Children’s author Norman Jorgensen has been writing stories since he was in primary school, and his latest story, The Smuggler’s Curse(Fremantle Press), details the rollicking adventures of young Red Read, whose mother “sells him to an infamous smuggler, plying his trade off the north-west coast of Australia in the closing days of the 19th century”. Norman’s first picture book, In Flanders Fields(with illustrations byBrian Harrison-Lever), set in World War One, tells of a homesick young soldier who risks his life to rescue a robin caught in the barbed wire of no man’s land. In Flanders Fields won the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year Award in 2003 — the first of many awards for Norman. He has since written a dozen books for children and young people.
Born in Broome, in Western Australia’s tropical north, he now lives in a 100-year-old house near Perth with his wife, and his collection of books and old movies. He loves to read, travel and take photographs, especially of castles, cathedrals, villages, battlefields, sailing ships and all the things that make history exciting.
Norman Jorgensen will be the guest author at Koorliny Arts Centre’s Stories on Stage on Wednesday, March 29, from 7pm. If his responses to my questions are any indication, it will be a lively and highly entertaining event.
Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. Chaos is probably the best description. My mind flits from one shiny thing to the next, looking for a distraction, and then, somehow, among all the mental noise and confusion, the faint ideas for stories appear. After the really enjoyable time writing the first draft and creating the characters, the plot and locations, the hard slog of reshaping and polishing the sentences into something hopefully readable takes over.
Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline?
A. The Smuggler’s Curse was published in October, and is the story of young Red Read from Broome, who is sold by his mother to a sea captain in the dying days of the 19th century. Black Bowen, the captain, turns out to be an infamous smuggler plying his trade off the north-west coast of Australia and up to Singapore. From terrifying encounters with cut-throat pirates to battling the forces of nature in a tropical typhoon, to encounters with head-hunting guerrillas, and even being nearly hanged by colonial troops, Red is in for the adventure of a lifetime. As the newest member of the crew of The Black Dragon, a sleek, fully-armed clipper, he is forced to quickly grow just to even survive.
I have started the sequel to The Smuggler’s Curse. I had left the ending open for the next adventure, and my editor suggested I get on with it reasonably quickly so that any young fans of it will not grow too old before it comes out. I am also working on a non-fiction book called In Search of Constable Jack Kelly. Constable Jack was the half-brother of Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger. Unlike Ned, Jack had a glittering career as a world-famous circus performer who travelled the world and became rich and successful. For a couple of years, though, from 1906, he was based in Perth and had a job as a mounted policeman with the WA Police Force, before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and travelling throughout the USA.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?
A. Jan and I have a dining room lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, a spare room with more shelves and my writing studio has three walls lined with shelves as well. We both have been collecting books all our lives, cannot bear to throw books away, and even get upset seeing them mishandled or damaged in any way. I am in favour of capital punishment for people who mistreat books — or at least, public flogging, stocks, branding and medieval pillories for public abuse, attack and ridicule.
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. The non-fiction books are in very rough order of subject, and the fiction is everywhere – anywhere I could find a space to squash them in. Even though Jan was a librarian most of her working life, she has resisted Dewey-ing them. I have a large collection of film history books that take up several metres of shelving. Other than that, I can never find the book I am looking for.
Q. What sorts of books predominate? (ie general fiction; specific genres such as romance, science fiction or historical fiction; non-fiction; reference books; short stories; novels; poetry; drama; children’s or young adult fiction; picture books, etc.)
A. All of the above. We have a great collection of kids’ books signed by the authors, having met loads of them at festivals and on book tours over the years. I also love historical fiction, especially 18th-century sea stories like those of CS Forester and his Hornblower series, Julian Stockwin’s Kydd series, Alexander Kent’s books featuring British naval hero, Captain Bolitho, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books. I like too the historical novels of CJ Sansom, like Dissolution and Lamentation, set in the times of King Henry VIII. They are so descriptive of Henry’s London that you feel grubby just reading them, and nervous that the king will come after you next — after he has finished chopping off the heads of those close to him. He was certainly keen on that.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. My favourite place of all is soaking in a hot bubble bath with water up to my eyes, soft music playing, and me lost in the story in some exotic location. The only downside of this is dosing off, dropping the book in the water and nearly drowning. And if you do that you deserve to drown. Having said that, I cannot sit anywhere alone without reading something, even if it is a newspaper, a 10-year-old magazine, a menu, street signs or even a Vegemite label.
Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?
A. I am reading ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire about him and his son visiting Istanbul, describing it now and writing about what the same place was like during its years when it was named Constantinople. Even being addicted to history as I am, I had little knowledge of the Byzantium Empire of Constantinople, so was surprised to find out about the huge numbers of mad emperors, unhinged queens and countless other crazies who lusted for power over the 2000 years of its turbulent history. I’ve almost finished it, and have been fascinated by every page. Why did I choose it? It was new, historical and I enjoy Richard’s interviews every day on ABC Radio. He is a clever, interesting bloke who shows plenty of care and kindness with his guests. I’m also re-reading an old 1980s adventure called High Citadel by Desmond Bagley, about a group of plane crash survivors sheltering in a mine in the Andes Mountains and under attack by Communist forces. I picked it up in a second-hand bookstore just for nostalgia’s sake as I remember enjoying it when it was first published during the Jurassic period.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. My favourite authors are Leslie Thomas and Tom Sharpe, 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 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 Walmarts, 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.
The first writer to keep me awake all night was John Steinbeck and his book The Pastures of Heaven. In his interwoven stories in this one, nothing much happens, but you become trapped in the lives of his characters and can’t stop reading until you find out what happens to their dreams and plans. After that, I read The Grapes of Wrath, and then all his others. I greatly admire his spare style. Most of all, though, I love how he treats ordinary people, giving them a voice and highlighting their suffering and the widespread unfairness of their situations, caused, usually not by their own fault, but by uncaring banks, greedy landlords, exploitative employers and even just sandstorms, bad weather and bad luck.
Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them
A. I’d save my signed Leslie Thomas book, The Dearest and the Best. After that, The Million Pound Bank Note, by Mark Twain, that my great grandfather, John Hansen Jorgensen, was reading when he was killed in a mining accident in Coolgardie in 1906. He signed his name in the front of it and, other than his wedding photo, it is the only keepsake I have of him. Finally, I’d save Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. That, along with RSL’s other pirate book, Kidnapped, was the inspiration for The Smugglers’ Curse. If I could have a fourth, it had better be The Coral Island, by RM Ballantyne, as I suspect that may be a major influence on the upcoming Smugglers’ sequel.
Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?
A. Winston Churchill, war correspondent, England’s First Sea Lord, wartime prime minister, Nobel Prize-winning author of more than 30 books, including The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and deeply flawed genius. I wouldn’t talk to Winston very much at all. I’d just sit and listen. Can you imagine what it would be like? The huge intellect, the voice, the history, and people he must have known over his long career. What would I serve him? Pol Roger, his favourite champagne, then his usual whisky, Johnny Walker Red Label, then, finally, Hine Brandy and a big fat cigar. I don’t imagine he’d be bothered with tea or sandwiches too much.
A fictional character I’d like to meet would be Captain Blood, the original swashbuckling pirate who was created by Rafael Sabatini in 1922. Actor Errol Flynn played him perfectly in the movie made in 1935 by Michael Curtiz and co-starring Olivia de Havilland. In fact, sharing afternoon tea with the three of them at the Admiral Benbow Inne, at Port Royal, Jamaica, would be so much fun. We’d have to be served up pewter goblets overflowing with Captain Morgan Rum, of course – arrr! And what would we talk about? In a pirate bar? In Jamaica? You wouldn’t be able to shut me up.
Then, like most people, I think I’d like to have afternoon tea with Atticus Finch, the hero ofTo Kill a Mockingbird. We’d discuss dignity, bravery, compassion and empathy, and all the other decent attributes that Harper Lee gave him in spades. We would discuss the Great Depression and Prohibition, which I find fascinating, and am intrigued at how those two elements led to an upsurge in socialism in America in the 1930s, as well as the appearance of the gangsters. And we could talk about Deep South racism, white poverty and the intolerance of the time. I think it would be a pleasant, warm afternoon chat on his verandah with Scout sitting and listening nearby. Oh, and I’m sure he would serve up Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and Filé Gumbo, all washed down with Mint Juleps or Moonshine. Perhaps we’d even drink some Tequila Mockingbird… For more from Norman, visit his website.