Books & Christmas with A.J. Betts

A.J. Betts has achieved great popular and critical acclaim for her YA novel Zac & Mia (Text Publishing).

Why A.J. rather than Amanda?

I chose to use my initials for the publication of my first novel, Shutterspeed, which was, amongst other things, a book written to appeal to reluctant male readers (14+). After teaching teens for many years, I realised how little was written to engage and excite this group. I worried that a female name on the cover might give potential readers a reason – however small – not to pick up the book. My decision was also a homage, of sorts, to S.E. Hinton, and her amazing work and legacy.Shutterspeed

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

After growing up in Far North Queensland, then living for a time in Brisbane and overseas, I’m now based in Perth, where I’ve been since 2004. I’m fortunate to live beside the ocean. I’m obsessed with the blues.

I’m quite involved in the YA scene. I’m a member of WA branch of SCBWI (Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), which regularly meets for workshops and talks. I’ve made some incredible, like-minded friends through this organisation. I spend a lot of time speaking at schools and festivals, including working with The Literature Centre in Fremantle, which promotes Australian children’s creators, and conducts writing programs for young people. More generally, I’m a proud supporter of the LoveOzYA campaign, as well as the Room2Read projects.

How else do you spend your time?

Besides writing and presenting, I teach high school English part-time. I’m a keen cyclist (I own five bikes) so I try to get out most days, followed by an ocean dip. I read when I can, for pleasure or research. If I need some ‘down-time’ I watch films or I wander around shopping centres like a zombie.

Zac & MiaWhat inspired you to write Zac & Mia (which I reviewed for The Weekend Australian here)?

For the past eleven years I’ve worked as a high school teacher in a children’s hospital in Perth, and most of that time has been spent working on the cancer ward.

Even so, Zac & Mia was a surprise to me. In the past, my writing has always been sparked from random moments, followed by ‘what if?’ questioning. I never imagined I’d write about topics so close to my real (working) life. I never thought I’d write a novel so emotionally testing.

The book came about from two separate things: firstly, my empathy for teenagers stuck in isolation during a bone marrow transplant treatment (imagine being stuck in a room for five weeks!?); and secondly, because of a request I had from a cancer patient who wanted me to write a romance. I didn’t know which idea to pursue first – isolation or romance – so I wondered if it was possible to bring the two ideas together. This raised the question: is it possible to fall in love with someone you can’t meet?

Cancer wasn’t a driving ‘theme’, but the catalyst for bringing the two characters together. As the story developed, so too did the ideas, such as finding ‘a new normal’ after illness or change. It was only in the editing process that I realized what is truly at the heart of the story: What is beauty? What is courage? What is love? The characters are working out their own answers to these questions – and I certainly learned a lot from them along the way!

I’m indebted to the hundreds of teenagers I’ve worked with on the cancer ward – they are the reason I persevered with this book, honestly and earnestly. They continue to inspire and surprise me.

Could you tell us something about your main characters, and also about the book’s structure (which I love)?

Zac is a very level-headed kind of guy who likes sport and the outdoors. He uses humour to deal with problems, and has a ‘glass-half-full’ kind of approach. He was lots of fun to write and his voice came to me quite naturally. I’d say he’s made up of 50% me and 50% teenaged male students I’ve known over the years. (Please note: while Zac & Mia is influenced by real people, the actual story and events are fictional.)

The entrance of Mia’s character, on the other hand, needed to prompt contrast and conflict, and as a result she’s more impulsive, self-focused, and quicker to anger. She’s feisty! Whereas Zac’s decisions are based on logic, hers are emotion-fuelled. She was also fun to create, but it took me a long time to get her character right. Again, she’s made up of teenagers I’ve known (their comments; not necessarily their actions) and parts of me. I had to delve into my teenage recollections to truly bring her to life.

The three-part structure – Zac’s perspective; alternating perspectives; Mia’s perspective – evolved through the writing process. Originally, the novel was going to be completely narrated by Zac, but when I was approximately eight chapters in, I realized the main character arc was going to be Mia’s. This meant I needed to give her the chance to reveal much more of her inner life. I liked the alternating chapters in the middle third, as it contrasts the characters’ experiences while showing their lives intersecting. By devoting the final third to Mia, I came to like her more – and hopefully the reader does too! The novel’s three-word title came directly from its three-part structure.

AmandaBettsHave you received any responses from young readers about Zac and Mia that particularly resonate with you?

I’m overwhelmed by the sincerity of the emails I receive from young readers, both here in Australia and overseas. Some have cancer; some have witnessed it in a friend or relative. For most readers, though, they really relate to Mia’s experience, which is not about illness but universal experiences such as hope, rejection, fear, self-loathing, love, vulnerability and frustration. Readers tell me the book moved them, and that they see their worlds with new eyes. What a privilege this is, for me.

What else have you written?

My first novel is Shutterspeed (Fremantle Press; 2008), followed by Wavelength (Fremantle Press; 2010). They are completely different from each other, and from Zac & Mia. Shutterspeed is fast and edgy, exploring ideas of obsession and secrecy. Wavelength is more funny and philosophical, reflecting on the decisions that teenagers (nearing the end of Year 12) need to make.Wavelength

What are you writing at the moment?

My current project is already three years in the making. It’s something unexpected and exciting – a work of speculative fiction set in a future Tasmania. It’s my most adventurous story yet. I’m about 2/3 through the draft, though the overall shape keeps changing and I’m continually having to rework earlier chapters. It could be really good or a terrible mess. I’m yet to find out! But I’m enjoying it right now, which must count for something.

What have you enjoyed reading? Illuminae

So much! I’ve just finished reading Illuminae (by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff) which kept me awake at night for all the best reasons. This year some of my favourites have been Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel), My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern), South of Darkness (John Marsden), A Single Stone (Meg McKinlay), and Inbetween Days (Vikki Wakefield). I’m about to begin reading American Gods (Neil Gaiman), and a non-fiction book called The Soul of an Octopus (Sy Montgomery). I can’t wait to begin.

Inbetween daysChristmas is coming. How do you plan to celebrate and what books would you like as Christmas presents?

Already!? This Christmas will be a quiet-ish one in Perth with good friends, good food, and some cooling ocean swims. For Christmas, I need another bookcase, and only then I’m allowed to buy/receive new books. No-one dares buy me books for Christmas as they know how fussy I am.

For the New Year I’ll be going to New Zealand for a one month cycle-touring trip of the South Island, (with some research and bookstore events/visits thrown in). Travel, bikes, books – what more could anyone want?

Zac & Mia & Willow – YA for your soul

Here in SE Queensland, just before Christmas, an unusual thing happened. It began to rain. I’d almost forgotten the scent of a wet garden and the sensation of damp. It was perfect cosy reading weather.

Alas, the week before Christmas with a house full of family and several menus and trips away to plan for proved anything but conducive to curling up with a good book. Thus, I’ve had a short sabbatical from children’s texts over the holidays. However, one or two did manage to sneak in under the radar and just like Santa, they really delivered.

Counting by 7sCounting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I saved this read, as I save my favourite parts of a roast dinner (the spuds) till last; knowing once I’d tasted it, it would be gobbled down fast. And it was. Counting by 7s is the story of twelve-year old Willow Chance who lives in Bakersfield, California and comes home from school one day to the news that her parents have been killed in a car accident.

This slap-in-the-face realisation is based on a real life occurrence of American author Holly Goldberg Sloan, as are many of the references in this novel. Willow’s loss is tragic but it is merely one of the inspired background colours used by Sloan to paint her story.

What follows is a journey of soul searching and discovery, not always by Willow; she is too pragmatic for that sort of thing. It’s a story about accepting different viewpoints, of moving on and allowing unexpected change to help you find ‘connectedness’ in life.

Holly Goldsberg SloanWillow could read as a prickly, hard to love character. Conversely, it could be easy to over sympathise with her plight. However, Sloan’s intelligent narrative is completely free of mawkishness. Her characters shine with pristine clarity and likeability.

I cannot fault this sophisticated tween / teen novel. Artful, moving, witty, and intensely humble. Sure, I cried in parts, but do not expect to be swept away by sentimentality. Willow, the higher thinking, twice-orphaned ‘problem’ everyone grows to cherish simply doesn’t allow it. Instead, she becomes the unexpected catalyst that sparks relationships and lives back to life. An astoundingly clarifying look at the complicated world of human relationships and emotions. Uplifting indeed and possibly better than roast potatoes.

Scholastic Australia May 2014

Zac & Mia by A.J. Betts

This is another YA read I’ve been hording. Once you read it, you will understand why. It’s almost too good to consume; over within minutes of starting. In other words, unputdownable.

Zac & MiaZac and Mia is not just a novel for young readers although A. J. Betts does a magnificent job of harnessing teenage nuances. With such broad appeal, Betts confidently tackles the despairingly familiar topic of cancer in young people. Zac and Mia however is not a maudlin account of people affected by cancer. It is a marvellous tapestry of conflicting emotions, characters fuelled by fear and love, confronting moments of self-discovery, and above all hope. Love and despair parry with equally matched determination between teenagers Zac and Mia with a rawness that makes you weep and humour that maintains a smile on your face as the tears fall.

A J BettsSimilar to John Green’s, A Fault in our Stars which I’ve yet to read so cannot make a direct comparison to, Zac and Mia is too splendid for words and a marvellous example of pure undiluted Aussie talent with one of the most endearing endings I’ve read, ever. Eloquent, ballsy, poignant, and beautifully told. A must read.

Text Publishing Australia July 2013

True, YA novels take on the tough stuff, unashamedly ramming readers head on into topics and themes often fraught with complicated innuendo, evolving emotions, damaged personalities and questionable social situations, but with writers like these doling out these tales with such sensitivity and sincerity, one can’t help but feel beautifully satisfied.

 

 

 

Qld Literary Awards vs Prime Minister’s Literary Awards

Coal CreekThe winners of the Qld Literary Awards and the PM Literary Awards are being announced on the same evening – Monday 8th December. You can follow the PM announcements live at ‪#PMLitAwards  or tune into ‪@APAC_ch648  at 7:15pm ‪http://on.fb.me/1pPELkt .

It is fantastic that both these awards exist. They include outstanding Australian books and their shortlists promote these titles as well as our valuable book industry. Their prize money is very different, with the PM winners receiving $80,000 each and the shortlisted authors receiving $5,000 – the amount the winners of the QLA receive.

These two awards also have some shortlisted books in common (keep in mind that the awards have different eligible voting periods, causing some books to be shortlisted in different years).

The books shortlisted in both awards are:

Fiction

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Vintage Australia)

Coal Creek, Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)

Children’s Fiction ROS

Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette)

 

Young Adult Fiction

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo)

History

Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Joan Beaumont (Allen & Unwin)

The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, Clare Wright (Text Publishing)

There are no overlaps in the non-fiction and poetry categories, with strong, diverse contenders in both.

The Qld Literary Awards has some extra categories:

University of Southern Queensland Australian Short Story Collection – Steele Rudd Award

Letters to George Clooney, Debra Adelaide (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The Promise, Tony Birch (UQP)

An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)

Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)

Holiday in Cambodia, Laura Jean McKay (Black Inc. Books)

Letter to George Clooney

Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award

There is no shortlist for this category; the winner of the award will be announced at the Awards Ceremony on Monday 8 December.

Emerging Queensland Writer – Manuscript Award

3 for a Wedding, Julie Kearney

We Come From Saltwater People, Cathy McLennan

Open Cut, Leanne Nolan

And the People’s Choice Awards …

As a judge of the Griffith University Children’s Book Award, I would like to particularly mention our shortlist

Big Red KangarooRefuge, Jackie French (Harper Collins Publishers)

The Ratcatcher’s Daughter, Pamela Rushby (Harper Collins Publishers)

Nature Storybooks: The Big Red Kangaroo, Claire Saxby and Graham Byrne (Walker Books Australia)

Rules of Summer, Shaun Tan (Hachette Australia)

Smooch and Rose, Samantha Wheeler (UQP)

As it turned out, our top books are a combination of novels and illustrated works; from Qld, national, established and emerging creators; and include a non-fiction book, The Big Red Kangaroo, which is also a work of art.

The YA judges have also produced an excellent list

Griffith University Young Adult Book Award

Zac & Mia, A.J Betts (Text Publishing)

The Incredible Here and Now, Felicity Castagna (Giramondo Publishing)

The Accident, Kate Hendrick (Text Publishing)

Tigerfish, David Metzenthen (Penguin Australia)

The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)

The 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists in full are at http://arts.gov.au/shortlists

And I’ve previously written more about the PM awards at http://blog.boomerangbooks.com.au/more-about-the-2014-prime-ministers-literary-awards/2014/10

Staff from the State Library of Queensland (also the venue hub of the BWF)  have taken over the administration of the QLA awards for the first time this year and have done a brilliant job. The awards had been coordinated by an extraordinary committee of volunteers for the past few years since the Qld Premier’s Literary Awards were axed by Campbell Newman’s government. The SLQ has also sponsored the poetry award and some Qld Universities such as the University of Queensland, Griffith University and the University of Southern Queensland, have also stepped in to sponsor awards. Enormous thanks to them all.

Congratulations to all of the shortlisted authors and to the winners of both these awards. We will know the outcome soon!

Incredible Here and Now