My Life as a Hashtag, interview with Gabrielle Williams

I was very disappointed to miss hearing you at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Gabrielle. What did you talk about and what did you particularly enjoy about your sessions?

 I’m disappointed I missed out on meeting you too, Joy. It was a crazy-busy week, and we obviously both had full dance-cards! As for my Festival talk: I have a theory about teenage audiences –10% of them love writing, and really want to be there. 20% are readers, so they’re happy to be there as well – that means 30% of the room are ‘interested’. 40% are pleased to be missing out on classwork, and if they enjoy the talk that’s a bonus. I put them in the ‘open’ category. That leaves 30% of the room at various degrees of active resistance to listening to what I have to say. I figure I’ve already got the ‘interested’ top 30%. The ‘open’ 40% can be persuaded. But it’s those tough nuts in the bottom 30% – the ones who don’t want to be there – who I want to crack. So my talk is directed at them. I talk about what I was like when I was at school (bad), and I read out extracts of my year 11 report (very bad), which generally sends a gasp through the room. I then explain that I’m a professional liar these days because I’m paid to make up stories, but I add that they shouldn’t judge me too harshly because actually, everyone lies. The fun part is when I ask them to put their hand up if they’ve told a lie that morning, and most of the room puts up their hand (including teachers). I then explain that lying isn’t always bad, because it utilises a particular type of thinking called ‘divergent thinking’ which is important for creativity. I take them through a technique I use called Nine Squares – which is divergent thinking made easy – and explain how they can use it for good (coming up with ideas), instead of evil (telling lies). One of the things that I particularly loved about my sessions at the Festival was when teachers came up to me afterwards and said they’re now going to incorporate Nine Squares into their classroom lessons. And when a group of boys walked up to me and said they thought writing sucked, but they’d each bought a copy of my book for me to sign anyway. Well, that right there felt like success to me.

What a great turn around with those students, Gabrielle! Where are you based and how are you involved in the YA literary community?

I’m a Melbourne girl, and work a couple of days a week at Readings books in Malvern. I’m lucky enough to have made a fantastic group of friends in the Melbourne YA writing community who I’ve met through talking at Festivals and school visits  – Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Emily Gale, Nova Weetman, Kim Kane, Bec Lim, Chrissie Keighery, and Simmone Howell are all people I catch up with regularly. I’ve also become great friends with some Sydney writers (again through Festivals) and catch up with Kirsty Eagar, Melina Marchetta, and Will Kostakis whenever I’m in their neck of the woods.

I’ve really enjoyed the originality of your novels, Gabrielle. Could you give our readers a brief overview of each?

That’s gorgeous of you to say so, Joy. Thanks. My first YA book was ‘Beatle Meets Destiny’ which was about a superstitious boy called Beatle, who meets a girl called Destiny in unusual circumstances, and wonders whether she’s ‘the one’ – only problem being that Beatle already has a girlfriend. My next book was, ‘The Reluctant Hallelujah’, a crazy road-trip type adventure between a group of 5 teenagers who have never met each other, but who have to drive (unlicensed) from Melbourne to Sydney in order to deliver the body of Jesus Christ to his next ‘safe house’. Some people were put off reading it because they thought it would be thrusting religion down their throat – it wasn’t. It wasn’t about religion at all (despite the fact that Jesus Christ Himself featured as one of the characters). In fact, it was an exploration of the themes of trust and selflessness, and I loved writing it because I felt like it was such an original concept. My third book was called ‘The Guy The Girl The Artist and His EX’. It follows four characters (again, who don’t know each other) who are all impacted on by the real-life theft of Picasso’s ‘Weeping Woman’ from the National Gallery of Victoria by the Australian Cultural Terrorists in 1986. My newest book is called, ‘My Life as a Hashtag’. It centres on a girl called MC who feels like everything is going wrong in her world, so she vents anonymously against one of her best friends on-line, only to watch, powerless, as her rant goes world-wide viral a few weeks later.

As with your other titles, I greatly admire My life as a hashtag (Allen & Unwin). How does this differ from your other books?  

‘My Life as a Hashtag’ is a much more linear novel. It’s ‘straighter’. It’s told from the perspective of looking back over the past year, running straight through from beginning to end, whereas with all my other books I’ve always liked playing with structure. I wanted to have a more tried-and-true structure for MLAAH, because there were a number of important issues I wanted to explore, and I felt like a linear structure would help give clarity to the concepts I was wanting to examine.

What issues did you raise in the novel?

There are a number of themes I wanted to look at: the issue of social media and how teens negotiate it; family break-ups; the identity of self; the politics of boys in female friendships; on-line trolling; the fact that once you post something on-line, you have no control over what people do with it; sibling relationships; ‘blocking’ and being ‘blocked’; and watching a party unfold on social media, when you’re not invited.

How did you create such a strong feeling of dread?

Creating a strong sense of dread was one of the ‘balances’ we worked hard to get right. I say ‘we’ because my editor and publisher were instrumental in pushing me to go further, and pulling me back when I went too far. I wanted there to be a sense of dread, but I also wanted a lightness throughout the book, otherwise the story would have been too grim. The sense of dread is created partly by telling the story from the perspective of the narrator looking back over the past year, which gives the reader the sense that something momentous has happened which the narrator is now reflecting back over.

This novel is very current, especially about social media. How do you know what teens are saying/doing?

The irony of me writing a book where social media is one of the major focuses, is that I’m not on Facebook, I’ve only recently started getting the hang of Twitter, and I’m still nervous about posting photos on Instagram. So technically, I don’t know what I’m talking about! However, as it turned out, my lack of knowledge ended up being to my advantage, because I didn’t make any assumptions about how teenagers use social media. Instead, I interviewed a number of them about how they approach it, the politics of posting, and how they deal with it emotionally. One of the things that I found interesting was the fact that they engage with it differently from even twenty somethings, creating something of a ‘generation gap’ between teens and people who are only a few years older. With respect to the teenagers I interviewed, I was astonished by some of the things they revealed to me (to the point where some them didn’t want to be thanked in the Acknowledgements – they’d rather remain anonymous). Through my research, I learnt about a thing called the secret Tumblr diary, which parents definitely don’t know about, and even friends aren’t privy to. If a teenager has a secret Tumblr diary, it’s the place they go to find a safe (and secret) community with others who are struggling with, say, their sexuality, body image, gender or friendship issues. I found the concept of the secret Tumblr diary both alarming and comforting. Alarming, because if, for example, they’re anorexic or bulimic, there are girls (overwhelming this is a girl issue) called Ana (pro-anorexia) or Mia (pro-bulimia) who give tips on how to purge (vomit) effectively. But comforting because this is where they go to speak to likeminded individuals if they aren’t sure if they’re gay, or trans, or are trying to reconcile other confusing feelings or issues inside their head.

What tips have you learned about successfully using social media while researching and writing this novel?

I learnt that if you want to get the optimum ‘likes’ on Instagram, you have to time your posts for when everyone is most likely to be on-line. Generally a Sunday afternoon is a good time. Definitely NOT a Saturday night.

Have you ever started any trending posts?

No. I think a trending post would be quite difficult to manufacture, and the stuff that goes viral is so random, it’s almost impossible to pick.

What does the cover represent? 

I adore the cover and think Debra Billson did an outstanding job. It’s a photo from an Instagram post, taken the night MC and one of her best friends Anouk have a massive falling out over a boy called Jed. The title and my name are written in a font which has graduated colouring, mirroring the logo of Instagram. It’s so funny to watch adults pick up my book and ask me what the cover represents, whereas teenagers pick it up and instantly recognise it as Instagram.

MC and her friends are studying Jasper Jones and Harvest in English. Why did you choose these two books?

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey is a current school text that has as one of its themes the idea of rumour and innuendo and assumption of guilt. ‘Harvest’ by Jim Crace is set back in the middle ages when stocks in the village square were a form of punishment. Both books – even though they’re both set in an earlier time – have parallels with today’s internet culture: the public shaming, innuendo and rumour, where society makes judgments on people without having the full facts – often without even caring what the real facts are. So long as someone can be the scapegoat, everyone’s happy.

What books are you reading at the moment (or recently)?

I’m one of the judges for the Readings Prize for Adult Literature, so I’ve been reading plenty of new Australian fiction lately. Some of the ones I’ve personally loved (which may or may not make it onto the long or short list) are, ‘Skylarking’ by Kate Mildenhall, ‘The Lost Pages’ by Marija Pericic, ‘To the Sea’ by Christine Dibley, ‘From the Wreck’ by Jane Rawson and ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent. So much great Australian fiction at the moment – we’re really experiencing a heyday. The other book I really want to read is, ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders which I’ve heard amazing things about.

I loved Skylarking and The Good People but you’ve given me even more books I must read, Gabrielle.

Thank you for your very generous answers, Gabrielle, and wishing you great success with My life as a hashtag and your other books.

Great Australian Fantasy: Meet Jaclyn Moriarty, author of A Tangle of Gold

 

A Tangle of GoldJaclyn Moriarty’s ‘The Colours of Madeleine’ trilogy (Pan Macmillan), beginning with A Corner of White and The Cracks in the Kingdom (which I reviewed here) and now concluding in A Tangle of Gold, is one of Australia’s great fantasy series. Jaclyn has also written some other fascinating YA novels, in their own unique sub-genre.

Thanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Jaclyn.

– Thank you for having me!

 Where are you based and how involved in the YA literary community are you?

 – I live in Sydney where there’s a strong YA community. (I think there’s an even stronger one in Melbourne, but we are catching up.) I see other YA writers at festivals, conferences and schools sometimes and, in the last few months, I’ve walked across the Harbour Bridge with Justine Larbalestier a few times, and had hot chocolate with Kirsty Eagar. I don’t believe in ‘networking’ at all: it’s very important to me that friendship and socializing be genuine, and not motivated by career goals.  Life is too short and friendship is too important. But there are so many lovely, funny, intelligent YA writers in Australia (and in the world generally), that it’s a real pleasure to mix with them, and to talk to them about writing and books. I’d like to go to more YA social events but I have a 9-year-old and getting a babysitter can be tricky.

What interesting thing is happening to you at the moment?

I’m sitting outside my 9-year-old’s electric guitar lesson. I just wasted five minutes trying to find an app on my phone to record a few seconds of the lesson so that I could use that as an illustration to this answer. But I couldn’t find it. I need the 9-year-old to tell me where it is.

Feeling Sorry for CeliaYour books have won and been shortlisted for numerous awards and are popular in Australia as well as overseas. Which of your books started making people pay attention?

 – I was lucky that my first book, Feeling Sorry for Celia, was a number 1 bestseller in Australia and won the NSW Premier’s Award (Ethel Turner Prize), so I had a kind of crazy start. But I think it was my second book, Finding Cassie Crazy (published in the US as The Year of Secret Assignments) that seemed to catch people’s attention both here and overseas.

Your recent trilogy ‘The Colours of Madeleine’ which now concludes with A Tangle of Gold is fantasy with ‘realism … ingeniously wedged’ into it but even your realist novels have an elated sensitivity and glee. Do you recall any examples?

Bindy Mackenzie – (I like that ‘elated sensitivity and glee’ phrase very much – thank you!) I never really like the idea of writing straight realism. It’s kind of like photorealist art: it’s very skillful but what’s the point? You can just take a photo. Also, I don’t like rules. I get restless and want to go outside the borders. So you are right that even my realistic books were never very realistic. In Feeling Sorry for Celia, the main character gets letters from imaginary organisations like the Cold Hard Truth Society; in Bindy Mackenzie, there’s a highly unlikely murder mystery; and in Dreaming of Amelia, there’s a ghost.

 ‘The Colours of Madeleine’ trilogy is set both in the Kingdom of Cello and the World – particularly in Cambridge, England where Madeleine lives. Why Cambridge – you seem to know it well?

 – I lived in Cambridge for three years in the late 90s when I was doing a PhD in Law. It was a strangely dreamy time: punting on the river, going to classes in castles, deer crossing my lawn, owls in the tree outside my bedroom window, tulips in the marketplace, being able to go to Paris on the train for a weekend for a few quid…

Madeleine receives letters from Cello through a crack in a parking meter. We find out about the fascinating places in Cello such as Bonfire in the Farms, Nature Strip, Cat Walk and Jagged Edge. Do you imagine yourself inside the Kingdom of Cello? Where would you live?

– I spend a lot of time imagining myself living in the Kingdom of Cello. If I did live there I think I would move around a lot. When I felt like a party I would go to Jagged Edge, when I wanted magic and snow, to the Magical North, and when I was hungry, to the Farms. They are very good bakers in the Farms.

A Corner of WhiteYou also invite us into this beguiling world through descriptions of its Living Colours such as Colour storms caused by vicious Greys and Purples; Lime Greens and Spitting Fuchsias. Are there some details about the Colours that you would have loved to include in the trilogy but couldn’t fit in (this will also be some solace for those of us who want to live in Cello)?

– I made a giant table of colours and their effects, so a lot of them missed out on making it into the book. I would have liked to use a very Pale Apricot. It floats through towns making everybody smooth-skinned and dewy-eyed. Although now that I think about it that sounds a bit like an ad for a skin product.

Spaces between Worlds are intriguing. What interests you about spaces in-between?

– My earlier books were written in letters and notes, and I was always intrigued by the space between those letters and notes. There is so much story in silence and in expectation. So when I started this trilogy, and the two characters started exchanging letters between worlds, I was drawn to the fact that the space between their letters had actual substance. It was also the space between their worlds: they were right beside each other and a universe apart, and it was this impossible space that was preventing their connection.

Can you tell us something about one or more of the historical figures you’ve written into the trilogy?

-I liked the fact that Byron spent some years sleeping all day, riding through the forest in the evening, then talking to friends all night long. Conversation in the night with close friends is very appealing to me: it can be a perfect way to connect. I also liked the fact that Leonardo da Vinci used to go into pet stores, buy all the birds, and set them free.

How would you describe your writing style?

– My writing always seems determined to turn itself into letters and notes, even when I’m determined that it won’t.

A Tangle of Gold is structured into Parts. Could you share how you’ve formed these?

– I spent a year planning the trilogy overall, and then about a year between books re-planning each. There were many different versions of each plan. I wanted Elliot, Madeleine and Keira to have room to move in this novel, so I let them take turns having their own Parts.

Your plot pacing bends boundaries in novel writing. Could you give us an example?

– Thank you! I’m too modest to answer this question.

Quick questions to answer without thinking too much:Moriarty Jaclyn med[1]

 Your favourite colour? yellow

Favourite word? bewildered

Introvert of extrovert? introvert

Do you get your ideas while speaking or writing? A bit of both but mainly I get ideas while I’m half-asleep or looking at the sea. Also I get ideas by drawing pictures, and writing down questions addressed to myself using coloured texas and big bubble letters, and as a consequence of eating chocolate.

Madeleine or Keira? They’re both different parts of me but if I had to choose, Madeleine

Science or magic? Magic.

Light or dark?   I want to say dark because I like stars, moon, shadows and so on, but I’m mostly an extreme optimist so I think that means light.

ClarielWhat else are you enjoying reading? At the moment I’m reading Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Steward, which I am loving. And recently I have read and loved The Guy, the Girl, the Artist and his Ex by Gabrielle Williams, The Burning Elephant by Christopher Raja, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Clariel by Garth Nix, and the manuscript of my sister Liane’s latest book, Truly, Madly Guilty. Next I’m going to read My Sister Rosa by Justine Larbalestier and Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar.

Thanks very much for your responses, as well as your wonderful writing, Jaclyn.

– Thank YOU so much for your kind words, and your unique questions!

#ByAustralianBuyAustralian

REVIEW: Beatle Meets Destiny

I’ve been delaying this for a little while, reviewing books is delicate business, and well, Gab Williams is a friend, but I guess I’m gunna have to suck it up and just come out with it: Beatle Meets Destiny is all kinds of fantastic.

I first read Beatle last year, and loved it. But that was after spending a day of laughs with Gab in Hyde Park, and dinner (and wine) with her family at her place. I was very aware of the fact that I may just be a tad bit biased. So, I put it down, and revisited it over the Christmas break.

And when I read something for a second time, I go for broke. I find typos, I analyse the minutia. I figured, if there was one thing that’d expose my bias, it’d be my close second reading. I was part-way through my second reading of the first chapter when I discovered the first crack: the dates didn’t match up (one of the characters couldn’t have been born in the year they were and be the age they were when the novel was set… if that makes sense).

I became fearful, maybe it wasn’t as good as I’d remembered… and then, I felt it happening. Despite the fact that finding everything that was wrong with it was my prerogative, and I was holding it to a higher level of scrutiny than I would’ve if I hadn’t met Gab before I’d read her… I still loved it. Possibly more than during my first reading.

I started to recognise and appreciate the absolute command Gab has over language, the charm of the prose, the effortless way she balances humour and heart. She’s a bro.

The date mistake as a one-off editorial error, and it doesn’t weaken what is one of the most outstanding YA releases in recent memory (and we’ve been spoilt with some outstanding YA in recent times). The voice is confident, the story is moving, and… understated. It’s about a teenaged ****** survivor, but Gab doesn’t milk it for cheap emotional moments, and most importantly, she knows that isn’t enough to build a novel out of.

While most realistic YA novels that deal with sensitive issues deal with them exclusivel (their blurbs usually read: “so-and-so is struggling with x and y“). And that’s it. In contrast, Gab keeps the issue understated and builds a compelling narrative around it. It isn’t even mentioned in the blurb. This is a love story first, issue book second. And that is what magnifies its impact (which is why I censored what it is in the review… it’s something that should be experienced naturally through the narrative).

And the dialogue! It sparkles with wit. I think, that will sell the book more effectively than me yapping on about how good it is. So, here’s an excerpt. The context: the titular Beatle and Destiny are sitting in a booth, it’s their first night out together, and they’re talking about… peas:

‘So that’s peas covered,’ Beatle said, arching an eyebrow. ‘What about your Qs?’
He intertwined his fingers with hers. Looked at the contrast between his hand, the big, blokey fingers, compared with her small-and-pleasantly-delicate-against-his ones.
‘Well,’ Destiny said, biting her lip, ‘I’m not crazy about them. But seeing as we’re talking letters, I’d quite like to have a look at your Rs.’
And she slid her eyes down to his arse, just for a moment, then collapsed in a fit of giggles.
‘Omigod,’ she said, putting her hand over her mouth, ‘the things that are coming out of my mouth tonight! I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’
Beatle looked at her seriously.
‘I hope you don’t mind me saying,’ he said, ‘but I suspect you might be a bit of a Ts.’
She laughed.
‘A?’ she cocked her chin.
Beatle looked closely at her. He moved towards her. His mouth close to hers.
‘Hang on,’ Destiny said, holding a finger up to Beatle’s mouth, preventing him from moving any further forward. ‘What’s the etiquette here?’
Beatle frowned at her.
‘The etiquette?’
‘You know. I met you on the tram stop. I’m just not sure what the kissing etiquette is in this type of situation.’

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams
A young adult novel that doesn’t quite go along the traditional boy-meets-girl lines. For one thing, Beatle never normally goes out on Friday the thirteenth, but this night is an exception, and how can he avoid talking to the attractive girl who is wearing sunglasses and reading a book while waiting for the tram? Not only is her name Destiny, but her surname is McCartney, and since his real name is John Lennon, and for a whole heap of other spooky reasons as well, it seems destined that they will be together. But Beatle already has a girlfriend. Not that he’s in any hurry to tell Destiny about her… Click here to read the first chapter.

Gabrielle Williams Q&A

One of the great things about Get Reading! is that I’ve had a fantastic chance to meet authors from other states I haven’t crossed paths with before – one of those authors is the fantastically entertaining Gabrielle Williams, who I sat down with while in Melbourne to talk about all things Beatle Meets Destiny.

Okay, first up, you used to work in advertising, so, what better way to start this interview than with a sales pitch – “sell” Beatle Meets Destiny to our readers.

Ugh! Selling my own book makes me feel very uncomfortable. If I talk it up, it sounds like I’m being boastful, but if I talk it down no-one will want to read it!

How about if I just say I think it’s awesome?

That’d help.

Well… it’s awesome, and it is in the running for some big awards…

True. It’s been short-listed for the Prime Ministers Literary Awards and the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards, as well as being included in the “Get Reading! 50 books you can’t put down”. It was also a Notable Book in the Children’s Book Council awards (not short-listed, but still!).

It’s still a big deal.. Now, why name your character John Lennon? You a big Beatles fan?

 I thought it would be quite funny and burdensome if you had a famous person’s name: it seemed to say alot about your parents and also open up lots of opportunities for comedy. I don’t think any other band would have worked for my story quite as well as The Beatles. The only comparable band would perhaps be the Rolling Stones, but to have a main character called Mick Jagger seems to stretch the boundaries of believability for some reason, whereas to have a main character called John Lennon seems kind of normal with only a twinge of weirdness. I think characters’ names are so important when you’re writing a book, I can get quite hung up on it until I find exactly the right name for each of them. Then, when I find the name, I seem to find my story as well.

I loved the randomtwin interviews that pop up every so often during the course of the novel . Where did that idea come from?

I’m not sure. I just liked the idea of throwing in these random stories, and then at the end of the book when the reader has decided all these twin stories have no relevance whatsoever, you find out exactly how they all fit in to the story. I also quite liked the idea of throwing in random stories – almost like ad breaks in a tv show – to break the rhythm and surprise the reader a little.

The final major scenes (at Destiny’s house) had lots of characters and plot-lines all converging at once. How difficult was it to write? Did you always envision everything exploding at once?
 
The final major scenes did take a while to write. I wrote version after version, with my editor screaming out ‘more chaos more chaos’ after each edit until she was satisfied that it was well and truly calamitous. I wouldn’t have been half as cruel to Beatle as she made me! But I love that it all comes to a head, that so many people are there to witness his humiliation, and that there was no way around it but for him to tell Destiny the entire truth (even if he managed to lie to everyone else who was there).

Beatle Meets Destiny by Gabrielle Williams
A young adult novel that doesn’t quite go along the traditional boy-meets-girl lines. For one thing, Beatle never normally goes out on Friday the thirteenth, but this night is an exception, and how can he avoid talking to the attractive girl who is wearing sunglasses and reading a book while waiting for the tram? Not only is her name Destiny, but her surname is McCartney, and since his real name is John Lennon, and for a whole heap of other spooky reasons as well, it seems destined that they will be together. But Beatle already has a girlfriend. Not that he’s in any hurry to tell Destiny about her… Click here to read the first chapter.