Thursday was the launch of Fiona Wood’s ‘Wildlife’ – companion novel to ‘Six Impossible Things’ and one of my favourite books of 2013 so far.
‘Wildlife’ was introduced into the world with the help of Simmone Howell, who admitted it; ‘Bought me back to being 15, like a photograph can (or listening to teenagers on the tram!)'. Cath Crowley was also on hand to celebrate Wood’s latest triumph, admitting; ‘I want to go back to this book again and again and again...'
I couldn’t have said it better myself. And I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the opportunity to ask Fiona Wood some pressing questions, which I’m now thrilled to share with you.
Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?Somewhere in between. I didn’t have representation, but I did have the introduction of a writer already published by Pan Macmillan – the lovely Simmone Howell, whom I first met when we both worked in TV. I have a wonderful agent now, Cheryl Pientka at Jill Grinberg Literary.
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 definitely a ‘plotter’. I would never be able to start writing a novel and just see where it took me. It would feel like starting the work before the preparation had been done – or starting to cook before checking I have the right ingredients. I need to set out with a sense of where I’m heading and what I want to say. It doesn’t mean things don’t change along the way; they do. If I look back on my plotting notes, I can see how far I’ve departed from some of the early ideas, but I couldn’t have started without them.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘Wildlife’, from first idea to final manuscript?I started thinking about ‘Wildlife’ (which wasn’t called Wildlife then) and doing very early planning in 2009, while I was still editing ‘Six Impossible Things’. I sent my publisher, Claire Craig, an excerpt in the second half of 2011, and I delivered the full manuscript in April 2012. It had a release date scheduled for this year, so editing, copy-editing and proofreading happened at a quite leisurely pace in the second half of 2012. (The components of the work are: staring into space plotting and planning, letting things bubble away in the background while you get on with other things, putting down plot points, working out story, working out chronology, working on character, doing research, trying out various approaches to form, getting voice working, terrified procrastination as you are bludgeoned mercilessly by the mean inner-critic, writing and doing a daily minimum number of words, editing and getting through a daily number of pages, too much coffee and hysterical laughter/tears with other writers.)
Q: Where do story ideas generally start for you? Do you first think of the character, first line, theme, ending? Or is it just a free-fall?For me the most influential starting point is character, but themes and story and setting parallel that. They are all twisted together. And deciding on the way in which the story will best be told travels alongside those things. With ‘Wildlife’ my early work included two additional points of view, which I ended up ditching because they slowed the narrative pace and diluted the drama. (The characters are Ben and Holly, who are still there, but they don’t have POV.) But you can’t know things like that until you write it and look at it. So – that’s an example of how, even as a planner, you can end up changing things a lot along the way. The very first scene I had initially planned for ‘Wildlife’ was one in which Sibylla, the main character, accidentally drinks her younger sister’s Sea Monkeys. The first line was, ‘I drank my sister’s sea monkeys, but it was an accident.’ That stopped being the opening line quite early on, and was edited out completely further down the track, but it is still a part of who Sibylla is, to me. And I knew the ending at the beginning. With both books I’ve gone back and done more rewriting to the opening chapters than to any other part.
Q: ‘Wildlife’ brings back a beloved character from your first book ‘Six Impossible Things’ – Lou. When we meet her in ‘Wildlife’, she’s “grieving a death that occurred almost a year ago.” What was it about Lou that made you think she should be the star of her own book? And did you know that Lou would be stepping out on her own while you were writing ‘Six Impossible Things’?I really enjoyed creating Lou and Fred in ‘Six Impossible Things’, but it wasn’t their story, so they didn’t have that much time on the page. I knew I wanted to spend more time with one of them. I couldn’t have them both in the book, because they were happily going out, and that is not an interesting place to be story-wise: no conflict. So something awful happens in the narrative space between the two books, which propels Lou into starting at a new school. Lou is a smart, self-contained, self-reliant only-child with a dry sense of humour, and she is brave, not swayed by peer pressure; I could happily spend another book with her, but that is not on the cards – she is a minor character again in the next book.
Q: It sounds like you really put Lou through the emotional ringer in this book. Is it hard to hurt your fictional characters – especially ones that you’ve effectively ‘known’ for 3+ years now?It’s really hard! When it occurred to me what I needed to do so Lou’s and Sibylla’s stories would intersect, I was very upset. I spent quite a lot of time howling as wrote this manuscript and there are passages I’ll never be able to read aloud, because they’ll still make me cry. But you have to put your characters under pressure and see what they’ll do – it’s where the interesting stuff happens, it’s when we really find out who they are. There’s another character, Michael, who has something horrible happen to him, and when I realised what that needed to be I was so miserable for him. I wished I hadn’t thought of it. But you have to be tough.
Q: Are you done with the ‘Six Impossible Things’ universe now – or are there still characters you’d like to draw out and revisit?The next book, which has the working title ‘Cloudwish’, does include characters from both ‘Six Impossible Things’ and ‘Wildlife’. The main character is a very minor character in ‘Wildlife’. And it is set at the beginning of year eleven, back at the school’s city campus.
Q: BIG CONGRATS are in order – it was announced in February that Poppy (imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers) acquired US rights to ‘Six Impossible Things’, ‘Wildlife’ plus an untitled third novel! Such fantastic news, and you’re sure to be as big a hit in America as you are in Australia – especially because you explore such vital, universal themes in your books. Can you give us any hints about the untitled third novel? Can you tell us if it’s going to be set in North America, and when we can expect it to hit shelves?Thank you! (I’m feeling more that I will be a very little frog in a much bigger pond, but I’m extremely happy I’ll be in that pond.) Via the abovementioned wonderful agent, I was very lucky to have offers from three US publishers, and chose to work with Farrin Jacobs, who was Melina Marchetta’s US editor for ‘On The Jellicoe Road’. My first book out there will be ‘Wildlife’ and that release is planned for the fall list next year. So ‘Cloudwish’ won’t be out until 2015 at the earliest in the US, but could be released a bit sooner here. It’s set in Melbourne. In terms of hints – it’s about identity and the conflict that occurs when parents have expectations for their children that are not shared by the children in question. That sounds a bit grim, but humour and an unlikely romance also play a big part in the story.
Q: Why do you choose to write young adult fiction? What is it about this genre that you love?It’s (all too) easy for me to remember and access my teenage self. And in part I’m writing the sorts of books I would have liked at that age. These are amazing years. You are finding out about yourself and recalibrating your sense of who you are all the time - your academic self, your sexual self, your family self, your political self, what sort of friend you are, what sort of friends you need. This time of life and these experiences suggest characters and story material that I find so interesting.
Q: A big appeal of ‘Wildlife’ (and ‘Six Impossible Things’, in my opinion) is that it’s crossover – I’m just as likely to pass your books onto my grandmother as I am my sixteen-year-old cousin! So what would you say to someone who wholeheartedly refused to read a YA or children’s book, purely because they assume it will be childish and uninteresting?I think I’d want to say, relax. To me it’s a joy be able to read a well-written book, whatever the intended age of its primary readership. I also think there’s brilliant writing done for TV, for example, particularly in the US at the moment, but some people would never put that writing on the same footing as novel writing. Some people turn their noses up at sci-fi or crime fiction. But there are beautiful examples writing in every genre, and I like the idea that readers can be open to it all. But not everyone has that openness. (Confession: I am not personally particularly open to most fantasy writing.)
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?Jane Austen. For me there is no one else whose work bears rereading so well. Each time I sit down with Jane Austen, I am struck anew by the beauty of her prose, the sharpness of her humour, her perfect understanding of human nature… I love her. The very first place I wanted to visit when I first went to England was her house. In short, I am a tragic fan. I think Emma and Northanger Abbey are fabulous YA reads.
Q: Favourite book(s)?Any favourites list ends up leaving off too many books and writers I love, so instead I will mention three books that were very influential at different times: ‘Milly Molly Mandy’. I can’t overstate how strongly Joyce Lankester Brisley’s illustrated world engaged my imagination. I longed to step into those pictures. ‘Anne of Green Gables’ delivered two things that struck a perfect chord for me as a middle-grade reader: the well-meaning but often misunderstood protagonist who frequently got into trouble, and the ideal of friendship between ‘kindred spirits’. ‘Saving Francesca’ by Melina Marchetta was one of the first Australian YA books I read. I completely fell for the characters and the writing and the compassion of that book. That was 2003 and it was the first little seed planted that maybe I could try writing a book for this readership.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?There are two essential things to do. One is to read heaps. The other is to finish your manuscript and start on the next draft.