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Thursday, August 30, 2012

In conversation with Vikki Wakefield and Fiona Wood, recap: 'Caterpillars and Underdogs'


I had my biggest bookish day on Tuesday; attending the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ talk, stumbling upon the ‘Hard Lines’ discussion between Vikki Wakefield and Julia Lawrinson and then attending a very special event at the State Library, hosted by the Centre for Youth Literature. This event was a conversation between Fiona Wood and Vikki Wakefield, concentrating on Vikki’s new (brilliant!) novel ‘Friday Brown’. I should stress that this was not a Melbourne Writers Festival event, it was just a lovely little additional treat put on by the Centre for Youth Literature, who actually do lots of fabulous author events, and everyone should keep checking their What’s On page.

In the lead-up to the talk I was calling it ‘Wakefield & Wood’ and envisioning them as characters in a cozy mystery series about two female authors/sleuths … but my mind goes off on bizarre little tangents like that. It was in fact a lovely, heartfelt discussion between two of my favourite new voices in Aussie YA literature, talking about one of my favourite novels of 2012. By the end of their conversation I decided I desperately needed to re-read ‘Friday Brown’ and start peeling back some of the layers that were unearthed between them … since Tuesday I’ve still been thinking about what was discussed between Vikki and Fiona, and I’ve since started thinking of the discussion as ‘Caterpillars and Underdogs’, for reasons that should become apparent in my recap. So, here it goes…

•    Fiona asked if Vikki writes with a young adult audience in mind, and Vikki said she doesn’t. It’s partly to do with the fact that, when she was growing up, there wasn’t such a vibrant Young Adult reading culture as there is now. Vikki said she went from reading Hilda Boswell’s disturbing omnibus of tales (like ‘The Little March Girl’) to Elyne Mitchell’s ‘Silver Brumby’ series, and then careening towards Jack London. So she made a giant leap in her younger reading habits, and as such still hasn’t become quite imbedded in that YA ‘culture’, so doesn’t write for it.

•    Vikki pointed out that, unlike many authors, she wasn’t a writer when she was younger. She took a long time to get where she is today, but has since decided that she has definitely found her “thing.” She later said that she wrote ‘All I Ever Wanted’ between the hours of 8pm and midnight, after the kids had gone to bed and her husband had passed out watching TV on the couch. After the book’s release (and success!) Vikki decided to take a ‘gap year’ … which has now extended into 2 years, in which she has found a writing routine and now scribbles away between 10am – 2pm.

•    Now onto discussions of ‘Friday Brown’… Vikki spoke a little about the process of writing the novel (which she has famously said began with Chapter 28, and then went forwards, backwards and every which direction!). Really fascinating to discover that the prologue to ‘Friday Brown’ was written last, and before she wrote it there was no curse, or quite so much history ... so because of the prologue, which quite nicely bought everything together, Vikki had to go back and completely re-write the whole book. But Vikki didn’t seem fazed by this massive overhaul; she said her books often have to ‘break’ before she can fix them. And even in her final draft with her editor (who was sitting next to me in the audience, and was nodding her head vigorously agreeing with Vikki’s recounting of events) she actually changed the tense in the final draft. Fiona bemoaned that there’s no quick-fix button to go through and change an entire manuscript from first-person point-of-view to third, and Vikki agreed it was a huge re-edit (but a necessary one). Again, she maintains that her novels have to be broken before she can fix them.

•    Vikki again touched on the fact that she likes writing an underdog (as she mentioned in her ‘Hard Lines’ talk). She creates an underdog by taking away either wealth, status, beauty etc … but she admits Friday Brown was perhaps the most downtrodden underdog, having lost her mother and finding herself living on the streets (and at Arden’s mercy). But Vikki finds it interesting to see a character come back from that, seeing them rise above their underdog status and become something more. Vikki also said she “gets a kick out of leading characters astray.”

•    Fiona picked up on a mother connection between both ‘All I Ever Wanted’ and ‘Friday Brown’, wherein the absence (or imperfections?) of Mim and Friday’s mums have a lot of influence on the protagonists. Vikki agreed, and said that in both books Mim and Friday have to shatter their childish ideas of their mothers in order to go forward in life (When Vikki said that, I kept hearing that Corinthians quote in my head: “I put away childish things”). But then Vikki made a point of clarifying that her own mother is lovely, and she should really write a book with a wonderful mother character and dedicate it to her.

•    Fiona asked if Vikki plans her novels, and she replied that her story ideas always start with a clear plan, but then go pear-shaped. Like with ‘All I Ever Wanted’, for example. That was supposed to be a book about Mim getting out, escaping her home. But then Vikki started writing characters around Mim who she actually really liked and the plan went out the window.

•    More ‘Friday Brown’ talk, Vikki said that when she started writing Arden, she really liked her. But at some point in the writing she knew that Arden had to be nasty, and then embraced that. Arden is now the most horrible character she has ever written (very true!) Vikki also said that Arden’s character really started to take form when she decided she’d have dreadlocks and an animal-like quality, certain viciousness. About this point Fiona commented that the subtle power-plays Arden orchestrates with the other runaway girl’s hair was very clever, and Vikki said she hadn’t even made the Samson & Delilah biblical connection until just recently. She did say that the idea for Arden to have long, dreadlocked hair and then insist that the others cut theirs off came from Vikki observing how much of female sexuality and identity is caught up in hair. Vikki also said that Arden was based on an old school friend of Vikki’s, who was very much into power-plays (particularly using her sexuality to mess with people).

•    Fiona bought up the very unconventional families that Vikki wrote in both her books, and where they came from. Vikki said that they came from her own life, particularly when she was a teenager observing her friend’s broken families where things like drug abuse, physical abuse and teen pregnancy were everyday occurrences. At the time, Vikki’s home life was the most stable of all her friends (and didn’t break until she was older, when her parents divorced).

•    Vikki spoke about two characters in ‘Friday Brown’ who were also very unconventional, and hard to write. Silence (who she loves, and I do too!) doesn’t speak because his father once stepped on his throat when he was younger, and now it hurts to talk. Vikki said that when she started writing Silence, he just didn’t speak to her and she had to write around that and give him emotion without giving him a voice. Likewise, Friday’s mother Vivenne is key to the story and Friday’s life – but she’s dead for the entire book. So Vikki had one character who didn’t speak, and one who was dead but both had to still live on the page. It comes together, I think (and as Vikki pointed out) that Friday has only ever loved one person in her life, and that’s her mother Vivienne…and then she meets Silence, and she finds a second person to love. So these two unconventional (one silent, the other dead) characters gained a life in the story simply for being tethered to Friday in a very profound way (that’s how I think of it, anyway).

•    With regards to setting the second half of ‘Friday Brown’ in a wonderfully creepy outback ghost town, Vikki said she was very much drawing on her own experiences. When she was fifteen-years-old (and without her parent’s permission) Vikki went camping with a bunch of older kids, to an abandoned town in South Australia called Beltana. In writing a ghost town in ‘Friday Brown’, Vikki wanted to evoke that moment her fifteen-year-old self saw Beltana arising out of the outback night, and her sinking feeling that she’d made a horrible mistake in agreeing to this trip. She said she had the thought “I could disappear and no one would know,” and then spent two nights in the cold, dusty ghost town with nothing but a pillow and blanket.

Beltana ghost town

•    In discussing the ghost town of the novel’s second half, Fiona commented that ‘Friday Brown’ is very much a Gothic novel. Vikki agreed, and said that she loves and is influenced by novelists like Flannery O’Connor, and books in which good people do bad things. Vikki also mentioned movies like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Green Mile’, but particularly ‘Winter’s Bone’ as having a big influence over ‘Friday Brown’ (Vikki also said that if Jennifer Lawrence should be famous for anything it should be ‘Winter’s Bone’, and not for playing Katniss!)

•    Fiona made a few connections for Vikki, when she mentioned that in both ‘All I Ever Wanted’ and ‘Friday Brown’ some very pivotal scenes occur on towers and at great heights (Vikki admitted she has a fear of heights!). Fiona also commented that Mim and Friday both faced mortal danger barefoot! Vikki hadn’t even noticed these things, but concedes it must be a pattern in her (her very own inner-caterpillar? More on that in a moment!) and that she likes putting her characters in physical peril. Fiona also wondered if these moments of physical peril can be attributed to the two professions Vikki said she would choose to do, had she not been a writer – either “a demolition expert on ‘Mythbusters’. Or a stunt designer on ‘Jackass’. Or a ninja on Prank Patrol”

•    Fiona asked Vikki if morality is important to her, in her stories and Vikki said definitely. Vikki herself has a strong sense of what’s right and what's wrong, and while her stories don’t necessarily have strong resolutions, she definitely writes up until her character is alright and in a good place, at least.

•    The question of how Vikki first got published was asked (always an appreciated question) and Vikki said she submitted the first page of her manuscript to a Writers Festival that had a panel critiquing them. Hers was picked up by a publisher (not Text, interestingly) and it snow-balled from there after she received a bit of interest and some great feedback.

•    Then it was question time from the audience, and I put my hand up (clearly I was feeling confident after asking a question of Melina Marchetta earlier in the day!). I very inarticulately asked why Vikki thinks it’s important for her young characters to save themselves – that in both her novels, the plot would have been very different (Friday’s particularly, had the storyline with her father had gone another way…) if her young character had more interaction with the adults in their lives. Vikki replied that she again draws from her own life, and when she was younger nobody was saving her (especially not adults, partly because she didn’t tell her parents half the stuff she was doing!). Vikki feels that her characters need to be unsafe, both physically and emotionally. She also said that adults are important in both Mim and Friday's lives (Vivienne especially) but part of that underdog theme is that those adults aren't saviors, the girls have to save themselves.

•    Somebody asked Vikki if the focus on homelessness in ‘Friday Brown’ was also her writing from life, and while Vikki admitted she had never lived in a squat, the abandoned house that features in the novel was a real place where she stayed for a night. She remembered that house because there were newspapers stacked everywhere, and stuck to the walls

•    The final question for the night was perhaps the most interesting, and a nice one to cap-off this wonderful discussion. In ‘Friday Brown’, Friday is fascinated by this factoid about caterpillars in the Arctic who can only eat so much during the summer period, and then freeze themselves during winter before pupating and becoming a moth. Friday thinks it’s amazing that the caterpillar will maybe panic that it can only eat so much during summer (may even worry that it's going to starve to death!) only to have its body freeze itself for protection, and later emerge a moth. Vikki was asked if all that was true, and Vikki promised it was and she researched it. She said she loved the idea of things being packed into our DNA that we don’t even know what they do until they’re called on to help us. I really loved that idea too, and in hindsight I think it’s a wonderful ongoing metaphor/theme in both of Vikki’s books – that these broken characters aren’t quite sure what they’re capable of until the time comes for them to prove themselves (often from great heights).

I have since researched and (not that I ever doubted!) found that Vikki was telling the truth. For the record, it’s the Banded Woolly Bear caterpillar, which turns into the Isabella Tiger Moth.


  1. Wakefield & Wood would be such an awesome show!

    I love what Vikki said about having characters who save themselves. I think if my mom knew half the stuff I did when I was younger, she would have a heart attack. Mim is up there with Evanjalin from Finnikin of the Rock as one of my favorite female protagonists ever.

    I hope we have another installment of W&W when Fiona's next book comes out!! Another brilliant recap, Danielle!

    1. Wakefield & Wood - I desperately want it to happen :)

      The whole session was a delicious, literary morsel. I soaked up so much listening to these two - it was *wonderful*!

      Psssst... I asked, and Fiona's next book is tentatively scheduled for May 2013. I. CAN'T. WAIT!!!!


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