Aussie author is a Jackie of all trades

23rd May 2020 7:00 AM

IT'S not how Jackie French imagined the ride into 2020.

"Surgery, paralysis, infection, bushfire, then pandemic. The pandemic has been the easiest part of the year," the 66-year-old best-selling author, historian and ecologist says.

Jackie is busier than ever. And not with her own work. The international author of more than 200 children's and adult books is probably best known for her picture book, Diary of a Wombat.

Jackie is fielding daily requests to read books to classrooms online and called upon to bolster a chaotic COVID-19 curriculum from home.

"I've had more contact with people day-by-day than ever before," she says.

"With all of the schools and businesses in lockdown, people have been desperate for me to read books or answer questions for students. Everyone from UNESCO to Mrs Smith's third grade class has wanted some video or audio content."

Just months ago, the stone house she painstakingly built by hand during her 20s, in New South Wales' Araluen Valley, near Braidwood, was narrowly spared during the worst bushfires in Australia's history.

Jackie French’s home of nearly 50 years in the Araluen Valley of New South Wales was spared in summer’s bushfires, but only just. Photo: Contributed.
Jackie French’s home of nearly 50 years in the Araluen Valley of New South Wales was spared in summer’s bushfires, but only just. Photo: Contributed.

Three fire fronts burnt around the property. She evacuated three times. The wind was the only thing keeping the fires away. In an instance, that could have changed.

Jackie went into the bushfires recovering from a knee replacement that got infected. Not only was her knee replaced but part of her leg too.

"I had kidney infection after the surgery and somehow I woke up after the operation, which went well, with a fractured back that paralysed me from the waist down for a short time," she says.

Jackie and her husband Bryan Sullivan took turns on ember watch, changing hands at 2am.

Hundreds of animals took refuge at their home, where they established feeding stations.

It was in the early hours of one morning as Jackie sat weary eyed outside her home when a blackened wombat collapsed in front of her. This wombat would inspire Jackie to pen T he Fire Wombat, a picture book due out in September.

"When she arrived her coat was completely black with soot," Jackie says.

"Her paws were burnt, she was exhausted. She made it 10 metres from water and couldn't go any further. I took her water and she drank, then managed to walk for more."

What happened next was something Jackie had never seen in the 40 years she has been studying wombats.

"The amazing thing was the other animals," she says.

"They stood back for her, even Wild Whiskers who is one of the nastiest wombats I've ever come across. All of the animals during that time tolerated each other.

"The all realised that night that this was an animal at the absolute end of her strength. They stood back and let her get to the nearest part of the food."

Wombats don't shepherd, she says, but they do share.

"Although wombats leave a very strong scent trail, on the worst night of the fires, the other animals sheltered in the wombat holes - wallabies, antechinus, snakes, quolls, all together. It was extraordinary."

Diary of a Wombat has sold millions of copies since it was first published in 2003.
Diary of a Wombat has sold millions of copies since it was first published in 2003.

Wild Whiskers is the granddaughter of Mothball, the very wombat who inspired Jackie to write the 2003 children's classic, Diary of a Wombat, which printed millions of copies and found the dyslexic author international success.

Jackie and Bryan share their backyard with a dozen wombats they know on a first-name basis. For nearly 50 years Jackie has lived at the property at the top of a gorge where she has planted an orchard of some 800 fruit trees. Bryan built a waterwheel off the home to power their stone house.

Bryan, a retired computer engineer and Jackie's second husband, worked on Apollo Moon Programme at Honeysuckle Creek, near Canberra, where he and his colleagues were the first to see man's first steps on the moon. Jackie co-authored a book with Bryan about it, called The Moon and Back in 2004.

Jackie's solace is the 6000 square kilometres of bush around her home.

"My idea of a holiday is to walk to the top of the ridges, not going to a resort in Thailand," she laughs.

"Even the most luxurious hotel I've ever stayed in, is far less comfortable and interesting than my home.

"I could walk here and explore here for my entire life."

Jackie finds solace exploring in the bush around her home which she shares with at least 12 resident wombats.
Jackie finds solace exploring in the bush around her home which she shares with at least 12 resident wombats.

Jackie was born in Sydney but spent most of her childhood living in the outskirts of Brisbane in Carina.

"My childhood was 45 per cent boredom, 45 per cent terror and the other 10 per cent was books … and my grandma. The times with grandma were sheer, utter, glorious magic."

By age three Jackie could read.

"Books for me were an escape from boredom, they were an escape from terror. They gave knowledge. They were a magic carpet. They were always there.

"I also grew up in the 1950s when lots of bad things happened, but people very carefully didn't talk about them. It was a time when a lot of men came back from World War II, particularly the prisoner's camps, and everyone said 'don't talk about it'.

"Every second house had a kid that had died or was crippled with polio. There was the feeling that the man was the head of the house and he could do as he wanted to. Police did not interfere with anything that happened in a house."

Jackie doesn't dig up the past that saw her parent's divorced or what followed, but she does reminisce the freedoms.

"From the time I was four, the rule was I had to be back by dark. I demanded to know what dark meant and was told the first star in the sky or when the streetlights come on. That was the only rule."

Her passions for self sufficiency probably stem from a Chinese market gardener who lived next door to her family in Brisbane. While he couldn't speak a word of English, he taught Jackie how to grow various vegetables.

"Mr Doo grew everything on his large suburban block of land, including his own tobacco," Jackie recalls.

"He and his brother had come from China to gold mine from Mount Isa to Brisbane. They knew they couldn't afford for both of them to marry and to raise children to have a good education, so Mr Doo chose to be the one who would be the uncle.

"He worked all his life to put his nieces and nephews through school and university. He lived his whole life, for his brother's family."

It is the kindness she received from others in her life that she credits as her greatest life lesson: "Be kind, if possible. It is almost always possible."

Jackie wrote her first book at age six when she "ran out of books to read".

"My teachers didn't discover I could read till they found me illegally in the library one lunch time, nearly finished Black Beauty."

Jackie French was an adult when she discovered she had severe dyslexia.
Jackie French was an adult when she discovered she had severe dyslexia.

Jackie could speed read blocks of text but struggled to read single words on the blackboard. It was decades later that Jackie was officially diagnosed with severe dyslexia.

"Many years after I left school I realised how much work I was for my teachers. One, who went on to become a professor of history at Monash, said 'Ms French by all standards in my entire career, you …' at the time I thought he was going to say 'you are a brilliant historian'. He said: 'you have the worst handwriting I have ever seen'. He still would give me 100 per cent."

By Year 12, Jackie set herself the task of earning a scholarship to the University of Queensland.

"I was desperately worried, because to be able to get into university back then, you had to have passed Year 12 with a language. I had to get a scholarship, otherwise I wouldn't be able to go to university. All I needed was 100 spelling mistakes in German written exam and I was sure I was going to fail. About 40 per cent of the score was an oral speech."

What happened next fell to the kindness of another teacher who saw Jackie's sheer determination.

"The oral was at the University of Queensland. I'll never forget it actually.

"I was reasonably fluent in German, but not that good. He asked the usual questions, like what did you have for breakfast?

"I said an apple.

"Only that? He asked.

"At that stage I was given away from home. I had only had an apple because it was all I had. I had found it in a gutter. That was all I had to eat. I didn't want to say that so I said, 'I was too fat' and he laughed.

"He asked me what I wanted to study at university. We had all been told to say German so they would give us high marks, but I knew my German was far too bad for that. I said I wanted to study psychology, philosophy and linguistics and he laughed and said 'not German? Everyone else said so'.

"I told him I wanted to be able to read Goethe in its original form. We chatted for a while about German philosophy and literature. Trust me, I did not have enough German to discuss philosophy. It was pigeon German and lots of gestures.

"I discovered afterwards that one person in the school had been given 100 per cent for the oral, and I'm pretty sure it was me. I passed.

"I had incredible kindness all through my education. I was extraordinarily lucky to be struck with the teachers that I needed."

Jackie French. Photo: Kelly Sturgiss
Jackie French. Photo: Kelly Sturgiss

Jackie always wanted to be a writer but was told with the best of intentions by her parents, teachers, guidance councillors, that she couldn't make a living as a writer in Australia. The best she could do, they said, was write as hobby.

"In my first marriage, I was told my writing was a waste of time and to do something productive. So, I wrote books in secret."

Jackie moved to Canberra when she graduated from university, then to the Araluen Valley a year later in 1974.

"In my first year here, I lived in a tent, then a shed," she says. "I would have breakfast outside on the bank early. Over time, one wombat came closer and closer, obviously curious. We became friends. I'm still not quite sure how it happened. I hadn't lived with wildlife, I didn't know how wildlife behaved and I didn't know how unusual it was.

"He realised I knew very little about the bush. I followed him. He made it obvious that he wanted me to follow him. He showed me wombat sits, wombat holes, waterholes. I would spend most nights following him."

Jackie would play the violin to Smudge.

"He was probably the only creature of the planet to enjoy my playing of the violin. He'd sit on the doorstep whenever I played or if I put classical music on the tape deck. He didn't like rock music.

"I never fed him. I never patted him. He was the dominant friend in the relationship. I have never had a friendship like that since and I don't think it will happen again either."

She describes the time living by herself in the valley as magic.

"My first husband would come down on weekends, he worked in Canberra. I spent the weeks here by myself."

Self sufficiency was always the plan.

"In the early seventies, there was a radical notion called 'voluntary simplicity'. Back then a vegetable garden was something you were slightly ashamed of. A vegie garden meant you were poor or there was a war on.

"Voluntary simplicity was the enormous satisfaction to be had from doing something yourself, whether it was cooking a meal or building a house or garden. You could have a well-paying job somewhere else but instead you choose simplicity. It's still a philosophy I follow today. There is so much fulfilment in living such a simple life."

Then, aged 30 and divorced from her first husband, Jackie found herself in desperation.

"I had only about $7.20 and the car rego was about $144," she says.

"I had a baby. I was living in a shed in the bush with no electric light. It was very primitive. If I didn't grow it or harvest it in the bush, we went without. A friend was a freelance journalist and knew I enjoyed writing. He said, why don't you try sending some of your writing off?"

Jackie's first novel was Rain Stones.

"I wrote compulsively. I sent a story to Canberra Times, I sent an article about organic control of scale to Hobby Farmer and another article to Earth Garden magazine and within three weeks Rain Stones had been accepted and I had been offered regular columns in all three publications.

"I was suddenly earning a living as a writer. Not a good living but it was more money than I ever dreamt of and it was regular."

Again, Jackie describes that moment as "pure luck". Her editor said Rain Stones was the messiest manuscript she'd ever seen.

"It was typed on a typewriter I had found at the dump. A wombat had left its droppings on the letter 'e' so the key squishy. All the e's were written in biro and it was on very yellowed paper. It didn't look professional."

Angus and Robertson offered Jackie an advance to publish Rain Stones. It was short-listed for the NSW Premiers Award and the Children's Book Council of Australia Award.

"I didn't even know it was a children's book, but they said it was.

"I think Angus and Robertson made the rash promise that they would like to publish anything I wrote after that. I think they had absolutely no idea how many books that was going to be over quite how many years."

That was 1991. Now, 29 years later, Angus and Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, has published her latest book, The Schoolmaster's Daughter, which is based on the lives of Jackie's great-grandparents and grandmothers who taught and fought for equal education rights of all Australians.

Author and children literature laureate Jackie French has a new book called The Schoolmaster’s Daughter. She has written a children’s book about her experience with bushfires, called The Fire Wombat. It will be released in September. Photo: Bob Barker.
Author and children literature laureate Jackie French has a new book called The Schoolmaster’s Daughter. She has written a children’s book about her experience with bushfires, called The Fire Wombat. It will be released in September. Photo: Bob Barker.

Jackie is a patron of literacy programs across Australia. She was the 2014-2015 Australian Children' Laureate and 2015 Senior Australian of the Year and a passionate advocate for equal educational opportunity. She has had her work translated into 36 languages and has won more than 60 awards. Yet, she admits she still can't spell.

Jackie's greatest challenge with dyslexia is that she transposes her numbers

"I only discovered early this year that I had 10 times more super than I thought I had. It's still not a lot, but I left off a zero three years ago, which actually make a difference," she laughs.

"I was really relieved after coronavirus and major surgery. I must've rechecked it at least 30 times."

Like her childhood, Jackie's finds her escape in books.

"Most books are boring," she says.

"The last time I went into a book shop there were only two books I wanted to buy, and I have a book a day habit. I don't want to read about the sex life of cricketers. I don't want to read about politicians unless they have been dead for at least 20 years.

"If I find it hard to find books I love, it's even harder for kids. So of course, most kids do think books are boring. Until you find the books that you love.

"One of the wonderful things about book shops and online book shops is that you can ask or be electronically offered. You liked this book, therefore you might like this book. It was funny, I was looking for a book on Friday night and I was offered electronically a couple of my books. This algorithm works really well," she laughs.