A little over a week ago, I reviewed David Burton’s debut YA memoir, How to Be Happy. It really struck a chord with me and explores some pretty confronting topics. The most interesting thing for me was remembering that this wasn’t just fiction, but grounded in David’s own adolescence. So, I’m really excited to welcome David to The Unfinished Bookshelf today to discuss the book and his writing.
What inspired you to tell your own story through How to Be Happy?
I was invited a number of times to speak to groups of young people about my growing up experience. I put everything on the table: academic pressure, weird family stuff, sexuality, depression and anxiety. The response I got was astounding. I started talking to a number of young people who were navigating massive stuff, and felt isolated and unable to talk about it. Combined with the fairly ugly statistics about suicide and young people in this country (it’s the most likely way for a young person to die, way above road accidents), I felt an honest narrative from a young man who actually survived some pretty dark times may be useful to some readers.
Why did you want to tell that story to a young adult audience in particular?
Apart from feeling that the story would be most useful to young people, I enjoy writing for that age group. Young adult audiences don’t put up with bullshit. You’ve got to be honest and say what you mean. If you do that, and find a way to make them smile or hit them right in the feels, they’ll reward you with ardent praise and loyalty. It’s a wonderful feeling, and it makes you a better writer.
Did you censor yourself in any way while writing? Were there elements you were worried about sharing, particularly when it came to roles played by other people in your life?
There were certainly stories I didn’t put in the memoir, but that was less of a fear of vulnerability, and more out of a question of relevance to a young audience. My aim the entire time was to write a book that a fifteen year old boy (who doesn’t typically read books) could pick up and enjoy and find helpful. So if a story worked for that audience, it went it, uncensored. That means I ended up writing about all sorts of pretty personal things like masturbation, sadness and self-esteem, but the sting of vulnerability is softened by knowing that the story may bring comfort to the reader.
How important do you believe it is to start frank and open discussions with young people (not necessarily just teenagers) about sexuality and mental health issues?
Very. We don’t do it enough. And the evidence is in the abhorrent statistics for young people. Sexuality in particular is lacking. When you’re fifteen, you have enough hormones to resurrect a dead horse, but we often fear teenagers sexuality. We educate as if sex is a weapon – it will give you an STI or an unwanted pregnancy. This is true, and important. But sexuality is also a profound tool to empower yourself, to form an intimate connection with someone, and also teaches you valuable lessons about respect and pleasure. Our culture is not very comfortable with letting teenagers express open sexual ideas, or even talk about their mental health. As a young man, I struggled to admit I needed help because I thought it would damage my ability to be a strong, independent young man. It’s a difficult set of conversations to have with young people, but it’s vital.
How long did it take to write How to Be Happy and why did you decide to enter the manuscript in the Text Prize?
I wrote it, on and off, for about five years. It was a side project I kept returning to play with. When I felt it was ready to go out in the world, I submitted it everywhere, certain it would remain unpublished and I would forget about it. One of the many places I submitted it to was the Text Prize. I was shocked and grateful to win, and working with them has been an absolute pleasure.
How did you balance telling your story with creating a really engaging piece of writing?
It was very much on my mind, and part of the editorial process. I certainly didn’t want to write something indulgent or disconnected, because I knew my desired audience wouldn’t respect that. So I used my years of training and study to really examine the craft of the novel and make sure it was accessible and engaging. Humour was a big part of that, but so was fairly rudimentary tools like cliff-hangers, dialogue and narrative momentum. Working with my editor really helped me with this process.
Did writing a novel differ at all from your work as a playwright? If so, how?
Writing a novel is wonderfully lonely. Theatre is a collaborative experience. I write a draft or two of a play by myself before I walk into a room with actors and a director, all willing to help shape the story and give me feedback on how the thing moves. It’s a fantastic experience and really stretches your muscles. Writing a book, however, is all up to you (with editorial assistance). It means it’s a slower burn, but it’s also more direct. You’re kind of whispering to one reader as opposed to addressing an entire audience. The mechanics of story-telling don’t change, but how I think about developing the work is massively different.
What do you hope readers take away from How to Be Happy?
The worst thing for depression or anxiety is the feeling you’re alone. When I was a teenager, I was convinced I was the only one experiencing intense confusion. It meant I thought I was a freak, and destined for loneliness. As I grew up, that feeling intensified and it landed me in a place where I considered wiping myself out. If I can make even one reader feel like they’re not as alone as they think they are, the book will be worth it.
What books left their mark on you as a reader and a writer?
Oof! So many. Particularly as a young person I was just the right age to grow up with Harry Potter – the books were released as I was going through adolescence. So they were hugely influential. John Marsden also introduced my young mind to moral themes (and sexuality for that matter), and that was HUGE. I tend to fall in love with writers easily now, and will go through phases where I’m obsessed with them. At the moment I’m studying Stephen King, but I’ve just finished a Stephen Fry phase. Over the years I’ve fallen for Steinbeck, Kerouac, Shakespeare, Atwood and….look, I could go on for ages.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve got a few theatre projects next year and I’m trying to finish a new book. But really, it’s just exciting to have How to Be Happy out in the world and to start seeing responses from it. Yay!
Thanks so much for stopping by!
Today, I’m pleased to share a Q&A with the lovely Jasmine, who blogs at Jassyfizzle. Jasmine is also an apprentice at independent English bookstore Wenlock Books. I love reading her thoughtful reviews, which often also include interviews and input from the author. You’re also going to see a bit more of Jasmine on The Unfinished Bookshelf as we’re working on a few joint reviews over the coming months. Check out her work in the links below!
You’ve been blogging for a while, but the bookish part of your site is relatively new. Why did you start blogging initially and what made you want to join the bookish community?
I’ve worked in a bookshop since September 2010 and have always thought of myself as a person who loves books but who doesn’t like reading, which is ridiculous because I have always enjoyed reading. In January I set myself the new years resolution of reading and reviewing 1 book a month so that I would be able to provide customers with an honest opinion. After the first couple of months, I remembered how much I enjoy reading and how luxurious it can be to go to bed early with a good book and completely immerse myself in someone else’s world. It’s also much easier to write a blog post when there’s something to talk about- my life isn’t exciting enough to blog about but books certainly are! Once I’d started following authors on Twitter, Lucy (Queen of Contemporary) was a recommended follow and finding her blog and YouTube channel opened the door to everything else.
What do you do when you’re not reading and blogging? How do you juggle life with blogging?
I’m usually working! When you work in a small indie bookshop there is always things to be done (social media, newsletters, website, stock) and because I love what I do, spending 3 hours reading reviews or The Bookseller feels like a privilege not a job! There is a huge crossover between what I do for work and what I do for fun- I’m very, very lucky!
I love your unique reviewing style. How important is it for you to include comments and insights from authors in your reviews?
I started asking authors questions after I read and reviewed The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah. James is a friend of mine who I know through the shop and so once I’d finished the book we spent ages chatting over Twitter about the plot, characters, the significance of certain aspects, his inspiration etc and I had this moment where I was like, ‘I have to do this with EVERY book!!!’ because I believe it’s right that the reader understands the author’s intentions – after all it is their book! I also think that it makes my book reviews stand out a little bit which is important because there are millions of reviews available and there needs to be something different about each one.
You work in a bookshop, which is something I’ve always imagined to be one of my dream jobs. But what’s it really like? Any downsides, or is it all fabulous?
It is wonderful! There are many customers who visit each week and so there’s a lovely sense of familiarity. It feels so good to know customers names and have them know mine in return which I think is the absolute beauty of indie bookshops. There is time for everyone and we pride ourselves on the personal aspect of the shop. Of course, we do face difficulties- Amazon being the main. It’s impossible to compete price wise with Amazon (who buy in bulk and doesn’t pay taxes or fair wages) so instead we have to provide exceptional service and a one-to-one that even chain stores like Waterstones can’t beat. The fact that indie bookshops are a rare bread pushes us to be the best and I think that we do a pretty good job!
Your bookshop, Wenlock Books, is an independent store. How important do you think indie bookstores are for the community?
Very important! Bookshops bring people closer together because there is a book out there for everyone. Each year we host the Wenlock Poetry Festival which brings fantastic poets such as Carol Ann Duffy, Imtiaz Dharker and Michael Rosen to Much Wenlock for everyone to enjoy. Other businesses benefit from the extra footfall in the town and people of all ages are able to see and meet exceptional talent. Without indie bookshops, people wouldn’t be able to share their excitement about books with real people. Amazon reviews are fine but there’s nothing quite as good as a face-to-face discussion about what you’ve read, and there’s so much to be learnt from other readers.
How has blogging changed your reading life?
I ask a lot more questions whilst I’m reading which I jot down. Lots of these are answered further through the book and I ask the authors the questions that don’t. I also take a lot of photos of the pages in case I use quotes for my review – my phone is full of page pictures!
Quick fire book quiz
Favourite book so far this year: Solitaire by Alice Oseman. Absolutely the best book ever.
Most anticipated book for the second half of 2015: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. Louise is so fabulous and Only Ever Yours was utterly amazing. Love her, love her books.
Favourite author: J.K.Rowling for more reasons than one. Her books are sensational (Harry Potter was essentially about the love of family and yet she wove that into an amazing 7 books about wizards!!), she’s a gigantic feminist which I’m always down for, and I think she’s an exceptional woman.
Your top five must-read books: (Harry Potter is a given!) Solitaire by Alice Oseman (especially English sixth formers should read this), How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (ALL 16 year old girls should read this), Twilight by Stephanie Myers (I LOVED Twilight – I thought it was funny, I thought it was clever and I thought Bella was really likeable. I’d give the others a miss but definitely read Twilight), Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (again, a book for teenage girls. 13 year olds need to read it because they will realise just how similar to life it is and that’s the wake-up call that all teenagers need), The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson (another book that teenagers need to read- eye opening)
Thanks for stopping by, Jasmine!
This week, I’m so pleased to welcome Lucy to The Unfinished Bookshelf. Lucy is one of my favourite bloggers/bookish people. I am always in awe of the fact she not only blogs and has a book tube channel, but also runs the weekly #ukyachat. Impressively, Lucy manages all this while still at school. I’ll leave some links below, so make sure you check out her work!
How did you first get into blogging and booktubing? Did you start both Queen of Contemporary and your youtube channel together?
I started my blog in April 2012 because I’d been reading a few blogs run by other teenagers and thought I could do it too. I then started my YouTube channel in November 2013 because I’d been watching some book hauls and it seemed so much fun.
What are you doing when you’re not reading and blogging? How do you juggle life with blogging?
Sadly, I still have to go to school on a daily basis, so I can usually be found there. I can also usually be found on my phone, texting or tweeting away. I have guinea pigs too that I love to cuddle.
Your videos are so fun to watch, but how much goes on behind the scenes? How long does it take to produce one video?
Whereas it could take me half an hour to write a blog post, making a video can often take days. You have to film – which can take half an hour just on its own – and edit. Editing usually takes me around an hour and a half, depending on the length of the video and how meticulous I’m being. Uploading is the thing that takes the longest amount of time: sometimes it can go on for five hours! So it all takes a lot longer than I’d like it to take!
You also run the very fun #ukyachat which promotes books by UK authors. What prompted you to start the chat?
At the time, I didn’t know of any other Twitter chats that talked about books, so I decided to just give it a go, and nearly two years later it’s still going strong. It’s great to see so many people enjoying it – it makes it so worth it!
What are you top five tips for bloggers/booktubers?
Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing – do your own thing!
Use social media to promote yourself because it’s so much fun and gets lots of results.
Make friends! Blogger friendships are the best friendships.
Be the best you! Be truthful to yourself and your personality will shine through.
Enjoy yourself! Blogging is supposed to be fun and enjoyable, so make sure you don’t make it a chore!
How has blogging changed your reading life?
I read so widely now and I’ve read books I probably wouldn’t have picked up before I started blogging. It’s also meant that I know so much more about the behind the scenes stuff – it’s not just manuscript to finished product! So much goes into the making of the book.
Quick fire book quiz
Favourite book so far this year: The Next Together by Lauren James
Most anticipated book for the second half of 2015: Queen of Shadows by Sarah J. Maas
Favourite author: Kit Berry
Your top five must-read books: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, Solitaire by Alice Oseman, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Crow Moon by Anna McKerrow and Blue by Lisa Glass.
Thanks for stopping by, Lucy!
Last week, I reviewed Stay With Me, an incredibly moving story about a young woman’s escape from an abusive relationship and her reconnection with estranged family. Today, I’m welcoming author Maureen McCarthy to The Unfinished Bookshelf to talk about the very personal inspiration behind the novel.
Stay With Me explores an abusive relationship through 21-year-old Tess. Why did you feel it was important to look at domestic violence through a younger protagonist?
It all began with my grandmother and mother of five young children who was ‘put away’ in a mental asylum in the early years of last century. Back then, mental asylums were full of ‘mad’ women who were unable to cope in what were their very rigidly defined roles as wives and mothers. In my grandmother’s case, her beloved younger sister had died in sudden tragic circumstances and this caused her to ‘lose it’ ie. She couldn’t stop crying and couldn’t look after her children. It might be called a mental breakdown these days. She died in the Asylum four years later without ever seeing her children again, my father being one of them.
What happened to his mother affected him and his sisters deeply and that has been passed down the generations. I never knew my paternal grandmother and yet I knew of her. Her story was passed down through the family in whispers. I sensed the shame of having someone ‘mad’ in the family.
When I began to research her history I realised that her sad story was not unique. Women were commonly ‘put away’ into institutions when they couldn’t play the role assigned to them. That’s when I began to see links with our own present day. Women are often told they’re ‘mad’ by the bully, be it father, boyfriend or husband, who wants to control them.
I wanted to counter balance the historical story with one from the present day. And in the process show how things have changed, the differences in attitudes etc, but also some of the very fundamental similarities that still exist. During the writing process, the present day story of Tess escaping her abusive partner with her little girl took over.
Your own family history played a part in inspiring Stay With Me. Why did you feel it was important to tell your grandmother’s story in the novel?
Over the years I grew suspicious of the corner my grandmother had been stuck in in our family history. Being ‘mad’ is such a cut and dried description … and one that let everyone else off the hook. When I obtained her admittance records from the Asylum the initial doctor’s report recorded that she seemed ‘quite sane’ and that she had bruises on her arms and back. So how did they get there? My grandfather was much older than her and known as a very hard man.
Another thing that attracted me to this family story is that I’d also heard years before (from my father’s elder sister who was nearly fourteen when her mother was taken away) that her mother was a gentle, very creative woman, who was a wonderful mother and frequently made up wonderful funny stories for them. Somehow I felt that she was owed something after all this time.
Has your writing and your writing process changed at all with each book you’ve written?
I don’t think so! I always want it to change. Every project I begin, I tell myself that this is the time I’m going to do it in an organised way. That I’m going to write a plan and do the research first and then the writing… Or I’m going to be at my desk at nine o’clock every morning. It never happens. My writing comes in bits and pieces and I have periods where I lose faith in it completely. I muddle my way into the characters and it’s usually some time before I feel that I really know what I’m doing. I wish it wasn’t like this! But this seems to be the process for me.
What books have left their mark on you as a reader and a writer?
I’m reading all the time so there are so many books. I suppose I’m mainly reading current literary fiction these days. I love a lot of the American writers like Thomas Wolf and Joyce Carol Oates. There’s also Helen Dunmore and Irish writers like Colm Toibin who’s another favourite. And I love some popular women’s fiction too. I just read Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. It’s a great read and very clever.
What do you hope readers take away from Stay With Me?
Most of all, I hope that the story engages the readers and that they care about the characters because I cared so much for them when I was writing them. I want them to understand that some of the stuff that was going on one hundred year ago between men and women is still happening today!
I wanted to write a powerful story exploring how when a young woman (maybe any woman) falls in love, she can lose herself, and often with very dire consequences. Tess got gradually entangled into an abusive situation only to find that it was almost impossible to extricate herself.
I also hope that the readers will believe the story! That they will see how similar situations could come about, unfortunately.
What projects are you currently working on?
My next novel will be set in a café. It’s based on the one in Smith Street, Collingwood that I go to almost every day! I love this place. I love the fact that so many of the young people working there are from other cultures. The cook is Japanese. Two waiters are Sudanese. Another is Vietnamese.
The man who owns the business is a little Aussie battler who had polio as a kid – fantastic guy – and the manager is a woman around my own age who only last year fled from an abusive twenty-five year marriage. She now lives in a share house and has never been happier. I’m not sure how I’m going to structure my story but I’m going to write about that café.
A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex. I loved this book. It was heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure and simply one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. So, I’m very excited to share a Q&A with author Gabrielle Williams today.
Hi Gabrielle, welcome to The Unfinished Bookshelf!
Thanks for having me. And thanks for the fantastic review of my book, by the way 😉
The story is grounded in the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman. Was this the starting point for the novel?
The theft was the starting point and I went in several (awful, unprintable) directions before I landed this version.
Why did the mystery surrounding the theft appeal to you?
The ransom letters that the Australian Cultural Terrorists sent to the newspapers were so hilarious and irreverent, it was hard not to be completely captivated by them at the time. Everyone in Melbourne was intrigued by theft, wondering who’d taken the painting, and rumours swirled about what had happened to it and whether the Australian Cultural Terrorists were true or a red herring. But at the same time, everyone seemed to be fairly blasé about the whole thing, which was strange considering that the most expensive painting in the NGV’s collection had been stolen, and it wasn’t even insured! One of my favourite moments was when the Premier of Victoria, John Cain, was asked if he still had faith in Patrick McCaughey (the director of the NGV) now the painting had been stolen. He said, ‘Of course. I trust Patrick completely and utterly. I wouldn’t let him babysit my grandchildren though …’ It was a unique moment in Melbourne history, and I can’t imagine how differently it would be handled if it happened today.
I found the legend of La Llorona a fascinating element of the story. Why did you want to explore it in the novel?
I’d never heard of the La Llorona legend until I stumbled upon it one day on the internet. I’d put away my third (okay, maybe fourth) attempt at turning the theft of the Weeping Woman into a workable story, and was just frittering away my time basically, thinking I was never going to write another book because it was all too hard, when I found the legend of La Llorona. It was such a horrific story – gothic and sinister – and I realised that if I linked it to the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, I might have a compelling story on my hands.
Which books have left their mark on you as both a reader and a writer?
So many books over the years have made their mark and changed me: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’, ‘The Butcher Boy’ (an oldie but a goodie from the eighties – very gothic), ‘The Book Thief’, ‘Vernon God Little’, ‘Bel Canto’, ‘Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant’, Raymond Carver’s short stories, anything by John Steinbeck, the list is endless.
What do you hope readers take away from The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex?
One of the main things I want readers to take away from reading my book is the idea of freedom and being open to chaos. I feel like life is much more structured these days and there is a distinct lack of person freedom, especially compared to the eighties. People are so easily tracked, it’s almost frightening to me, whereas back in the eighties, we could go where we wanted and no-one could find us. We were uncontactable, and that was a great and liberating way to live.
I also hope they take away the idea that bastard boyfriends are good to have somewhere in your lives, so long as they end up an ex – sooner rather than later!
Music plays a part in both The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex and Beatle Meets Destiny. Is it an important part of the writing process for you as well?
Funnily enough, I have to have complete silence when I’m writing. Occasionally I’ll put on music to get myself in the mood, but then I always turn it off and write large pieces in the quiet. There’s so much going on in my head, I can’t have anything else competing!
For most reviews, I try to pair a book with a song. What does The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex sound like to you?
For me, The Guy The Girl The Artist and His Ex sounds like ‘This Is the Day,’ by The The from the ‘Soul Mining’ album. I even mention The The in my book because they were such an influential, distinctive sound of the times. I listened to ‘Soul Mining’, and the next album, ‘Infected’ over and over again when I shared a flat with my friend Leah in St Kilda, and it epitomises the mid-eighties for me. I was working at a recording studio, and meeting all these really interesting people and hearing all kinds of music I’d never known about, and it was like my life started in those years. An exhilarating time.
It’s been a few years since I read Beatle Meets Destiny, but the Beatlemanic in me adored it just because it was related to the Fab Four (and it was a really good book). So I have to ask, do you have a favourite Beatles song?
My favourite Beatles songs (because let’s face it, it’s impossible to name only one) would be ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, ‘Hey Jude’, ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Michelle’.
What can readers expect from the sequel to The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and His Ex?
It’s set one year later in 1987. It uses another iconic, quirky moment in Melbourne history to kick start a new story with Rafi, Guy, Penny and a couple of others, as well as a pyramid scheme called The Airplane Game which was big (and illegal) in 1987.
Thanks for stopping by Gabrielle. Great Beatles song choices. Your new project is already on my must-buy list!
A thrilling modern-day mystery series set in Melbourne, the Every series is a must-read for fans of Aussie YA and Sherlock Holmes. Today, I’m chatting to author Ellie Marney about the fantastic final book as part of the Every Move blog tour hosted by Allen & Unwin.
Hi Ellie, welcome to The Unfinished Bookshelf!
Hey Michelle! So great to catch up with you again!
How does it feel to have finished the series and farewelled Rachel and James?
It feels kind of…exhausting? I found the final book in the series incredibly hard to write, mostly because (as was cleverly pointed out to me) I didn’t really want to say goodbye to the characters. So when I finally completed the manuscript, I just wanted to fall in a heap!
But I recovered okay – and now that Every Move is releasing, I can get all excited about it ☺
I loved the varying settings throughout the series. We were in Melbourne in Every Breath, London in Every Word and now country Victoria in Every Move. Why did you want to explore such a wide range of settings and why was Five Mile perfect for the series conclusion?
Ah, that’s all about Rachel… We saw a lot of Mycroft’s back story in Every Word, and followed him to his London birthplace. I really felt like it was time we saw a bit of Rachel’s old home town – she thinks and talks about it a lot, let’s face it – and found out more about where she’s come from.
Returning to Five Mile is important to Rachel on lots of levels, to show how she’s grown and changed, but it also puts her at a unique advantage during the showdown with Mycroft’s nemesis… Rachel knows the land, she knows the area and the people, which gives her strength. I felt like we’d seen a lot of Mycroft in his element (at crime scenes, in morgues) and I wanted to see what would happen with Rachel on her own turf.
And like the TS Eliot quote says, ‘The end is where we start from’ – in the first book Every Breath, Rachel mourns after departing her old home, and in the final book she gets to go back…
How extensively did you plan the series and each book within it? Was the ending always mapped out or did it evolve over the course of the books?
I am a pantser – I should say that straight out – so NONE of the books were planned or mapped out. What I did find useful was that I was often editing one book while writing another, which meant I could go back and slip in some sneaky clues that pointed to the road ahead. So, definitely an organic evolution, the Every series. Although, I should qualify that with something like ‘don’t try this at home kids, it’ll give you an ulcer’.
Reading about Rachel’s struggle with PTSD was quite confronting at times. A few weeks ago, you spoke about your own experience with trauma on your blog. How did your own experience influence Every Move and did it impact on your writing process?
Sorry about the intense feels (!), but I have to say, it’s good to hear that the reading was sometimes confronting – I’m glad that Rachel’s post-traumatic stress comes through clearly in the book. I really have a kind of ‘what the?’ reaction to books where the protags endure all kinds of horrible experiences and pain, and then seem to bounce back immediately as if nothing much happened. Like I said on the blog, it’s a fictional world, but I wanted to keep it real – after what happened in London, neither Rachel or Mycroft were going to be all ‘fine, fine, perfectly fine’.
I think my own experience of trauma (which I have to point out wasn’t torture, but the somewhat more impersonal experience of living in Jakarta during an intense period of civil/military/political unrest) has informed my writing to the extent that I can resuscitate the memories of anxiety and stress and fear I experienced, and use them to create something authentic for the reader. If I end up writing something that feels and reads true, then that’s a win for me, as a writer.
It can be confronting to revisit those old feelings, during the writing process, but there’s something cathartic about it as well. Writing thrillers means that I’m often mining those old feelings and memories for an authentic emotional response, and I’m okay with that. I also have to say that, in some ways, I’m fortunate to be able to do it – my experience wasn’t so traumatic that I’ve blocked it out, or can’t bear to revisit it. And as I was saying to someone recently, trauma is a part of life for lots of people – just about every woman I know, for instance, has had some scary experiences. I’m glad I’m in a position to be able to channel mine into something positive.
What do you hope readers take away from Every Move and the series as a whole?
Oh, well, mainly I hope they have a really good time reading! That’s my main goal – to write something that people can enjoy, so they go on a thrill ride with the characters, and laugh with them, and feel for them, and fall in love with them (especially Mycroft, just a little bit ☺). If that is all people get out of the Every series, then I’ve already done my job well. If they get a few interesting ideas about Sherlock Holmes, friendship, romance, girls with agency, mental health, character diversity, family life, and city/country Victoria as well…then yay! Double happiness!
Which books have left their mark on you as a reader and a writer?
Stephen King’s books informed my teenage life, and his book On Writing is one I would recommend to anyone who thinks they might have a story inside. I also have a great fondness (if fondness is the right word?) for Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, and the books of Peter Temple and Honey Brown – if you’re into crime, that is. Shakespeare is my go-to guy for language. And Maureen Johnson’s books…love, so much love.
Does music play any part in your writing process?
If I’m writing – can’t listen. If I’m thinking – kind of essential.
I have playlists for each of my books – I usually stick them up on my blog, around release time – and I love to listen to them in the car when I’m driving long distances. Lots of thinking time in the car!
Sometimes I pair books with a song in reviews. What does Every Move sound like to you?
Oh goodness, that’s hard! I incorporated a few songs into Every Move, but the one that reminds me the most of the writing process is Wolf by Pyramid – in fact, I mention it in a crucial scene. I think that song gives you some idea not only of the frenetic pace of the book, but the driving beat might provide a sense of how hard I was working during the writing of Every Move as well!
What’s next for you now the Every series is finished? Will we ever read about James and Rachel again?
The answer is: lots, and yes and no. I don’t have any plans to do a new book with Rachel and Mycroft, alas. But I am working on a standalone novel that is a kind of spin-off from their world, involving a character from Every Move. The working title is No Limits, it’s set in Ouyen and Mildura, and features a certain wild boy of our acquaintance, a police sergeant’s daughter, and some dangerous situations undercover with a drug gang. I can guarantee more grit, a lot more romance, and some thrills and spills along the way ☺
Thanks for stopping by, Ellie. Good luck with No Limits, it sounds so exciting!
Want to know more about Every Move? Check out my review here.
Today I’m excited to share my Q&A with Nova Weetman. Here we chat ghosts, growing up and future projects. Read my review of The Haunting of Lily Frost here.
What was the inspiration for The Haunting of Lily Frost?
I’ve always loved ghost stories. And I have never written one, so I wrote The Haunting of Lily Frost as a conscious decision to write something that straddled two genres. Usually I write stories that are very real-world, but with this book I wanted to write something half coming-of-age and half ghost story. Ghosts are fantastic devices to use in storytelling. Ghosts let you do things you can’t do in the real-world. They let you explore themes and ideas and fears that are much harder to access through straight drama. And with The Haunting of Lily Frost, I knew I wanted to explore death without it being a book about death, so a ghost story was the perfect way in. Also I have a daughter who’s nearly ten, and watching how important her female friendships are, was critical to the book. At the heart of The Haunting of Lily Frost is a friendship story. What happens to a girl so totally reliant on her best friend when she’s taken away and placed in a country town without her life raft? This would have been my worst nightmare when I was a teenager, so I think working through that fear inspired the book in many ways.
The Haunting of Lily Frost is a ghost story, but also explores so many other elements about growing up and being a teenager. How did the contemporary and paranormal elements gel together when you were writing?
I felt very comfortable writing the contemporary elements in the book, because this is the sort of territory I always write in. So it was definitely the ghost elements that I found more difficult.The first few drafts weren’t scary at all. They were a pathetic attempt at the supernatural. Writing a ghost story is really hard, even if you love reading them and think you know how they work. I knew I wanted to write a ghost story but I didn’t know why or how. And having a ghost as a character is complicated if they don’t speak, because they still need intentions and desires, and the reader needs to understand them as a character, without ever actually hearing from the ghost itself. So it was only when I let the ghost element just be another part of the story, and treat it the same way I was treating the contemporary parts of the story, that it began to work.
I definitely felt freaked out at times while I was reading; did you ever get chills when you were writing?
I’m so glad you got freaked out at times because a ghost story should scare you. I didn’t get chills when I was writing it, but I did start to worry about Lily as a character. I was scared for her, rather than freaked out myself. I guess because I was controlling the ghost, she didn’t scare me, but Lily’s attitude to the ghost started to make me worry for her as a character.
Have you ever experienced any kind of haunting?
I was raised in a very aetheist family, so nobody ever talked about spirits until I found a bunch of friends who were all obsessed with séances when I started high school. From that point on I was interested in the idea of ghosts and the supernatural, but more from a storytelling perspective than from a genuine place of fear. That said, my partner and I did stay in an old hotel in Trentham some years ago, and both of us woke up in the night to a sound. We told the owner the next day and she assured us we’d heard the ghost of a mother moaning about her child. Other people we know who’d also stayed at this hotel, heard the same sounds. I’m not closed to the idea of spirits and hauntings, I guess I just find them more fascinating than anything else.
What kind of research did you do for the novel?
I read a lot of YA books to understand tone and what teenage readers want. And then I tried to place the book in a setting that is familiar so I researched places with similar geographic points. I also researched the theories around why ghosts return, or haunt, and what they want. I wanted the ghost in the book to have a real need, a teenage need, of being found and being understood, and then being laid to rest. I also researched the openness of teenagers to seeing spirits – interviews with psychics always suggest they are most open and receptive during puberty. Lily wouldn’t have responded in the same way to the ghost had she still been living in the city. I think it was because she was so isolated, and perhaps also bored, that she accepted the idea of a ghost, and then almost enjoyed and embraced it.
What would you like people to take away from the novel?
This perhaps sounds odd, but I wrote this book as my own way of processing death. My mum died around the time I was writing it, and I was very pre-occupied by death. It’s not just a ghost story, Lily begins the book by recounting her drowning as a young child. She herself understands death, and in many ways I think the ghost seeks her out as a compelling witness. So I want a reader to consider mortality. Not in a morbid, “I’m going to die sort of way”, but more as a way of thinking about the possibility of death, and of what happens when someone dies too soon.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been writing stories since I was 12. My first book was called The Jelly People. A gruesome tale about a cloud that falls across a land and turns the entire world into jelly, except for a plane full of 12-year-olds, who then have to survive the new world order. It’s basically a post-apocalyptic story with some jelly throwing and jelly eating tossed in for good fun. Although The Haunting of Lily Frost is my first YA novel, I’ve been working as a writer for many years. I’ve written children’s television, did a stint on Neighbours and published lots of short adult fiction and non-fiction. I have tried to do other things with my life, things that actually pay the bills, but nothing satisfies me like writing prose. It is, quite literally, the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do.
What is it you love about writing?
I love being able to explore new worlds. I love being able to fully immerse myself in a character so that I understand exactly how they think and feel. I love that writing is limited only by my imagination. And I love that it’s a process of creating something that somebody will then read and have an opinion about.
What project are you currently working on?
I’ve just delivered the second draft of a new YA book that I’m writing called Frankie and Joely. UQP are publishing this book next year. It’s a very different book from The Haunting of Lily Frost. It’s a contemporary, real-world, friendship story about two teenage girls and what happens when someone tests the strength of their friendship. It’s set over a two week summer holiday in a very hot part of Australia. And what I love about it the most is that it’s told in third-person and it shifts between the two best friends, so we get a real insight into what they think of each other and themselves.
Celia Bryce is the author of Anthem for Jackson Dawes, a beautifully written story of love, friendship and loss. You can read my full review here.
What inspires you to write?
People. The ones I meet, even briefly, the ones I read about either in a biography as thick as a brick or an article in a women’s magazine. People in photographs, old ones, new ones. Doesn’t matter. I love to find out their stories. I love listening to people talk about their lives, which they might think are less than ordinary, but which couldn’t be further from the truth. Nothing is ordinary.
What is your favourite aspect of writing?
Having the first draft finished so that I can work on it and really write the story, improve the language, sharpen it. I love trying to write in a poetic way but can’t do this on a first draft. It would take years. I’d be correcting and re-writing each paragraph before the story’s written.
What are some of your favourite books and who are your favourite authors?
Kit’s Wilderness and The Fire Eaters both by David Almond are beautifully poetic novels; Journey to the River Sea;The Countess Below Stairs; The Morning Gift, by Eva Ibbotson all three are shot through with wonderful humour and characters I wish I’d invented; and all of Jane Austen’s books. I read those when I was quite young and re-read them again and again.
Anthem for Jackson Dawes is your first novel, how does it feel to be a published writer?
It feels great and it took eleven years from the very first line to be written to the book coming out, so even more so! It’s a mixture of sheer happiness and a little bit of fear of getting things wrong. You just never know, and for a book with such a difficult subject there’s plenty of scope to get heaps wrong. Believe me. It doesn’t stop me looking at the book and smiling though.
This isn’t the first thing I’ve had published though. I’ve written short stories for magazines and anthologies, for radio broadcast and for competitions. I’ve written travel pieces and restaurant reviews. I’ve written nursing and health articles. I wrote a radio play once which won an award and a screen play which didn’t get off the short list and wasn’t made.
But as for having a first novel published it has changed my life more than any of the above and it takes my juggling skills to cope with it. I’m doing lots of ‘book gigs’- I call them – workshops in schools and libraries, talks and signings in shops across the region where I live. At the same time I’m busy writing and re-drafting book number two whilst thinking about the story for book number three which should feel like an awfully long way off, but the process of writing that one, the synopsis at the very least, has to start scarily. The busyness of life has come as quite a surprise. A nice one. Exhilarating.
How did you feel the first time you held your book?
I cried. Pure and simple.
What kind of research did you do for Anthem for Jackson Dawes during the writing process?
I spent a lot of time reading books on the subject. Tons of fiction (mainly American), lots of factual, nursing and medical information and I sat for hours raking through internet sites about cancer units. My background as a nurse was helpful in many ways too, though I have never nursed children with cancer. I talked to people too. Doctors, nurses. I visited one cancer unit and sent my writing to another to try and ensure I was getting the technical details right and it was increasingly important to do this as each draft was written.
How did the information and experiences influence or change the story?
It made me change some of the detail in the story but not the actual plot. It helped reinforce some aspects of the story, for instance the idea that some children in cancer units can take on an awful lot of responsibility which is to do with not upsetting or worrying their parents. This can be a tremendous burden on top of having something so very serious going on with their health. I wanted to explore this a little more and so brought Kipper into the story. She confided quite a bit to Megan, not in so many words, but through her actions, and her worries about Brian, her kitten. This was a metaphor for the worry she had for her mother and for her future. Though Kipper never said any of this Megan realised and so did Jackson, what her concerns were.
Megan and Jackson were incredibly real characters, as were their family, and the nurses and other patients on the ward. I completely fell in love with each and every one of them. How do you create such real characters when the story is only told from Megan’s point of view?
I’m so glad you liked those characters and that they felt real. I want my characters to feel as real as the person next to me. To do that I have to climb into their heads, their clothes and shoes, almost, to work out what they would say in a situation, how they would behave, knowing that I couldn’t put into words their thoughts because of the single viewpoint storyline. I had to suggest their thoughts and feeling through what they said and what they did. That’s what I would advise aspiring writers to do. Watch people, listen to what they say, how they behave. Just people you know, by the way, not some stranger who might wonder what you’re up to and call the police! Make mental or real notes. Watch how actors display emotions in films and use those techniques in writing. Be the character in your story and they’ll feel real.
You wrote at the end of the novel that your inspiration for Anthem for Jackson Dawes came from several stories swimming inside you. Were there any particular scenes or characters which acted as a starting point?
The starting point for this novel is now not part of the novel at all and was a boy whose ageing grandfather was dying and with some deeply troubling secret which was making his final days an agony. This was the main story but as it grew I realised that I needed to change the boy into a girl, and needed to give her another challenge in her life, which after many attempts was having her own life-threatening illness and the two stories then ran in tandem with each other. It wasn’t until various editors from various publishers read it that the message emerged: two strong storylines fighting against each other. The best advice I received was to chop one out (half the book!) and the majority said, keep the cancer ward. I’m still left with the other story and one day I’ll try to make that into a book of its own, because it’s a story that I really like.
How long was the writing process for Anthem for Jackson Dawes?
The actual writing of the book didn’t take the eleven years I mentioned earlier. I was busy writing other stuff too, another novel which is still in a drawer, in fact; those heaps of short stories and of course doing the other things that make up my life, such as singing and song-writing, which I love to do, and having a life! I tended to work on Anthem for Jackson Dawes in short, concentrated bursts of writing, draft after draft, and sending it to a literary consultancy, Cornerstones, who really helped me see what the story was, where some parts needed to be expanded and others trimmed down or even cut out. Sometimes having a completely detached person reading your work can be incredibly helpful. Friends and family are OK but are they really going to sit you down and say, now, you need to listen to me… you need to look at this page and that paragraph and hang on… what’s all this? They just wouldn’t. Or they’d be horribly and super critical about irrelevant things, which is no good to anyone in the first draft of a story however short or long. In fact no good, full stop.
That period when I was writing and using the consultancy took time, of course, and in between I was also fiddling about with the book in the drawer which I started about ten years before Anthem for Jackson Dawes was even an idea in a notebook.
Did you have a clear ending in mind when you began writing?
Yes, but no real idea of how I’d get there. I didn’t plan the book. I’m having to be more sensible about the next one.
What are you currently working on? Will we be seeing a second novel soon?
Yes, I’m working on the second novel now, which is part of my contract with Bloomsbury and is for YA readers and is set during World War 1. It will be coming out in 2014.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read and read some more. That’s where you’ll learn about writing, that’s where you’ll see styles you really love and styles you really don’t. That’s where you’ll learn how dialogue should be used and how it shouldn’t. That’s where you’ll be able to see good writing and not so good writing and learn the difference. There are millions of books out there. They’re not all fab. But it’s worth reading a range of them so that you can make that decision yourself and find the ones that suit you. And remember that what is great to one person isn’t quite so great to another. Everybody’s different, thank goodness and some books you wouldn’t touch with a bargepole are the favourite read of somebody else. Which is how it should be.
Try out as many different styles of writing as you can. They can all help if you decide that eventually, fiction writing is what you want to do. Different styles add variety to your writing life and layers of writing experience. Try radio and screen writing. Try writing articles. Try keeping a journal. Try writing reviews. Just for the sake of it. Don’t restrict yourself to one style.
Be observant. Make notes. Imagine yourself as someone else. Live and breathe them. That’s when your characters will begin to live and breathe themselves.
Thank you so much Celia for answering my questions so wonderfully. Your advice for writers is fantastic and I’m very excited for your next book. It’s been wonderful to get an insight into your writing process.You can find Celia at her website and on twitter.