Warrnambool children's author Paul Jennings has untwisted his life story and produced a new book - an autobiography with a difference. He spoke to KATRINA LOVELL about his latest publication.
It reads like a work of fiction but it's actually all true.
The latest book from Warrnambool's Paul Jennings may be an autobiography but in true style of the children's author it is told in a roundabout way complete with twists and turns.
It has taken the man behind the popular children's television series Round The Twist more than a decade to "find the right voice" to retell his life. "Everything I had tried just hadn't quite worked. I never got more than a chapter," he said.
"I decided to try and write it like a novel so that it's got a plot. It all has to be true, obviously, but also you use all the techniques you do when you write fiction - flashbacks, group things of similar themes together and I can seed things that were going to happen as if it was like a mystery novel."
So after months in lockdown this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, Jennings has been able to finish his autobiography. He describes it as the biggest project he's ever done, and he's just as nervous about this book as he was excited when his first children's book Unreal! was published in 1985.
Jennings can still picture the story in The Standard about the book's launch. For months after he would search the shelves of stores for his book but saw it nowhere. Then letters started arriving from school classes all over the country and by the next year the book was on the bestsellers' list.
Over the last 35 years he has written hundreds of stories and sold more than 10 million books but Untwisted: The Story of My Life is the one that has made him most nervous.
Those nerves come not just from what other people who are in the book might think but because he followed the advice of his publisher and opened his heart and made himself vulnerable. "I thought I'd try as much as I can be to honest. There's things in the book that even my family didn't know about," he said.
"There are a lot of intimate and tender moments in there. There are personal issues about failures I've had - work failures and relationships. I've discussed some mental health issues. I did go to therapy for quite a while. "
But the major theme in the book is Jennings' relationship with his father and the impact of "childhood wounds". "He and I were barely speaking to each other in the last 10 years of his life I suppose," he said. "Those sort of things are difficult for me to talk about. There's quite a sad story.
"One of the themes of the book relates to the fact that he thought I was not very smart and he basically didn't like me. As a child you can't believe one of your parents doesn't like you.
"His negative views were passed on to me. If your parents don't believe in you, you end up not believing in yourself."
The book follows Jennings' journey from feeling inadequate to finding his way and achieving successes.
Unlike other biographies though, Jennings' book is not a chronology of events. It is interwoven with tips about writing for children and, every now and again, he will talk to the reader directly and even retell some parts of his life in third person - mostly because those memories are, even today, still too painful to talk about in his own voice.
Jennings' own bookshelves - and there are many - are filled with biographies. "I like reading them. You are getting a window into other people's lives," he said.
But writing his own autobiography came with problems that his works of fiction have never had. He had to consider that some people would not like what he had written. "I sent copies to the major players for their approval," he said. "And, sometimes I changed names and locations. Other characters had passed away but I still had to consider the feelings of their relatives."
Just the act of writing his autobiography, Jennings said, can be really valuable for "sorting out your own life". "Writing the book was therapeutic," he said. He said his partner, Mary-Anne Fahey of Comedy Company fame, described it as "an eagle's view of looking down on a map of your life". "It becomes distilled and you see the similarities between the mistakes you've made and the aspects of your personality and what caused you to be like you are."
Jennings said the difficulties and problems he had in own life had their origins in his relationship with his father. Did Jennings ever confront his dad or make peace with him? "I pose that question at the front of the book, so it would be a spoiler to tell you," he said.
While the book is sad, moving and poignant, Jennings does balance it with a lot of humour. Born in England during WWII, Jennings was six when he came out to Australia with his parents and sister, Ruth, to escape the post-war rationing and shortages.
His memories of that long voyage are still vivid, particularly the dress-up competition onboard that came with a prized bag of lollies - a rarity in the post-war era.
Jennings wanted to be a pirate but his parents, pointing out that there was no sewing machine onboard to make an outfit, instead suggested using sheets to be a ghost.
"I was thoroughly disappointed. I didn't want to be a ghost. The day came and there were no sheets to be seen but they started pinning these notices on my sister and I thought 'we'll never win it'," he said.
But their simple costumes got the loudest applause, and the sweetest reward. "I was done up with a big notice saying 'England' that said 'rationing, no smokes, no grog, no housing, fog, cold'. Ruth was done up as Australia which said 'two-inch steaks, plenty of smokes'."
As a teenager, Jennings wanted to be either a clergyman or a soldier but an old English saying that came across his father's lips changed all that. "I loved the school cadets, marching around and saluting and all that stuff. I was a very religious young man. But my father said 'the simple son always gets put into the army or the clergy'," he said.
He was made to leave school in year 11 because his best friend - who was a year ahead of him at school - had failed his matriculation and his father, declaring Jennings was not as smart as his friend, should drop out.
Instead, Jennings was sent for vocational tests which showed that the thing he was most suitable for was teaching. "In those days, because of the baby boomers, they were really short of teachers and you could go to teacher's college without going to year 12. Not many did but I was one of them," he said. "I loved being a teacher."
His first class as an 18-year-old teacher straight out of college was a group of children with learning disabilities. His English lecturer's advice was "don't waste you talent on those kids". "I knew he was wrong and I applied for it but the people from the curriculum research branch came and they were aghast that as an 18-year-old first year out of college would get a group of kids with learning disabilities," he said. "They said 'if you can find a book for every kid that they can read and they want to read, you will have achieved something'."
Jennings did manage to find a book for every one of them that they could read but finding one they wanted to read has became an "unreal" lifelong objective for him.