Author Sue Taylor chats with Julia Maurus about blogging, birding and (one day) becoming famous.
‘I need spectacles to do anything. Couldn’t peel an apple without them,’ Sue Taylor says. ‘It’s since I was about 40. The glory of aging is that if you don’t wear your glasses you can’t see the wrinkles!’
But Taylor’s weakened eyesight doesn’t stop her from writing books that are focused on the visual.
‘Birders have three supplementary eyes: spectacles, binoculars and spotting scopes. I need them all!’
Taylor always wanted to write. She was planning to specialise in whodunits and romances, but ended up publishing bird books.
‘Dad was a writer,’ she says. ‘He wrote about 11 books (one shortlisted for Children’s Book of the Year) plus hundreds of short stories. He couldn’t live off it.’
Knowing she couldn’t make any money out of writing, she pursued a career in the public service. By the time she was a senior executive, she had saved enough money to resign to do what she’d always wanted to do.
‘I thought it would be easy to get into the Mills & Boon market,’ recalls Taylor of her switch to full-time writing. Her romance novels were not accepted for publication.
Then she had the idea of writing a bird book, and it was her passion and experience as a birder that transformed her into a published author. Taylor’s eyes light up when she speaks about birds.
‘In Europe and New Zealand, the owls have false eyes on the back of their heads (like a butterfly has eyes on its wings) to put off predators. The early ornithologists didn’t realise they were nocturnal, but all nocturnal birds have great big eyes.’
Her first book, How Many Birds is That?, was published in 2001. It details Taylor’s efforts to see as many Australian birds as possible, ‘from Christmas Island, to Norfolk and Lord Howe, from Tasmania to Kakadu, from the south-west of Western Australia to Broome, and from [her] home state, Victoria, to all the glories of Queensland, the birder’s paradise.’
Taylor was then commissioned to write Why Watch Birds?, a beginner’s guide to birdwatching. When it was published, she gave as many talks as she could to promote sales. She says she will never forget the moment, after giving a talk at the Museum of Sydney, that a woman came up to her and said, ‘My husband took up birding because of your book.’
Her third book, John Gould’s Extinct and Endangered Birds of Australia, was also commissioned but was then not published. So Taylor approached the National Library of Australia (NLA) instead. The NLA produced the book as a not-for-profit, incorporating Gould’s exquisite full-colour lithographs.
Taylor says she did about three years of reading about Gould, who is called the father of Australian ornithology, and she speaks with fascination about him.
‘He was the first curator at the London Zoological Society. In those days all the rich gentry had menageries in their gardens, and he learned taxidermy so that he could display his birds when they died. He came to Australia in 1838 with his wife and two children.
‘His bird books are folio size (huge) and Elizabeth Gould did all the lithographs. Some think that he married her just to have a free artist on-board. He’d sell each volume before he printed it and he issued them in series with instructions about how to put the sheets together.’
Taylor originally intended to write the book from the point of view of the illustrator, Elizabeth, who was ‘on her own, eight months pregnant, painting background flora.
‘Then I sat down and started reading about John Gould and realised what a great man he was. He was an amazing ornithologist.’
Taylor’s fourth book is scheduled to be published later this year  by the University of New South Wales Press.
‘I submitted the book proposal to CSIRO and someone there told me my style was better suited to UNSW. CSIRO’s rejection was one of the most positive things that has happened to me.’
Like all writers, Taylor has received plenty of rejections. Quite often, she sends submissions to publishers and never receives an acknowledgement.
‘I’ve had letters that were personally written, others that were unsigned, others that said, “Why didn’t you send a stamped, self-addressed envelope?” Well that’s just plain rude.’
These days Taylor writes a pitch before she writes a book. She suggests writers try the Friday Pitch run by Allen & Unwin.
Her advice to aspiring authors is just to keep trying.
‘Don’t get upset about being rejected. Everyone gets rejected.’
Which prompts me to ask why she does not self-publish. Taylor’s answer is decisive.
‘Because I’m a writer’s daughter we think that self-publishing is not the same. That’s a bit snobbish really,’ she reflects. Then she adds: ‘Being paid is a recognition that your work is worth money and worth being published. It’s easy to be published without being paid; anyone can do that.’
Taylor says she loves that champagne moment when a publisher says, ‘I’ll publish your book’. These are her finest moments as an author, along with seeing her name in print.
Taylor started her blog, A Twitcher’s Tale, in December 2012 at her publisher’s suggestion. She uses it as a marketing tool and offers this advice:
‘The most important thing is keeping the blog up to date. That way, when people search on Google it brings you further up the results list.’
She has also marketed her work on TV and radio.
‘I once did an interview with Box Hill community radio and on live radio my interviewer had a panic attack and I was left there, so I kept on talking and talking until she came back with the technician.
‘The other thing I’ve been doing lately is Ockham’s Razor on the ABC radio. It’s always great publicity. I did one recently about the effect of wind farms on birds. It’s a good discipline: you have to speak for exactly 11 minutes.’
Then Taylor reveals that she remains motivated by her dream of writing fiction.
‘I have some manuscripts that I think are good. I’ve tried pitching them. I’ve been everywhere, got nowhere. Each time I write a book I think, “Now I’ll be famous!” Yes, one of these days I’ll be famous. Then they’ll publish my fiction!’
Sue Taylor’s books can be purchased from her blog, A Twitcher’s Tale, at <atwitcherstale.blogspot.com.au>.
The original version of this article was published as ‘Writer at Work: Sue Taylor’ in The Australian Writer issue 380 (June–August 2013).