From snippet to stage

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By ANTHONY PROBERT

IN 2005, a single paragraph from an article in the Weekend Australian caught Dianne Wolfer’s attention.

It briefly mentioned a young girl who lived on Breaksea Island and the postcards she received from troops gathered on Navy ships in King George Sound before departing for war.

The postcards thanked her for relaying messages to the troops’ families as the soldiers anchored in Albany’s protected waters.

And that’s about all there was to the story – a short, sweet little snippet humanising the departure of 30,000 troops from Albany in 1914.

But Wolfer’s fervent imagination just couldn’t let it go.

She was curious about that little girl, Fay Catherine Howe, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter.

“It got me thinking when I was walking down the beach,” Dianne said.

“I was looking across to Breaksea Island and kept imagining her out there and couldn’t get her out of my head.”

It was the genesis for two of the local author’s books Lighthouse Girl and Light Horse Boy.

These books’ recent stage adaptation by Black Swan State Theatre Company in Albany and the ensuing extended season of the play in Perth, has had Wolfer’s name buzzing around town.

She’s grateful for the recognition and is more than happy to jump back into conversation about the story of little Fay Howe and those troops.

But there is much more to discover about the award-winning author.

Wolfer is a primary  school teacher by profession and without lamenting the fact, she knows the grind of making a living from being an author – even with 16 books to her name. There are no million-dollar best-seller contracts. With guest-speaking visits to primary schools and public libraries and royalties on book sales, she still earns less than a first-year teacher.

“Most authors have another job, so it’s a matter of what job and how much can you survive on versus having time to write. So that’s always the trick,’ she said.

“For me it’s not that you sit down one day and say ‘I’m going to be a writer’.

“It creeps up and then slowly you get more books published as you spend more time at it.

“But I just can’t not write. You get ideas and you write them down and they stay in your head and I shape some of them into stories.”

The work ethic that accompanies Wolfer’s vivid imagination and relentless researching also becomes apparent as she discusses her approach to writing.

She can write anytime, anywhere and often takes a few pages of a manuscript with her for editing to fill in some of life’s idle moments.

“You don’t have to be on a Greek Island, but you just need a space.

“Sometimes it’s the quiet corner of a café.

“Sometimes getting out of the study works really well for me,” she said.

“I think if people are sitting and waiting for inspiration, then good luck it might happen, but it’s like any job.

“You can’t just go to work and say ‘I’m not feeling inspired.’”

That constant drive to write usually results in Wolfer penning several stories at once and regardless of whether it’s a 6,000-word piece of historical fiction or a 32-page playful picture book, the process is incomplete until it’s as perfect as the deadline allows.

“Usually I’ve got three or four things that I’m writing at once,” she said.

“For example Light Horse Boy and Granny Grommet and Me. They are completely different books.

“I was writing them at the same time and they both took three years.

“I know it’s crazy. Why would a picture book take that long? There’s so few words.

“But you wouldn’t believe the emails back and forth with an editor over a sentence.”

With the whirlwind of excitement from the premiere of the production of Lighthouse Girl easing, Wolfer still has plenty on the go.

With its release due next month, her forthcoming picture book Nanna’s Button Tin will break stride from the run of historical-based fiction for a moment.

Although Wolfer is also happy to reveal she is working on a third, and perhaps final, installment to follow on from Light Horse Boy and continue the war-themed story to its conclusion.

With the fine details of the story’s plot lines still bouncing around the page, she confirms it follows Rose, a young English nurse who meets Jim (from Light Horse Boy) and is set in the shadow of WWI against the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic.

Her latest release The Shark Caller is another story for her growing number of young/adult readers to ingest.

The story was inspired by past family holidays to Papua New Guinea and was brought forward from the back-burner thanks to a scholarship from UWA.

The scholarship allowed Wolfer to write the book as part of her PhD on Anthropomorphism, the attribution of human qualities afforded to animals and objects.

Donning the graduation gown and throwing the hat in the air is also on her to-do list for the middle of the year, but please: don’t call her Dr Dianne.