eBooks, but somehow I can’t get quite as excited about seeing them, as I do when the postman delivers the first copy of one of my books straight from the printer and I get to hold it in my hands.
Belinda has also worked as a travel journalist, technical writer and public relations consultant. She is the author of four picture books, a fantasy adventure series - The Sun Sword Trilogy, and three time-slip adventures The Locket of Dreams, The Ruby Talisman, and The Ivory Rose.
Find out more about Belinda at www.belindamurrell.com.au