Australian YA: Meet Frances Watts, author of The Peony Lantern

Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books about The Peony Lantern, Frances.

It’s my pleasure.

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

I’m based in Sydney. I’ve been involved in the children’s lit world for many years now, through membership of the Children’s Book Council of Australia NSW, IBBY and the Australian Society of Authors – and of course I love the opportunity to meet authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, booksellers and (most importantly) the readers – i.e. kids – at festivals, libraries and schools. I’m new to YA lit, with my first YA book (The Raven’s Wing reviewed here) published last year, and I’ve been really inspired by the passion, commitment and support of the YA community for each other and the genre. The #LoveOzYa movement is a great example of this. (And it’s introduced me to some great books!) I’m also involved with Books in Homes (as a Role Model) and the Reading Hour.

What is the significance of your title, The Peony Lantern?

The Peony Lantern’ (ABC Books, HarperCollins) is actually the title of a traditional Japanese ghost story; Japan has a rich tradition of ghost stories which I drew on in the writing of The Peony Lantern. I can’t say much more than that without spoiling a big twist!

How did you create the Japanese historical setting?Peony Lantern

I began by reading about the historical period – the book is set in 1857, which was a particularly tumultuous time in Edo (now called Tokyo) – to establish the social and political background for the book, before gradually narrowing my focus down to the specifics of setting: a samurai mansion in Edo, an inn in the remote Kiso Valley. Then I moved on to dress, architecture, cuisine, culture. What I really want to convey – because it is what I am interested in myself – is the daily life of the characters. Once I had a general idea of the main settings, I then travelled to Japan and visited the places I intended to write about. That gave me a richness of detail; the scent of the trees in the Kiso Valley and the number of steps to the village shrine, local legends and culinary specialties…In Tokyo there are a few museums that recreate the streets and buildings of the Edo period, so visiting them was invaluable. The research is one of my favourite parts of writing historical fiction. I’m completely obsessed with Japan now!

How did you create the character of Kasumi?

I wanted a character who was observant and to put her in a situation in which she was a ‘fish out of water’ as it were – in this case, a girl from a humble background who finds herself living in a samurai mansion. So she is in a position to observe differences in class as well as the differences between urban and rural lifestyles.

How important is writing about girls for you?Sword girl

It’s extremely important to me; in writing about girls from different times and places – whether it’s Claudia from Rome 19BC in The Raven’s Wing, Kasumi in The Peony Lantern or even Tommy from my junior fiction series ‘Sword Girl’, set in a medieval castle – I’m hoping to inspire readers to consider the position of girls and women in our own society.

Ikebana is a feature of Kasumi and Misaki’s time. Can you do it?

I’m afraid to say my attempts were rather embarrassing! I did a class at a famous ikebana school in Tokyo. I love flowers, so I was rather hoping I might display some hitherto-undiscovered flair, but…no. It was definitely a useful experience, though; it turns out that Kasumi’s own efforts at flower-arranging also lack that essential refinement!

Tell us about your other books.

Goodnight, MiceI began my writing career with picture books (including Kisses for Daddy and Parsley Rabbit’s Book about Books, illustrated by David Legge, and Goodnight, Mice!, illustrated by Judy Watson). [Frances modestly hasn’t mentioned that Goodnight, Mice! won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Children’s Fiction. Her other books have also won awards.]  I then started writing junior fiction (such as the Sword Girl series), also extending the storytelling to upper primary (with the Gerander trilogy), and now I’m writing YA historical fiction. I’m still writing in each of these genres – I love them all – so I’m covering from birth to young adult. I sometimes joke that my motto should be: Grow up! with Frances Watts.

How else do you spend your time?

It probably won’t surprise you if I say reading. I also love travelling, cooking and running.

What have you enjoyed reading?

Fiona Wood’s new book, Cloudwish. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s Six Bedrooms (reviewed here). And I’m currently devouring Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. I’ve just started the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and I am completely in its thrall.

All the best with The Peony Lantern, Frances. I feel like reading it all over again after hearing your responses.

Parsely rabbit

Meet Elizabeth Fensham, author of My Dog Doesn’t Like Me

Thanks for talking to Boomerang Books, Elizabeth Fensham.

My Dog Doesn't Like Me My Dog Doesn’t Like Me (University of Qld Press) resonated with me because I also have a puppy, Floyd (whose middle name is Pink)– a spoodle who is easier to train than Eric’s dog, Ugly, but I have used one of the dog-training tips described in the novel.

 Tell us about your dogs.

My family had a string of black and tan mongrels. They were faithful, reliable dogs. We later had a Gordon Setter – and I did most of the training. I was a young teenager and loved the process of training and the reward of having such a responsive and easy to live with pet. Much later my son saw some black and tan pups at our local craft market. The Border Collie/Belgian Shepherd pup grew huge. He was very easy to train and, again, that makes a dog so pleasant to live with.

 This is not a typical dog story. It sounds like real life, with Eric having to work hard to keep Ugly. Why do you write contemporary realism for younger readers?

Several aspects of the story are from real life. A young boy once told me his dog didn’t like him – in exactly those words. I instinctively thought that this boy was probably not doing very much for his dog. Children need a lot of reminding to take responsibility for their pets. However, Eric’s tribulations are fictitious; I just used my memories of doggy dramas.

I don’t consciously decide on a particular genre when writing. Ideas just spring to mind. I write about the problems that I’m aware of in a child’s life – from my own experiences and those of children I know – and then I enjoy working towards realistic solutions – and this involves character growth, too.

 How do you incorporate humour?

Humour is important to me. I see it as necessary to living life as joyfully as possible, to getting things in perspective and, thus, to coping with tougher times. I enjoy the company of children because their honest and original insights on life are often both true and amusing. Humour in a story gives necessary relief to serious moments. I suppose a writer’s personality comes through in their style. I enjoy laughing, telling funny stories and making others laugh or smile. I’m embarrassing to go to the pictures with to see a comedy because apparently I laugh very loudly – and a lot. This is a balance to a part of me that feels the sadness of life deeply – which I suppose describes most people.Matty Forever

 Your writing is a perfectly calibrated mix of story telling, character building and great writing style – writing that gets your books onto literary award lists. How carefully do you create this blend?

I consciously try to craft stories with a recurring pattern of tension followed by some sort of relief. A character goes through this and learns along the way. The style is dictated by the spirit of the story, my intended audience, as well as the personality and age of the protagonist.

 The novel jumps straight into the action. How deliberate was this?

I have to give my editor the credit for beginning with the running away episode of the story. In my first draft, this came later in the chapter. I have enormous respect for editors; I appreciate that period where one works alongside someone else to improve a story.

Eric was looking forward to turning 8 and describes 8 as looking like a racetrack. What is your favourite number?

Favourite numbers! I’ve liked the number 3 since childhood. It seemed balanced to me. I also like the number 7 as I’ve heard it has significance in the ancient traditions of the Old Testament. Those numbers pop up in fairy-tales, too.

 What have you won awards for?

Invisible HeroI’ve had eight novels published. ‘Helicopter Man‘ won the CBCA award for Younger Readers. ‘The Invisible Hero’ (which deals with bullying and finding peaceful resolutions to conflicts) won the Speech Pathologists of Australia Award. The same book was listed as an Ibby Book; when I knew what it stood for I was thrilled – it’s a Swedish collection of international books that contributes to discussion of peace. ‘Goodbye Jamie Boyd‘ (a young adult novella that deals with mental illness) was listed for the Bologna White Raven – another international collection. ‘Miss McAllister’s Ghost‘ was awarded with a CBCA Notable Book. ‘Matty Forever’ was short-listed by the CBCA and its sequel, ‘Bill Rules’, was short-listed for the Queensland Premier’s Award. And one of the Matty books was short-listed for the Psychologists for Peace award. Goodness, looking at this I feel so encouraged  – for someone who was first published quite late in life.Bill Rules

 Thanks very much, Elizabeth.