The Fulfillment of a Lifetime Quest: Writing the Billy That Died With Its Boots On and Other Australian Verse.
In May this year, Walker Books are publishing a collection of my poetry for children, The Billy That Died With Its Boots On and Other Australian Verse.
This book has been a long time coming. It is essentially the distillation of a lifetime of writing. My father instilled in me a love of rhyming verse at a young age, reading me the poems of Banjo Paterson. I began writing rhyming verse myself. Several years ago, I published a small collection of rhyming verse that my grandfather wrote while on active duty on the Western Front in 1916. Perhaps it’s in the genes.
I began writing in earnest in late 1976, shortly after my 21st birthday. I remember some time in 1977 having a dream that perhaps one day I would write a poem for children about dinosaurs, and that it would be published in an educational magazine. At the time, it appeared like an impossible mirage, shimmering just out of reach. Nobody in my family was a writer – I didn’t know about my grandfather’s poems back then – and I didn’t see how I could break the mould. Most of my family seemed to be doctors or lawyers. (The dream became a reality 15 years later.)
In the years that followed, my writing was mostly confined to end of year medical revues, first as a student (“Med Medleys”), and later as a resident medical officer at the Royal Children’s Hospital. 1983 was a ‘breakout’ year for me, as I decided to abandon my training to be a pediatrician, and settle instead on the less demanding career choice of a general practitioner. I could see myself still writing as a GP, but not as a pediatrician, with the longer and later hours, and generally greater responsibility that that would inevitably entail. People often ask me if I have ever regretted my decision to turn my back on such a lucrative and prestigious career, but I can honestly say that I never have. Writing is my true vocation, and nothing can act as a substitute for that.
I think it is fair to say that for much of the 80s – certainly the later years – I imagined or, to put it more accurately, hoped, that I would eventually write for children. It didn’t happen, though. It seemed I lacked the maturity, confidence, and distance from my own childhood to do so. I still wrote, but for whom, exactly, I am still not sure. Myself I guess. Looking back at this material now, it has an odd “man-child” quality, neither fitted well for an adult nor a child audience. Nevertheless I can see, also, that it lay the groundwork for what was to come. This is not to suggest that there is anything especially brilliant about my writing for children, but I can at least say that, from about 1990 onwards, I found within me the ability to write rhyming verse for children on a competent and consistent basis.
I wasn’t even sure that rhyming verse was necessarily my ‘thing’. I reviewed many aspects of my life in 1990 – threw all the cards in the air, so to speak – and even gave a fair amount of thought to the possibility of becoming a screenwriter (film and TV). With this in mind, I joined the Writers’ Guild as an Associate Member. As luck would have it, their annual conference that year had the theme of “Writing for Children”, so I signed up for a weekend in the Blue Mountains with such luminaries as Bob Ellis, Morris Gleitzman, and Steve J. Spears.
All delegates were encouraged to submit a segment to the revue on the Saturday night, so true to form I performed a few pieces of my rhyming verse. Some of them were very old, others had been written during the course of the weekend. They were well received, with plenty of positive feedback flowing my way. Nevertheless, I found myself leaving the conference the following day without the sense of strategy that I had hoped it might bring me.
As I was about to climb into the car of a fellow writer for a lift back to Sydney, a woman sprinted across the car park to speak to me, and addressed me rather breathlessly.
“What you have to do, ” she explained, “is start sending poems to NSW School Magazine. The editor’s name is Jonathan Shaw. Once you have half a dozen poems published, you will then have a case to take to a major publisher to have a collection published.”
It was very simple, but made perfect sense.
“Thank you,” I nodded.
My cousin, well known children’s writer Richard Tulloch, who was also attending the conference, turned to me.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” I replied.
I still don’t. All I can say, though, is that she was absolutely right – except on one point. It was not six published poems I needed, it was more like 50.
I began submitting poems to NSW School Magazine on a consistent basis. I had heard that poems had to be ‘perfect’ to be published, so I kept them very short. I figured that the shorter they were, the less chance there was of making a mistake! The first poem that Jonathan Shaw accepted was five lines long. I spread my wings a little wider, also submitting poems to the Pearson magazines in Victoria (Challenge, Comet, Explore – no longer in existence) and the New Zealand School Journal, also now defunct.
I tried to keep a month ahead of the editors, so that as soon as the inevitable rejections arrived, I always had the next poems ready to go by return mail. The pattern was fairly similar across all editors. Standard rejection letters became replaced by letters with small handwritten comments in the margins. With time, these comments became more extensive. Eventually, the point was reached where, I was sure, the editors were beginning to take pity on me, and really wanted to accept one of my poems. And in time, of course, whether out of pity or not, they did.
There was a long period following the birth of our two children in the 90s when I wrote very little, so consumed was I with the effort of parenting. I did submit a collection of poetry to a major publisher towards the end of last century, though. The early response was, much to my surprise, very encouraging, but the closer they looked at my proposal the colder they felt about it, and eventually my offer was rejected.
So it was back to the drawing board. In 2003, however, a little light bulb went on in my head, and suddenly I was writing with more energy than ever! More and more of my poems were being accepted, especially by Jonathan Shaw, and it was all very exciting.
I don’t recall exactly how my friendship with children’s writer Edel Wignell started. Her memory is that I rang her saying that I had rung the FAW asking for the name of a writer who knew a lot about different publishers, and might be able to help me to find one. (If that is indeed so, and I have no reason to doubt her, then I have to confess to feeling somewhat embarrassed at my attempt to so blatantly ‘outsource’ research that was really my own responsibility!)
I should also add that I had rung Edel ‘out of the blue’ about a decade before. I had recalled her name in association with some published poems for children I had seen that were written by her, and imagined she would be a good person to know. However, I had not really known exactly what I wanted, or how to properly introduce myself, and the conversation had gone nowhere.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, Edel and I quickly became good friends, beginning in late 2005, and embarked on a great adventure together, the quest to ‘find Stephen a publisher’! Many publishers were tried, and we suggested a variety of combinations and permutations, all without success.
During this period I also self-published several small volumes of verse for adults. (Yes, I was now also writing better verse for adults!) I held back on publishing my verse for children, though, hoping to eventually find a trade publisher. Many times, though, my faith faltered, and I told Edel I would just do the job myself.
“No, I don’t think you should give up yet,” she would placidly reply. “You still haven’t exhausted all the options.” This woman had a will of iron!
Eventually, in 2009, and at Edel’s suggestion, I submitted a manuscript to Walker Books. Edel explained that Walker was a new publisher to Australia, but very prestigious, and probably didn’t yet have many poets in their stable. The manuscript consisted of 55 poems, most of which had been published before.
For a long time I heard nothing. Walker was clearly in two minds about my proposal. Eventually we talked about the possibility of publication. It worried them that the poems were all rhyming verse, but they were able to be convinced that the spirit in which these poems had been written was very much the tradition of Australia’s great rhyming poets – Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson, CJ Dennis, et al.
I have until now skipped over the influence of CJ Dennis on my writing, but ever since I ‘discovered’ him as a young man, it has been enormous. Indeed, I am now closely involved with the organisation of an annual festival at his old home in Toolangi, “The Toolangi CJ Dennis Poetry Festival”, that celebrates his life and works.
A contract was offered, and signed, in 2012, and now, here we are, two years later, on the eve of publication.
Walker has taken a huge risk publishing my poetry, and this remains the case as I write this. I only hope I am able to eventually justify its faith in me.
Looking back upon the journey that has been the writing of this book, the list of people I should thank seems endless. Three, however, would appear to stand out – Sarah Foster, publisher at Walker Books, Edel Wignell, and Jonathan Shaw.
© Stephen Whiteside 16.04.2014