AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Zoe Thurner on ‘Dress Rehearsal’ (Fremantle Press)

Zoe Thurner

Drama teacher Zoe Thurner tells Amelia Vahtrick about her debut novel Dress Rehearsal (Fremantle Press).

The story is framed by a Year 12 theatre production, which provides a lot of the drama between Lara and the other students. What effect do you think theatre can have on teenagers?

Theatre is visceral, immediate and invites people to connect. In a world dominated by virtual relationships I think theatre can bring young people together in a meaningful way. As a drama teacher I have scripted, directed and assisted in the production of youth theatre, which is often highly innovative and can bring out new qualities in students. Last year I wrote a script in the form of a cabaret set in Berlin of the 1930s. We cast a rather isolated boy as the MC, where he shone, and had a burly footballer happily dancing the waltz. These kids were united in a group task that required them to negotiate, give freely and be part of something larger than themselves. And the youth audience loved it. Ultimately, whether they choose to watch theatre or produce it I think theatre has a very uplifting effect on teenagers. That’s one of the things I tried to get across when I was writing Dress Rehearsal.

There’s a pretty scary scene in the book where Lara and two other girls get into a car with some drunken boys. Did you write this as a warning for teenage readers, or were you merely interested in depicting something that does happen?

Like parents and teachers everywhere, I feel acutely aware of the dangers young people face in making quick, poor decisions. I have discovered this from my students, my kids and my own early mistakes. This scene was based on an experience I had as a girl, when I hitched a ride with some boys up the coast and had to escape by jumping out of a moving car. Very scary. But the scene also stands there for boys. Some years ago I worked on a drama project with the Head Injured Society and sadly met young men in wheelchairs as a result of drink-driving accidents. I think learning from life is important but our kids have to choose their lessons carefully.

Lara is a fabulous, larger-than-life character, whether she’s fighting with her mum, flirting with one boy after another, or taking to her bed in dramatic fashion when things go wrong. Did you have fun writing her? More fun than you would have had writing a more perfect heroine?

Writing Lara Pearlman was like writing a very long dramatic monologue. It propelled me into the chaotic world of Lara’s thoughts and desires, which was wild and pretty intense. It is true that Lara is not a classic heroine. She does not save her friends and cannot change the bad things that happen to them. But I think that Lara and some of the other characters in Dress Rehearsal slowly come to terms with life as it stands in all its imperfection and I think that process takes some honesty and a special kind of courage. So while Lara is chasing around after other people she learns a lot about what she really values and she finds that the best life she can live is her own.

Dress Rehearsal is published by Fremantle Press

I love the way people can be highly contradictory and also capable of great adaptation and change and so first impressions are really just a starting point. I am interested in how a person’s story evolves and how all the contradictory elements are revealed and held together. In Dress Rehearsal Lara is not analytic. She can’t stand back and work people out, the way Nathan might. Instead she throws herself into tough situations to discover the truth. She is often shocked as she pieces conflicting bits together but finally arrives at a richer understanding of the people around her. I volunteer as a telephone counsellor and have to stay open to the subtle and shifting clues given in the course of the conversation which often ends in a very different impression of the caller.

Dress Rehearsal is published by Fremantle Press. This interview first appeared in the March issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Sign up to the free monthly Junior Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here.

AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Randa Abdel-Fattah on ‘The Friendship Matchmaker’ (Omnibus)

In the March issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher reviewer Natalie Crawford spoke to author Randa Abdel-Fattah about her most recent book.

This is your first foray into junior fiction. What interested you in writing for younger readers and how did you have to adapt your writing for this different audience?

I have vivid memories of primary school and can recall with excruciating detail the agonies and joys of making and keeping friends. Writing for a younger audience has been an absolute joy for me because I feel as though I’m turning back time, diving into my own memories and experiences to share the stories and adventures that have stayed with me all these years. It’s not that my writing is autobiographical, more that I am tapping into the emotional rollercoaster of pre-adolescence that I remember so well. Writing for this audience, and from the point of view of a girl in Grade 5, came very naturally to me—which proves to me that I haven’t really grown up all that much! Perhaps it also means that the insecurities and conflicts we experience as children never really change—that the emotions that drive us to crave other people’s approval and admiration as adults are the same as those we experience as children, only the setting and circumstances change.

The issue of friendship is central to The Friendship Matchmaker. Were you nervous about portraying the concerns of your characters in a realistic way?

Every writer worries that their characters’ voices might not ring true. As a writer, I am always conscious that I will lose my readers and compromise my own creative integrity if my characters are not authentic. The editing process was the best way to determine whether my characters were acting or speaking in ways that were contrived. But I rarely found this to be a problem as I tend to start writing with the main characters’ voices already quite clear in my head.

The use of narrative and inclusion of Lara’s Friendship Matchmaker Manual gives the reader two different points of view. Did you always intend to include the Manual in telling Lara’s story?

The FMM Manual was delicious fun to create. It was always my intention to have it running in the background, as an insight into Lara’s thinking, strategy and motivation.Although the book is a first-hand narrative, the manual is an even deeper, yet playful, insight into Lara’s mind and heart.

Was it fun or nerve-wracking having to immerse yourself in the world of a 10-year-old again?

It was terrific fun! I dived back into the world of friendship trios, playground spats and the emotional turbulence that comes with picking a friend to sit next to on a bus or play sports with. When I write ‘as a 10-year-old’ I find myself writing with two voices in my head: my adult voice and my voice as a 10-year-old. The product is a fusion of both levels of consciousness. It is that process and tension between young and old that I find most exhilarating.

There are some very peculiar characters in the book. Are any of them based on people you actually knew at school?

I had terrific fun in trying to balance between the comic and farcical when writing such characters as Omar (who only speaks in rhyme as training for being a rap artist one day) and David (who speaks to his basketball as though it were his best friend). None of the characters, with the exception of Chris the Bully, were based on people I knew at school. However, I still try to maintain a healthy respect for even my most ‘peculiar’ characters, humanising them despite the comic potential their various idiosyncracies offer. While some of my characters exhibit ‘odd’ habits and quirks, I still consider that my young readers will identify with these characters’ dreams, fears and insecurities.

Would you consider writing for a younger audience again?

Most definitely. Lara will not leave me alone. After all, she can be quite bossy and dominating! I can’t resist writing a story with her again so I’m writing a sequel. I’m also releasing my first ‘Aussie Mates’ title, Buzz Off in May 2011. It’s a story about a boy who has, well, a special connection with flies—he can hear them talk. Once again I had delightful fun throwing myself into the world of a young boy.

The Friendship Matchmaker is published by Omnibus. This interview first appeared in the March issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher. Sign up for the free monthly Junior Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here.

BOOK REVIEW: Maudie and Bear (Jan Omerod & Freya Blackwood, Little Hare, October)

Maudie and Bear is one of the most exciting collaborations for 2010 between two beloved Australian author/illustrators. Freya Blackwood has gone from strength to strength over the past few years, and her whimsical illustrations are the perfect complement for this beautiful picture book, which will sit alongside great works by Shaun Tan and Alison Lester as examples of great picture books for older readers. Readers young and old will love Maudie, whose demanding but endearing voice will ring true to anyone who has known a young child. Bear is the ideal stand-in for the older parent, sibling or friend, who is there for every demand, will cater to every whim, and most importantly, will always be there for Maudie. The unusual chapter format of this book will give readers who are making the transition from picture to chapter books the opportunity to progress with their reading, while still enjoying the comfort of illustrations, and the safe picture book format. Maudie and Bear has the look and feel of a classic. I have no doubt that this will be gracing our bookshelves for years to come.

Bec Kavanagh is a freelance reviewer and accounts manager for The Little Bookroom in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the Term 3 issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher.

INTERVIEW: Gordon Reece on ‘Mice’ (A&U)

Reviewer Clare Hingston spoke to Gordon Reece about his new YA psychological thriller Mice (A&U).

Mice raises some very difficult moral questions. Do you believe good will triumph over evil, or is it more a case of survival of the fittest?

I think few of us see the world in such black and white terms any more and I doubt even Superman himself believes that good will triumph over evil. It would be wonderful to have that conviction, but I think we’ve all seen too much. Even defining ‘good’ and ‘evil’ isn’t straightforward—is an act ‘evil’ if it’s carried out for ‘good’ reasons? In Mice Shelley and her mum are involved in something that will stand their moral code on its head; an act whose corroding influence prepares the ground for the—hopefully unexpected—finale. I wrote the novel in stages, sending each finished section to my agent, Debbie Golvan, for her opinion. I remember her saying when she’d read the final section—‘I’m not sure I know these people any more.’ And, in a way, that was precisely the point of the novel. The survival of the fittest is an interesting lens through which to read Mice. It’s arguable that in some ways, in spite of the odds stacked against them, Shelley and her mum do prove their fitness to survive. It’s certainly closer to my intention than the triumph of good over evil.

How do you relate to Shelley and her mother, and to what extent do you identify with the ‘mousey’ aspects of their personalities?

I should start by saying that my definition of a human mouse isn’t necessarily a person who’s painfully shy or socially inept—in fact, Shelley and her mum are intelligent, talented and successful in many different ways. For me, what makes them ‘mice’ is their inability to deal with confrontation—verbal, physical or psychological. And in a world where so many people seem to thrive on confrontation, this leaves them dangerously exposed and vulnerable. Many of Shelley and her mum’s ‘mousey’ characteristics—bookishness, intellectualism, a love of classical music, respect for the law, speaking well, politeness—are almost defining features of English middle-class culture. I came from an essentially working-class background and I know I kicked against what I saw as these ‘unmanly’ characteristics. I recall a school report describing me as ‘aggressively anti-intellectual’ and I can remember smashing my glasses I was so frustrated that I had to wear them. So there’s a degree to which middle-class culture itself is seen as ‘mousey’ in the UK. When Hamish Hamilton dropped my first children’s book way back in 1985 and I thought the door to a writing career had been closed forever, my reaction was quite telling I think. I tried to join the army.

Mice is ultimately a very empowering novel, but what inspired you to write a book that deals so extensively with the darker side of humanity?

I suppose I’ve always written stories that dealt with the ‘the darker side of humanity’—even when I was at school—not horror exactly, but more thrillers, stories that invariably revolved around a violent act and some sort of twisted psyche. If I was to indulge in amateur self-psychoanalysis I’d say this was due in part to my personal history and in part to the books that have influenced me most strongly. When I was nine my brother-in-law gave me a bag of American comics which had, in amongst all the superheroes, several issues of ‘Uncanny Tales and Astounding Stories’. These horror and sciencefiction short stories changed my life—I was immediately addicted to these dark melodramas and I crammed my school essays with their ecstatic vocabulary. I really believe they taught me how to write (people underestimate how well written a lot of those comics were). They also gave me a healthy appetite for plot, for plot-driven narratives, usually with a darkly ironic twist in the tail. Continue reading

INTERVIEW: James Phelan on ‘Chasers’ (Hachette Australia)

James Phelan has followed up his successful adult thrillers with a new trilogy for YA readers, ‘Alone’. John Webb asked him about the first book, Chasers.

The four young central characters in Chasers seem quite resourceful in dealing with a difficult situation. Do you think they reflect the skills of a current younger generation?

I think teenagers are as resourceful as any age group, particularly so when we are seeing this story’s events through the eyes of 16-year-old narrator, Jesse. Characters are more stylised than people we know and stories in novels are the more dramatic moments, so 16-year-olds in fiction, such as Holden Caulfield and Picene ‘Pi’ Patel, seem more resourceful than we’d expect. I put Jesse into a post-apocalyptic world and tried to be true to him while letting the chips fall where they might—extraordinary circumstances brought out some unique methods of survival for him.

This is very much a New York story. Do you think this will be a problem for readers unfamilar with the Big Apple?

I chose New York because it’s the world’s greatest city and its most inglorious, its most frenetic and its most lonely, and it has played a key role in spawning two global events that have shaped the opening of this century. Australian readers will see New York as Jesse sees it—through Australian eyes. The setting is a backdrop to the series but is a minor component compared to the story of Jesse that unfolds on the page. I tried to make every word of his so true thatit hurt, so that by the final chapter when our truth is skewed it hurts all the more but at the same time it’s an uplifting revelation because the lies preceding it were beautiful: they’d saved a life.

The parallels with 9/11 are drawn by the book’s narrator. Were you trying to make a metaphorical link between the nature of terror and horror?

I’d written three novels for an adult audience that dealt with terrorism and 9/11. The third one, Blood Oil, was very dark: my response to where we’d gone as a society. Chasers was a departure as it was an entire world that I created—a world forever changed from the end of the prologue. Jesse is aware of 9/11 (he was headed on a field trip to the memorial when the disaster struck) so it seemed logical he’d think of it in the context of what he’s seeing all around him. Linking real events in his mind was something he employed to cope with the situation at hand—this kind of thing has happened before and people have overcome it, so he can do that here too. It deals with horrors as Jesse sees them: illness, mortality, heartbreak and loss. Continue reading

Temple wins the 2010 Miles Franklin for ‘Truth’ (Text Publishing)

Well, as we reported in a special bulletin to our Weekly Book Newsletter subscribers last night, Peter Temple’s Truth (Text) is the winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award. (You can read our original review here.)

Not surprisingly, Text publisher Michael Heyward told us he was ‘over the moon’, following Temple’s win. He said Truth had ‘changed the possibility of the crime novel’. ‘Truth is a crime novel but also a novel about crime. It’s a contemporary tragedy,’ he said.

But, as Temple told Matthia Dempsey, in this interview from our September 2009 issue of the magazine, there was a time during the writing process for Truth when Heyward wasn’t quite so happy…

(Oh, and by the way, did you know the Miles Franklin was hitting the road? The ceremony comes to Melbourne in 2011 and other capital cities after that.)

INTERVIEW: Peter Temple on ‘Truth’ (Text Publishing)

You’ve referred to Truth as ‘the so-called sequel’ to The Broken Shore because, although that’s how it’s likely to be pitched, it’s not really a sequel. Why did you choose to focus on Villani, rather than write a second book on Cashin? Were you trying to avoid another series?

I love the Jack Irish series in a parental way. It’s part of me. And, to my great surprise and joy, many people want another Jack Irish book in the same way I once wanted another James Bond novel (well, perhaps not quite as much). But the idea of another series fills me with terror. When it came to think about what to write after The Broken Shore, I found myself thinking about Stephen Villani (a minor player in The Broken Shore). I’d enjoyed his character and I thought I’d try to capture him and his world in a way that treated cops as ordinary people who, as the poet said, have to save the sum of things for pay.

The Broken Shore won the Duncan Lawrie Dagger among many other awards. How did the success of that book affect the writing of this one?

It’s not the success or otherwise of the last book that matters. It’s that every book drains the well and it takes an ever-greater effort to begin each new one. I also have a horror of repeating myself, something that doesn’t help matters.

Truth follows two homicide investigations but also takes in the world of media and politics. Do you draw on your experience as a court reporter in creating your plots? Do you do a lot of research to get these worlds right?

Writing draws on everything that’s ever happened to you. My aim is always to get the feel of the book right. But it’s fiction. I make stuff up. That’s the fun of it.

As with The Broken Shore, one of the very appealing aspects of Truth is that the pared-back nature of the book makes the reader work a bit harder to keep everything in their headto make connections, remember characters. Is this your intention?

I like reading books that make you work, make you join the bits, reach your own conclusions, and so I try to write books like this.

Truth is set in the city but visits the country and The Broken Shore included descriptions of the natural world; what appeals to you about writing about nature?

Part of being a writer is being an observer. I like looking closely at things. I like staring at things, waiting for them to reveal themselves. To capture these impressions in ways that speak to the reader is the great challenge of writing. It’s also its greatest pleasure.

You’ve said that when you’re writing a book you don’t know where it’s going. Can you tell us at what point in the writing process you worked it all out? Was your publisher at all worried?

I generally begin to understand the story about three-quarters of the way through the writing. I don’t know how the process works but I now know that there is a process at work. I think worried is too mild a word for my publisher’s state of mind while he waited for the book. I think he had secretly given up on it. But he understands what miserable, lying creatures writers are and he never lets them off the hook, never gives them the excuse they are looking for to chuck the whole thing in.

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

I’m fiddling around with the fifth Jack Irish novel and thinking about returning to the territory of In the Evil Day.

The new issue has landed!

Ah, there’s the new-magazine smell again. Yes, the May/June combined issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine just arrived in the office.

This issue has a gazillion reviews of as-yet-unpublished books (okay, 75), including such highly anticipated titles as Rebecca James’ Beautiful Malice (A&U, May), Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink (Scribe, June), Peter Rose’s Roddy Parr (Fourth Estate, July), Leanne Hall’s Text YA prize-winning This is Shyness (August) and Benjamin Law’s debut The Family Law (Black Inc., June). (If you want to know what some of our reviewers’ top picks were you can read about them in this post.)

As well as all those reviews, the May/June issue includes Kalinda Ashton (The Danger Game, Sleepers) writing about how she got where she is today, Kabita Dhara on the publishing scene in India, author interviews with Susan Maushart, Ben Groundwater, Bill McKibben, Amanda Braxton-Smith and James Phelan and lots more besides.

Subscribers, it will be on its way to you very soon. Non-subscribers, you’ll find a list of places you can buy a copy here. (Or you could, you know, subscribe: $130 a year. Bargain.)

Celebrating children’s literature at Somerset

The Somerset Celebration of Literature held its annual school literature festival from 15 to 19 March 2010 at Somerset College in Mudgeeraba on the Gold Coast, Queensland. Over 16,000 tickets were sold, with over 30 writers speaking and 70 schools in attendance from all over South East Queensland and Northern NSW. Meredene Hill, marketing manager at the University of Queensland Press, was in attendance and told us a bit about the festival:

Attending Somerset Festival of Children’s Literature is always a calendar highlight. The festival staff and volunteers go to so much trouble to ensure a memorable experience for everyone, particularly for the thousands of school students who attend the festival to hear their favourite authors speak.

There is always a high energy level at Somerset, even with the intermittent downpours of rain this year, as students move from one author session to the next, and catch-up on what they’ve just seen or have been reading. Regular laughter and cheering burst from the three marquees and the other school venues as authors such as Leigh Hobbs, Cuzco and Jackie French entertained the students. And dare I say, even teenagers and the ‘grown-ups’ amongst us, yes me, were caught laughing when we listened to James Roy talk about his book about boys, puberty and sex, The ‘S’ Word (UQP, July), while the book’s talented illustrator Gus Gordon drew entertaining cartoons to match.

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Interview: Foz Meadows on Solace and Grief (Hybrid Publishers)

Self-proclaimed geek and first-time novelist Foz Meadows speaks to Kate O’Donnell about Solace and Grief, her young adult urban fantasy.

Solace and Grief, in spite of its gothic appearance and dramatic plot, is also a very funny story with witty characters. Was it hard to find a balance of light and dark?

Yes, at times. Whenever I’m writing a tense or emotional scene, it feels like there are three different writers in me vying for control—a dramatist longing for tragedy, a closet romantic, and a comedian who looks for the humour in everything. And I do mean that literally. When I was 13 or so, I took it into my head to give names, faces and distinct character attributes to three different parts of my personality, and 10 years later, it’s still hard to resist thinking of myself in those terms, especially when writing. In that sense, then, the balance of the story is a bit like the balance of my personality—skewed. I have to fight with myself on multiple fronts. At the same time, humour often creeps in unannounced, but in ways which, once I notice, feel completely natural. I’ve always had a healthy appreciation for irony and the absurd—the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series is one of my favourite things in the entire universe—because life is so rarely a straight-up choice between laughter and seriousness. More often, the two are blended together; poignancy is a mix of different emotions, not an absolute state. Reality seldom misses an opportunity to tromp all over the drama of human existence with the Gumboots of Inopportune Timing, so why should fantasy be any different?

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