The Fabulous Deborah O’Brien, Australian Author

One of my grand passions in life is reading – I was voracious as a child.  To this day I have very fond memories of a weekly trip to the library with my Dad, which started when I was probably 4 or 5 years old, and continued through out my school life.  My Dad actually volunteered at our public library, and that is how I secured the wonderful part time job I had through high school, my parents no doubt relaxed knowing that from 3.30 – 7.30 pm every Friday night I was surrounded by books!  Anyway I have somewhat digressed.  This post is certainly connected to books, but it is all about fabulous author, Deborah O’Brien.

Deborah O'BrienAbout three years ago I had the great joy to stumble across her first novel when I was on holiday, and as you can read here and here, have clearly been hooked ever since.  I feel privileged to say that Deborah very kindly agreed to let me interview her and was exceedingly generous and open in answering the questions.  She was already, but now is without doubt my favourite Australian author.  Her biography can be found here, but please join me in getting to know her a little better.  When I get up in the morning I pretty much know what lays ahead in my day so I started off by asking,

With such a creative bent, when you wake up in the morning how do you choose between artist and author in what you do that day?

For most of my life I’ve wondered whether I’m a writer who paints, or an artist who happens to write!  But these days I’d much prefer to write.  Painting involves setting up a lot of equipment and cleaning up afterwards.  Writing, on the other hand, is a spontaneous process that requires little or no equipment. I’ve been known to write a whole scene in my head when I can’t get to sleep at night.  The amazing thing is that it’s still there in the morning when I go to transcribe it onto my laptop.

As a working mum myself I am always curious as how others have managed this, so my next question was, how have you juggled motherhood and your career?

By training, I’m a high school teacher – French and German, but after my son was born, I began working from home, almost by accident.  Some friends, who were visiting me to see the new baby, admired a decorative box that I’d painted and asked me to teach them how to do it.  Before I knew what had happened, I was running painting classes from my dining room table!  One of the advantages of both writing and art is that you can do them from home.  So I was able to juggle a baby with a pastime that somehow morphed into a career.

Once my son started school, I began to write and illustrate non-fiction books in the art, craft and lifestyle areas.  I used to work on them after I dropped him off in the morning until it was time to pick him up in the afternoon.  As he grew older, I took on new challenges like being a contributing editor for an art magazine.  Fortunately the publisher allowed me to do the job from home, which meant I could still manage the school run and hang out with the other mums in the park after school, watching our kids play.

When my son was in high school, I went back to teaching languages – at his school! It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done career-wise, because I’d been away from it for so long and consequently had to do heaps of preparation to keep ahead of my students.  Although I always enjoyed teaching, I wasn’t passionate about it.  What I really wanted to do was write the stories that had been living in my imagination for years.  So, one day I sat down at my laptop and started typing.  Soon I found myself writing two manuscripts at once – making up for lost time, I suppose.

Fast forward to now, and my son is twenty-something and one of my trusted team of test readers! He even picked up a few plot holes in ‘The Trivia Man’ – before publication, thank goodness.

I think many of us wish for a bolt hole in the country to escape to while also having a city pad.  With both a city and country residence, what triggers you to relocate from one to the other?

My dad was a country boy from a family who settled in the Central West of NSW in the mid-nineteenth century so I suspect ‘country’ is in my DNA.  My husband and I spent years looking for a little rural cottage to use as a weekender and finally found one we could afford on the outskirts of a Gold Rush town three hours’ drive from Sydney.  What sold us on the property, apart from the price, was the creek running across the bottom of the garden and the platypus living there.  Whenever I have a deadline looming, I escape there to work uninterrupted.  Our cottage is at the end of a country lane that nobody knows about and we don’t have a landline.

The saying goes, you should never judge a book by its cover, but your books have the most enticing covers – it is what caught my eye originally – how did you come to select them?

Thank you, Karen, for those kind comments, but I can’t take any credit for the delightful cover of The Trivia Man. Designer Christa Moffitt came up with the very clever idea of a tree/brain, while artist Cheryl Orsini turned the concept into reality with her charming illustration.

Mr Chen's EmporiumIn general, it’s the publisher who is responsible for the cover and then consults with the author as to whether he or she approves of it.  I’ve been fortunate to have a lovely publisher, Bev Cousins, who involves me every step of the way.  In the final analysis, however, I’m happy to leave the cover to the experts.  Mr Chen’s Emporium was an exception in that Bev, who knew about my work as an artist, asked me to do a concept sketch, which became the inspiration for Chris Nielsen’s illustration of the emporium.  I also did the hand-drawn lettering on the covers of Mr Chen and The Jade Widow.  So, if you thought those letters looked a bit quirky and uneven, now you know why.

And while the world is a smaller place these days in this electronic age I finished by asking, do you think it makes any difference being an Australian author?

For me, being an Australian author means writing Australian stories. You’d think that an Australian setting would be limiting in terms of international markets, but it’s not necessarily the case. Germans readers, for example, love Australian rural romances which they call ‘Liebe und Landschaft’ (love and landscape). My own Mr Chen’s Emporium (though not technically a ‘rural romance’) was published in translation in Germany as Amy’s Secret (Amys Geheimnis). I suspect it was the ‘exotic’ Australian setting which attracted the publisher and, subsequently, the readers.

Having said that, I think it’s equally valid for Australian authors to set their stories, or parts of them, in far-flung locations. One of my favourite authors, Geraldine Brooks, has located some of her best novels in America (Caleb’s Crossing) and England (Year of Wonders).

The Trivia ManNow I was also going to tell you all about her new book which currently has pride of place on my beside table.  However this working mum has not quite prioritised herself yet and made time to sit down and read.  But at least I am not alone in the bedside table stash! So you are going to have to come back next week, maybe the week after, and read all about her new book, The Trivia Man.  For those of you who cannot wait, you can find out some more here.