Australian YA: Meet Justine Larbalestier, author of My Sister Rosa
by Joy Lawn - February 24th, 2016
Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Justine.
Your books have been praised by critics, winning and being shortlisted for numerous awards, and are also very popular. Apart from My Sister Rosa (Allen & Unwin), which book is your finest achievement?
That’s not for me to say. Besides which I always think the book I’m working on is my best until it’s published and I’m at work on the next book.
[Joy’s other favourite is the brilliant Liar.]
Where are you based and how involved in the YA literary community are you?
I’m based in Sydney at the moment. Though I also spend a lot of time in New York City. Some years I’m more based there than here. Most of my friends in the US are YA writers. That’s where my publishing career began so for the longest time I was more connected to the industry there than here. But I’ve been working on that and doing what I can to learn more about the YA publishing industry here and reading heaps of Australian YA.
It never ceases to amaze me how good the quality is given what a small population we have. I’ve been meeting more writers and booksellers and bloggers and other industry people. Right now I feel very involved with the YA literary community. I find it hard to believe I can count folks like Melina Marchetta and Jaclyn Moriarty as friends. They’re both geniuses! And recently I’ve read all of Kirsty Eagar and Leanne Hall’s books. Wow. They’re amazing.
You describe New York particularly well. Do your characters in My Sister Rosa inhabit areas that you personally enjoy or find stimulating? If so, could you give us an example?
Thank you! I’ve lived there on and off since 1999. It’s the city I know best in the world other than Sydney. My Sister Rosa takes place in the parts of NYC that I know best. Though the narrator, Che, is seeing it for the first time. I asked friends who’d only lived there a short time to tell me what first struck them about the city and I tried to remember all the things I found strange, lo, those many years ago when I first lived in NYC. Like, the way it turns out that the steam coming out of the streets isn’t a Hollywood invention, but a real thing. I was so surprised the first time I saw that. I thought someone was shooting a movie.
A character suggests that Australians swear more than Americans. Is this true?
It’s a farken fact. (Er, that I have no substantial data support. Just trust me.)
What kind of role do fashion and fame play in My Sister Rosa?
NYC is a very fashion conscious city. I love people watching there because you see such a vast array of clothes. Top hats with roller skates! (I really did see that one time.) There are many fashion designers based there and lots of young designer markets where you can pick up clothes designed by up and coming designers cheaply. They also have some of the best second-hand clothes shops I’ve ever seen. If you love clothes it’s an exciting town to live in. I wanted to reflect some of that in Rosa.
As for fame, that plays a much smaller part in the book. I’m fascinated by fame and do plan to write about it more in a USA setting. After all some claim famous people are the USA’s primary export. When I’m in NYC I often see famous people. Oh, look, there’s Philip Glass at the next table. Is that Bjork? Why, yes, it is. Hello, Yoko Ono, Uma Thurman, Ai Wei Wei. Oh, and there’s Gwyneth Paltrow. Again. I’m not kidding. I see her everywhere. She needs to stop going to my favourite restaurants already. Why can’t I see Janelle Monae everywhere instead? Life is cruel.
The only famous person in Rosa is Leilani and she’s only microfamous. I loved writing her. I’ve met several high profile bloggers who’ve parlayed that into various different high profile gigs and they all talk very interestingly about their small amount of fame. So Leilani is based on them, but also on Tavi Gevinson, who started her fashion blog at twelve and whose online magazine Rookie is wonderful. She turns 20 in April. I like to think she and Leilani would be besties.
My Sister Rosa is described as a psychological thriller, a genre very difficult to pull off, but you have done it! I couldn’t read it at night because the suspense and anticipation kept me awake. How do you create this unnerving atmosphere?
Thank you. I’m so glad it worked for you. The first few drafts of Rosa were massively bloated so I had to cut and cut and cut and keep on cutting. It’s tricky to balance letting readers get to know the characters with building tension and having enough scary incidents. It involves lots of cutting and rewriting and sending out to readers to see if I’m getting it right.
Narrator Che’s voice contributes significantly to the verisimilitude of the story. How did you create his voice and character?
It was a struggle. Rosa is the first novel I’ve written where I didn’t start with the voice. I’m a writer who doesn’t plan. Usually I don’t even know what the plot is when I start writing. But Rosa was my YA version of William March’s The Bad Seed (1954). So I knew the plot: instead of the mother of a psychopath, I would tell the story from the point of view of the older sibling. So instead of my usual practice of starting with the pov character and figuring out the story; I already had the story and had to figure out the pov character.
In the original draft Che was a girl but it didn’t work. I started over. But it still didn’t work. It took about four drafts before I figured out who Che was and what made him tick and made him believable and not cloying. He was really hard to write. Not because he was a boy, but because he’s such a fundamentally nice person, assuming the best of everyone, worrying about other people. We readers are trained to not much like good people. Mostly our favourites are the morally ambiguous characters, not the goody two shoes.
What makes his cute, ten-year-old sister, Rosa, so terrifying?
My guess is that she’s terrifying because she’s a psychopath. And she’s a real psychopath not the serial killer stereotype of the likes of Hannibal Lector. When I was writing the first draft I did a lot of reading on psychopathy. I wanted to see how much what we knew had changed since William March did his research back in the early 1950s. A lot it turned out.
I learned that psychopath, sociopath and antisocial personality disorder are synonyms. I read many case studies of real-life psychopaths who aren’t serial killers.
I also learned a lot from friends, who, on hearing of my research, told me about their own encounters with psychopaths. One dear friend went out with one for years and another close friend’s mother was a psychopath. I also heard stories of people whose children had been diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. The stories they told me of the manipulation and lies and absence of empathy went a long way towards shaping the character of Rosa.
How well matched are Che and Sojourner or is she out of his league?
I’m not convinced there are leagues. Che and Sojourner have a lot in common. I think they’re well matched. Che underrates himself. He has a gift for making and keeping friends. He’s loyal and caring and smart. I like that Sojourner was able to see the depths in him. Though, yes, she is amazing.
How carefully did you balance love and empathy with evil?
Several drafts in it was clear that Che was pretty much the opposite of his psychopathic sister. She feels no empathy; he feels too much. That central fact, I think, keeps the book balanced.
I’m on a great reading roll at the moment. I loved Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, which is sexy and smart and unputdownable. I’ve read all her books now and loved all of them. As I mentioned above I also recently discovered Leanne Hall’s work. Wow. This is Shyness is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. And her new book Iris and the Tiger is utterly delightful.
Thanks very much, Justine.
It was a pleasure.