Between Us by Clare Atkins

Thanks very much for speaking to Boomerang Books blog, Clare. Your two YA novels Nona and Me and Between Us are memorable, thought-provoking and ‘uncomfortable’ in the best way. I learn and am changed by them.

Thank you! I don’t think I could ask for any better feedback than that as an author.

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

I’m based in Darwin. There are a few YA writers up here who I see at events and workshops. I also travel to Sydney fairly regularly, mostly for TV scriptwriting work. There’s a YA author meet-up there, which I attend when I can. I’ve also met lots of YA writers through speaking at writing festivals. I can’t speak highly enough of the supportive, fun and vibrant community – YA authors are the best!

How has your television scriptwriting enhanced your novel writing?

TV writing has taught me a lot about structure, flow, characterisation and weaving multiple story strands together. I wrote both my novels as a kind of hybrid, in which each segment or chapter is really a scene that needs to move the action forward. And I am very comfortable writing dialogue – my books probably have slightly more than average.

Your first novel, Nona & Me (Black Inc), achieved critical acclaim. I reviewed it for the Weekend Australian here.  How were you able to describe this Aboriginal experience in the Northern Territory with such authority?

I don’t know about authority but I definitely did thorough research and consultation over a couple of years. I was also living in Yirrkala, the community in the novel, at the time. I interviewed many community members, both in the mining town and Aboriginal community, and worked closed with a wonderful Yolngu cultural advisor and teacher called Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs. Without her advice and feedback I don’t think I could’ve written the novel.

To what does your title, Between Us (Black Inc), refer? Which came first, your title, the story or something else?

I am interested in the spaces between people and how, in the absence of knowledge, fear or love can fill the void. I liked that the title had a number of interpretations. Between who – Ana and Jono? Or Jono and Kenny? Or Kenny and Ana? And is what is ‘between us’ holding us together or pushing us apart? The characters came first – I wanted to explore characters representing different eras of immigration in Australia and was excited about having a character – Jono – with my own cultural background.

What is the significance of the cover? 

The cover is based on some photos I took in Darwin during the wet season. The moody skies up here during storms are breathtaking, both beautiful and ominous at the same time, as I hoped the novel would be too. I sent the photos to the publisher who forwarded them to the cover designer. I liked the phone lines as a visual reference to both connection and distance; one of the ways Jono and Ana are able to connect is on the phone. And birds are a repeated motif in the novel – a symbol of freedom, a point of connection and a link to memories for Jono, Kenny and Ana.

How does Between Us differ from Nona & Me? Are there any similarities?

I think I’ve experimented a lot more in Between Us. I wanted to push myself as a writer. Nona & Me was my first novel and whilst I played with structure it was still in prose from a single point of view. Between Us is from three different cultural perspectives and incorporates sections of verse. And whilst Nona & Me was a personal exploration of Indigenous politics, Between Us focuses more on immigration and multiculturalism.

Clare Atkins

How were you able to access information about life inside a detention centre and then form it into fiction?

Weaving real life stories into fiction is my favourite thing to do. It takes a lot of research – this time around three years worth. A lot of the interviews had to be ‘off the table’; people were happy to talk but didn’t want their name attached to the book in case it caused trouble for their jobs or visa applications. I have spent time inside Villawood as a volunteer helping to run activities for kids, and visited asylum seekers in Wickham Point. I also worked with an Iranian cultural advisor, Shokufeh Kavani.

You’ve written from several different viewpoints in Between Us, even from an adult character’s perspective. Could you introduce us to your major characters?

How have you differentiated between their voices?

Jono is a half-Vietnamese, half-Australian sixteen year old boy, who has had a rough time lately. His mum walked out, he got dumped by his first real girlfriend and his older sister has just moved away to Uni. He feels like he’s been left behind with his Vietnamese father Kenny; the two of them have a volatile relationship at best. Jono starts the novel in verse – he’s in a depressed state and can only take in the bare minimum. Then he meets Ana…

Ana is a fifteen year old Iranian asylum seeker who is only allowed out of detention to attend school. She desperately wants to be a ‘normal’ teenage girl, but her life inside is far from standard. Her mum is pregnant, her little brother is desperate to get out and run, and her mum’s boyfriend is stuck on Nauru. Ana’s voice is initially curious and passionate and determined.

Kenny is Jono’s father. He was sponsored out to Australia by his older sister, Minh, who arrived with the first boatloads of Vietnamese refugees. Kenny has just started work as a guard at the detention centre where Ana lives. Kenny is confused by the various thoughts and feelings swirling around the issue of asylum seekers. His voice is informed by his Vietnamese culture and his insider’s perspective as both a guard and as Jono’s father.

Which character would you like to write more about?

I’d like to write more about Kenny. He’s such a multifaceted character who has access to so many different worlds. He’s Vietnamese but has now spent almost half his life in Australia. He’s a father but is still working out life himself. He’s the brother of a boat person who now guards asylum seekers. I love that he is complex and confused and flawed but very real.

I was excited by your changing use of verse in the novel. Could you share what you’ve done?

I wanted to use verse to convey emotional state. When you’re depressed it is hard to communicate or connect to the outer world in more than short bursts or impressions. It was a bit of an experiment – I’m excited that you liked it.

You mention Australian hip-hop band The Hilltop Hoods. Why this band?

I spoke to some Iranian young people who talked about Iranian rap and hip-hop and how political and dangerous it can be. I looked for an Australian equivalent as a point of connection for Jono and Ana. Hilltop Hoods takes me back to my early twenties so I suppose I had an existing affection for them. I liked that they are sometimes political but can also be playful – they have a freedom that Iranian hip-hop artists don’t have.

In the novel you’ve referred to other literary texts such as The Outsiders, The Rabbits, The Simple Gift and Home in the Sky. Why these books?

They are all books and authors I love and admire. They also feed into the central themes of the novel about insiders and outsiders, culture and colonisation, connection and distance, freedom and belonging.

Why is the novel a powerful forum to alert people to the plight of refugees and those in detention centres? What would you encourage your readers to do next?

I think the best stories in any medium are the ones that start a conversation. I hope that the novel allows readers to gain a new perspective through vicariously experiencing life behind the barbed wire fence. Empathy and understanding are the foundation of social change. What readers do after that is of course up to them, but I’d be thrilled if they discussed it, attended a rally, wrote to a politician, visited someone in detention, volunteered, talked to someone they otherwise might not, or voted differently…every bit contributes to reframing an ‘issue’ as something human and personal and important…

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

Books that I’ve enjoyed lately include Kirsty Eagar’s Summer Skin, a smart YA romance that looks at modern hook-up culture with a feminist slant, and The Good Girl of China Town, a bravely honest cross-cultural memoir about Jenevieve Chang’s experiences as a dancer in Shanghai’s first burlesque club.

Thanks for your insightful answers, Clare. I’ve learned even more! All the best with Between Us.

Thank you!

Books & Christmas with James Moloney

Meet James Moloney, author of The Beauty is in the Walking

(Angus&Robertson, HarperCollins)

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.

Black Taxi

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?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?Buzzard

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.

bridge to Wiseman's cove‘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.Book of Lies

 

 

Meet Bruce Pascoe: Seahorse

SeahorseThanks for speaking to Boomerang Books, Bruce Pascoe.

Where are you based? How has this influenced your new adventure story for children, Seahorse (Magabala Books)? I live at Gipsy Point near Mallacoota in Victoria. I have spent all of my life near the lighthouses at Cape Otway, King Island and Mallacoota and the sea is a big influence.

Is there a real Jack who you have based your story on?

Jack is my son and his courage on tackling the rough seas at Cape Otway is inspirational.

Was there an enormous koala colony when you lived at Cape Otway? Were they regarded as a pest?

They were re-introduced in 1976 but the population exploded and destroyed the forest. My son is the environmental scientist at Cape Otway Environment Centre and his opinion that the koalas were introduced from French Island where they were in plague proportions and consequently had lost the ability to control their own population. In the last 18 months Jack has grown 120,000 seedling trees (mostly manna guns and she oak) and has replanted Cape Otway. There was a small cull of the koalas and Jack is waiting to see how the Cape responds.

Your descriptions of place are a key part of the book. How have you crafted them?

Those places are etched in my memory and I often dream I am swimming or diving on their coasts.

 Why have you selected the symbol of the seahorse?

I’m entranced by seahorses but have only ever seen a few while underwater. I have a seahorse on my keyring.

In the book Jack’s grandfather’s mother died and so her son grew up in a Home where ‘they knocked the children around something terrible’. Has your family suffered in this way? Our family were shifted about but I’m not sure any of them were physically harmed by anything but poverty. The early days on Tasmania would have been cruel but I don’t know any family details.Bruce Pascoe

You have seamlessly incorporated some other terrible experiences that Indigenous people suffered at the hands at white pirates and sealers in the past. How were you able to incorporate these appropriately into this book for children? They have to enter the story naturally but most families can supply an endless number of examples so it’s reasonably easy.

Truganini is such an important figure in Tasmania. Did you consider using her story in this book?

Many Aboriginal people in Tas and Vic are related to Truganini so it’s a bit delicate to use her as an example. I made a short film, Black Chook, ABC later this year, which explored parts of her life. There are strict protocols around these matters.

The shady character wearing black shows contempt and a racist attitude towards Jack’s family. What do you hope your readers take from this scene? I want people to see Aboriginal families as a normal part of Australian life.

Fog a DoxI reviewed your excellent prior novel for younger readers, Fog a Dox for Australian Book Review. This book went on to win several awards including the Prime Minister’s Literary Award (YA Fiction). How has winning this prestigious award affected your life? It gave me a lot of confidence that people were noticing my work. Writers lead a lonely working life so it was encouraging to get some feedback.

 What books have you enjoyed reading?

Anything Jack London wrote. Faulkner, Steinbeck, Sholokov. Birds without Wings is one of the best books I’ve read.

Who do you admire in the Australian literary community?

Ali Cobby Eckerman, Alexis Wright, Anita Heiss, Archie Weller, Kim Scott, Carmel Bird, Helen GarnerRuby Moonlight