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Sue Bursztynski – Women’s History Month

I’d only sold one story, a shirt, humorous fantasy tale, to Family Circle, via its annual competition, when I sold my first book.

I was at Richmond Girls Secondary College when this began. My previous school, Flemington Secondary College, had been closed down by the new Tory government, so that they could sell it to the Victoria Racing Club, which had lusted after the site for a long time, to turn it into a jockey school. I’d been there for eight years and was working with two wonderful people in the library. We had a delightful relationship. And then a new government, led by a man not unlike the current Australian PM, was in power, and was selling anything not nailed down.

Suddenly, my library was stripped bare and I was without a workplace. You can imagine how I felt.

Towards the end of January I was relieved to receive an offer from Richmond Girls’. My new library turned out to be old and shabby and had been a sewing room in the old days. But it was mine. I did have an offsider, a Vietnamese gentleman who taught maths and was hardly ever in the library. There was a technician who, for some reason, didn’t like being in the library and was off socialising most of the time.

So it was up to me to do something to make the library worth visiting and looking at. My colleagues on staff were pretty helpful, one of them bringing in her Year 8 class to move the shelves around to let in some light. When I started the displays. I wrote things to put up on the wall to go with them. History, science, SF, whatever the occasion called for.

And then I had a phone call from my friend Natalie Prior, who had started to sell quite a lot and is, to this day, one of the few writers I know in this country who can make a living out of it(and, unlike many of the others I know, managed to get going without being married at the time and having a partner to pay the bills so she could write full time). Natalie had been writing for Allen and Unwin and had rung to tell me that they had a new series beginning, True Stories, which was non fiction for children.

“I’ve told them about you, here’s the name and number,” she finished. I asked myself if I could even do non fiction, then looked at the library walls and thought, yes, I’ve done this. I can.

I phoned and made an appointment to see Beth Dolan, who was doing the series. Deciding to give myself the best chance I could, I researched a few things that interested me to make sure they were possible and prepared a list of potential book themes. When I met Beth, I invited her to choose a topic for me to write up as a proposal. She chose monsters.

That was my first book sale. It was in the very early days of the Internet; any Internet research I did had to be done at one of the few Internet cafes that had begun to turn up in the suburbs. It was at the end of a long tram ride, and cost $12 an hour. I limited it to once a week. The rest of my research was done in the State Library, two nights a week.

I didn’t eat well, of course, buying my dinner as takeaway and eating quickly before my research session. It told on my body after a while, so when I eventually did another book I was more careful.

It was the first of several books and quite a few articles I wrote and I had quite a lot of work in those days, before publishers decided that children’s non fiction didn’t sell and stopped publishing it. These days there’s only education publishing to do non fiction books and some published by museums to go with exhibitions. I did manage to sell to the education industry before my publisher suddenly left and was replaced by a gentleman who indicated he simply wasn’t interested, despite the fact that my books for his company are still selling in the thousands, after twelve years. He told me in his last email that he has a stable of writers and doesn’t want any more.

So, in recent years, I’ve gone back to fiction, mostly short stories, but I’ll never forget that it was non fiction that made me a professional writer and taught me a lot.

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