Questions with Emily Conolan

Emily Conolan is a writer and teacher, who is also known for her humanitarian work. For her role in establishing a volunteer support network for asylum seekers in Tasmania, she has been awarded Tasmanian of the Year, Hobart Citizen of the Year, and the Tasmanian Human Rights Award. The stories of courage and resilience she has heard in the course of her work with refugees, combined with tales from her own family history, inspired her to write the Freedom Finders series. Emily has never had smallpox or helped a horse give birth, but in the early 1800s, her family was bush-ranged and did help smuggle an Irish political prisoner out of Van Diemen’s Land.

emily book cover 2

She is also (her bio doesn’t mention this), a beautiful, kind, welcoming person, who makes you feel happy just being in her presence. She even forgave me for being completely loopy on cold meds the first time we met. She is an incredible writer and a wonderful human and her answers to my questions are just lovely. Enjoy!

emily book cover

Tell us a bit about your latest book. What was the inspiration for the story?

My latest two books (which came out together in April this year) are ‘Break Your Chains’ and ‘Touch the Sun’.  They are interactive fiction (they have a maze-like plot where you make the choices as you read).  They are both immigration stories: the first is a convict’s story in 1825, the second an asylum seeker’s story in 2011.  They are part of The Freedom Finders series: I’ve just finished the first draft of the third one, set in the 1950s, from Italy to the Snowy Hydro.  They’re suitable for ages 8 to 14.  My inspiration was my work with migrants as a teacher and human rights advocate.

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Tell us about your main character. Why should we fall in love with them?

It’s funny, my main characters don’t have names, because they are YOU!  The books are written in the second person, and I always am very careful not to name them.  Interactive fiction usually doesn’t assign a name or even a gender to ‘you’, but I couldn’t avoid gendering each main character because the life of, say, a boy convict was so different from that of a girl.  So, you should fall in love with them because they are YOU, and you are courageous, strong, kind, and tenacious.

Have you always written, or is writing something you’ve come to in adulthood?

Yes, I’ve always loved writing – I wrote my first book when I was four, about a cat with an electric sting in its tail who defended the home from a burglar.  Yay!

What was your favourite book as a child?

Definitely the BFG – it’s still a favourite.  When I was a teenager, I loved ‘A Cage of Butterflies’ by Brian Caswell.

Can you recommend another female author we should read?

I’ve read so many great female authors this year: the two that I will mention (because they’re also emerging and Australian!) are Margaret Morgan’s ‘The Second Cure’, a gripping and tantalising piece of speculative fiction; and Sarah Krasnostein’s ‘The Trauma Cleaner’, which is the best piece of non-fiction I’ve ever read – in fact it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, full stop.  It’s gritty and dark, but radiates compassion.

What was the last book you read and loved?

‘Life After Life’, by Kate Atkinson.  My publisher recommended it to me, she said it’s a bit like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ for grown-ups.  She was sort of right – in that the main character keeps dying and starting her life again from the beginning, so it has a very unusual structure… but you don’t actually get to make the choices yourself, sadly.

Tell us three fun facts about yourself, that other people might not know?

  1. Last week I made a rhubarb and raspberry sorbet, and it was AWESOME.
  2. I used to keep spiny leaf insects as pets – they look like aliens, they are so cool.
  3. I love to do Playback Theatre – it’s a type of improvised acting where audience members tell true stories from their lives, which are re-created as theatre on the spot.

Do you have a favourite illustrator of children’s books? Why?

When I was a kid, I loved Graham Base, because I could spend hours searching for clues in his drawings.  I never admired Quentin Blake as a kid because I thought his drawings were ‘scribbly’, but now I adore their vibrancy.  I also love Polly Dunbar, her style is so colourful and playful.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

Hmm. The best can’t be boiled down to a single quote, but is contained in a book called ‘The Writer’s Journey’: it’s about mythic structure and archetypes, and it never fails to get me out of a stuck spot.  Sometimes the best advice is actually a pertinent question, like ‘what does your character want most of all?’ or ‘how can you raise the stakes in this situation?’, that provokes you to look deeper.

The worst is something along the lines of ‘keep this bit, this bit, and that bit, chuck out the rest, and re-work it into an entirely new story.’  Thanks, but I’d rather just bin the whole thing than try and do that kind of surgery.  Or any sentence that begins with, ‘I think you should write about…’

What is your favourite song by a female singer, and why?

Natalie Merchant: Which Side Are You On? It’s a song with a powerful history, written in 1931 by the wife of a union organiser who was being targeted by those in power.  It gives me shivers every time.

If you’d like to be featured in this space, send me an email at kate[at]kategordon[dot]com[dot]au 🙂

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