What traditions from your childhood do you continue? Bushwalks, dinner in Chinatown, trawling through markets, swims at Nielsen Park, trips to the Blue Mountains.
What childhood memories or experiences did you include in this book? Collecting cicada shells off the tree-trunks at school to stick onto my friends’ backs. Delicatessen – Chris and Jenny owned our corner shop, on the corner of Mort St and Bourke St, Surry Hills. Faded blue posters of the Greek Islands above the fridges. When we were little, my sister and I used to go in disguise – wigs, glasses, walking-sticks – and assume they didn’t know who we were. The Easter Show. It was a bit scary, back in the ‘70s. AC/DC blaring from the Dodgems, tough smoking carnies with mullets operating the Ferris Wheel. And the smell of petrol and burnt rubber from motorbike racing. I liked the showbags.
What other jobs have you had? I’ve worked in a chemist, pizza shop, clothes shop, café (fired for being simultaneously stressed-out and vague), babysitting, transcribing interviews for New York’s Museum of Natural History, children’s party entertainer, pretending to play keyboards on a New Year’s Eve cruise, teaching playwriting.
What people influenced you to start writing? Other than my parents, my most important influence was Nick Enright, a playwright and family friend. He was not only an inspiring writer and lyricist, but he was incredibly generous and encouraging and constructively critical of my writing. He would give me books and records that he knew I’d love; he’d come over to our house and sing and play new songs he’d just written on the piano. I wanted to be just like him.
What was the best thing about writing this book? My friendship with Antonia, the illustrator, has grown. We have always been good friends, but this book has meant we’ve spent more time together. We have a very similar sense of humour, and an appreciation of the beautiful in the ugly, and will text each other the name of a hairdressing salon if it strikes us as funny. I’ve really come to admire her brilliant way with colour and shape and her wit.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? We had no idea that it would be so well received. So that’s been a huge thrill, seeing it in bookshops, hearing that it’s flying off the shelves, and being asked to come and talk about it at festivals, libraries, schools, and interviews like this! The best thing has been seeing how it connects with both children (‘How did you get Wylies Baths inside the book?’) and adults – especially those who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, who have the same nostalgia for those things that are still here, and those that won’t be for much longer.
Which five people would you like to have over for dinner? Helen Garner, because she’s an extraordinary writer, searingly honest, full of humanity and very funny. Stephen Sondheim, because he’s single-handedly revolutionised music theatre, and he’s compassionate, unflinching, and clever. Bob Brown, because this country would be so much poorer without all he’s done and a free feed is the least I can do to thank him. Caryl Churchill, because she has revolutionised theatre as Sondheim has done musicals. My godmother Hilary Smith, because I haven’t seen her since I visited her in the UK when I was 17 – she is a shadowy but beloved presence in my life.
Do you collect anything? Yes, books published by E.W. Cole of Cole’s Book Arcade, which was a world-renowned Melbourne bookshop in the 19th century. These of course include the Cole’s Funny Picture Books.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? If I see a snail in the middle of the footpath, I’ll pick it up and move it so no one steps on it.
What are you working on next? A musical inspired by Cole’s Funny Picture Book, called ‘Do Good And You Will Be Happy’, with composer Phillip Johnston; a song cycle with composer Andrée Greenwell about Julia Gillard; and with Antonia Pesenti – a new book!
Read my review of ‘Alphabetical Sydney’ here.