Kids’ Book Review Interview

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


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…

Rewriting, bubbles and termites

Well blog readers, it’s been a while. Probably a lot longer than I anticipated, definitely a lot longer than I would have liked. Turns out caring for a four-year-old and a baby whilst rewriting a manuscript is actually quite time consuming. I am only able to write this now because the rewrite has gone back to my editor and my baby seems quite content to sit in his highchair while I type and intermittently toss him pieces of chopped-up grape*. 

Yes, you read correctly, dear reader: the rewrite of the manuscript that is to be published this year has gone back to my editor. Not only that, but she has read it and rather than call me and tell me the publisher has realised that I am actually ridiculous. She has instead told me she loves it and has sent it on for copy editing. This was a little unexpected because I did the rewriting in a strange sort of isolated bubble with no feedback from anyone at all. I sent it off to her just before Christmas without another soul reading a word, very unusual for me, but my husband and reader in chief was crazy busy with work so I took a punt.

For those unfamiliar with the grand process that is publication, once a manuscript has been accepted by a publisher an editor then writes a structural report. This is perhaps not entirely dissimilar to a structural report one may receive from a builder: a detailed analysis of everything that is right, but mostly wrong, with your dream house. The bits that are falling down, the holes in the overall support structure, the places where termites have began to gnaw in and consequently build their own little ornate castle-type thing which may be pretty to look at but is actually detrimental to your resale value and will need to be destroyed.

The process that follows this is the rewrite, where one takes on board the kind and sensitively-worded feedback offered by ones editor and proceeds to plug the holes, reshape particular characters and get rid of that weird bit coming off the side which is pretending to be a metaphor but is actually an entirely separate, overdeveloped entity that certainly doesn’t have council approval.

This process, for me, was completely different to that which I experienced drafting the original story. The first time round there’s no expectation, no precedent. Sure, you have dreams and ambitions that someone might actually read what you’re writing. But they might not. Sure you might hope that it might, just might, against all odds be (gasp!) published. But probably not, better off trying to win the lottery. There is a kind of freedom in this, a kind of abandonment. You’re just throwing things around to see what happens. It’s actually enjoyable.

Not to say that the rewriting process can’t be enjoyable. But this time, there’s a precedent, an expectation. People are going to read it. And they’re going to expect that it’s better than it was the last time around. And they know what they’re talking about too. They’re professional-type people with offices and meetings and spreadsheets and a work-wardrobe. They don’t work in a kind of cave with this morning’s jam smeared on their cheek. That’s kind of intimidating. 

Yet, there’s still the knowledge, a small sparkly thing in the back of ones mind, that these people believe in you enough to offer you a contract and, like, actual cash money. And goodness knows that’s never happened before. There’s also the fact that the people who are working on it are extremely lovely and sensitive to writers’ fragile egos.

So you pick over the manuscript, bounce ideas off your editor and try to look with fresh eyes at a story that you’ve read countless times. It can also be difficult to get into the headspace required to maintain the voice and atmosphere of the story, the internal picture that was so strong and vivid when you started writing the story, but now has become a little dull from endless revision. The Sky So Heavy is set in a nuclear winter, complete with power cuts and food shortages. Kind of tricky to imagine in December when you’re living by the beach and have spent the morning swimming in the sunshine. My trick was to listen to particular songs over and over while I wrote. (Mainly from Radiohead’s King of Limbs, but more on that later).

So now I wait to hear back from the copy editor and, the bit I am supremely excited about, see the mock-ups of the cover design. And while I am waiting I will keep you updated. Promise.

*Don’t despair, child-safety advocates, the grapes were chopped up and not chokable, also I don’t routinely feed my infant son as if he were a seagull or similar. Not that often… depends how busy I am.