Somerset: students, lamingtons and book cakes.

It’s taken me ten days to write this post because I have been having festival withdrawals. I find the weeks following a festival difficult. It’s hard returning to a life that does not include a buffet breakfast every day and constant book-centred conversations. You see, two weeks ago I was at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, held by Somerset College in Queensland. Basically the people of Somerset believe that books are so great they should be celebrated annually with three days of author talks, giant stationary sculptures and poffertjes (dutch pancake things that should probably be illegal.) There were also books made out of cake. In my opinion this is a feature grossly neglected by other literature festivals.unnamed-1

From the reactions of most of the students it’s fair to say they thought the whole thing was pretty freaking great. I agreed. The closest thing I ever experienced to something like this was when Mem Fox came to visit my school when I was in year one. I was so overwhelmed with awe that I couldn’t meet her, I just sat trembling in a corner gazing in her general direction in a way which is really only excusable if you are six.

To me, writers were like movie stars. In fact, if offered the choice between seeing Mem Fox or some megawatt Hollywood star face-to-face, I’m sure I would have chosen the woman who invented the disappearing possum.

Twenty six years later I am only marginally better at keeping it together in the company of authors. I find that I enter a surreal, hyper head space where I need little sleep and tremble constantly from excitement. I have come to know this as Festival Syndrome. Let’s be honest, I spend most of my time either alone staring at a computer screen or conversing with two small humans whose idea of a good time is to see how much spaghetti they can force up their noses. So any adult conversation is generally stimulation overload for me. At festivals these conversations tend to involve my favourite people: writers and readers. So yeah, my brain tends to go a bit haywire.unnamed

The thing that is so brilliant about Somerset (other than the book-cakes) is it’s all about the students. Most literary festivals have a couple of days worth of events for students before getting on to the real serious business of adult books for adult audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily talk to anyone about books and writing with a microphone. I don’t care how old they are, it’s a privilege. But my favourite people to talk about this stuff with are teenagers. The Somerset Celebration acknowledges the wonderful truth that the books we read as youngens can shape us for the rest of our lives. It acknowledges the fact that young people are important, their ideas are important, their brains are important. It also does something else quite wonderful in that it takes a group of writers and plonks them fair and square in the middle of the school’s life. We wander around between talks eating poffertjes and fairy floss and are encouraged to mingle with the students.

I didn’t get to casually mingle with authors when I was at school. I came to view them as  etherial beings with unobtainable literary super-powers and it took me a good seven years after school to even begin to imagine that I could be a writer. It seems to me that one of the things young, aspiring writers need most is encouragement. They need to know that people who do this for a living often write crap. They need to know that everyone finds writing stories difficult. They need to know they they don’t need special super-powers to be writers. There is no better way to learn these things than by asking an author face to face. (And if the said author is feeling brave enough, they may even share some of their early, particularly bad writing.)

But for me it works both ways. I get as much of a kick out of meeting readers as they get out of meeting authors.

The opportunity to meet with ones readers is pretty great if you are like me and still have trouble comprehending the idea that you even have readers. (This isn’t something that necessarily wears off, so Thomas (NAME DROP) Keneally told me.) It’s great to read positive reviews written by adults. But they aren’t really who I write for. Nothing quite compares with being told – in person- by a scruffy, surly teenager that your book is ‘heaps good’. From time to time I have entertained the idea of abandoning YA to focus on writing stories about adults for adults. But Somerset reminded me why I write for teenagers: because for some reason (probably only understood by psychoanalysts) it is their opinion which I value the most.

At Somerset I met some amazing authors, many of whom I have admired for a long time. But the highlight of the festival, for me, was meeting a small group who had travelled six hours on a bus from their remote town to come to the festival. They came to see me speak in the morning and then flagged me down when I was on my way to get more poffertjes. Some had read The Sky So Heavy and liked it enough to want photos. With me. They talked about their favourite characters with an affection that I haven’t witnessed in anyone other than … myself. It was magic. No adult could ever match the enthusiasm these kids had for the book. They gave me lamingtons.

And if you remember anything about Possum Magic, you will understand why this is significant.

 

Uncovered – On finding the perfect book cover and losing it

Twelve months ago I was going to do a blog about cover design for The Sky So Heavy. But I couldn’t because I was just feeling too many feelings. I’ve always found the process of book-cover design overwhelming. This goes back to high school days and ‘design the cover’ assignments. The expectation that I would put on myself would be crippling, so determined was I to get it perfect. I was a drawer and a reader, so it should have been my thing, right? RIGHT??!! To get it wrong was unthinkable. THE SHAME! The potential for me to produce a work of stunning insight was only equalled by the potential to fail. (I’m not sure that was as profound as I’d hoped it to be. See? I’m struggling. This is why I haven’t written about this before.)

When my own book is concerned it’s about a thousand times worse – if that’s even possible without full psychological breakdown. (First World Problems, anyone?) Imagine if you had to sit down and decide what you wanted your child to look like. That’s the kind of brain explosion I experience when it comes to discussions about cover concepts.

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If Fin got his shirt off more I could have had something like this for The Sky So Heavy. Shame.

Just to be clear, writers generally don’t design covers for their own books. (If you’re unsure as to why, check out the self-published book covers tumbler. Or just look to the left. There’s a reason professional designers have to go to uni for three years.) Book cover design is tricky and could well be the catalyst for a full-scale psychological breakdown if the level of neurosis exhibited by my fourteen-year-old self is anything to go by. But editors do have a discussion with the author about what they would like or any ideas they might have. As well as what they don’t want.

For The Sky So Heavy I really had no idea. I wanted to put it in the too-hard basket. I eventually nutted some vague ideas out with my editor and we ended up with something that I don’t love, but which seems to be selling well. Which means I’m finding my readers, so the cover’s done it’s job. It’s also worth pointing out that the process took place in the first year of my youngest son’s life, so it’s fair to say I had other priorities and only so much (read: very little) head space to devote to the whole thing.

Then along comes book two – not a sequel, but a stand-alone on which I have worked, off and on, for the last nine years. I have rewritten The Protected completely, not once, but twice. I guess you could say I’m kind of attached to it. (UNDERSTATEMENT.) I have also been far more emotionally present during the whole publishing process this time around, compared to The Sky So Heavy. I won’t go into details, but if you understand the level of pressure I put on myself when it came to designing an imaginary book cover when I was in high school, you can probably guess how my brain copes with the pressure of raising a tiny helpless baby. It’s not pretty. (There’s not going to be a trilogy as far as that narrative is concerned.)

The initial design the publisher sent to me for this next book was one they were very keen on, but I was not. My reasons for disliking it were partly to do with ideas about gendered book covers and partly to do with my aversion to dark close ups of pretty girls’ faces. My editor was gracious and understanding, so sent me another alternative. Which I absolutely loved. Really, truly, loved. We were in agreement, it was done. Over the last two weeks I have gazed at it on and off for long slabs of time in which I probably should have been doing other things.

But then my editor discovered another YA book, newly released in the US, with the exact same stock photo on the cover.

So it’s back to the drawing board, quite literally.

I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to read more about cover design and the myriad of aesthetic travesties that have been created in its name I highly recommend Caustic Cover Critic. Here you will also find many examples of unfortunate cover double-ups that weren’t caught in time…

Kids’ Book Review Interview

http://www.kids-bookreview.com/2013/08/author-interview-claire-zorn.html

The kind people over at Kids’ Book Review have published an interview I did with them. You can read it bellow or follow the link to view it and lots of other interesting things on their site…

Author interview: Claire Zorn

KBR welcomes Claire Zorn, author of The Sky So Heavy, a gripping new novel for Young Adults that is released this month.
 
Can you describe The Sky So Heavy in ten words or less?
A group of teenagers struggles to survive a nuclear winter. Or … A bit like The Road but with more jokes.
How did the idea for the book come to you?
I started thinking about the story roughly two years before I even wrote a word. I remember I was sitting on the train — I find train travel strangely inspiring — and I saw a scene in my mind: a teenager in a dark, cold place, trying to protect a group of people and feeling way out of his depth. I also got a line in my head: ‘I’m sixteen years old and this is the first time anyone’s held a gun to my head.’ With a little tweaking this ended up being the opening line of The Sky So Heavy.

I kept turning those ingredients  over in my mind for a couple of years. Then the debate over Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers flared again and I was struck by the way a person’s life — their access to food, shelter, medical care and education — is decided by a line on a map. I’ve always really struggled to understand the fear of asylum seekers; I feel that if people could imagine themselves and their families in those circumstances, there would be so much more compassion. So I imagined what it would take to put the average, middle-class Australian in that situation.
Is there a message in the book that you would like readers to grasp?
I hope that the story can contribute in a small way to the debate over asylum seekers and perhaps reflect the complexities of the issue. I also wanted to engage with the idea of a generation inheriting the stuff-ups of their predecessors, especially global warming. I didn’t set out to allude to that with the climate change in the book — but I like the way it is a sort of inverse global warming.
Why did you choose to write in this genre?
I like the immediacy of Young Adult fiction. I’m a very impatient reader — I want to get to the meat of a story as soon as possible — and I think that translates to my own writing. I tend to have no trouble ruthlessly pruning my stories to get to their core, which suits YA. Young readers have such a strong, shall we say, ‘crap detector’. You have to work to hold their attention. There’s nowhere to hide and I like that challenge.
I also find teenagers to be the most fascinating characters. They’re so savvy, yet there’s such vulnerability to them as well. Those years on the edge of adulthood are so complex and I really like stories that push their characters over the edge from childhood into adulthood. All my favourite books are about characters taking that journey.
Your manuscript was picked from the slush pile! Did you have the manuscript professionally edited before you sent it out to publishers?
It was picked from the slush pile in a round-about way. I reached a point with The Sky So Heavy — which I think every writer gets to — where I couldn’t keep working on it without some quality feedback. Which was when I paid to have a structural report done on it. I chose someone with lots of experience in YA, who was very well regarded in publishing circles and it was the best thing I could have done. The feedback she gave me really helped me get the manuscript to a standard it couldn’t have reached without fresh eyes. I re-drafted the whole thing after I got that report back and then submitted it to agents.
While that was happening UQP put out a call for YA manuscripts. They stipulated that they weren’t looking for speculative fiction, so I didn’t submit The Sky So Heavy, but another manuscript. They were interested in this other story, but it wasn’t quite ready enough for them to offer me a contract. By this time I had signed The Sky So Heavy to an agent and she suggested that they have a read of it. I think I submitted it to about four agents before it was picked up.
The Sky So Heavy, UQP, $19.95 RRP

Up in smoke

I’ve never even held a cigarette, let alone smoked one. It’s not because I think smokers are a filthy subset of humans that deserve to be vilified for their choice. I don’t. Instead, I’m just plain scared. I watched someone I loved very much die from the effects of passive smoking. She, like me, never smoked a cigarette herself, but her father smoked constantly and it killed her in the end. As a warning, it worked like a trick on me.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I have another manuscript on which I have been working off and on now for the last seven years. I’m revisiting it now for the umpteenth time because it looks likely to become my second published novel. As I started reading it over again, I ran hot and cold – not totally convinced it was salvageable. That was until I got to the point where a certain character shows up, a character who is by far my favourite of any of the fictional people I’ve given life to. I’m not one to usually go blowing my own trumpet, but man, I just love this guy. He’s cheeky and funny with a beautiful soul and I think I adore him too much to let him gather dust in my bottom drawer. He needs to be read.

There is one problem, though: he smokes.

Back in those beautiful, carefree days when I thought it unlikely that anyone else would ever read this story – let alone publish it – I created him without really caring about the implications of a teenage character with a penchant for rollies. In fact, you might even be wondering why it matters if he likes a puff. The kicker is, it’s a story aimed (surprise, surprise) at a YA market. And children’s and YA occupies some murky territory when it comes to ethics. It’s not cool anymore to write a storybook about a cheery frog who likes the odd durry. Even if you make it super clear it’s not the cigs that make him happy. Let’s be clear, kiddies: SMOKING WILL KILL YOU. Even if you are a jolly frog.

So why create a character who smokes?

Well, in reality, there are teenagers who smoke. And I believe it is a writer’s job to engage with and reflect reality. In many ways the fact that my beloved character (let’s call him Ole’ Smokey) indulges in the odd cigarette is a neat shorthand for describing an aspect of his character. He’s the kid who wags, the one with the one-liners that crack up a class and leave teachers red-faced, of course he smokes. Oh dear, I came dangerously close there to saying that he’s ‘cool’ therefore he smokes. Again, kids: IT’S HARD TO BE COOL WHEN YOU’RE DEAD.

It’s more subtle than that. Ole Smokey is complex. Despite his hijinks, he’s a people pleaser and the people he wants to please are his peers. The fact that he smokes actually shows a fault line, he wants people to think he’s a particular type of teenager. He doesn’t really even like cigarettes, he has a coughing fit every time, but he wants to be seen as mad, bad and dangerous to know. At it’s core, this story is about the yearning for acceptance, so the fact that Ole’ Smokey smokes because he cares about what others will think of him is crucial.

I read John Green’s brilliant The Fault in Our Stars recently, only to discover that Green has a genius solution to this particular problem. His character, Augustus, likes a cigarette as well. He just never lights them. Which makes it a genius idea that has been done before and which I can absolutely not pilfer.

By writing a character who smokes, am I perhaps perpetuating the ideology that makes kids like Ole’ Smokey light up in the first place? This theory assumes that my readers are passive, monkey-see, monkey-do creatures. It sells them short. It denies them the scope to engage with the context.

Perhaps that’s where the answer to this conundrum lies: in the context. But I’m not convinced that parents, teachers and librarians will see it that way…

 

Next…

220px-Magnolia_albumIt looks as though The Sky So Heavy will be released at the end of July. I have relinquished it for good and it’s strange to think that I won’t be working on it anymore, it has felt like a member of my family for the past four years. I won’t see it again until it is an actual book in my hands, by which time it will be far too late to make any changes. In the meantime I am in a strange land where I must decide which story to turn to next. I have a half-finished manuscript that I have been tinkering with off and on for the past seven (eek!) years. I feel it has so many faults and weak parts and needs so much work that I don’t know if it’s worth spending my little scraps of writing time on. But I’m not sure I can give up on it.

In the meantime I will try and tap into my main source of inspiration, music. I was listening to Aimee Mann’s Bachelor No.2  this morning and was reminded of how Paul Thomas Anderson used it as his inspiration for his film, Magnolia. It will probably sound terribly naive, but I’m not aware of many other writers who have used singular albums or songs as the reference point for a story. (Do let me know in the comments if you know of any.) For me The Sky So Heavy grew, to a large extent, out of Radiohead’s The Gloaming. The mental image of a gloaming – a sort of murky twilight – combined with the words ‘Your alarm bells, they should be ringing’ was incredibly powerful to me. Now as the prospect of the dreaded ‘second book’ looms, I find myself feeling around for something new with enough potency to get the ball rolling.

A few weeks ago I heard The Smashing Pumpkins’ iconic track 1979 on the radio for the first time in ages. There is something effervescent about that tingling guitar riff (Is that what it’s called? If I’m going to write about this stuff I should find out.) and those opening lines ‘Shakedown, 1979/ Cool kids never have the time’. I am toying with a story set in the mid nineties and have a sketched out a character who listens to Pumpkins obsessively on her Discman. So we will see where that goes. I have found in the past, and I’m sure I’ve blogged about it before, that sometimes the key to understanding a character, for me, is getting a grip on what kind of music they would listen to, and then listen to it over and over again while I write. It’s not neccesarily music that I would chose to listen to, either. If that manuscript that I mentioned earlier on ever sees publication, you will find in it a character called Kate who I didn’t know well enough until I figured out that she would have listened to a lot of Lana Del Ray.

While all of that is going on, I will keep listening to The National’s new album, Trouble Will Find Me. It feels more adult than young adult, though. So you never know, a genre change may eventuate…