Monday, May 19, 2014

Living the Dream by Barry Jonsberg

Do you want to know how I became a writer?

Okay. I thought you probably didn’t, but there’s no need to be rude about it. And you’ve started reading now, so you might as well finish.

I always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper. How cool to walk into a bookshop and see a book with my name on it! Pick it up, ruffle the pages… (just for the record, I would like to apologise to all those authors whose names I crossed out in random bookstores and replaced with my name in texta. I confess. Romeo and Juliet was actually written by William Shakespeare and not Barry Jonsberg. Sorry, Will.)

The trouble was, I found I had suddenly become old and my dream hadn’t happened. Why? I asked myself. And then, one day the reason burst through my confused thoughts, like a sun’s rays through dark clouds.

I hadn’t written anything.

I would like to think this was a genius moment, a simple idea that most people would never think about. To be a writer, you need to write.

So I did.

A year or two after I moved to Australia from England, I sat down and wrote a long book called Nativity. It had everything. A dark lord who threatened the destruction of the entire universe, a young Australian girl hitch-hiking on a spacecraft to do battle with said lord and ultimately, of course, to prevail and defeat the forces of evil. Ah! How could I fail? It was the kind of book that would make J.K. Rowling weep with envy, realising that Harry Potter was yesterday’s news. Fame and wealth beyond the dreams of mortal man awaited…

I sent it to three publishers. And here’s a funny thing. As I posted off the manuscripts, it was like I had a voice in each ear – you know, like that old devil on one shoulder, angel on the other situation. The angel was whispering, "What colour Porsche should you buy? And how will you get it to your private island in the Whitsundays?" The devil, meanwhile, was shouting, "You do realise this story is a steaming pile of pelican’s poo, don’t you?"

I listened to the angel.

One publisher never replied (this is twelve years ago. They must be very slow readers.) Another sent me a letter saying, "this story is a steaming pile of pelican’s poo." Well, okay, they didn’t use those words, but I read between the lines. This left one. My present publisher, Allen & Unwin. A month or two passed…

I was sitting at home one afternoon when the phone rang. I am expert with all forms of technology, so I picked it up and said, “Hello?”, thus showing I was a brilliant conversationalist as well.

“Is this Barry Jonsberg?”
The question didn’t throw me at all.
“Yes,” I said.
“I am the head publisher at Allen & Unwin and I have just read your book, Nativity,” the voice continued.

I paused to still the hammering in my heart. Publishers (head publishers) don’t ring up first time writers. They just don’t. It never happens. That whispering started again. "What colour Porsche…?" I tried to keep calm. This is business, after all. Don’t just accept a million dollars, I reminded myself. Bargain for two mill. Maybe three.

“What did you think?” I finally asked.
“We’re not going to publish it.”
“Excuse me?”

It took some time for the words to sink in. They weren’t going to publish it! So why ring me? I had a sudden image of an office full of people all huddled up to the phone, listening in, before the publisher cackled, “We think it’s a steaming pile of pelican’s poo” and hanging up to a chorus of hysterical laughter.

She didn’t hang up.

“We think the story doesn’t quite work, but we like the way you write. If you’re doing anything else, please send it to us first.”

It so happened, that I was halfway through writing another book that I called Kiffo and the Pitbull (it eventually came out as The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull.)

Fast forward a year. I’d finished the novel and sent it off to Allen & Unwin. And then I waited. And waited. Until one day the phone rang. I hadn’t forgotten my phone-answering skills, so I picked up and said… “Hello?” (look, it worked the first time, okay?)

This conversation was much better. Much, much better. Basically, she told me that my book was the funniest thing she had ever read, that I was a genius of the first order and that they were going to publish. Yay! Double yay!

I signed a contract (I couldn’t afford the Porsche. I couldn’t afford one wheel of a Porsche. But does that matter when your dreams are about to come true?) and then I had another conversation:

“We love your book, but the beginning needs re-writing. And the end isn’t all it could be. Oh, yes, the bit in the middle is dodgy too.”
“You love my book, apart from the beginning, the middle and the end?”
“In a nutshell.”

That book took me three months to write and another eighteen months to re-write. But, you know something? When I finally walked into that bookstore and saw it, I was beyond happy (I think I frightened a few customers.) I’d never have to use a texta again.

So, that’s how I became a writer.

Since that first one, I’ve written sixteen more. I can’t stop. Even though people email me all the time begging me to.

published by Allen & Unwin, May 2014

About the Author

Barry Jonsberg lives and writes in Darwin in the Northern Territory. He is a multi-award winning author of books for Young Adults and younger readers and has been published in fourteen countries and translated into eight languages. This makes him feel very important. Luckily his friends and family constantly show him just how wrong he is.

As a child, he read many books by Enid Blyton and classics like Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson and The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the same guy who did Sherlock Holmes.) He would recommend anything written by Michael Gerard Bauer, Scot Gardner and Philip Gwynne for younger readers today. This is because they are friends and have paid him to say that.

There's more information about Barry and his books at his website: 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Barry. I really enjoyed reading this post. Three months to write a novel and 18 months to re-write there's food for thought!

    I'm very pleased (but not really surprised) that Allen & Unwin saw your writing talent even if they didn't like your first novel because we are big fans of Allen & Unwin here at Reading for Australia.

    Allen & Unwin is one of the publishers who generously donated books to the 2014 Australian Kids' Lit Quiz competition - see the book publishers tab under the header for a full list of our publisher supporters. Also, A&U publisher, Erica Wagner was one of the guest contributors in November 2013. Her post, reflecting on 25 years working in children's book publishing, is one of our most popular posts and well worth a read. Have a look at the left side bar "Guest Authors' Posts".

    Thanks again Barry. Fingers crossed you get the Porsche one day - or at least one of the wheels...