YA at the BWF16

AuroraThere was a plethora of YA authors at this year’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

I enjoyed hearing Meg Rosoff speak about Jonathan Unleashed (Bloomsbury). It’s a memorable story about a youngish man living in New York City with two dogs his brother has asked him to mind. He hates his job in advertising and is being pushed into marriage with his girlfriend who works for a bridal magazine. It’s not a YA novel although Jonathan acts like a boy for much of the book. It certainly did seem to reflect parts of Meg’s own life story and also reminded me of reading Graeme Simsion’s Rosie stories. This means I liked it very much!

It was also a delight to hear Maxine Beneba Clarke speak to secondary school students. She’s not a YA writer but her Foreign Soil and The Hate Race (Hachette) have garnered widespread praise. Maxine helped students appreciate poetry and her performance of several of her poems was breathtaking. I felt that these students were honoured to hear her and that she would make a powerful impression on their attitudes and writing.

WinterThere were other exciting YA and children’s writers I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to hear but I was involved in facilitating a panel of debut YA authors at Brisbane Square Library’s ‘Love YA!’ day. Mark Smith, a teacher and surfer from coastal Victoria, spoke about his post apocalyptic novel The Road to Winter, Queensland Sunshine Coast’s Elizabeth Kasmer shared her thoughtful look at identity, racism and aging in Becoming Aurora (which has a fascinating connection with a painting in the Qld Art Gallery) and celebrity Brisbane bookseller Christopher Currie spoke about his well written exploration of Clancy in a small Qld town in Clancy of the Undertow.Clancy

Their characters were all sixteen (or almost 16), a pivotal age for change; all the authors had interesting reasons for choosing their characters’ names (Finn, Aurora and Clancy); all incorporated sport in their novel (surfing, boxing, cricket); all showcased nature or a special place in their characters’ lives and, perhaps unusually in YA novels, all featured kindness either through their major or minor characters. These three authors were all a pleasure to interview. Seek out their books. Find them on social media.

Jay Kristoff was also riveting at ‘Love YA!’ (and had a very long signing queue!) where he spoke about Nevernight. He and Illuminae (Allen&Unwin) co-author Aime Kaufman were later treated to Argo’s musical performance of Illuminae back at the State Library’s stunning Red Box as the sun set over the Brisbane River. The space opera was composed and performed by Ben Heim and Connor D’Netto and included electrifying cello solos by Patrick Murphy, a cast of strings and voice-overs from the novel. It was a very sophisticated and atmospheric finale to my BWF16.

Illuminae by Argo

The Ottoman Motel (An Unexpected, But Stoked Part 2)

The Ottoman MotelYou know how sometimes someone unveils a secret so spectacular and so heartwarming that you’re blown away? That you then relive every email and conversation you’ve had with them in the preceding weeks and marvel at how they managed to keep such a fantastic secret? Well, I’m experiencing that now, having interviewed talented Brisbane writer Chris Currie about his forthcoming first novel, The Ottoman Motel.

The blog went live just a couple of days ago and I saw Chris (it feels weird to say ‘Currie’, even if that is the correct format) a day or so later and had a brief conversation about whether the whole book thing feels real yet. He said he was probably going to receive a finished copy soon and that the reality would then probably start to sink in.

What he didn’t mention is that he’d crafted a brilliant plan to propose to his long-term girlfriend and that this finished copy was to play an integral role …

Congratulations! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea?

Thank you very much! I had known for a while that I wanted to ask Leesa to marry me, but of course I wanted to make my proposal special. I was coming towards the final final (final) rewrites of my book, and knew I still had the acknowledgments yet to write.

I thought to myself: I’ll only get one chance to write my first book, and I’ll only get one chance to propose to the love of my life, so why not celebrate both? After consultation with my editor, I worked out I could get a finished copy express posted to me in time for Leesa’s birthday, and the plan was set …

I get the sense you kept this one to yourself—not even your closest friends knew. Was it difficult to keep this under wraps?

It was really, really hard. Leesa is not very good at waiting for surprises, and very good at guessing them (try spending Christmas Eve with her …), so I wanted this to be the ultimate surprise. As it was her birthday, I was deliberately vague about what we were doing, only that I was taking her somewhere nice, thus hiding the real surprise inside another surprise.

Plus, it was an arguably foolhardy thing to do, and I didn’t want to get talked out of it! I worked it out yesterday, and it was over a month from when I sent in the acknowledgments to when I got to spring the surprise!

It is quite possibly the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard (especially for a writer). What sort of response have you received?

I don’t know what that says about writers, but it just seemed like a really nice way to show my love and commitment. I’ve had an overwhelming response to the news. It’s been wonderful, even from people I don’t know commenting on Twitter!

What would have happened had she said no (not that we think for a moment that she would have!)? Was there a contingency plan for pulping?

As I said, it was a possibly foolhardy act of pen-to-paper commitment, because no, there was no back-up plan. Once it was printed, it would be there forever. As one of my friends suggested, the perfect reply would be ‘I’ll write a book and then give you my answer.’ Luckily for me, her response was ‘Of course I’ll marry you,’ which made it all the waiting and the worrying worthwhile.

Can you run us through the moment/her reaction?

We were on the rooftop of the hotel I’d booked, with a bottle of champagne. It was a bit breezy, so I said I’d go and get our coats, which of course was a ruse to fetch the book and the ring.

I said, ‘I know I said I wasn’t going to get you anything for your birthday,’ and produced the book. She seemed chuffed enough, but then I told her to read the acknowledgments. She said later she saw the word ‘marry’ straight away. She said yes, even before I could get down on one knee and produce the ring.

I think this is going to become a collector’s edition. You do realise that you’re going to have to come up with something as romantic and spectacular for the second book …

I realise I’ve set the bar quite high. I’m sure inspiration will hit when I most need it, though …

I’m sure you will. Congrats again. Just quietly (and I think it’s ok to generalise here), we’re all really stoked for you.

The Ottoman Motel

The Ottoman MotelA story a day published on a public blog, the seed of a story kicked off on this blog, three different ideas for a book title, and the paradox of being presented with your own book and the opportunity to purchase loads of copies of it as part of your other job … They’re just some of the elements that have gone into Brisbane-based writer Christopher Currie’s first novel, The Ottoman Motel.

Currie is known to many readers for his Furious Horses blog, for which he wrote and published something daily with the public shame of not achieving his daily goal inspiring him keep putting fingers to keyboard. Others have discovered his finely crafted work through such publications as The Lifted Brow and Small Room magazine. I caught up with him to find out where the idea for the novel, its title, and artwork came from, and whether Furious Horses played a role …

Can you please outline briefly what the book’s about?

The main character is an 11-year-old boy called Simon who is on a road trip with his parents to visit his estranged grandmother, who has fallen ill, who lives in a small coastal town called Reception on the Northern NSW coast. They check into a hotel (The Ottoman Motel, strangely enough), and Simon’s parents go off to visit a local landmark and leave Simon alone.

He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, his parents have gone. The community of Reception seems kind at first: the town’s police officer takes an active interest and a local family takes him in, but Simon soon realises that maybe he can’t trust anyone. They disappearance of his parents has had an effect on the town, an effect that no one could have anticipated …

How did you come up with this idea?

This was my first go at a full-length manuscript, having very much cut my teeth writing short fiction. The story developed out of two or three short stories I had been playing around with. The relationship between children and parents, the idea of a small tourist town that shuts down in winter, the competitive streak between children meeting for the first time: these are a few themes that started me off.

Being a short story writer, the first version of The Ottoman Motel actually consisted of eight different points of view, which was probably me finding a way to get around committing myself to a sustained long narrative. While this was a good exercise in voice, it didn’t do much for narrative tension or mystery, both of which are important to the story.

The final version is pared down to three voices: Simon, Madaline (the local police officer) and Tarden (a fisherman who is the last person to see Simon’s parents alive). As with much of my writing, I worked without a rigid plan, and let the characters evolve in their own way. This led me (and them) through some surprising twists and turns and onto an ending that I hope does justice to the rest of the story.

The Ottoman Motel is a great title and the cover, and the water-soaked silhouette in particular is brilliant. Can you tell us how both came about?

Embarrassingly enough, The Ottoman Motel was not my choice of title, although I have since seen sense. As this story has been with me for over 10 years, from the very first instance, it had been called From the Deep End Table (which makes sense once you read it) and I was deeply attached to the title. Unfortunately, the first thing my editor told me in our very first face-to-face meeting was ‘We’ve got to get rid of that title’.

Then it was called Reception (the name of the town, and with obvious other overtones), which I was just getting used to when my editor came up with The Ottoman Motel. After a week’s worth of arguing, she convinced me of the change. I couldn’t be happier now, as it seems to be a title that sticks in peoples’ minds.

As for the cover, again I can take no credit. Despite me sending a number of long emails to my long-suffering editor with cover design suggestions, Text Publishing went with their brilliant in-house designer W H Chong, who came up with the stunning cover. I am very particular about covers (I mean, you should have seen the ‘cover suggestion’ emails I sent!), but the jacket image you see now is just about identical to the first one I was shown. As soon as I saw it, I loved it.

As a writer who moonlights as a bookseller when you’re not writing, can you tell us how important it is to nail the cover and title?

Like I say, being a bookseller makes you acutely aware of how important a cover and title can be. Despite the old adage that you should never judge a book by its proverbial, the reality is, if the image doesn’t catch your eye among dozens of others on a bookshop’s shelves, you don’t pick it up and if you don’t pick it up you don’t buy it.

With your book now lining the shelves, how tempting will it be to recommend it when customers come in the vague requests for ‘a good book’ to read?

It’s going to be a quandary. My role in the bookshop I work in is the stock buyer, so I had the strange experience recently of being shown my own book in a sales kit, and having to decide how many to buy in (I told my boss the entire shop would be lined with The Ottoman Motels for the month of May. I was sort of joking.). I may have to abstain from recommending it myself, and rely on others to do the selling for me! Unless it’s someone running a book club who needs 20 copies of a single book, in which case …

The writing process is long and arduous and the thought of sitting down to a blank page/computer screen is incredibly hard. You kicked off your blog, Furious Horses, a couple of years ago to force yourself to write every day. Can you tell us a little about it and how it’s helped you?

Strangely enough, I started Furious Horses off the back of what was then an early version of The Ottoman Motel. I had rushed to write the end of it for the 2007 Australian/Vogel Award (and was surprised to find it had been longlisted) but I had no impetus to work any more on it. Having convinced myself I had nowhere left to go with my writing, my routine just stopped.

The idea behind Furious Horses was to write a short story every day and post it to a blog, but more importantly to tell everyone I knew that I was doing it. In this way, the power of shame forbade me from stopping. I simply had to do it, and I did, and it helped my writing routine no end, as well as raising my profile (‘Hey, you’re that story-a day guy!’).

How many years and incarnations has The Ottoman Hotel been in the works? Has it changed much during that time?

I am a chronic rewriter, so I can’t possibly tell you how many versions there were before I was signed to Text. There have been three major (and I mean major) revisions since I started working with my editor. As I mentioned, there are now only three points of view, and the trajectory of the story has changed greatly.

During the initial drafting of the story, I was watching Twin Peaks for the first time, and as such the narrative was very mysterious and convoluted. The version I have ended up with I hope retains some of that mystery, but has a tighter, more compelling story.

If you had to sum up the book and its target readership in a couple of sentences, what would you say?

If you can imagine Sonya Hartnett, Murray Bail, and Donna Tartt staying up to late to watch Wake in Fright, they would all have a collective dream something like The Ottoman Motel. God, I hate writing those things.

What’s next for you? Is there another novel in the works or a well-earned writing rest?

I’m actually writing a short film at the moment, which is another new challenge for me. Once that’s done, it’s definitely on to another novel. It’s funny, when I was writing this novel, I seemed to have lots of good ideas for other books that I welcomed as distractions. Now they seem to have disappeared …