Three Questions With Jennifer Castles: author, editor, sometimes ghost writer

by Emma Ashmere

In the second of my ‘Three Questions With’ interviews with writers published during COVID, Jennifer Castles talks about working with Australian football star Tayla Harris on her new book Tayla Harris: More Than a Kick. Jennifer also describes juggling her roles as a submissions editor at Allen & Unwin publishing, and as a freelance writer/co-writer of children’s and adult fiction.

QUESTION ONE:

Emma Ashmere: Your name is on the title-page of the new YA non-fiction book Tayla Harris: More Than a Kick. Tayla is a massive star in Australian women’s football, also in boxing, and as a role model for young women and sportspeople everywhere. The book offers insights into her daily regime, her attitudes to feeling ‘different’ at school and how she used them to her advantage, and her non-sporting interests – including a brief stint at keeping quails! It is also a handbook dealing with bigger issues of pride, confidence, and safety, following the media storm and trolling sparked by Michael Willson’s viral photo which captured Tayla’s athleticism in ‘that kick’.

Can you tell me about the process of working with Tayla, her goals for the book and your role in helping put her side of the story into words?

Jennifer Castles: I loved working on this book. It all happened very quickly. Tayla was still reeling with the fallout – good and bad – of the trolling she received when the photo of her went viral. She was getting loads of questions about how she handled the situation, especially from young women. She decided that a book would be a good way to share what she has learned from the experience and get her message across. When publisher Jodie Webster asked me if I would be interested in helping Tayla to write the book, I knew very little about her apart from the stunning photo, but I was intrigued.

Tayla’s very up front about the fact that she’s not much of a writer, but she’s a great talker and she loves telling stories. We met, clicked, and a few days later the work began. I asked questions, Tayla talked and then I went away and transcribed the recordings. At the same time I was studying up on women’s footy and Tayla’s meteoric journey from a five year old roped in to her brother’s footy team to the star she is today. It was an incredibly easy process. Mostly because Tayla and the lovely people who surround her are warm, respectful and eager to share their stories with me. The other major factor is that there is a LOT of media surrounding Tayla and not just because of ‘that kick’. She’s been pushing down barriers for female athletes since the beginning and she’s not shy of journalists or their cameras. Her story was literally unfolding as I wrote and I was constantly having to keep up with her latest exploits on and off the field. It was exciting!

A large part of the book is devoted to discussing social media and the ways that young people can protect themselves and others. Tayla felt strongly about this and we worked hard to get it right. It was no surprise that Tayla was recently named an ambassador for OurWatch: an organization dedicated to preventing violence against women and their children.

My background as an actor has set me up with a range of skills that help me to recreate a character on the page. It’s important to me that the reader can actually ‘hear’ the person speak. I listened back to hours and hours of Tayla talking. She’s bright, articulate and very funny so I had no trouble turning her words into text. The greatest compliment was when Tayla’s mum rang me after she’d read the final manuscript and said, ‘You nailed it, Jen – that’s my girl!’

 

QUESTION TWO:

EA: Many writers have to be adaptable and work across different genres. Looking at your publication list – 4 children’s picture books, one YA non-fiction book, and one history book – and your job title ‘submissions editor’ – can you tell me how you describe yourself, and a little of what led you into writing and publishing. If there’s such a thing as a ‘typical working day’, how do your juggle your various roles, and their specific and overlapping requirements

JC: I’ve had a variety of different jobs and worked for years as an actor, but these days I state my occupation as WRITER/AUTHOR/EDITOR. My pathway to publishing began when I started doing summer fill-ins on reception at Allen & Unwin (A&U). This led to me enrolling in the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT. I also began working in a bookshop where I learnt invaluable lessons about who buys books and why. Then Sue Hines took me under her wing at A&U and I started ‘fixing’ manuscripts for authors on her Adult non-fiction list. Finally, I switched departments to books for Children and Young Adults, which coincided with having my own two children. I was working on books during the day and reading books to my kids at night – my personal test audience!

These days the bulk of my job at A&U is assessing new manuscripts that come through agents and through the general public via our Friday Pitch program. The rest of my working life is taken up with freelance projects: either ghost-writing for authors like Tayla or writing books of my own. And after a lifelong obsession with reading crime I’ve nearly finished writing a novel based on my short story that won the Mystery with History prize at the Scarlet Stiletto Awards in 2018.

The most significant ghost-writing experience I ever had was a deeply personal one. My father, a professor of law, was writing a book on the last days of Ned Kelly examining the flawed legal process and the extraordinary amount of media that surrounded the infamous bushranger. Dad really knew his stuff, but he wrote like an academic so I offered to ‘re-focus’ the text so that it would appeal to a wider audience. We’d just made it to the draft manuscript when Dad died suddenly. It was a massive shock, but I was determined to finish the book and in 2005 Ned Kelly’s Last Days hit the shelves. I was so pleased to be able to honour my father in this way; completing a project that had meant so much to him.

I really enjoy the process of ghost-writing. I love immersing myself in the research, drawing out stories from the subject and then making the words on the page sound authentic. It’s great when an author like Tayla freely acknowledges the work you’ve done, but other authors I’ve worked with have chosen to keep my involvement quiet. They prefer their audience to believe that it’s entirely their own work and my name doesn’t appears anywhere in the book. I’m fine with that, as long as I get paid!

QUESTION THREE:

EA: The subtitle of your 2017 children’s book Say Yes is A Story of Friendship, Fairness and a Vote For Hope, and looks at the Australian 1967 referendum and the basic rights denied to First Nations people, compared to those of white Australians. But it is also a personal history, inspired by the long-standing friendship between your sister, Margy who is non-Indigenous, and her best friend Mandy who is Indigenous.

Like the Tayla Harris book, there’s a potent mix of social justice and compelling storylines, written for younger readers. You’ve talked elsewhere about your interest in true crime. To me, both these books are about crimes committed against a section of society, attempting to control and limit how some people live their daily lives, and what they want to achieve. Can you talk a little about the research for Say Yes, what you learnt along the way, your hopes for change, and how you alchemised all these elements into a picture book.

JC: Thanks Emma. I like your insights!

Say Yes! was written to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, but the emotional core of that story came from personal experience. When I was at school I became friends with an Indigenous girl whose older sister, Mandy, became my big sister Margy’s best friend. I always thought that these girls and their brothers were so ‘lucky’ to have been adopted by a white family. Years later I learned the truth – that they, along with the handful of other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids at our school – had all been stolen from their families and ‘given’ to white people to raise. The longterm legacy of this was clear. Of the five adopted kids I knew, only Mandy is still alive today.

Margy and Mandy’s precious friendship has endured and is the heart of Say Yes! However, the story didn’t speak directly about them. I wanted to express the beautiful innocence of children – and their fierce sense of justice and loyalty as told through the eyes of the white girl.

Once I had done specific research about the era, the words came easily to me. Publisher Erica Wagner showed the story to Indigenous illustrator Paul Seden who did some gorgeous pictures of the girls, and Sandra Nobes’ vivid and sensitive design did the rest. I’m so proud of this book and grateful for the opportunity to channel my younger self and tell my story.

But what of First Nation’s voices? Since 2017 when Say Yes! was published, many more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors have been picked up by publishers. There’s a real thirst among the reading public for their stories.

It’s great to be working at a company that champions First Nations writers. I’m particularly thrilled that two debut projects will be published by A&U next year came through Friday Pitch.

Watch Mandy and Margy talking about their friendship which inspired the book Say Yes! on ABC TV’s 7.30.

ABOUT JENNIFER CASTLES:

Jennifer Castles grew up in Adelaide. She began her working life as an actor, lived overseas for some years and now calls Melbourne home. Her first book was a collaboration with her father about the trial and death of Ned Kelly and since then she has had four picture books published. She now works as a submissions editor and ghostwriter, and continues to write stories of her own.

NED KELLY’S LAST DAYS, co-written with Alex Castles

(Allen & Unwin, 2005)

TINY, A LITTLE DOG ON A BIG ADVENTURE

Words by Jennifer Castles, photographs by Steve Otton

(Allen & Unwin, 2008)

GO JO-JO GO!

Words by Jennifer Castles, photographs by Tessa Bickford

(Allen & Unwin, 2009)

A SONG FOR LORKIE

Words by Jennifer Castles, artwork by Dean Bowen

(Allen & Unwin, 2011)

SAY YES!

Words by Jennifer Castles

Illustrations by Paul Seden

(Allen & Unwin, 2017)

TAYLA HARRIS: MORE THAN A KICK co-written with Tayla Harris

(Allen & Unwin, 2020)

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Emma Ashmere was born in Adelaide, South Australia. Her new short story collection DREAMS THEY FORGOT is published by Wakefield Press. Her stories have been widely published including in the AgeGriffith ReviewOverlandReview of Australian FictionSleepers AlmanacEtchingsSpineless Wonders#8WordStoryNGVmagazine, and the Commonwealth Writers literary magazine, adda. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Writers Short Story Award, 2019 Newcastle Short Story Award, 2018 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize, and the 2001 Age Short Story Competition; and longlisted for the 2020 Big Issue Fiction Edition, and the 2020 Heroines Prize, with another story forthcoming in the NZ/Aust Scorchers climate change anthology. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Floating Garden, was shortlisted for the Most Underrated Book Award 2016. See more of Emma’s posts about writing here.