This month I read a really spectacular contemporary YA novel; ‘Steal My Sunshine’ by Emily Gale. This was Emily Gale tackling a really hard topic in Australian history, and doing so with compassion and wisdom. So I was thrilled at the chance to ask the author some questions about this fabulous book;
Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?A bit of both. My first books were commissioned, so the publisher came to me with a particular request because of my previous experience as a children’s book editor. My first ‘proper’ book deal, for Girl Aloud, was secured by my agent, Louise Burns. I signed with Louise in 2008. However my latest novel, Steal My Sunshine, made its way via the slush pile at Random House because I really didn’t want anyone to know about it until I had some sign that it was half-decent. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else but I was so nervous about setting a book in Australia that I went the secret-squirrel way. My agent is very patient with my squirreling.
Q: Are you a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’ - that is, do you meticulously plot your novel before writing, or do you ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ and let the story evolve naturally?I’m a pantser who hates herself afterwards. Girl Aloud started out as my first NaNoWriMo novel. With no plotting whatsoever I got to 35k words in a month and finished the rest over two further months after the birth of my son. Inevitably it took four more drafts before it made any sense. Like most pantsers I pay the price later but fortunately my lack of patience is matched by a grim determination to get it right, however long it takes. My first drafts are confused but enthusiastic, a bit like an untrained puppy: cute, but you can’t really take them seriously. Then the dog-trainer - I mean, my Inner Editor - rolls up her sleeves and the discipline begins. I don’t know where I’m going with this dog analogy. See? Pantser.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Steal My Sunshine’, from first idea to final manuscript?The very first words were written as a piece of flash fiction in 2005 when I took part in a 24-hour writing marathon to raise money for Children In Need. The piece was just a few hundred words entitled ‘I Heart Pottery’ and it was published in a small booklet along with other winning stories from the project. The following year that scene became part of a novel, which took about six months. I was still in London then, with a toddler and a baby on the way. The first draft wasn’t called Steal My Sunshine, nor was it set in Australia but in Brighton, in the UK, which is where I went to university. Jump forward to 2010 and I start to rewrite the whole thing - characters and overall plot remain but the setting becomes St Kilda, in Melbourne (which has always reminded me of my uni town). Two more drafts and we’re finally here in 2013! I’ve lived in Melbourne for five years now, and my toddler and baby-on-the-way are now 9 and 6. If I sound slow, in my favour I did write two other novels and some picture books in between. But I never gave up on Steal My Sunshine. (Stubborn as a mule.)
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?The characters come first. It’s usually a scene between two people that start things off. With Girl Aloud it was a teenager called Kass arguing with her dad about her future. I saw Kass as a strong girl who was somehow rendered helpless in this particular situation and I wanted to explore how that could happen. Why would she keep giving into him? The scene sparked an idea for a story about a family ignoring the elephant in the room: the dad’s mental illness. With Steal My Sunshine, the first scene was between Sam (the older brother) and his mum (this is the ‘I Heart Pottery’ story). It was very intense and sad, with Sam trying to comfort his mum who was teetering on the edge following a marriage breakdown. Then I imagined what a third character looking at this scene would make of it, and my main character, Hannah, emerged. I saw how impervious the situation might seem to her - sibling rivalry is usually a theme in my stories - and wondered where she’d turn. And that’s where Essie, her eccentric grandmother, came from.
Q: ‘Steal My Sunshine’ is such a powerful book, looking at the forced adoptions that took place in Australia from the 1950s until the 1970s. You say in your acknowledgements that this book actually started in 2006 – so I wonder when you first heard about ‘forced adoptions’, and what triggered a story from that tragedy?My interest in forced adoptions goes way back and is part of a general interest in the appalling ways throughout history that we’ve treated, and sometimes still treat, girls and women from the moment they become sexually active. The practice of coercing women into giving up their children, and of forcing them to live in church-run institutions doing hard labour, occurred in several places around the world, notably Ireland, the UK, the States and Australia.
Those who were involved in setting up and running these types of places claim they were helping these girls when no one else would - and perhaps that’s true but the stories of cruelty speak for themselves and can’t be justified. Over a decade ago I saw a film called The Magdalene Sisters, set in Ireland. The sense of injustice I felt after watching that was huge - girls being punished because society had written them off as ‘fallen’. I remember that one character was sent to the institution after she’d confessed that her cousin had raped her. Of course, this type of thinking still goes on in other parts of the world.
I wanted to make this aspect of modern history and its ripple-effect make sense to teenagers today, which is why I wrote it as a contemporary novel. Moral guidelines created by a lack of separation of Church and State are still the cause of anguish and injustice (take same-sex marriage, for example). So-called moral arbiters take such a long time to admit their mistakes - I mean, the victims of forced adoptions didn’t get a national apology until March of this year.
Q: What sort of research did you do in writing this novel? I can imagine you must have found some devastating true stories out there; about Magdalene asylums and children looking for their birth mothers.I found a lot of material out there - newspaper articles, academic papers, internet forums, books and films. There’s a fascinating personal documentary called In The Shadow of Eden, made by an artist who was sent to one of these institutions, in South Australia, in the 1960s. You can also watch short documentaries on the ABC - there’s one called The Unmarried Mother, made by Four Corners in 1965, which is excellent. There are a lot of women out there who still need to talk about their experiences and I was fortunate to stumble across personal accounts during my research that made me want to tell Essie’s story even more.
Q: In my review, I note that ‘Steal My Sunshine’ feels very much like a women’s tale – Essie, Hannah and Sara are very much the focus, as are all the women who suffered under forced adoption. But there’s also a story about a missing girl, Sophie, that runs concurrent with Hannah and Essie’s – and I felt like she was a reminder of modern violence against women. Why was this such an important subject for you to explore?Sophie is a symbol of the way we latch on to heartbreaking stories about individuals while we discard or become immune to stories about large groups of people. We can’t process hundreds or thousands being harmed in the same way that we can take one person into our hearts - like Jill Meagher or Madeleine McCann - and allow ourselves to feel all those emotions, or try to imagine being in their place. But those individual stories give us the impetus to debate or fight for wider issues. With Jill Meagher, for example, as a society we had a dialogue that we need to keep on having about preventing rape: not by keeping women indoors, or by asking what she was wearing, but putting the focus on the perpetrators. Girls like Essie went missing too, in a way. They were evicted from society, put in an institution and forgotten about. And those who weren’t institutionalised but had their babies taken away (which happened right into the 1970s) could be called missing as well because that part of them was stolen. It’s a lifelong torment, a kind of violence. Essie’s story is complicated and personal to her, but it also represents an injustice carried out against all those other unheard voices.
Q: Essie was actually bought to Australia from London, and throughout the story she speaks very earnestly to her granddaughter about not missing London, and sometimes fearing she’ll wake and find Australia but a dream. You are in fact, a London girl who moved to Melbourne in 2008. Do you miss England at all? Was Essie transposing a few of your own feelings about Australia VS England?Essie is very bitter about England because she was sent away. She’s a proud woman and that’s why she could never go back. She’s also very hot-headed and child-like and I think she wanted to punish her family by staying put (sort of cutting off her nose to spite her face). I don’t feel that way at all. I came here because my partner is Australian, we have two children, and it’s part of the adventure you sign up for when you commit to someone who is from a different place. But actually I fell in love with Australia long before I met him so the eventual move felt like it was meant to be.
What Essie and I have in common is the occasional feeling that life in Australia is a dream - we just come at it from different angles. Sometimes I feel like my real life is happening without me, on the other side of the world, because that’s where my parents are, my siblings, my closest friends, and ultimately that’s where my heart is. But that doesn’t mean Australia is a baddream, far from it. It’s really difficult to talk about without seeming ungrateful for the brilliant life I have here - I love Melbourne and all the other parts of Australia that I’ve travelled to (not enough places yet!), and I love my job, I love being a writer here, and new friends I’ve made; I love the adventure of it - but I think anyone who has spent a long time away from home knows what I mean.
Q: I really liked young drama teacher, Mr Inglewood. He wasn’t intimidated by Chloe’s antics, and he bought out bravery in Hannah. He’s a young, 20-something guy … so do you think there’s ‘New Adult’ book potential for him? (I'm really just wishing-upon-a-book here)He played a bigger part in previous drafts which means he’s more developed in my head than he is in his eventual role in the story, so you could say I have a soft-spot for his character. I love what Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty and Fiona Wood have done with their novels that take a minor character from one story and then write a whole new book about them, so you might be onto something there.
Q: As well as being an author, you’ve worked for a literary agent and now you’re a book buyer and bookseller for Readings. How has all these different publishing/literary aspects shaped and helped you as a writer/reader?I think all these roles have just made me feel very confused! No, in all seriousness it’s a blessing and a curse. I know a lot about the industry but not enough that I feel immune to what every other author goes through when it comes to the waiting, the rejections, the editing, the reviews, the worry about sales, the comparisons,...the list goes on. (It’s not all bad, I swear.) I can give great advice to writers, but often fail to take my own advice.
On the upside I think I’ve got a really healthy approach to being edited and that’s probably because I started out as an editor and worked with some great mentors. I know what enormous value they can add to a story. I really enjoyed working with my editors at Random House, Zoe Walton and Catriona Murdie - it was an easy relationship based on mutual respect. The other obvious upside is the amount of reading I do. My passion for Australian YA goes back to Feeling Sorry For Celia in 2000, but I’ve been mainlining it for the past five years and I feel very proud to have made myself a little space on Australian bookshelves.
Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves!?I’m working on book 2 of a new series for 5-8 year olds. It’s being published in the UK in February 2014 but hopefully in lots of other countries, too. It’s called Eliza Boom and it’s about a young girl who is part-inventor, part-spy. Her sidekick is an enormous dog called Einstein and it’s all very fast-paced, silly and fun. The illustrations are great - they don’t let me do those, though, I just have to write “draw this really funny thing please!” and a very talented artist called Joelle Dreidemy does the magic.
I’m also working on a new YA novel but if I talk about it I’ll jinx it. Picture me with an anxious face hunched over my half-baked story as I shield it from the cruel, cruel world.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?This question always makes me want to lie down by my bookcase and stroke the books so they know I love them all. The precious. Here’s a very small selection, spanning from my teenage years to now, in the order that I discovered them: Emily Bronte, Fay Weldon, Sylvia Plath, Oscar Wilde, Margaret Atwood, John Irving, Jaclyn Moriarty, Maggie O’Farrell. There are also so many current YA authors that I love and admire: I would walk over hot coals for the next Simmone Howell, Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley or Vikki Wakefield novel. Wait, I can’t stop there. Margo Lanagan! Melina Marchetta! Rebecca Stead! So many.
Q: Favourite book(s)?Again, a tiny selection that spans many years: Mr Gumpy’s Outing, Charlotte Sometimes, The Bell Jar, The Women’s Room, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Middlesex, The Idea of Perfection, The Book Thief, The Slap. Favourite recent YA books include Wildlife, Freaks Like Us and Sea Hearts.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?My main piece of advice is to let your work rest. When you’ve finished something, put it away and don’t look at it for at least a fortnight. You need at least that long to be able to read it with fresh eyes and see what needs to change. It’s amazing how much easier it is to make big, bold changes when you’ve had that break.