Working with Words: Duncan Ball

Duncan Ball is the Sydney-based author of dozens of books for kids, including the much-loved Emily Eyefinger series. He chatted with us about writer's block, perseverance and the most surprising adaptations of his work.

Photograph of author Duncan Ball

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

I was the editor of my high school newspaper and a summer camp newspaper but the first 'important' piece of writing was a novel, an adult thriller, called The Great Australian Snake Exchange, and was published by Hutchinson.

What’s the best part of your job?

Sometimes, after a long slog, suddenly the writing starts to really work and what trips out of my brain and fingers surprises me.

What’s the worst part of your job?

I’ve written 75 to 80 books ... but nothing, so far, has been more exciting than the day I had my first book accepted for publication.

The long slog ... and that’s most of the time. Writer's block is my normal state.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

I’ve written 75 to 80 books (I’m not sure how many) and have won numerous awards but nothing, so far, has been more exciting than the day I had my first book accepted for publication.

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

The best advice I can remember is that writing is mostly about perseverance. I’m not a disciplined writer but I can be patient and persistent. Even when I feel like giving up on a piece of writing that’s just not working, I can usually put the blinkers on and just plough ahead. Of course, sometimes I do eventually give up on a story.

Cover image of a book in Duncan Ball's Emily Eyefinger series

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

I was surprised when the Monkey Baa Theatre Company in Sydney said that they wanted to turn my Emily Eyefinger books into a play. (They did it and they did a brilliant job!) I was also surprised when I heard that a group of Indigenous high school kids in Canada wanted to perform my play, The Perils of Prince Percy of Pomegranate, and to translate some of it into the Cree Indian language. (They did it and won a number of awards for their production.)

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

I’d be painting. I used to paint as well as write but I decided that there wasn’t enough time to do both so I stopped painting. I’ve been yearning to get back to it for years and now I’m doing it again.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Just as music can be taught, some of the nuts and bolts of the writing process can be taught. But when it comes to the real creative part of any of the arts, it’s something you have to work out for yourself. So writing can be taught but creative writing can’t be.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

It’s hard work. If the writing comes easily it’s not the best you can do.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

If the writing comes easily it’s not the best you can do.

I usually buy from a bookshop but I do have a Kindle and I occasionally buy online. I do like to look at a book and even dip in to read a few lines before I buy it.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

This is very self-indulgent but ... I think I’d like to have dinner with my talking dog character, Selby. I’ve written 208 stories about him so far and feel I’m only just getting to know him. I’d ask him what it’s like being a dog with human instincts and emotions.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I can’t think of any one book that had the greatest impact on my life and work. I was read to from an early age – Winnie the Pooh, A Child’s Garden of Verses, etc – and I loved them all but it wasn’t until I was a teenager and read Dostoyevsky and Kafka that I started thinking seriously about being a writer.

Portrait of Duncan Ball

Duncan Ball is the author of many works of children's fiction, including the award-winning Selby and  Emily Eyefinger series, various picture books, five novels, a book of plays (This School is Driving Me Nuts!), and a collection of funny poetry (My Sister Has a Big Black Beard). Duncan lives in Sydney.

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