Alumni Feature November 2015

Member Interview with Hazel Edwards, OAM

Interviewed by Alumni Features Editor Diana Jenkins

Hazel Edwards Not Just Cake cover Prolific author Hazel Edwards, perhaps best known for the classic children’s series that all began with There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake, has an OAM for Literature, a readership in 13 languages, thousands of book-children (including mine, both of whom love the Hippo books), a group of loyal mentees known as the Hazelnuts, and a family that must feel the ever-present weight of Hippo, still up on the roof 30 years after he first started eating cake.

Hazel’s latest book, in a career that’s spanned everything from transgender YA to adventure writing, is an unconventional memoir of life and writing, Not Just a Piece or Cake: Being an Author.



DJ: Hazel, welcome to the Alumni Interview Suite. Your widely loved Hippo series is cleverly referenced in the title of your new memoir, but are there other reasons for the name?

HE: Writing for children’s often considered easier, ‘a piece of cake,’ [but] it isn’t. [There’s a] misconception that [brevity] is less important or less skilled to craft. I also write for adults and in other genres. A ‘memoir’ is meant to be only a slice of life, which also fits the cake theme.

DJ: Tell us a bit about why you wrote Not Just a Piece of Cake.

HE: I experimented with styling the memoir itself as a quirky process of candid creativity. A new intellectual challenge and taking a risk, hoping the result would be satisfying for the reader too.

[I order] ideas by anecdotes rather than chronologically, [which I think of as a] brief map of serendipity, which seems like a contradiction in terms. Health reasons meant I couldn’t fly for months; via a memoir, I answered the questions readers often ask of me as an author and mentor. I’m frequently asked about the work-style process of long-term creativity, especially when you have a family as well.

[Since I’ve been] published since my mid-twenties and turned 70 this year, [it was also] timely.

DJ: What were the main challenges with this project?

HE: Experimenting with a new kind of writing: anecdultery. Formatting in a new style of storytelling. Brolga Publishers’ project manager Wanissa was endlessly patient.

I’m hopeless at manipulating the resolution and size of photos. I left out some images because they were in the wrong format.

DJ: The self-appointed Hazelnuts are mature-aged writers (men and women) you’ve mentored into publication – is that broadly the target audience for the book?

HE: [It’s] mainly aimed at nostalgic adults and those interested in writing or leading a creative work-style. 192 of my books are not hippo-centric. Social issues – such as others coping successfully with being different physically, politically or culturally – have always interested me. ‘Diversity’ is the current label.

DJ: To what extent is it helpful for new writers?

HE: [I’m] realistic about the risks, plus the time and energy required to develop skills in order to survive long-term as a creator and even as an ‘authorpreneur.’

DJ: Is it a family history as well?

HE: Slightly. It deals with my father’s legacy of ideas, and intriguing ancestors like paternal Scottish grandmother Agnes. Some childhood influences [are there too, such as] living in a country general store.

DJ: You have been a resident mentor at Varuna - how much work of your own were you able to accomplish while you were at Varuna?

Chook cover HE: I wrote a piece about the experience for the Australian Women’s Book Review, ‘Varuna: A Writers’ Retreat.’ (Ed. note: Hazel’s essay is extracted immediately following our interview for your reading pleasure.)

[It was an] immensely concentrated period, which enabled me to finish a novel and also gave the inspiration for Sleuth Astrid, the Mind-Reading Chook, based on Ingrid the Varuna chook, who used to belong to a magician and some claimed could mind-read. Ingrid is buried in the garden (a quirky example of using local Varuna inspiration!). Easy to read, but with challenging mysteries like finding a lost sense of humour, or the lost voice of the coach prior to grand final day, so also appeals to gifted kids. This later became a 2-part series in print and e-books.

DJ: How has Varuna assisted your development as a writer and/or mentor?

Hanging Out cover HE: I acted as a live-in mentor to a group of YA writers who lived at Varuna for a week. Most of those writers completed their projects due to the time given at Varuna and were eventually published, like Catherine Bateson.

I often recommend Varuna to those with works-in-progress because of the privilege of uninterrupted time (and a wonderful cook). I also enjoyed reading through the Varuna bookshelf, which contains donated volumes by those who have stayed and worked at Varuna. I realised why such a high proportion of books are set in the Blue Mountains: the Varuna influence. But there's also the legacy of the minds that have been encouraged by the practicalities of having time out to finish a quality work. This is the real significance of the Varuna legacy.

DJ: You describe Anecdultery – the style you adopt in the memoir – as ‘telling stories as anecdotes.’ Could you expand a bit on what you mean and how this style differs from what we think of as anecdotal storytelling?

HE: [Anecdultery is] closer to faction: dramatised incidents, where the teller begins to have difficulty separating the original experience from the story version crafted for an audience and repeated.

DJ: I’m intrigued by some of the chapter titles in your memoir – tell us a bit about what we can expect from Story Stealing, Literary Speed Dating and Highlights of Hippo History?

HE: Insights into the work style and the humour of an author's life. Literary Speed dating is actually interviewing your character.

DJ: I can imagine fan mail must be quite affecting at times – are there any letters from readers than really stick in your memory?

Hippo cover HE: Yes, some are very poignant. Often child readers write directly to the characters. Fan mail is the feedback that your book worked somewhere for someone.

'I haven't got a friend, will the hippo sit on my roof?' is one poignant e-mail.

DJ: What do you think are the main differences between writing for children and writing for adults?

HE: Regardless of the age of your audience, you write in their vocabulary and craft for their attention span and interests. Good writing for children will also engage adults, who often read it as many times as they have children with them, multiplied by the number of nights of that childhood.

DJ: You’re celebrating nearly half a century as a published author – congratulations – can you talk a little about the way publishing has changed in that time and how different things are for women authors now?

HE: I've been traditionally published since my late twenties. Now I'm a hybrid author, mini self-publishing some titles. In 2012, I wrote Authorpreneurship: The Business of Creativity (Keating Press, ASA) to explore the digital apprenticeship facing many long-term authors, including me (and I'm format challenged). Which strategies do we need to survive and not become an endangered species of intellectual property? Now is a period of significant change, where the author is becoming the brand and a work may have many versions in different mediums, some not yet discovered, so it's important to be aware of rights and the legal implications of copyright etc. And culturally it's important to keep up with new ways of sharing stories and cultural insights.

Those with families face the special challenges of time and energy management, and so it's important to provide the space and external recognition early in careers, especially for female creators. And to stress that authors never retire, so the investment is long-term.

DJ: Speaking of families, there’s a chapter in your memoir about the challenges of writing and parenting. What do you reveal about juggling family life with writing?

HE: Candid reality. Ironic humour. Survival skills, like not ironing and birthday gifts of gourmet cooking lessons for males.

Risk-taking [has been important to both parenting and writing]: physical adventure like Antarctic expeditions, or Spirited Women’s Trekking in Nepal, but also mental challenges.

[I’ve also included] a few sociological example of attitudes towards working women during periods of political and educational change: the 1970s and post-Whitlam era. [Plus what it was like] being a mature-aged student, with a baby and no sleep.

DJ: If you could give one piece of advice to struggling writers currently parenting young children, what would it be?

HE: Regard parenting as daily research. Broken legs, last minute Tooth Fairies and less-than-perfect families are all participant-observation research.

DJ: That’s a good way of looking at it, Hazel. The lovely Catherine Therese, Varuna alumna and author of memoir The Weight of Silence, made a very similar observation when last we spoke and I think of it often. How does your family feel about the memoir?

HE: Supportive. My husband Garnet has always been supportive of my writing and that’s vital, especially in the beginning. My daughter Kim is my marketing manager, who has dragged me into the digital decade (it’s her day job elsewhere too), and my grandsons are ‘yawn-testers.’ I’ve co-written two ‘adventurous memoirs’ with my son, and my son-in-law helps when I ask him research questions.

DJ: Now, your next project is Hijabi Girl. After 41 rejections from mainstream publishers and producers, you’re doing it yourself. Why?

Serena Geddes HE: I've co-written Hijabi Girl with a highly experienced YA/children's librarian Ozge Alkan, who also happens to wear a hijab. She was concerned there were few fun stories about feisty girls who wore hijabs in the illustrations. Books were not reflecting the real diversity in schools and our communities. Our 8-year-old Melek character is the new Pippi Longstocking. Serena Geddes is illustrating the junior chapter book.

I've always been interested in 'coping successfully with being different,' and wrote a junior novel, Misfit, decades ago, about Crystal, a feisty non-Jewish girl in a Jewish school. Looking through a crystal you can have different viewpoints. Misfit – about a miss who didn't fit – is now an e-book and I hope Hijabi Girl might become a companion story of humorous diversity.

Why self-publish? Because I think many of the rejections were for political rather than literary reasons, especially when terrorism is hyped in media. Often political fear is based on ignorance of others' customs. Meeting individuals can change that. Literature can enable you to go inside other worlds and viewpoints for the length of a book. Not propaganda. Fun. Humour often increases tolerance. Misfit is here.

Hijabi Girl will be out in early 2016. Maybe it will become a series eventually. I would love it to move into other media, especially children's theatre.

DJ: What kind of relationship do you have to the Hippo series? What’s it like to be the author and custodian of a children’s classic?

slippers HE: This book has a life of its own and belongs to the reader's imagination. But I do answer fan mail, which comes for the hippo. Not Just a Piece of Cake: Being an Author has 100 historic hippo memories as a way of recording that imaginative experience where your character is adopted, taken into the world of your readers. Embarrassing moments too.

People kindly give me hippo-shaped gifts, but I'm a minimalist, not really a collector. One was a Faberge egg with a hippo on the roof, eating cake, inside. Made by a family friend. Another gift was a hippo bath plug.

DJ: What’s the most difficult thing about writing for children?

HE: Writing complex ideas simply, but with subtext and humour. It takes longer and many drafts to write brief works of quality.

It's the most important area in which to write well, because child readers become adult readers and early books influence them for a lifetime.

Being acknowledged as a professional writer [is important], because [otherwise] it's assumed your IQ is commensurate with the age of your readership.

With a new generation of readers every six years, children's authors are some of the few who make a living and who contribute intellectual property internationally via translation and new media such as animation or film. Now I have the third generation of nostalgic grandparents buying Hippo books. And they are potential readers of Not Just a Piece of Cake.

DJ: You’re a bit of an adventurer, Hazel – what role does travel play in your creative process?

HE: Participant-observation is important research for a writer, long-term. Going and doing in order to write realistically about being an Antarctic expeditioner, Nepal trekker or even hot air ballooner, provides small but important detail of feelings, smells, sounds, sights and what might go wrong.

A Walk in the Woods poster In recent years, I've co- written Cycling Solo: Ireland to Istanbul and Trail Magic: Going Walkabout for 2184 Miles on the Appalachian Trail with my son, Trevelyan Quest Edwards, but he did all the walking and cycling. Trevelyan wore out two pairs of boots as a THRU walker (Bill Bryson got a taxi part way in his film 'A Walk in the Woods'!) Almost giving up then deciding to finish due to friends' encouragement makes Trevelyan's story credible. Readers like to know the real 'stuff' about what went wrong. The gap between the ideal and the reality, but with candid humour too.

f2m cover Writers need to take risks, but I tend more to be an ideas risk-taker. Most of the physical adventure in which I've been involved is so I can understand why others do it and write realistic characters. The adventure gene bypassed me. But f2m: the boy within, co-written with Ryan Scott Kennedy, a YA coming of age about transitioning gender, has been the most challenging book and the most worthwhile. There’s a Youtube doco here about the collaboration and reactions to a controversial subject.

Fake ID, my YA family history mystery about the Gran with Fake ID, gets lots of hits (not always for the right reasons. Some are seeking fake ID…). I also did research stalking for Stalker. The working time Varuna permitted enabled stories researched elsewhere to be crafted into books [that] travel internationally.


'Varuna'... a Writers' Retreat

by Hazel Edwards

'My upstairs room overlooked the heritage garden. Birds flitted amongst the fruit trees. At first, I felt envious that Eleanor Dark had always worked in these surroundings. Then I felt so grateful that her son had offered Varuna for other writers to use.'

' Enjoyed discussing literary techniques over dinner with the other 'inmates'.'

' Lots of steep Blue Mountains walks and runs to provide fresh air breaks.'


Time and space to work are the ultimate gifts for a writer.

'Varuna' was author Eleanor Dark's beautiful Blue Mountains home at Katoomba. Now it is a writers' retreat where up to five can live and work during three-week fellowships awarded by the Eleanor Dark Foundation.

The novelty of being valued for being a writer is seductive. 'Varuna' offers this. It's considered quite normal to isolate yourself with your imagination and a laptop in 'a room of one's own'.

For a woman writer who normally runs a household and family, as well as a full-time job, to be able to have meals provided by Varuna's superb cook Sheila, and to have 'unscheduled time' in which to work where there are no other responsibilities, is a privilege. It's also a challenge. There is no excuse left for NOT writing, other than personal inadequacy.

'Too many people regard writers are entertainers trimmings on the social structure - instead of an integral part of it. Actually literature is as essential to the living growth of a people as agriculture, or industry or sport.' Eleanor Dark in an ABC radio interview 7.10.44

'Varuna' provides a 'cut-off' point where a major work can be started, finished or inspired. It is time-out.

Writers who apply for the residential fellowships are required to nominate their projects. In selecting writers, consideration is given to publications, literary ability, proposed project and ability to live and work in a quiet, ordered atmosphere with other writers.

A performance-epic poet, historical novelist, children's writer and prose fiction writer were staying during my week. Each has a bedroom and a study-working area with a desk and connections for a bring-your-own computer and printer. The historical novelist preferred to write by hand. Some 'regulars' finish deadlined projects there.

However, Varuna particularly encourages new writers and those established writers who wish to change direction in their work. Well known writers can often afford to buy time to complete projects elsewhere, but Varuna offers time and space to those who cannot afford to hole up elsewhere to work. This means there are an increasing number of women writers grateful to Varuna. This year, three one-week residencies mean that women unable to leave their other responsibilities for a three-week block could still work in a concentrated fashion for seven days.

There is also the psychological boost of knowing that your work is considered worth supporting. Shelves of writer-donated and signed books fill the lounge-room where Friday literary events are sometimes held.

I knew of Eleanor Dark but I hadn't read her works before. Surrounded by steep, steep Blue Mountains, I began to appreciate how she walked or climbed her settings and how well she must have balanced her imaginative, physical and personal lives.

Timeless Land cover The Timeless Land was Eleanor's best-known work. She wrote ten novels, poetry, short stories and plays for radio. At the height of her popularity, her work was read in the UK the US and in translation in Germany, Italy, France and Sweden.

She wrote in longhand in her studio in the garden of Varuna. 'I can feel her watching and inspiring me,' said one writer who worked in the studio. Eleanor lived with her doctor husband Eric Dark, who became a writer on social justice issues. In 1989, her son Mick donated Varuna to writers in memory of his mother.

Myths surround any author. Stories abound of Eleanor's 'cave'. In the 1930s, many mountain families had caves to which they trekked or in which they boiled the billy on picnics. The Darks' cave is high in the mountains, a steep hour's climb from any car-park, and only found by those initiated to the route. Actually an overhang, the cave contains a warning from Eleanor, which indicates her love of the bush. Inside a biscuit tin where visitors are invited to sign 'the book' is a poem:

Biscuit Tin Letter

If you should in passing by
Come upon Yerekillime,
Very welcome you would be,
Boil your billy, make your tea,
By the fireplace drink and eat
Dry your shoes and warm your feet,

But oh gentle stranger pray,
These polite requests obey,
Break no bottles, chop no trees,
Tins in fireplace if you please,
May good luck attend you still,
May you hear the lyrebird's song,
Echo from Merringerong.

But if not, may all your pack
Make blue bruises on your backs.
Pay you for your many sins,
Bang your heads and bark your shins.
And at last in sorry plight,
Be chased by bunyips through the night.

Eleanor Dark.

Varuna' is writers' Nirvana: a wonderful environment where writers are valued. HAZEL EDWARDS is grateful to Varuna for the time to write experimentally in other literary fields.



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  • What a fascinating article. I was pleased that Hazel included Eleanor's cave poem. A few years ago, I put a copy of the poem in a new visitors' book and left that in the rusty biscuit tin at the cave. The info enables cave visitors to learn about the Darks--Eleanor and Eric, and their son Mick.

    Marsha Durham Wednesday, 04 November 2015 10:55 Comment Link
  • I was very pleased Hazel included it too, Marsha - I hadn't heard of the poem or the biscuit tin and am yet to visit the cave! I love the poem - there's so much humour, hospitality, spirit and environmental awareness in it. So glad you enjoyed Hazel's interview.

    Diana Jenkins Thursday, 05 November 2015 13:09 Comment Link

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