Ambelin Kwaymullina has fast become one of my absolute favorite Aussie YA authors. ‘The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf’ was the first novel in her YA-dystopian series ‘The Tribe’ – and it’s a fantastic ecological, spiritual, thriller with a dash of romance and so many spectacular young protagonists to get behind. Then she blew me away a few months ago with second book ‘The Disappearance of Ember Crow’ which took everything I thought I knew about ‘The Tribe’ and turns this universe completely on its head.
I’ve so enjoyed Ambelin’s books, but also truly admire her as an author. I’ve been very lucky to have interviewed Ambelin twice now – first discussing ‘Why we need more Indigenous writers and characters in Australian YA’ for Kill Your Darlings, and earlier this year at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
She’s one of the most intriguing, eloquent and exciting Aussie YA authors writing today, and I’m thrilled to present … Ambelin Kwaymullina!
Q: How were you first published – agent or slush pile?My first published book was a picture book called Crow and the Waterhole, which I sent it in as an unsolicited manuscript to Fremantle Press. They accepted it (joy!) – and then I decided I wanted to illustrate the story. So I went through another process of doing up pictures and a storyboard for approval. I’d always painted but I’d never illustrated, and if I’d realised how difficult illustrating is I wouldn’t have been quite so sure I could do it – lucky I didn’t know! There’s something to be said for being stupidly confident…and I’ve gone to illustrate four more books since, so it worked out okay in the end.
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 plot a bit. I have a table in a word document, and one column says ‘chapter one’, and the other has four lines in it about what’s going to happen in chapter one. Then chapter two, and so on.
My natural instinct is to write a really meticulous plan, but I know myself – if I did it that way, I’d spend years writing a super elaborate plan…and never, ever have a book.
Q: How long did it take you to write ‘The Disappearance of Ember Crow’, from first idea to final manuscript?100 years. It always feels like it takes me 100 years. But really…probably about a year from first starting to type to driving my publishers insane by making changes up until the very last minute.
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?First line. I’m never comfortable with a story until I know the first line, and the last line. Usually I don’t even understand what the line refers to – for instance, I knew the first line of The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf was ‘He was taking me to the machine’ long before I knew what the machine was. But once I know where it begins and where it ends, I’m confident I’ll find the middle somewhere!
Q: There are a lot of big revelations in ‘The Disappearance of Ember Crow’, and the universe of ‘The Tribe’ grows exponentially. You take readers to a lot more locations, and the history of this post-apocalyptic world gets cracked wide open. What are some of your real-life inspirations for the cities that appear in ‘The Tribe’? And were you drawing on real-life examples for the major historic events and leaders, like Alexander Hoffman and Neville Rose?The natural landscape of Ashala’s world is based on Australian environments – the dense Deepwood that is slowly swallowing up Fern City is inspired by the Daintree Rainforest, and the landscape around Spinifex City is a mixture of the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of Western Australia. As for Alexander Hoffman…I worked at a university for seven years, and there’s something of various eccentric academic geniuses I’ve known in Hoffman. And Neville – the character himself isn’t based on anyone, but the name is partly drawn from a historical figure. In WA, the legislation that created the Stolen Generations was administered for much of its existence by a senior public servant named A O Neville. Two generations of my family were removed, and the looming figure of ‘Mr Neville’ remains strongly associated with the Stolen Generations for WA Aboriginal people. So I guess when I was thinking of a bureaucrat administering an inhumane system, that was the name that sprang to mind.
Q: The universe of ‘The Tribe’ is not Australia, but while the word “aboriginal” holds no meaning for Ashala, she is connected to that bloodline. Your series beautifully draws on Dreamtime storytelling and has an otherworldly appeal. Are you finding that the young readers you talk to make these connections between the fantasy world of ‘The Tribe’ and real-life Indigenous parallels?Yeah, they do. When Ashala Wolf was first published – because it does have such a twisting and layered plot – I had a few people ask me if I’d ever worried that teens wouldn’t follow the story. It had never occurred to me to even think about that. Some of students were teenagers, in my university teaching days, and I spend a lot of time in schools now – in my experience, teenagers are insightful and smart. At any given talk, an audience of teenagers will always startle me with the meaning they’ve found in the story and the ways in which they connect that meaning to their own lives and to things happening in the world.
Q: When ‘Ember Crow’ begins, Ashala and Connor are both battling personal demons and coming to terms with the consequences of events from ‘The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf’. They read like a much truer and tougher couple because they have a rockier path than most in young adult romances – was it important to you to avoid writing a ‘happily ever after’ for them?Ah, but what’s happily ever after? I was conscious when I wrote Connor and Ashala’s story – and Ember and Jules’ for that matter – of wanting to write what I think as old fashioned romances, because what I think classic romance writers did so beautifully was tell the story of a relationship. And a real relationship, where two people grow and change together, will inevitably involve some conflict. So for me, happily ever after isn’t about an absence of difficulty but how that difficulty is resolved. Connor and Ashala were both profoundly affected by events in the first book; but they are able to find a way to support each other through it (despite some spectacularly bad decisions on Ash’s part). This to me is the essence of what these two are together. Connor says it best, in The Disappearance of Ember Crow, when he tells Ashala – “We are warriors. We are partners. Or we are nothing.”
Wouldn’t you want to be loved like that? Sounds like happily ever after to me…
Q: ‘The Tribe’ series seems destined for the big or small screen – can you tell us if there’s any chance of adaptation? And if so, if you have a dream cast in mind?Well, Ashala Wolf is out in the USA in April next year, where the film people live, probably in golden palaces (or perhaps not). The only thing I know about the film industry is what I’ve seen in – well, films. As for dream cast – haven’t given it any thought beyond that I’d want Ashala to be played by an Australian Aboriginal actress. And Connor – is anyone out there really as good looking as I’ve described him in the book? Might be a bit tough to cast…
Q: What’s the appeal in writing for young adults?Probably a part of it is that I feel sixteen years old on the inside. I was telling a group of girls at a school visit a few weeks ago that I never want to grow old. I don’t mind aging in body, but I don’t want to be old in my heart or my head. I never want to become set in my ways, to reject new ideas or fear new experiences simply because they are new, or to come to accept that is anything inevitable or unchangeable about the injustices of this world. To be young, to me, is to be immoderate, impetuous, defiant - and if I occasionally (or more than occasionally) make a complete idiot of myself in front of the grown ups, I’m willing to live with it.
Q: The next two books in ‘The Tribe’ series are; ‘The Foretelling of Georgie Spider’ and ‘The Execution of Neville Rose’ – can you give us any hints about what’s to come in these books? And will ‘Neville Rose’ be the absolute last in ‘The Tribe’ series?Huh. Well, it all gets bigger and more complicated. All the characters from the first two books are back, along with some new additions. And where it ends up was foreshadowed by Ash at the very beginning of the first book, when she said “There will come a day when a thousand Illegals descend on your detention centres…” What will Illegals going to war look like? You’ll find out, before the end – and that war has a cost.
As to whether Neville Rose is the final book …not quite. I have an idea for a further series set in the same world but with different characters; it is a trilogy that will take place about five years after the end of the events in the final book of The Tribe series. And the first book in the trilogy is told from the perspective of the girl who falls for Jaz, when he is all grown up.
Q: Favourite author(s) of all time?Too many to list! But here’s some highlights: Daisy Utemorrah, Isobelle Carmody, Juliet Marillier, Lois Bujold, Michelle West, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte … and I’ve just realised I’ve written a list that’s entirely made up of women.
Yeah. Women writers rock.
Q: Favourite book(s)?Anything written by any of the above writers.
Q: Do you have any advice for budding young writers?Write. Write all the time, whenever and wherever you can. Much of what you write will be bad – learn to figure out what, ditch it and start again. Be stubborn. Be committed. Be unswervingly faithful to your passion and your gift. Be warned that it very hard work, and sometimes lonely – but if this is what you want to do, hold on and never let it go.
In the ancient Firstwood each member of the Tribe bonds with a forest animal - and it changes them... find out your animal here!
Check out the next leg of Ambelin's blog tour over at Diva Booknerd!