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

What Were Girls Like?

I am JulietThree recent YA historical fiction novels by Australian women (all published by HarperCollins/ABC Books) inhabit times when girls had to bend to the influence of men and were comparatively powerless.

The Raven’s Wing is Frances Watts’s first novel for teens. It is set in Ancient Rome where fifteen year-old Claudia is strategically offered in marriage several times. Making an alliance which can best help her family is paramount. Primarily a romance, the book addresses Claudia’s growing awareness of human rights (here through the fate of slaves) which interferes with her sense of duty and makes her a much more interesting character than the docile cipher she is expected to be.

I am Juliet by Australian Children’s Laureate, Jackie French, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. French’s Juliet is a fleshed-out focal character. Superficially she shares some of Claudia’s privileged lifestyle features: attended by maids who wash and dress her and apply her makeup; elaborate meals; and protection behind high walls. Medicinal and other herbs and plants are a feature of their times; and Juliet and Claudia both face imminent arranged marriage, but are aware of a dark man in shadows. Their stories, also, contain a story within a story.

Jackie French has reinterpreted Shakespeare previously – in her excellent Macbeth and Son which grapples with the nature of truth. She has also addressed the role of women in history, perhaps most notably in A Rose for the ANZAC Boys

Ratcatcher's Daughter Issy, the thirteen-year-old protagonist of Pamela Rushby’s The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, doesn’t share Claudia and Juliet’s privileged backgrounds. Set in a well-drawn Brisbane of 1900, Issy’s father is a ratcatcher during the bubonic plague. Issy is offered a scholarship to become a teacher but her family refuse it due to lack of money. The issue of the poor’s inability to take up opportunities that the rich assume is reiterated throughout the novel.

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter and I am Juliet include background notes about the historical period and other points of interest.

 These three books unite in their exploration of girls who are prepared to defy tradition to control their own lives, where possible, in spite of general lack of female empowerment. I hope that this really was possible and is not just a revisionist interpretation.

It is interesting that this crop of YA historical novels has appeared now. Are these authors finding a story-niche or reflecting current concern? Although surely girls today, particularly in a country such as Australia, are more fortunate in their freedom and choice. The Raven's Wing