A few years ago, giant puppets walked the streets of Perth amazing crowds and crowds of people. There was a huge girl and a diver, and I remember standing on Adelaide Terrace clutching the hand of my small child and being breathless with excitement. It was magical. While I watched those puppets stroll majestically through the city’s streets, I became a child again and experienced all the wonder and magic of stories. Little did I know, that years later, I would know the author whose book, ‘The Lighthouse Girl‘ partly inspired Royal de Luxe’s Giants to come to Perth. Here is my interview with one of my longtime heroes, Dianne Wolfer…
NLK: Can you tell us about your research into anthropomorphism in children’s literature? What was the most surprising thing you discovered during your research for your PhD?
DW: I’ve always loved animal stories. When I began PhD research at UWA, I had a few ideas that I wanted to develop anthropomorphically, so ‘Crafting Animal Characters in Fiction for Young Readers’ became my exegesis focus. For the creative component, I wrote two titles, both using anthropomorphic voices, but crafted differently. The Dog with Seven Names (see the extract below), is from a known animal’s point of view (POV). The second title, The Shark Caller is more unusual. Whilst most of this quest title is written from a human perspective, there are also short scenes from a mako shark POV interspersed throughout the story. Writing from a shark POV was very challenging! This novel was inspired by the ancient practise of shark calling and has an otherworldly fantasy feeling. The Dog with Seven Names, in contrast, is a work of historical fiction set in north-western Australia in WWII. My exegesis research explored the writing of these different titles as well as, ways animal characters are used as buffers to challenging themes in children’s literature and metaphoric usage of Australian animals. To begin, I compiled a listing examining animal characters in over 500 Australian children’s titles from 1841-2015. I was very surprised by how many animal stories had been written during that time, I was expecting less. My new website www.animalswhotalk.com was created to continue sharing my interest in all things anthropomorphic.
NLK: You have a large body of work and write across genres, can you share any tips on how to sustain a long career in writing?
DW: Determination, stubbornness, not waiting for inspiration. I think it’s important to treat your writing as a job where you go to work, sit down and just try to make it work. Being part of a writers’ network, like SCBWI or one of the many online groups is also valuable. I am continually learning, trying to develop my craft by attending workshops, being curious and talking to other creatives. We can learn something from everyone. Read widely and keep pushing through when it seems too hard. You are the only one who can write your story.
NLK: What has been the biggest surprise of your writing career and what is the work of which you are most proud?
DW: I’m surprised and delighted by the ways my work has been reshaped for different audiences. In 2014/15, during the 100 year commemoration of WWI, playwright Hellie Turner adapted Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy for a Black Swan Theatre play, The Lighthouse Girl, which opened in Albany where I live, then toured Western Australia. Fay from Lighthouse Girl was also inspiration for the Little Girl Giant in Perth Festival’s epic street theatre, The Giants as well as commemorative rooftop projections. Fay’s story has featured in songs, including Caddy Cooper’s Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter and Simone Keane’s Life’s Ocean. To date, the ‘Light’ series books have been most widely adapted, however The Dog with Seven Names is about to be released in China and The Shark Caller has been optioned for film by a New Zealand production company so their journeys might soon become more surprising. I hope so!
I’m proud of each of my 19 published books, but also proud of my earlier publications; the short stories and articles that helped me begin my writing journey. I’m also grateful that my books and workshops are inspiring a new generation of young writers.
NLK: What is the strangest thing you have done for research?
DW: Getting down on all fours to sniff the Pilbara earth as a dog would in remote areas past Marble Bar was pretty weird. I needed to know how a dog would experience this story setting. Fortunately there was no one around to see. Tramping around the forested areas of Harefield Hospital to research WWI settings for In the lamplight was also challenging. There were evocative wartime photos of patients skating on the duck pond and exploring that part of the hospital grounds felt like chopping back ivy to find Sleeping Beauty. Learning about Jimmy the wallaby and the cockatoo hospital mascot was also a fun.
NLK: Why do you write for children?
DW: I write for all ages but find that writing for children is the most rewarding. I think middle grade is my ‘writing-sweet-spot’. Readers aged around 9-12 enjoy challenging themes but still have the optimism of childhood.
NLK: What tips can you share for emerging writers?
DW: Read widely, be brave and keep writing drafts until you know your story is the best it can be (don’t send it away too early). I still struggle with the latter!
NLK: Do you have a favourite piece of writing (your own), can you share an excerpt? Why did you choose this piece?
DW: Here’s the first scene from The Dog with Seven Names. It’s my latest book and the story is told anthropomorphically. I chose it because I’m excited about the soon-to-be-published Chinese version.
Part One: Elsie’s Princess October 1939- February 1942
My earliest memories are of being shoved and trampled by little paws. I was the runt, the last pup of our litter, and I struggled to reach my mother’s warm milk. When I rolled out of our birthing box onto the verandah, I was too weak to climb back in. Wings flapped around my still-closed eyes. I felt pecking and smelt the sharp scent of blood …
If it wasn’t for Elsie I might not have survived. She found me, shooed away the crows and held me close. Elsie’s dad was Boss of the cattle station. He was a big man. My brothers and I soon learnt to smell his anger and stay clear of his hard boots. My mother was his favourite dog, but the Boss had no time for a runty pup.
‘Weaklings don’t survive in the Pilbara,’ he snarled whenever I got in his way.
My mother was an Australian terrier, not your average cattle dog, but she was a better herder than any kelpie or heeler. The Boss boasted that Mother was fearless; she wasn’t afraid to get amongst a mob of angry cattle. Mother was also old and she’d had many pups before us. Our mouths and paws exhausted her. Mother died soon after my eyes opened on a day called Melbourne Cup, while the humans were cheering for their favourite horses. The Boss blamed us. He kicked our box off the verandah and the crows flapped closer. My brothers scurried under the verandah. I was slower.
Elsie saved me again. She whispered words of love into my tiny ears and trickled milk onto my tongue. My life hung in the balance, but Elsie was patient. She was sure I’d live, because the horse winner, Rivette, was a small female like me. Elsie was like that, she loved looking for connections between things.
‘Be brave,’ she told me, ‘remember Rivette, the first mare to win the Cup.’
About Dianne Wolfer
Dianne is author of 19 award-winning books, including 2019 Speech Pathology Award winning, The Dog with Seven Names (written anthropomorphically) and CBCA Notable In the Lamplight the third title in her ‘Light’ Series. In the Lamplight joins Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy (which inspired Black Swan Theatre’s, The Lighthouse Girl and Perth Festival’s street theatre, The Giants). Dianne writes across genres. Her fantasy quest novel, The Shark Caller was sparked by the ancient practice of calling sharks and is optioned for film. Nanna’s Button Tin a gentle picture book story is about searching for a special button. Dianne completed PhD research into anthropomorphism and loves talking about Animal Characters in Children’s Literature.
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