My Dinner With Jackie

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Photo by Helen Konstan.


Thursday night was one of the first events of the Bendigo Writers Festival weekend, a keynote address by Jackie French at the Foundry. My partner and I arrived right on 6pm and whatever we were expecting, what we got wasn't it. I have been a fan of Jackie French since I was a little girl and although it's been a few years since I last read any of her books, I can recall many of the plots of her stories or the images they conjured as I read them. (The bus stop setting used within Hitler's Daughter remains long after the rest of her story has faded from my memory). My partner was not as familiar with her work and what little he knew about her was mostly what I had shared in my excitement leading up to the festival.

As part of the Channel 31 documentary team for this weekend, I had hoped that we would get the chance to interview her but from the first minute of her speech, I knew that request would have to wait for another day. It was the anniversary of her sister's murder and she began her speech by talking about her experience at the hotel earlier in the evening that had left her shaken so much she considered travelling back to Melbourne even before the festival began! She had heard a man laughing somewhere outside, rather innocuous by itself but it was the accompanied sound of a woman screaming that brought out the terrible memories of her own experience. She never did explain if she found the source of these sounds and although I have no doubt these events happened as she described, my writer's mind immediately changed it into a symbolic story created to leave the reader questioning the line between reality and fantasy.

Whether that was her intention or not, there was no mistaking the raw energy in the room. Her original speech was thrown out of the window replaced by one created on the spot that went deeper than I am sure she ever intended to give in public. Hearing her talk about her travels to dangerous countries in conflict, of a home life nobody could consider safe and other things she so rarely shares so directly to her (usually young) audience was shocking but beautiful. The intense passion as she spoke of reading and writing was clear; this was a woman speaking about something she loves so much, she could not imagine doing anything else for a living.

One of the things she spoke about was the importance of finding the right book for the right child, the "magic" book that made them want to read more and helped them find even a smudge of the passion she feels for books. Every child has one, she claims, but it's not always easy to find and expecting them to read books that talk down to the children will not feed that interest.

Anyone who has been a part of the Channel 31 team this weekend already knows I have been keen to meet her and, if I get the chance, maybe even interview her. What they don't know is why. Even I had not been able to properly articulate my appreciation of this author I haven't even kept up with but on this night, Jackie did it for me. Growing up, my house was full of stories. My mother made sure that I could read and that I loved it, just as she had for my older sister and just as she did for my foster brother. She told us stories, she read to us, she managed to buy me a cheap book from the supermarket almost every time I went with her because books were the one thing she could justify buying just because I wanted it. It's a method I have incorporated into my son's life too and one that has made him love books even though he's only two. (And even if that book is Muddypaws by Moira Butterfield read to him fifty times in a row!)

Because of my mother's love, reading came easily to me and I was never short of that "magic" book Jackie spoke of but it wasn't until I discovered my "magic author" and realised I could make a living from my fantasies. She was the first person that made me know I didn't want to just be a writer, I wanted to be an author. I might not have always stuck to that dream but it's something I've always come back to and I have her to thank for it. Even if I don't get that interview, even if I don't get a book signed, I hope I get the chance to tell her how her art started a fire. A fire that is still burning today.

Here's to you, Jackie!


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Jackie French is the Australian Children's Laureate. For more information visit childrenslaureate.org.au.

Jackie has a website: jackiefrench.com.

For more information on the Bendigo Writers Festival, go to bendigowritersfestival.com.au.

Originally published on my Wordpress on 7 August 2014.

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This page contains a single entry by Lee Gannon published on August 12, 2014 11:17 AM.

Quarry Hill Primary School FĂȘte was the previous entry in this blog.

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