Working with Words: Davina Bell

We spoke with Melbourne-based children's author Davina Bell about Charlotte's Web, palindromic numbers and publishing a book about a global pandemic ... during a global pandemic. 

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? (And why?)

Photograph of children's author Davina Bell

Charlotte’s Web, of course! What a tear fest. I think it was the first time I ever really understood the notion of sacrifice – that you could give up your life because of the depths of your love.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

I wrote non-stop as a child – heaps of merry drivel about guinea pigs and families with many, many children. (A major post-Seven Little Australians phase of my oeuvre.) People who knew me back then always said I would be a writer. But I stopped when I was about 12 and didn’t write anything aside from the odd emo poem until I was 25. That’s part of what fuels me now as an author – that gap when I didn’t see creativity as being legitimate or any part of a serious future self. I want kids today to grow up thinking that making art is just as valuable a contribution to the world as studying law. That’s often what I talk about when I visit schools.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

My superstition is that if the book has no palindromic numbers in the ISBN, it’s going to be a dud.

My worst job was being an usher at Cirque du Soleil, which sounds great but was truly an exercise in terror. My favourite job was working as a behavioural therapist for children with autism. I’ve been a nanny, stacked bakery bread from midnight to dawn, and worked at a video store where my cousin was in love with the married manager. My main day job has been as a book editor and now I’m a publisher. On some level, these have all involved seeing people at their worst – most tired, most vulnerable, most argumentative, most entitled, most protective, most defeated. Perhaps that’s given some depth and compassion to the characters that I create.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Cover image of 'The End of the World is Bigger Than Love' by Davina Bell

I’ve tried really hard to answer this, but to me it’s as strange a thing to contemplate as asking myself, ‘What if I had a bucket instead of a head?’ In both instances I’d probably be happier, but I wouldn’t be myself.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best is basically anything Elizabeth Gilbert has said about showing up and spending time in the chair, as opposed to waiting for inspiration or fretting the outcomes. (But why is this so hard to follow?!) The worst involves a talking whale, but I won’t go into it.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

Every time I try to write anything that resembles a diary entry, I end up wanting to vomit all over it. It gets binned within ten minutes. The amount of time I spend writing Instagram posts (which I guess are like the modern diary?) and then deleting them in disgust is ludicrous. I’m unbearable!

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Okay, this might get me some hate mail, but I just don’t think I entirely get The Little Prince. Can he really have such a deep relationship with a rose? Should I re-read?

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

Every time I try to write anything that resembles a diary entry, I end up wanting to vomit all over it.

My ‘habits’ consist only of endless procrastination, which, in the context of the writing world, isn’t that strange at all. My custom is to blow all deadlines. My superstition is that if the book has no palindromic numbers in the ISBN, it’s going to be a dud.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I’m surprised by my own answer, which is no.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

Zadie Smith. I wouldn’t do any talking, obviously. I’d just want to sit and listen to her sharp view of the world and soak up that crisp accent. There is no living writer that I admire more – so observant and humane. I’d love to ask her about how to ditch my smartphone. She makes it sound so easy, but what about podcasts, Zadie? What about a camera?

What's your latest project? 

My new novel (The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love) is about a global pandemic that comes about at a time when the world is ripped apart by internet-fuelled hatred. I started writing it eight years ago, and the timing of its publication (i.e. now) is completely unfathomable to me. But at its heart, it’s about how love can motivate us to confront the darkest parts of ourselves and change for the better. I hope that’s what comes out of this strange time in history, too.

Portrait of Davina Bell

Davina Bell is a writer from Western Australia. She is the author of the award-winning picture book The Underwater Fancy-Dress Parade, which won the 2016 Australian Book Industry Award for Best Children’s Book from a Small Publisher, and Under the Love Umbrella, which was shortlisted for the same award in 2018 (both illustrated by Allison Colpoys). She is also author of the ‘Alice' books in the best-selling Our Australian Girl series.

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