Interview with Victor Kelleher in Buzz Words

There’s a great interview with Victor Kelleher in the latest issue of the digital magazine Buzz Words, and with their kind permission, we are republishing it here. Enjoy! And do consider subscribing to Buzz Words, it’s a great mag, filled with news, views and reviews from the Australian children’s book world!

INTERVIEW

With Victor Kelleher

My life began in a poor part of London where I had, at best, a scanty education. In my mid-teens, I went to Central Africa. At sixteen I was working on the mines in Zambia, on the old Congo border. At twenty I was at university, and there I stayed (at various unis in fact) for most of my twenties. I accumulated five degrees, including a doctorate in English Literature, and finished up as a uni lecturer.

In my mid-thirties my wife and I left Africa – reluctantly – mainly to protect our young son from war and violence. I took up an academic post in New Zealand, then moved to Australia, where I taught for some years at the University of New England. It was in New Zealand that I began to write, motivated at first by home sickness for Africa. In my mid- forties I gave up my associate professorship and devoted myself full time to writing fiction.

That decision left me free to live and travel wherever I pleased, and although my wife and I kept a base here in Oz, we roamed all over the place. (As a former uni teacher, and sculptor/painter, my wife was as free as I was.) I must admit that our kids (we’d adopted a baby girl by then) tagged along and took their chances. As they’ve both gone on to get multiple degrees and make successful careers, I don’t think we did them any great harm!

In my mid-sixties my life changed again. I gave up writing and went back to my very first love, which was the study of philosophy. I concentrated on the philosophy of science. The gypsy life continued, of course, but with the addition of a Kindle full of technical books!

Then, early in my eighties, I was hit by a yearning to write fiction again. My upcoming novel, Wanderer, (Eagle Books) is the very first fruit of this shift. Inevitably, other books must follow, because I suddenly find myself beset by a wealth of things I simply MUST write about. Now, settled (kind of!) in Battery Point in old Hobart, my wife and I work on. We do so very happily.

How many books have you published during your writing career?

Which was the best-selling for you? How many book awards did you pick up?

More than a dozen adult novels, over 20 YA novels, two novellas, a few picture books, and 15 books for littlies. These last really tested me but were great fun. (I’d still like to write a concluding story for my Gibblewort series, for instance.) There are also many books I contributed stories to.

My bestselling book here in Australia is Taronga (Penguin). Other books, like Master of the Grove (Penguin) and Del-Del (Walker Books/Random House) may have outsold it worldwide.

I’m not sure because I don’t keep count.

I’ve picked up lots of awards over the years: Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award, two Australian Children’s Honour Awards, the Australian Science Fiction Achievement Award, the Australian Peace Prize, and so on; plus, plenty of state awards, especially from Western Australia, where they’ve been very kind to me; some children’s choice awards; and then there are all the short listings, including one for the Carnegie Medal. Again, I just don’t keep a record of these things.

Were all your books published by the same company? Did you have a particular editor who was very helpful?

I’ve been published by many companies, but by Penguin/Random most of all. Others include Faber and Faber, Heinemann, Walker Books, University of Queensland Press, Hachette, Allen and Unwin, Harper Collins, Lothian Books, Word Weavers Press, etc. Again, I don’t keep records of these things.

Yes, I do have a favourite editor: Rosie Fitzgibbon at UQP. She was great at her job, and a truly lovely person. She’s dead now, alas, and I miss her still.

It seems a long time since you last had a YA or children’s book published: what was that book? Why has there been such a delay in publication?

I’m not sure about my last publication. It was either a long short story-cum-novella published in Tales from the Tower (Allen and Unwin), or an adult novel, The Other (Harper Collins). As I explained earlier, I took a long break from writing to concentrate on other important aspects of my life.

Your latest book will be published by Christmas Press in 2022: can you tell us about it?

At its simplest, Wanderer involves two young people, Dane, and Lana, who wander the sea world in a kayak. Their quest is to save books from extinction. The world they travel through is my version of how the future might look once our planet starts the slow process of healing itself. It’s a place where the animal kingdom has finally turned against us, following generations of maltreatment; where the worst kinds of human beings persist, despite all that’s happened; where books and the power of story have been horribly devalued; and where goodness and truth remain in peril. There is an upside to all of this though: my two young heroes demonstrate how trust, honesty, and courage are still amongst our greatest treasures; and the novel holds true to the idea that the world itself, in its re-emerging beauty, is still worth fighting for.

How did you get it picked up by Sophie Masson?

My agent offered it to Sophie, and I’m glad to say she took it straight away.

Can you name five children’s books which you would recommend to Buzz Word readers? Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson. (An oldie, but a goodie)

Lord of the Flies, William Golding (Faber and Faber) (A wonderful book for all ages. Timeless.) The Mouse and His Child, Russell Hoban (Allen and Unwin) (An amazing book. Nothing else quite like it.) Red Shift, Alan Garner (Collins) (In my view, the best book yet on the mysterious disappearance of the ninth Roman Legion. Oh, and see if you can crack the code on the flyleaf.) The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Gallimard was the original French publisher. Don’t know who published the translation.) (I had to include this, because it was the first book I read in French, and it taught me more about the language than any other.)

You’ll have noticed that these are all fairly old titles. I’ve allowed them to squeeze out recent titles because these are some of the texts that inspired me when I started and was struggling to write well.

Can you tell us some interesting things about yourself?

Here are two things, one sad, one not so: When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a great long- distance runner. I duly trained and trained, but it didn’t happen. So, I upped my distances until I was running well over 100 kms a week. I thought that would make me super fit and strong, the way it has many other runners. Wrong! I just became super tired. The truth? I didn’t have the inbuilt strength and stamina and sheer talent for a great distance runner. A real sadness for me at the time.

On a happier note, (!), I enjoy playing blues harmonica. I even took lessons in it years ago, and there was a time when I practised hard. These days, one of my favourite things is to open YouTube and accompany some of the great blues musicians. It just goes to show that you don’t have to be famous to play with the best!

How can readers learn more about you?

Google me, I suppose. The horrid truth is, I’m quite a private person.

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