Family matters

Sata Donald talks to Vashti Farrer

Tell us about your new books
Lilli-Pilli The Frog Princess (Scholastic) is a sequel to an earlier book, Princess Euphorbia. I dedicated Euphorbia (a spoof on the fairy tale of The Frog Prince) to my eldest grand daughter who was born the year it was published. Lilli-Pilli continues the spoof and is written for my second granddaughter, so it’s aimed at 3-6 year olds. When the War Came (Anzac Day Commem. Comm. Q Inc) is for high school students and is a memoir of a fictitious child living in Kings Cross in WW2. It meant reading the Sydney Morning Herald from 1 January 1940 to 30 September 1945 on microfiche, which was hard on the eyes. Both books are due out in November 2010.

What do you recollect from your time at Sydney University?
The late 1950s and early 1960s have been called the Golden Age of Sydney Uni drama; not surprisingly with people like John Bell, Clive James, John Gaden, Germaine Greer, Arthur Dignam, Lyn Collingwood and many others. My first revue was in 1961, my fresher year. Traditionally freshers weren’t allowed in revues, but I auditioned with a second year student and we made Clive James laugh; so he was determined to have us in the cast of Wet Blankets. He even wrote a sketch for me called Ten Days that Dimmed the Lights, about the Russian revolution. I was in a couple of productions for St Andrew’s College and in the SUDS Australian premiere of Jean Genet’s The Maids, directed by Francis Flannagan. There’s a book currently being written about those years by Dr Laura Ginters for which I and several others were interviewed.

Photograph of Vashti Farrer

Recount your career path since leaving university
I worked in a variety of roles: clerical, advertising, in the Mitchell Library as a research librarian, teaching creative writing and as a film extra. After I married, my husband and I moved to Canberra where I worked briefly in the public service. I then decided to freelance, writing book reviews for the Canberra Times as well as articles, short stories and verse. When I started writing children’s stories, I was also doing biographies on military men and artists for the Australian Encyclopaedia. I served on a government board funding arts bodies and on the Board of Trustees of the Canberra Theatre. When we moved back to Sydney I began reviewing for the Sydney Morning Herald, then ABC radio. In the ’90s I started writing historical novels for children because I wanted to make history interesting for them. I’ve written about child convicts, the Eureka Stockade, Cook’s charting of eastern Australia, Federation, the first Melbourne Cup, Waler horses of WWI and messenger pigeons of WW2.

What is your favourite writing genre?
I prefer variety. If I hear of an incident that gives me a “hackles on the back of the neck” feeling, I write about it. I also inherited both my parents’ senses of humour. My father’s was more suited to adult stories and my mother’s more suited to children’s. I sometimes combine the two, writing the same story from an adult’s then a child’s perspective. Fantasy and humour I find easy to write, but children’s historical fiction is harder, because you have to provide often complex information in a way that doesn’t sound like a history lesson.

Define your concept of family
I would have once defined a family unit as two parents with children, but anthropology makes us broaden that definition and extended families or families that break the mould have become more frequent. So long as children are cared for and raised in a loving environment, the actual family form matters less. My own family background was unusual. My parents separated when I was a baby and my father died when I was eight. I was ten when my mother remarried and moved interstate, and after that I was brought up by my grandparents. They had a love of history, art and theatre which became my main interests and both had time for me, probably more than parents would have had. My grandfather gave me a complete Shakespeare when I was 15 and had me learn a soliloquy a week.

Outline your family situation
I am married with three adult children and five grandchildren whose ages range from 14 to less than a year (the latest was born on 29 July this year). Having been brought up by grandparents and never having called my own mother “Mum” I’ve never wanted to be called Mum either, so my children mostly called me Vashti. They used to joke that if they were ever lost in a supermarket and tried yelling “MUM!” all the women of child-bearing age would turn round except me. That said, on the one occasion they bellowed “VASHTI!” I responded immediately. I see a lot of my 14-year-old grandchild who lives only eight doors away and I used to babysit her. I now mind my 2½-year-old grandchild and will mind his baby sister. The other two grandchildren live in Singapore but are planning to move back to Australia. I’ve dedicated two books to the two oldest grandchildren and there is now pressure on me to come up with a book for each of the others.

What advice can you give to alumni for bringing up young children?
Make time for them, but quality time. Don’t make yourself a slave to them – by micromanaging or becoming their full-time taxi service. We live in an age where kids need to be protected but they also need to develop a sense of responsibility and independence. Listen to their problems. The sausages may be burning and have set off the smoke alarm and that report may have to be finished by tomorrow, but the kid who’s bullying your child in the playground, or the weeks of uneaten school lunches are actually more important.

How did you manage to combine work and family?
Looking back, the number of things I often had on the go at any one time made it seem like a full-time job. I’ve edited P&F and writers’ groups newsletters, been the Year 12 parent, done my share of multiple school tuckshops and canteens, Meals-on-Wheels, been President of the Society of Women Writers, Deputy Chair of the NSW Writers Centre, President of the Military History Society of NSW; all while trying to continue writing and researching. It was often hard slog and I frequently finished book reviews or other work at 2am. I once sat down to write a short story at 9.30pm after everything else had been done and finished it at midnight to meet the postal deadline next day. But there was often mother’s guilt. When I handed in a story to the Canberra Times competition with five minutes to spare, I told the kids to stay in the car and not move only to hear the youngest, then three, say, ‘Sut (sic) up darling, mummy busy.’ However, as they grew older they understood the need to juggle. Trying to make another competition deadline, I promised to take them to a fabulous afternoon tea if they just let me finish my story, but could they please make their own lunch? Ten minutes later, there was a knock on my door and a disembodied arm held out a plate with a sandwich on it while another different disembodied arm held out a mug of coffee. That was bliss.