Interview with Jackie French

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Tell me how Pharaoh came about — why Ancient Egypt?

There are too many reasons for choosing Ancient Egypt. Like most kids I was fascinated by ancient Egypt as a child, but unlike a lot of families mine gave me textbooks, so I always had an idea about the richness of this culture and the extraordinary continuum. The world was warming up, drying up . Nomads were moving into grasslands, not only along the Nile, but in India and South East Asia. Humans have always been rather good at adapting to climactic change, and that too, fascinated me. In this incredibly short time so many critical things took place. It was the beginning of writing, the beginning of irrigation, the rising of cities, the development of the whole idea of kingship and armies. It all happened in this extraordinarily short and dramatic time. I always knew I would write about this time, but the real decider was about five years ago when I was talking to a group of Canberra kids. They were talking about their favourite foods and I was telling them where they orginated in. One little boy was silent so I queried him, and he told me that he came from Iraq and that he didn’t have a history. I immediately thought to myself, what have we done to this boy and for that matter to his classmates that they would be so bereft of this critical history. I told him that everything comes from Iraq; that it is the origin of domestication — the deepest most ancient known history that humanity has. So that’s when I realised that this was something that adults and kids knew very little about and that it was something I needed to do. I think it’s important for us to know history, and not just because of the cliche that you’re doomed to repeat it. I’m not sure I believe that — there are many things that kids take from history and some of those are the worst ones. But I do think that history teaches kids one incredibly important thing — that things change — no matter what things are like today they will be different tomorrow. We hear so much about climatic change; that there’s something dramatic happening to our climate. In that time, there was something equally dramatic happening but humans did respond. History can give kids a sense of empowerment and perspective.

Does history also give children a sense of being part of something larger?

My word, yes. I grew up in a time when there weren’t many children’s books around to satisfy a voracious reader. There were none about Ancient Egypt, so if my curiosity was going to be satisfied I had to get hold of adult textbooks. My grandfather in particular, to answer my questions, gave me university textbooks and post graduate books. If I’d been given the simple books for kids I don’t think I’d have found them so exciting. We gave my seven year old stepgrandchild an adult book about dinosaurs, and he sleeps with it under his mattress, because it’s so rich in ideas and concepts and the sheer fascination of the past. Lots of our books today are full of fantasy and magic, but the past has all of that and a lot more. The truer the history, the stranger and more exotic the book is. We often severely underestimate our kids with the books we give them. We often assume that a reluctant reader needs a short snappy book. While it’s true that they are more likely to finish a short, easy book, it’s not the book which will reintroduce kids to joy of reading. Kids today are often drawn into reading by something like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings–these aren’t easy books. They’re dense books that carry kids away, and I think it’s the same with nonfiction. Too often nonfiction for kids is like a cut down pair of trousers that doesn’t really fit — adult books rewritten in simplified form which is often quite inaccurate. These aren’t books written from original research, which is a shame.

I’ve always been drawn to history simply because I didn’t want to be kept in a little box of the present. I believe strongly in the importance of having a concept of the past. The past is very much a part of who we are. Imagine a child waking up one morning with no sense of who they are or where they come from. It’s a kind of social dislocation. A few generations ago, children grew up with their grandparents and even their neighbours knew the family. In many instances we’ve lost that, and history can give it back–give us a sense of being part of that great continuum.

Like many of your characters, Narmer isn’t that different really from any child you might meet today, despite being from a different time and place.

Very definitely. I always try to create or deliberately look for characters that modern children can identify with. I doubt that humanity has changed all that much in the essentials. There are some characters that would be quite alien to children in history, and they can also make for interesting reading, but not in the protagonist.

Tell me about the research you did for Pharaoh?

As I’ve mentioned, it was all more or less accidental. This was something that I’ve been fascinated with since I was six. I had to make sure that I had the dates right. I read accounts of the excavations in Sumer. The working through of what’s left which gradually accumulated for other people to read and interpret. There have also been many modern things to help in my understanding in the last couple of years, for example, the satellite surveys of Middle East which revealed extensive highways that were so heavily used we can still see traces of them in satellite imaging. We also know more about the medicines and plants they used due to advances in DNA remnants from tiny little pots and fragments of things. It’s only been in about the last five years that this wonderful amount of information has become available — traces of yeast and things.

You’ve got a lot of hats! TV star, herbalist, self-sufficiency guru, nonfiction writer, novelist, children’s picture book author, etc. Do you sometimes feel like you’ve got multiple personalities, or is there a thread that connects everything you do? 

There’s definitely a thread. I feel like everything I work on is all part of the same subject–part of the same interconnected thread. For example, the idea of Pharaoh grew partly out of my fascination with plants and growing things. The rise of domestication all tied in with my ecology background and cooking background in Pharaoh. I really don’t see any separation between any of the areas I work in, whether its dealing with children who have reading difficulties, or dealing with pest ecology or writing fiction. The distinctions are more in the perception of other people who see the things I do as separate because people often see the world in narrow genres, and get confused when you seem to suddenly break out of one. But these are just the expectations of other people. I find it odd when people do double takes or say that I have a lot of different hats, because to me it’s all just an extension of what I enjoy naturally–the one subject.

Who are your own heroes? The people who’ve inspired your work and life choices? 

Socrates. I had an absolute crush on Socrates as a child. My father’s university textbook was Plato’s Republic and I thought Socrates was wonderful. I used to walk around (still do sometimes) having these incredible conversations and dialogues with Socrates in my head. He had the most extraordinary influence on me. You know, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living,” and the whole notion of thinking things through, or using concepts of logic in conversations and deductions. I still get unreasonably annoyed when people make inaccurate conclusions without going through normal logical processes.

On your website you say, “If you’re not passionate about anything you are a deeply boring person and should only write books for snails.” Do you deliberately try to maintain and convey that passion? 

Very much so. I believe that most people do waste their life. Life is extraordinarily short in human terms. Most people spend most of their time being bored. I spend most of my life working. There would be very rarely any time when concepts, books, ideas, etc aren’t brewing. The conversations that Brian and I will have over breakfast will very likely end up in a book. By most standards, I’m an extraordinary workaholic, but it doesn’t feel like that at all to me because everything I do is fulfilling and gives me pleasure. After I finish here I’ll go for my 2 hour walk, which is pure joy. The fact that while I’m walking I’m making mental notes about how the vegetation’s doing, or what I’m going to include in my next book may mean that one one hand I’m working but on the other hand its extreme relaxation and extraordinary pleasure. It think it is tragic not to find every moment of the day fulfilling. Kids often take it for granted that they’ll grow up and have lives that don’t give them joy. Or live in surroundings that don’t give them joy. That they’ll be breathing air that doesn’t smell nice. But it shouldn’t be humanity’s heritage to live like this. It’s possible for any child to live a very deeply lived life, but unless kids grow up with this idea it may not even occur to them to do this. They just assume they’ll live the same lives as their neighbours and parents. I’ve been so lucky with the books I’ve had access to. They really corrupted me; gave me a strong vision that life could be different. Books like The Magic Pudding, where in the last 2 pages the Bunyip Bluegum and the Pudding owners decided to live life in a tree. That was exactly the sort of life I wanted — good conversation, as many fresh fruits and vegetables as I wanted, and well, if I didn’t end up in a tree, I was close. So I was given this wonderful vision of what life could be like as a child through books. I grew up in your classically boring suburb. My parents had a marriage which could only be called hideous and my childhood was about 80% boredom and 10% terror. I left home at 15, but all through that were books that gave me this knowledge that life doesn’t have to be like this. Life can be absolutely magnificent.

You’ve accomplished so much. Is there something that you’re still hankering after? Some long term goal? 

Many. Many. Though I think you’d probably characterise it as more of the same. I want to write more books, and there are many more subjects I want to explore and more wombats I want to rear. The more you discover about the world and history the more there is to discover. I feel like I’m just starting to colour in the patterns in the world, but there are so many tempting blank areas. So while I wouldn’t do anything differently, if I were to die tomorrow, I’d be deeply disappointed that I didn’t get to do all of the things that I’ve been wanting to do.

What can fans expect next? 

The next book to come out is The Dog Who Loved A Queen about Mary the Queen of Scots dog. It’s set in a world of religious hatred and terrorism, so there are modern parallels as well. There’s also The Shaggy Gully Times which is a celebration of local newspapers. There’s this great local newspaper where I live, and until very recently people bought it for the typos, so this is going to be like that–what we call “punny” rather than funny. It will be written in a newspaper form, and I have no idea how it will go. As for my next novel like Pharaoh, I’m almost at the end of the first draft. I was commissioned by HarperCollins to write a novel about the ANZAC boys with both an Australian and New Zealand focus and I think they had in mind something like three boys went out and two came back. But it didn’t turn into that. Instead it turned into a celebration of the women. When you think about World War I you think about the armies, but in WWI none of the armies had doctors. There were only a handful of nurses, no dentists, but literally at the outbreak of war, thousands and then tens of thousands of women un-united and without affiliation upped and went to France. By the end of about the first year most were working under Red Cross’s banner. One of the women who stuck with me was Millicent, Dutchess of Sutherland, who set off with her ambulance horses, dogs and ladies. Almost all of them were ladies, and they took their maids and evening dresses because they thought it important for morale of troops not to let the side down. The role of these women was entirely neglected. I got my first clue from The Alice B Toklas Cookbook— when I saw this picture of an ambulance and wondered what these two untrained intellectual women were doing and then I realised that they were transporting the wounded. The more I looked the more I found — reference after reference. I based the book on a true account of four English schoolgirls who started a canteen in France. The troops often spent 3 or 4 days marching with no food, so these canteens were vital in keeping the troops fed. When they returned they often remained unmarried because there weren’t many men around, and these women had become fairly self-sufficient, and they wanted education, and respect. It was the beginning of the women’s movement. Doing the research I began to see this as one of the consequences of World War I.