Nicole Hayes and ‘ A Shadow’s Breath’

A Shadow’s Breath by Nicole Hayes (Penguin Random House Australia) has just been published. Nicole spoke to Boomerang Books.

Where are you based and how are you involved in Australia’s YA lit community?

I am a Melbourne-based YA author and reader. The YA lit community in Melbourne is very open and embracing, and as an Ambassador to the Stella Schools Prize Program and a writing teacher, I get to meet lots of readers and writers at schools and festivals. When I’m not writing or teaching writing, I often work with other authors on their manuscripts.

What sports are you interested in?

A lot of sports, but I love AFL most of all. I used to play footy when I was a kid and became a rabid Hawthorn fan in my teens. My first novel, The Whole of My World, featured a teenage girl obsessed with footy, very loosely based on my experiences, and eventually led to my writing two more books about footy, and introduced me to the rest of the Outer Sanctum team – the all-female AFL podcast I’m involved in. I also watch a lot of soccer and Futsal because both my daughters are keen players.

Can you tell us about your other books?

The Whole of My World is about teenager Shelley Brown who is desperate to escape her grieving father and her own terrible secret. When she changes schools and a new friend introduces her to her footy heroes, Shelley’s passion for the game tips over into obsession, and she loses track of herself and all the things that matter in the process. 

One True Thing is about 16 year old Frankie Mulvaney-Webb whose mum is the Premier of Victoria. But Frankie hates the spotlight. All she wants to do is lay low and focus on her rock band, but her life is turned upside down when photos of her mum in a secret rendezvous with a much younger man go viral.

I’ve also written two other books about footy – one for adults called, From the Outer: Footy Like You’ve Never Heard It, and most recently, A Footy Girl’s Guide to the Stars of 2017, aimed at kids and featuring players from the new women’s Aussie Rules competition.

Could you explain the structure you’ve used in your new novel A Shadow’s Breath?

The novel has two alternating narratives, depicting two different timeframes interwoven throughout until they merge into one near the end. The Now chapters tell of Tessa Gilham’s survival story following a car accident that has left her and her boyfriend Nick stranded in the middle of the Australian bush. The second narrative, the Then chapters, go back over the last days before the accident, uncovering what drove Tessa and Nick into the bush in the first place, revealing why Tessa is afraid to go home.

It’s a fascinating title. Could you give us an insight into it?

Once I decided that Tessa would be a painter, I became particularly interested in finding a title that reflected the many issues around light and colour. My research uncovered a lot about the relativity of colour, which emerged as a powerful theme throughout the novel. I became fascinated by colour and how we see it differently, how it’s a cultural construct as well as an individual one, but also the logistics of how it works – that it’s also about how light is reflected and how our brain processes this information. In the middle of this reading I remembered an Emily Dickinson poem, “A Certain Slant of Light”, and this stanza caught me:

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

That’s when the shadow made its way into the title. I played around with different phrasings, then stumbled on “a shadow’s breath”, which is also an expression that means the smallest thing, or the tiniest margin. I really liked the idea of that – because these tiny things, even as slight as a shadow’s breath – can change how we see things completely. And so often the difference between life and death is as small as a shadow’s breath – one step the wrong way, or seconds earlier or later… Whole lives can change at a whim. There’s so much power in that almost non-existent thing. I also love that it hints at something vaguely mystical and impossible to hold.

Tell us about the characters Tessa, Yuki and Nick.

Tessa Gilham is mostly a loner and feels like she doesn’t belong. She’s convinced that the town hates her and her mum, and she’s probably right to a point. But Tessa’s life is improving — her mum has kicked out her abusive ex-partner, and is sober again. Tessa wants to believe that life will be different, but she’s so fragile and damaged that she struggles to trust it to last. In the process of trying to heal, she rediscovers her love of painting and, between this therapeutic outlet and the blossoming friendships around her, her new boyfriend, Nick and the ever faithful Yuki, Tessa is beginning to find her feet.

Yuki Fraser is Tessa’s best friend and her one reliable companion. It was often the Fraser home where Tessa sought escape from her abusive home life. Yuki’s dad is the local cop, and an old friend of the Gilhams – he’s determined to protect Tessa and has worked hard to keep Ellen Gilham out of jail. Yuki’s mum and little sister treat Tessa like family. Always have. But Yuki is trying to find her own way too, and tension between the girls increases as Tessa leans more heavily on her boyfriend Nick, neglecting to be there for Yuki in the way Yuki has always been there for Tessa.

Nick Kostas is one of the “new kids” from St Catherine’s which has recently merged with Carrima High. He and Tessa have just started dating but because he’s so popular and successful, and a year ahead at school, Tessa isn’t entirely secure in their relationship, and struggles to understand why he would choose her over more likely girls. The fact that he’s about to move to the city to go to university doesn’t help the situation, despite Nick’s obvious devotion to her.

What is the importance of Tessa’s home life to the story?

Tessa and her mum are trying on this new life, and still finding their way back to each other. Ellen Gilham has only recently sent “the arsehole” packing, and is newly sober, but as it’s been so long since it was just the two of them together, Tessa and Ellen are still working out how to be a family.

Tessa has been responsible for herself for so long that she isn’t sure how to let Ellen mother her, and Ellen is weighed down with guilt and regret that she let things continue for as long as she did. A guilt that Tessa feels is, mostly, deserved. Damaged and hurt, Tessa is struggling to forgive her mother, while the fragile Ellen wants only to earn back her daughter’s trust.

How important is the concept of ‘shouganai’ (surrender) in the narrative?

It was one of the first meaningful phrases I learnt in Japanese when I was living there many years ago, and it always stayed with me. It has different interpretations – positive and negative – but when Yuki’s mum says it, there’s a certain dignity and grace attached to accepting what – or who — can’t be changed. Specifically, accepting those you love for who they are – warts and all. In A Shadow’s Breath, I twisted its use to apply to people and their situation, but I love the bravery inherent in that. The idea of stepping back and letting things play out as they’re intended.

What role does art play?

For Tessa, art is her saving grace. Through her art she is able to find her way back to her childhood and begin to process and understand what happened to her. Her painting offers an outlet but also a means through which she can develop self-belief and start to accept her own worth. It also provides a connection with her new friends, and an opportunity to express herself, to earn these new friendships, particularly with Nick, who admires her work and envies her talent. Through their appreciation and admiration, she begins to look to the future for the first time.

Have any responses from your readers particularly resonated with you?

The story idea emerged at least partly from my encounters with young people whose own homes are not the haven they’re meant to be, and I really wanted their stories to be heard too. Since the novel came out, I’ve had several readers message to congratulate me on how I have depicted the reality of an abusive family and the challenges for those left behind. It’s genuinely humbling to be told that Tessa’s experience feels authentic to those who have had a similar life.

What other books have left a deep impression on you? 

So many! The book that continues to shake me, no matter how many times I read it, is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, McCarthy manages to depict a harrowing and bleak world of post-apocalyptic America in such sparse and beautiful language that I have found myself rereading passages too many times to count. But beyond the writing itself, the story depicts possibly the purist kind of parental love – it is a story about a dying man and his young son attempting to travel south to avoid an almost certainly lethal winter – and yet it never once uses the word love. There’s barely an expression of emotion in the whole novel. And yet it makes me cry like a baby every time I read it. I shiver even now just thinking about it.

Thanks for your generous and insightful responses, Nicole, and all the best with A Shadow’s Breath.