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

New Australian Fiction with Young Australians: Six Bedrooms and Relativity

Some of the most beguiling writing for adults features young characters. I touched on this when I reviewed Joan London’s The Golden Age in January. http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/the-golden-age-where-children-are-gold/2015/01 This book has recently been awarded the 2015 Kibble Award. Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi also has a young adult protagonist, as does Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Eimear McBride’s winner of the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and other prestigious awards, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. Many other well-regarded adult books focus on young characters.Golden Age

It is, however, of concern that some industry professionals and others have a lesser view of YA and children’s books than of those from the adult list. I addressed this in my interview with James Patterson (who has the opposite view) for Magpies Magazine https://www.magpies.net.au/current-issue/ (July 2015):

‘Adult books often receive bigger prize money for book awards than children’s books; adult books are positioned at the front of bookstores while the children’s bookshelves are at the back (there are some exceptions); and publicists from publishing companies tend to accompany adult authors at writers’ festivals (once again, there are exceptions), while most children’s authors and illustrators are expected to fend for themselves, which they do very capably. And, even though blogging about books is growing, there is generally diminishing space in the mainstream media to report on children’s book news and review children’s books, although we must acknowledge those few journalist, editor and media heroes who support children’s literature and literacy.’

Five on a Treasure IslandIt was affirming to view ABC TV’s The Book Club in June where guest Alan Cumming selected Enid Blyton’s Famous Five: Five on a Treasure Island as the classic book of the month. The discussion was animated, with the panel in positive agreement and revealing surprising depths in this book. So a children’s book was one of The Book Club’s high points. And the writing quality of much children’s and YA literature has improved exponentially since Blyton’s time. http://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s4229132.htm

Relativity

Two new Australian titles for adults feature young Australians. In Antonia Hayes’s novel, Relativity (Penguin/Viking), Ethan is navigating the end of childhood and adolescence. It is more difficult for him than most due to anomalies in his personality and mind. He is absorbed by science and ostracised by his peers. Although he resembles his father in many ways, they have not seen each other for years until Mark returns to Sydney from WA to see his own father on his deathbed. Something happened in Ethan’s infancy to rupture this family.

Tegan Bennett Daylight’s, Six Bedrooms (Vintage, Random House) is an absorbing volume of short stories. Like Relativity, it also touches on estranged families. The writing is fresh and vulnerable, raising the often-forgotten experiences and memories from youth into crystallised vignettes.

Six BedroomsReading many of the stories in Six Bedrooms is like reading YA. The concerns, themes and style are similar. It explores friendship, boyfriends, tortured and other family relationships, parental influence on children, body image, identity and finding ways to navigate the world. Felicity Plunkett reviewed it insightfully for the Weekend Australian http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/tegan-bennett-daylights-short-stories-reflect-pivot-into-adulthood/story-fn9n8gph-1227425621590.

Some sophisticated Australian YA which matches (or exceeds) the quality of our fiction for adults include Girl Defective by Simmone Howell, The Three Loves of Persimmon by Cassandra Golds, The Golden Day by Ursula Dubosarsky, This is Shyness by Leanne Hall, Into White Silence by Anthony Eaton, Wildlife by Fiona Wood, Liar by Justine Larbelestier, The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil, The Dead I Know by Scott Gardner, The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley and The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee. These are a mere sample of our YA treasures (and I dread to think what’s I’ve missed after listing these off the top of my head).Protected

To find more of our best recent YA, explore the 2015 CBCA winners and honour books, which are announced on Friday 21st August at midday. The Books for Older Readers are a phenomenally strong group this year .