Meet James Moloney, author of The Beauty is in the Walking
James Moloney is a statesman in the world of Australian YA and children’s books. The hilarious Black Taxi and Kill the Possum for YA and Dougy, Swashbuckler and Buzzard Breath and Brains for children are among my favourites of his books. I store his novels behind glass in my special cabinet for revered Australian authors.
Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, James.
Where are you based and how involved are you in the world of children’s and YA lit?
I live in Brisbane, where I write in a cabin at the bottom of my yard. I’ve been writing YA and books for younger kids for thirty years. My first novel was published in 1992 and after my next five titles did very well I took the risk and gave up my job as a teacher librarian to become a full time writer in 1997. I’ve enjoyed writing fantasy as well with ‘The Book of Lies’ being my best known. Since I’m now close to fifty titles, I suppose I’m classed as ‘an old hand’ in the world of YA lit.
What is the significance of the title of your new novel, The Beauty is in the Walking?
Ah, tricky answer that one. The publishers did not like my original title, which happens sometimes. (I had to change the title of my first novel, in fact). We workshopped ideas for a new title until an editor at Harper Collins come up with this. I liked it straight away for its lyrical sound and the way it nailed Jacob’s attitude towards his disability. It also linked nicely to his self-proclaimed expertise as a ‘connoisseur of walks’ stemming from his growing teenage attraction to girls.
Only later did I discover the words are part of a quote from Welsh poet Gwyn Thomas, ‘The beauty is in the walking – we are betrayed by destinations’ but now that I do know, I like it even better.
There is a big push for diversity in YA lit. What diversity have you shown in this novel?
I wrote this novel partly in response to a challenge from an old friend/editor to explore how disabled teenagers seek love and explore their sexuality. Since people with a physical or intellectual disability have always been marginalized throughout the world, telling a story about a boy living with cerebral palsy could be seen as showing diversity. It’s important to understand, though, that I didn’t self-consciously build the story around that theme, any more than I set out to write my novel ‘Dougy’ and its sequel ‘Gracey’ because the main characters were Indigenous Australians. In both instances, I wanted to tell a good yarn that I felt compelled to write. I’d like young people to read ‘The Beauty is in the Walking’ as the story of a boy growing up and moving into the next phase of his life who happens to have a disability.
A second example of diversity in the novel is the Lebanese Muslim family that Jacob becomes involved with. The story is set in a country town where communities can sometimes be slow to embrace non-Anglo and especially non- European ethnic groups, especially after recent terrorist acts by people of Middle Eastern origin. Readers will note that Jacob has very little contact with Soraya and virtually none with Mahmoud, the boy he attempts to exonerate after the boy is falsely accused of a disgusting crime. Jacob is only partially motivated by anti-racist sentiment. Mostly he undertakes the role of defender to prove himself and rise above the ‘disability’ prejudice that is holding him back.
How did you create the character of Jacob?
Like I always do, I spent some time trying to ‘be’ him, to think like a seventeen year old with CP, reading about how young people cope with their disability and I interviewed a women in her early thirties whose CP had consigned her to a wheel chair since her teens. She had recently had her first child. The results were surprising. A lot was written and said about the assumptions that able-bodied people make about CP sufferers, especially the tendency to assume a person with laboured movements and speech must be intellectually disabled as well. I was also pleased to hear that many people with CP are highly mischievous and have a great sense of humour.
How important is writing about boys for you?
‘Gracey’, ‘Angela’, ‘Black Taxi’, ‘Bridget: A New Australian’ and the entire Silvermay fantasy series are all written in the first person from a female character’s perspective, so I do write about girls. However, I’m seen more as a writer for boys and I have written and spoken extensively about encouraging boys to read, so definitely, it is important to me. I think I have an innate understanding of a certain type of male character stemming from my teen years. I have often said that writers need to have something to say and mostly I say it to boys. My characters tend to share a lot with me in their interior lives so perhaps the importance to me is the continual exploration of my own masculinity. I‘m very aware that boys don’t easily externalise self-doubt, anxiety and their deeply felt needs thanks to social expectations so it’s important to explore such things in novels about boys which boys can quietly delve into as a counterbalance.
You’ve written many books, including award-winners. Could you tell us about some?
My earliest award winners were ‘Dougy’ and ‘Gracey’ which seemed to strike a need at the time to understand the experience of Indigenous Australians. Dougy saves his much loved sister, Gracey, from the violent madness that briefly overcomes their small outback town. I continued the story with that sister’s experience when her athletic ability wins her a scholarship to boarding school. Her years there separate her from her cultural roots and she has to re-make her personal identity in order to cope.
‘A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove’ is the one everyone loves. Winner of the Children’s Book Council award in 1997, it tell of lonely, overweight Carl Matt whose been abandoned by his mother in a seaside town where his family name is roundly despised. When he leaves school to work for and ultimately save a struggling barge service, he finds new strengths in himself and forms the friendships that help him understand there is love and a place for himself in the world.
How else do you spend your time?
I love movies and TV series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. I read, of course, in order to shamelessly steal ideas from other authors. I ride my bike for exercise and I’ve even ridden around Europe, although any image of the Tour de France you might create in your mind is laughably inaccurate.
Which books would you like for Christmas?
I see Anne Tyler has a new book out – ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’. I love her work and Isobelle Carmody has finally finished her grand series with ‘The Red Queen’. But really, I’d like someone to choose a couple of great new YA novels not set in a dystopian land or part of any series and put them under my tree. Christmas is a time I go into bookshops to really look around. I often give books to family as presents (and they do the same for me) and then we end up sharing them around.
All the best with The Beauty is in the Walking (which I’ve reviewed here) and thanks very much, James.