It’s a Saturday afternoon. There are three shop assistants lined up at the checkout of an Adelaide sports store, swooning simultaneously. It’s not a footballer or a tennis star in their midst.
After asking for a loyalty card, the three young women have discovered the customer before them is in fact writer, teacher and revered raconteur Mem Fox (BA ’79, BEd ’80, DLitt ’04).
More than five million copies of Ms Fox’s first and most famous book, Possum Magic, have danced their way out of bookshops since she wrote it as a Flinders classroom exercise in 1978, but the magnitude of her impact on generations of Australians is probably best summed up at the sports store checkout.
The success of Possum Magic, while mammoth, was hardly overnight.
“Possum Magic came out when I was 37, but I had been writing since I was 10,” Ms Fox said. “I look like a late starter, but I had a very long apprenticeship.”
“I was doing a Bachelor of Arts as a mature age student at Flinders and we were asked to write a children’s book. Had I been 20, I would have thought that was a great assignment, but as a mature aged student I thought, ‘This is beneath me! I am into Milton, Shakespeare and Keats – I want challenge and difficulty!’ Of course, as soon as I started to write, I realised that challenge and difficulty were a big part of the experience.”
The secret of Ms Fox’s success lies in a combination of talent and persistence, as well as an ear trained in drama school, which searches out the sequence of words that will have the highest impact and value when read aloud.