Laughter lines



JENNIFER ROWE’S laughter was often the despair of her first husband. Take the time sheets of tin roofing were blowing off their house in a Sydney storm. Rowe found herself up in the roofspace in her nightie, fighting the wind and holding on to her husband as he tried to hold on to what was left of the roof with a bent coathanger.“I started screaming with laughter,” she says. “It was so ridiculous.”

Rowe’s latest children’s book under her “Emily Rodda” pen-name, The Julia Tapes, careers its way through a string of similarly slapstick scenarios, outrageous in their combined implausibility but amusing nonetheless. The crashing finale is a Keystone-Cops misadventure in the roofspace.

“What happens as you get older,” Rowe says sagely, “is that you start to realise that anything you can imagine can happen. That’s what I’ve always believed in my children’s books.”

It’s a formula that has proved extraordinarily successful. “Emily Rodda” has won the Children’s Book of the Year award five times and her work is translated and sold overseas. On Friday her Bob the Builder and the Elves won the Honor Book in the younger readers category of Book of the Year.

Altogether Rowe/Rodda has written more than 40 children’s books, including 30 novels in the popular Teen Inc mystery series. She’s just called a halt to those, despite pleading letters from fans. “I’ve run out of crimes to happen at Raven Hill,” she says firmly.

Rowe’s adult books, published under her real name, have also become international bestsellers. Her sharply characterised crime novels include Grim Pickings, which was made into a two-part television mini-series. More recently Rowe was commissioned by producer Hal McElroy to create the characters and storylines for the television hit Murder Call. She transformed her fictional heroine, Birdie, into homicide detective Tessa Vance.

Rowe is renowned for her prolific output. She finds it fairly effortless, despite her busy private life as a mother of four (and a second marriage to Bob the builder, with whom she lives in the Blue Mountains). The decision to try writing in the first place is what took years of effort. She reached it only after a long struggle with self-doubt.

As a child growing up on Sydney’s leafy North Shore she loved reading and often wrote little stories: “I thought that when I grew up I would just write longer things and they would be published.

“Then, when I got to high school and began to study literature in more depth, I started to get embarrassed (at my temerity); it was also, I suppose, adolescence. Then I studied English literature at university, which is almost death for anyone who wants to be a writer, studying all these great authors.”

So she abandoned all hope of exploring her own talent because she thought her longing grandiose: “Like putting aside the idea of being an astronaut; it’s just so far out of reach. So I went into book editing so that I could be close to (literature) but didn’t have to put myself on the line and actually write it.”

When her oldest child, Kate, was seven, she demanded that Rowe make up stories for her at bedtime. Rowe submitted Kate’s favorite to her then employer, Angus and Robertson, under the name Emily Rodda so that it would be judged on its merits (and to avoid the mortifying possibility of public exposure and rejection). She did not “come out” until after the book, Something Special, won Children’s Book of the Year in 1985.

Soon afterwards Rowe found herself unexpectedly pregnant with twin boys. For many women that would have meant a temporary end to creativity outside of motherhood, but Rowe experienced a surge in her confidence and her determination to write.

She says, “It was such an extreme thing to find yourself a mother of four. It’s been an enormous blessing because after I had the twins, I started to think that nothing was impossible … And being responsible for other lives makes you less concerned about how you look to other people.”

When the twins were a year old she became editor of the Australian Women’s Weekly. She would arrive home from the office at the end of a demanding day, step out of her workclothes and into a zip-up dress and walk into the kitchen to start dinner and deal with the evening clamor. Three nights a week, when the children were in bed, she sat down to write her fiction. By the time she left the Weekly five years later – by then a single mother – she had 11 books in print and enough overseas royalties to risk writing full-time.

This is not a superwoman saga. Rowe says she coped partly by minimising housework. She hasn’t ironed in 20 years. A former Weekly colleague once said of her time there, “We used to check her before she went out to make sure she had matching shoes on and her petticoat wasn’t showing and there wasn’t a splodge of Farex on her shoulder.”
Says Rowe, “I know people who spend more time manicuring their nails than I spend making dinner. That’s fine if they want to do that. It’s just that I don’t.”

Writing was not a third job but her way of relaxing. “With kids and work you’re at everyone’s beck and call. When you’re writing you are your own person. I still remember driving home from work in those years and thinking, `Tonight’s the night!’

“They say that when children have played successfully for about 20 minutes, they are refreshed by it. It’s to do with losing yourself in something. Writing’s like that. It’s also like reading. You know when you’re reading a book that you love and you can’t put it down? And when it’s finished I feel quite sad. There’s a moment of enormous elation because it was so good, and then a sense of loss that it’s over.”

Rowe says her children’s stories just flow, as if she is discovering the story as she writes; the amanuensis of her own unconscious. The adult crime novels must be more artfully constructed with more conscious attention to details such as chronology and motivation.

She wrote The Julia Tapes because she was concerned there was an overabundance of grim social realism novels in the early teen market.

“Adults happily read and write a variety of books about their own world, but for some reason we have got into this way of thinking that children have to be confronted with misery for them to understand real life.

“But, as well as being sad and tragic, life is also funny and ridiculous and warm and enthralling. People shouldn’t be associating reality with misery all the time, as if the two things are (synonymous).”

She is also impatient with adults who are “precious” about children’s literature. “I started off reading what everyone started with in those days, that wonderful woman whom everyone now despises, Enid Blyton. I must have read a book of hers a week before moving onto L.M.Montgomery and the Anne of Green Gables series, which seemed effortlessly then to lead on to the Bronte sisters and adult fiction.

“People now are getting very precious about children’s fiction, as if they want books to be solemn honored things that are terribly sensitively written and beautifully produced and they won’t accept anything else. But that leaves the low ground to television and film.”

Children need to learn that reading is fun and anything that does that is valuable: “I always say to teachers and parents’ groups, `Have you ever known a little boy who can’t read the Nintendo game book or the competition on the packet of Weetbix?’ You need to give them a good reason to read, like it being such a good story they can’t put it down. They need that kind of fodder.”

Rowe remembers trawling right through her parents’ eclectic bookshelves when she was growing up. “If you read a huge variety of things rather than the things that are handpicked for you, it’s good for you. It makes you realise how many voices there are and how, if you can read, you will never be lonely.”
Emily Rodda will talk at children’s literature sessions of The Age/ Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Tuesday and Thursday.

First published in The Age.