Creating the world of ‘Museum of Thieves’ – with Australian children’s author, Lian Tanner

In the city of Jewel, impatience is a sin and boldness is a crime and Goldie Roth is both impatient and bold. When she escapes the clutches of the Blessed Guardians to find haven at the Museum of Dunt, an unforgettable adventure begins that will unlock hidden mysteries, dark secrets and awaken dangerous enemies. – Museum of Thieves

Children’s author and playwright, Lian Tanner is my blog guest today.  She’s the author of Museum of Thieves, the first novel in the trilogy, The Keepers.   

The book is one of this year’s  Children’s Book Council of Australia Notables selection. I reckon it should have made the Shortlist too. It’s the book I mentioned in my previous blog post on judging the CBCA Claytons List in Queensland.

For more about the book, check out the publisher, Allen & Unwin’s site.

A little while ago, I was in Tasmania having lunch with Lian in her wonderful, organic back yard. It’s a magical place – healthy, lush growth in vegetable beds, (the delicious salads were Lian’s produce) including most of the ingredients for the pesto sauce. We sat under a grape vine pergola with bees buzzing the purple sage flowers and the sound of the sea on the breeze. And of course, we talked books and writing.

Lian, I’m absolutely thrilled you could join me on my blog. Welcome! 

Q: I’m sure readers would love to know what got you started writing children’s books. After all, you’ve been a science teacher, an actor and a playwright.

Lian: I’ve been a dozen other things too – I think I have the classic career trajectory for a writer, having worked at (but not settled to) any number of jobs before finally getting to what I really wanted to do. As for children’s books, they sort of crept up on me. I’ve always written in one form or another, but for a long time my main interest was literary novels (to which I have since realised I’m totally unsuited!)

Then I started writing stories for the son of a friend, about skateboarding penguins and pirates who loved muesli bars. Round about the same time, I was working as an actor with a theatre company that toured plays around schools, and I got interested in writing for performance – again for children. The whole thing was so much more fun than literary novels, and by the time I managed to sell a few children’s stories to School Magazine in NSW, I was totally hooked!

Museum of Thieves

Q: Do you have a particular age group you most love to write for?

Lian: Definitely middle to upper primary. I’ve tried writing for other age groups – particularly picture books and early primary – but my plots always get away from me and become more and more intricate, and the stories grow longer and longer, and before I know it it’s an upper primary book again. It’s such a nice age group to write for and it seems to come naturally to me. Probably because I remember very clearly being that age.

Q: The Keepers is a trilogy. Did you know it would end up this way when you started writing Museum of Thieves?

Lian: No, I had no idea! Museum was meant to be a one-off novel, with the villains dead at the end. But when I had finished the twelfth draft (I wrote something like twenty drafts before I got the book to where I wanted it) I read the whole thing to a class of grade fives at my local primary school. I did it over several weeks, and when I came to the end they said, ‘What happens next?’ And I realised that I wanted to know the same thing, that these characters and this world weren’t finished for me. So I thought, If I add a postscript, so that the villains don’tdie, then I can keep going for another two books!

Summer Pudding and other delights!

Q: I know how difficult it is to keep track of the various plotlines when writing a trilogy. How do you plan your writing, Lian?

Lian: I’ve discovered that I like to plot before I start writing, and I do it in quite a lot of detail. I tend to start by browsing through old magazines and photography books and suchlike, looking for places and faces that inspire me. I stick them in a notebook and jot down ideas about them – how a particular character might speak, what they’re afraid of, what they’re good at, that sort of thing.

At the same time I’m thinking of scenes that might appear in the novel, and writing them down in a random order, always with a ‘maybe’ attached, because I don’t want to pin things down at this stage. Usually it’s the big exciting scenes that come first – the ones where a lot is at stake. When I’ve got enough scenes I either write them on filing cards so that I can rearrange them physically, or I do it on the computer. (I usually end up doing both.)

I come from a theatre writing background, so once I’ve got the scenes in a rough order I look at them in terms of a three-act play, and try to work out where the various turning points are, where the climax begins etc. I find that useful for clarifying the structure of the story. Of course this takes a while, and I invariably get to the point where I’m totally sick of plotting, and bursting to get stuck into the story itself, so that’s when I start writing.

The plot usually changes quite a bit as I write, and there are still a lot of surprises, but having that initial structure does a number of things. First, it means that I know the basic story works, and I’m not going to get to 40,000 words and discover it has a fatal flaw. Second, I can write faster because I more or less know where the story is going. And third, I can jump around from scene to scene if I get bored, and don’t have to write in a linear fashion.

At the end of this I’ve usually got a reasonable first draft. Writing it down like this of course makes it sound a lot more rational and sensible than it is in practice! Add to the above a lot of tearing-of-hair, ideas that invariably come to me when I haven’t got a piece of paper or a pen, copious quantities of despair and self-doubt, and moments of revelation that make me laugh out loud, and you start to get some sense of my process.

Q: You’ve very cleverly incorporated an aspect of modern child-rearing in our western society where many parents ‘bubble-wrap’ their children, the era of ‘helicopter parents’. How did this theme develop for you?

Lian: This was one of those happy times when personal experience coincided with a national discussion. Some years ago there was a small boy living in my street who I thought was dreadfully overprotected. It was such a contrast with my own childhood (see next question) and it really bothered me to see this child who, as a result of the way he had been brought up, was so far behind the other kids in the street in physical competence, and so nervous of the world outside his front gate.

At the same time as I was thinking this, a discussion started up in the national papers about ‘bubble-wrap children’. I was already doing some initial work on a children’s novel set in a museum, and it struck me that the two ideas went rather nicely together – the overprotected children and the dusty, dangerous old museum. In the first few drafts, the parents were only slightly more protective than many modern parents are, but by the time the book was finished I had pushed the idea as far as it would go and the children were in chains.

Q: What sort of a childhood did you have, Lian? Full of adventure like the bold and brave, Goldie Roth? 🙂

Lian: I wasn’t at all bold and brave as a girl, but I did have a very free childhood – mainly I suspect because my mother grew up on a farm and expected children to be independent and competent. We lived in what was at the time a fairly small town, with tracts of bushland nearby, and I used to spend a lot time exploring that bushland, discovering caves, lighting fires, climbing cliffs and other horrifyingly dangerous things that my parents never found out about. I had even more exciting adventures in my head, of course. Those caves were a wonderful place for daydreaming.

Lian's beach

Q: I love the intricate relationship between your characters, Goldie Roth and Toadspit, the boy she befriends. Language and its use play a big part in their development as they grow in friendship. Tell us more about this aspect.

Lian: Goldie and Toadspit had so many misunderstandings on the way to friendship that I thought it might be interesting if language itself was problematic for them. The children of Jewel have developed a form of sign language called fingertalk so that they have some sort of privacy from the ever-hovering adults.

But different ‘dialects’ of fingertalk have grown up in different parts of the city, so I put Goldie and Toadspit in a situation where they were only allowed to speak fingertalk, but couldn’t understand each other, because their dialects were different. It was so much fun to write, and I’ve had a number of children say that it’s their favourite scene.

A gloriously imaginative novel … Tanner has created some fascinating characters, not least of which is the museum itself: shifting, restless, febrile and full of danger and wildness.’  The Sunday Tasmanian

Q: As one of the glowing reviews of Museum of Thieves said, your characters, including the non-human ones, are absolutely fascinating. My favourite is the brizzlehound, Broo. How did your imagination come up with this wonderful creature, Lian?

Lian: Ah, Broo! He’s pretty nice, isn’t he? I think he’s probably my favourite too. He wasn’t in the first draft of the book – instead there was a Jack Russell terrier called Blind Jimmy and a very large and dangerous bear called Crackbone. But when I read through that first draft, I realised that one of the problems (there were a lot!) was that there were just too many characters.

Some of them I could just cut, without being too fussed about it. But Blind Jimmy was so cute, and I LOVED Crackbone! I couldn’t work out what to do, because one of them definitely had to go. Then in a moment of inspiration, I thought ‘Why not combine them?’ So I did. And what do you get when you combine a small dog with a large bear? You get a brizzlehound, a creature which is sometimes small and cute, and sometimes large and dangerous!

Shell from Lian's beach - 11cm across and the prettiest scallop (?) shell I've ever seen

Q: We share many favourite authors, Philip Pullman, Patrick Ness, Margo Lanagan, Meg Rosoff and Melina Marchetta. You’re obviously an avid reader, Lian. I’m wondering what books you loved reading as a child.

Lian: When I was a child I read anything I could get my hands on. From The Secret Garden and the Bobbsey Twins to Zane Grey’s cowboy romances and Readers’ Digest Condensed Books. I adored anything with horses in it (particularly The Silver Brumby), loved the Narnia books to bits once I discovered them, loved the books that my mother handed down to me – like the Billabong books and Girl of the Limberlost – and was besotted with both The Jungle Book and the dark and exciting adventures of Violet Needham. When I look at my writing now, I can trace the early influence of Violet Needham, The Silver Brumby, The Jungle Book and the Narnia books in particular.

Q: The Keepers trilogy is published in North America as well – a writer’s dream – with the second in the series, City of Lies, to be released there at the end of September. Their website is brilliant – lots of interactive activities and information for children to enjoy. What have been the highlights of this experience? Dare I ask, have there been any lowlights? 🙂 

Lian: There have been plenty of highlights – the most obvious one being how enthusiastically the publishers in both Australia and the US have got behind the book (e.g. the websites) and how the book has been received by both children and adults. Like you say, it’s an author’s dream, and I still sometimes find myself in ‘pinch-me’ territory. I had a pre-publication tour to the USA in early 2010 and although it was exhausting, it was also wildly exciting. I met a whole lot of wonderful teachers, librarians and booksellers who are as passionate about children’s books as I am, and went to some terrific schools to talk about the book.

TRAILER for THE KEEPERS trilogy   Note: Check out the AMERICAN WEBSITE for The Keepers Trilogy here! … Sheryl

Lian: At the end of 2010, I went to India in time to see it published there as well, and that was also an amazing trip. Of course, there have also been times when I have wanted to crawl into a corner and pull the blankets over my head, when the expectations get a bit much. I’m a person who thrives on solitude, so it has been a huge challenge stepping out into the world like this.

But I can’t deny that it’s fun, and that the actor part of me gets a kick out of it. The main thing is that I can come home, shut my front door at the end of it, and get on with my writing, which is the part I like most. 

Lian, like me, I bet there are children all over the world who are waiting anxiously for the next book, City of Lies. All the very best with the next stage of your journey and thank you so much for chatting on my blog. 🙂

For more about the book, check out the publisher, Allen & Unwin’s site.



5 thoughts on “Creating the world of ‘Museum of Thieves’ – with Australian children’s author, Lian Tanner

  1. love to read about you, dear Lian!
    didn’t take time to write you more, but think often of you, hope you are getting well, wish you a very good year, et t’embrasse très fort,


  2. Loved this post, Sheryl,

    Thanks Lian for sharing your writer’s life. I could really relate to the chequered ‘pre-author’ career and so many other things about this post.

    Definitely going to have to add your book to my ‘to read’ list.


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