About Mavis Thorpe Clark: On Books and Writing

"Writing has given me a very wonderful life."

- Interview with Hazel de Berg, 4 December 1976.

In the early 1950s, with many, many articles, scripts and short stories authored, and six full-length novels for young teens published, Mavis Thorpe Clark understood well the drive and motivation of the artist – the painter, the sculptor, the writer...

"Writing ... can't be laid aside and forgotten and picked up again when mood and time permit. The desire to write is never forgotten. Even when inspiration is at its lowest ebb or when sheer physical laziness takes the upper hand - the urge, like a crumb in the bed, is still there. And when the mind is seething with ideas and genuine force of circumstances prevents expression, then frustration becomes a sickness. On the other hand, a writer who hasn't practised his art for months, years perhaps, can't pick up his pen and write as he can pick up a piece of knitting or fancy work. He has to condition and discipline his mind again to concentration..."

- My Hobby is Writing, 1954.

"After the early storyteller books, most of my books have been written because my subject - people, place, activity - has excited me, involved me; and because of excitement, involvement, demands to be written."

- Something About the Author: Volume 5 (1988) page 85.

Why write for teenagers?

Of the twenty-six published full-length books, the majority - twenty-two - were written for children.

Later in her writing career, Mavis Thorpe Clark also wrote four biographies, and finally her autobiography.

"I am not quite sure why I write for children except that I started out in that particular field, and perhaps this is why I have kept to it, with the deviation of writing biography; but I think too, that I want to share with them the adventures I have and the people I meet, and I feel, too, ... that I am writing for the most important segment of the community. I think the teenager is a much more important person, as a reader, than the adult. The adult has already formed his opinions and his views. If I write a novel for him, I may impress him and I may not. If I write for the teenager, I am writing for the mind that is developing, forming..."

- Interview with Hazel de Berg, 4 December 1976.

Where do ideas come from?

Mavis Thorpe Clark’s work includes an amazing array of topics - from her beloved red earth to the design of a modern laundry; from an endangered species to the work of a little-known sculptor; from a mine collapse to an orphan searching for a parent...

"A writer can never anticipate what moment, what contact, will yield for him the pearl of great price. But when it happens, he recognises it immediately. Excitement lifts his being, and his feet grow light. In return, it becomes his insistent privilege to communicate this moment of experience."

- Acceptance speech for Children's Book Council Book of the Year award for The Min-Min, 1967.

"I have been asked at various times where my ideas come from. They are generally suggested by someone's chance remark, an odd interesting character, or a fresh scene. I think that part of the writer’s brain is always on the look-out, like the man in the crow's nest. After that first initial shock of inspiration, the mill begins to turn. I'm not sure of the process after that. During the actual time of writing, the writer, I believe, is possessed of a spirit that isn't entirely his own. I never feel that the things I write and the person I imagine myself to be quite synchronise."

- My Hobby is Writing, 1954.

"When I start a book, I have some idea of where the story is going. I think, in most cases, I know the end because I already have the place and the characters, but after I write the first chapter, I don't know what is going to happen between the beginning and the end. The place and the people take over..."

- Interview with Hazel de Berg, 4 December 1976.

Which comes first - place, character or plot?

"Place moulds people; whether it be concrete jungle or the red earth of the outback. So whichever inspires the author first - people or place - he must then search for the other half of the duo ...

It doesn't really matter to the author whether he finds his place or his characters first. If it is place, then he sets out to discover what kind of people live there, and to analyse the effect of the place and the environment on their lives. If it is person, then he must discover those things about the place which have moulded that person."

- I Know That Place! PEN Primary English Teaching Association, Rozelle, 1989.

"... Once I had got the feel of this country, this wonderful, red country, I just kept going back, and I still keep going back, although my home is still in Victoria.

From each visit I have a pile of exercise books filled with notes, all about the people I've met, the things I have seen, and sometimes I describe the same scene over and over because it's different every time. I've had some wonderful experiences and really, from that very first visit (to outback South Australia), my whole life changed...

I found there were so many interesting places that I wanted to write about, and the places meant the people, too, completely inter-related. Sometimes the characters in a book come first, sometimes the place, but whichever way it happens, to me one is as important as the other. The place doesn't come alive without the people, and the place somehow characterises the people."

- Interview with Hazel de Berg, 4 December 1976.

Has your writing style changed over time?

Mavis Thorpe Clark points out that not only her own style has changed over time, but the needs of the reader have also changed.

"More than one reviewer has pointed out that, in (The Min-Min), I have stepped into realism, and each has welcomed the trend. This was not done deliberately, nor did I consciously claim realism as I wrote. Certainly, I was aware that I was on a different course from my other children’s books, but there was no other course for me to follow. This was Sylvie's story, not mine. And it demanded honesty, as I saw it.

In considering realism for children, the writing of this book - and there was satisfaction and joy and excitement in the task - has taught me that the author has more to offer a child than just entertainment, or education. He may offer a view of life in which the child may recognize a problem similar to his own, and be heartened. But if an author offers realism to the young merely to excite, then he has lost sight of values and shed his own responsibility."

- Acceptance speech for Children's Book Council Book of the Year award for The Min-Min, 1967.

"The point that amazes me is the difference between writers and readers forty-fifty years apart. Widened education seems to have given us a strong desire to tear aside the last wrapping with the result that (modern books are) much more fact than fiction... Books about real people, things that really happened. We’re not entertained by a mere tale anymore. This type of modern writing teaches us to know our fellow-men and, willy-nilly, to know ourselves."

- My Hobby is Writing, 1954.

How do you write?

Mavis Thorpe Clark began her writing career in the 1920s, in the era of the manual typewriter.

"I write the first draft in longhand, very quickly, and try at that stage to do something like 2,000 words a day, which doesn’t take very long to write. If I am in a good writing mood, I can write that much in a couple of hours. That first draft is not a full draft - some people when they do their first draft write very fully so that when they revise they have to cut, but I don’t write like that. I write very sparsely. I simply get down the ideas, and then I go back and paint in the colour and all the detail which I have left out as I hurry along towards the end.

The second draft, or first revision, is typed, and I type every revision after that. I revise about four times, and this is slow. Also every book I write has some kind of factual background which requires considerable research and checking. It takes me a year to write a book although I can do that first draft perhaps in three weeks.

I don't get edited. I don't think I would like to be edited really, because my style is my own. If editing is done, well, the style must change."

- Interview with Hazel de Berg, 4 December 1976.

Mavis Thorpe Clark did, however, seek feedback about her work from her peers.

"At an early stage, I was privileged to belong to a small group of Melbourne writers calling themselves the "Quill Club". They were young, ambitious, talented; and jealously kept membership to a close-knit twenty-five. The membership varied little over the years. We sat around in a circle listening to the reading of each other’s work - short stories, chapters of those first novels, poems, articles - and gravely (often not so gravely), conscientiously, with awful truth, offering our thoughts, our criticism, our suggestions, for strengthening, tightening; we discussed the language, the structure, the originality, the characterization; we shared our practical gleanings of potential markets. We helped each other, honestly."

- Something About the Author: Volume 5 (1988) page 72.

Is there more to writing that authorship?

"The successful writer also has to be a good business man. Marketing of a story or article is not a haphazard affair. 
However good the story may be it has to suit the style of the magazine (or publisher) to which it is submitted. A writer has to know and understand his markets which means that he must read constantly and widely.

My experience has been that much patience is required before a book sees the light of day. The writing of it occupying 6-12 months takes the least time. After the final revision has been done, the manuscript with its pages neatly numbered and encased between strong covers, becomes a prosaic registered parcel in the hands of a postman. After it is delivered to the publisher the author must settle down to wait hopefully for six months, a year - perhaps much longer - for the verdict. If it is unfavorable, it is sent off to another publisher and the same slow-moving apparatus is set in motion again. This can easily happen to a manuscript several times before final rejection or acceptance. Meanwhile, the unhappy author is getting older and greyer and beginning to wonder if he’ll stay the distance.

After acceptance, months go by again before the first proofs are ready for correction. Proof reading is a tiresome job. The original revision done on the manuscript has quenched the effervescence and then to have to begin to check every word with your own carbon copy is a dry as dust job. This has to be done twice and to make it easier for the printer you have to learn a large number of small squiggles and signs, each representing a certain type of fault - something like shorthand. As I have been told that most of the typesetters are apprentices with no imagination you can't afford to mark the paper with the wrong squiggle.

After the last proof reading, you settle down and wait months more for the book itself. Even if you can recite large slices of it by this time, the finished product never fails to thrill and you can hardly believe that it is yours. The joy of seeing one's name on a dust jacket - particularly for the first time - is something you have to experience to understand. It is one of the rewards of writing which is unique to the writer."

- My Hobby is Writing, 1954.

It is important that the publisher, the author and the writing is a good match.

"I have had a number of different publishers. I started off with Hatherly's 
First Fifteen published by Whitcombe and Tombs, in England, not out here (in Australia), and then Hutchinsons and Oxford University Press. 
Heinemann published the historical novels. When I wrote Pastor Doug, I went to Lansdowne Press. I felt this was a very Australian book and I felt Lansdowne was just right. They published Pastor Doug and I continued on with them, with my children's books, until ... I went to Hodder and Stoughton, with whom I have been ever since..."

- Interview with Hazel de Berg, 4 December 1976.

"In search of the people and flavour of my country, I've crisscrossed Australia, from south to north, from east to west, many times. The great reward has been friends, scattered across the continent, in little-heard-of places ... dear friends."

- Something About the Author: Volume 5 (1988) page 86.

Continues ... Timeline

Mavis in the Coober Pedy dust wearing hair rollers.

Mavis employing the Coober Pedy sunshine to dry her hair, 1967.

Mavis looking into the distance.

Mavis visits the Breakaways, 50 miles from Coober Pedy, 1968.

Mavis sitting with two others painting a design on a plate.

Mavis in Hong Kong, 1970.
Mavis' first trip to Asia was as a participant at the Third Asian Writers' Conference in Taiwan and then at the 37th International PEN Congress in South Korea. Mavis returned home via Hong Kong and Japan.

Camel and handler with Mavis and grand daughter.

Mavis and grand daughter Leanne astride a camel in Alice Springs, 1976.

Mavis in front of sculpture of nude adult and child.

Mavis with "Mother and Child" by Gustav Vigeland in the Norwegian city of Oslo, 1978.

Mavis standing near a headstone in an old graveyard.

Mavis visits William Westwood's grave on Norfolk Island in 1978. Also known as "Jackey-Jackey, the gentleman bushranger", William Westwood was the subject of a short story by Mavis Thorpe Clark which was published by Cassell Australia in Australian Bushrangers, 1977.

Rocky outcrop surrounded by flat desert.

Mavis revisits Konkaby Rocks an isolated South Australian outcrop which features in The Min-Min, 1983.

Mavis sitting next to Ray who holds a birthday cake.

Kingoonya resident Ray Conlan's 70th birthday celebration in the South Australian desert, 1983.

Mavis with family walking along a beach.

Flinders Island beach walk with Mt Strzelecki in the background, 1983.

Mavis balances on mangrove root.

Mavis visits Cape Tribulation in Far North Queensland, 1986.

Five older people sitting at the kitchen table drinking beer, or in Mavis' case, a cup of tea.

Mavis with four of the few remaining Kingoonya residents, her friends Smithy and Alec Smith, Beryl and Ray Conlin in Beryl's home converted from the Kingoonya General Store, 1987.

Mavis and miner at the opening to a mine, both wearing hard hats, about to be winched down into the earth.

Mavis with a miner at his gold mine near the South Australian township of Tarcoola, 1987.

Sitting on the top of Uluru; wind stong.

Mavis wearing pink with grand daughters Karen Sheehan and Louise Huber (right) and their father Peter Hall (left); Mavis, aged 80 years, achieves a life-long dream - to climb to the top of Uluru, 1989.

Mavis and a young boy by a river.

Mavis and 6-year-old David Roots at Ivanhoe Station on the Ord River in Western Australia's far north-west, 1998.

Mavis poses in front of rolling hills.

Mavis at Western Australia's Mt Nameless, 1993.