I travelled to Swan Hill recently for my day job, but my enterprising colleague and self-appointed agent Lea decided I should combine the visit with an author tour. So I went straight from the train, past the Giant Murray Cod, to Swan Hill Primary School for my first speaking engagement with a class of year 4 students, one of whom was Lea’s daughter Zoe.
I decided to try out the slide show I’d prepared for my library talk that evening and added a few images — such as a man kissing a cobra — that I thought might appeal to a group of nine and ten year olds. In fact, they were riveted from the get-go, hands shooting up to ask questions from the first photo.
‘Is that real gold?’ asked one boy, pointing to the background in the picture.
I told him that it wasn’t.
‘Is that real gold?’ he asked again minutes later in response to another photo.
I told him that wasn’t either but reassured him I would point it out when we did get to a picture with real gold in it. The same boy later asked if I made any money out of writing books. I started to detect a theme.
I was intrigued by both the volume and nature of the questions the kids asked, everything from ‘What do people eat in Thailand?’ (there’s an excellent Thai restaurant in Swan Hill apparently), to ‘Does the cobra the man is kissing have any venom?’ and ‘Do you get to keep the cage after you release the birds at the temple [to make merit]?’
One of the kids asked if all that merit making had brought me good luck. ‘I think it did,’ I said. ‘I’ve had a very fortunate life.’
After more than an hour, I finally had to call time so we could all fit in lunch before our next appointments — but not before one had asked if I could include him as a character in my next book and another had asked if I could help the whole class write a story. If only I was a full-time writer…
I saw my first locusts later that afternoon on the drive out to Lea’s place. Apparently, the late and heavy rains have been playing havoc with efforts to control the swarms. The locals anticipate more plagues by autumn. After years of drought, I guess they’re entitled to be pessimistic.
Next stop was the Swan Hill Regional Library where I was scheduled to give an author talk and slide show. I was rapt to have around 15 people turn up and show almost the same level of enthusiasm as the year 4 students (though that was a tough gig to beat). The library staff could not have been more welcoming and again, people asked interesting questions — there were a few aspiring writers in the group — and about a third of them bought the book. It was two hours before we finally headed back to Lea’s house, where we continued talking half the night.
It turns out Lea’s partner is a keen birdwatcher and when I said in my talk that my first published work appeared in a Gould League magazine, the significance was not lost on him. As someone who never forgot the joy as a young child of collecting bird cards in the Tynee Tips tea packets, it was a genuine thrill to head out at 7.30 on Friday morning on a bird-spotting walk. This time last year at the tail end of the long drought, the birds were neither diverse nor abundant. But the rains have brought them back. We saw 18 species in half an hour, including Eastern Rosellas and blue-faced honeyeaters. Later on the train bound for Melbourne I saw even more, including kites, ducks, budgerigars and a wedge-tailed eagle with a wingspan greater than the reach of my five-year-old.
My next speaking engagement following breakfast was back at the Swan Hill Primary School with the 6 K class. Lea’s son Paul had not only made a fabulous ‘Welcome Angela’ poster that greeted me at their house, but already briefed the class with a slideshow about me and a few aspiring writers from a neighbouring classroom joined in, too. As Lea had predicted, the year 6 students were better equipped to contain their enthusiasm and keep their questions until the end. But they still managed to ask some classics such as ‘What did you write about when you were our age?’ and ‘Were you the top of your class when you were at school?’
One student asked me to read a passage from the book and with the teacher’s permission — and a scan to make sure there were no rude bits — I read an extract from the first chapter in which the main character Jayne Keeney is trapped on her motorbike in a traffic jam in the middle of the Skytrain building site. There was some high-faultin’ vocabulary and a few Thai phrases, but the kids got it. ‘That was really descriptive,’ one said. ‘I thought you painted the picture really well,’ added another. Bless them.
Special thanks to my ‘agent’ Lea and her family for their suburb hospitality; we even made the local paper. And thanks to all in Swan Hill, aged 9, 10, 11, 12 years and older, who came to hear me speak during my short, busy visit.
Next stop The Travellers Bookstore 294 Smith St, Collingwood, this Thursday 2 Dec 2010 at 6.30pm.