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 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.
Tanya Heaslip grew up in the Northern Territory and has lived in Prague during eighties and nineties following the fall of the Berlin Wall before coming back to Australia. Last year she released Alice to Prague, and this year, she has released the prequel in the midst of a pandemic – and like many authors, has had her publicity opportunities diminished due to the implications of lockdown and social distancing restrictions. One way she is getting word about her book out is through blogs and interviews such as this one.
Hi Tanya, and welcome to the Book Muse
- To begin, can you tell my readers who may not have read An Alice Girl or Alice to Prague a bit about each book?
Both books are memoirs. An Alice Girl is the prequel to Alice to Prague. An Alice Girl is set during the 1960s and 70s and explores my life as a young girl growing up in Central Australia on an isolated cattle station. Alice to Prague chronicles my journey to the Czech Republic in 1994, following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
- You grew up in the remote Northern Territory – when you weren’t studying, or mustering cattle with your dad, what sort of games did you play with your siblings?
We played a game called “cattle duffers” on horseback. It was the most fun game, with goodies and baddies; the baddies were always trying to steal the cattle and the goodies trying to get the cattle back. We never actually had real cattle to play with – Dad would have hung us upside down if we’d messed with his precious cattle – but we didn’t need them as our imaginations were so vivid that we could gallop around on horseback and chase them in our mind’s eye.
- Do you all still live in Alice, and what is it about the area that drew you back there after exploring the world?
I’ve lived in many places but I now live back in Alice Springs. I think it’s mostly the land that’s drawn me back – the raw power of the red outback, the space, the huge blue skies and the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges that fill my heart with joy – it’s a place where I feel most centred, strengthened, grounded, and where I feel I most belong. Of course, I have family here as well so it’s a double calling.
- Many of my readers will have never experienced School of the Air or Correspondence School – how did these differ from your experiences at boarding school, and did you find they complemented each other in any way?
Correspondence School was done remotely, using written sets of lessons, overseen by a governess, and School of the Air was half an hour each day on the wireless with a real live teacher in the Alice Springs studio. We couldn’t see her or the other students but we could hear them all and put faces to their names. Every day we wore jeans and riding boots and relished the freedom and independence of the way we studied. If Dad needed cattle work done, he would pull us out and work would come first; we have to make up for it on the weekend.
This was incredibly different from boarding school, where I found myself locked away in an all girl’s school of 700 students, studying in traditional classrooms, wearing uniforms, and trying to learn the niceties of being one of many students, instead of one of three (the other two having been my younger siblings). There was certainly no getting out of school there!
It is difficult to see how I different types of education complemented one another as they were so different but there is no doubt my early studies set me up for “real school” as I was academically equivalent in almost every way once I got to boarding school. However what I lacked were art skills, sports skills and the capacity to ‘navigate’ a classroom with other students. That took a long (and often painful) time to learn.
- An Alice Girl is going to be/was released on the 19th of May. Did you have to cancel any events or festival appearances due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, and what were they?
I had to cancel everything! I was launching at the NT writers festival in Darwin and the Margaret River readers and writers Festival in Margaret River and I had book events lined up in every state. Within three days, my four months worth of hard work in setting up these events and appearances vanished before my eyes. It was initially a very tough time. I had to learn to “pivot” as they say in Silicon Valley and find new ways to publicise my book!
- While growing up, you loved to read – which authors and books did you gravitate towards during the sixties and seventies, and what was so special about them for you?
The books I gravitated towards were the ones that were held by the Alice Springs School of the Air. Mum would go into Alice Springs once a month to get supplies and return with a box of books. They were mostly Enid Blyton with a dash of Heidi and Swallows and Amazons. I adored them all. They were all about children having adventures without parents, and set in incredibly beautiful places – green, soft, cool with lots of water. Every chapter was short and ended with a cliffhanger. They took me to other places and told me about other worlds “overseas”. I was a naturally curious child and this style of mystery book, filled with beautiful landscapes, drew me in. I couldn’t get enough of these books. I was an insatiable reader. It filled my imagination so that I felt like I was truly there when I read them. And of course, then we had our own stories – the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell, which we adored, and Colin Thiele, whose best book for me was February Dragon, because it was all about bushfires, which we understood from personal experience on the land.
- You grew up in isolation – a state that many of us are finding ourselves in at the moment – have the skills you learned as a child helped you cope with the current isolation, or is it too different to the isolation of the cattle station?
There is a difference in the two types of isolation, in that the Covid isolation is enforced and panic driven, whereas the isolation of my childhood meant freedom and space and endless opportunities for daydreaming and escapism. However that isolation trained me well so that I’m very self-disciplined and able to work on my own – after all that’s how I did my schooling – and so I guess in some ways it has helped me manage this time. Resilience, independence and discipline are woven deeply into my DNA and for that, at any time, I feel very thankful.
- Do you still have those first stories you wrote on your typewriter as a child, and what do you think they taught you about writing and storytelling?
Oh my goodness yes I do but I wouldn’t let anybody read them! They really are atrocious! They are all about children having adventures in English lands or English children having adventures in the bush and demand a great stretch of imagination! But I wrote so many stories that I think I became a writer and storyteller without realising it.
- You studied to be a lawyer after boarding school – what made you decide to go down this path, and has writing been a welcome break from this career?
I became a lawyer because I had the marks is to get into law school at University and the teachers therefore said I should do law. I didn’t know anything about law, what it was or what it meant. I fell into it and spent much of my life trying to escape it! Writing is a joy as it lets me go back into that space of imagination. However I’ve had to keep working to pay for that privilege of writing! So it’s not really a break from my career – I write and work simultaneously.
- What area of law did you/do you work in, and where did you practise law after graduating university?
I’ve worked in almost all areas of law but specialised in property and civil litigation. I’ve practised law in almost every part of Australia, except for Victoria, and even appeared in front of the High Court, which is the pinnacle of success for a young lawyer! I felt like I’d really made it that day!
- You’re living in Alice now, and you’re currently the Regional Vice President of the Northern Territory Writer’s Centre – first, what do you do in this role, and second, do you do it as well as practising law?
I was the regional Vice President for two years and now I am the President. It is a busy role as numerous issues constantly arise that require strategic management, plus I work closely with the executive to ensure that the NTWC delivers programs and benefits to writers as planned. It is not a paid role so I definitely do it as well as practising law! Work goes on, whether I’m in the President’s role or writing or doing anything else.
- How has the NT Writer’s Centre helped and supported you during your career as a writer?
There is nothing more fabulous than having a group of people to connect with when you’re writing, both for support and encouragement, and to bounce ideas around. I’ve also done a number of courses through the NTWC which helped me hone my skills and learn to become a better writer.
- Has the NT Writer’s Centre had to cancel or adapt any of its program’s due to the pandemic?
The NTWC had to cancel its Festival which was devastating but cross fingers it will be resurrected in October this year. The NTWC has also “pivoted” and put a lot of the events online, which has been marvellous, so that people haven’t missed out on everything that was planned. And the NTWC has just finalised and seamlessly delivered its Chief Minister’s Book Awards online, so it’s doing a fantastic job despite all the pressures it is under.
- What sort of support has the NT Writer’s Centre offered local authors at this time?
It offers courses that encourage and support, and the current NTWC online focus gives more people to engage when they are isolated.
- When buying books, which local booksellers do you frequently use?
I am passionate about supporting local book sellers, especially as we only have one indie bookshop in Alice “Red Kangaroo” and one in Darwin “the Bookshop Darwin”, so they are the only bookshops I use. I’ve launched both my books at them both and done events there and I have a wonderful cooperative relationship with both. To be honest, I can’t sing the praises of Red Kangaroo and the Bookshop Darwin enough, and feel so lucky that we have them. Despite the pandemic, both of them have also “pivoted” and done their best to provide books and opportunities to their customers, and are still keeping the doors open, which is a blessing, and in large part thanks to their hard work which has created its own loyal following. My mantra of late has been “Go indie bookshops!”
- What can people do during these hard times to support authors and their work?
Buy books. Buy books. Buy books. And buy them from your local bookshop. Or support your library. Do whatever you can to encourage authors to keep going!
- You’ve lived in Alice, Adelaide and Prague – have you lived anywhere else, and how did each of these places shape who you are?
I lived in so many places in addition to Alice, Adelaide and Prague – Darwin, Perth, Margaret River, Sydney, a short stint in Brisbane – and lots of short stints in different parts of WA. They have all shaped me in different ways but the best part has been the arts and writing groups that I found along the way so I’ve been able to do music, singing, acting and writing where ever I’ve lived, and I’ve learned so much more about life by living through the eyes of other places. I think each placement people I’ve met there have broadened my thinking and made me braver and more courageous, not to mention more grateful and optimistic. Travel is the best thing you can do in life, I think.
- Do you prefer to write by hand, typing on a computer or with a typewriter, or do you use a combination?
I write by hand and a computer – sadly I no longer have my typewriter – and I also use Dragon NaturallySpeaking from time to time, because nearly 20 years ago I gave myself carpal tunnel in both wrists from writing, and so have to juggle the way I write on a daily basis, so that I don’t overuse my hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders and back.
- If you weren’t a writer or lawyer, what career do you think you would have embarked on?
I would have been a journalist. That was what I wanted to do before the teachers at school talked me into doing law. Being a travelling foreign correspondent was my dream. So I guess throughout my life I’ve been frustrated journalist and reluctant lawyer, combining both wherever I go – doing enough law to support my travels and the chance to write about other people places!
- Do you think you’d ever write a fiction book, and what age group do you think you’d write for?
That’s such a good question! I used to write mountains of fiction when I was a kid but law stripped that creative side from me, and really took my imagination, and I have struggled for years to get it back. I think it’s a process. First, memoir and non-fiction to try and recover my creativity and imagination. Once I’ve done that, hopefully I’ll be ready for fiction! I always thought I’d write children’s adventure stories, like the ones I loved growing up, but now – who knows – my main goal is just to unearth and bring back that sense of creativity and freedom I had when I was a child and could write unfettered. That’s my dream!
Anything I may have missed?
A wonderful chance to chat – thank you so much, Ashleigh!
Thank you Tanya