Julie Hunt lives on an organic farm in southern Tasmania where she writes a variety of stories for children – from picture books to novels and graphic novels. She’s interested in folktales, travel and oral storytelling and is endlessly surprised by the way the supernatural and the everyday seem to exist side by side.
1. Your most recent novel, Song for a Scarlet Runner, is doing wonderfully well, being shortlisted for the CBCA Younger Readers category and the Children’s category of the Aurealis Awards, and winning the Readings Children’s Book Prize – could you tell us where the idea for the book came from and the road to publication?
The story began with the term ‘marsh auntie’. I don’t know where that came from but those two words were the seed of the idea. They arrived one morning and brought a character and a world with them. I decided the marsh auntie would be a storyteller and herbalist and she’d live in the swamp with a community of aunties and each would have a special skill. A trip to Ireland to attend a storytelling festival helped and other ideas came from reading folktales. I used the notion of the ‘external soul’, an idea that appears in quite a few traditional tales: a person takes their soul from their body and hides it away so they can never be killed, but eventually somebody – the hero or heroine – finds it and time catches up with them.
The road to publication? I was lucky enough to have an Australian Society of Authors mentorship with the illustrator, Ann James, and this led to an introduction to the publisher. Working with Erica, Sue, Sarah and others at Allen and Unwin has been a gift. Although I’m the one writing the stories, the process is collaborative and feels very much like a joint effort.
2. Several of your books have received Awards recognition, which must be exciting, but does it come with a weight of expectation too? How do you deal with that as you keep writing?
I don’t feel any weight. Recognition is encouraging and it gives me confidence. There does seem to be an expectation to speak though, and that’s something I find tricky. Still, speaking is not as hard as writing. If Song for a Scarlet Runner had been easy to create – if it had just slipped out ‘accidently’ – I would be worried that I couldn’t do it again, but it was hard won.
3. Tell us what can we look forward to from you in the next 12 months?
My graphic novel, KidGlovz, will be published in 2015. Dale Newman, who did the beautiful cover illustration for Song for a Scarlet Runner, is the artist. It’s a book for 10–14 year-olds about a child prodigy, a pianist. He wears a pair of white gloves and when he discovers the gloves have a sinister past he begins to realise that his talent is a curse and that his wierd musical ability actually lies in the gloves rather than in his fingers.
I read up on 19th century prodigies before I started the story and I wrote much of the book while visiting Romania. My story is full of mountains and music and ice caves. I was amazed at the painted monasteries in Bucovina – graphic novels, comic strips on the walls of the buildings! – that went straight into the book and although I didn’t visit Transylvania, it was on my mind.
I’m working on a sequel to KidGlovz. It will be a hybrid novel, part graphic novel and part prose and will follow the gloves into their next incarnation. They leave the pianist and return on the hands of a thief, a young pickpocket and they give him the ability to steal whatever he desires – hearts, minds and souls.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner. What the Family Needed by Stephen Amsterdam. Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan. I also enjoyed Andrew McGahan’s The Coming of the Whirlpool and The Four Seasons of Lucy McKenzie by Kirsty Murray. I loved Tantony by Ananda Braxton-Smith for the marvellously inventive language and Alison Croggon’sBlack Spring for the landscape and the intrigues.
5. Have recent changes in the publishing industry influenced the way you work? What do you think you will be publishing in five years from now?
I’ve only begun publishing in a consistent way recently so I can’t say the changes have effected me. Being able to download ebooks has helped my work, and being able to find lost books online has been wonderful. I worry about bookshops and I worry that the library is throwing out too many books. I’m both attracted and repelled by changes in technology. I don’t tweet but I can see the possibilities of augmented reality. A while ago I met an inspiring software developer and considered creating an app based on one of my picture books. I’m open to new ways of storytelling and was pleased when Bologna Book Fair introduced its digital award in children’s publishing.
Perhaps in five years time I’ll have extended my stories into other areas. As far as print goes, one book seems to lead to the next, so I expect whatever I’m writing then will be a continuation of my present work. At the moment I’m experimenting with a story cycle, collection of linked stories for a young adult audience set in a world full of criss-crossing roads, trails and pathways.