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In Conversation with Author & Illustrator Trace Balla

"... sounds like the click of the chopsticks, the splish of the water, the songs of the birds, as well as labelling species. I think it enriches the story and inspires our natural sense of curiosity."

Step inside ‘The Grand Imaginarium – Your Story Garden’ at the Abbotsford Convent and let your imagination flourish these school holidays with celebrated author Trace Balla. In a one-off workshop, Trace will introduce her beloved characters Clancy and Uncle Egg, and participants will create their next adventures inspired by the Convent’s garden in their very own book to take home! We speak with Trace about the great outdoors, the importance of acknowledging Indigenous people’s relationship to land, and what she’s working on next.

At ‘The Grand Imaginarium’, you’ll be introducing children to your characters Clancy and Uncle Egg from your books ‘Rivertime’ and ‘Rockhopping’, with participants creating new stories for them inspired by the Convent’s gardens. What kinds of adventures do you think Clancy and Uncle Egg will have here?

Ahh that’s why it is an adventure – the mystery is yet to unfold! But I do know there is a river and lots of plants and animals around, and this is Wurrundjeri land.

‘Rivertime’ and ‘Rockhopping’ are both inspired by nature, the first pairs Clancy and Uncle Egg in a canoe on the Glenelg River, and the second sets them off on a hike through the Grampians. Has the natural world been a longstanding inspiration for your storytelling?

If we take the time to stop and look and listen to what’s around us, there are so many inspirations. Most mornings I set off into the bush and marvel at this amazing planet. I call it ‘peak hour’! I am also very aware that anywhere I go in this country is Aboriginal land and its culture has so much we can admire and learn from. I often like to imagine how it was here before this country was invaded.

What is it about the great outdoors that can so easily ignite creativity in children and adults alike?

The more you look the more you discover. By drawing what I see I look even closer and discover and understand so much more. Exploring can ignite creativity and adventure, and also if you keep going back to the same places, you get to observe and understand the seasonal changes more as well as things changing over time. Spring is such an exciting time when you know a place, as you get to see the first wildflowers of the season. It’s like a treasure hunt to me. And watching something grow over time is so special too.

Does your own creative process mirror what your workshops will be like for ‘The Grand Imaginarium’? Do you usually write and draw while you’re exploring an environment?

If I have time I love to stop and get out my journal. It helps me notice more. I have used visual journals for most of my life, and generally combine words and images rather than separating them, so for me this is a natural process. I encourage kids to do the same, for example including sounds like the click of the chopsticks, the splish of the water, the songs of the birds, as well as labelling species. I think it enriches the story and inspires our natural sense of curiosity. When I do a drawing I call it taking a picture, but unlike taking a photo, this takes a period of time, and much can happen before our eyes within a timeframe, for example if I am drawing a plant in the bush, an echidna may wander by, and then become part of the drawing, as well as the words that might accompany that.

From exploration and cultivating ideas, all the way to participants creating their very own book, what was it about ‘The Grand Imaginarium’ that made you want to take part?

Well for a start I like the name! I spend a lot of time investigating things and catching stories and then twisting them with my imagination into the books. Inspiring that in others is such a pleasure, kind of like showing someone how to fish instead of giving them a fish.

While not as expansive as the Grampians or Glenelg River, the Abbotsford Convent has a lot of open space for the inner city. Where do you go in Melbourne to find inspiration for your writing?

I live in Dja Dja Wurrung country (central Victoria), where I venture into the forest and along the creek most days. This is the setting for my next book. If I go to the city I like to walk or ride along the rivers and creeks, by the bay, or parks and botanical gardens. I used to live near the St Kilda Botanical Gardens and had names and stories for many of the trees there, like ‘the boomerang tree’ where my son’s boomerang got stuck! I might use that in a story somewhere else some time. Maybe even when I’m at ‘The Grand Imagninarium’! I kind of want to go and write that story right now!

Your work straddles the line between children’s book and graphic novel, melding words and images together on the same page seamlessly. What usually comes first to you when crafting a story, the images or the words?

It’s hard to say, as when I’m working, I’m so absorbed in the doing! But I do know that combining words and images comes naturally to me, and I prefer not to separate them.

‘Rivertime’ and ‘Rockhopping’ both discuss the environment with respect and acknowledgment of Indigenous people’s relationship to land. How important is this acknowledgement when writing for children?

When I go anywhere in this country, I am very aware this is Aboriginal land, and wish to remind my readers that too. For so long there has been so much disregard and disrespect of Indigenous culture, and I wish to be respectful, and hope this may inspire others to be too. At the start of making ‘Rockhopping’, I sought out advice about what cultural content may be appropriate and acceptable to the different Indigenous groups in the area. I needed to gain permission from five different groups in the region and go through extensive processes to do so. It is very important to me to make time to do this – as well as to acknowledge those people, their Elders, ancestors, up and coming Elders, and their country. An example is when an Indigenous Cultural Park Ranger gave me an extensive list of place names, as well as the current names being used. These current names were often referencing places in England or Scotland, such as the rocks known as ‘The Chimney Pots’, which is called ‘Larngibunja’ in the local Jardwadjali language, and has been for many thousands of years. Uncle Egg and Clancy discuss this as they walk along. It’s awesome to watch some of the Koori kids in my community who are really stepping up and may be the future cultural Elders someday. I also like that Indigenous kids who read these books get to see that they are not invisible or overlooked, unlike in many books set in this country.

Do you see yourself as an educator as much as you do entertainer?

Hopefully more of an inspirer! And I guess I’m educating myself all the time so that probably comes through in my books, talks and workshops.

What’s your number one piece of advice to budding writers?

I tell them I am a story catcher, and that we are all surrounded by stories all the time. I suggest keeping a notebook handy, as you never know when you might want to catch something! My books are inspired from those piles of notes and sketches, which I then twist and turn into the books. I talk about practicing if you want to improve or develop anything, and how I have loads of books I made just for my son, or myself, that never got published, but are very special regardless. It’s about loving what you do. And being patient. That ‘Rivertime’ and ‘Rockhopping’ each took two years to make. And if teachers give you cross outs or red marks it’s okay, they are like editors, there to improve what you’re working at. My editor covers my work in red!

What else are you working on at the moment?

I am working very slowly on another graphic novella about a girl who comes to live by a creek in Dja Dja Wurrung country (Central Victoria) – she’s a bit like me really!

‘The Grand Imaginarium – Your Story Garden’ takes place at the Abbotsford Convent Monday 2 – Thursday 5 October 2017.