Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the industry?
I feel like I've been doing writing-related stuff for a while. My first job out of uni was learning to be an editor with the Law Book Company. It was stringent and useful, but boring. I moved on to a far more interesting job as a communications officer for a non-profit organisation where I got to write, which was always my first love. My first book, a history of the organisation, was written in that job. My second book was the biography of my boss from that job. He had been adopted as a four year old in Palestine during the Second World War. He had no papers, no identity and never knew exactly how old he was. It was a story that wrote itself really. It wasn't until I was 37 and had just had my fourth child that I knew I was ready to write fiction. I'm currently working on my eighth novel for girls.
Describe your typical work desk.
I work daily at my desk, which is set up in the corner of our lounge room. The bigger the desk, the more room for mess — and I have a big desk. My husband makes 'tsk' noises at it, but I clean it up twice a year, which is more than enough for anyone. I can sit to write or press a button to use my standing desk. I also have a treadmill set up for walking while writing. It was exciting at the start, but I'm a little lazy these days.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I learned to read when I was three by listening to my older brother sound out his words, and like Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, reading was as natural to me as breathing. At the same age, our family went to live in Pakistan for a period. The caretaker family on our property sent their children to school, but neither parent could read. One of my mum's first tasks was to run a literacy program in a slum area, teaching women their letters and sounds. I was intrigued by the idea that a grownup was unable to read and do this most basic thing I loved so much. At the time, I tried to imagine a life without access to stories and other worlds from books, but it seemed impossible, or at least remarkably small.
How do you balance making the plot engaging with providing a strong message?
Nobody wants to be told what to think, so I don't 'preach' directly in my books. My characters, however, go through hard times, learn difficult lessons and have challenging conversations with their friends and mentors. The messages come through their discoveries. When a mentor is giving advice to one of my characters, I try to write the dialogue so it's natural to the ear, to avoid having indirect preaching take place.
What advice would you give to parents wanting their children to be more accepting of others?
Model kindness in your own words and actions. Apologise to others, be quick to listen and slow to get angry. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. If your kids are angry with people, listen and validate their experiences, but help them to find ways through the anger. It's really useful to help your kids understand the power games that often play out in groups. If they can recognise manipulation, they can either avoid it or shut it down.
What's your favourite under-appreciated novel?
That's almost too difficult to decide. Growing up I loved the twentieth century children's author Rumer Godden, whose voice was tantalisingly vivid and delicious. Why was she not acclaimed? I just adored A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth when it came out, probably for its Indian flavour, which was very similar to my experience in Pakistan.
Describe your panel for the Wombat Books conference.
It's called 'Social awareness in books'. As all my novels tend to feature some kind of issue that the character has to navigate, I'll be talking about how to be serious while still staying engaging. Extreme honesty will be mentioned, as will staying true to my characters and their points of view. Basically, it's how I try to write in story form all the useful advice that my kids won't listen to if it just comes out of my mouth the normal way.
For more great panels like Cecily's, book your tickets for the conference now! Click the image below for more information.