I love a book that opens up my world and teaches me a little something - and I certainly got an education reading Kate Constables' latest young adult novel, New Guinea Moon.
I knew nothing of Australia's colonization history with Papua New Guinea, of our bloody beginnings in that country or their relatively recent independence from us.
That's partly why I loved Constables' book - she's drawing on her own life, when she lived in PNG with her family as a young girl. But she has further explored this tumultuous time with a beautiful coming-of-age story, until the two seem parallel - a young girl gaining independence for herself at the same time that a country is doing the same.
This is a beautiful book, and I was very lucky to ask some questions of its author.
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 am definitely a plotter. Plotting, which is really just working out the story, is almost my favourite part of the writing process. I think perhaps it's because I’m an uptight Virgo, and I like to know where I'm going before I start the journey! But having said that, I like to keep the plot fairly loose, to allow for those moments of serendipity that arise while you're actually writing.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘New Guinea Moon’, from first idea to final manuscript?This one took a long time, for me! I think it's been about three years from deciding, right, I want to write a book about PNG, to handing in the manuscript.
It's weird, but I think I usually start with a setting! Place is very important to me, and I like to have a clear idea of where my story is set before I begin. Often a story idea will arise out of a setting, as it did with New Guinea Moon. Or I might have an idea for a theme -- with Winter of Grace, which was part of the Girlfriend Fiction series, I thought, hm, I'd like to see a book for teenage girls that deals with religion and spirituality from an open, questioning point of view. So I wrote one!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?
Q: So, the old advice goes “write what you know” – but it took you nearly 10 years to write a book that seems to be very much based on your own life and experiences. Your family moved to New Guinea when you were six, so your father could work there as a pilot. I’m sure many people would have told you over the years that your life in New Guinea was story-worthy. So what prompted you to write ‘New Guinea Moon’ now? And was it harder to show this book to your friends and family, knowing that it is so informed by your own history?As you say, it sounds like an obvious subject! I had previously written a couple of short stories based on my family's time in PNG, and I've always had it in the back of my mind that I'd like to write more about that time and place. But paradoxically, I think being so close to the subject matter did make it more difficult to choose a story and find characters. I needed a few different shots at it before it came together. In the beginning I wasn't even sure if the book would be fiction or memoir, or if it would be aimed at children, young adults or adults - and that was even before I started wrestling with the plot and characters! And it was hard to show it to my parents, especially. I was afraid they'd think the characters were based on them - which they emphatically were not, even though a lot of our family experiences and memories found their way into the book. I think it might have brought back some fairly painful memories for my Mum, who didn't really enjoy her time in PNG. So that was hard.
Q: ‘New Guinea Moon’ is set in December 1974, when change is in the air. Indeed, the following year the eastern half of the island was granted independence from Australia. At one point your protagonist, Julie, muses that the ‘Europeans’ are already speaking of New Guinea with a wistfulness and nostalgia – knowing that everything is on the brink of change. What do you remember of this time, and how much were you relying on your own memories when writing ‘New Guinea Moon’? What sort of research did you do for the book – and did that include speaking to your own family about your time living there?I was pretty young when my family lived in PNG -- I was only eleven when we left. I do remember a certain atmosphere in the air around the time of Independence, a weird mix of excitement and apprehension, but I couldn't really make much sense of it at the time. At the time Independence was declared, I was only about nine. But I read a lot of memoirs of Australian expats who were there at that time and it illuminated the scene for me - the political situation and how that affected the expat residents, and of course the Papua New Guineans themselves. I think a lot of expats had built up very comfortable lives for themselves and thought things would continue in the same way indefinitely, moving very very slowly toward self-government, over many decades. But then the Whitlam government came into power and suddenly everything was fast-tracked, compressed into a couple of years. Even some Papua New Guineans, especially in the Highlands, thought the process was too rushed. So it was a very unsettled time, everyone's expectations were turned upside-down, and quite a lot of expats actually did sell up and leave. I remember being quite thrilled about the new flag, and the new coinage, and I remember the Independence parade in Mt Hagen, and the new flag being raised for the first time. Even as a child, I found it a very moving day. Reading the memoirs of expats, they are all filled with this overwhelming nostalgia and mourning for a lost paradise. It was interesting to try to juxtapose that very real love and grief with the political and historical reality for Papua New Guinean citizens themselves, and the huge optimism and excitement that Independence meant for them.
It's funny you should say that, because I've been guilty of pushing the parents aside myself in the past - or at least one parent! In fiction, I mean! Sometimes I think it can feel as if the stage is just too crowded in a YA novel - if you have lots of friendship and love relationships going on, it's hard to make room to explore family relationships as well. And of course during your teenage years, you do separate yourself to some extent from your parents and your family generally, and feel more closely bonded to your peers. So in a way that emphasis is natural in a YA novel. But of course your parents are still hugely important - your relationship with them shapes the person that you've become, to a large extent, however much young people might want (or need) to deny it! Perhaps since I've become a parent myself, I look on the parental figures with slightly more sympathy! Give them a break, they're doing the best they can!Q: As much as ‘New Guinea Moon’ is about Julie exploring this beautiful island and finding her independence – there’s also a large focus on family. She’s getting to know her father, who she hasn’t seen since she was three-years-old. And, while she’s away from home, she’s realizing that she isn’t so different from her mother, Caroline, and that might not be such a bad thing. Then there is the Crabtree children, and Julie sees how different their family is (indeed, they admit to being raised by their 'mami' - maid - and feel a maternal bond to her). So often in YA parental characters are pushed to the side and are non-existent or cardboard cutouts. Why do you think it’s important to represent realistic parental relationships in YA?
Q: There's also fascinating explorations into racism and colonialism in 'New Guinea Moon', which Julie seems to notice a lot more because she's the outsider coming in (plus, she has her mother's leftist/radical leanings in the back of her mind) - Julie really sees the "us" and "them" mentality and sympathises with the quest for independence. Was that something you felt growing up - or is it only now when you look back that you see the colonial roots of that 1970's society and how wrong it was?I have to say that Julie's attitude was one I wish I'd had, rather than the attitude I did have at the time. When you're a child, you take so much for granted; it's just the way the world is, and you don't question it - I never questioned our segregated schools, for example, or having house servants (though we only briefly had a meri, most of the time we had no servants). But I do remember being uncomfortable, as a child in PNG, with some of the casual racism around us, and also with the huge disparity in material wealth between us, the privileged expat community, and most of the local inhabitants. That awareness and discomfort was something I did carry into adolescence and adulthood, I don't think that has ever left me. But as a child, I never understood WHY things were like that. Those were the sorts of questions I really wanted Julie to ask.
Q: Did you go back and visit Papua New Guinea when you were writing the book how much has it changed from when you were a child growing up there?I would dearly love to go back, and I applied for a grant to allow me to revisit PNG, but unfortunately I didn't get it! But later on I was glad, actually, because if I had gone back, I think the new experience would have overlaid my old memories and wiped them out, if that makes sense. Just judging from videos on YouTube, things seem more chaotic than I remember. I have photos of the mains street of Mt Hagen in the mid-70s, and it's all very neat and orderly; now those same streets look much wilder and more dilapidated. I would love to be able to take my father back to PNG one day - he misses the place.
Q: You’ve written so expansively – in fantasy with the ‘Chanters of Tremaris’ series, for younger readers with ‘Cicada Summer’ and ‘Crow Country’ and now a contemporary young adult novel in ‘New Guinea Moon’. Do you set out to write in so many genres and for varying readerships – or is it always the story and characters informing such paths?That's an interesting question! Personally I think that my writing always settles at about the same level, which crosses over that upper primary/lower secondary divide. So what determines the readership really becomes the subject matter -- the realist books, with more mature themes, seem to push up into YA, and the books with magical/fantasy elements tend to be pitched as children's books. But I have to say that my own preferred reading is a really good, layered children's book -- and that's what I mostly try to write.
Q: ‘Crow Country’ was a huge success, winning the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for Younger Readers in 2012. How is it writing the follow-up to such a huge literary success? Do you feel more pressure?A little bit! I think it helps that New Guinea Moon is such a different kind of book - a realist, historical YA book, with more of a romantic emphasis, rather than Crow Country 2! And New Guinea Moon was almost finished by the time Crow Country started winning awards - so it was too late to worry by then anyway!
I'm working on another time-slip book for younger readers, which is a mixture of The Block, My Place and a ghost story. I've got it all plotted out, so now I just have to write it! I'm hoping to finish it before the end of the year, so maybe it might be out some time in 2014?Q: What are you working on right now, and when can we expect it to hit shelves?
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?Oh, that is such a hard question. I have so many favourites! Nancy Mitford, Rumer Godden, Lucy M. Boston, Antonia Forest, Helen Garner... how long have you got?
Q: Favourite book(s)?Another tough question. But I decided once that if books were outlawed and I had to memorise one book to keep it alive, I would memorise The Secret Garden.
Q: What advice do you have for budding young writers?Read, read, read everything you can. And write as much as you can, too. I was calling myself a writer for ten years before my first book was published, so don't give up!