Hazel Edwards is an accomplished Australian writer best known for her children’s classic – There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake series. Melbourne-based Edwards has published over 200 books and is both a Reading Ambassador and an active mentor for new writers.
Some of Hazel’s books have been translated into numerous languages including her Sparkler’s series school reader Kalo Li’s New Country which I had the privilege of illustrating.
I chatted with Hazel recently to see if she had any advice for the Writer’s Edit community.
Hazel, you have written a lot of books! Where do you find your inspiration?
‘Where do you get your ideas?’ is the question most asked of any writer. Won by a kilometre from ‘Will you put me in a book?’ or ‘Do you pinch ideas from TV?’ But an author who has more than one publication finds it genuinely difficult to answer, even when readers think they are being polite in asking.
Often the idea hasn’t come from one place. It’s a combination of stimuli. And these days the format in which the book is written in highly relevant. Maybe an e-book? Soon it could be smellovision?
My usual answer is: From my ideas notebook. Via eavesdropping, stickybeaking, my newspaper clippings file, digital shots, juxtaposing of ideas and asking “What if?". Anecdotal stories, observation of characters and increasingly, choosing a setting where people have varied motives such as airports or Antarctica - and investigating the possibilities, often for a mystery.
I carry a digital camera to shoot ambiguous signs like Disabled Pokies Parking or Dead End near a cemetery. I keep Spirax notebooks where I jot hypothetical ideas based on observed facts such as ‘What if high rise building/water restriction/water police exist … and renters don’t want to get up early to water plants on designated days, and this causes bad feeling in a shared building amongst owner occupiers?’
My weakness is that I don’t date the ideas. I know it would make sense to do so. I just don’t get around to it.
I had my first baby and book acceptance in the same year. ‘General Store’ a YA novel set in Gippsland was my first fiction. Write about what you know is good advice for the setting of your first book. I’d lived in a country store as a teenager, but it is not an autobiography.
How did you become a writer? Was it something you always hoped to be?
My Grandma taught me to read before I went to school. Reading was an acceptable excuse for avoiding the dreaded ‘washing up’ job. Words were the codes to ideas. Books opened new worlds, and I knew I’d like to continue learning new things, so becoming an author was one way.
I went to night school while I was working. Later trained as a primary teacher, I was also a teachers’ college lecturer in reading and studied at Monash University for my post-graduate degrees, but part-time, while working and having children. My children joke that they went to uni, even before they were born, in my tummy. I remember sneaking into the back of a significant lecture with a baby, deciding I’d leave once she yelled but the lecturer’s voice put her to sleep. I’m always sympathetic to mature- aged students who juggle their roles, and did my master’s thesis on that subject of women returning to study.
Can you tell us a bit more about your life as an author and how you nurture your creativity?
Writing daily. Researching on site. Interviewing. PR such as autographing in bookshops or answering guest blogs. Time and energy management. Often responses occur a long time after you’ve had the idea and done the work. Getting others to value the quality of work, financially and philosophically.
Most writers are workaholics because private and business life is intertwined. Often home offices mean colleagues meet your family or travel is work.
As solo operator in a very small business of ideas…. being an author, you are the boss but also the person who cleans the toilets or fills in the BAS.
Certain times of the year, like Book or History Week, I speak and travel a lot (bananas are good for the throat). Other times, I write in concentrated 8am to 5pm days, in my home office with a break for mid-afternoon exercise like a swim, walk or belly-dancing. Increasingly the administrivia of being an author takes more time than the original story writing. I utilise my website, with links, so I answer once and have bio details and hi-res photo available there. That’s why I’ve provided the links to previous guest blogs etc. under Interviews on my website. Increasingly I try to use electronic aids such as ‘web-chat interviews‘ or mentoring online, to save on travelling. Skype is very useful.
I’ve spent many years ‘juggling’, doing too much but realised that in order to pace my creativity I had to allow for 'fallow' thinking time. I never 'do nothing’. I just switch to more physical things.
You have written books for all ages and genres particularly children. Why have you chosen to do that?
I like the variety of adult and children, fiction and non fiction, books, short pieces and scripts for performance. Much depends upon the best ‘shape’ in which to craft that idea and for which audience. Currently I’m learning to write in new media, for my author website, possible Apps and also for children’s theatre which is my secret love.
Although I came from a family which valued reading, I didn’t know any writers. Trained as a primary teacher, later a lecturer. I’ve always written for all ages but children’s books are harder to write. When my two children were small, I was inadvertently ‘researching’, even on family holidays or while orienteering each week as a family. As a working parent, I learnt to use every writing minute.
What advice would you give to new writers?
Read more! Read widely in the area in which you want to write. A new writer needs to absorb the ‘shape’ of that kind of writing and consider reading as research, not just procrastinating pleasure.
Read twice, once as a reader and next as a writer to observe the technicalities of characterisation, humour etc.
Establish the habit. Write regularly, for a set time or number of words. Expect that not everything you write will be usable. Don’t be precious. Just get started.
Mentors are in short supply but do your utmost to find one. The Australian Society of Authors (ASA) is a good place to start: www.asauthors.org as well as the writers’ centre in your state.
As a writer, you live more intensively, using participant-observation. You do things, using all senses, knowing you will write about them afterwards. My three hints to aspiring writers are: Write regularly. Persist. And always consider your reader- who are you writing for?
A professional writer is a very small business of one person; a solo trader in literary ideas. Those who are not businesslike are unlikely to survive. Authors need to learn new skills fast and many have a philosophical conflict. They feel the worth of their writing should be obvious and that the business of marketing and promoting their book is an additional role, after the hard work invested in researching and writing. Many regard marketing as part of the financials and many struggle even with account keeping.
You have coined the term ‘Authorpreneur’? What does this mean?
The business of creativity is changing, not just in the formats in which ideas are presented internationally but also how authors perceive themselves. Today, a creator needs to be an ‘authorpreneur’.
Author = originator; Entrepreneur = seller who initiates
Apart from crafting words or images for specific audiences, ‘authorpreneurship’ means learning the marketing, publicity, and technological, legal and entrepreneurial skills to establish and maintain creative self-employment in the business of ideas.
Some feel uncomfortable with the idea of considering creativity a business. And they feel overwhelmed with the digital skills needed. Constant innovation and the need to keep up can be overwhelming, especially when you are the only person to do it all. Authorpreneurship is about sharing strategies which enable you to work effectively at what you most enjoy doing, but also provide ways for you to streamline the process, so you can sell your ideas for longer, in varied new formats and to larger audiences.
The notion of ‘crafting’ with the audience as a priority, not just the writer’s needs is a valid therapy and produces more effective writing, without the tone overwhelming the reader.
I think a website is absolutely vital for an author. It gives an international presence, particularly for an author of my type – someone who writes across a number of fields, for a number of publishers and in a number of roles. In a sense, I’m the author brand name.
It’s become viable and increasingly technologically possible for ‘authorpreneurs’ to sell their own content but quality is an important issue. There’s a difference between vanity publishing and high-quality, well-edited writing being electronically available.
Hazel’s extensive online resources for writers can be found here.
Hazel’s book Authorpreneurship: The Business of Creativity can be purchased at her online bookstore, here.
She has also collaborated with her son Trevelyan on Trail Magic a book of adventure travel memoirs, which you can read more about here.
Writer's Edit would like to thank Hazel for taking the time to share her experiences with us.