Tania continues with more on her Beijing experiences. It also spurred on her venture into a successful self-publishing business. I began Part 2 of our conversation by asking her about culture shock.
Q: Visiting China for the first time gives you instant culture shock. In three weeks I fell under its spell, so much so that coming back to Australia was like enduring culture shock all over again. I wanted to return to China asap. Tania, you were there for four years, how much did the culture and the people impact upon you?
I can’t even tell you how much. Every time I try to talk about it, I weep! I loved living in China so much, I put together a memoir – Beijing Tai Tai – a funny take on the ups and downs of a Western wife in modern-day Beijing. Again the book went bananas and sold out of two print runs – I have none left, and thankfully, a publisher is taking it on next year with a revised and updated edition – it should be out by July 2011. I think it sold well because it perfectly expresses my passion for life in China – and how it touched my soul, and that of my family. I’ve had countless letters and emails from women of many different cultures saying how much they related to the book – its messages affect everyone – even those who’ve never been to China.
We’ve been home two years in January and whenever I run into people I haven’t seen in a while, they ask me how we’re settling in back home. I tell them we settled back in within minutes… it’s the letting go of China that’s proved the problem. I still haven’t let go. I would return in a heartbeat and four years was no way near enough for me. I’m really still quite devastated about leaving that place, and I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I have a big dream to go back and write for children there… we shall see.
Q: What was it like to return to Canberra?
I cried a lot! It probably took me at least six months to a year to ‘get over’ things. There’s still SO much I miss but life here has become too busy to look sideways – and that’s helped me with my grief… I felt like I left a lover! I honestly never knew China would affect me so much or that I would fall head over heels in love with the place.
Now, living in Beijing feels like a dream – like we were never there. I learned the language and really immersed myself in the culture while living there, so it was like pulling out a piece of my heart when we left. Sure, it had its mind bending frustrations, but it was one of the most amazing four years of my life – and what it gave my kids… priceless!
Q: Riley and the Sleeping Dragon was your first children’s book. Written in Beijing in 2008, it proved to be a huge success not only in China but also in Australia. What is it about? And did you plan for it to be a series from the start?
Riley and the Sleeping Dragon is about a little boy who searches for the elusive sleeping dragon of China that becomes the Great Wall. At the end of the book, the dragon/wall stretches and wakes up. The wall and the dragon combined are a metaphor for China and where she is now in history – only now waking and realize her power, strength, ancient wisdom and beauty on the world stage.
The book is unique in that it combines black and white photos of the capital with illustrations and also photos of a little real life toy plane. I wanted to create a book that combined adventure with travel, culture and history, and I feel the series has really achieved that.
Each time Riley travels to a new place, he collects a little toy of the creature he met in the book before. So in Riley and the Curious Koala, he has a toy panda, lion and dragon with him and in the next book, a little koala will join the band of adventurers. Each book not only showcases the city the book is set in, it holds cultural messages that are infused within the story, relevant to the setting.
Q: Tania, I love how you’ve used black and white photographs of the cities and landscapes in each Riley story. Also love how the bright, colourful illustrations of Riley and the gang jump out from the black and white photos. Have you always had a passion for photography and design?
I have – but it’s only been since starting the series that I’ve pursued these elements more professionally. I’ve recently used my photographic and design skills for my first lifestyle book – handmade living: a designer collective – in conjunction with Handmade Canberra. This is some amazing book, and it was such a thrill to do most of the photography and design. It’s something I’d like to do more of – and the Riley series, of course, satisfies my desire for travel photography and typesetting – it’s great fun.
Having [illustrator] Kieron Pratt join me on this journey has just completely rounded out the Riley books for me. He has re-illustrated Riley and the Sleeping Dragon, too – and this book will be re-released (hopefully next year) using his updated illustrations (the first edition was illustrated by Canadian Mo Qovaizi). Kieron is freakish in that he sees inside my head and creates exactly the right pictures for the books – and adds an incredible sense of humour and cleverness to the pictures, too. I adore his work and how he has brought my books to life. Q: So where to next for Riley? New Zealand maybe? Or Paris? I can just imagine the adventurers buzzing the Eiffel Tower and looping the loop through the Arc De Triomphe.
For the first time ever, I’m not sure where he’ll travel next. It was going to be Vietnam, but then I considered the Californian coast to take things away from Asia for a while… but I think I’m going to settle on another Australian city – probably Melbourne, my home town. I want to do Canberra for the upcoming Centenary and I think it makes sense to do more of Australia right now – for various reasons.
I’ve also been writing quite a few children’s books that are unrelated to the Riley series, and I’m pleased to say some will be published next year, so I have to make sure I carve out the time to keep going with Riley. I have a big fan base now! (too funny!) so I need to satisfy my adventurous little friends.
I’m also considering incorporating my daughter Ella in some way into the books… or starting her own series. She’s been a very patient girl…
Q: Tania, you have boundless energy for many things – like being a passionate supporter of Australian children’s books and their authors and illustrators. You and Megan Blandford are the producers of the Kids Book Review site – a blog site read by thousands of parents, librarians, teachers and anyone interested and involved in books for young people. I can speak on behalf of many, many authors/illustrators who thank you both for that support.
Your life is incredibly full now, raising a family, running your book business, working with Handmade Canberra, writing your blogs and general networking – what and where next for Tania McCartney?
My next port of call is a break over Christmas, though I don’t see that happening as planned, as I am expecting some positive book news this week! My main focus for the new year is to prioritise and work out what means the most to me because things have kind of exploded this year – I often wonder how I’m going to get through all this work. I can’t complain! but I can only stretch myself so far before breaking. Family and health are everything to me – so a finer balance will be necessary in 2011… this year has taken a lot out of me.
December and January will be book promotion and 2 weeks in New Zealand (I’ve promised my friends I won’t take my laptop!). I’m starting work on the next Handmade Canberra book in February and by then I also hope to have a completed an ms for publication with a wonderful organisation. I hope to have 4 or 5 books on the shelves for 2011, and am really excited about working on some non-fiction children’s books, too, which I adore. It would be fantastic if one of my picture books is snapped up for publication, too – I have loved working on these manuscripts.
Megan and I are working hard to expand Kids Book Review and we have lots of exciting new additions and events to tie into the site early in the new year.
Other than that, I really want to get fitter. I tend to neglect myself when I’m busy – just taking care of the family and work only – so I need some dedicated time in 2011 to health and fitness. Golly, I must be getting old… isn’t that when you realise health is everything? That and following your passion. And boy am I doing that. I feel very blessed indeed.
It’s been fascinating talking with you, Tania – I look forward to getting together over real coffee next year in Canberra. Thank you so much for dropping in on my blog, and I wish you all the very best for Riley and the Curious Koala. (Further info: http://www.taniamccartney.blogspot.com)
Sheryl, this is AMAZING! I LOVED DOING IT! and the questions and your comments are brilliant. THANK YOU!!