Q: Where did the idea for Cloudwish first spring from? And did you already have Vân Uoc’s story in mind when you were writing Wildlife?
Vân Uoc’s story was bubbling away while I was writing Wildlife. I took a long time naming the character – the translation of her name is the book title, Cloudwish. Her story wasn’t fully developed, but I knew she would be the protagonist. I liked the idea of taking a very minor character and saying, have a closer look, she has an interesting story, too; and taking a smartarsed jock (Billy Gardiner), and showing that he’s more complicated that he looks; and suggesting that these two characters might have a lot more in common than is immediately apparent.
And I wanted to use Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte as a reference point for the story. Vân Uoc calls Jane the quiet girls’ hero. Jane is a character judged by some within her narrative as being insignificant because she has no money or status or ostensible power, but she’s magnificently strong. Like Vân Uoc, she is relatively unprivileged in a world of privilege, but at every point she prevails. Vân Uoc lives her life by the credo: What would Jane do? She can’t always manage to do what she thinks Jane would do, but she gets better at it as the story progresses.
The magic story strand was suggested by a gift from Simmone Howell to me, and to Cath Crowley, of little glass tubes with slips of paper inside them. As soon as I held that object in my hand, it was asking to have a story told about it.
Q: Your first two novels – Six Impossible Things and Wildlife – were both written in first-person. I wonder if you can talk through your decision to change Cloudwish up and write in third-person?
In Cloudwish, I use the third person to note in a formal way that I am writing a character with a cultural and ethnic background that is not my own. It’s something that readers might not even notice particularly, but it was important to me to keep that in mind throughout the writing process. My point of departure was as a respectful, observant outsider. I wasn’t writing from inside a lived experience. Often, writing fiction, you’re not. You do take on imaginative tasks that are outside your experience, but as someone from a majority culture writing about a character from a minority culture, respect, research, and asking for advice and feedback from people within the cultural group were integral to the job.
Q: Vân Uoc has probably jumped to the top of my list of all-time favourite protagonists in Aussie YA … She’s the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in Australia in 1980, and she brings such an important and unique perspective that’s rarely explored in YA. I wonder how did you go about researching Vân Uoc’s Vietnamese background, to portray her experience as the daughter of refugee parents?
Vân Uoc was in part inspired by my now seven-year involvement in a volunteer tutor program, Friday Night School, where my student, and many other students, come from the Vietnamese Australian community. So I’ve seen over a number of years the particular challenges that students have in cases where their parents have sought refuge and settled in a new country, and the children’s understanding of the local culture and language exceeds that of their parents. At the same time there is an understandable expectation within families that the culture of origin is respected and adhered to. Living with two cultures provides a great richness, but also a frustration when two sets of expectations differ and sometimes collide. And I’ve seen the strong love and respect that children have for their parents, and the understanding of the bravery of their parents in looking for a new home. I also interviewed Vietnamese Australian people outside the tutor program, and did the usual desk research. But I wouldn’t have taken the character on if it weren’t for being part of the tutor program.
Q: I also love Alice Walker’s quote at the beginning of this book, from her 2014 Sydney Writer’s Festival appearance. I wonder if you can speak more about what Walker was saying, and how that influenced/helped you in writing Cloudwish from a cultural perspective that’s not your own?
To me, that quote is about empathy, which is not simply projecting yourself into an experience that is superficially just like your own; it’s about seeing a deeper commonality in the human experience. It’s an invitation to look more carefully and to understand how connected we are. Majority groups aren’t always so good at doing this. Minority groups have always been expected to do it, for example, to engage with texts that feature predominantly white characters. The character of Vân Uoc is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. She negotiates two languages and two cultures, and she’s a typical teenage girl living in Melbourne. I have such a strong sense of books and reading connecting us across time and language and cultures. Because Jane Eyre is an important book for Vân Uoc, it was a serendipitous delight to read Alice Walker saying that she, too, had loved and related to the character of Jane Eyre. I was about to deliver Cloudwish here and in America when I read the article that included the quote; it was the last thing I added to the manuscript before pressing ‘send’.
Q: There’s been some talk lately that teens are “over” romances. I, personally, don’t believe that and I love that Cloudwish is all about Vân Uoc’s very complicated romantic feelings for Billy Gardiner (made more complicated by some magic) … you’re not writing strictly romance here, but what do you think is driving teens to reject the romance genre right now?
I love writing the romance story strands in my books and I don’t think that teen readers are rejecting romance, as much as just pushing back against romance that is gratuitous to the narrative. I can imagine that if it seems like an arbitrary add-on, as though it’s a box that has to be ticked, then it probably won’t be well received. For me romance is always a subset of identity, it’s not the main driver, but it’s an important part of someone finding out who they are. One of the ways you do that is by finding out who you are in different roles, and relative to other people, and how your decisions and actions affect other people. Romantic relationships are great places to investigate those things in fiction. (Also I asked a big group of teenagers yesterday if they were over romance, and got a resounding ‘no’ in answer to the question.)
Q: I love that your books are all interconnected and feature students from Crowthorne Grammar … how many more books in this universe do you plan to write? … which is a round-about way of asking WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW AND WHEN CAN WE READ IT?!?!
Thank you – I love coming across characters that migrate from book to book as a reader, too. To me it plays into the notion of a suspension of disbelief and an immersive reading experience in which the fictional world is ‘real’. There are more books in this world, for sure, but the next thing I’m working on is the book that Cath Crowley and Simmone Howell and I are writing together with the working title, Friends Anonymous.
Q: Your books are now available in America – what has the response been to them over there? And have you had any funny reader-interactions (especially around your being Australian?)
There’s been a really good critical response to both books. Wildlife was published first, in 2014, and Six Impossible Things has just come out recently. It was definitely a highlight when Wildlife was reviewed very favourably in the New York Times Book Review, and a great honour that both books have been Junior Library Guild Selections. There are no funny reader interactions that come to mind, but lots of lovely reader reviews and responses. An occasional person will mention the slang or food being a bit different, and readers have been intrigued by the outdoor education setting of Wildlife. I’ve had a great experience with my publisher, Little, Brown, as far as keeping the Australian settings and language intact. I hear people saying that the US requires big changes for the local market, but that hasn’t been my experience.
Q: You’re a big supporter of the #LoveOzYA movement – so I wonder if you could share your top 3 favourite Aussie YA books?
There are so many fabulous #LoveOzYA books and writers, I feel really proud of our community. When I was first creating a story for Dan Cereill, these four books made me think, yeah, this is where I want to work: Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simmone Howell, Chasing Charlie Duskin by Cath Crowley and Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty.