Books & Christmas with A.J. Betts

A.J. Betts has achieved great popular and critical acclaim for her YA novel Zac & Mia (Text Publishing).

Why A.J. rather than Amanda?

I chose to use my initials for the publication of my first novel, Shutterspeed, which was, amongst other things, a book written to appeal to reluctant male readers (14+). After teaching teens for many years, I realised how little was written to engage and excite this group. I worried that a female name on the cover might give potential readers a reason – however small – not to pick up the book. My decision was also a homage, of sorts, to S.E. Hinton, and her amazing work and legacy.Shutterspeed

Where are you based and how involved are you in the YA and children’s lit world?

After growing up in Far North Queensland, then living for a time in Brisbane and overseas, I’m now based in Perth, where I’ve been since 2004. I’m fortunate to live beside the ocean. I’m obsessed with the blues.

I’m quite involved in the YA scene. I’m a member of WA branch of SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), which regularly meets for workshops and talks. I’ve made some incredible, like-minded friends through this organisation. I spend a lot of time speaking at schools and festivals, including working with The Literature Centre in Fremantle, which promotes Australian children’s creators, and conducts writing programs for young people. More generally, I’m a proud supporter of the LoveOzYA campaign, as well as the Room2Read projects.

How else do you spend your time?

Besides writing and presenting, I teach high school English part-time. I’m a keen cyclist (I own five bikes) so I try to get out most days, followed by an ocean dip. I read when I can, for pleasure or research. If I need some ‘down-time’ I watch films or I wander around shopping centres like a zombie.

Zac & MiaWhat inspired you to write Zac & Mia (which I reviewed for The Weekend Australian here)?

For the past eleven years I’ve worked as a high school teacher in a children’s hospital in Perth, and most of that time has been spent working on the cancer ward.

Even so, Zac & Mia was a surprise to me. In the past, my writing has always been sparked from random moments, followed by ‘what if?’ questioning. I never imagined I’d write about topics so close to my real (working) life. I never thought I’d write a novel so emotionally testing.

The book came about from two separate things: firstly, my empathy for teenagers stuck in isolation during a bone marrow transplant treatment (imagine being stuck in a room for five weeks!?); and secondly, because of a request I had from a cancer patient who wanted me to write a romance. I didn’t know which idea to pursue first – isolation or romance – so I wondered if it was possible to bring the two ideas together. This raised the question: is it possible to fall in love with someone you can’t meet?

Cancer wasn’t a driving ‘theme’, but the catalyst for bringing the two characters together. As the story developed, so too did the ideas, such as finding ‘a new normal’ after illness or change. It was only in the editing process that I realized what is truly at the heart of the story: What is beauty? What is courage? What is love? The characters are working out their own answers to these questions – and I certainly learned a lot from them along the way!

I’m indebted to the hundreds of teenagers I’ve worked with on the cancer ward – they are the reason I persevered with this book, honestly and earnestly. They continue to inspire and surprise me.

Could you tell us something about your main characters, and also about the book’s structure (which I love)?

Zac is a very level-headed kind of guy who likes sport and the outdoors. He uses humour to deal with problems, and has a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of approach. He was lots of fun to write and his voice came to me quite naturally. I’d say he’s made up of 50% me and 50% teenaged male students I’ve known over the years. (Please note: while Zac & Mia is influenced by real people, the actual story and events are fictional.)

The entrance of Mia’s character, on the other hand, needed to prompt contrast and conflict, and as a result she’s more impulsive, self-focused, and quicker to anger. She’s feisty! Whereas Zac’s decisions are based on logic, hers are emotion-fuelled. She was also fun to create, but it took me a long time to get her character right. Again, she’s made up of teenagers I’ve known (their comments; not necessarily their actions) and parts of me. I had to delve into my teenage recollections to truly bring her to life.

The three-part structure – Zac’s perspective; alternating perspectives; Mia’s perspective – evolved through the writing process. Originally, the novel was going to be completely narrated by Zac, but when I was approximately eight chapters in, I realized the main character arc was going to be Mia’s. This meant I needed to give her the chance to reveal much more of her inner life. I liked the alternating chapters in the middle third, as it contrasts the characters’ experiences while showing their lives intersecting. By devoting the final third to Mia, I came to like her more – and hopefully the reader does too! The novel’s three-word title came directly from its three-part structure.

AmandaBettsHave you received any responses from young readers about Zac and Mia that particularly resonate with you?

I’m overwhelmed by the sincerity of the emails I receive from young readers, both here in Australia and overseas. Some have cancer; some have witnessed it in a friend or relative. For most readers, though, they really relate to Mia’s experience, which is not about illness but universal experiences such as hope, rejection, fear, self-loathing, love, vulnerability and frustration. Readers tell me the book moved them, and that they see their worlds with new eyes. What a privilege this is, for me.

What else have you written?

My first novel is Shutterspeed (Fremantle Press; 2008), followed by Wavelength (Fremantle Press; 2010). They are completely different from each other, and from Zac & Mia. Shutterspeed is fast and edgy, exploring ideas of obsession and secrecy. Wavelength is more funny and philosophical, reflecting on the decisions that teenagers (nearing the end of Year 12) need to make.Wavelength

What are you writing at the moment?

My current project is already three years in the making. It’s something unexpected and exciting – a work of speculative fiction set in a future Tasmania. It’s my most adventurous story yet. I’m about 2/3 through the draft, though the overall shape keeps changing and I’m continually having to rework earlier chapters. It could be really good or a terrible mess. I’m yet to find out! But I’m enjoying it right now, which must count for something.

What have you enjoyed reading? Illuminae

So much! I’ve just finished reading Illuminae (by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff) which kept me awake at night for all the best reasons. This year some of my favourites have been Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel), My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern), South of Darkness (John Marsden), A Single Stone (Meg McKinlay), and Inbetween Days (Vikki Wakefield). I’m about to begin reading American Gods (Neil Gaiman), and a non-fiction book called The Soul of an Octopus (Sy Montgomery). I can’t wait to begin.

Inbetween daysChristmas is coming. How do you plan to celebrate and what books would you like as Christmas presents?

Already!? This Christmas will be a quiet-ish one in Perth with good friends, good food, and some cooling ocean swims. For Christmas, I need another bookcase, and only then I’m allowed to buy/receive new books. No-one dares buy me books for Christmas as they know how fussy I am.

For the New Year I’ll be going to New Zealand for a one month cycle-touring trip of the South Island, (with some research and bookstore events/visits thrown in). Travel, bikes, books – what more could anyone want?

Zac & Mia & Willow – YA for your soul

Here in SE Queensland, just before Christmas, an unusual thing happened. It began to rain. I’d almost forgotten the scent of a wet garden and the sensation of damp. It was perfect cosy reading weather.

Alas, the week before Christmas with a house full of family and several menus and trips away to plan for proved anything but conducive to curling up with a good book. Thus, I’ve had a short sabbatical from children’s texts over the holidays. However, one or two did manage to sneak in under the radar and just like Santa, they really delivered.

Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I saved this read, as I save my favourite parts of a roast dinner (the spuds) till last; knowing once I’d tasted it, it would be gobbled down fast. And it was. Counting by 7s is the story of twelve-year old Willow Chance who lives in Bakersfield, California and comes home from school one day to the news that her parents have been killed in a car accident.

This slap-in-the-face realisation is based on a real life occurrence of American author Holly Goldberg Sloan, as are many of the references in this novel. Willow’s loss is tragic but it is merely one of the inspired background colours used by Sloan to paint her story.

What follows is a journey of soul searching and discovery, not always by Willow; she is too pragmatic for that sort of thing. It’s a story about accepting different viewpoints, of moving on and allowing unexpected change to help you find ‘connectedness’ in life.

Holly Goldsberg SloanWillow could read as a prickly, hard to love character. Conversely, it could be easy to over sympathise with her plight. However, Sloan’s intelligent narrative is completely free of mawkishness. Her characters shine with pristine clarity and likeability.

I cannot fault this sophisticated tween / teen novel. Artful, moving, witty, and intensely humble. Sure, I cried in parts, but do not expect to be swept away by sentimentality. Willow, the higher thinking, twice-orphaned ‘problem’ everyone grows to cherish simply doesn’t allow it. Instead, she becomes the unexpected catalyst that sparks relationships and lives back to life. An astoundingly clarifying look at the complicated world of human relationships and emotions. Uplifting indeed and possibly better than roast potatoes.

Scholastic Australia May 2014

Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts

This is another YA read I’ve been hording. Once you read it, you will understand why. It’s almost too good to consume; over within minutes of starting. In other words, unputdownable.

Zac & MiaZac and Mia is not just a novel for young readers although A. J. Betts does a magnificent job of harnessing teenage nuances. With such broad appeal, Betts confidently tackles the despairingly familiar topic of cancer in young people. Zac and Mia however is not a maudlin account of people affected by cancer. It is a marvellous tapestry of conflicting emotions, characters fuelled by fear and love, confronting moments of self-discovery, and above all hope. Love and despair parry with equally matched determination between teenagers Zac and Mia with a rawness that makes you weep and humour that maintains a smile on your face as the tears fall.

A J BettsSimilar to John Green’s, A Fault in our Stars which I’ve yet to read so cannot make a direct comparison to, Zac and Mia is too splendid for words and a marvellous example of pure undiluted Aussie talent with one of the most endearing endings I’ve read, ever. Eloquent, ballsy, poignant, and beautifully told. A must read.

Text Publishing Australia July 2013

True, YA novels take on the tough stuff, unashamedly ramming readers head on into topics and themes often fraught with complicated innuendo, evolving emotions, damaged personalities and questionable social situations, but with writers like these doling out these tales with such sensitivity and sincerity, one can’t help but feel beautifully satisfied.

 

 

 

Brisbane Writers Festival Dazzles

Analogue MenThe  2014 Brisbane Writers Festival had an inspiring launch on Thursday night when author/publisher Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, What is the What – about the lost boys of Sudan) told a full tent  about the genesis of McSweeney’s publishing company and its 826 Valencia Writing Centres. The tutoring behind these pirate, superhero and other themed storefronts has helped countless children with their writing. Groups doing similar work in Australia are Sydney’s Story Factory with its Martian Embassy, Melbourne’s 100 Story Building, and Book Links in Queensland is working towards its own centre.

My next session was ‘Dangerous Allies’ where Robert Manne interviewed Malcolm Fraser in front of a capacity crowd. The insights about Australia’s alliance with the US were provocative and chilling.

‘Zen and the Art of Tea’ was a light-hearted exploration of tea by Morris Gleitzman and Josephine Moon. Josephine’s tip about brewing lavender, garlic or basil to make teas sounds worth trying and Morris – a literary Geoffrey Rush – was hilarious. He personified coffee as a bully, and tea as a whispering lover.

David Hunt was in fine form discussing his Indies Book winner, Girt which is a retelling of Australian history with a comedic eye.

It was fun to cross paths with David Malouf (for the second time in two weeks), Jennifer Byrne, Will Kostakis, Pamela Rushby and Tristan Bancks. If only there was more time for more sessions … I would have loved to see YA writers such as A.J. Betts, Isobelle Carmody and Jackie French but they were either offsite or clashed with my events. Andy Griffiths was so popular he had his own signing area after the other children’s writers’ part of the program had finished. Chairing Andy and John Boyne (Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) a few years ago was one of the funniest times of my life.

Forgotten Rebels of EurekaThis year I was privileged to moderate sessions with Clare Wright on The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (Text) and Nick Earls on Analogue Men (Vintage). Clare must be the world’s most informed person in her field of women at Eureka. Her book deservedly won the Stella Prize this year. It is compulsive, engaging reading, notwithstanding its 500+ pages.

Nick was as funny as expected and revealed a secret about Analogue Men. We learned that his favourite Dr Who is Jon Pertwee and his favourite tech device Bluetooth. I explained how I laughed out loud repeatedly over one scene that I read on instant replay and Nick implied that my brain is like that of a goldfish. But no – it really was the skilful writing. It was wonderful to hear the laughing throughout this session and see the animated audiences in both these events.

Many thanks to the authors involved in the Festival, particularly Clare and Nick, and to the incredible BWF staff and volunteers led by Kate Eltham.

Winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing announced

The winner of the 2012 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing is A.J. Betts, for her tender and funny young adult novel Zac and Mia.

Zac and Mia is the story of two teens who meet and form a relationship on a cancer ward, but who find life outside the hospital much more complicated.

An English teacher and university lecturer from Perth, A.J. Betts has won $10,000 and a publishing contract with Text Publishing.  Betts is also the author of two young adult novels, Shutter Speed (2008) and Wavelength (2010). Wavelengh was shortlisted for the West Australian Premier’s Prize in 2011.

On hearing the news, Betts commented, ‘I’m thrilled. Writing a novel is a long, all-consuming task, often plagued with self-doubt. To come out the other side and receive such validating news is more than a writer could hope for. I’m honoured and humbled by the judges’ decision, and very excited about the future of Zac and Mia.’

Michael Heyward, Publisher at Text, remarked, ‘The Text Prize is now five years old. We’ve published some wonderful books in that time: The Billionaire’s Curse by Richard Newsome, This Is Shyness by Leanne Hall, The Bridge by Jane Higgins and Fire in the Sea by Myke Bartlett. Now we have a wonderful fifth novel to publish:Zac and Mia by A.J. Betts, a deeply moving book about the relationship that grows between two kids with cancer. We can’t wait to usher this marvellous book into the world.’

Zac and Mia by A. J. Betts will be published in August 2013.

The Text Prize is awarded annually to the best manuscript written by an Australian or New Zealander for young adults or children.

Entries for the 2013 prize open in March 2013.

Watch out for the 2011 Text Prize winner, Fire in the Sea by Myke Bartlett, in August 2012.