Editor at Large Ally Martell chats with Narelle Oliver, a children’s book writer and illustrator. Read about her inspirations and memories about Toowoomba.

What are your favourite memories of growing up in Toowoomba?

Our family home was reasonably close to the top of Mt Lofty  and back in my childhood years (the 60s) there was a lot of  undeveloped bushland near us.  So there was this sense of freedom to be able to roam on foot or on our bikes and be independent in the bush or local streets.  My brothers and I would meet with other kids, have secret places, form gangs, etc  – all the fun stuff .

My parents also encouraged us to join choirs, learn music, ballet, tennis, speech and drama –and it was all quite accessible and local.   I really enjoyed singing in the Junior Choral Society productions and learnt so much from the conductor, Mansel Jones.  To this day I find myself humming tunes or singing the words and harmonies of songs as diverse as American cowboy ballads to contemporary  melodies about the luminescence on waves as they wash in and out.

Everyone in your family is quite artistic and musical.  What were the greatest influences on you as an artist?

Certainly, Mum and Dad have been a strong influence on my development as an author-illustrator.. I grew up watching Mum, Elvie Burstow,  draw and paint and  she often showed me various techniques.  Dad, Graham Burstow, was and is very involved in black-and white photography.  I think he is a master of design of elements in a photograph so that it catches the eye and also tells a story.   These are important features of good picture book illustration.  Dad also likes to tell a story or two – and I think my interest in story writing comes from that.

I also spent time with my auntie, Dorothy Hall (Mum’s older sister), who was quite a well-known wildlife painter and enthusiastic field naturalist.   My Uncle Max (her husband) worked as a ranger for Qld National Parks and Wildlife Service in his earlier years. They (and my cousins)  lived on a farm near Oakey in my childhood years and I have great memories of fossicking through their extensive collections of semi-precious stones, pinned butterflies, birds nests, etc along with shelves and shelves of wildlife books in a special room called the library. When I was 8 years old, it was Auntie Dot who showed me my first Tawny Frogmouth, asking me to come and have a look at a branch that could open its big golden eyes.  From then on I was hooked on camouflage and that theme has appeared in many of my picture books.

What is one piece of advice you could share with an emerging writer on the Darling Downs?

 Write what you know about and are passionate about.  You don’t have to live in a big city to be published.  In fact, writing about experiences and landscapes in less populated places, if done well,  can be so original and refreshing.

Having said that,  I think it is useful to keep up with what is being published nationally and internationally in your genre – so that you have a feeling for the standard of writing and illustrating required and what themes have already been covered or how they’ve been covered.   It can also be useful to attend courses offered by tutors from the Queensland Writers’ Centre on aspects of the craft of writing and the business of getting published.  These tutors are usually well-published writers in their genre, and travel regionally in Queensland, so it’s worth becoming a member and checking out the programme of workshops, lectures and masterclasses on offer.

What children’s books should be on every family’s shelves?

Apart from a collection of mine, you mean!??

For young children, I think you can’t go past the Hairy Maclary series with its appealing doggy characters, the Gruffalo, anything by Pamela Allen, and anything by Dr Seuss.  For older children, the Harry Potter series, anything by Roald Dahl, and then the Tomorrow series by John Marsden are must-haves.  I also  think a good atlas should be there too.

What are you reading right now?

“Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent.  Hannah is a new young Australian writer who was recently featured on ABC’s Australian Story.   I’m in a great book club and we chose this as our most recent title.

The book is set in Iceland in the early 1800’s and is based on the true story of a woman who was found guilty of murder.  The writing is captivating – I can almost feel the cold, and see vivid pictures of the houses and the landscape and the difficult lives of the people in my mind’s eye.  There is a page-turning air of suspense as the story behind the story unfolds, even though the ending is known.

You have a new book out this year.  Where can audiences go to hear you talk about it?

“Don’t Let a Spoonbill in the Kitchen!” was released in April, so I’ve done some talking already at its launch at the Brisbane Square Library and also at a concert in Toowoomba where music especially composed to go with the book was played by the Toowoomba Concert Orchestra.

I am doing a number of talks in various schools this year.

Any enquiries about talks or workshops for children or adult groups can be made to Speakers Ink    www.speakers-ink.com.au  or through my website:

www.narelleoliver.com

What do you like to do to relax?

The ultimate in relaxation for me is to rent a place with a view of the sea for the weekend on North Stradbroke Island and do nothing but lie around in the sun and read the weekend papers, go for walks on the beach, look for turtles and dolphins and maybe whales on the gorge walk,  and swim at Cylinder Beach if the weather’s good.

As the ferry leaves Brisbane and heads out over Moreton Bay , troubles and worries seem to melt away and be left behind.

Bliss.

If you had guests coming over for lunch this Saturday, what type of meal would you serve?

I have to confess I’m not a great cook so the guests might be a tad nervous, but I have just learnt to make very healthy Vietnamese rice paper rolls so guests would probably be my guinea pigs with those.   We have a lot of mint growing at the moment, so that would work well.  I would also talk my husband into making one of his warm Asian salads to go with the rolls.   Our children gave us a mortar and pestle for Christmas so we are trying to grind herbs and spices from scratch (for special meals!)  The flavours do seem more intense this way.

Where was your last holiday and what did you love about it?

My niece married in Tel Aviv recently so many of our extended family travelled there for the wedding and we spent some time looking around parts of Israel.  Floating in the Dead Sea and seeing Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Old Jaffa and Haifa  and then Masada out in the desert, were fascinating experiences and I feel I learnt so much about the history, cultures and religions which I had never fully appreciated.  The family of my niece’s new husband showed us around and included us in many feasts with the most delicious Middle-Eastern foods imaginable.

After that a few of us travelled to Turkey and spent time in Istanbul and then out at Goreme.  I adored Istanbul – and could summarize my experience there as “sensory” – the screech of the seagulls mixed with the loud horns of huge ships with the calling to prayers; the smells  and colours  of the spice market in the Grand Bazaar; the smell of  sizzling fish freshly caught – down on the bustling banks of the Bosphorus; the exquisite blue tile mosaics in the mosques and palaces; sweaty bodies packed in the trams; the faded grandeur of the old wooden Ottoman mansions, reclining on cushions eating Turkish delight in a café and drinking little cups of tea, and being pummelled by a masseuse then floating in warm water in an ancient  underground stone bathhouse – still open at midnight.

Hmm… I reckon I should apply to write the Lonely Planet Guide for that place!

If you could teleport back to Toowoomba right now, what would you like to be doing here?

First, I’d go to our family home and pick up Dad and his camera.  Morning tea would be at one of the lovely cafes across from Queens Park, and then a stroll through the beautiful big trees in the park.  I like to take in the view from Picnic Point so that would be next.

Lunch would be a picnic down on a pretty curve of Flagstone Creek just below the range.  We have friends who have property there on Flagstone Creek Road and have been meaning to do this for a while – particularly now Flagstone Creek is running well now.

After that, we would drive past the house which my husband and I owned and lived in from 1985 to 1991.  It was originally a small farm house built in the late 19th century.  It had been faithfully renovated by former owners and then we made some additions, careful to keep the original character of the house.  The house had a spare block of land next door.  Instead of selling it off, we planted a forest there – with many natives.  The lady who bought the house from us vowed she would keep the garden- forest.  The forest is thick with many tall trees now, and it is a delight to stop there and see it.

Next is the Art Gallery – I’m very fond of regional art galleries, and Toowoomba’s is one of the finest.  There’s always a good variety of work on display.

I love the old railway station precinct with the new cafes, and the antiques.  So some decent browsing there and perhaps dinner at Platform 9 to follow.

Finally, no day in Toowoomba would be complete without taking in a show at the exquisitely renovated art deco Empire Theatre.   It’s come a long way since I saw my first movie there (The Sound of Music) in 1965!