The Writer in the Story

The nicest compliment I have ever had from a child came in the mail last year. "How come you know what it's like to be me?" said a ten year old boy.

Well of course I don't know what it is like to be him but I do know what it is like to be a boy. I remember it as if it was yesterday. Little incidents from my youth are always popping up in my stories.

Like the time my father came home with a new draughtsman's compass the sort for drawing circles. It was magical. Silver with little removable nibs and propelling pencils. It lay there sparkling in its satin case like the crown jewels. "Never," my father said looking straight at me, "never touch this instrument, Paul."

What a thing to say to a boy. That compass called to me every day from the drawer of my father's desk. It pleaded. It begged to be opened. I longed to touch it. To a child being told not to touch something is almost an order to do so. But I knew that to disobey would be the end of the world as I knew it.

One day I was the only person at home. I pulled out the drawer. I took out the forbidden case. I opened the lid. I picked up the compass. With trembling hands I drew a little circle on the blotting paper. Then I drew another. And another. "I wonder how big a circle this can draw, I said to myself. I opened up the legs as wide as they would go.


It broke in two. I nearly fainted. I was history. I was dead. My life was over. There was no way to rejoin the brittle metal. My father would know who had done it. My sister Ruth would never have done such a terrible thing.

I ran to my piggy bank and took out the contents. Five shillings. I caught the train into Melbourne, something I had never done on my own before. I wandered the busy streets trying to catch sight of a compass shop. There was no such thing and I was too frightened to tell anyone my problem. With sweating palms I returned home, compassless.

I picked up the broken compass and put it back in its box with the accessories. Then I went outside and threw the lot in the river.

Several months passed. Nothing happened. Then one day my father said, "Has anyone seen my compass? I can't find it anywhere." I shook my head and looked puzzled like the others. "I don't know what I've done with it," he said.

Forty years later my father went to his grave without knowing what happened to his compass. And I guess I'll go to mine still carrying a bit of the guilt.

Not long ago I wrote a story called Grandad's Gifts in which a father says to a boy, "See that cupboard. Never, never open it."

I often ask children what they would do if they found the key to that cupboard. And they always say the same thing. Like the boy in the story they wouldn't be able to resist.

You can't write for children unless you can remember what it is like to be a child. Remember not just what happened but what it feels like. The writer has to be in that story.

Sometimes my publisher tells me that such and such a writer is copying my style or trying to get a feel similar to my stories. It never worries me. You can learn from another writer but you can never be them. Every child has lied to their parents. But I am the only one who broke Arthur Jennings' compass and threw it in the river. No one else can ever be me and I can never be someone else.

Two things are necessary when you are trying to touch children with a story. You must find an emotional experience that all children have had and then pull from your own life an example of it. If you can't do this you don't know what you are talking about or indeed to whom you are talking.

Adults have the same emotions as children. The focus may be different but adults and children all experience love, fear, loneliness and joy. So the adult writers will find their way into a story as well.

The Fisherman and the Theefyspray is a story told in words and pictures by myself and Jane Tanner. It is probably enough for me to say that when we worked on this book both Jane and I had the very moving experience of a child leaving home.

The story is about the last Theefyspray in the sea. It has a baby. In the background is a fisherman's lure. Originally I had specified a baited hook but Jane just couldn't bring herself to draw a fish with a barb through it. The hook is telling part of the story. It is a threat. The baby Theefyspray takes the hook and the fisherman catches one of the last two Theefysprays in the world. The mother goes up after her child. A place where no fish should go. She fails and falls into the empty sea. The old man sees her and returns the baby. He goes home with an empty basket, "And memories".

My friend Ted Greenwood often says that if you can read the story on the radio it is not a picture book. Well this story could never be read on the radio. It will not work without Jane's pictures. We are both telling the story. Because the hook is there in the drawings the reader will be worried even though the words make no mention of it.

In my original text I had written, "The fisherman threw the Theefyspray back". Jane rang me up and said, "No, no, no, Paul. The fisherman put the Theefyspray back." I blushed with shame. If you look at Jane's beautiful painting you will see that she was right.

Jane was faced with an incredibly difficult task with her side of this story. The tale is not anthropomorphic. The creature does not think or speak and we are left to infer any pain it is feeling. Jane had to invent a creature which looked like a real fish. She did draft after draft. "Fish are cold," she told me. "It's hard to make people feel sorry for them." In the end she realised that the eyes were the problem. Fish eyes have no expression. Human eyes however could not be grafted onto our creatures. They would no longer be wild things if this was done. In the end Jane found the perfect answer porpoise eyes. They hint that something is going on inside and we feel without knowing that the mother Theefyspray is suffering at the loss of her child.

Neither Jane nor I set out to tell a story about our own children leaving home. It is not about this. It was long after I had penned the story that I made the connection. But it is only because it happened to both of us that we were able to tell the story.

Gillian Rubinstein once said to me that she thinks children's writers are fixed in a period of their childhood when some trauma happened to them. I have found that many Australian writers have agreed with this proposition. I am twelve when I write. At that age the fear of losing my parents was incredibly strong. I used to pray every night that nothing would happen to them.

I never start writing with the idea of teaching a lesson. The Fisherman and the Theefyspray started merely as a story. It was not written in an effort to save the environment (why should children be given this burden?). It was not written as an explanation about children and parents being parted. But because Jane and I are human we have emotions to share. And when we tell a story we draw upon our own lives.

Our publisher, Julie Watts, took this book to the Bologna Book Fair. An American publisher read the story and was moved. "Are you a fisherman?" Julie asked. "No", he replied. "A father."

Separation of parent and child is a powerful theme. If our book is about this it was never our intention. Ethical values should appear in texts because writers and illustrators have morals, not because they want to moralise.

When you look for a story that will touch children it won't be written by someone who wants to teach or preach or save the world. It will merely be a story that is told by a writer or artist who knows what it is like to be a child.