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Friday, May 31, 2013

Interview with Emily Gale, author of 'Steal My Sunshine'

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. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

'Haze' The Rephaim #2 by Paula Weston

 Received from the Publisher 

From the BLURB:

‘But what if we can’t find Jude?’
He leans closer. His breath is warm on my ear. ‘We will.’
‘How can you be so sure?’ I want to believe him so badly, but this is Rafa. The guy who’s all action and no plan. His smile is tired, knowing. An echo of a shared past I don’t remember.
‘Because I’m not smart enough to give up, and you don’t know how to.’ 

Gaby Winters’ nightmares have stopped but she still can’t remember her old life. Still can’t quite believe she is one of the Rephaim—the wingless half-angels who can shift from place to place, country to country, in the blink of an eye. That she was once the Rephaim’s best fighter. That demons exist. That Rafa has stayed. 

But most of all, she can’t quite believe that her twin brother, Jude, might be alive. 

And Gaby can’t explain the hesitancy that sidetracks the search for him, infuriates Rafa, and sends them, again, into the darkest danger.

*** This review contains spoilers of first book ‘Shadows’ ***

Her worst nightmares were actually memories.

Gaby Winters was dreaming about hell hounds and sword fights, and a beautifully dangerous boy at the centre of it all . . . and then she discovered it was all real. Arriving in the sunny Australian seaside town of Pan Beach, Gaby thought she was running from the twisted memory of the car crash that killed her twin brother, Jude, and left her scarred. But then Rafa arrived – with his hard eyes and quick smile – and he told her the truth. That Gaby’s memories were not her own, that she was not even human.

Gaby and Jude were like Rafa and countless others . . . they are Rephaite, offspring of fallen angels. Angels, who unleashed themselves on the earth and impregnated countless human females – and then left their offspring to deal with the fallout and their holy task to find their fathers, and bring them to justice.

Suddenly Gaby was inundated with her own history; both good and bad. She learned about the Angel Garrison and the Outcasts, and the fact that she and Jude hadn’t spoken to each other for years – ever since they had very different ideas of what to do with their fallen fathers, should they ever find them. Gaby discovered her wicked sword skills, and the decades-long feud she’s had with one Rephaite called Mya, who has romantic history with both Jude and Rafa.

The more Gaby learns however, the less she knows. She doesn’t understand why the Angel Garrison and Outcasts don’t work together. She doesn’t understand why she would not talk to her twin for years and years. She doesn’t know why she’s drawn to Rafa, but he speaks cryptically of a falling out that seemed to wound them both. And most importantly; she doesn’t remember what she and Jude were doing right before they had their memories wiped. 

But one thing she does know – if she was made to believe Jude was dead, there’s every possibility that the same thing happened to Jude. And he could be alive.

‘Haze’ is the second book in Australian author, Paula Weston’s, paranormal YA series ‘The Rephaim.’ 

Some books you crave. You keep returning to the cover art and re-reading the blurb, you stalk the authors’ Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads profiles in hopes of gleaning morsels of information… you count-down to release day. Paula Weston’s ‘Haze’ was just such a craving. Her debut ‘Shadows’ snuck up on me at a time when I thought angels were done-to-death and could no longer tempt me. It was an exciting, careening paranormal YA debut that kept me guessing and had me falling for its bad-boy hero, Rafa, and cool heroine, Gaby Winters. Long after I’d finished reading I was still recommending the book to friends overseas, and spruiking to fellow bloggers. 

So when ‘Haze’, the second book in the series, arrived early for me … I was a wee bit thrilled. ‘Shadows’ was such a tantalizing set-up; the fallen angels history, Rephaite responsibility and this brother and sister at the centre of a conspiracy theory. Weston left just enough breadcrumbs to drag me in, and leave me desperate for the second book. 

‘Haze’ picks up where ‘Shadows’ left off – mainly that Rafa and Gaby have decided there’s a very good chance that Jude could be alive, and they have to find him. But in the search for Gaby’s brother and Rafa’s best friend – other factors are working against them. Like the fact that Gaby had been missing for months, presumed dead, and now that she’s back both factions of the Rephaite, the Angel Garrison and Outcasts, want a piece of her. 

I loved that Weston really delved into the Rephaite rivalry in this second book. Admittedly, there were lots of story threads that interested me in ‘Shadows’ and ensured I'd be coming back for all subsequent books in this series – but the secondary Rephaim characters we met in that first book really intrigued me. Particularly when we discovered that Gaby was actually dating Daniel, right-hand man in the Angel Garrison, right up until the moment she went missing and got her amnesia tailor-made. In this second book we learn a lot more about Rafa and Jude’s Outcasts – namely, how much of a beloved leader Jude was, and the twisted relationship he and Rafa seemed to have with new designated leader, Mya. Then there’s Jones, Ez, Zak, Taya and Nathaniel – all these Rephaite characters who are really rounding out Jude and Gaby’s story, and making for a very interesting secondary cast line-up.

Another big focus in this book is on Rafa and Gaby – or, rather, Rafa and Gabriella. Weston leaves so many enticing little hints about what Rafa’s tumultuous relationship with Gabriella was like, and how it’s now influencing how he sees Gaby. 

‘Sparring with you. I don’t think he was ready for it.’  
I try to laugh but it comes out as a rasp.
'I mean it. You haven’t trained together for a very long time. For the last decade, any time you two threw punches at each other, you were deadly serious.’ She tucks her feet underneath her. ‘The problem today was that you were too good.’ 
‘How is that a problem?’ I finally look up. She gives me a sad smile.  
‘There were moments when you fought like the old Gabe. I think at the end there, he forgot which version of you he was fighting.’ 

I've never read a relationship quite so complicated as the one Rafa has with Gabrielle/Gaby – and I love that Weston is making their relationship a mystery unto itself. I will say I wished Weston would delve a little more into Gabriella’s romance with Daniel, but I understand that’s hard since Gaby can’t remember anything and Daniel hasn’t exactly endeared himself to her . . . but it’s the very reason that I can’t picture him as a love interest that I’m desperate to know his history with our cool protagonist.

Weston is really proving herself in this second ‘Rephaim’ book, to be one very savvy paranormal author. She knows just how to expand and contract the universe she’s created – balancing new clues regarding the fallen angels and a mystery room in Iowa, with the more personal and immediate story of Gaby’s memory loss and her missing brother. There’s a really nice balance in this series so far, that when the fallen angels plot seems too big and all-encompassing, a mammoth story to be played out, that Weston brings the plot back to being about Gaby searching for her brother, and just trying to remember herself.

Everyone who read Paula Weston’s, ‘Shadows’, would have had an inkling that this was an exciting debut author, and one to look out for. But those who come back for a second spin with ‘Haze’ will know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Weston is something special indeed, and ‘The Rephaim’ is one of the most original and intriguing new young adult series available right now. ‘Haze’ leaves on one heck of a cliff-hanger, and I am absolutely desperate to follow Weston down whatever twisted path she has planned for the third book.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Interview with Fiona Wood, author of 'Wildlife'

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. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

'Wildlife' by Fiona Wood

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Life? It's simple: be true to yourself.

The tricky part is finding out exactly who you are...

"In the holidays before the dreaded term at Crowthorne Grammar's outdoor education camp two things out of the ordinary happened.
A picture of me was plastered all over a twenty-metre billboard. 
And I kissed Ben Capaldi."

Boarding for a term in the wilderness, sixteen-year-old Sibylla expects the gruesome outdoor education program – but friendship complications, and love that goes wrong? They're extra-curricula.

Enter Lou from Six Impossible Things – the reluctant new girl for this term in the great outdoors. Fragile behind an implacable mask, she is grieving a death that occurred almost a year ago. Despite herself, Lou becomes intrigued by the unfolding drama between her housemates Sibylla and Holly, and has to decide whether to end her self-imposed detachment and join the fray.

And as Sibylla confronts a tangle of betrayal, she needs to renegotiate everything she thought she knew about surviving in the wild.

A story about first love, friendship and NOT fitting in.

The Crowthorne Grammar outdoor education term is meant to impart life skills and self-reliance. Mobile phones are strictly forbidden (and reception sucks anyway) solo-hikes are a requirement and Milo is rationed – all in an effort to prepare the Year Ten’s for their imminent arrival into adulthood.

But for Lou, adulthood has already come much too soon, after the accidental death of her boyfriend, Fred. Now she’s dealing with the ache of never letting go and the shattered illusion that death is for the old. Her public school friends, Dan and Estelle, are putting their own pieces back together – and venturing on a different type of adventure, in the form of a French exchange program. But Lou, fearful of somehow abandoning Fred, instead chooses to attend her mum’s old private school, Crowthorne Grammar. It’s just a shame that her first term coincides with the dreaded outdoor education camp. Now Lou is packing up her grief into a waterproof backpack, breaking in her boots and carting her bruised heart to the middle of nowhere.

Sibylla is in the middle of a very different life lesson when the outdoor education term rudely interrupts. Despite her feminist mum’s reservations, family friend and advertising producer, Bebe, managed to convince Sibylla (‘Sib’) to be the new face of an international perfume ad campaign. Sib recently had braces off and zits cleared, emerging beautifully butterflied – but her transformation is accelerated ten-fold when a twenty-metre billboard of her appears the day before school camp. Now Sib’s emergence from the cocoon is advertised in an international campaign for all to see, and comment on. Sib’s best friend since primary school is Holly, whose bark is as bad as her bite – she seems to be a walking conundrum, at once jealous of Sib’s unbelievable good fortune, and thrilled that she can cash in on popularity-by-association for her own gains. Less enthused is Sib’s older oldest friend since kindergarten, Michael. Michael is a genius and unimpressed by the social strata at school – he’s focussed (and can sometimes get obsessed) with his piano-playing and running. To him, Sibylla will always be beautiful – billboard or no – and the resulting hubbub around her sudden popularity has him nervous.

What’s really got Michael riled is Ben Capaldi – future class president, straight-A student, ladies-man, guys-guy and all-round Mr. Popular. Normally Sib wouldn’t even be on Ben’s radar . . . but since ‘the billboard’, things have gotten interesting – in the form of an unexpected party kiss. Now Sib is going to spend an entire term in the great outdoors with her crush, trying to figure out if their kiss was a one-off, or if there;s possibility for more.

Along with four other girls, Lou and Sib are bunked together in Bennett House. Sib tries to steer clear of the new loner, and Lou is determined not to care about Crowthorne’s petty popularity stakes . . . but when you’re thrown together in the middle of nowhere, you quickly discover that the art of survival can sometimes mean depending on others, as much as yourself.

‘Wildlife’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Fiona Wood.

With some authors, it’s as though they’ve twisted off the top of your head and taken a peek inside, and then acted as brain stenographer to jot down privacies and idiosyncrasies you thought were wholly unique to you. Fiona Wood is such an author, and ‘Six Impossible Things’ was one of those books I read and felt an instant kinship with. So when news of Wood’s follow-up novel came through the YA grapevine, I marked its release date in my calendar and got excited . . . and when details of the blurb emerged, revealing that one alternating protagonist would be Lou (Estelle’s friend from ‘Six Impossible Things’, and insta-crush for Dan’s bestie, Fred) I was doubly-thrilled. There’s nothing quite like reading a book and feeling that a fictional friendship has been established with the characters – the next best thing is knowing that you’ll be able to catch up and touch base with them again (à la ‘Saving Francesca’ and ‘The Piper’s Son’). 

Of course, readers are not catching-up with Lou under the best of circumstances. When the book begins, Fred has been dead for months and Lou is still not coping . . . Dan and Estelle are making attempts to get on with their life by participating in the French exchange program, but Lou feels she should stay grounded in the country where Fred died, as a sort of allegiance to him. Fans of ‘Six Impossible Things’ will no doubt feel the crushing blow of once again meeting these characters they fell in love with, only to discover their world that we left semi-happily ever aftered, is now bleak and fractured. It’s tough, I’ll admit, but for Lou’s story it’s a hell of a place to start from. 

Sib is dealing with very different issues. She’s a forward-thinking young feminist who hates misogynistic rap lyrics and isn’t terribly impressed by the girly cliques at her school. At seeming odds with Sib’s moral fibre is the massive twenty-metre billboard of her face that’s just been erected in the city – part of a perfume ad campaign that her mother’s best friend, Bebe, talked her into doing (with the tempt of money being put towards Sib’s end-of-school travel fund). Now Sib is on everybody’s radar, for various reasons; girls look at her wondering why she’s so special, boys feel the need to comment on her ‘hotness’ and her social standing is fluctuating (from non-existent, to suddenly being kissed by the most popular boy in her year level). 

More barking. But maybe I've got traction with guys like this these strange days, and I decide to use it, instead of pretending to be a good sport and let them say any dumb thing they find amusing while I give what I hope is an ironic or non-committal smile. 
‘Being gross doesn’t make you funny.’ 
‘And being on a billboard doesn’t make you pretty,’ Vincent says. 
I catch the briefest flash of triumphant in Holly’s eye.

At first glance, Lou and Sibylla seem so different, that they’re doomed to fail in the same book. How can Lou’s grieving for her dead boyfriend possibly act as counterpoint to Sibylla’s sudden popularity sky-rocket and lustful developments with Ben Capaldi? It sounds like it shouldn’t work . . .  but this is Fiona Wood, so it does. And the magnet that initially brings these two polar opposites together is Michael – Sib’s oldest friend, and Lou’s new confidante. 

In a book with two stellar protagonists, Michael was actually my favourite character, hands down. He was just brilliant – a boy genius, tender soul and utterly unimpressed by popularity and the personality change that comes with clawing your way to the top of the ‘cool’ ladder. Michael may have Asperger syndrome, or else he simply suffers from always being the smartest person in the room (and it’s probably been that was since kindergarten) – I loved that Wood and Sib don’t hark on Michael’s quirks that mark him as different, they just accept him. And it’s his forthrightness and gentleman charm that has Lou seeking comfort in his friendship, and has him acting as a sort of bridge between her and Sib . . . and as much as Lou is gaining something from her new-found friendships, so too is Sib finding comfort in a new and old friend when romance becomes too much and frenemy, Holly, goes too far.

Sibylla’s story acts to remind Lou (and readers) that there is life beyond grief, and the world keeps turning. Sib and Michael are there to pull Lou into a different orbit; one that’s not defined by what’s missing but rather, what’s ahead. And I think if this had just been a book of Lou’s grief, it would have been very tough to get through. Tasked to jot her feelings down in a journal, Lou writes so eloquently about her hurt, bewilderment and never-ending sadness. It’s a vicious cycle that she communicates so well on the page, but poorly to the rest of the world; 

Grief settles comfortably into any host; it is an ever-mutating, vigorous organism with an ever-renewing customer base. It generates a never-ending hunger, a never-ending ache, an unassuageable pain to new hearts, brains, guts every minute, every day, every year.It is the razor edge of a loose tooth shrieking to be pressed again and again into the soft pink sore gum.  
It’s a one-way tunnel with no proof of another exit.

It’s actually a blessing to have Sibylla’s story alongside Lou’s – with her we get the butterflies-in-stomach, rollercoaster-highs of first crush turning into something more. It’s grief and giddiness, sweet and sour . . . two halves making an incredibly whole and fulfilling book. 

Fiona Wood has done it again – I was happy to get lost in the wilderness of this story, and I’ll be passing it on to friends and family (young and old – because there’s no age-limit on relating to first experiences with love and death). A beautiful book with characters I didn’t want to leave, but I feel lucky to have met (some of them for a second time). 


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

May Blockbusters: Patrick Ness

Last night was Wheeler Centre’s May Blockbuster – a conversation between the supremely talented Patrick Ness and lovely Aussie author, Lili Wilkinson. This much-anticipated event could not be contained to the usual Little Lonsdale Wheeler Centre building, and was instead held at the Athenaeum theatre – the perfect setting for this marvellous event. 

Lili Wilkinson introduced Patrick Ness as a “darkly complex” author who writes quite hard-hitting, sometimes bleak and ridiculously popular books for teenagers. Ness, jokingly, stipulated that he was the “darkly complex” one, not his novels . . . and then officially kicked things off by reading from his forthcoming young adult book, ‘More Than This’ (which certainly held true to his aforementioned “darkly complex” tag – the opening line was; Here is the boy, drowning. . .

Asked how he got into writing, Ness (like so many before him) admitted it all started in school. He said his writing then was more mimicry than creative, but that’s okay – it was a beginning. And what he found was that he could write, and get the reaction he wanted from people – and he loved that affirmation. He likened it to what a singer must feel, when they’ve been able to move an audience or elate them with just the power of their voice (Ness admitted to being a terrible singer, so finds this a very enviable ability). Ness also admitted that he always loved to read, but writing was his “private thing” (many chuckles ensued after he admitted this) he then spoke about bringing his “private thing into the light” . . .  (more chuckling) 

He thanks being made redundant from the universally-despised cable company for helping him to write his first book. While living in America he was corporate writer for a cable company, until he was laid off and suddenly had time to write his first novel. He did the best he could with it – edited and rewrote, until it was the best he had to offer. He sent the manuscript off and found an agent, who then found a publisher – so his first manuscript attempt, ‘The Crash of Hennington’, was his first published novel. Ness stressed that, though his path to publishing sounds remarkable and lucky – this is actually the way it happens for majority authors. They make it the best that they can, and that determination and finessing pays off. 

In talking about his latest adult novel, ‘The Crane Wife’, Ness lamented that none of his adult novels can be pitched to Hollywood and you can’t tweet them. Basically, they’re not easy. ‘The Crane Wife’ has origins in a Japanese folk tale Ness heard from a Japanese-American teacher when he was very young. It is also the name of an album from The Decemberists, which also took much inspiration from the same Japanese tale. What intrigued Ness about this particular tale (and why it stuck with him for so long) is that most fairytales begin with an act of cruelty (two kids being abandoned in the woods, a man being cursed into the form of a beast, the death of a father etc. . . ) but the crane wife begins with an act of kindness. The book begins with a man called George finding a wounded crane in his garden that he then helps . . .  of course, the act of cruelty comes later in the book, but what first attracted Ness was the human-condition kindness in the beginning.

In discussing the fairytale origins of ‘The Crane Wife’, Ness stressed that when he starts writing a book, he never has just one idea. He said ideas have to be like forest fires – one is catching, and it needs to spread. You need more than one idea for a (good) book to work. 

Ness said that he never writes autobiographically (he wants to give his family some privacy) but he made an exception in ‘The Crane Wife’. The book includes an event which really did happen to Ness and a friend of his; when they were eight-years-old, a fluke saved them from being killed when they were hit by a car. The car accident happened across the road from a service station and supermarket; so a lot of people saw what happened. In remembering this incident, Ness got to thinking about how differently those onlookers would tell the story of their near-death experience (Ness himself says a fluke saved him – but those people who were watching a car hit two boys, and were powerless to stop it, would probably have a much more traumatized version of events). He got to thinking about seeing truth from different angles and perspectives (sort of eyewitness memory). Ness said that stories serve a vital function in trying to sort out life – but truth changes everything. 

Seguing from talk of 'truth' . . .  Lili Wilkinson asked how Ness balances fantastical elements with realism in his novels (‘The Crane Wife’ has a talking volcano, for example). Ness replied that he didn’t think a balance was needed, since a book is a world made of words and he sees no ‘realism’ – it’s all fake. He said the trick is establishing a world in which these things could happen. 

Now to the part of the discussion I think most people were hanging out for . . .  his ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy. Ness said that after his adult books were bought “in their dozens by friends and family”; he wanted to write a book in the vernacular. He had one SERIOUS BIG IDEA – which was information overload. He has thought for a long time that people have so much of their lives on the internet now, and today’s teenagers are living in unprecedented times when they have less privacy than any other generation in history. And then he had one STUPID IDEA – which was that he hates books about talking dogs . . . which then led to a very amusing interlude about a possible cat Hell/Purgatory . . . but, seriously, Ness thought that if a dog could talk it would be all about food, shagging, poo and how excited they are to see you all the time. So, after having his SERIOUS BIG IDEA and his STUPID IDEA he merged the two . . . and when Todd’s voice came to him, it all fell into place.

- At this point in proceedings (regrettably, right after he spoke about information overload and people having too much of their lives on the internet). . . I looked up from my live-Tweeting to see Patrick Ness looking right at me, and thanking “the girl in the second row for putting her phone away. You think I can’t see you, but I can see you.” OH. MY. GOD. *dies*. My fault; Wheeler Centre had asked us to turn phones off and I flagrantly flaunted that command. I did apologize to Patrick Ness (via Twitter . . . I do like viral irony) and he did reply. 

Though I think his apology his double-edged; either he thought I was mum to the two little kids sitting in front of me (their small stature probably part of the reason he could see my phone antics so easily – dammit!) or he thought I was mum to the two adults I was sitting between. Either way (and no disrespect to mums) but I hope I don’t look like one just yet. 

Ness knew from the beginning that the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy would be a young adult novel (this is so refreshing from all those YA authors who usually say their publisher/editor told them they had a YA manuscript). Ness was utterly unfazed to be writing a YA novel – he said that it was great, and it’s the same commitment to write a YA novel as it is an adult novel.  

In talking about writing for teens, Ness then stressed that you have to write the book that you want to read yourself. He has never had success in writing for other people (i.e.: writing to win prizes) he’s always found the right path in writing for himself. He reminded the audience that nobody was actively searching for the first ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Twilight’ – those were two books that somebody obviously read the joy in the writer and they grew from there. Ness advised against writing for bandwagons – just because Dystopia is big right now, doesn’t mean you should write it. On that note, he said that if he’s not moved by what he writes, it’d be arrogant of him to ask readers to be moved – you have to be passionate and crazy about what you’re writing, basically.

Lili asked if he found any difference in writing for teens and adults – and he said that there’s no difference in writing for teens (which is probably why he’s found such success in YA – he doesn’t ‘write down’ to them). At this point Ness apologized for using the collective, monolithic “they” in referring to teenagers – they’re not all the same and he hates that lumping together.

Ness admitted that teens are less snobby in their reading habits. They’re willing to go to different places in plot & they're not liars. If they don't like it, they'll tell you!

The question was then asked about the evangelical characters in ‘Chaos Walking’ – which Ness pointed out was perhaps one, and more fascist than evangelical. Here he admitted a discomfort in once admitting he’s the gay son of a tea-party voter . . . because he gets along great with his family, and he hates when people see difference as mere difference.

In discussing the darkness in his novel, it was mentioned that Ness’s books were called out for being too violent in 2008 . . . to which Ness (very amusingly) said he wasn’t attacked by a newspaper, he was attacked by the Daily Mail. He then spoke about how the darkest things he’s ever read have come from the pens of teenagers. He judged a teen short story writing contest and those were some of the most violent, disturbing stories with the highest body count he has ever read. Far darker than his own work. And that darkness should not be dismissed. In all honesty, he tries not to be gratuitous – he always aims for truth. He tries to talk about more than violence and darkness in his books – he also discusses trust, friendship and how mistakes don’t have to define you. Ultimately he’s glad that someone raised the question about his “darkly complex” and violent books, because he has a great rebuttal ready.

The whole evening was SPOILER FREE after a quick show of hands revealed not everyone had read all the ‘Chaos Walking’ books – so Ness and Lili stepped lightly over some plot points in the final book of the trilogy. In addressing ‘Monsters of Men’ Ness cryptically said “It’s how he would have wanted it.” He said he was upset too, but he’s not sorry – he understands and just hopes we don’t hate him.

Having mentioned ‘Monsters of Men’, Lili then asked if he prescribed to the popular thought that YA books should end on a sense of hope (to which Ness replied he hates any question that begins with “should. . . ?”). Rather than happy or sad endings, Ness prefers truthful endings – they don’t necessarily have to be happy, and you can’t always prescribe a happy ending to a story . . . it’s complicated, but it has to be truthful above all else (Hallelujah to that!). 

Lili then asked la question du jour – about the movie adaptation of ‘Chaos Walking’ (much clapping and cheering after she asked this). Ness said the same studio that made ‘The Hunger Games’ has bought the trilogy, and Charlie Kaufman (that epic genius of ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and ‘Being John Malkovich’) is writing the screenplay . . . the audience really responded to this bit of news; everyone seemed to agree that Ness’s “darkly complex” books would be a perfect fit with the mad-cap quirk of Kaufman. But he couldn’t say much more beyond that.

Now on to ‘A Monster Calls’ . . . the book that Ness says he inherited from the late, great, Siobhan Dowd (whom he implored us all to read, if we hadn’t already). He admitted that his first response to being offered her novel was an emphatic “No” – because he was afraid it would be more tribute than story. But Dowd’s idea was so good and so potent; the idea clicked for him, and then the writing clicked. Everything seemed to fall into place – especially Jim Kay coming onboard as illustrator. 

Ness pointed out that a common review of ‘A Monster Calls’ is that “it’s not for kids” (however great it may be). He completely rejects this statement, and says kids are savvier than some give them credit for (YES!). But he felt vindicated when the book won the Red House Children's Book Award - the only UK book award voted for entirely by children (it also made the Australian-equivalent shortlist, the Inkys – so there!)

Just before question time (when Lili Wilkinson took on the Leslie Knope persona and we all pretended we were at a City Council meeting) Ness mentioned that on Thursday a Doctor Who e-short he wrote will be made available. He has written about the Fifth Doctor (the one, he thinks, who looks most like a novelist).

The first question was likening Patrick Ness to Joss Whedon – and how they have a similar style (they’re both "nerdy life-ruiners") – and asking if he is a fan of Whedon’s, or influenced by his work at all. Ness replied that he is a fan, and Buffy is genius. He said he loved that Whedon fearlessly mixed so much in his TV show – that even though it was a show about vampires a demons, he wasn’t afraid to make you laugh and feel and get invested in those characters.

The next question was about reading between the lines – as someone pointed out, Ness’s writing is often quite sparse, and he leaves a lot up to the reader’s own interpretation and imagination. Ness said that was very deliberate on his part – a conscious decision of voice. He wants his books to be inclusive, so if you’re a black person reading it, you could see yourself in the characters and hopefully not just assume that because he’s a white writer, that all his characters are going to look like him too. 

Someone asked how they were meant to feel about Mayor Prentiss – and if he was based on a real historical/political figure. Ness replied that people should feel about him however they like, that’s for the reader to decide. But he’s not based on any one real person – since you can find him anywhere in history/the world. Ness pointed out that villains don’t think that they’re villains, and redemption is possible.

Another audience member asked Ness if reading reviews or fan opinions changed/influenced his writing of the trilogy – and he said no. Furthermore, nobody reads his first drafts (he prefers to be unselfconscious – and in most writing you have your best idea 60,000 words into the first draft, which means you then have to go back and start again as though you had that idea all along . . .  all writers do this). So he has nobody to influence/comment on his writing while he’s working on it. He finished by saying this: “Novels are not a crowd-sourced art form” – and a hum of approval went through the crowd.

Asked if he was afraid of anything, he admitted a repressed childhood Hawaiian memory meant he was terrified of cockroaches. He’s also afraid of swimming in open water (. . . interesting, after the drowning he read of ‘More Than This’. . . ) but otherwise he’s afraid of everything. He’s an anxious person.

The inevitable question of which one of his novels is his personal favourite; and Ness said authors are like parents when they get asked what their favourite book/child is – you know they have one, but they don’t want to say. He likes his books for different reasons – the energy of ‘Knife’, the ‘Monsters of Men’ ending and the fact that ‘A Monster Calls’ was so different. 

And someone asked which moment of the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy broke his heart. Again, without spoilering anything, he said “the part to which you are implicitly referring” – but he also said Davy (because he was ‘almost there’ and he really understood him). 

Finally in the wrap-up Lili Wilkinson asked Patrick Ness to explain a quote of his that she found during her internet stalking . . . about authors being singers, not songwriters. Ness is referring to that awful moment when you’re working on a manuscript, and then someone goes and publishes a book that’s exactly like yours. He said that shouldn’t discourage any writer, because he firmly believes that “a book is not a song, it’s a performance of a song.” What’s unique is how you perform it, your interpretation. Furthermore, a book is not just a set of ideas – it’s a delivery of those ideas (he then apologized for likening writers to both delivery-trucks and singers . . .  but we got the idea, and it was beautiful).  
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