I’ll never forget my experience of reading Davina Bell’s ‘Alice’ books from the Our Australian Girl series. The stories are warm, vivid, at times heartbreaking and also hilariously funny. The characters were so well drawn I felt I just wanted to be Alice’s sister – to gather round with all of her witty, creative and fun siblings, and to stick up for Alice during her most trying times. It’s no wonder the books have done so well and been adored by girls all over Australia, who have followed the ups and downs of this gifted dancer’s life (Alice) during the First World War.
After leaving Penguin Books, where Davina worked as an editor and where she conceived of the Australian Girl series with publisher Jane Godwin, Davina packed her bags and headed back to her hometown of Perth. A bit further out in the wineries of Margaret River, she found the perfect spot to start working full time as a writer, where she now spends her days looking out over the vines and busily inventing new characters and storylines. It’s inspiring that Davina is throwing herself into this new career move and she’s got so many fantastic projects on the boil including some that have been snapped up by Australian publishers.
But before this new direction Davina was busily laying the foundations for becoming a full-time writer with the publication of many editions of the much-loved Harvest magazine and learning about the craft of writing through her studies as well as those days at Penguin. I do suspect, however, that Davina could just as easily have plucked her laptop from its case and started plonking out a beautifully written book any time.
So enamored am I with Davina’s writing, I am itching to get my hands on her upcoming children’s picture book, The Underwater Fancy-dress Parade, which will be released very soon. But in the meantime keep your eyes open this Christmas for the ‘Alice’ bind-up – all four ‘Alice’ books beautifully bound and with a magnetic gold clasp.
I caught up with Davina to discuss some of the most important aspects of writing and she was very generous in offering some advice and insight into what it’s like to be a dedicated (and published) author.
Why did you choose to become a writer? What did you do before that led you to this career?
I think writing chose me before I was old enough to choose writing. As a kid, I was always writing stories, probably because I was always reading, reading, reading. I had a huge imagination and I was also a very good liar, though I guess they go hand in hand! So it’s not a surprise to anyone I knew as a kid that I am a writer now, but there have been some strange twists and turns along the way.
I didn’t write a word creatively between the ages of 12 and 25, but I ended up working as a children’s book editor at Penguin, via law school and RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing course. Along the way I spent a lot of time working with children as a nanny and a therapist for kids with autism.
The first thing I wrote in the RMIT course was a short story, and, bizarrely, that was picked up by Robert Drew for the 2007 edition of Best Australian Stories, which probably doesn’t mean much to non-publishing types, but at the time felt like a huge deal and a lot of pressure! I was so spooked that I didn’t write anything for a whole year, and when I did, it was another short story that was picked up for the 2008 Best Australian Stories. That put me right off – I’d obviously peaked too early! – and so I didn’t write anything until I pitched for the Our Australian Girl series, with the support and encouragement of the publisher of the series, Jane Godwin. She’d read those stories and knew I could write, but she was taking a huge gamble by giving me a contract, and I’m forever indebted to her for that.
What is the best piece of advice to do with becoming a writer you have ever been given?
I have been writing full time for seven months, and the piece of advice I wish I had been given before I embarked on this whole caper was: ‘It’s okay if you find this bone-crunchingly hard. It actually is.’
I live on the edge of a vineyard in the south-west of WA and I write/freelance for a living so I have oodles of time. Perfect conditions, am I right?! How could I do anything but sit and write a masterpiece?! But even now, some days it’s a struggle to make myself sit at my desk and face the page. Some days I don’t even make it that far. Motivation is hard. And once you show up, sometimes it feels like there are so many elements to a novel – plot, character, pace, action, style, originality, pay-off, arc – that it’s a wonder there are any good ones out there.
But one of my writing teachers, Martine Murray, once said in class that the writer within you is like a little seamstress inside your head, and there are days when you have to wait for her to do her work before you can do yours. I have come to realise this isn’t just a platitude to make procrastinators feel better! Even when I’m not writing every day, I can feel that parts of my brain are chipping away at my book like it’s some kind of ice sculpture that’s gradually emerging. We take turns, those little ice sculptors and I.
Who inspires you to write?
Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen. Polly Dunbar and Freya Blackwood. Charlotte Zolotow and Jane Godwin. Anna Bond from Rifle Paper who makes those beautiful cards. The cast of Parks and Recreation. My high-school Literature teacher, Mrs Marais. Allison Colpoys, who is my creative muse. But mostly it’s the kids I see every day – in cafes getting told off by their parents, or playing at the edge of the playground by themselves, or looking at leaves really carefully with their friends by a creek, or reading on a bus. I want to write books that find those children at tough or joyous or vulnerable moments so that they know they’re not alone.
Where did the inspiration for the Our Australian Girl ‘Alice’ books come from?
Mostly from the research I did into World War 1, and from my childhood love of ballerinas, big families and books with an element of tragedy in them. I read a very detailed local history of the area where the books are set – like, I became completely obsessed with it – and that gave me a lot of inspiration, too. And the Swan River. I grew up alongside it, and I felt as if I was pouring my love for that big old piece of blue into those books as a sort of thank you for being with me all those years.
How do you act on your inspiration for a book? What kick-starts the writing process for you?
For my picture books, it’s as short as a flick – the length of time it takes for a match to strike against a matchbox. I hear an anecdote or see an image or have a feeling, and I sort of know it’s a picture book and what I want the emotional timbre of it to be. That’s where I kick off from.
With novels, it’s harder. I saw an interview where Tim Minchin, the singer and performer, was talking about writing the score and lyrics for the musical adaptation of Matilda, and he mentioned getting the palette right for a big piece of work – the sort of mental colours you want to use. I really related to that. I feel as if everything I write has its own palette, and that palette is both the inspiration and the curse, because finding the voice to express it is hard – sometimes impossible.
Can you describe your workspace? And are there any essentials at your workspace that you cannot write without (apart from the obvious computer)?
As I said, I’m living on the edge of a vineyard, and my desk is by a big bay window that looks out onto vines, vines, vines. My desk is a soothing big piece of grey IKEA. I have an Apple desktop computer and a laptop, and I alternate between them. There’s a stack of rainbow post-its and a big bookcase with all my most favourite books in colour-co-ordinated order, and a yellow lamp, and a yellow card that says ‘Hello Sunshine’. There’s a window seat and usually a pile of papers – life admin I haven’t done, probably. Sometimes there’s a book that I’m finding particularly inspiring – The Art of Fiction was there for a good while, and Charlotte’s Web. But as long as I have my laptop, I can pretty much write anywhere, and I do – in the local cafe/yoga studio, where there’s always someone else on a laptop, or by the beach. I love writing outside with the breeze on my legs. It reminds me of how lovely it is not to be in an office, and how lucky I am.
What is your least favourite part of the writing process?
Plot! I am terrible at action. And the actual sitting down and doing it.
Describe your next book in 5 words (just joking!)
Near-future love triangle. Twins!
(Alternative question number 8) Agent or no agent? What are the benefits of getting one?
I had always been really sceptical about agents while I was working at Penguin – they seemed to take a bunch of money and not do an awful lot. I was so naive! And judge-y. I now have an agent, and she can get my work seen by publishers who I really admire and would love to work with. She can give them realistic, firm deadlines by which to accept or reject my work. I feel as if she gives me authority and legitimacy, and takes away the anxiety of approaching publishers myself. She deals with contracts and gives advice about overseas rights. Above all, I trust her judgement and her discernment, and for that alone I would gladly give her a bucket of cash. So my thoughts are that if you are serious about writing, if you lack connections in this industry, or if you want to guarantee that your work is viewed with a focused and willing eye, agents are the way to go, PROVIDED they are legitimate and have a good track record. Do your research into their list before signing up!
As a writer, how do you find the editorial process? i.e. being fed constructive criticism from an editor : )?
I wish I could say that I was open to all feedback and loved engaging in the process, but the truth is that my willingness to do so is very much influenced by my opinion of the person who is giving the feedback – I have to really trust their taste and judgement, and then I’m there and I’m excited. If I don’t have that esteem for them, I’m more hesitant and, let’s face it, crabby. It’s not easy, having your soul picked over. But there are certain mistakes and missteps that my editors have saved me from making publicly, and I am still SO grateful for that. In the end, editors and publishers and writers all have the same goal, which is to make the book the best it can be. It’s just important that you are all on the same page about the type of book you’re all wanting to make, you know?
What’s on the horizon for you, Davina? What delights do you have in store for us?
Well, my first picture book, The Underwater Fancy-dress Parade, illustrated by the insanely talented Allison Colpoys, is out in March, and I’m ridiculously excited about that. We have another book coming out at the end of the year called Under the Love Umbrella, which is a rhyming book about love, basically. And is hopefully better than it sounds! The message is something along the lines of ‘wherever you are in the world, you’re under my love umbrella’.
And then in 2016 I have two more picture books coming out with different publishers, one about a naughty family dog and one about a naughty pre-schooler. (Hmm, am I detecting a theme?!) In the meantime, I am slogging away at my novel, which I hope to have finished by the end of January next year. Fingers crossed someone actually wants to publish it! And I have a few other things floating around that haven’t been contracted yet. I would also love to write another book for the Our Australian Girl readership. I had an idea for it just the other night as I was falling asleep. I wonder if anything will come of it.
If you would like to find out more about Davina and her books go to: