What lovely news for a Wednesday

Hello internet. It’s day three of the school holidays and I am all out of ideas to occupy the small people. They are both still alive and nothing (including my spirit) has been broken, though. So let’s count that as a success thus far.

And* hey, Twitter just delivered some happy news! The Protected has been shortlisted for the WA Premier’s Book Awards. This book continues to prove itself to be the little book that could. I nearly threw this manuscript in the bin and gave up on writing altogether multiple times during its creation. Here’s an understatement: I’m glad I didn’t.

The other shortlisted books in the YA category are:

Croggan, Alison The River and the Book Walker Books (2015)
Groth, Darren Are You Seeing Me? Random House (2014)
Hayes, Nicole One True Thing Random House (2015)
Lawson, Sue Freedom Ride Black Dog Books, an imprint of Walker Books (2015)
Lomer, Kathryn Talk Under Water University of Queensland Press (2015)

What a top notch bunch. I am, as ever, privileged to be amongst them and to be part of the powerhouse that is Australian Young Adult fiction.

When you’re working on a big project, whether it’s writing a book, making a film or creating an album, the whole thing is a gamble. You continue to bet, often against the odds, that something will come of the pain and time you pour into it. You hope that it will find an audience of people who love it as much as you do. If you are someone who is toiling away in the pursuit of a career in the creative arts, please, please hear me when I say that hard work and determination will pay off. Ignore the pressure to ‘grow up and get a real job’. If you’re good at it, stick with it, surround yourself with people who will encourage you when it all seems hopeless and gently guide you when you’ve gone off course.

I still find myself wracked with self doubt when I’m writing. (Especially when it takes me four goes to spell the word ‘privilege’ correctly.) Being shortlisted for awards (and being fortunate enough to win a few) is encouraging beyond words.

Thank you to all the people who helped me on the road to this point. You know who you are. I’m so bloody proud of Hannah right now.

The Madness in the Method – on creativity and mental illness

Like many humans, I sometimes have conversations with other humans. (Real ones, not the imaginary ones I converse with for money.) Inevitably when chatting with someone new, the question of occupation comes up and that’s when I get to tell them I’m an author. It’s wonderful. My twelve year-old self (who couldn’t spell or do sums but had a catalogue of imaginary worlds and characters in her head) does backflips of glee. I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I don’t love my profession, yes writing novels is difficult, but it is a privilege and I still have a file of rejection letters in my study to remind me how blessed I am.

Sometimes the news that I am an author is met with questions about what I write, how I got published, how much money I earn or when I find the time to write. Sometimes the response is, ‘Wow, you must have a big imagination!’ This always seems to me like telling Usain Bolt that he must be quite athletic. Yep, I have a big imagination. Most humans do. I put mine to work everyday, which strengthens it and a lot of the time my imagination is very useful to me. But sometimes it can be dangerous. (This is where the Bolt analogy falls apart, unless he starts using his speed to rob banks.)

I’ve been doing a lot of school visits recently and I usually tell students that I think primarily in pictures and I see a story in my head play like a film. The pictures come easily, finding the words to do them justice and communicate them effectively to my reader is the hard part. My mind’s ability to build intricate, detailed scenes is what allows me to write novels. This is helped along by a long-term memory bank which seem inexhaustible; I can remember what colour sweater my husband was wearing on our first date thirteen years ago, for example. Do I remember my son’s school library day is Tuesday? Never. img_0815.jpg

But like it is for a lot of creative people, my mind is a double-edged sword. It can build intricate, detailed pictures of chaos so well that the worst case scenario in any situation seems highly plausible. I recently contemplated getting a quote for someone to clean my kitchen and bathroom once a fortnight, but I decided not to incase the cleaner turns out to be a serial killer. I then flicked through the handy mental list I have of female murder victims from the recent past (admittedly, there have been a lot to choose from) as evidence that inviting a stranger into my home was certain to result in my death. This is kind of funny to read. It seems ridiculous.

I’m still nervous about the cleaner.

Yep, I’m a master of catastrophic thinking. So good, in fact, that I have made a living out of thinking up catastrophes and following them through until the very end. Ever wondered what it would be like to live through a nuclear winter? I wrote a book on it. Read it and you won’t have to wonder anymore. What does the death of a sibling do to a person? I’ve got that covered too. The next book has a grief-stricken boy navigating the world after the sudden death of his mother. Guess what? I have sons.

But sometimes I can’t organise all my anxieties into a narrative. Sometimes they are so real and so threatening that they take over my existence altogether and I have trouble functioning because my mind is so busy worrying and despairing and reliving every distressing event I’ve ever experienced in that same excruciating detail that apparently makes my books win awards. Last year The Protected won three major awards. Everyone kept telling me that I must be so thrilled and excited and walking on air. I was. A bit. But it was coupled with the knowledge that within a month of being offered the publishing contract for that book I was in a psychiatric ward and that the giddy high from the awards came rapidly after one of my most gutting lows.

A huge part of managing my mental health is the acceptance of medication. I was on a very effective regime until about six weeks ago when I thought I might try to get by on a little less. I could write award-winning novels and visit schools and raise two boys and lead the music every week at church. Look at me go! ‘I’ve got this,’ I thought. ‘And imagine how much better I would have looked at the PM’s awards if I didn’t have the extra 10kgs that all the meds bring along with them!’ Yep. That was an actual motivator.

Yeah. It didn’t work. As some guys in skivies once sang, hello darkness, my old friend.

Creative work is the pursuit of perfection. I am not perfect. That sucks.

There is a lot of stuff out there about the link between creativity and mental illness. I don’t know if I can have one without the other. But I do know that with all the problems my mind brings into my life, it brings a lot of good stuff too. It makes me who I am. And to quote from one of my favourite writers, Alice Munro, ‘I am extremely okay.’

 

CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers – THE PROTECTED

CBCA#1Yep, this is a thing that happened. I still haven’t seen the Book of the Year sticker on the actual cover of the book, maybe it will feel more real when I do! In the meantime here’s my acceptance speech….

I often say that I write for my seventeen year-old-self, right now my seventeen year-old-self is standing here saying ‘What the frig? How did this happen?’ I’m the kid who had a panic attack in the middle of her first HSC English exam and left. I’m not here because of the wonders of our education system, I am a glitch in the system. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of high schools recently and I’m not sure all that much has changed. When it comes to education we are very concerned with rankings and bell curves.  It’s worth noting that I was discouraged from taking on what was then called three unit Related English because my ranking wasn’t high enough. We want our kids to perform. We teach them to play Tchaikovsky by rote, but disable their ability to write their own music. I had teachers who fought against the obsession with marks and rankings and focused on nurturing my creativity, but I think that is like trying to light a candle in a cyclone, if you will allow me to get a bit Elton John.

I must thank my darling dad who told me over and over again that creativity was immeasurably valuable and must be held on to. I must thank my mum who gave the me stubbornness and determination required to pursue an artistic path.

Creative minds are vulnerable and mine has caused it’s fair share of problems, I would not have survived, much less written any books without the love and support of my husband, Nathan. Of course my thanks also go to my Publisher Kristina Schultz at UQP and my editor and coconspirator Kristy Bushnell.

I will finish by saying that this wonderful award does not qualify me to go into schools and give students the formula for a good piece of writing. I have no interest in improving their rankings. It does qualify me to visit high schools, look those kids in the eye — the off-beat ones, the weird ones, the ones who haven’t done that Biology assignment but have written 67,000 words, sometimes on their phones — and tell them that they will be okay.   To the Children’s Book Council: thank you for this award, I can not tell you how much this means to me, especially seventeen year old me.

Cutting the giant cake - a job I am well qualified for.

Cutting the giant cake – a job I am well qualified for.

National Young Writers’ Festival: Stories, Smoke Machines and Yoof

Greetings readers. Apologies for the ridiculously long time between posts. I have been away on holiday for three weeks, a terrible thing to do because one inevitably has to come home again. However, I was lucky enough to spend the weekend up in Newcastle for the NYWF. There is nothing better than spending time talking with intelligent people about writing, especially when one has a microphone.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, a writers’ festival is not where a writer stands beside piles of their own book, with a microphone and amp, spruiking like a verbose and vaguely hipster version of a Bing Lee salesperson at Christmastime. Rather a large group of verbose and overtly hipster people gather to discuss various topics to do with writing, whilst other people listen. It’s more fun than it sounds. There’s beer involved.

Amongst the vastly talented people I heard speak and even spoke to (!) were Lachlan Brown, Summer Land, Amy Gray, Pip Smith, Kaitlyn Plyley, Eliza Sarlos, Tom Ballard… You get the idea. It was pretty much the best weekend of my entire life. But the best part? The students doing the Younger Young Writers’ program. They were the most annoyingly talented teenagers I have ever met and it would be easy to hate them but for the fact they were so unrelentingly eager.

I found these young folk particularly endearing. Probably something to do with the fact that they wrote down nearly everything I said, which has never happened to me outside of a cafe/restaurant environment. On Saturday myself and several other writers spent a few hours workshopping some of their stories and giving life advice like: ‘Ignore everything your parents/teachers advise you and study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Abandon your plans to become a lawyer and instead study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Some universities will throw money at you to get you to come study with them’ and ‘Being a writer is the most important and rewarding job in the universe and writers are fabulous people’. The last couple may or may not be true, but the students seemed to believe us.

I’m going to sound terribly old (as opposed to when I shouted at one of them, ‘Tori Amos is the greatest vocalist to have ever lived! You need to listen to Little Earthquakes IMMEDIATELY! I have it on tape!!!’) but I really wish I had the chance to do something like the YYW program when I was at school. The closest thing for us was Tornament of the Minds where six of us were selected to be locked in a room at a university for three hours and come up with a pantomine based around a Shakespeare quote; with only a packet of pipe cleaners and an old toilet roll to make all our costumes and set. After which we would perform our ‘play’ for a panel of judges including academics from said university. I was eleven. Torment of the Minds would have been a more apt title.

It seemed like when I was in school everything was either a competition or a test. As part of the Younger Young Writers’ program, these kids got to spend four days listening to writers speak about their work, interspersed with writing sessions where they got to work on their own stuff. The material they worked on was workshopped with professional writers. No one gave them a score. No one attributed a number or percentage to them based on their work. They weren’t shut in a room, seated in rows and told to produce a piece of creative writing  while the clock ticked and a supervisor paced. How the hell are you supposed to be creative under those conditions, let alone inspired?

The YYW program was a format that seemed to suit all sorts of personalities: the extroverts who ranted about their loathing of post modernism; the quiet ones who scribbled with a hand covering their work; the ones who can read that elf language that Tolkien made up. The writing that I read showed they had felt confident enough to experiment and go with their instincts, something that is very difficult to achieve in a classroom. We discussed Harry Potter and Austen. We argued about Fantasy and musical theatre. Their writing was clever and self aware. Some of it was witty, some downright scary – I read a sentence in one student’s horror story which made my stomach turn.

At various events held by the National Young Writers’ Festival I heard a lot of inspiring people discuss everything from the impact of isolation on creativity, to how not to be a douche when ones career starts to take off. I read and listened to short stories in the tunnels of Fort Scratchley with Penguin Plays Rough and met amazing people at the festival party with an over-active smoke machine. But – and I think you can guess where I’m going with this – the best part was sitting and talking to those kids talk about writing.

Bring on YYW 2014.

Cigars, Wayne’s World and the wisdom of NRL players

ImageA truly surreal thing has happened. My kind publishers have sent me a copy of my book, literally fresh off the press. It was an event which I have imagined many times over, often swiftly followed by a warning to myself not to get too attached to the idea. Getting a book published can be horrifyingly difficult, something I know too well after a brief stint as a publishing assistant. It was my job to sift through the unsolicited manuscripts, read synopses and more often than not, write rejection letters. In some ways it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life thus far. It taught me what not to include in a pitch, if nothing else. Having a novel published has always been my ultimate goal, but I have worked very hard to keep my expectations in check.

So a few days ago two copies of my book arrived and I held it in my hands and saw words on the pages that I had written. Truly surreal. Now that it is in print it will start a new journey all on its own which I will no longer have any control over. People will read it and the characters – which up until this point have only existed in my head – will enter those people’s imaginations. I have a very precise picture in my head of what these characters look and sound like, but my style of writing tends to be a touch sparse and I haven’t included all these details in the book. How weird to think that for others these characters may look and sound completely different.

And what will people think of it? I’ve written about this before, but I tend to imagine my stories being read by fat men smoking cigars. They read my work and laugh before setting it alight and shouting ‘What rot!’. (They are bald, wear grey suits and have panoramic views of New York from their offices – if you’re interested.) I’m not sure if any fat cigar smoking men have read my work and if they have, I’m pretty sure they’re probably a lot gentler than I give them credit for. I’m not sure it’s possible for anyone to be quite as critical of my work as I am.

Still, inevitable rejection by someone, somewhere is the reality of any creative pursuit. As many a NRL player and/or rapper has said ‘There always gonna be haters’ (sic). Some people are going to hate my novel. Maybe even people I know. The flip side of this, of course, is that some people are going to love it. And it’s these people that I’ve written it for, not  cigar smoking men in New York. (Pretty sure this mental image of mine was born out of Wayne’s World. Isn’t there a TV executive in a grey suit who nearly destroys Wayne and Garth’s artistic vision? Wayne’s World is an much overlooked meditation on the tension between artistic integrity and comercial success. True fact.)

Cigar smoking men aside* on July 24th The Sky So Heavy will be released. And that, for the moment, is more than enough.