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Friday, September 12, 2014

Interview with Christie Nieman, author of 'As Stars Fall'

It was my great pleasure recently, to read Christie Nieman’s contemporary YA debut ‘As Stars Fall’. I was really excited for this book for a few reasons – new voices in Aussie YA are always, always a wonderful thing, Christie is exploring a very emotional and recent event in Australian history and I knew of Christie as one of the editors behind a favourite anthology book of 2013 ‘Just Between Us: Australianwriters tell the truth about female friendship. I loved ‘As Stars Fall’ so much, that I jumped at the opportunity to ask some questions of this fresh new voice in Australian youth literature.

Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?
A strange third option actually. I had no agent but, through a project I was already working on with Pan Macmillan as one of five editors of an anthology (Just Between Us, 2013), I was able to have the Children’s Publisher there look at my whole manuscript without waiting to go through the slush pile. But I don’t know how much difference that connection made in the long run – earlier drafts of the manuscript had already managed to get through a couple of slush piles with the first 50 pages and a synopses, so I was fairly confident it would be able to do that again, and nothing will make a publisher go with a book except if they like it and think they want to sell it – so essentially I just cut out a step. I honestly believe that if your slush pile submission is professional and clean and engaging, it will get to the next stage, it might just take a bit longer. I think there is a horror of the slush pile, but personally I haven’t found it to be the dead end that myth and legend would have had me believe.

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?
Both! I alternate between the states. I will usually start from a fragment that came out of nowhere but seems to hold something interesting of character and theme. Then I will go away and think and plan around that, usually with ‘concept’ high on the agenda and the characters supporting it. Then I will write according to my plan until I hit a brick wall that you can’t see in a plan, only in the writing. Then I will switch back to some free writing to see what solutions come out of it, and then go back to planning from the new bits.

Q: How long did it take you to write ‘As Stars Fall’, from first idea to final manuscript?
This is a bit embarrassing. The first fragment for this story happened twenty years ago. It contained the characters that went on to become Robin and Delia, and a bird being in a strange place – a place it shouldn’t really be – and there being some undescribed connection between the two girls and the bird. Then I went off and had fun in my twenties, and wrote other things, and earned a living, every now and then checked in to try and write bits of the story; but all the while the story resisted being worked on. And then about six years ago I met an endangered Bush Stone-curlew. And the bird in the fragment got its character and its meaning and it drew the whole thing together. I pretty much threw out everything I already had, and started collecting thoughts about ecology and life and death. I am a bit of a binge writer – I have to set aside a bank of time rather than little bits every day – so I had to work in casual jobs for months to save up enough money to stop work and spend a month writing, and then go back to work to save up for another month etc. So there are a few different answers to the question: 1) twenty years, 2) six years, or 3) probably about a year and a half of serious full time work.

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?
Rarely the ending, but often anything other than that. There always has to be a concept/theme in there somewhere for me – something I’m writing about – but often that will be suggested to me by a particular situation, or a character, or even a setting.

Q: I’ve called ‘As Stars Fall’; “a tender morsel of a novel, a ‘Silent Spring’ for young adults that also explores dramas of the heart in the wake of nature’s tragedy.” I’m wondering what sort of research you did, both for the environmental and psychological aspects of the book? From impact of bushfires on wildlife, to the human trauma associated with bushfires?
Getting this right was really important to me. I’m so glad you made the association with ‘Silent Spring’. The way that Carson’s work builds a kind of accessible bridge from the real work of scientists to the community – communicating in an engaging and insistent way those things that are the responsibility and concern of all of us, but which are so often left in the hands of people with vested interests, or those who are too busy working on it to talk about it – this was one of my main aims also (albeit through a different form and with a different audience). At one point I went back to university to study environmental science and management for a semester, and I learned so much in that six months – about the world around us, and about how we know the things we know, and about observational science – and it was there that I first came across the ecological concept of ‘disturbance’, which got me thinking about the processes of trauma, and how those complicated processes are the same across the whole spectrum of life, including human life. It is something that binds us to the rest of the natural world, rather than separates us. But I absolutely wanted to get the science right. My husband has a science degree and is a science communicator too, so his brains got heartily picked. And much of my research-thanks goes to Cassia Read, an ecologist who really understood the book and its intentions, and was more than just a safety net with fact-checking, but brought together her intimate knowledge of the science with an artistic sensibility to make connections I wouldn’t have been able to make on my own. She also found me the most appropriate reading material for the subject: I got good at reading science papers! I also did a lot of reading about trauma psychology and complicated grief, both related to, and unrelated to, bushfire. And I have known people who have suffered traumatic stress, again both related to, and unrelated to, bushfire. And I think as a human of a certain age I have had experiences which have cultivated an understanding of the strange landscape of complicated grief – its pit-traps and ladders and psychological tricks and magical thinking. And from my own personal experience I have found that a sense of kinship with the rest of the natural world can be incredibly helpful in those moments.

Q: You are an award-nominated playwright, and I was just wondering the differences and similarities between writing a play to be performed, and a novel to be consumed in solitary?
The main difference I think is the fact that a novel is a whole and complete thing – everything that will form the art of it is there on the page: in the words, the punctuation, the chapter- and section- divisions – the writer has a great deal of control; whereas a script is only part of the final art. Scripts are exciting because they rely on communicating with other artists who will contribute to the final piece – directors, actors, designers. Much of a script is you talking foremost to the director, and then to the other artists, those people who will mediate your vision to an audience; it is only in the dialogue or very specific plot-required action that you are speaking directly to the audience yourself as you would in a book. So you really have two levels of audience. And you have to respect the other artists who will be involved, even without knowing who they will be. You have to give them room to be artists, to let them interpret and present a moment in a way that works on the stage, rather than being too specific and didactic on the page – the page doesn’t matter. Having worked in theatre myself, I’ve seen the way that directors and actors draw great big red lines through paragraphs of overly-controlling stage-directions that are ‘telling them what to do’. This is a thing that I think transitioning writers often find challenging, that relinquishing of control, that handing over of decisions. It is quite an art to write something that is a skeleton, but that is also complete enough to communicate everything it needs to communicate. Whereas, in a novel, you are the director, the actors, the set-designer, the sound-person and the composer all at once. It’s a heady sense of power. It’s also more work. They are both incredibly satisfying in very different ways.

Q: There are three protagonists in ‘As Stars Fall’ – we get Robin’s first person narration, and then siblings’ Delia and Seth are told in third person. Who was the hardest to write, and which character’s voice or story came most vividly to you?
I think Robin’s was the easiest to write because her voice just natters along quite easily: essentially she’s having a conversation with you, the reader, so really, I just had to listen in. Whereas with Seth and Delia, it was like I was writing them – their internal worlds – almost without their permission: I had to get inside their experience more in order to convey it to the reader, whereas with Robin, she was quite happy to tell you about it herself. I suppose Seth’s internal world came most vividly to me, but I suspect that’s because such vivid things are happening to him.
But now, when I read the story back over, I find it is Delia’s voice that really sings to me – and that is strange as a writer, because it was with her voice that I took the most strictly technical approach: I came to writing up many of Delia’s sections later in the process and so I was trying to quite artificially differentiate her voice: I tried a particular grammatical modification in the prose, and I was never quite sure if it was entirely successful until I stepped right back. Perhaps that’s why I respond so well to those sections – because I’m able to come at them more with the experience of a reader. Ach, who knows!

Q: What’s the appeal in writing for younger readers?
I actually don’t really think about that too much when I’m writing – I know in writing classes in school you’re taught to think of your audience, and in fact when I did Year 12 we actually had to state specifically on the front of our writing pieces who our target audience was, but I have essentially found that a fairly useless exercise. Perhaps thinking of writing for an audience full stop can be useful to get that performative aspect that writing needs to have, but actually defining beyond that, I think that’s for publishers and marketing people. I think writers just write for other people, and people, no matter their age or interests, and really complicated and different. I think that sometimes the definition of ‘a particular group’ makes all the two-dimensional assumptions that anything targeted at ‘a particular group’ makes – the assumption that everyone is the same. I think assuming everyone reads something the same way is death for good writing – good writing relies on complicated reactions. I do however, seem to want to write teenaged characters. And I think the appeal there is that non-adult characters haven’t yet constructed and applied their comfortable adult personas. There is a lot of human truthfulness at the heart of a teenager, and when you couple that with the trying-on of various ideas of adult behaviour and personality, you can get something very dynamic, and more than that – something that can actually critique the way we run our adult societies. That’s why I think YA is for everybody, teenaged and adult alike. We are all just our teenaged selves adapted, in the best way we can manage, to adult society.

Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to his bookshelves? 
Gah! Okay, there’s an easy answer and a difficult answer to that. Easy answer: I’m working on another anthology, following on from the one mentioned earlier. I’m again editing with my co-editors, and also contributing a piece myself. And it will hit the shelves next April, all things being even. The difficult answer is that I’m working on another young adult novel which wades into the murky depths of belief systems, and the sometimes detrimental effects certain belief systems can have on young minds. The crystal ball on that one is coming up a bit murky itself on the question of bookshelves and hitting. So stay tuned.

Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?
Margaret Atwood, Colm Toibin, Sonya Hartnett, Helen Garner, Henry James, A.S. Byatt, David Malouf, Daphne du Maurier, Philip Pullman, Margaret Mahy, Margaret Drabble, Ian McEwan, Kate Grenville, Lynne Reid Banks, Catherine Jinks, and did I mention Margaret Atwood? Oh, and Margaret Atwood.

Q: Favourite book(s)?
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood. The Heather Blazing, Colm Toibin. Butterfly, Sonya Hartnett. The Millstone, Margaret Drabble, The Changeover, Margaret Mahy. The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan. Dark Places, Kate Grenville. Eye to Eye, Catherine Jinks. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. The Children’s Book, A.S.Byatt. My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier.

Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?
My only advice would be real world advice, and it is this. Money is important. Having a way to earn a living needs to be thought about. I didn’t think about it, I just thought about writing in this dogged dreamy way, and I think because of that I have spent much of my time working in low paid jobs which you need to work at A LOT just to pay bills, and which don’t buy a lot of other time to spend writing. I also think that if you can have a good and interesting part-time job that pays the bills but which also feeds the writing with experience – yours or other people’s – even better. That said, writing gets good when one apprentices oneself to the craft – and perhaps that can’t be done when one is chasing another career at the same time. There are examples of great writers who have managed it both ways, I suppose. Oh dear, talked myself out of giving solid advice. So I guess the answer to your question is: no, unfortunately, I don’t. Oh wait, actually, I do. Write. And also important: take feedback – but not all of it.

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