Imagine an author who writes so beautifully about the loveliest things in life, so thoughtfully about some of the hardest things, and so gracefully about it all that your hands almost tremble when you pick up a new book by that author.
Glenda Millard is such an author for me and today I feel hugely fortunate to be able to bring you an interview with her, a long conversation we had over the summer this year, where I kept pinching myself that I was talking with someone I admire so much.
Glenda has written picture books (such as The Duck and the Darklings), books for younger readers (such as the life-changing, life-affirming Kingdom of Silk series), and books for slightly older readers (such as A Small Free Kiss in the Dark, an exciting and moving read about friendship during extremely testing times). 2016 saw the publication of Glenda’s YA novel, The Stars at Oktober Bend.
This unusual, challenging and compelling novel follows 15 year old Alice as she forms a perhaps unlikely friendship with Manny, a refugee. Following a traumatic incident three years earlier, Alice has great difficulty speaking, but she still loves words and tries to find ways to express herself through poetry. These words of hers – which she pins up anonymously around her sleepy, backwater town – seed a growing friendship, a loyalty and courageous love that enable both Alice and Manny to find a sense of home and family (in the broadest sense) that gives them confidence and hope to face a world they know isn’t always safe or kind. The Stars at Oktober Bend is poetic, startling and intelligent, and comes with my heartfelt, urgent recommendation. It’s most definitely one of my favourite books of 2016.
The Stars at Oktober Bend shares several recurrent themes with Glenda’s picture books and novels for younger children; the “outsider”, the consequences of having difficulty with words and even the beauty and value of the handmade, all explored against a backdrop of honest, sincere love and generosity. These recurrent themes were some of the first things I asked Glenda about when we began chatting.
“Making things has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Mum had always sewn clothes for my sister and me. I can vividly remember her sitting up late one hot summer night, making a dress for me to wear to Sunday School for prize-giving day. The dress was pale pink and had a yoke of a similar colour with white butterflies printed on it. Mum was complaining because mosquitoes kept flying towards the little lamp on the machine, getting scorched and falling onto the pretty pale pink cloth she was sewing!
My aunts were knitters – the kind of knitters who talked, and laughed, whistled and sang, and told stories and seemed not to concentrate at all on the work that was magically growing in their hands. Sometimes when my mother and the aunts came to Nana’s house, they all ‘permed’ one another’s hair in the kitchen. There was no money for hairdressers. It was my job to unfold the Tally Ho cigarette papers to wrap the hair in before it was rolled onto little rods secured with rubber bands and dabbed with cotton wool soaked in curling solution.
When my sister and I were very young, our grandmother gave us a sewing machine which was operated by turning a handle. We quickly learnt to make clothes for our dolls. I have always loved making things; including gardens, cubby houses, clothes for my dolls. Later on I sewed clothes for myself and then for my children. As my mother had done for me, I made rag dolls for my daughter and now for my granddaughter.
We lived near the bush and I went fishing and shooting with my father and my uncles. I have always collected things from the natural world; like autumn leaves, feathers, fallen nests, shells, small, smooth rocks and chipped pieces of china dug up in the garden. My grandmother taught me how to make the lightest scones – ‘no flour past the first knuckle when rubbing the butter into the flour’.
Our Polish neighbours fattened geese on the creek for Christmas. Their father used his swingsaw to help our Dad cut up trees he’d felled for firewood. The children went to school with us. Chrissie was the only girl who could run faster than me and her brothers did the best bombs at the swimming pool. They told us to call them Johnny, Teddy and Anthony because they knew we wouldn’t have been able to pronounce their real names.
Our over-the-back neighbours were hippies. They bought a tumbling down old house and fixed it up with doors of all descriptions and beautiful leadlight windows. They wore interesting clothes, bare feet and whiskers. Down the road was a strawberry farm owned by an indigenous Australian family. The seven children caught the high school bus with us, from outside my Nana’s house. My grandfather was of German descent. He and my Dad hung sausages to cure in the chimney and made wine from all sorts of vegetables and fruit. Papa used to give my little sister a wedge of blue-vein cheese for her birthday – even when she was only a toddler!
So, in response to your question about going back to the beauty of the handmade, to being an outsider and to difficulties with words, what does this exploration of the past reveal?
Perhaps it’s simply that I grew up at a time and in a place, where kindness and industry were valued and where difference was accepted.
It is possible that my return to characters who have difficulty with self-expression is in some way the reverse of this. Perhaps that stems from having always enjoyed this freedom myself and considering how terrible it would be were I not able to.”
It’s not just certain themes and wonderful hope that characterise Glenda’s writing. Apart from the celebration of love and beauty which I see in everything she’s written, her writing is characterised for me by a sense of space – of “room for thinking”. She doesn’t “tell” what happens all of the time, but rather, she trusts the reader to make connections and draw out threads for themselves. Even with her writing for older children and teens, I’ve often been reminded of the very best picture book writing – where the text leaves physical and emotional space for illustrations to tell another bit of the story. Glenda’s writing seems a little like that to me; it leaves an unpatronising, restorative, thoughtful space for readers’ own imaginations to bring things together and find connections. I have often wondered how much of this was a conscious decision on Glenda’s behalf and so this was what we next talked about.
“I was a reader long before I became a writer, so I suppose it’s natural that I try to write the sort of books, that I like to read. Readers are generally thoughtful people – even the youngest of them – especially the youngest of them. In my experience, it seems that children are often way ahead of adults in their ability to divine meaning in the absence of words and to imagine their own satisfactory explanation where the book offers none.
It has been said that writing a picture book is akin to writing poetry, in that choice of words and the means of expression are crucial because of limited space. But rather than being restrictive, I see this as an opportunity to use words more imaginatively. Often when I write picture books, I use words in different contexts to where they might usually be seen and sometimes I invent new words; words like ‘sorrydrops’ and ‘upsidedownness’, for example. I once encountered a bookseller who approached me very confidentially and concernedly and asked if ‘upsidedownness’ was a real word or had there been printing error in the book! Whereas children are open to play with words and don’t question the ‘rightness’ of them.
Perhaps because of all the listening I did when I was a child – lying next to the record-player or by the radio, or in bed with Mum – or perhaps despite it, my experience of stories was and is quite visual. When I read I create my own image of that story in my head. I think most of us do. And when I write? Earlier I referred to the similarity between writing picture books and poetry. I believe that word choices for novels should be similarly selective. The act of writing evokes imagery for me and, I hope, for the reader, but I will also paint an unfinished portrait and leave the reader to dress it, give it a face and a future and endow it with all the hopes that we hold in our hearts for literary characters we love.
Put simply, I don’t like to over-tell, be too tidy, write Hollywood endings. I respect the reader’s capacity to read between the lines and to participate in making the story come alive for themselves.”
Early on in our conversation it becomes clear that stories have been present in Glenda’s life from very early on, “Stories and story-telling were part of my life, like eating, sleeping, breathing, climbing trees, Christmas and riding bicycles,” she confides. Partly because the family had no TV, and despite the fact that books were scarce (being given as gifts, and with only limited access to library books until Glenda went Secondary school), Glenda loved to read and to listen to stories.
“Yes, my father was employed as a night-shift worker in a foundry. I have clear memories of my sister and I lying either side of our mum in her bed listening to her read to us from a book of Manx fairy tales.
The stories beguiled my sister and I, at once frightening and intriguing. Stories about a culture and a country we knew nothing of, narrated with a smattering of exotic, unfamiliar language. In fact, as a family we adopted several words used in the fairy stories into our everyday conversation. Our Dad was also a lay preacher and we were very familiar with Bible stories. To my young ear and understanding, the adorned language of the Bible and the attractive strangeness of the words in the green-covered book of fairy tales, along with the mythical quality of their narratives seemed to me to link them in some way. But perhaps it was simply the telling of them, in my mother’s bed, in my mother’s voice that merged them.
Some of my other early recollections of books/story telling were from radio and records. My sister and I were avid fans of an ABC radio broadcast of a children’s series about ‘The Muddle-headed Wombat’, written by Ruth Park and one Christmas our father presented us with narrated, orchestral recordings – of ‘Peter and the Wolf’, ‘Carnival of the Animals’, ‘The Sleeping Beauty’, ‘The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen’, ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Our Dad would put the records on his stereogram and my sister and I would lie next to it and listen.
I still have most of these little 7” records – the cover of one bearing this inscription,
‘To Glenda with love from Daddy.’”
And what did these books and stories “do” to Glenda? I suspect all the listening Glenda did early on played an important role in developing her strong sense of empathy and sensitive ability to write so beautifully about relationships. To be truly present – to put ourselves genuinely in others’ shoes in the way Glenda enables her readers to do – we must hear their experiences of the world, and for that we need to learn how to listen intently and fully, something that I’m sure is helped by listening to stories from a young age.
“I think that listening to stories played a huge role in fully engaging my attention, exercising and expanding my imagination and developing a love of interesting and thoughtful use of language.
From personal experience I know that love of literature, encompassing story-telling, reading and creative writing, can and should be kindled and nurtured well before formal education at school, where literacy can, sadly, become simply another chore. Love of story is a sum of many parts. In a parent’s arms is a good place to begin. It is here our children learn to associate the pleasure of closeness, the gift of time and the accompanying lullaby of language long before they are cognisant. ”
Despite her love of stories, Glenda “never dreamt of becoming a published author and was never encouraged to think of writing as a career.” Glenda grew up in a small Australian town (where she still lives) and although she had always loved reading, being read to, and writing as a child and young teen, it never occurred to her that she might be able to make a living by writing. Her parents weren’t well off and so when Glenda was offered an office job, aged 15, she accepted it and left school. Marriage and four children followed but it was only when her office job was threatened and Glenda thought it a good idea to learn a new skill to boost her employability did she start writing: Having enrolled on a ‘Writing for Money’ evening class, her affinity with storytelling was spotted by the lecturer who suggested contacting a children’s publisher. Although it was several years before Glenda gave up the day job to become a full-time writer, the rest, as they say, is history.
So just how does Glenda go about writing? Does she plan in detail? Does she just start with only a germ of an idea and then sees where it takes her? “My strong point as a writer is certainly not planning!“, Glenda is quick to assert. The initial idea for The Stars at Oktober Bend came from a short newspaper article about a homeless girl who sang and despite her difficult circumstances earned herself a scholarship to study music at a prestigious conservatoire. From this came the idea of telling a story about someone who sang to escape a traumatic past but the more Glenda wrote, the more her characters evolved and the direction of the story changed. Two sets of family circumstances also crucially influenced the development of The Stars at Oktober Bend.
First, Glenda’s daughter was studying Speech Pathology and this got Glenda thinking about language disorders, their causes and effects and about what it would be like to be unable to express yourself through speech.
Much later in the writing process, the book’s development was again significantly changed because of family events. Glenda’s mother was in the final stages of dementia and “I had finished the manuscript for ‘The Stars at Oktober Bend’, but felt unsatisfied with some aspects of it. During the last days of Mum’s life I spent many hours sitting beside her bed, talking to her, remembering, weeping, waiting for her eyes to open, hoping for a flicker of recognition, a fleeting smile. I was always reluctant to leave, and the nurses would reassure me that they’d let Mum know I’d been there if she woke up later on.
So I had the idea of writing notes to Mum and hoped that seeing my handwriting would jog her memory, help her think of me and know I had been with her. After Mum died, I needed something to focus on to help me through the grief, so I began a rewrite of my manuscript and the notes that I had written to my Mum, part of my life story, became part of Alice’s story. Just as a point of interest, Alice was my maternal grandmother’s name.”
Grandmas feature several times in Glenda’s books, and when asked in another interview about where in time Glenda would travel back to, if it were possible, she replied she’d most like to go back to a time when her own grandmothers were alive and well. It also transpires that Glenda became a Grandmother herself as she was finishing The Stars at Oktober Bend so I ask her a bit more about grandmas.
“When I was a little girl, our family lived in a miner’s cottage, halfway along a dirt road called Elizabeth Street. Further along, towards the Post Office end of our street, lived my Grandma and Papa. Up the other end, near the bus stop, my Nana lived. Consequently, I spent many happy hours in the company of my grandmothers. Both had lived through The Great Depression of the 20’s and 30’s. One had five children, the other, who was widowed at 40, had 9. I saw what they did to make ends meet. I saw the pride they had in their humble homes. I heard them laugh and sing. I felt their love. Because my father worked night shift and slept during the day, my sister and I were largely raised by our Mum. I was also very close to my late mother-in law, Isabelle, for whom I wrote the book ‘Isabella’s Garden’. Nell [the grandmother in the Kingdom of Silk books] represents all those much-loved and admired women who were so influential in my life.
Mum always loved babies and little children and this seemed particularly strong towards the end of her life. My sister and I regularly took Mum out for coffee when she was well enough, and she often pointed out or spoke to children with great fondness. Shortly before Mum passed away, she was able to hold, her great-granddaughter, Layla-Evie.
Fans of Glenda’s work may sit up at hearing Layla-Evie’s name; yes, indeed, she got her name partly from one of the characters in Glenda’s books.
Some authors you read and recommend because their stories are just so breathtakingly pacey you feel like you’ve had an exhilarating ride whilst turning the pages. Other authors you read and recommend because they lift your spirit and make your world a much richer place; a place of beauty that you wish everyone could find themselves in. Glenda’s books are like this for me. They are full of fierce, bright love and bold, sincere compassion.
As it’s something I personally struggle with, in a time when the world can seem increasingly bleak, I am very curious how Glenda manages to keep hold of love and foster hope. How does she keep alive the desire to be creative and looking out onto the world with joy?
“I am a mostly happy, hopeful and optimistic person and, in my experience, personal happiness inclines a person to want to share that state of being with others. It seems this also extends to my writing self, for instinctively my stories reflect the hopes I hold for goodness and decency. Perhaps by embodying positive values in my stories, I am subconsciously seeking to keep them alive in my readers. For me there is no question – that to keep hold of love, we have to give it away. Some might argue that loving is an ineffectual act in a troubled world. But to exercise love makes it robust and expands the area of its effect. Love is what makes us human and it is love that fosters hope. ”
Perhaps by now you’re beginning to see why I think I could survive on a desert island if all I had to read ever again was a selection of Glenda’s books.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not hugely excited about what lies in the future with Glenda’s writing. And so, it is with a great deal of hope that I ask about what she is composting (a great phrase I picked up from Meg Rosoff to describe all the thinking that goes on before pen goes to paper of fingers to keyboard).
“Presently I have a story which I completed several years ago. I’ve gone back to it on occasion, read it, and told myself it’s a good story, but not good enough! So now I’m turning it over, allowing the air in, hoping to breathe new life into it.
In November I will again be working with the wonderful illustrator, Stephen Michael King on a picture book manuscript I have written. Stephen has been granted a residency at a gallery where he will be working publicly on the illustrations. I am going to watch him work for a while in the hope that seeing his illustrations in progress will generate, in me, some further written responses. I am really looking forward to this experience as it’s the first time I’ve attempted anything like this method of writing.”
Then Glenda lets of a firework as far as I’m concerned:
“Another thing I’m about to embark on is the first novel of a series about the Rainbow Girls as they begin to grow up. Indigo is composting nicely at the moment, so perhaps she will be the first.”
The Rainbow girls are a gloriously funny, creative, compassionate, inspiring set of sisters in Glenda’s Kingdom of Silk books. To hear that there may yet be more stories about them sets off thousands of very happy explosions inside me: If Glenda weren’t on the other side of the planet, thousands of miles away, I would be hugging her, this is such exciting news to hear.
Till Indigo’s new story is released into the world I will content myself with re-reading and relishing once more The Stars at Oktober Bend. How lucky I am! And how lucky you are if you’re still to discover Glenda’s writing – the beauty of your world will multiply once you’ve read her words.
The Stars at Oktober Bend is published in the UK by Old Barn Books. It has recently been longlisted for the UKLA book award in the 12-16+ category.