Time traveller and word hunter

Elizabeth Barry 

“Now I’ve never actually told anyone this,” Nick says, “but I was actually a time traveller when I was younger.” Having written five books with teenage central characters, and his latest book series focusing on the word word-hunting adventures of two 12 year-old-twins, Nick Earls has a sense fun about him.

Now on his nineteenth book, the Irish-born boy from Brisbane says inspiration for his latest series didn’t come from travels into the past, but from spending his schooldays in libraries, and an eager interest in language.

“My friends and I were climbing a mountain and one of them said he was ‘okay’, and someone asked where that word came from. I knew exactly where it came from, and so turned them into an audience for 20 minutes explaining its origin.” This experience led to him to his new book, Word Hunters.

The book follows two of Nick’s youngest characters, one of whom also shares his love of books and language. Nick’s ability to write real, believable, and often youthful characters has not escaped the notice of the Children’s Book Council of Australia who named his novel 48 Shades of Brown Children’s Book of the Year in 2000. The book was also later made into a feature film.

He doesn’t purposefully write books for young people, saying “my stories are just best suited for young people, there is no point trying to change that” but does admit he would have loved reading a book like Word Hunters when he was 10.

Having lived in Brisbane since his early youth, he is a familiar face around town and an ambassador for the city, fronting a Brisbane tourism campaign in 2012. Brisbane is also a familiar setting in his stories. While writing Zig Zag Street in the mid-1990s, Nick worried the book wouldn’t get published because he didn’t see any other novels set in his home town.

“One thing I learned,” he says, “is that human stories travel. Being dumped is a human experience. I got emails from guys in Zimbabwe and Sweden who had gone through the same thing.”

People identify with both character and place in Nick’s books. Fans of Zig Zag Street frequent the main character’s favourite restaurant on Park Road in Milton, and at one point an online fan club set up a virtual tour of Brisbane streets and linked them to lines from Nick’s books.

He says that even though Brisbane is his hometown, he uses settings familiar to him to allow for more creative space. “The advantage of using a city you know well is you don’t have to devote your energy into making up a place, but can focus on making your characters real in that setting.”

The same does not apply to his characters, with Nick admitting that he has learnt from experience to not use people in his life for his books although he often borrows from the people and places in his surroundings – “an aspect of a personality or a line from an overheard conversation”, and he often brings himself into the characters he creates.

Nick speaks nonchalantly about his medical degree (he followed in the footsteps as his mother and grandfather) saying it was just something to pay the bills as he tried to make it as a writer.

“People told me I wouldn’t make a living out of writing so I thought I’d have a go at being a GP.” Nick says the only strange thing about his past as a doctor is that his mother’s medical career outlasted his own, as he retired from medicine after only a few years when his novels began selling. His 1998 novel Bachelor Kisses saw the main character working in a hospital in Brisbane, which surprisingly only required an afternoon of research.

His medical degree also comes into other aspects of his creative process, such as his diagnostic problem solving and research skills. Research for Word Hunters requires the ability understand what life would be like in different times and then to imagine these lives through the eyes of characters 30 years younger than he is.

Nick Earls: hunter and gatherer

Nick Earls: hunter and gatherer

Nick admits the book would be very different without a broadband connection, and without the help the illustrator Terry Whidborne. The collaborative process allowed problems of continuity to be fixed visually. “I would ask him to think of something that could be made in the fifth century and do something specific.”.

This collaborative change in his creative process has not felt like a change at all, as no two books are written the same. Nick feels he stretches himself with each new book and “can keep growing as a writer and my process and style is constantly changing and evolving”. He says that unlike his readers, he hasn’t seen his work develop over the years because he rarely goes back to books he’s written.

“I have to live with books I’ve written for a long time. You’re so involved when you write them and then you travel and talk about them, so I would prefer to read someone else’s book, “ he says.