Term 1 2023
- Feature article
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ELR Interview with Alice Pung
SCIS speaks to Alice Pung about libraries, writing and the importance of the Educational Lending Right (ELR) survey.
Alice Pung is one of Australia’s most-loved writers; her books appear in libraries around Australia. Alice’s first novel, the prize-winning Laurinda, was recently adapted for the stage and presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Alice spoke to Connections about libraries, Laurinda, her most recent novel One Hundred Days, and the annual Educational Lending Right (ELR) School Library Survey.
Were libraries an important part of your school years? Do you have any favourite memories?
Libraries were really important to us. We grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne as part of an immigrant and refugee community, so you can imagine we didn’t grow up with shelves of books.
Libraries were the place we accessed books and it was the place our parents didn’t care how long we spent there. We could have spent five hours at Highpoint Shopping Centre, but they didn’t care if we said we went to the library. It was really a social place for a lot of South-East Asian children as well, and I actually wrote some chapters of my first book, Unpolished Gem, in both the Footscray and the Springvale libraries.
When you’re writing, are you inclined to dwell on the notion that your books will be analysed and interpreted by students, academics, book lovers and critics?Do you feel an obligation to include themes, characters and literary devices that will provide content for essays and reviews?
Yes and no. If you’re doing that, you don’t want your writing to become dry, or academic, or just a text. I do try to make writing as vibrant and as interesting as possible while maintaining the clarity and the narrative drive. I don’t underestimate what students are capable of because I know that when I was at school, I was doing Charles Dickens when I was 15 years old and students are doing Shakespeare. So, you can put in some literary references for students to find as long as you’re not pretentious about it and as long as it happens organically, because they can spot from a mile away when you’re trying to teach something in a book, which is a terrible thing.
In Laurinda and One Hundred Days you capture the ways in which secondary school students speak to one another perfectly. Is this a benefit of having children of your own? Do you eavesdrop on students on the tram? What’s your secret?
My children are only still quite young. The oldest is seven and the youngest is two, so I know how little children talk. I live at a place called Janet Clarke Hall, which is a college at the University of Melbourne. I’ve lived here for about 18 years; I’m surrounded by teenagers every day, so I do understand how they speak and the language they use so that’s probably why some of the dialogue sounds like a real teenager instead of an adult trying to sound like a teenager.
Some of your books have been published as audiobooks, which are becoming increasingly popular in schools. Are you able to choose or approve who reads your books for audio recordings? Do you have any editorial input into the recordings?
I don’t have any editorial input into the recordings, mainly because I’m not an actor or actress, but I did get to choose for my last two books. Aileen [Huynh] did Laurinda. I was sent a sample of three voice clips from actresses to choose from. And, also, with One Hundred Days, I actually picked out of the blue … it was just such a wonderful voice for the book, and she happened to be Sun Park, who used to be in a huge children’s band called Hi-5.
When you’re writing, do you have a particular audience in mind, knowing that your books will be read by people of all ages and backgrounds? For example, were you thinking specifically of secondary school students and teachers when writing Laurinda?
Often, I do. So when I did One Hundred Days my ideal reader would have been a 16-year-old girl who might have been going through similar circumstances; she might have quite controlling parents. What I was gifted with Laurinda is that as an author you visit hundreds of schools and many schoolteachers would come up to me and tell me their horror stories and I would say, ‘You shouldn’t tell me that because I’m writing a book set in a high school’, and they would say, ‘Yes, that’s all the more reason to tell you that because you’re writing a fictional book …’
Are these horror stories about bullying in schools?
Yes, and bullying of teachers by students. Entire classes can make a teacher cry or even wet their pants. Just terrible, humiliating things that wouldn’t otherwise happen if you had students individually … they don’t have the malice to do that but when they’re in a group it’s a different matter.
Every year, school library staff are invited to participate in the Educational Lending Right School Library Survey, or ELR. The survey is part of a process that determines how much compensation authors and publishers receive for revenue lost because their books are available for free in school libraries. How important are ELR payments to Australian authors?
I’m so glad you asked that question because a number of years ago I was actually on the Public Lending Right Commitee, so I would fly to Canberra and go to these meetings, and I learnt so much. They’re so important. Many of my author friends say they get more from Educational and Public Lending Rights than they do from royalties, so they are really important for an author’s income. Especially the lost income, because, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of kids go to the library to borrow their books because their parents can’t afford to buy them. So, it also gives kids access; the more you support authors the more access you give to young people to have your books, especially those who otherwise can’t afford them.