Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Dee White has two books coming out, or that have come out during this pandemic – Beyond Belief, and Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training – she has discussed them both here in one of my longest interviews yet! So it is interesting and exciting to get so many different interviews and responses, and shows how diverse our writing industry is in many ways. Like many authors, the release of Dee’s books was affected by the pandemic, and events have been cancelled. Dee agreed to take part in my series to promote these books and hopefully reach her readers.
Hi Dee and welcome to The Book Muse!
1. You’ve got two new releases that I am featuring here – one of which I do have on order. Could you tell my readers about each of them?
Beyond Belief is a work of historical fiction inspired by the true story of Muslims at a Paris Mosque who saved Jewish children during WW11. It tells the story of eleven year-old Jewish boy, Ruben and his family who are fleeing the Nazis and French police after more than 13,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps during the Vel D’hiv roundup on 16 and 17 July 1942.
Eddy Popcorn also features an eleven year-old boy, but couldn’t be more different. Eddy Popcorn is contemporary, humorous illustrated fiction. Eddy has been grounded for the school holidays for not doing his homework. Faced with not seeing the beach, or his mates, for the WHOLE holidays, Eddy puts all of his frustration into a helpful book for kids: Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training.
2. Beyond Belief is the one I have on order, and was published in early April – can you tell my readers what it is about, and where the idea came from?
As I mentioned earlier, this book is inspired by a true story that I stumbled upon when I was researching another book, Paris Hunting. (Still a work in progress.) After the roundup, Ruben’s parents leave him at the mosque where they know he will be safe while they go looking for his sister Rosa who has been missing for some months. Ruben must wait for there for the infamous Fox who will take him to Spain to be reunited with his family. (The Fox is also inspired by a real historical character). At the mosque, Ruben must learn how to be a Muslim. One hint of his true identity and he’ll be killed, and so will the people trying to save him.
3. Following on from the previous question, Beyond Belief explores one of the untold stories of World War Two. What draws you to these kinds of stories, and how do you think we can get them into classrooms and mainstream discussions of history?
I feel like there’s so much we can learn from the past but also so much that we can relate to the modern world. Racism and propaganda are still issues we face today. In Paris and in other parts of Europe in the late 1930’s the Nazis instigated a campaign of hate against the Jews. They produced posters showing Jews taking over the world and stealing people’s hard earned money. They forced Jews from the ghettos to ‘act’ in films. They dressed them up in opulent clothes and forced them to walk past Jews dying on the streets of the ghettos to convince the general public that these people didn’t even care about their own race. It was all fake news, but people believed it. They used this propaganda to dehumanise the Jews so that when atrocities were committed against them, people wouldn’t step into help. They used these campaigns of hate to turn people against the Jews in much the same way that the Howard government used the fake ‘children over board’ campaign to turn modern day Australians against refugees. They tried to make us believe that parents were throwing their children overboard to save themselves and this was proven not to be true.
I think I’m drawn to these stories because they show the power of human kindness … and that we are all people, regardless of religious beliefs or place of birth. The interfaith solidarity between the Jews and the Muslims crossed all religious and historical boundaries. It was simply an example of genuine human concern for other humans. During the war there were examples of this all over the world between many different races. During my research I discovered an amazing organisation called I Am Your Protector. https://iamyourprotector.org/ I really believe in their ethos. They do amazing things. They are, “a community of people who speak out and stand up for one another other across dimensions of religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation. Through our work, we transcend perceived lines of division between different communities and endeavour to change the way people view the “other”. We share knowledge, stories, and tools that inspire people to become each other’s protectors.”
In February, the Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino announced that the Holocaust would become compulsory learning for Years 9 and 10 and I think that’s a great start to bringing books like Beyond Belief into schools. With themes like racism and fake news, books like Beyond Belief aren’t just a way to examine the past, they’re also relevant today. I think that all we can do is try to get the word out about books like Beyond Belief (like you are doing with your blog) and through social and mainstream media to make schools aware that these books are available and how valuable they can be in the classroom. Publishers like Scholastic also provide curriculum-based teacher’s notes to help.
4. Your other new release, Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training, was released on the first of May – what is this about, and is it a stand-alone, or part of a series?
Eddy Popcorn’s character and story are inspired by my boys when they were around eleven or twelve. I love the ironic humour of kids at this age. Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training is about the pre-teen relationship between kids and adults – that time when kids are starting to question the world around them and whether parents actually have all the answers. I love this age because kids are starting to develop their own perspective on the world and it’s often very funny.
Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Parent Training is the first book in the series illustrated by Ben Johnston, whose illustrations are amazing. I’d never met or spoken to him, but he really seemed to connect with Eddy and his story. The second book in the series, Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Teacher Taming is coming out with Scholastic Australia next year.
5. With both of these books released in the midst of a pandemic, what events, launches and appearances did you have to cancel?
I had a launch at our local library and one at the Little Bookroom organised … and of course these were both cancelled. I had received a grant to do a month long artist residence at a remote regional Victorian school in May/June but this couldn’t go ahead either. I had planned a three-month book tour (in my caravan Luna) from Melbourne to Townsville and return with school, library and bookstore visits and events booked in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. I also planned to visit isolated regional areas because I feel they often miss out on having authors visit their towns and schools. All this had to be cancelled. There were also a number of writer’s festivals that had booked me to appear and these didn’t go ahead either.
6. Did you always want to be a writer, and what do you think you would have been if you hadn’t gone down the publishing road?
I wanted to be a writer since I was seven, but it wasn’t considered a ‘proper job’ at that time so when I left school I actually went into insurance, which I hated, and then marketing and advertising. From this I was able to get a job as a copywriter so at least I was writing and from there I went into journalism. But even when I was working in insurance, I still wrote in my own time. I was compelled to write. For me it has always been as essential as breathing.
7. What are the craziest, or most outlandish things you have done in the name of research for one of your books?
Probably doing a tour of the Paris sewers for Beyond Belief. It was certainly the smelliest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve also been up in a hot air balloon and invented and trialled my own weapons in the name of research.
8. Where have you travelled to research your books, and which of these places has been the most interesting or your favourite?
My research has taken me to different parts of Australia and the world including Amsterdam, New York and Paris. Paris would definitely have to be my favourite. The month I spent in Paris researching Beyond Belief (Thanks to a Creative Victoria VicArts grant) was amazing. Everything just seemed to fall into place. And the information I needed seemed to find me. I was given an interpreter, Laetitia for the sewer tour and she was so lovely. She also happened to be a Muslim who spoke Arabic and she helped me to verify the authenticity of the events I was writing about. Her next door neighbour was the mother of a Rabbin so Laetitia was able to get me into a synagogue in Paris as well.
9. When it comes to research – how do you begin your research process, and are some topics easier to research than others?
I usually begin my research online, but I always love to visit the actual place I’m writing about if I can. It’s definitely easier to find out about some topics than others. France didn’t actually acknowledge their part in the Holocaust until about 1995 and memorials came much later so it wasn’t that easy to find out some things. Beyond Belief was also emotionally hard to research because of the nature of the subject matter. It was just so awful to visit Holocaust centres and memorials and see the faces of babies and small children who had been murdered. It was also a deeply personal story for me because my father and his parents were forced to flee Nazi occupied Austria.
I’m currently researching an historical fiction set in Australia, The Explorer’s Niece, and that’s proving difficult too because there are discrepancies between the information I’ve uncovered. And two of the local historians were at odds over it and disagree on dates and events. The research process is never smooth sailing. There are always places where you stumble. But that’s part of the challenge and fun of it. I love research because you never know where it will take you and your characters. If I do research online I always try and verify its authenticity in some other way through museums, libraries or a local historical society or by visiting the place myself and talking to people.
10. You’re also a certified writing teacher. Do all your classes take place face to face, or do you also teach online, and how has this been affected by the pandemic?
I’ve been running online writing classes for kids for almost ten years now. My students come from all over the world … From USA, UK, Australia and India, to Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai, so that part hasn’t really been affected by the pandemic. But I also do face-to-face workshops and appearances at festivals, libraries and schools and these have all been cancelled. Also as I mentioned, my one month artist-in-residence, would all have been face-to-face workshops with students from prep to Year 8. I also mentor writers of all ages and this is often done via email so that hasn’t changed either.
11. Is the History, Mystery and Mirth tour still going ahead, or has it been cancelled or postponed – alternatively, has it been adapted into an online tour like some other festivals have?
Unfortunately I’ve had to cancel the tour for this year because of the closure of state borders and also schools are very busy at the moment with all the online learning. They have their hands full just trying to deal with the basic curriculum and paperwork and parents and technology fails etc. Perhaps I might be able to go ahead with tour next year. I’m currently in talks with the school I was going to be doing the artist-in-residence at, and hopefully that will go ahead in 2021. I am doing some online events still. I run the writer’s bootcamps at the CYA festival, which will be happening online in July. I’m also running an online workshop on creating compelling characters through SCBWI ACT on 28 June and that will feature Ruben from Beyond Belief and Eddy.
12. Who else is – or was – involved with the History, Mystery and Mirth tour?
I was organising this tour myself, but I’d scheduled a number of events through SCBWI in various parts of Australia and at a number of schools and festivals. And of course there was my artist-in-residence in Yarrawonga, which was to be part of the tour.
13. Apart from novels for children and young adults, have you had any other writing published elsewhere?
I’ve had many articles published in newspapers and magazines and online and I’ve written for a number of blogs. I started the Kids’ Book Capers blog at Boomerang Books and as well as my own blogs I ran a blog for a school for four years. When my kids were 2 ½ and 8 months old, we travelled around Australia in tents (with the family dog) for about 18 months and as we travelled I wrote articles for publications like Practical Parenting, Good Weekend and Go Camping.
14. Do you have a favourite writing companion or spot to write your novels in?
My goat Molly used to be my muse but sadly, she passed away when she was 14. I’m a bit of a nomadic writer and don’t have a single place that I work. I love writing outside and I love being in the location that I’m writing about and immersing myself in the setting.
15. Do you prefer to write with a notebook and pen, or on the computer, or a combination?
I always start out writing with a notebook and pen. It’s more portable and works well outside because I don’t have to worry about screen glare. Even in the editing process, if I have to rewrite a section I tend to do it with a notebook and pen. It seems to make it easier for me to immerse myself and connect more closely with my story and characters.
16. Do you have a favourite bookseller you’re trying to support during these tough times?
That’s a really hard one. All the booksellers are amazing and having a difficult time too. My local bookseller New Leaves doesn’t have an online store, but you can post your order through a slot in their front door and they deliver to your door. (Good old fashioned country service) Squishy Minnie is also wonderful. They’re in the next town and they have an online store and they have gorgeous books for kids and teens. And I love The Little Bookroom who are always so supportive of me and other creators and they have my books in store and online as well. Collins Booksellers in Sunbury always so enthusiastic about my work too.
17. Which authors or books are you always drawn to?
I love books with heart and a touch of humour and a bit of mystery … and of course, history as well. I love Bren MacDibble’s books because they have so much heart and originality and her characters are always so memorable. Wendy Orr’s books are like that too and I particularly like her historical fiction like Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Kathryn Gauci is also an amazing author who writes adult historical fiction. I love Rebecca Stead’s books and Jessica Townsend and Nova Weetman and Chrisse Perry and Adam Wallace and Michael Gerard Bauer. There are just so many wonderful books and authors out there.
18. Many authors I have interviewed have also been involved in reading, writing and literacy programs – is this something you do as well?
I have worked in schools and with individuals on a voluntary basis, helping with reading, writing and literacy, but I’m not associated with any particular organisation.
19. Are all your books published by one publisher, or do you work with different publishers?
I work with different publishers. Beyond Belief and Eddy Popcorn are published by Scholastic, my picture book Reena’s Rainbow is published by EK books, I’ve had books published by Pearson Australia and my YA novel Letters to Leonardo was published in Australia by Walker Books and by Mazo Publishing in USA and UK.
20. How would you like to see people supporting the arts and artists in this time, and beyond the pandemic?
The best way that people can support the arts and artists is to engage with art and spread the word about it. Buy books and music and artworks. Go to live shows and festivals and if you like what you read, heard or saw, tell people about it. One of my local bookstores keeps selling out of Beyond Belief and that’s because people keep recommending it to others. Of course reviews are great too. If you like a book, review it on Goodreads or online bookstores.
21. What books do you have planned for the future?
I’m working on Eddy 2 – Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to Teacher Taming, and I have another historical fiction, The Explorer’s Niece. I’m working on Paris Hunting which is the book I was working on when I stumbled across the story that became Beyond Belief. I also have another historical fiction in the pipeline, Canary Girl and another humorous junior fiction work in progress, Will Smite the Nearly Fearless Knight. So plenty to stop me from getting bored!
Anything you wish to say that I may have missed?
Wow, thank you for your great questions and for having me on your fabulous blog.
The other thing I wanted to mention is that I’ve been making Pop Motion videos (stop motion videos using popcorn) for Eddy Popcorn’s Guide to the Apocalypse and it is so much fun! In his pop motions, Eddy shares his experiences and tips on how to survive the pandemic. Eddy’s pop motions can be viewed on my Youtube channel and through Eddy’s page on my website. I’m also happy to do workshops in schools about using pop motion as a storytelling tool.