The Stella Prize chats with JC Burke, winner of the 2006 CBCA Book of the Year award for her novel The Story of Tom Brennan, and a Stella Prize Schools Program ambassador.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
JC: As a child, I was a sucker for fairytales. I was the tragic kid who asked my mother every day why I couldn’t be a princess. How embarrassing to admit that – but I just did. At about the age of five, I was given a big book of fairytales with a golden spine. These tales were collected from all over the world and transported me to mysterious, faraway lands and cultures that I didn’t always understand. I remember how mesmerised I was by these stories and how they’d stay with me for ages after I’d finished them. Even now, when I look at the illustrations I experience that same wonderment and a flutter in the chest that takes me straight back to those days. Now that’s power!
Stella: What books changed your life? Were they by men or women?
JC: I don’t remember consciously choosing female writers but they certainly wrote the stories that changed my life and outlook on the world. My mother always bought us books published by Virago, a women-only feminist publishing house. I enjoy writers such as Anne Tyler, Fay Weldon, Barbara Kingsolver and, more recently, MJ Hyland and Geraldine Brooks.
Precious Bane by Mary Webb is my all-time favourite book. Its publication must have been groundbreaking, considering it was written almost one hundred years ago by a woman and had a young female protagonist. One of my top-ten favourite books is Firehead by Venero Armanno. It’s by a male author and told from a male perspective, but really it’s about a girl. At the end of the day, when I’m tired and I want to escape into another world, all I’m looking for is a well-told story. The rest of it doesn’t matter.
Stella: What do you think or hope the benefits of the Stella Prize Schools Program, and its text recommendations will be for students?
JC: My pen name is JC Burke because my first novel was written in the voice of a sixteen-year-old male. When I found out the book was going to be published I made a conscious decision to hide my gender. I was fairly sure a teenage boy would not want to read a book by a middle-aged woman, and I understand that decision. Of course, I wish it wasn’t like that. The existence of an initiative like the Stella Prize Schools Program will help us to be more conscious of the gender divide, challenge it and bring it up for discussion, because we all know it exists.
Stella: Why is it so important in literature to find characters that are familiar? Why is it important to find characters that are unfamiliar?
JC: Characters that are familiar and characters that are unfamiliar share the same problems of being human. That’s why I think it’s important to delve into the lives and stories of both. Perhaps it’s somewhat grounding to hear that human needs are the same for everybody – love, understanding, acceptance, safety, belonging. Because of that I find it humbling to read about characters that are unfamiliar. The characters of Louise in Hyland’s How The Light Gets In and Prue in Webb’s Precious Bane are foreign to me in many ways, yet they’re probably two of the most intriguing characters I have followed through a story.
Stella: What advice you would give to young aspiring writers?
JC: Curiosity is your best friend. ‘Why’ is the word you need to keep asking. Stories are like detective cases, you have to keep digging through them because that’s where you find the really interesting stuff. Every sentence doesn’t have to be perfect, get the story down first. Your words aren’t set in stone; you can always change them. Read your work aloud. If a line or phrase keeps tripping you up, then that’s the one you need to work on or maybe delete – even if it’s your favourite! And last but not least, the story is the king or queen, not the language. Words can be beautiful but they need to be used frugally.
JC Burke will be appearing at the Stella Prize Schools Program NSW launch on Wednesday 9 September.