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Friday, August 31, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival recap: 'Reading into Writing' with Emily Rodda, John Larkin and Penni Russon.



Wednesday was, sadly, my last scheduled event to attend at Melbourne Writers Festival. Unfortunately, and much as I have enjoyed living in a bookish fugue at Fed Square, work beckons me back. So I sucked the marrow out of my last session, ‘Reading into Writing’ with Emily Rodda (‘The Three Doors Trilogy’) John Larkin (‘The Shadow Girl’) and, Penni Russon (‘Only Ever Always’) chaired once again by the lovely Jordi Kerr from the Centre For Youth Literature.

The MWF website described ‘Reading into Writing’ as: What do writers read, and how does it affect their writing? Do the books they read when young still matter to them? And do you need to read to be a writer? Three writers share the inside story on the books that matter to them.

•    Jordi kicked the discussion off with ‘what do you read?’ (of course!). Emily Rodda replied that she reads everything but non-fiction (the very occasional autobiography will cross her path) but most of the time she likes *stories*. She also has a love of 19th century authors like Dickens, and she loves a good mystery. Penni Russon doesn’t believe in a children’s/YA category, because she never stopped reading them even as an adult – so she will often read books intended for younger readers (and also because she has three children, so reads whatever they feel like). Penni did say that she gets into reading ‘themes’, and at the moment she’s interested in WWI poetry. John Larkin said that writers are usually guilty-pleasure readers, because whenever they're reading they're thinking "I should be writing". Never the less, John listed a few of his favourite yearly reads – ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, ‘Catch-22’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’. But at the moment he’s in danger of having his man-card revoked, because he’s reading (and enjoying!) ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ – although he would love to write the man version.

•    Penni mentioned that all her children are currently obsessed with Maurice Sendak’s ‘In The Night Kitchen’ and she has been reading it to them everyday for the last few months – which has taken Penni to a point where she’s almost transcending the reading. Emily said she envied Penni her children’s choice of reading, because when her own kids were younger they were obsessed with a book called ‘Miffy Goes Flying’ which was dull, dull, dull! But Emily understood it wasn’t so much the story that her daughter loved, but the comfort in the fact that the story would never change – each reading, the same sequence of events would unfold.

•    Jordi then asked *how* they read, since they’re also writers. Emily said that reading a really great book can leave her feeling awed and chastened, and quite envious. Penni said she definitely reads as a writer – so an indication of a good book is one that makes her forget editing and academia and just enjoy the story. Emily agreed with this statement, and likened ‘Jane Eyre’ to Mozart – reciting a scientific factoid that says people have been proven to feel calmer when they listen to Mozart, and so too does Emily feel peaceful when reading ‘Jane Eyre’. John also said that he reads ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at least once a year, because it’s “like being massaged with coconut oil and words.”

•    Talk of the late, great Maurice Sendak got the three authors reminiscing about what they read as children. John Larkin confessed that ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ transported him as a young boy. He said that his own sister was a ‘wild thing’ who would regularly threaten to kill him (with a butter knife, most often) but that book was his escape from her, into another world. Emily read ‘The Saggy, Baggy Elephant’ when she was just a toddler, and remembers her parent’s friends warning them that she would “strain her little brain” if they let her keep reading so young. Emily said she wasn’t reading the book, but memorizing it from her parents reading to her – still, she suspects she owes a great deal of her reading life to that Saggy, Baggy Elephant.

•    One of the school-kids in the audience asked a question of all the authors – ‘where do you get your story ideas?’ John said that he actually met the young girl who inspired ‘The Shadow Girl’ at a year 8 schools event, and told her he would write a book about her one day. She was homeless, living on trains and spent all her time reading. He explained that she didn’t have a TV to watch and unwind with things like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘The Shire’ (as an aside, he said that watching ‘The Shire’ is like being dead – no difference between the two states. He should be pleased to hear that Channel Ten today announced the show’s cancellation) so she read instead, and that was how she relaxed. Emily said that the idea for the ‘Three Doors Trilogy’ came to her because she has always thought of books like doors – opening up into other worlds – and that was the thought that sparked the series. Emily said ‘Deltora Quest’ came about because she was fascinated by the idea of collecting things, and the power of gems. Penni referred to a conversation she had with her young daughter about heartbeats, that was the inspiration for ‘Only Ever Always’, because her daughter was so sad to think there wasn’t another her somewhere in the world.

•    The conversation then shifted to how we read as adults, compared to how we read as children and re-reading a book at different ages. Emily believes there is a mechanism inside all of us that changes the reading of a book as we get older, so it’s as though we never read the same book twice. Penni used a beautiful example, and said re-reading is like being unable to enter the same river twice – because the water is constantly rushing and changing.

•    John the spoke about the last really powerful book her read, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was editor of a French fashion magazine before he suddenly suffered a massive stroke that left him speechless and paralysed, only able to blink his left eyelid. He was able to communicate to nurses by blinking, and let them know that he still had all his brain functions, and when he was asked what he wanted to do, he blinked that he wanted to write a book. And that’s what he did. He blinked a book – 500,000 blinks. John was astounded by this (I am too!) and warned the kids in the audience to think next time they whinge about having to complete a writing assignment of a couple hundred words – just remember, Jean-Dominique Bauby was so determined that he blinked a book. Never think you can’t do it!

•    Somebody in the audience asked how they all became writers, and all three had such different answers! Penni became a writer after trying to be an editor, and being told the world had too many editors but needed more writers. So that’s what she did. Penni also said that she became a writer at the same time that she became a mother, so the two experiences are forever entwined. Emily said that she could clearly remember reading ‘Jane Eyre’ when she was eleven-years-old (so young, because her parents never restricted her reading choices) and being aware, for the first time, that there was a person responsible for that book, and wouldn’t that be a nice job? But it wasn’t until Emily was telling a story to her seven-year-old one night, making it up as she went along, that she thought; “that was quite good” and decided to write it down. John came to writing in the most round-about way. He was not a big reader as a child (unless you counted copies of his mum and sister’s CLEO magazine. Talk about a reading experience) but he also said when he was younger, there wasn’t the same children’s reading culture as there is now and that most books seemed to be very Americanized and Britishized. So John was actually a professional soccer player for Leeds United, until he blew his knee out when he was 21. Recovering in hospital, he received a book from his ‘wild thing’ sister, which was ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, and that set him off on his new writing ambition. John then asked the boy who had originally put the question to them if he wanted to be a writer one day, and the boy replied with an affirmative. John told him to “Stick at it. Go to the well every day” and write. He said some of it would be rubbish, but promised that if he sticks at it long enough he would be published one day.

•    Somebody in the audience asked all three authors what it is they love about reading. Emily said she reads for a main character that resonates with her, and Penni agreed – saying she loves it when it’s like an author has peeked into your brain and you could swear they’re writing about you.

•    On the subject of which one of their books is a favourite – all responded that the one most recently finished is usually the favourite. Although Emily did cave and say she has a soft spot for ‘Rowan of Rin’. Penni said ‘Only Ever Always’ is her current favourite, but she also loved the writing process of ‘Dear Swoosie’ that she wrote with Kate Constable for ‘Girlfriend Fiction’ – she loved writing that book because she and Kate are friends, and they were just writing to make each other laugh so that book is like a suspended moment in time, a nice memory of writing with her dear friend.

•    Another origin of inspiration question, and John replied “being a writer isn’t something that I do, it’s something that I am,” and that “writers are great observers of life, not great participants in it.” Nevertheless, he has a lovely memory of breaking a large Ming-Vase umbrella-holder at home, and his daughter coming in and asking; “Daddy, do you want the sticky-tape?” which had him envisioning his daughter travelling the world with her trusty sticky-tape, saving people and fixing things. Basically, inspiration can crop up in funny places.

•    The final question of the session was a lovely one to finish on – “what’s your favourite part of writing?” put to all the authors. Emily enjoys writing the end of a book more than the beginning. Penni said there’s less problem solving as a reader than a writer, but she loves finding the answers to the problems of a story or character as a writer. She likes that the ‘answers’ come from everywhere – while she’s on the train, or in a beam of inspiration. John said: "I love when the story takes over and you just follow behind sweeping up." John also said he doesn’t want to be too aware of how he writes; “Please don’t tell me how I work, because I choose not to know.” And, finally, Penni left the session off on a beautiful transcending art metaphor – that when sculptors receive a lump of clay, marble or wood they have to find its ‘true form’, and writers do the same thing. Writers chisel out the story because it’s already there in existence, we just have to find it.

This was such a wonderful event to cap-off my 2012 MWF. John, Penni and Emily are all such different writers (and readers!) but I felt like this was a truly affirming session, and much of what these three authors said I had been hearing echoes of throughout the Festival. 
For instance, John bought up the fact that when he was younger, there wasn't such a vibrant children's/YA reading culture as there is now. This was something Vikki Wakefield touched on, which got me thinking how lucky we are that books for younger readers are so embraced these days, there's such choice and (from 'Harry Potter' to 'Hunger Games') they're the books that are dominating the literary world!

 Emily spoke about reading 'Jane Eyre' when she was 11-years-old, partly because her parents didn't put an age-restriction on what she could and could not read. That reminded me of Morris Gleitzman's statement that
"if it's in the world, it's for them" - with regards to seemingly 'taboo' subjects appearing in children's book. I think this came down to not underestimating young readers; in their reading material, or the subjects explored within ... and I wholeheartedly agree!
And I really loved Penni's final thought, about writers being sculptors and having to chisel away at a story until we can find its 'true form' that is 'already in existence' just waiting to be discovered. Melina Marchetta said that she hesitates to write a story that's in her head down on paper, for fear that it won't be as good as she imagines - and I feel like that's all apart of the process of chiseling and getting to the heart of the matter.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In conversation with Vikki Wakefield and Fiona Wood, recap: 'Caterpillars and Underdogs'

 

I had my biggest bookish day on Tuesday; attending the Melbourne Writers Festival ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ talk, stumbling upon the ‘Hard Lines’ discussion between Vikki Wakefield and Julia Lawrinson and then attending a very special event at the State Library, hosted by the Centre for Youth Literature. This event was a conversation between Fiona Wood and Vikki Wakefield, concentrating on Vikki’s new (brilliant!) novel ‘Friday Brown’. I should stress that this was not a Melbourne Writers Festival event, it was just a lovely little additional treat put on by the Centre for Youth Literature, who actually do lots of fabulous author events, and everyone should keep checking their What’s On page.

In the lead-up to the talk I was calling it ‘Wakefield & Wood’ and envisioning them as characters in a cozy mystery series about two female authors/sleuths … but my mind goes off on bizarre little tangents like that. It was in fact a lovely, heartfelt discussion between two of my favourite new voices in Aussie YA literature, talking about one of my favourite novels of 2012. By the end of their conversation I decided I desperately needed to re-read ‘Friday Brown’ and start peeling back some of the layers that were unearthed between them … since Tuesday I’ve still been thinking about what was discussed between Vikki and Fiona, and I’ve since started thinking of the discussion as ‘Caterpillars and Underdogs’, for reasons that should become apparent in my recap. So, here it goes…

•    Fiona asked if Vikki writes with a young adult audience in mind, and Vikki said she doesn’t. It’s partly to do with the fact that, when she was growing up, there wasn’t such a vibrant Young Adult reading culture as there is now. Vikki said she went from reading Hilda Boswell’s disturbing omnibus of tales (like ‘The Little March Girl’) to Elyne Mitchell’s ‘Silver Brumby’ series, and then careening towards Jack London. So she made a giant leap in her younger reading habits, and as such still hasn’t become quite imbedded in that YA ‘culture’, so doesn’t write for it.

•    Vikki pointed out that, unlike many authors, she wasn’t a writer when she was younger. She took a long time to get where she is today, but has since decided that she has definitely found her “thing.” She later said that she wrote ‘All I Ever Wanted’ between the hours of 8pm and midnight, after the kids had gone to bed and her husband had passed out watching TV on the couch. After the book’s release (and success!) Vikki decided to take a ‘gap year’ … which has now extended into 2 years, in which she has found a writing routine and now scribbles away between 10am – 2pm.

•    Now onto discussions of ‘Friday Brown’… Vikki spoke a little about the process of writing the novel (which she has famously said began with Chapter 28, and then went forwards, backwards and every which direction!). Really fascinating to discover that the prologue to ‘Friday Brown’ was written last, and before she wrote it there was no curse, or quite so much history ... so because of the prologue, which quite nicely bought everything together, Vikki had to go back and completely re-write the whole book. But Vikki didn’t seem fazed by this massive overhaul; she said her books often have to ‘break’ before she can fix them. And even in her final draft with her editor (who was sitting next to me in the audience, and was nodding her head vigorously agreeing with Vikki’s recounting of events) she actually changed the tense in the final draft. Fiona bemoaned that there’s no quick-fix button to go through and change an entire manuscript from first-person point-of-view to third, and Vikki agreed it was a huge re-edit (but a necessary one). Again, she maintains that her novels have to be broken before she can fix them.

•    Vikki again touched on the fact that she likes writing an underdog (as she mentioned in her ‘Hard Lines’ talk). She creates an underdog by taking away either wealth, status, beauty etc … but she admits Friday Brown was perhaps the most downtrodden underdog, having lost her mother and finding herself living on the streets (and at Arden’s mercy). But Vikki finds it interesting to see a character come back from that, seeing them rise above their underdog status and become something more. Vikki also said she “gets a kick out of leading characters astray.”

•    Fiona picked up on a mother connection between both ‘All I Ever Wanted’ and ‘Friday Brown’, wherein the absence (or imperfections?) of Mim and Friday’s mums have a lot of influence on the protagonists. Vikki agreed, and said that in both books Mim and Friday have to shatter their childish ideas of their mothers in order to go forward in life (When Vikki said that, I kept hearing that Corinthians quote in my head: “I put away childish things”). But then Vikki made a point of clarifying that her own mother is lovely, and she should really write a book with a wonderful mother character and dedicate it to her.

•    Fiona asked if Vikki plans her novels, and she replied that her story ideas always start with a clear plan, but then go pear-shaped. Like with ‘All I Ever Wanted’, for example. That was supposed to be a book about Mim getting out, escaping her home. But then Vikki started writing characters around Mim who she actually really liked and the plan went out the window.

•    More ‘Friday Brown’ talk, Vikki said that when she started writing Arden, she really liked her. But at some point in the writing she knew that Arden had to be nasty, and then embraced that. Arden is now the most horrible character she has ever written (very true!) Vikki also said that Arden’s character really started to take form when she decided she’d have dreadlocks and an animal-like quality, certain viciousness. About this point Fiona commented that the subtle power-plays Arden orchestrates with the other runaway girl’s hair was very clever, and Vikki said she hadn’t even made the Samson & Delilah biblical connection until just recently. She did say that the idea for Arden to have long, dreadlocked hair and then insist that the others cut theirs off came from Vikki observing how much of female sexuality and identity is caught up in hair. Vikki also said that Arden was based on an old school friend of Vikki’s, who was very much into power-plays (particularly using her sexuality to mess with people).

•    Fiona bought up the very unconventional families that Vikki wrote in both her books, and where they came from. Vikki said that they came from her own life, particularly when she was a teenager observing her friend’s broken families where things like drug abuse, physical abuse and teen pregnancy were everyday occurrences. At the time, Vikki’s home life was the most stable of all her friends (and didn’t break until she was older, when her parents divorced).

•    Vikki spoke about two characters in ‘Friday Brown’ who were also very unconventional, and hard to write. Silence (who she loves, and I do too!) doesn’t speak because his father once stepped on his throat when he was younger, and now it hurts to talk. Vikki said that when she started writing Silence, he just didn’t speak to her and she had to write around that and give him emotion without giving him a voice. Likewise, Friday’s mother Vivenne is key to the story and Friday’s life – but she’s dead for the entire book. So Vikki had one character who didn’t speak, and one who was dead but both had to still live on the page. It comes together, I think (and as Vikki pointed out) that Friday has only ever loved one person in her life, and that’s her mother Vivienne…and then she meets Silence, and she finds a second person to love. So these two unconventional (one silent, the other dead) characters gained a life in the story simply for being tethered to Friday in a very profound way (that’s how I think of it, anyway).

•    With regards to setting the second half of ‘Friday Brown’ in a wonderfully creepy outback ghost town, Vikki said she was very much drawing on her own experiences. When she was fifteen-years-old (and without her parent’s permission) Vikki went camping with a bunch of older kids, to an abandoned town in South Australia called Beltana. In writing a ghost town in ‘Friday Brown’, Vikki wanted to evoke that moment her fifteen-year-old self saw Beltana arising out of the outback night, and her sinking feeling that she’d made a horrible mistake in agreeing to this trip. She said she had the thought “I could disappear and no one would know,” and then spent two nights in the cold, dusty ghost town with nothing but a pillow and blanket.

Beltana ghost town

•    In discussing the ghost town of the novel’s second half, Fiona commented that ‘Friday Brown’ is very much a Gothic novel. Vikki agreed, and said that she loves and is influenced by novelists like Flannery O’Connor, and books in which good people do bad things. Vikki also mentioned movies like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘The Green Mile’, but particularly ‘Winter’s Bone’ as having a big influence over ‘Friday Brown’ (Vikki also said that if Jennifer Lawrence should be famous for anything it should be ‘Winter’s Bone’, and not for playing Katniss!)

•    Fiona made a few connections for Vikki, when she mentioned that in both ‘All I Ever Wanted’ and ‘Friday Brown’ some very pivotal scenes occur on towers and at great heights (Vikki admitted she has a fear of heights!). Fiona also commented that Mim and Friday both faced mortal danger barefoot! Vikki hadn’t even noticed these things, but concedes it must be a pattern in her (her very own inner-caterpillar? More on that in a moment!) and that she likes putting her characters in physical peril. Fiona also wondered if these moments of physical peril can be attributed to the two professions Vikki said she would choose to do, had she not been a writer – either “a demolition expert on ‘Mythbusters’. Or a stunt designer on ‘Jackass’. Or a ninja on Prank Patrol”

•    Fiona asked Vikki if morality is important to her, in her stories and Vikki said definitely. Vikki herself has a strong sense of what’s right and what's wrong, and while her stories don’t necessarily have strong resolutions, she definitely writes up until her character is alright and in a good place, at least.

•    The question of how Vikki first got published was asked (always an appreciated question) and Vikki said she submitted the first page of her manuscript to a Writers Festival that had a panel critiquing them. Hers was picked up by a publisher (not Text, interestingly) and it snow-balled from there after she received a bit of interest and some great feedback.

•    Then it was question time from the audience, and I put my hand up (clearly I was feeling confident after asking a question of Melina Marchetta earlier in the day!). I very inarticulately asked why Vikki thinks it’s important for her young characters to save themselves – that in both her novels, the plot would have been very different (Friday’s particularly, had the storyline with her father had gone another way…) if her young character had more interaction with the adults in their lives. Vikki replied that she again draws from her own life, and when she was younger nobody was saving her (especially not adults, partly because she didn’t tell her parents half the stuff she was doing!). Vikki feels that her characters need to be unsafe, both physically and emotionally. She also said that adults are important in both Mim and Friday's lives (Vivienne especially) but part of that underdog theme is that those adults aren't saviors, the girls have to save themselves.

•    Somebody asked Vikki if the focus on homelessness in ‘Friday Brown’ was also her writing from life, and while Vikki admitted she had never lived in a squat, the abandoned house that features in the novel was a real place where she stayed for a night. She remembered that house because there were newspapers stacked everywhere, and stuck to the walls

•    The final question for the night was perhaps the most interesting, and a nice one to cap-off this wonderful discussion. In ‘Friday Brown’, Friday is fascinated by this factoid about caterpillars in the Arctic who can only eat so much during the summer period, and then freeze themselves during winter before pupating and becoming a moth. Friday thinks it’s amazing that the caterpillar will maybe panic that it can only eat so much during summer (may even worry that it's going to starve to death!) only to have its body freeze itself for protection, and later emerge a moth. Vikki was asked if all that was true, and Vikki promised it was and she researched it. She said she loved the idea of things being packed into our DNA that we don’t even know what they do until they’re called on to help us. I really loved that idea too, and in hindsight I think it’s a wonderful ongoing metaphor/theme in both of Vikki’s books – that these broken characters aren’t quite sure what they’re capable of until the time comes for them to prove themselves (often from great heights).

I have since researched and (not that I ever doubted!) found that Vikki was telling the truth. For the record, it’s the Banded Woolly Bear caterpillar, which turns into the Isabella Tiger Moth.



Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival recap: 'Hard Lines' with Vikki Wakefield and Julia Lawrinson


One of the reasons I love Melbourne Writers Festival? You can walk out of one session, spy another author you love and decide to follow and let them lead you to another equally enchanting event . . .  that’s what happened to me on Tuesday. I had just finished the ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ talk and went down to the signing area, where I spied Vikki Wakefield dashing to the Yarra Building for the ‘Hard Lines’ discussion with Julia Lawrinson.

Being a big fan of both Vikki Wakefield and Julia Lawrinson, of course I decided to follow her to ‘Hard Lines’, an interesting event described by MWF as: The teenage characters in novels by Julia Lawrinson and Vikki Wakefield often face hard, sometimes life-changing, decisions. See how two authors find hope in a world that is all too real and where there are no easy answers. The event was chaired by the lovely Adele Walsh, from the Centre for Youth Literature.

•    Julia Lawrinson began by saying that she had the beginnings of the ideas for ‘Losing It’ after reading negative reviews of Melvin Burgess’s ‘Doing It’ – in which teenage boy’s wise-cracked foul about their exploits both imagined and underwhelming. Julia really loved the book, but thought a particularly cruel review of it was completely missing the point. She especially thought about how girls have the same experiences with regards to sex and ‘Losing It’, but people seem to think writing about it is crass or taboo. So in describing what her book is about, Julia funnily admitted that it actually sounds like “a YA version of American Pie” (a few school kids in the audience perked up at this description) but then she promised that it wasn't all about "exploding penises." HA!

•    Vikki Wakefield wasn’t sure how to describe her new book, ‘Friday Brown’ – so enticingly said it’s about street kids who take over a ghost town. Julia Lawrinson chimed in, as a fan of the book, to say it’s about a lot more than that but to even attempt to describe the explosive second-half would be to spoil the story . . . Julia did point out that the cover itself is a spoiler. I love the ‘Friday Brown’ front cover, and I especially loved when Vikki agreed that the cover is an “omen” (YES!) and actually based around events in Chapter 28, which is also the section of the book that Vikki started writing first.

•    Talk of Vikki’s cover moved Adele to mention that around the office she was calling ‘Losing It’ the ‘sperm hearts’ cover – which got many giggles from the school crowd . . . and then a delayed-reaction about five minutes later, when someone (I think it was a teacher?) let out a little “Oooooohhhhh!” when they ‘got’ it. Adele and I were actually talking to Julia about her very distinctive front cover before the session started, and she described how the Penguin design department asked her many questions about what her characters looked like (details right down to their hair colour, eye colour) but they set all that aside to create a very distinctive (and, frankly, quite succinct) front cover instead. But, hey, it works!

•    Vikki spoke a lot about how she likes to write underdog characters. Really, characters only become interesting for her when they are underdogs – when you take away something like wealth, status, beauty and let them struggle with the lack. Friday Brown is really the ultimate underdog though, because Vikki took away her mother, had her living on the streets and at the mercy of a dangerous surrogate street mother. But Vikki really likes underdogs because their transformation to a strong individual by the end of the book is made all the more interesting for the struggles that came before. . .

•    I found it really intriguing that in ‘Losing It’, Julia set out to write about female sexuality and just girls in general, in a new and non-cliché way. She doesn’t like reading about one-dimensional girls who are just there as ‘objects’ on the page.

•    On the subject of romance – Vikki Wakefield admitted to being a ‘tease’ when it comes to writing relationships. She thinks that the moment a couple get together, they stop being interesting – so she tends to write everything leading up to that point, and then veer away.

 
 [left to right] Vikki Wakefield, Adele Walsh and Julia Lawrinson talking 'Hard Lines'

•    There was one really thoughtful question asked towards the end, concerning the TV show ‘Puberty Blues’ and the fact that the book it is based on was released in 1979. Vikki and Julia were asked if they think teenage girls have changed a whole lot between 1979 and now. Vikki made the fantastic comment that the TV show creators have changed the intent (and impact?) of the original novel quite a bit, by making the characters in the TV show 16 when they’re actually 13 in the books. Julia agreed, and said that 13-year-olds are very much doing all those confronting, questionable things and raising the age is maybe a bit sanitizing? But Vikki also said that she truly believes girls today are stronger. She doesn’t know what it is or how it came about, but girls have found a new strength from somewhere that was maybe missing for them in the 70s.

•    One school-boy put his hand up and asked the obvious of Julia – did she have a pact of her own when she was younger, like the girls in ‘Losing It’ do? I think the audience were very surprised that Julia admitted that she did indeed have a pact as a teenager – and, of course, everyone wanted to know more (the boy who asked the question said to be as detailed as possible). Julia recounted a rather hilarious story, much like the opening chapter of ‘Losing It’, which involved her climbing into the backseat of an ugly, small car with a boy . . . but ending up on her knees, praying with him that she wouldn’t get pregnant from their interlude. HA! I think the audience (pupils especially, while their teachers hid smiles behind hands?) were utterly enthralled by the enthusiasm and high hilarity of the ‘Hard Lines’ session. Julia, Vikki and Adele all bounced off one another so beautifully . . . and that wonderful repartee led into the final surreal moment of ‘Hard Lines’. . .

•    Both Julia and Vikki were introduced at the beginning of the seminar as having a small cosmic connection – which was that they had both been check-out chicks at one point in their lives (they mentioned that they both had the opportunity to closely study people and watch the world go by in that job, because customers generally didn’t think of their check-out chicks as ‘people’ they revealed some true colours and quirks around them). However, by the end of the session another connection was uncovered – Julia recently discovered (through an unsuccessful Facebook search) that her first boyfriend had spent 25-years in jail. Vikki found out that an ex of hers had been accused (not convicted?) with attempted murder! I think this was also a little insight into how differently Vikki and Julia’s lives could have been had they continued on the hedonistic paths of their adolescence . . . a path that they now both write about in their very tough, very true books but both seem quite happy to have deviated from.

 Vikki Wakefield, me and Julia Lawrinson (two of the nicest, funniest authors I have met at MWF!)

Melbourne Writers Festival recap: 'Meet Melina Marchetta'

Jordi Kerr and Melina Marchetta

Yesterday I attended Melina Marchetta’s last Melbourne Writers Festival appearance, at the ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ event, which was also part of the schools program. The event was chaired by the wonderful Jordi Kerr, from the Centre for Youth Literature.

This was my second Melina event at MWF, after the fantastic workshop with her on Sunday. But ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ was a very different event, which also had an entirely different focus. . .

For one thing, ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ was in the large ACMI building, and it was packed full of school kids out on excursion at the Festival (so jealous, by the way – I would have LOVED to visit Melbourne Writers Festival when I was in primary/secondary school!) so a very different venue from the intimate Wheeler Centre room. The Marchetta workshop on Sunday also focused on the craft of her writing, and the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’; while ‘Meet Melina Marchetta’ was very much the ‘Jellicoe’ show – and happily so!

•    As a sort of introduction, Jordi asked Melina to talk about her first book ‘Looking for Alibrandi’. Melina replied that she really thinks of her career in two sections – ‘Alibrandi’, and everything else. She wrote that book in solitude, and spent years editing and working on it with Penguin. When the book was released she calculated that she knew some 200 people in Australia, and therefore assumed that only those 200 would read it . . . so imagine her surprise when ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ not only won the CBCA Children's Book of the Year Award, but also found such popularity amongst teen readers that it was the most shoplifted book in bookstores and unreturned to libraries in Australia! Melina said that someone recently ‘psychoanalysed’ her and said that she doesn’t cope well with people’s high expectations of her – she concedes that’s very true, and ‘Alibrandi’ didn’t help matters. It’s probably why it took her eleven years to write her second book, because she said that every week for eleven years someone would ask her “are you going to do it again?”. Melina is still very humble with regards to ‘Alibrandi’s’ success; she said it just so happened to come out at the right time and hit a nerve.

•    With regards to the ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ film adaptation – the ball got rolling when producer, Tristram Miall, approached Melina with the idea to bring it to the big screen. Melina just so happened to be a big fan of Tristram’s other movie, ‘Strictly Ballroom’, and also admits that he wasn’t what she expected a producer to be (i.e.: slimy and money-hungry). He seemed to really understand the book, and was passionate about it. Melina went into the movie-making process with a very clear goal of doing justice to the Italian characters represented. She feels that so often in Australian film & TV, certain nationalities are whittled down to stereotypes (like Italians always being the ‘bad guys’ in shows like ‘Underbelly’).

•    Melina learnt a lot about writing and craft when she worked on the ‘Alibrandi’ script, with help and encouragement from the film’s director, Kate Woods. Melina says there’s a big correlation between the ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ movie being released in 2000, and her writing ‘Saving Francesca’ which was released in 2003. She just thinks that she grew a lot as a writer in developing the ‘Alibrandi’ script, and what she learnt from Kate Woods (who is attached to the ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ movie!).

•    Speaking about the award-winning ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ movie segued nicely into talk about Melina’s next (hopeful!) movie adaptation, this time of her 2006 award-winning novel ‘On the Jellicoe Road’. Jordi asked what Melina could and could not say about the movie’s status, and Melina could reveal that as of that moment ‘Jellicoe’ was on the verge of something big, as the script was about to be sent out and hopefully optioned (basically, looking for funding). Melina said she has been working on the ‘Jellicoe’ script for three years!

•    Melina does want a US distributor for the film – she says there was an option for it to be a little Australian movie (like ‘Alibrandi’) or making it for an international appeal. If they choose to go the US route, a ‘name’ actor will have to be attached – either for the roles of Taylor Markham or Jonah Griggs. Having a known actor attached will mean getting more money and attention for the film . . . but the ‘pro’ of making a little Aussie film, is that they could potentially get the casting right (instead of having to find a ‘name’ actor for the sake of funding.) Either way I got the distinct impression that this is Melina’s baby – she won’t sacrifice or cut-corners, she knows how much this book means to young readers. This thought was distilled when Melina said ‘Jellicoe’ “could be a really big film, if we get it right.” And I have every confidence that Melina will devote herself to getting it absolutely right.

'On the Jellicoe Road' film script on the screen!

•    Then Melina put an excerpt of the script up on the big screen – which was amazing! It was the scene in which Taylor’s mother is about to abandon her on the Jellicoe Road . . . I can tell you that eleven-year-old Taylor was written to be “clutching a copy of Harry Potter in her hands” and the beautiful Cold Chisel song “Flame Trees” is playing on the radio, with Taylor and her mum singing along. The scene she showed us was short, but beautiful and it’s amazing how Melina seems to have condensed a lot of information and internal monologue into such a scene. Readers of ‘Jellicoe’ will know that the memory of being abandoned on the Jellicoe Road is more of a hazy flash-back recounted by Taylor in the book. In the movie, it’s the opening scene – but Melina has included interaction between Taylor and her mum that lets viewers know she loves her daughter, but hints that there’s more going on that will have to unravel before becoming apparent . . . it was really incredible, and I have no doubt that Melina Marchetta has again done justice to the film adaptation of her book, just as she did with ‘Alibrandi’. Also interesting to note that the film script is 139 pages, with each page being about 1 minute of screen time.

•    In writing the ‘Jellicoe’ script the hardest thing Melina had to do was keep everything in that readers love – but work around the fact that lots of those beloved moments sprout from Taylor’s inner thoughts, memories and monologue. The ‘Jellicoe’ movie will have no voice-over, so Melina had to find other ways of incorporating those events . . . she has done so by including things like a letter written to the boy she loves, and cutting out the character of Sam (he appears at the very end). But don’t worry – Melina really hasn’t cut the important bits that readers love: Hannah is still there, so is Santangelo and Raffaela.

•    Somebody in the audience asked if Melina would ever write Hannah’s book (in the ‘Jellicoe’ novel, the character of Hannah has a half-finished manuscript recollecting the awful and wonderful events from her childhood). Melina said she won’t, because it would just be too hard for her to revisit those raw, emotional and terrible moments. She said they were hard enough to write the first time around.

•    Then Melina said she is also working on a ‘Jellicoe’ TV series, set five years after the events of the book and concerning the war. She described it as “a teen version of ‘The West Wing’” (for the scheming and focus on whip-quick dialogue). OH. MY. GOOD. LORD! I’m hoping and praying for a ‘Jellicoe’ movie first and foremost, but with a teaser like that I’m also ridiculously keen for a TV show! Melina also touched on the fact that many people are unsure of the heightened reality of ‘On the Jellicoe Road’, and how that will work for film/TV – but as Melina said, she’s not a fan of reality TV (that’s her life, that’s boring, not transportive) and she likes to watch shows and movies that are full-on and high-stakes.

•    Towards the end of the session, I actually stuck my hand up to ask a question of Melina (big deal for me – in a room packed full of schoolkids and knowing the session was being recorded for posterity!) I asked Melina the story of her receiving the phone call to say ‘Jellicoe’ had won the (2009) Michael L. Printz award, and how winning had changed her international profile. Melina told the very funny story of receiving the phone call about winning the Printz award, but after hanging up she assumed the person on the other end had meant she’d been shortlisted, not ‘won’. She then had to stay up all night until the winner was officially announced in America (and she could share the embargoed news) she managed to stay awake by watching the comedy ‘Tropic Thunder’. On the subject of how winning the Printz changed her international profile, Melina maintains that Americans more readily embraced ‘Jellicoe’ (and her fantasy, ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ series) because they’re used to that big, exaggerated storytelling style; whereas Australian fiction seems to favour down-to-earth, relatable material.  But she said that by the time she received the news of the Printz award, ‘Jellicoe’ had also been embraced by Australian readers.

•    I guess I asked this question, because I found it quite a lovely dichotomy that after Melina’s Sunday event, in which she spoke at length about the initial negative reactions to ‘On the Jellioe Road’ (and that one awful co-worker who told her he threw it across the room rather than read it) that today I was in a room with hundreds of schoolchildren who were so enthusiastic about ‘Jellicoe’ and kept asking questions about the movie adaptation! It was a true testament to the fact that, even though ‘Jellicoe’ may not have had the easiest start, it has since grown and arguably become Melina’s most popular and powerful work to date.

As a small P.S. – I also really enjoyed this event because I met up with a fellow blogger (Bree, of 1girl2manybooks fame!) and bumped into some people I know from Twitter. And a couple of times while walking around the hustling and bustling Fed Square building, I had to stop and stare at the masses of schoolkids who were lining up in droves to get their books signed and speak to authors (National Year of Reading is alive and well!). There’s just a lovely atmosphere around Fed with the Writers Festival – reading and writing may be a solitary experience and, heck!, even blogging about reading and writing can be a lonely solo-show . . .  so I love that this festival is bringing us bookish types together. I've had the chance put faces to Twitter-handles, shake hands with authors I've admired for a while now and just generally enjoy the Melbourne book community (which sometimes feels more like a family). It’s amazing, and definitely my favourite time of year!  

In the belly of Fed Square

Monday, August 27, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival recap: ‘The Art of Writing for Children and Young Adults’ PART 2, Melina Marchetta


Melina Marchetta was the second-half of the incredible Melbourne Writers Festival seminar, ‘The Art of Writing for Children and Young Adults’.

I have been a huge fan of Melina’s ever since I first read ‘Looking for Alibrandi’, at a pivotal moment in my life when I (like Josie) was also struggling to survive at a private all girls’ school. And if Morris Gleitzman narrated my childhood, then Melina Marchetta was my guide through adolescence – and just as I continue to love Gleitzman’s work, I will always have a place in my heart for Melina’s novels.

I also got to speak to Melina (and gush about how much I loved her short story ‘Ferragost’ and seeing her name with Kirsty Eagar’s!). I have actually met Melina before, at a bookshop signing for ‘The Piper’s Son’ in 2010. And, would you believe, when I approached Melina she recognized me and asked “have I met you before?”  

It’s the nicest thing in the world, when an author you’ve idolized for so many years turns out to be as lovely as you’ve always imagined them to be. William Feather said; “Finishing a good book is like leaving a good friend.” And that’s how I've always felt about Melina Marchetta’s books, and bizarrely the author herself. So it was just really nice to have a chance to say ‘hi!’ and thank her for all those wonderful book friends I've made over the years, thanks to her.

•    Melina started by talking about the debut novel that launched her career in 1992, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’. Important to note that in 1992, there really wasn’t a huge ‘young adult’ market, and it was still a fairly undefined readership (just as it is today, with people debating whether or not ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Huck Finn’ are YA, and classics like ‘Harry Potter’ are re-released with ‘adult’ covers – for less embarrassment when reading!?). When ‘Alibrandi’ came out, it was actually released as a paperback to be stocked in the adult section, and as a Puffin paperback (for younger readers) in the children’s section. Melina derived a small amount of enjoyment from hearing people tell her they couldn’t bring themselves to buy a ‘kids’ book, so they paid $3 extra for their arrogance.

•    Marketing is very much out of the author’s control, and Melina concedes that it sometimes works against you. She doesn’t think of audience at all when she writes – yet she’ll probably always be recognized as a YA author based on her backlist success. Like with her ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ series; it looks like fantasy, it smells like fantasy, it sounds like fantasy, it undoubtedly is fantasy . . . but you’ll rarely find it in the ‘fantasy’ section of a bookshop. It is usually stocked in the young adult section – and that comes down to marketing. As a side-note, I attended ‘The Other Africa’ session earlier in the week, and those authors were talking about how African writing is very stereotyped when marketed, and novelist Sefi Atta said a great quote: ''Markets behave strangely when dealing with art.'' Very, very true.

•    Really interesting when Melina spoke about her experiences with ‘On the Jellicoe Road’. Her first two books, ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ and ‘Saving Francesca’ were both about third generation Australian-Italian girls, going to school in Inner-West Sydney and dealing with family problems. They fit neatly into a contemporary genre, and were what her fans had come to expect as her ‘niche’. When Melina wrote ‘Jellicoe’, it didn’t fit neatly into a genre, and marked the first time she received criticism for her writing (and to her face! One co-worker even told her that he threw the book across the room). People seemed to hate the book, and Melina thought she’d tried something different and it had failed, and started believing that “when you do something different, it doesn’t work.” She found an odd liberation in that thought. But then positive reviews started trickling through, and she found that ‘Jellicoe’ was very much a polarizing book – either people hated it vehemently (and threw it across the room) or loved it, and read it 20 times a year. *Ahem*. . . at this point, it’s worth noting that ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ is now probably Melina’s most successful book to date, even winning the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award. A film script has also been written (by Melina).

•    Melina spoke about how she developed the idea for first book in the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’, ‘Finnikin of the Rock’. In 2006 she was on long-service leave (from her job as an English teacher) and she did a house-swap with authors Scott Westerfeld and his wife, Justine Larbalestier. So Melina found herself in New York at the beginning of January 2006 with no new story ideas . . . and by the end of January, she had the idea for ‘Finnikin’. It happened when she was in a train carriage one day, listening to the many different languages being spoken around her, and looking at an advertisement for Darfur. She got to thinking about all the people who are currently not in their homeland (whether for fun, like her, or terrible reasons of displacement). She didn’t want to make ‘Finnikin’ political (about the refugee crisis) so decided against setting it in modern day, instead deciding on the Year 1000.

•    Perhaps with the negative memories of reactions to ‘Jellicoe’, Melina actually considered writing ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ under a pseudonym . . . but Thank-God she didn’t!

•    When it comes to writing fantasy, Melina relished the ‘heightened emotion’ aspect of the genre (gave the example of a man on his knees, begging – and how wonderfully dramatic that was, but would be odd in a modern context). She also enjoyed that there were less boundaries (physical, imaginative. . . ) but accepted the challenge that ‘less boundaries’ meant setting up her own for the world, a challenging task.

•    The discussion shifted to the character of ‘Froi’ – who narrated ‘Froi of the Exiles’, and will again take lead narration in third and final book of the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’, ‘Quintana of Charyn’ (released 26th September). Melina admitted that in ‘Finnikin of the Rock’ (Froi’s first appearance) she didn’t care about him as a character – he was a plot device. Froi was never meant to be a lead character; she used him specifically for a scene in which he attempts to rape Evanjalin – and his purpose in that scene is to illustrate how clever she is. Melina cared so little about Froi that she even gave him a terrible name (which she now regrets, because she thinks names are important). But after ‘Finnikin’, which was meant to be a stand-alone novel, she came to think of a connection between Froi and a secondary character called Sam, who appeared in ‘On the Jellicoe Road’. Like Froi, Sam was a plot device, to drive Taylor’s story along and fill holes in her memory. Sam was a street-kid, living as a rent-boy and seemingly doomed to an awful life (with a hint of hope, when Taylor tells him “I live on the Jellicoe Road,” – an invitation, should he wish to accept) Froi too was a street urchin, with a history of abuse and when we meet him in ‘Finnikin’ he is a repulsive fourteen-year-old.

•    Melina maintains that she would never have written for Froi if he didn’t have a story to tell – but after ‘Finnikin’, Froi haunted Melina, and she didn’t want to discard him (as she did with Sam). But in deciding to make him a lead character, Melina also didn’t want to belittle the terrible thing he did to Evanjalin (now his Queen Isaboe) in ‘Finnikin’. So in ‘Froi of the Exiles’ the rape is not forgotten and Froi places a demand on himself that he will never touch another woman – and that duality between who he was and what he wants to be informs so much of Froi’s character, this constant Good/Bad dichotomy.

•    Melina thinks of ‘Froi of the Exiles’ as a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It’s a love story between fathers & sons, brothers & sisters . . . and there’s also a broken love story (which is not at all traditional) between Froi and Princess Quintana – two broken people. Melina thinks that broken people fix each other and two broken people together is a way to stop one partner having all the power and being the ‘fixer’ or saviour. With Princess Quintana and the abuse she has suffered, it’s a terrible dynamic because Froi sees the sort of man he could have been (the one who tried to abuse Evanjalin) and the consequences for the victim.

•    In writing the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’, Melina missed having her usual pop-culture references and even listening to music while writing. She says that she’ll often have a soundtrack that doesn’t make it into a book, but is what she listens to when getting into a scene or a character’s head (particularly for ‘The Piper’s Son’, when Tom’s musical tastes were so important). Melina did confess that (through no particular love for his music) Peter Gabriel & Kate Bush’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ has been on her writing soundtrack for many books, purely for the lyrics and sentiments expressed in that song.

•    Onto the mechanics of how Melina writes . . . like I said, she’s the opposite of Morris Gleitzman’s ‘planner’. Melina is a pantser kind of writer. She gave a beautiful example though, of how scenes or influences will come to her from out of nowhere – like driving her parents down the coast and having to listen to their music selection, particularly Andrea Bocelli and replaying him over and over again because he resonated with her for ‘Froi’. She said there is “beauty in those unplanned things”. Melina also asked why you would try to change yourself if ‘pantsing’ works for you?

•    However, Gleitzman’s theory of many more drafts for pantsers was also right, when Melina said she may rewrite a scene five times . . . but with each rewrite she’ll find new links (something Morris admitted to as well – finding new connections in the rewriting process that were missed the first time around). Furthermore, Melina said not to feel bad if you don’t have all the answers when you’re writing – sometimes you have to let it come. Perhaps the most frustrating (bust best) piece of writing advice she received was to put something away if it’s not working, and return to it later. It’s amazing how you can’t see what’s right in front of you because you’re trying too hard. . .

•    About this time, Melina dropped a little hint about ‘Quintana of Charyn’ – mentioning the curse that she couldn’t quite figure out while writing ‘Froi of the Exiles’. She was 500 pages into writing ‘Froi’, and only five months into a pregnancy for one of the characters and she decided that another book was needed (making it into a much more marketable trilogy). But by having time to think after ‘Froi’ she came up with a brilliant curse for ‘Charyn’ – obviously she didn’t say what it was, but judging by her level of bubbly excitement it’s going to be good. . .  Hurry up September 26!

•    Melina then started talking about the initial stages of a story idea for her. She’ll spend a long time talking and thinking about a story, but not committing to paper because she’s afraid it will never be as good as it is in her head (we ALL do that!). It’s the difference between the excitement of a story in your head, VS. On the page (and how it can all go pear-shaped) and with the first idea of anything she’s torn between thinking herself a total failure, and an utter genius. She says to just let ideas come to you as they will, let them flirt with you and don’t be frightened of that dialogue. “Just go with it – don’t worry!” She also says to have a strong belief in what you’re doing, and not to battle your ego.

•    The first draft of Melina’s manuscript is usually heavy on dialogue and relationships, and the second draft is about setting, tone and atmosphere (the things she’s less comfortable writing). She did say that the first draft of anything is just vomit – you just have to get it out. And you should write something every day – even if 80% is rubbish, write for that 20% of greatness.

•    Every genre has ‘rules’, but fantasy lets you play around a bit more with them. Even though there are many fantasy ‘purists’ who would say that fantasy must be plot-heavy, Melina says to “write the novel you want to write.” For her, that meant a concentration on relationships, dialogue and characterisation, because that’s what she’s good at (and you should always write to your strengths). Fantasy may traditionally be more about world-building, but she doesn’t feel as comfortable with that aspect of writing so she has tricks and tips for filling in those gaps (like hard-soft consonant writing for setting the tone) and being willing to rewrite a scene ten times if it’s flat on the page. She has also found a neat trick she learned while on residency – to cut what you just wrote in half (so every word counts) and then cut it in half again (and see how much crisper, and vital it becomes).

•    Script writing has really helped Melina with her novel writing too (she wrote the award-winning ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ movie script, and has written episodes for ABC show ‘Dance Academy'). Dialogue in scripts has three important purposes – Plot. Relationships. Characterisation. She gave this great excerpt example from ‘Finnikin’ which encapsulates all three:

“Lucian,” he whispered, “Are you down there?”
“Where else would I be?” Lucian hissed back.

But Melina did point out that in novel writing, constantly writing dialogue for trifecta purposes of plot, relationships and characterisation would be exhausting. It’s enough to take this idea behind script dialogue and remember that you shouldn’t let dialogue be there for the sake of it, it should have some purpose.

•    For a long time Melina just wrote female protagonists – until Tom Mackee came along, and since then we’ve had Finnikin and Froi too. She does miss the females, but lately it has been men talking to her. She is less trusting of male voices (or maybe her ability to write them?) which is why she tends to write in first-person for female, and third-person for men. She also quipped: “I don’t ever want to get into an adolescent male’s head.” HA!

•    The session capped-off with some technical questions from the audience, bizarrely around word-count, and what YA/fantasy writers should aim for? Melina said that sometimes you have to force yourself to write a certain number of pages, but a book dictates its own length and not to worry about word-count. It just comes down to whether or not a story needs to be that big. Interestingly, Melina recounted that her manuscript submission of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ followed Josie through year twelve and beyond. . . Melina says she rambled in that manuscript, and it wasn’t until her Penguin editors told her to only concentrate on Josie’s adolescent years that the book as we know it started to take form (but I'd still give just about anything to read those lost chapters of Josie’s life . . . !)

Release Date: September 26, 2012

Melbourne Writers Festival recap: ‘The Art of Writing for Children and Young Adults’ PART 1, Morris Gleitzman

 Me and Morris Gleitzman (yes, I'm bright red and a little teary. IT WAS AN EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE! Shut up.)

Yesterday I went to a wonderful Melbourne Writers Festival event. In a little room of The Wheeler Centre, I attended ‘The Art of Writing for Children and Young Adults’ seminar, chaired by the lovely Penni Russon (‘Only Ever,Always’) and featuring two of my all-time favourite writers: Morris Gleitzman and Melina Marchetta.

Between them, Gleitzman and Marchetta are perhaps the pinnacles of Australian children’s and young adult literature, and there was a wealth of knowledge between them that we really only scratched the surface of in three (glorious!) hours.

The session started with Morris Gleitzman; he really focused on his ‘Once’ series (which came to a close this year with fourth and final book, ‘After’) but he also spoke at length on the limitless topics that should be explored in children’s books (no matter how dark or taboo adult ‘gatekeepers’ may deem them).

I loved listening to both Gleitzman and Marchetta, particularly because much of what they were saying in their separate sessions actually connected. I'd like to even call Gleitzman and Marchetta, the Planner and the Pantser, because when they delved into the mechanics of how they write, it presented some nice conflicts and complements.

I madly scribbled notes throughout the three hour seminar, and for that reason I’ll be breaking my post up between Morris’s session and Melina’s.

So, first up, the man who narrated my childhood and continues to tug at my heartstrings with the ‘Once’ series . . . the wonderful, Morris Gleitzman!

•    He suggested that, if at all possible, make your first book a controversial one. Morris Gleitzman’s debut novel was ‘The Other Facts of Life’, released in 1985, but it wasn’t until the 1990 release of ‘Two Weeks with the Queen’ that he really catapulted into the bookish stratosphere. ‘Two Weeks’ was not only about a young boy coping with his brother’s terminal illness, but it also featured two gay male characters in a loving relationship. For this reason the book was often subjected to the ‘gate-keeping’ of teachers and librarians, and really found its audience by word-of-mouth amongst children, who passed it on to friends until it found a life (and success) of its own. Of course, Gleitzman didn’t set out to make ‘Two Weeks’ deliberately divisive, but it certainly helped him get noticed. It was also a boon when the novel was adapted for the stage, and performed across Australia and the UK.

•    He warned that those writing for young people will have to accept that there is a certain stigma attached. Young adult and children’s authors don’t fit into the ‘mainstream’ (and by that, he means adult fiction).

•    When it comes to writing – all stories are about problems, but the plot of any book should be about the BIGGEST problem in the protagonist’s life at that particular point in time. Remember, there is no such thing as a problem-free life (and wouldn’t that be boring anyway?), storytelling is really all about problem-solving. When writing your story, you should make the main character’s problem as feasibly big as it can be, and always have the option for two possible endings (if not more – to keep the reader guessing). And there are really only three outcomes for any problem: Solve. Improve. Survive. Even if you can’t solve a problem, you learn from the struggle (and survival) and everyone changes in the problem-solving process, and learn from what works and what doesn’t. He said that people are capable of anything, even failing – and it’s important to write that too, to show that there are no guarantees in life (this is a common theme in Gleitzman’s work: vital honesty)

•     With his ‘Once’ series, the initial idea behind the books was ‘friendship’. In his many years as a children’s author and speaking to so many young people, Gleitzman really loved the concept of friendship as universal, and prevailing even in the face of catastrophe (watching the nightly news and seeing how truly horrible the world and human beings can be to one another). But to explore the concept of ‘friendship’, while also giving his protagonist one of those BIG problems – he thought to ask the question ‘what is friendship capable of?’ Gleitzman has family-ties to the Holocaust (his grandfather was a Jew living in Poland, who left before the war but lost most of his extended family) and that’s where the idea for a WWII setting started for him. But he also remembered the words Elie Wiesel, a  prominent Jewish author who was also Holocaust survivor, and believed “if you weren’t there, don’t write about it.” It is a very sensitive subject, but Gleitzman truly believes (and I 100% agree) that children need to know the history of the Holocaust. Children are going to take over the reins of the world one day; they should know what human beings are capable of in our darkest hours. So the idea to explore friendship and its capabilities came, with one young Jewish protagonist called Felix, and his non-Jewish friend called Zelda.

•    Gleitzman warned that in this session, since it was a fairly intimate workshop, he would discuss some ‘Once’ spoilers. So, SPOILER ALERT. . .  he discussed how Zelda and Felix were really ambassadors for the some two million Jewish children of the Holocaust. Tragically, many of those children did not survive – so to be truthful to the history he was writing, he knew Zelda had to die in ‘Then’. He maintains it was the hardest thing he has ever had to write, and many of his young readers have never forgiven him (he then said, “I have never forgiven myself.”) But it was because of Zelda’s death that he felt the need to carry on Felix’s story with ‘Now’, and revisit him as an 80-year-old man. Gleitzman gave Felix a chance to confront his childhood with the Black Saturday Bushfires – a modern, Australian disaster that would force Felix to reflect on his own childhood, prompted by the fire’s size, power and blind malevolence. And then of course, Gleitzman decided to revisit Felix in the last months of the war with his latest novel, ‘After’. In this fourth and final book, Gleitzman wanted to show Felix’s experience that made him into a surgeon – and, in particular, that he had a choice between healing and killing.

•    Morris Gleitzman said so many clever, wonderful things – but what really stood out and resonated with me was when he said that everything in the world has a place in young people’s stories. If it’s in the world, it’s for them. Gleitzman has certainly proven this with his books over and over again; in his writing about AIDS (‘Two Weeks with the Queen’), refugees and the Australian boat people debate (‘Girl Underground’), corruption of extreme religion (‘Grace’) and of course the Holocaust in his ‘Once’ series. I love that he writes without boundaries or taboos for young people – that’s partly why I think he is an enduring voice in children’s literature, because he doesn’t write down to his audience and nothing is off-limits.

•    Now, on the mechanics of how he writes. Penni Russon asked if he considers himself a ‘planner’ or a ‘pantser’ (fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing) Morris really loved this term, and called himself “a planner with pantser moments.” He always starts by meeting  characters in his imagination, and will often spend 1-2 years ‘getting to know them’ until his relationship with them develops, just like a real friendship (interesting to note that he often has 2-3 story ideas circling his head at any given time, but he *writes* them one at a time). He did mention that the needs of the novelist VS needs of the characters can often be at loggerheads. As a writer who becomes ‘friends’ with his protagonists (and even says the collective ‘us’ when talking about them) he would love nothing more than for them to have a problem-free life, free of heartache and struggle. But really, as a novelist he needs to put those characters through hardships and write those BIG problems. It’s the push-pull of being safe, or writing a good story.

•    He plans by writing 2-4 pages of chapter notes, which covers the character’s emotional and physical journey (he picked up this planning habit from scriptwriting, where every minute of screen-time costs lots of $$$ so every scene has to be vital). He will often re-write and draft these chapter notes 10 times.

•    Gleitzman likes to think of his chapter plans as a road-map; that in the actual writing process he might go ‘off-road’, meander down a pretty side-street or take a shortcut, but if he ever gets lost he can refer to those notes and know where he was always meant to be to get back on track and retrace his steps. But he also noted that “some people are just pantsers from day-one” and it’s okay that not all people are planners. But he did make a valid point that whereas he writes about three drafts, the pantser authors he knows can write up to 11 drafts.

•    Really interesting that he mentioned the two seeming ‘taboos’ in children’s literature are sex and religion. But it’s important to remember that the world of Young Adult and Children’s literature will always be mediated by adults – they are gatekeepers and have a great deal of influence over what young people have access to reading. But it’s also important to note that all readers bring their own prejudices and experiences to the page – which changes the innocence of a scene with adult readers (he used the example of ‘Adults Only’ in which a young boy hides under a bed when two adults come into the room, obviously for a nap, and then become restless as they toss and turn on the bed above him. Many librarians asked Morris why he wrote such a lewd sex scene – and he maintains that many young people won’t read more into that than what the protagonist assumed was going on).

•    Morris finished the session on another gem of a thought, which I've been mulling over ever since. He said that it’s important to impart empathy and resilience on children, to teach them those two vital life skills. He also said that kids have an innate resilience and optimism (which the world, life, and growing up seems to knock out of them – all the more reason to emphasise those life lessons early on, so that they hopefully become ingrained).


I would also like to give a quick shout-out of THANKS to my Penguin insider (the lovely Felicity, who is also an awesome photographer!) who made sure I was able to give Mr Gleitzman a stack of letters that my cousin’s year six class wrote for him. They were studying ‘Australians at War’ this term, and I suggested she read his novel ‘Once’. Well, she only intended to read the first book but the kids did a little investigating, and when they discovered that ‘Once’ was the first in a series they wouldn’t let her get away with not reading the others. She was a little concerned about the tragic events of ‘Then’ (and her kids were devastated) but they all LOVED the series so much – she had many reluctant readers in her class, but they were all converted by Gleitzman’s story of Felix and his best friend, Zelda. But, perhaps most importantly, the kids really started to connect Felix’s story with the real events of the Holocaust. What seemed unbelievable in a history lesson suddenly took on life and tragedy when reading Felix’s first-hand account of the heartbreak. I also got their class copies of the books signed by Morris, and apparently the kids are OVER-THE-MOON! They can’t quite believe that there’s a real-life, actual human-author behind the books. Or that their teacher’s cousin actually met him!