Monday, March 12, 2012

Introducing author Julie Harris



The first signs of writing talent appeared in crayon on her bedroom wall. Julie started school when she was almost five years old — she could read before she was formally taught, and got in trouble on her first day of school for telling the teacher what was on the blackboard.

She graduated from High School in 1974, dropped out of college after six months, and worked as a girl friday for an auctioneer until she married in 1977 and ‘went bush’ to a mixed grazing property at Weengallon, two hours west of Goondiwindi.

She was a shearers’ cook and woolshed rouseabout amongst other things, and battled daily with drought, lack of water, fresh food scarcity, no television, and big brown snakes living under the washing machine. It was there, whilst living in a dilapidated, haunted farmhouse, that she started to write crime dramas, one act plays and action adventures on a borrowed 1947 Remington typewriter. In 1981 she left life in the bush behind, and with two babies in arms, Julie turned the next page to a blank one, got on a bus and never looked back.

She raised her daughters alone, all the while trying to get a break with writing. This came in 1991 when her first novel, Anna’s Gold was shortlisted in a writing competition and subsequently published. Julie entered the competition again, this time with Encore, a paranormal thriller that took eight weeks to write to first draft stage. Julie remembers the phone call informing her she’d won either first, second or third prize. At the time, Julie was a struggling sole parent of two school age daughters. She was flown to Melbourne for the prize presentation ceremony. Whilst waiting nervously in the foyer of the Sebel Hotel, she ‘befriended a really nice bloke who was sitting on his own and looking a bit sad’. Later that night Julie discovered this new friend was best selling author of The Power of One, Bryce Courtenay, and he was in Melbourne to present first prize for the writing competition. ‘No wonder he smirked a bit when he asked my name. There I was, talking to a famous person and I hadn’t a clue who he was. That’s probably why we’re still friends.’ Her story won first prize. ‘I don’t remember much about it – a journalist at my table kept topping up my champagne glass.’ But she does remember getting to a phone at 2 am, calling her parents and speaking to her father, who never really believed her writing would go anywhere. A couple of years before he died he admitted he was proud of her perseverance, for ‘having a go’ despite a rejection file that filled the second drawer of the filing cabinet. Why? All he wanted to be was a fighter pilot but he was too afraid to follow his dream.

The timing wasn’t right for Encore in 1992 – heavens, the USA will never have a black President, and anything paranormal hadn’t yet seen the light. When the book was released it bore little resemblance to the original story. The editing experience almost put Julie off writing for life. But some stories won’t die peacefully and in 2001 she rewrote Encore, and No Exit was published in Germany in 2003. The story has since been adapted for screen and is now available as an ebook.

Julie is most known for The Longest Winter. One summer’s day in 1993 as she mowed the grass Julie had a vision of a man wearing a fur-lined parka. He had piercing blue eyes and he looked miserable. His face wouldn’t go away, so that evening the first chapter of The Longest Winter was written. The story was about John Robert Shaw, a biplane pilot from Florida who, in 1924, crashed in the Aleutian Islands, and didn’t make it back to the mainland until the evacuation of the Aleutians during World War II.

Many people who read The Longest Winter believe it’s a true story. As far as she knows, it isn’t. But the male brain forever remains a mystery; Julie can’t fly a plane, she’s never seen snow, and the closest she’s been to mainland USA was a Writers Conference in Hawaii (where she met aspiring writers who were busy publicizing stories they hadn’t yet written). In 1998 The Longest Winter was optioned for a movie. In London, 2000, she met Australian director Bruce Beresford, who was hoping to direct and stay faithful to the story, but the movie never took flight. Rob Spillman from The New York Times (1995) described the novel as ‘a moving testament to survival and adaptation’. As well as editions in Germany and France, a UK edition was published in 2005 by Robert Hale, London.Julie’s advice to aspiring authors? To quote Australian film maker AJ Carter, ‘You don’t get what you wish for. You get what you work for.’ Don’t talk about wanting to. Just do it, and keep doing it until you get it right, but keep in mind that when you think it is right, it probably isn’t.

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