At the end of 2018, whilst travelling in Taiwan, I received an email from Melbourne-based writer Oliver Phisher with a series of questions for his website offering advice to aspiring authors. As the internet is teeming with bad advice, I resolved to take the time to answer at length about what I had learned in the 15 years I have been a published author. I talk here of influences, inspiration, art, money, failure, social media, family, death, and the purpose of it all (if any!). Hope you enjoy!

Ganges, India

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On the 28th of August 2019 I was invited to address the whole school assembly at Patrician Brothers’ College in Fairfield. It was an honour to visit this tremendous school and meet so many students and teachers.

There was a distinctive joie de vivre at Patrician Brothers’ College and a strong culture of service shone through. Speaking of which, it was a special joy to meet teacher-librarian Roberta Goehner. Roberta has taught at Patrician Brothers’ College for 50 years. What an incredible record of service to literacy in Australia!

With Mrs Roberta Goehner, teacher-librarian extraordinaire

After addressing the assembly I was invited to a special Book Week morning tea in the library and then conducted a workshop for Year 10 students on the subject of North Korean propaganda. Truly, a rich and fulfilling day in the life of this author!

Below are my remarks to the school assembly:

Patrician Brothers’ College Assembly (all photos courtesy of Patrician Brothers’ College)

From the moment we developed speech we have told tales. From the ancient legends of our ancestors to the stories shared on social media today, we use tales to make sense of our lives and place in the world. Once upon a time we called them myths. These stories rose wherever people dwelled. These myths made meaning of the seasons and the tides, the rising and the falling of the sun. Most importantly, they made sense of us: of where we came from, where we are going, and what we might become. Many of these stories, including some told hundreds or even thousands of years ago, are with us still. They take new shapes and forms in every age. They fill our comic books and movie screens, as well as our poems and novels and plays. They live on in our dreams.

I used to think of storytellers as powerful magicians. As a child I looked on them in awe. In a way, writing is a kind of magic. Writers use words to conjure powerful illusions or to reveal hidden truths. Of course, it’s in my interest to maintain the illusion that we are wizards. Writers love to surround themselves with mystery. But the truth is more wonderful than magic: for we are all storytellers. The only difference between a tale shared between two friends on the way to school and a published story written for an audience is craft. Or, put another way, practice. If you can think, you can speak. If you can speak, you can write. Writing is just redrafted thought. And all our minds are full of thoughts. The secret to being a writer, then, is simple: keep an open heart, try new things, surprise, and challenge yourself. In the end, it may not make you a great writer, but it will make you a better writer. And, as an added bonus, you will have lived a life that you will savour and remember.

Many of my earliest memories are of stories. I was a voracious reader and adored The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wind in the Willows and many other classic children’s books. I was often sick as a child and once viciously attacked by a teenager when I was small. At times I felt anxious and afraid. Like millions of other children I hoped there would be a new world hidden inside a wardrobe. I dreamed that a TARDIS might take me away to other times and places. The characters in books became my friends; their images became the movie of my dreams. The best stories for young people become wired into our flesh like DNA. Let’s be honest, there are few books for adults that will ever have so great an impact on humanity as The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Our stories can be served up in so many different flavours: in novels, poems, graphic novels, films, and plays. Like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, eat them all and see what you become! When I was a child, many of my favourite tales were not written down at all. My grandmother lived to be one hundred and three years old. Alice grew up poor in the East End of London, so old that she could recall the German Air Force dropping bombs from hot air balloons during World War One. As she grew more ancient, Alice’s memories did not exactly fade, but they did distort into ever more amazing fantasy and fiction. Grandma would tell anyone who cared to listen that she was hiding in the bunker when “Old Adolf” – as she called Hitler – died at the end of World War Two. The stranger grandma’s tales became, the more I was enchanted. My sister and my cousins felt the same. Alice was a living library. All of us are, in fact. Every person here today is a collection of tales. Some are true, some half true, and some are tales in which it’s hard to know the difference because we don’t really know ourselves.

Grandma Alice

A natural storyteller, Grandma rarely told the same story twice in the same way. Perhaps you have someone in your family who is a gifted storyteller like her. I especially loved when Grandma told a famous fairy tale like The Three Little Pigs or Red Riding Hood, because it was always wilder and stranger than the official version. Grandma just made it up as she went along. I never knew what would become of Red Riding Hood from one version to the next and was desperate to find out. That’s one thing all good stories have in common, isn’t it? They leave us wanting to know what happens next. Just one more chapter before I go to bed! Just one more.

Grandma did not much like the company of adults and preferred to play games of make-believe and dress-ups with her grandchildren. Together we would create whole worlds and fill them with different versions of ourselves. Playing: just another word for storytelling, as natural to young people as running and jumping in the park, laughing with our friends until we cry, daydreaming, telling tall tales, and sometimes even lies.

How quickly we forget that power!

To be a writer is to listen to that voice again and start to take dictation.

My father loved books too, but was not a fan of fiction. I found that strange, as he was an Anglican minister and fine preacher. After all, Jesus taught with parables. He told tales to reveal the truth. Christ was, as Oscar Wilde once said, a poet. My father did not object to my obsession with fantasy and science fiction, he just did not see the point. I’ll never forget him snoring at the movies during The Fellowship of the Ring. To each their own, but I think my father missed something important there.

You see, J.R.R. Tolkien, like his dear friend C.S. Lewis, was a veteran of the First World War. Both had seen the worst of humanity firsthand in the trenches of the Sommes, as well as bravery and sacrifice and love. And so, in their fantastic tales of Middle-earth and Narnia these writers asked the deepest of all questions: about love and death and war, faith and family and friendship. Paraphrasing Chesterton, Neil Gaiman wrote: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Smaug was never just a dragon, was he? Smaug was – and still is – greed and rage and our all-too-human lust for power. Dark forces with us still.

J.R.R. Tolkien

When it came to writing my own fantastic tale, I wanted to create a new myth too. Whereas Tolkien and Lewis were responding – like my grandmother – to the shock of World War One, I was responding to a post-9/11 world. My tale of pirates and sea monsters and floating cities is a tale of pirates and sea monsters and floating cities, true. But it is also a story of a world at war once more, of the value of courage and heroism and kindness and love in troubled times. It is a story of the need to listen to each other and to hear one another’s stories.

All of us here know the power of words. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. We know that it’s not true, don’t we? On the contrary, the names we are called, the words we hear, the stories that surround us, all help shape us and help shape our world. Tales may trap us or may set us free.

In my other life, I am a researcher of children’s lives in North Korea, a country we hear a lot about in the media, and usually for all the wrong reasons. Here is a land where almost every tale is told about one man, the leader of the country, Kim Jong Un. The stories told to children teach all from birth that they must love Kim Jong Un more than their own lives and hate America with equal passion. He is an eater of tales. A destroyer of stories, as well as lives. In a land of 25 million people only one person’s life matters in North Korea … only one story is seen as worth telling.

How lucky we are to be in a school in a city in a land where we can read anything we freely choose to read, and write the stories freely rising from our hearts. How fortunate to have such librarians and teachers and so many books to choose from, so many tales to tell. So let us take the time to read and write and listen. The writer’s journey starts here with all of you.  Thank you.

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This week I had the honour of meeting over 500 Year 7 and Year 8 students at Oakhill College in Castle Hill at the invitation of librarian Lynn Revai. The theme of the Oakhill Book Week for 2019 was “Banquet of Books”. This inspired me to reflect upon Norman Lindsay’s famous dictum that the key to a successful book for young readers is “food and fighting”.

Together, we explored depictions of feasting in the myths of Greece and Rome, as well as in more recent tales for young readers, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the Harry Potter series … and, of course, my own Empire of the Waves. We concluded that Norman Lindsay may have had a point! But why?

The students had a number of excellent suggestions why food plays such a key role in our storytelling. We summarised our findings thus: “At the feast we meet friends old and new, talk to our enemies, we fall in love, restore our bodies, mend our souls, enjoy old favourites and perhaps try something new. We gossip, laugh, learn, and prepare for life outside the banquet hall. In other words… much ilke reading.”

I then posed a question. If, as that other famous dictum goes, “we are what we eat”, is it also true to say that “we are what we read”? I challenged the students’ assumption that all books are nourishment by sharing the following quotation: “Books are good teachers and companions for school students! Acquire the habit of reading anywhere, anytime.” Who said this, I asked? One student suggested Albert Einstein, another J.K. Rowling, one even asked if I were the author of the quote. Year 7 and Year 8 were astonished to learn that this was, in fact, a teaching of Kim Il Sung, tyrannical “Eternal President” of North Korea. I added that, in 1951, at the height of the Korean War, Kim Il Sung called for North Korean writers to become, “engineers of the human soul”. As I introduced the students to a number of North Korean children’s books, we noticed that Norman Lindsay’s dictum held true there too… food and fighting are just as popular in North Korean children’s books as in those we love here in Australia. Yet there were some differences as well, particularly the role of the state’s leaders as both subjects and authors of children’s books. The students were shocked to imagine an Australia in which all our books were by or about Scott Morrison. Meanwhile, they could not help but notice the cultivation of hatred for North Korea’s foes, the USA and Japan, even in the simplest children’s fables.

Virtuous Korean butterfly defeats a wicked Yankee rooster in the North Korean fable ‘Butterfly and Rooster’

What now to make of this Banquet of Books? It was clear that, like the White Witch’s Turkish Delight, not all food is good for us. Of course, North Korea sits at the extreme end of the literary spectrum, but I asked the students to consider in what ways – both virtuous and vile – the stories that they read and love have helped shape them. How do the tales we tell help form the world that we create? As one of the students wisely noted, we are vulnerable when we eat…

It was a joy to meet the students and staff of Oakhill College. Teachers and librarians are at the tip of the spear in the battle for the future in any society. At Oakhill College, we are in fine hands.

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Australian Children’s Laureate Morris Gleitzman recently told a packed audience in Sydney that everywhere he travels in Australia he hears young people express bewilderment that adults keep electing to high office men and women whose behaviour, should they – the children – emulate it, would see them sent to their rooms. They are not wrong. Our children witness an unabated climate crisis, raids upon the press, asylum seekers criminalized and pitilessly detained, rising homelessness and hatred of the poor. Meanwhile, online bile poisons discourse and even our politicians give license to racism, sexism and homophobia, their words ever more vulgar, shameless and profane. It is a well-worn diagnosis now, but our democracies are ailing. Not dead yet, but ailing. When I devoured dystopian literature in the 1990s it felt offbeat with the “end of history” optimism in the air. Today dystopia is – quite literally – the air our children breathe.

Australian Children’s Laureate Morris Gleitzman at the Happiness & Its Causes conference in Sydney, 2019.

Four years ago today, Empire of the Waves sailed onto the high seas. I feared that it would sink without a trace. And yet, to my surprise and delight, I am still being invited to schools and libraries to talk about Anni Tidechild and her world. It was ambitious, hubristic even, but I yearned to write a novel that unshackled minds, that brought politics, metaphysics, history and debates about war and military ethics into the minds of young readers (whilst also telling a cracking tale, if possible). The Manichaeism of so many children’s tales and vile Hollywood confections had paved the way to a West at endless war since 9/11, whilst the mind-numbing compromise of so many children’s books with the excesses of capitalism had eroded civic virtue, whilst filling the hollows with mass consumption and environmental degradation.

Talking about North Korea and dystopian literature at Santa Sabina College in Strathfield

As Socrates tells Adeimantus in Plato’s Republic, “We shall persuade mothers and nurses to tell our chosen stories to their children, and by means of them to mould their minds and characters which are more important than their bodies.” At the most extreme end of the spectrum, I knew from my doctoral research of North Korean children’s culture that our stories shape the world. I have little patience for the mantra that all reading is good reading, as it reduces literacy to the technology of neoliberalism, just as reading is reduced in North Korea to the technology of the totalitarian. Stories liberate or shackle. Ideology is just another name for story. The durability of religion lies in the power of myth.

Illustration from a North Korean children’s comic of American invaders
Talking about North Korean children’s books at International Grammar School in Sydney

Yet I do not believe the answer to our democratic malaise is didactic or proscriptive literature, rather a literature of questions, even in our fantasy adventures and myths. The Head of English at a Sydney school told me last week that her students are tiring of dystopian novels that promise bands of plucky teenagers with perfect teeth and preternatural martial arts abilities will save us. They know too that prophetically elected Chosen Ones will not save us. These also are a form of delusion, after all, one that reinforces the status quo, by displacing responsibility for change onto someone else’s shoulders. I had noticed something similar emerging at a school visit last year to discuss dystopias with a small group of sixteen-year-old girls. The book that most energized them was The Handmaid’s Tale. In 2000, I had studied Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece for Year 12 as a 3 Unit English Text alongside Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and More’s Utopia. I loved all three books, but in 2000 they felt like an intellectual exercise. Students today are devouring Atwood, not because The Handmaid’s Tale is a set text, but because it speaks to them more urgently and truthfully than many of the cozy fables that they have been sold.    

Over the last four years, Empire of the Waves has afforded me the honour of visiting many schools and libraries to meet thousands of such enquiring minds. Currently I am working on two writing projects that I hope will showcase much of what I have learned from them: the first is a YA novel set in North Korea. Most of our narratives about the DPRK are – for obvious reasons – tales of those who have escaped. My new novel is about a thirteen year old girl who cannot leave and so must find a way to live well in that totalitarian land. My second project is a thriller set in a future Australia divided into two competing Occupation Zones: one American, the other Chinese. Yet this future USA has become a fascist empire, whilst China has democratized and is now governed from Taipei. In the aftermath of the collapse of a US-backed Australian dictatorship, one half of the country languishes under American military occupation, whilst the other struggles to find its feet again with the support of the new democratic Chinese superpower. I wanted to invert the Tomorrow, When the War Began vision of “Asian invaders”. Meanwhile, the protagonist, a fifteen-year-old girl named Mirren Tran, is not the chosen one. At least not in the way we might expect…

If anybody in the world today gives hope for a renewed vision of democracy, it is the youth of Hong Kong (and their many older supporters too). The people of Hong Kong are giving the world a civics lesson like no other in recent years. Here is an uprising, not in the name of nationalism or tribalism, but rather in the name of civic principles, the desire to build a place where we may live with one another in deep concord, not in a winner-takes-all battle for dominion, whether physical or ideological. For me, the light of democratic Chinese culture today glitters like a vision of a better future, the dream of an active and engaged citizenry that reconciles local and global multitudes in a world where globalisation will not be reversed, whatever fantasies our nationalists may try to sell us.

It is not surprising that many of the students I work with in Australian schools are taking notice and talking about Hong Kong. Yet they also sense the dangers here as well, of backlash and of even greater violence. For now, though, this seems clear: our democracies will be healed, if healed they can be, by listening and thinking, and by telling tales that engage the civic yearnings of young minds.

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As reported in a previous blogpost, I recently had the pleasure of spending three packed days at the Newington College Festival of Literature for 2019.

To my delight, two young Newington writers have since penned their thoughts about two of my workshops. Thank you to Sebastien Hailwood and Benjamin Wainman for sharing their reflections on a wonderful festival experience.

Words seem cheap nowadays. They roll beneath our fingertips on social media feeds, via text messages, and on the news-sites and blogs we browse on trains and buses. First thing in the morning and last thing before sleep, we read. In this world of words, literacy remains as important a tool as ever, perhaps ever more so. Words snake beneath our news screens and they flash, almost subliminally, on shop screens, restaurant screens and underground train station screens. Yet seldom do we give any of these words our full attention. We read and walk. Read and talk. We read three things at once. We have become textual omnivores, eating quickly before moving onto the next bite. Sometimes, on those very same screens, we read listicles warning us that our attention spans are failing. In our busy lives, we fear there is no time for slow cooking, let alone slow reading. This is the world today’s children are raised in. A world we have created for them, not the world they created.

Yet visiting schools since the publication of Empire of the Waves: Voyage of the Moon Child in 2015, a maritime fantasy of some 90,000 slow-cooked words, my experience has been this. The primal yearning to stop the clock and sit still, to lean in and pay attention to words at the expense of all is alive and well. The ritual is by now familiar. Under the watchful eye of teachers, students listen as I tell them how I became an author, and how the tale of Anni Tidechild came to be published. Understandably, some are more interested in this than others. I sure fidgeted when sportspeople spoke at my school. It is only when I stop to read aloud from the novel that a transformation starts. The fidgeting ends and clandestine texting ceases. All lean in and eyes widen, as together we share something numinous: the communal pleasure of storytelling, of attention focused and shared. For ten minutes, we are in Salila together, all of us sprinting with Anni Tidechild around the stormshield of Pel Narine as the cannons of the Hornet Clan strike. No, attention spans have not died. They are waiting for something to pay attention to.

I’m biased, of course, but middle readers (upper primary and lower secondary) are probably my favourite demographic. Typically, middle readers balance a childlike sense of wonder at the infinite possibilities of the universe with an almost, but not quite, adult intelligence and sophistication that realises such possibilities are not, in fact, quite so infinite after all. For the most part, they are not yet consumed with self-awareness, or the need to appear cool before a world of images. There will be time for that later. Whilst YA literature tends to hold little (or nothing) back, children’s literature and writing for middle readers need only point towards adult realities. As the late great American film critic Roger Ebert wrote of Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, “A good story for children should suggest a hidden dimension, and that dimension of course is the lifetime still ahead of them.”

Indeed, the intellectual and emotional tools required for interpreting and navigating Middle-earth, Earthsea, Lyra’s Oxford or Salila are the same tools young minds require to interpret and navigate our own world too. For a young person, the adult world, with all its peculiarities and paradoxes and perils, is just another fantasy to be decoded and explored. He or she may peer through the curtains in wonder or in terror, but cannot wholly dwell there. Not yet.

Moreover, myth and fantasy allow societies and cultures to open dialogues about themselves that might otherwise be hard to have. From the Iliad to The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, the genre offers an opportunity to work through communal experiences, triumphs, fears and traumas, in ways that adults and children may respond to together. We should be infinitely grateful, for instance, that J.K. Rowling was there to shepherd a generation of children through the post-9/11 era. And, of course, thanks to Peter Jackson, Tolkien too, his World War mythology revived for a new age of anxiety and doubt. The greatest fantasy, of course, being both universal and particular. Far from an “escape” from reality, the genre is, in fact, one of our most powerful means of engagement.

I have found there to be four things in Empire of the Waves my young readers respond to most. Above all, it must be said – and thank the Muse for that! – most respond to the pure and undiluted pleasure of storytelling. A child will tell me about a favourite character, or favourite moment of action or suspense. Then there are those who engage seriously and thoughtfully with the mechanics of Salila. These readers want to know more about the floating cities, more about the universe of the spheres. Even better, many want to tell me about them! Unprompted, one launched into a discussion about medieval cosmology, explaining how he always took “the music of the spheres” to be a most wonderful metaphor. How true!

Then there are those readers who delve deeply into themes. These young people ask about Filip Able’s political machinations, the morality of war, of the challenges of family, the pleasures and sorrows of friendship, and the sting of betrayal. Some of the most sophisticated commentary emerges from the pens of nine and ten-year-olds, as well as the eleven and twelve and thirteen-year-olds. Little seems beyond them. Finally, there are those who explain how the novel helped them through the day. They write how they related to the challenges facing Anni Tidechild and Duck Knifetooth, and found comfort in the solidarity they forged with these characters. This always moves me most of all. Stories sustain lives, and sometimes even save them.

To conclude one particularly successful school visit I invited a hundred Year Seven students to create their own pirate clans, to populate and describe them, and then decide whether their clan was in it for the loot and plunder, for revenge, adventure, or perhaps because they harboured other ambitions. Invited to share in my created world, to add to its texture and detail, the students unhesitatingly produced creative and perceptive and intriguing and surprising work. Their hearts and minds and wits were sharpened. Words came to life and we were in the world together. For Narnia, Earthsea, Middle-earth and Salila are our own worlds after all

For more information on Christopher Richardson’s school and library visits, click here.

To book a school or library visit, please contact The Children’s Bookshops Speakers Agency.

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In May 2019, I attended the Newington College Festival of Literature. It was a thrilling and, at times, overwhelming experience. Over the course of three packed days, I ran 10 one-hour workshops with hundreds of inspired and inspiring students.

With Years 7-9 I explored the relationship between fantasy literature, fairy tale and myth. First up, a show of hands … who loves fantasy? Each time, around 80 percent of hands soared high. And yet, rather than ask the lovers of the genre for their reasons why, I wanted to interrogate the skeptics. What held them back? For most, it was a sense that fantasy bore no relationship to reality that drove wide the gap between the reader and the tale. And yet, intriguingly, for those who loved the genre, it was a strongly perceived sense of reality that drew them into fantasy, whether through powerful world building, character, or a sense of moral meaning. Each time I threw down a challenge to the skeptics: I would change their minds by workshop’s end, or at least persuade them to take another look at the genre they maligned.

After a brief tour of myth and fantasy from antiquity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the students were introduced to G.K. Chesterton’s famous dictum that, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had a imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Via Neil Gaiman, this idea is now most familiar to many readers rendered, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” The students were asked to consider which dragons of the human heart the beasts that haunt our dreams (and novels) represent.

We then explored J.R.R. Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation”, and looked at the role of creation myths in fantasy (sub-sub-creation!), comparing the genesis tales of Middle-earth, Narnia, Earthsea and my own world of Salila in Empire of the Waves. Delving into the Ainulindalë from Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and the birth of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, we looked at the Biblical influences on these two great modern myths, and then compared the Taoist influence upon The Earthsea Cycle of Ursula Le Guin. We considered ways that the philosophical and metaphysical perspective of an author shapes their world building. Taoist influence in Le Guin, for instance, led to a radically different vision of the dragons in The Earthsea Cycle to those of Catholic Tolkien. Whereas dragons in Middle-earth were the creations of a satanic Melkor in enmity with godlike Eru Ilúvatar’s humans and elves, the dragons in The Earthsea Cycle are revealed to have common ancestry with humanity, forming two parts of a whole. I read to the students from the creation myths in Empire of the Waves and asked them to consider points of similarity and difference between my own writing and its antecedents.

With a class group studying ‘Empire of the Waves’ as a set text

The students were intrigued to learn that both Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were veterans of the Somme and had witnessed the worst of humanity at war. For them, fantasy was no mere flight of fancy. As Professor Tolkien argued in his 1939 Andrew Lang Lecture at the University of St. Andrews, later published as Tree and Leaf: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than gaolers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it … [Critics of fantasy] are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” I asked the students to consider the difference between the Escape of the Prisoner and the Flight of the Deserter, and they launched into a spirited discussion about their favourite fantasy tales, noting how J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Jessica Townsend, John Flanagan, Philip Pullman and others engaged with the deepest questions about human experience. The “flight of the deserter”, as one suggested, would be a flight into addiction, for example, rather than a trip to Narnia, Hogwarts or Middle-earth.

Comparing the systematic sub-creative approach to world building of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin with the more eclectic and disorderly approach to world building in the works of C.S. Lewis, the students discovered two radically different, yet equally effective, ways to approach their own fantasy creations. By the end, even the hardned skeptics in the room had conceded that, even if the genre was not always to their taste, it was far from desertion from reality!

Over three days, librarians Ann Jagger and Sabine Tanase ran a festival that would be the envy of any great city. Tristan Bancks delivered a rousing opening address and a host of authors captivated thousands of students across three campuses. On the second evening there was even a light show from the creators of Vivid. It is not every day an author sees their name and creations up in lights! With Michael Parker as Headmaster – an English teacher and published YA author himself – there are few schools so steeped in books.

Newington Headmaster & author Michael Parker discusses the power of literature to shape the world
Anni Tidechild up in lights!

For me, three highlights stood out from so many: I had the pleasure of working with two groups that were studying my novel as a class text (a surreal dream-come-true moment for any author). And, beyond my originally scheduled nine, I also had the opportunity to deliver one additional workshop, to Year Twelve Legal Studies and History students about North Korea and my PhD research.

Discussing North Korea with Year 12 Legal Studies & History Students

I was honoured that the great Australian author Susanne Gervay went out of her way to attend that talk. Finally, I was thankful for my student volunteer Lachlan Griffiths, an exceptional guide and colleague for my three days at the festival and the first Year 9 student I have yet to meet who shares my love of Soviet science fiction cinema.

Thank you to all for a tremendous festival!

For event inquiries or bookings, please contact The Children’s Bookshop Speakers’ Agency.


On my recent visit to Taiwan, I had the honour of visiting Houjia Junior High School in Tainan as a guest of my friend Yi-Hsiang, a high school English teacher. I had a wonderful time meeting Yi-Hsiang’s students to discuss Empire of the Waves, fantasy literature, creative writing and – of course – Australia. For most students, the first thing that came to mind when they thought of Australia was Finding Nemo and the Great Barrier Reef. Another reminder of our responsibility to care for Australia’s waters and aquatic life. The world is watching.

The students loved talking about sea monsters and pirates and were excited to learn about the fantasy world of my novel and to suggest new ideas of their own. Taiwan, of course, has its own storied history with pirates and its own cherished myths and legends of the deep. There is a shrine to the great naval hero Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) in Tainan and his life is commemorated throughout the city.

The students were eager to practice their English and keen to talk about their own writing projects. There were many book lovers in that classroom and more than a few future literary stars. At the end of the event the students presented me with a Houjia Junior High School jersey and a beautiful card full of messages.

Tainan is one of the loveliest places in Taiwan, rich in cultural and culinary treasures … and a great place to discuss Empire of the Waves. I look forward to visiting again, especially to see my new friends at Houjia Junior High School.


Note: This article is a brief overview of a wider research project I am undertaking on the life of Cyril Montague Birnie and the history of Australia-Japan relations. I welcome any contacts from those with direct or indirect knowledge of the life of C.M. Birnie.

In 1889, at the age of 21, Cyril Montague Birnie moved from Melbourne to Japan to help his uncle, Henry St. John Browne (from Launceston in Tasmania), manage a trading company in Nagasaki and Kobe. They were among a group of Western and Japanese entrepreneurs who helped build Kobe from the ground up, a Foreign Concession which rapidly grew into one of East Asia’s most cosmopolitan cities.

Documents issued to Birnie, granting access to Japan

Deeply invested in the life of the city, Henry and Cyril helped establish the first international hospital in Kobe, and helped to develop the Kobe Regatta and Athletic Club – the oldest sporting club in Japan – which introduced football, rugby, hockey, cricket, bowling and rowing to the country. Later, a golf links would be built on Mount Rokko in Kobe, bringing the game to Japan.

Fishing on Lake Ashi in Hakone

A mention of Birnie in the golfing pages of The Australasian in 1907 captures the culture of leisure among foreigners in Kobe at the time and also the peculiarities of one Australian’s first impressions of Japan. In a letter from Yokohama postmarked the 19th May 1907, a sojourning member of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club wrote:

[T]here is nothing very wonderful in Japan. One is a bit disappointed at the start, as the scenery is not what you are led to expect, but Japan grows on you, and the manners and the customs of the people are very interesting … you see very few beggars going about, and no loafers. The Japanese are workers and are a wonderful race – much behind in some things and far ahead of us in others, and always anxious to learn.

He was not, however, ambivalent about the Kobe Golf Club. As he goes on to explain:

What I particularly wanted to write about was the Kobe golf links … situated right on top of the mountains. The golf house stands 2,700 ft. above the city, and you walk up … [Y]ou get a most delicious hot bath, and after your round you want it … You play all along the top of the hills, driving across great ravines, with the course cut out between a tangle of bamboos … C.M. Birnie, an old Melbourne Grammarian, is a keen sport, and will always welcome golfers and give them a game. It was a great pleasure to meet him at Kobe and he gave me an awfully good time, so if any of the Royal Melbourne fellows come for a trip to Japan and go to Kobe, give them C.M. Birnie’s address and they will play on one of the most sporting, and – taking all matters into consideration – the most extraordinary links one would ever wish to play upon.

“Golf Gossip,” The Australasian (Melbourne), 29 June 1907

Meeting the Birnies became a rite of passage for Australian visitors to Kobe, but it was not all golf. After the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (the greatest pre-war disaster to befall Japan), Cyril helped coordinate Australia’s aid response to the calamity. The quake struck two minutes before midday on the 1st September 1923. Over 100,000 would perish, the majority of casualties in Tokyo and Yokohama. Multiple aftershocks and a tsunami left more dead and wounded and over a million homeless. Firestorms raged across cities. Horrifically, scapegoats were soon found for post-quake lawlessness and looting, with Koreans accused of starting fires and poisoning the wells. In an article entitled “Poor Japan! An Australian’s Story: He Knew the Dead,” a Sydney journalist described meeting Birnie in the wake of the devastation:

When the Sydney Guardian saw Mr. Birnie, of Kobe, Japan, he asked that his name should not be mentioned. But he has done so much to try to aid the Japanese in their present anguish that his request has not been acceded to. A retired businessman, with interests in Japan, naturally hit hard by the earthquake and fire, he quietly communicated with the Federal authorities and offered his services, free, in the distribution of Australian relief for the sufferers. With no thought for himself, he made his plea. Australia, he thinks, should send blankets, and more blankets, then money, for food will be available, and the winter months are drawing near.

For half a century Birnie lived in Japan. There he married an English woman named Margaret Mary Dannatt and raised their two children. Cyril’s son, Eugene St. John “Bill” Birnie, would join the Indian Army, serve in the Third Afghan War, climb Mount Everest (yet fail to reach the summit), only to rise to become military secretary to Muhammed Ali Jinnah, first President of Pakistan. But that’s a story for another day. After Margaret’s death, Cyril Birnie would remarry and had another son in Japan, named Frederic, with Ellen Catherine (known as Nell).

Eugene St. John Birnie & Madge Birnie

Everything changed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Retired from Browne & Co., by 1941 Cyril Birnie and Nell lived in a lakeside home in Hakone (near Mount Fuji).

The Birnie Garden

Cyril was then, above all, dedicated to the preservation of the local countryside from the ravages of rapid development and became a pioneer of conservation in Japan. Then came the Kempeitai. Birnie was arrested, kept in solitary confinement for three months in Yokohama by forces he later described as “the Gestapo”. His family’s properties and assets in Kobe and Hakone were seized by the Imperial Government, and Cyril’s lakeside home sold to a magnate from the Japanese railways.

View across Lake Ashi from the Birnie home towards the Emperor’s Summer Palace

Then the seemingly impossible happened. Cyril became one of only two interned Australian civilians that the Japanese would exchange during World War II. Others had to wait until the war was over and many did not survive. As Professor Christina Twomey of Monash University elaborates in Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War II:

The first and only exchange of civilians between Australia and Japan took place early in the Pacific War. The British and Japanese governments negotiated the agreement, to which Australia was party. Nationals of British and Allied countries resident in the Japanese empire, or in parts of China and Siam controlled by Japan, were exchanged for Japanese nationals from the British empire. The exchange occurred in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), at Lourenço Marques (Maputo), in August and September 1942 … Out of the total of 1800 Allied nationals who arrived at the port … a mere thirty were Australian … Several had been under house arrest, but only two of the repatriated Australians had been actually interned. The head of the Australian Presbyterian Mission in Korea, Dr. Charles McLaren, was one. The other was an elderly businessman, Cyril Birnie, who had spent more than fifty years in Japan and a few final months in a Yokohama prison … No further exchanges occurred despite extensive negotiations in the remaining years of the war. (36-37)

And so Cyril arrived home in Melbourne, having not lived there for 50 years. 

Cyril Montague Birnie

After the war, the Birnies returned to Japan. The properties in Kobe had been levelled by Allied bombing, yet the home in Hakone remained standing (having briefly housed US occupation forces). Cyril would remain in Japan until his death in 1958 and lies buried in Yokohama Foreigners Cemetery alongside his beloved wife.

Grave of Cyril Birnie & Ellen Catherine at the Yokohama Foreigners Cemetery

Today, there is an annual “Kaempfer and Birnie Festival” in Hakone each April to commemorate Birnie’s life and legacy as a conservationist.

Manga Birnie

In his threnody for “Lost Japan”, Alex Kerr – a latterday Cyril Birnie – lamented that, “apart from showpieces such as Hakone Park, Japan’s countryside has been utterly defiled” (Kerr, Lost Japan, 46). To no small degree, the preservation of Hakone’s great natural beauty is a legacy of Cyril Birnie.

In 1922, Birnie raised this plaque along the Tokaido Road, exhorting the people of Hakone to preserve their natural environment.

Birnie’s long association with Japan, from 1889 to 1958 is not only the story of an incredible Australian life, but also the tale of Australia’s turbulent relations with Japan, from the opening of ties during the Meiji Restoration, to the darkest hours of the Pacific War, to the birth of a deep friendship in the postwar era that continues to this day. A legacy of peace. He was my great-great-grandmother’s brother.

Memorial to Birnie in Hakone (right) and to Engelbert Kaempfer (left)

Postscript

In November 2018, I made a trip to Hakone and spent a glorious long weekend with the Japanese men and women who keep the memory of Cyril Birnie alive. They continue to fight to preserve the natural beauty of the region and to safeguard it against the ravages of hasty development and environmental ruin. I will have more to say about them soon. For now I will conclude with Birnie’s  exhortation of 1922. In many ways, his words remain as relevant to Japan today, as they did almost a century ago:

“In the introduction to Kaempfer’s History of Japan, published in London the 27th April, 1727 (The 12th Year of Kyoho, in the reign of the Emperor Nakamikado), the following is written: ‘It gives an account of a Mighty and Powerful Empire. It describes a Valiant and Invincible Nation, an Industrious and Virtuous People, Possessed of a Country on which Nature hath lavished Her Most Valuable Treasures.’ You who now stand at the point where the Old and New Ways meet, so act that this Glorious Fatherland be transmitted to posterity ever more beautiful, ever more meritorious.”

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I recently had the honour of meeting 40 wonderful students from Sefton High School and their teachers at The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft. I spoke for about an hour about Empire of the Waves, the history of myth and fantasy storytelling (from ancient Greece to the Marvel Cinematic Universe), and – of course – about North Korea. Students of all ages are always interested in my research into the culture of the DPRK.

Over the course of the hour, we explored different traditions of fantasy world building and storytelling, typified by the approaches (on the one hand) of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula LeGuin, and (on the other hand) of C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling. It was agreed that both approaches are equally compelling, yet opened different possibilities for world building.

Importantly, we also talked about ways that fantasy literature is not merely a source of “escape” (although it can be that), but also a potent means of engagement with the biggest questions in our lives, about love and war, life and death, friendship, family, and the deep mysteries of God or gods and our own existence in this strange cosmos. In the Q&A afterwards, and in the signing queue, the conversation continued. Given the chance, young people love going straight after the Big Questions and it was inspiring to see these students thinking so deeply and critically.

I was at The Children’s Bookshop in Beecroft at the invitation of Paul Macdonald and Beth Macdonald. Anyone who works in the world of children’s books in Australia will know, by reputation (if not in person) these two remarkable people and their extraordinary store. The Children’s Bookshop is not merely one of the best bookstores in NSW, it is also one of the key cultural hubs in Australia.

Paul and Beth Macdonald (and their stellar staff) have been among the most steadfast supporters of my writing since the publication of Empire of the Waves, and many other Australian authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults share my abiding gratitude for Paul and Beth’s dedication to reading and writing for young people in this country. Everywhere I go I hear the same refrain, Paul and Beth are incredible! Indeed, to hear Paul give one of his talks about Australian children’s literature and YA literature is to be sure that Australian writing has a bright future, even if the challenges it faces are often stark indeed. Through The Children’s Bookshop Speakers Agency, I have had the opportunity to visit many Australian schools since 2016 and I look forward to more in the future.

So thank you Beth and Paul!

Follow The Children’s Bookshop on Instagram to follow Paul’s Book Trails!

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