Review of Jaclyn Moriarty's Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere

Jaclyn Moriarty is a three-time winner of the NSW Premiers Literary Award. Picture: Wendy McDougall
Jaclyn Moriarty is a three-time winner of the NSW Premiers Literary Award. Picture: Wendy McDougall

Jaclyn Moriarty has always wanted to write for children in those pre-teen years because that's the age when she was the most passionate about reading and writing herself.

"The books I were reading then were just pure imagination, fantasy and adventure," she says, listing the books of E. Nesbit and the Mary Poppins series by Pamela Lyndon Travers among her favourites.

As a child, her father would pay her $1.50 if she filled exercise books full of stories; one of her most memorable was an Enid Blyton rip-off about talking toys.

"I was the shy one in the family, I was almost silent a lot of the time, I was either reading or writing, I wrote stories all the time.

"I loved getting dad's commissions."

I've managed to score the Moriarty trifecta in the past year with this interview. In April I spoke to youngest sister Nicola about her new book You Need to Know (which was, ironically, about three brothers who were writers) and Liane for Apples Never Fall.

Now, with Jaclyn, for her latest young readers book The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere, my ticket is complete.

The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere, by Jaclyn Moriarty. Allen & Unwin, $22.99.

The Astonishing Chronicles of Oscar from Elsewhere, by Jaclyn Moriarty. Allen & Unwin, $22.99.

It's refreshing that in all three interviews, there appears to be no malicious sibling rivalry, all three were supportive and proud of their sisters' endeavours.

"People often ask us if we're competitive and luckily I'm not because Liane is a clear winner," says Jaclyn with a laugh.

"I actually got published first, every time I say that it sounds competitive, but when Liane got published an aunt actually said to me some competition would be good for me.

"But writing is not an athletic sport, where you get up earlier and train harder, to be better than someone.

"To write books you have to be true to yourself and find your own voice.

"People have said to me try and write more like Liane and you'll make more money but if I did try that I would not succeed because the best books are the ones that are honest and written in your own voice."

Nicole Kidman and Liane Moriarty in the lead up to Nine Perfect Strangers. Picture: Instagram

Nicole Kidman and Liane Moriarty in the lead up to Nine Perfect Strangers. Picture: Instagram

Jaclyn could be a character from one of her sister's suburban noir books, a regular mother, with some fun things happening. At high school she thought she might be a flight attendant, or get into advertising (Liane did that) so she went to university to study English and law thinking she might be a journalist. She did her English PhD on Roald Dahl but it was law that she loved. She went on to do a Masters of Law at Yale and a PhD at Cambridge which looked into young people and the media.

Back in Sydney she worked as a media, entertainment and copyright lawyer for a while, writing in her spare time. In 2000 she sent a manuscript of Feeling Sorry for Celia to a Sydney agency where author Garth Nix just happened to be working and within weeks he found her a publisher. She went part time to write her next book and soon became a full-time writer.

Today we chat about our teenage sons, how they're handling school and their social life during the pandemic. Her son Charlie was eight when she first started writing The Kingdoms and Empires series, and this is the fourth book. He is now 15.

With the first of her books aimed at an older audience, Jaclyn says it took her a while before she felt confident enough to write for this eight to 12 years audience.

"I did try occasionally to write them but I felt I was never quite ready so I continued to read a lot of the classics and contemporary novels for this age group until I worked it out and when Charlie hit that age it just all seemed to click," she says.

"Mind you, the first book came off the back of a letter from a reader who said something about how she was drinking a cup of cloudberry tea, I had never heard of cloudberry tea before and I wrote back saying that it sounded like something from a children's book and one day I would put it in a book. I made that promise and sat down and wrote the first chapter of the Bronte Mettlestone book and because there was a reference to cloudberry tea it became a magical world in a children's book."

The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone (2017), The Slightly Alarming Tale of the Whispering War (2018), The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst (2020) and this latest installment are stories about seemingly normal kids who get whisked away into magical lands, and adventures ensue.

Oscar of Elsewhere opens with 12-year-old Oscar sitting in the principal's office being asked to explain his absence from school the past week. The book is actually his refreshingly honest account. Monday morning he's just hanging out in the local skate park, and in the blink of an eye he's in an elven world, on a quest to break some spells and save the day.

Oscar's a little sassy in the principal's office - I can't remember speaking to the principal in such a way. I wonder if writing for that audience is different now than it was for, say E. Nesbitt or Travers.

"That's a great question, fundamentally we're all the same but things are different, their experience of life is different. I used to write young adult fiction and realistic young adult fiction was what I started with but part of the reason I stopped and started writing fantasy was that I felt I had lost touch with that age group.

"But you can't try to capture or mimic what a young person is at any point in time because it changes constantly, it's more a general sense, or impression."

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In many ways the core of the story is about the quest, indeed the best stories have this simple idea at their centre.

"Here it was all about putting someone in a situation that was completely different to their experience and accompanying them on that journey," she says.

"I suppose every day we're on a quest, the quest to find the wallet my son left on a bus somewhere, the quest to work out what's for dinner again, the quest for the meaning of life."

I put the idea to her that the sisters could collaborate on a book that takes the best of what they all do and put it in one story, I'll even let them write alternating chapters, in the style of Jaclyn.

It's my idea that three sisters, suburban mothers, get sucked into a vortex, through a wet towel on their teenage son's bedroom floor, and along the way realise their husbands aren't quite what they thought they were and someone ends up murdered.

She laughs - I think she likes the idea. I wonder if her father does. I could use that $1.50.

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This story We're not competitive, says Jaclyn Moriarty first appeared on The Canberra Times.