Hi, Norman, It’s great to be chatting such a versatile children’s author
I must ask, with your surname, do you have Viking ancestry. Some. My great-great-grandfather arrived in Australia from Denmark during the 1850s gold rush in Ballarat, and my grandfather grew up in Coolgardie in the Western Australian goldfields early in the 20th century. I’ve always like Norse myths and legends, though, and think Vikings were a little misunderstood. J They can’t really have been that bad. Can they?
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I read, of course, mostly historical fiction, and I love old black & white movies and Westerns, and I love travelling and photography. I am happiest tramping around the ruins of a medieval castle or exploring a smugglers’ village, with my camera running red hot.
What did you want to be when you grew up? I can’t answer that – I never grew up! No, I wanted to be Errol Flynn, swashbuckling star of Captain Blood, as well as a bunch of other pirate movies, and also Robin Hood and General Custer. I also wanted to be a Lieutenant in the US Cavalry, a Sergeant in the French Foreign Legion and a Spitfire Pilot in the RAF in 1940. Oh, and a Highwayman, a gunslinger, the Saint, and when I was about 14, I fancied myself as F Scott Fitzgerald, as played by Gregory Peck in the bio of his life called Beloved Infidel. The idea of being a tortured literary genius appealed greatly at that age. Unfortunately, these days I am neither tortured nor a genius, nor even suave like Gregory Peck, or even Atticus Finch, more’s the pity.
What’s for dinner tonight? What would you rather be eating? It is Sunday night, so Jan and I are in for a perfect evening. A long hot bubble bath with the steaming water up to our eyes, until we get wrinkly toes, then pizza and red wine while watching a British crime drama on the TV. What would I rather be eating? I’m happy with that, though a bowl of freshly-made pasta and Chianti while sitting on a terrace on a warm evening in Venice might be pretty good too.
Your hero? I have a lot of heroes, but especially my beloved Jan Nicholls. She is my biggest fan, but never reads anything I write until it is published, which is probably why we still get on okay. She is from Northumberland near the Scottish border where they breed them tough, but she is warm-hearted, kind, gorgeous, as sharp as a tack and incredibly funny. The poor woman is addicted to books, though, and spends a great time of reading and promoting books in her role as President the Children’s Book Council here in WA. Jan also likes travelling, so that fits in perfectly with me, and I admire how she has navigated us across the world in search of exciting places for me to write about.
Another hero is my mother, Barbara, who is kind and gentle but has a backbone of steel. She lived in Broome in the 1950s when it was a derelict shanty town so far from everywhere, and brought up four boys often by herself for long periods while my father was away working. She moved to Perth and had a successful career at Channel 9 and is still a stylish, enthusiastic world traveller at 86 years old.
Next on my list is Winston. I am a big Winston Churchill fan, though I am well aware of his flaws and significant errors and subsequent disasters. US broadcaster, Edward Murrow, said of him, “He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.” I hugely admire that ability he had. He stared down Hitler, ran the government, helped win WWII, and then went on to write 30 books and win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
If you could choose three people to invite for a dinner party, who would they be and why? My father and my grandparents. You never really get to say goodbye properly, so one lovely last evening with them would be wonderful. I still have so much I would have liked to share with them and so much still to learn. They were all great storytellers too, and I would have felt warm and safe and loved being in the same room with them again entertaining me with their tales of our family from long ago.
Now to questions about writing. I think readers and writers alike are fascinated by how writers write, and how they get their ideas.
What time of the day do you usually write? I am scatty and erratic, hugely disorganised, and away-with-the-fairies half the time, so there is no pattern to my writing day. My latest manuscript, The Smuggler 3: Dragon’s Blood, was written under a palm tree by a pool in Phuket using an old leather-bound notebook and a fountain pen. It was only the first draft, but I got so much written with no electronic distractions and no reason to stop other than the need for a quick swim occasionally.
What is the hardest part of writing for you? Revising and polishing. I find researching the life and times of my characters and settings and then writing the plot reasonably enjoyable, but the constant need to turn out half-decent sentences while making sure the meaning is crystal clear and exciting at the same time is a real challenge for me. I need to keep reminding myself not to include every single detail I have uncovered during the research, but to concentrate more on the hero’s journey and their interaction with the other characters. Historical books often overload the minor details of the past, so the reader gets bogged down, and then fed up, and loses sympathy with the hero, and that can be fatal.
What is your work schedule like when you are writing? My schedule is pure chaos. Sometime I’ll spend all day procrastinating, while others I’ll be on a roll and write like a demon all day, ignoring everything and everyone in the real world around me. Other days, it will be four hours before I get bored with myself. Ideas come at all times of the day and in odd places, so I have a box full of napkins, slips of newspaper, notebooks and movie tickets with random words and sentences hastily scribbled on them.
What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk? I tend to over-reference old movies, TV shows, books I read in the past, and even jokes, sometimes completely inappropriately for the dire situations in which I have placed my characters. I am also on the lookout for humour in every case, which can be very annoying when Red, for instance, is seconds away from being eaten by a monster Tiger shark or being fired on by blood-thirsty pirates.
Do you hear from your readers much? What do they say? Not too much. I do get great feedback from kids when I am giving school talks, and teachers often tell me how much their students enjoy my books. I did once get the best letter, though. It read, “Dear Mr Jorgensen, I know you don’t make much money from your writing, but rest assured, you are bringing great joy to millions of children all around the world.” Poor deluded fool they must have mistaken me for J.K Rowling.
I am guessing your readership is predominantly boys, am I right? I had imagined that was the case, but I am continually being proven wrong. Jack’s Island is studied and enjoyed in many girls’ schools, and I keep hearing that girls seem to like my character, Red Read, the teenage hero of The Smuggler’s Curse and The Wreckers’ Revenge. Several girls have asked for more romance in the sequels.
We both laugh and I suggest a comprise. Maybe you can write a choose your own adventure book to satisfy both boys and girls? Quick as a flash he comes back with ‘Choice one -Kiss the girl. Choice two -Jump overboard.’
Do you have a favourite character that you have written? If so, who? And what makes them so special. Red Read, son of Mrs Read who owns The Smuggler’s Curse Hotel in Broome, is my favourite. His mother sells him as a cabin boy to Captain Black Bowen, a notorious smuggler. Red is just like 12-year-old me, except he is brave, fearless, athletic and resourceful, unlike me at 12 who was a snivelling coward and none of those things. He handles everything I was too scared to do like he is a full-on junior swashbuckler. And after all his hair-raising adventures, he ends up very rich, also unlike me.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions? I don’t imagine so. You’d have to be pretty good at faking it. There is a saying in writing circles, “No tears from the writer, then there will be none from the reader.”
You’ve written children’s picture books and middle-grade fiction genre. Do you have a preference? I prefer mid-grade by far. Picture books are sooo difficult to write. The industry standard for them is 600 – 800 words over 32 pages, and trying to get the story that fills your head into so few words is nigh on impossible. Picture book stories are also told using a mixture of words or pictures, but not both, so your words are often cut as the illustrator takes over. If your text reads, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the illustrator paints a dark and stormy night, then your carefully chosen words become redundant and get cut.
With middle-grade, you can create more elaborate plots and landscapes and explore inside your characters’ heads. You are also leaving a lot more to the reader’s imagination.
How do you decide whether it will be a longer book or a picture book? I see my stories in pictures in my head, just like watching a movie with a soundtrack and all, but some adventures will be far too long for 32 pages, so have to be turned into 60 to70,000 words instead. Interestingly, the three illustrators I have worked with, Allan Langoulant, Brian Harrison-Lever and my good friend, James Foley, have all had better pictures in their heads that I did, so, occasionally, I feel okay about my words getting the knife or the Viking sword.
You mentioned a trip to the Shetland Isles – did that inspire The Last Viking?
The Last Viking was inspired by my nephew Ben Jorgensen adding horns to his bike helmet years before, and then by me overlooking James Foley’s portfolio where he had an illustration of a boy dressed as a medieval knight. Why not a Viking, I thought? When I approached James with the Viking boy idea, I suddenly had to come up with the story on the spot.
The Shetlands Islands did, however, inspire The Smuggler’s Curse. R.L Stevenson’s father had been a lighthouse builder, and Robert had stayed in the same room as me as the Sumburgh Lighthouse. Learning this, I tried writing a pirate story just like R.L.S while there. It soon developed into a smuggler story set in Cornwall in 1810 and then, eventually, into an Australian sea story relocated to Broome in 1898, at the suggestion of my publisher, Cate Sutherland at Fremantle Press.
How much input do you have with your illustrators? Normally, none. Editors like to keep writers and illustrators apart, and often they are in different states. Brian Harrison-Lever lived in Tasmania, and I didn’t meet him until he had finished all the artwork for In Flanders Fields, though we did exchange emails. I met Allan Langoulant once a week for dinner where he showed me his previous week’s work, but I had no say in it as it was already finished. With James Foley, we did spend time working together on The Last Viking, sharing jokes and me suggesting scenes and film references, and that seemed to work well as we had a shared love of movies. The Viking books are heavily movie influenced. James was able to add in a lot of his own humour, making my original plot and jokes much funnier.
Best writing advice? Don’t get carried away with the traditional, stereotyped idea of being a writer
Waiting for inspiration is for amateurs. Instead, just begin.
Starving in a Paris garret, suffering from TB, drinking yourself to oblivion on Absinthe like many, shooting wild animals like Hemingway, or going on the road like Jack Kerouac will only distract you. Just sit, turn down the lights, and actually type in one word after another until you fill a page, polish it, then do it again the next day until you fill another page. After a year, you will have 365 pages which should be enough for a book. That is advice from John Steinbeck, not me.
Worst writing advice you ever received? A teacher who read the manuscript told me to change the name of the title of In Flanders Fields as kids won’t know what it means, she said. Luckily, I ignored her as the book is still in print 17 years later.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer
My Lamy fountain pen from Germany and my Chinese fountain pen called The Black Dragon, the same name as the schooner in my latest books. I just had to buy it with a name like that. Mostly, though, every dollar I ever spent on airfares has not been wasted. I have visited every place my books are set as I believe it is important to be able to describe the settings in detail, down to the smell of the drains, the feel of the sand between your toes and the sound of the monkeys screeching in the jungle trees.
How many unpublished/ half-finished books do you have?
Dragon’s Blood: Red 3 (Upper Primary Novel)
Sons of the Desert: The Journal of Harry White (YA Novel)
This Pen for Hire (Adult Comedy Novel)
The Illuminator’s Apprentice (Picture Book)
The Goldminer’s Son (Picture Book)
The Gr8 Escape (Picture Book)
Castaways on a Dessert Island (Picture Book)
Advance Australia Unfair (Picture Book)
The Final Mission of a Flying Tiger (Picture Book)
Mary Christmas (Lower Primary Novel)
Who is your favourite author, and why?
My favourite authors are Leslie Thomas who wrote The Virgin Soldiers and Dangerous Davies and Tom Sharpe, author of Wilt and Blott on the Landscape, both British writers who generally wrote satirical comedy novels about ordinary people living suburban lives while mayhem surrounds them. When Leslie died in 2014 and Tom in 2013, I was shocked at how saddened I was each time as if I had suddenly lost a part of me and a whole chunk of my early reading years. I didn’t know either of them, though I met Leslie Thomas briefly at a book signing after a talk he gave here in Perth. He answered ALL my questions then afterwards signed my book, “To my greatest fan, Norman”, and he wasn’t the least bit wrong.
I also love the work of Bill Bryson and have read every word of his. We are much the same age, and his gentle sense of humour matches mine exactly. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, about him looking for the small-town America of the old movies, is funny but also so sad as he slowly comes to realise that it has been lost and the towns have been devastated by enormous Walmart’s, huge car parks, endless fast-food joints, closed factories, empty shops and despair. His most successful book, Notes From a Small Island, about him revisiting the places he went when backpacking around Britain in the 1970s, is a joy to read. He gave his humour free rein, and I loved it, as I did with all his other books. He has since written 20 more.
What are you reading now? As usual, I have several books on my bedside table. This week it is Grant, a massive doorstop of a biography of General Ulysses S Grant, the US Civil War leader and President, by Ron Chernow. There is also The Last Dickens by Mathew Pearl an exciting books about copyright piracy in the 1870s, Mrs Kelly by Grantlee Kieza, about Ned Kelly’s mother, and to my absolute delight, an advance copy of Goldfields’ Girl by my great friend Elaine Forrestal just arrived this morning. I am really looking forward to reading this one.
What books or authors have most influenced your own writing?
Robert Louis Stevenson. The Smuggler’s Curse has Treasure Island and Kidnapped all over it. I even called a character Bosun Stevenson in his honour.
I belong to the Society of Writers and Illustrators here in Western Australia, and I am always amazed at the quality of the books that our members produce. I admire so many of them as we really do have some remarkable talent in Perth.
In my genre, closest to my style of recent stories in John Flanagan, who wrote the Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband series. His historically-based, overly-brave teenagers sometimes seem a lot like my young characters
Favourite quote (doesn’t matter the source)
“If you are going through hell, then it is probably best to keep on going.”
Or maybe… “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
Both quotes are by Winston Churchill.
Favourite book/story you have read as an adult
Dissolution by CJ Sansom. It is a historical novel (of course) about a lawyer called Mathew Sheldrake in the times of King Henry VIII when he set up the Church of England and destroyed the monasteries and abbeys across England. Samson captures the life and times of pots medieval Britain so well that you feel positively grimy after reading his work. He has since written a series about Sheldrake, all equally as good and just as grubby.
Favourite book when you were a kid Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, although Enid Blyton and Biggles were favourites when I was younger.
What famous author do you wish would be your mentor? John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath. He was the first writer to keep me awake all night reading. He wrote with such compassion for his characters who were based on real people suffering in the Great Depression, as well as perfectly capturing a sense of place of an American landscape destroyed by drought, greed and economics. His writing is so flawless and seemingly effortless that you do not even notice the writing style as he has so successfully carried you away with the fates of his characters.
What are you working on now? I am researching for a book called In Search of Constable Jack Kelly, Brother of the Outlaw Ned Kelly. Ned’s youngest brother, Jack, was a world-famous circus star performing stockwhip tricks and stunt riding for Wirth’s Circus in the early years of the 20th century. For a few years, he was, almost unbelievably, even a member of the Police Force in WA where he worked taming wild horses. After that, he left for the USA where he joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and then went onto a glittering career in England and then South America.
Do you enjoy school visits? I do about 120 school visits a year and usually enjoy them very much, especially with kids in upper primary classes. They typically are so enthusiastic and not yet self-conscious like their older school mates, and so pepper me with questions. My book, Jack’s Island, about my father’s experiences as a kid during WWII is studied in depth by many schools and, for some reason, the kids want every episode in it to be true. It mostly is true though sometimes exaggerated, and I find it fascinating seeing what sections appeal or capture the imaginations of the readers. School visits are also essential for trying out chapters on the potential audiences to see their reactions. Frequently, some instant editing takes place as I read aloud, and pages are mentally slashed and burnt.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me- I have really enjoyed talking with you and I am sure you have gained new readers eager to share in an adventure or two.
Here is a list of all Norman’s published books and awards
.NJ Publications and Awards. February 2020
Buy Books https://normanjorgensen.com.au/shop/
Phone +61 408 932 196