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Archive for the tag “ya fiction”

Debut author profile: Michael Adams

Michael Adams, star of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, and author

Michael Adams, star of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, and author of The Last Girl

I must confess I didn’t know too much about YA until quite recently. I always had in my head that it was a closed genre, featuring vampires and werewolves and girls with ballgowns and insipid romance. But everyone makes mistakes. Reading more widely this year — and the YA community’s quick embrace of just_a_girl led me down this path — I realised that it’s an enormously diverse market with exactly the kind of narratives that excite me, a genre often caught in between the adult and teen worlds.

I’m always a sucker for coming-of-age-girl-as-outsider-awkward-moments-until-she-realises-everybody-is-like-that narratives. Blame the 80s and Molly Ringwald. When I was an adolescent, the idea of books for teens was just gaining ground. I devoured SE Hinton, Paul Zindel, Judy Blume, Robert Cormier. These writers tackled dark subjects, spoke of sex and drugs and religion (and all those things I’m still writing about), and empowered teens to fight for themselves.

Michael Adams’ The Last Girl is a strong addition to the genre, that also fights to be let out into literary fiction. Highlighted in the September edition of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS, it demands close reading. While lead girl Danby confronts an apocalyptic vision of Sydney, where most of the inhabitants can read each other’s minds, it’s also about communities separated by high-density living, soaring property prices, environmental catastrophe, the legacy of stealing someone else’s land, and addiction to personal-technologies.

Michael knows how to cram in big ideas. His background as a film critic (editor for Empire — where he employed me to write on Bergman [bliss]  — and even appearing on The Movie Show on SBS) serves him well here. The fiction is full of pop-culture references, sly humour, out-of-the-blue violence, and challenges to narrative conventions.

Danby is a memorable figure through the death and destruction around her, intuitive, strong, countering expectations to be led astray by wayward boys, dealing with challenges effectively with humour and courage. I’d like to meet her one day. Let’s hope she makes it to the end of the trilogy (The Last Girl is the first in a series). Knowing Michael, this isn’t entirely certain.

Here I talk to him about Stephen King, Sydney and the Blue Mountains on fire, and heroines that break free of conventions…

Do you remember the moment when you decided you wanted to be a writer?

Not the precise moment but it goes back as far as I can remember. As a six-year-old I’d write and illustrate little stapled books about soldiers and sharks and dinosaurs — sometimes all in the same story. By the time I was in my early teens I was trying to write novels. Then I got into journalism and creative writing took a backseat. It wasn’t until I’d tried my hand at screenwriting and non-fiction that I finally, finally, achieved the goal I’d set for myself when I was about 13. Oddly — or maybe not oddly — The Last Girl contains echoes of those adolescent efforts.

Michael Adams, The Last GirlWhat inspired you?

The Last Girl came as a bit of a flash — at least in concept. In 2008 I was in New York and at dinner at a restaurant with my partner. We were having a great time talking to another couple who’d survived Hurricane Katrina. But at another table there was a couple who didn’t say a word to each other all night. At some point I wondered: what if they could read each other’s thoughts, hear everything that wasn’t being said. Then I wondered what it’d be like if the phenomenon spiralled out to encompass the city, the country, the world.

My book and yours share some common themes: teenage girls on the edge; a narrative that swings between Sydney and the Blue Mountains (on the train tracks); the questioning of digital cultures and their effects on psychology and relationships. Why did you decide to pursue these ideas in a YA novel?

Initially I thought I was writing an adult book about a young adult character. It wasn’t until I’d sent the book to Allen & Unwin that it was explained it was a YA. The definition was that YA focuses on young characters who have to make their own decisions in the absence of adult authority. That pretty much summed up Danby’s situation in The Last Girl. But I’m not sure about the YA label because it wasn’t used to describe similar books when I was growing up. The Catcher In The Rye and Lord Of The Flies spring to mind. Back then they were literature — now they’re YA. And then there’s the US statistic that says 84 per cent of YA is purchased by people over 18. I guess what’s important is that it’s a good story well told and in a voice authentic to the age of the character.

You’ve written extensively on film (as a reviewer and non-fiction writer). To what extent did cinema, and in particular B-grade films, influence your narrative?

I wanted the story to grab readers by the throat, take them to a cliffhanger and then tease them with backstory that’d become important throughout the trilogy before plunging back into an ever-escalating series of disasters for poor Danby. But I wanted to throw her and readers constant curveballs so it’d be difficult to predict where the story was heading. So the movies I kinda had in mind were those that’ve had that effect on me: Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, Psycho, The Usual Suspects, Night Of The Living Dead are a few that spring to mind. I also put as much black humour into the book as possible and in that the touchstones are films like Dr Strangelove, Bride Of Frankenstein and Repo Man.

Breaking Bad

The biggest influence on The Last Girl? Breaking Bad…

But the biggest influence wasn’t film — it was Breaking Bad. I watched the entire series twice and really tried to understand how Vince Gilligan created an emotionally charged character-driven suspense thriller that was so dense, complex and funny — while also layering in all of his narrative callbacks, in-jokes and Easter Eggs. There’s a lot of that kind of thinking in The Last Girl. Seemingly throwaway details become pivotal to survival. References to pop culture echo the themes. There’s a reason Danby’s dad orders a plate of shrimp and a Miller. Google it and you’ll see why.

The Last Girl is the first in a series. Did the publisher commission a number of books at once? How hard is it as a writer to plan out a series?

Yes, A&U bought the trilogy. By that stage I had a solid first draft of The Last Girl and about 20,000 words of the sequel. Now book two, The Last Shot, is at the final proofreading stages and I’ve got three months to finish the first draft of The Last Place, which will wrap things up. When I started The Last Girl, I was pretty much making it up as I went along. The ending I eventually decided on and worked towards would’ve left a lot unresolved. I wanted to know what came next. The fun — and tough — thing is to ensure continuity while you juggle drafts. But I’ve really enjoyed playing with the world — or end of the world — and seeing how the puzzle pieces actually do fit together. Mostly it’s been an organic process. But I’ve also worked to ensure the books don’t repeat scenes or scenarios. I hate sequels that’re just a reheat.  So I see the series as one story, which also means that I need the end of book three to be bigger and more powerful than what’s come before. I want it to be my Toy Story 3 and not The Godfather Part III.

Your novel is playful and toys with genre conventions: the romantic lead; the heroine as victim/survivor; futuristic horror; the quest. Was this always something you had in mind when you started writing, or did it evolve as you went? How did this go when you were trying to get the book published? Was there pressure to make it one thing or another?

There was a lot I didn’t want my book to be. Passive heroine? Fuck that. Instant love between characters? No thanks. Scared suburban types who suddenly become fearless warriors? Uh-uh. I hate reading or watching stories in which you spend your time shaking your head at bad character decisions and/or illogical scenarios. So as much as possible I wanted Danby’s nightmare to feel real, to be blow-by-blow. Yay, she’s made it to the car! But can she drive? Can you feasibly escape a burning city on clogged roads? And if not, then what? I wanted characters who haven’t got all the answers. I tried to imagine myself in her shoes and in doing that painted Danby into some seemingly inescapable corners. A few of these took months to figure out. And that meant walking the actual locations until the “A-ha!” moment struck. Writing like that intrinsically bends genre expectations because we’re so often fed the same-old people and situations. Tough guys walk in slow-motion from the explosion without looking around? Stupid. How about sensibly shit-scared guys run but one can’t help looking back and gets flash-blinded while another’s cut in half by shrapnel and they all end up concussed by the shock wave that shatters every window for five blocks? By doing the latter you’re being logical and realistic but it’s also bleakly funny and subversive because it’s not what we’re used to seeing. As for how A&U reacted, they were brilliant. I was never asked to make it anything other than what I’d envisaged. The cuts and changes suggested were more to do with me overwriting, paying too much attention to secondary scenes or wandering away from the character voice.

You live in the Blue Mountains (I used to as well). Your book deals with catastrophic events, including, it seems, a whole city and mountain on fire. How did it feel when the recent Springwood fires were happening (after the book had been published)? Did it feel like life imitating art in some hellish way?

It was freaky because a few scenes, particularly smoke blanketing Parramatta and Silverwater, were exactly as I’d imagined them. I got a few messages from people saying, “Whoa, dude, that’s spooky.” But we were too busy packing up our and getting out of Katoomba to think about it too much. I did get asked by a big newspaper if I’d comment on the book’s similarities to the events but I declined because I thought it disrespectful to trivialise an ongoing situation threatening people’s lives and homes. Writer turns down publicity: film at 11!

Is there a writer community in the Blue Mountains? Can you survive being a writer up there, or do you still commute to Sydney for a day job?

There are a lot of writers in the Blue Mountains but I work a day job in Sydney so I haven’t had much time to explore the community. Couldn’t even go to the SFF events they had last year. Sad face. But the dream is to do exactly that: hang out up there and write. But for the foreseeable future I’ll be commuting to the office gig — and freelancing my butt off to supplement those wages. It’s all freaking glamour, me tells ya.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned in the process of writing your first novel, that you wish you knew at the beginning?

I guess it’s something you learn and re-learn every time you pick up a pen or sit at the keyboard: you’ll think your first jottings are amazing and you’ll be so very wrong. But they’re a start. And the next draft will be better …  and then the next …  and the next …  and so on. But what’s equally important is to be ruthless, murder darlings in the nest before you get too attached. The first submitted draft ran to 111,000. The final book’s about 87,000. The 25,000 words or so that were cut were words I’d spent a long time writing and polishing. There was a lot in there that didn’t need to be but I was too close to it. By contrast, the first draft of The Last Shot was 80,000 — and it’s ended up at 93,000. So maybe I swung too far the other way. Perhaps the third book will be just right — but I doubt it!

Dead Zone

Michael’s favourite book as a teen

What were your favourite books to read when you were a teenager?

I am indebted to Stephen King. I loved that supernatural events were happening in our very ordinary world and to ordinary people. The Stand and The Dead Zone were hugely influential. Later, at school, we did Lord Of The Flies, The Loved One, Nineteen Eighty Four, Shakespeare: and I loved all of them too. So a mixture of the high and lowbrow — but, like YA, I’m never sure exactly where the border lies.

Of course, the book screams film rights. If you could choose anyone (director, actors) to adapt and star in your film, who would they be?

David Fincher [Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Social Network]. I love his obsessive attention to detail, the mood he creates. As for actors, I’m going home-grown. Eva Lazzaro as Danby. She’s the right age, she looks the part and she’s really talented. I thought she was the best thing about Tangle. Alex Russell as Jack. He was funny and charismatic in Chronicle and he had an edge to him. Nathan’s young and from Sri Lankan parents. I wonder if cricketer Ashton Agar can act?

Michael Adams’ The Last Girl was featured as part of FRIDAY NIGHT FICTIONS for September. You might also like to read an interview with August’s debut author, Nina Smith and YA author of Girl Defective, Simmone Howell.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? IS IT TRICKY TO DEFINE YA? OR HAVE YOU READ MICHAEL’S BOOK YET? LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK!

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Meet the locals: author Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell

Simmone Howell’s recent YA novel Girl Defective is a smart and punchy coming of age tale set on the meanstreets of St Kilda. In a record store owned by her dad, Sky negotiates love, loss and a little brother who always wears a pig mask.

Simmone’s narrative voice (in whatever character she is writing) is the kind that you long for, so strong it becomes a part of your own interior monologue, and changes how you see the world for a while. Her dialogue, description and humour are fresh and seamless. Her rapid fire delivery floors you. I’ve read a lot of YA fiction recently and this book stands out in the genre (or any genre, really).

As it happens, Simmone is also a local (for the moment, anyhow). I first saw her on stage at Castlemaine Word Mine, hosting a session with Martine Murray and Sally Rippin, and we recently did a session together (with Ellie Marney) on teen fiction. 

Here I speak to her about writing, nostalgia and folk music …

When did you move to Castlemaine? What drew you to the area?

I moved here in 2008. I wanted to try living in the country and Castlemaine had good coffee, plus a cinema and a train to Melbourne …

How does the area inspire your own writing?

I’m yet to see if the area has inspired my writing. I’m not sure that it does except for the fact that I walk a lot more than I used to and as a result have more ‘forward thoughts’ … but I also seem to have less time to write them down. And I spend a lot of time dreaming of escape.

How does a writer survive in Castlemaine? Do you do other work as well?

I do a little freelance writing stuff here and there, and I run creative workshops with Lisa D’Onofrio. I live lean and am nearly always thinking of finishing a Grad. Dip.

You seem to be drawn to YA fiction, novels with strong and humorous young female voices. Does the teen voice come naturally to you?

Yes! Even when I write an old man character he manages to sound like a 15-year-old girl. (This could be a problem …)

You’re a writing mother. How does having a family influence the way you work? Your characterisation?

Having a family means I have more resources in one way – I am constantly being pulled into the child’s perspective and I think it also makes me very nostalgic about my past and the feeling of time passing. I think being a parent has made me a nicer person. Not sure if that helps with the novelling though.

Girl DefectiveYour new novel, ‘Girl Defective’, seems to be about the importance of preservation (records, St Kilda’s iconic buildings) and an embrace of the vintage. Do you collect things? Are you drawn to record stores and op shops?

Yes and Yes. I have always been a collector and a cataloguer. I also love to throw things away and then mourn them.

‘Girl Defective’ has a wonderful sense of place. Why did you decide to set it in St Kilda?

I lived in St Kilda for a little while, and it was also the land of my teenager dreams. It always seemed like a mythical place to me – like Australia’s version of Los Angeles where everything is surface and the darkness is never far away. I love the history of St Kilda and the geography. I’m not sure if I would live there again so it was great to be able to live there vicariously through Sky.

Sky seems to be a girl coping in many ways on her own, with a lot of responsibility (her mother is absent, her dad relies on her to look after her brother). Do you think she is essentially taking on the parenting role in the narrative?

Yes. I think responsibility is one of the themes of the novel. Put baldly like that, ‘responsibility’ seems to be quite a boring theme, but when I was writing I was thinking a lot about the roles that people take on, how we can fall into them without wanting them, and then, sometimes surprisingly, be good at them.

You’re currently working on your latest novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?

No research unless I really have to. I’ve been quite good about writing forward. With Girl Defective I remember I changed the tense about fifty billion times, re-writing the book each time … with my current manuscript I’m playing around with the voice. I’ve been writing it in 3rd person, but now I think I’d quite like it to be in 1st. Basically my process is to write something and then at a crucial point in the narrative go back to the start — this way it takes me years to finish.

Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?

I would love to stick to a routine, but I seem unable to. My only routine now is that I use the software Freedom which allows me to turn off the internet.

You’ve worked in other genres including an award-winning screenplay. What drew you to film, and how does writing a short film differ from narrative fiction.

I love films. I spent most of my teen years lurking at the video store slowly working through actors and genres … the short film Pity 24 came from a short story which was basically an oral biography, so in that instance there wasn’t a lot I had to change. (The film is like a fake documentary, though not a ‘mock’ documentary because no-one’s being mocked in it … I think there’s a difference.)

Actually I find screenwriting really challenging. I would love to adapt one of my books but think I might need a bravery injection first.

You’ve been successful in exporting your fiction internationally. Do Australian writers in YA stand a chance in the US market?

Definitely. There is a lot of love for Australian YA in the US. Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, Marcus Zusak, John Marsden — the big names here garner a lot of respect there. Very generally speaking, I think they love the ‘direct’ Aussie voice. My writing has been called things like ‘unvarnished’ and ‘raunchy’ in the US and for some reason it feels like a compliment!

You have recently hosted a local radio show, Folkish on Tuesday mornings (currently in hiatus). What are your top 5 folk tracks (at the moment)?

Simmone’s earlier novel Notes From The Teenage Underground won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for YA Fiction and the Gold Inky in 2007. The short film Pity24 won an AWGIE for screenwriting.

A UNIQUE VOICE IS SO IMPORTANT IN FICTION … WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE WRITERS — WHO MANAGE TO CREATE A VOICE SO MESMERISING THAT YOU DON’T WANT TO LET GO?

IF YOU ENJOYED THIS, YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE TO MEET LOCAL WRITERS JON BAUER AND ADAM FORD …

Ampersand Project: new voices in YA

Melissa Keil, Life in Outer Space When you’re writing your first novel in any genre it can be challenging getting it into the hands of publishers. First, there’s the question of agents (to have or not to have?) and, then, how to stand out among the thousands of other unsolicited manuscripts sitting in piles around editors’ desks.

So it’s always exciting when a new venture is announced that’s actually calling out for debut novels. The Ampersand Project emerged in 2011, a Hardie Grant Egmont scheme looking for first-time YA novels with a distinctive voice. In March, they release their first title, a nerdy romcom, Life in Outer Space.

I spoke to debut novelist Melissa Keil and Ampersand editor Marisa Pintado about how the project is encouraging and attracting dynamic new writers.

(This is the extended version of an article originally published in Newswrite magazine.)

Why did you decide to set up the Ampersand Project? Did you see a gap in the market?

Marisa Pintado: We felt that there was room in the YA market for more debut writers, more fresh voices, and really, more variety. When we were still dreaming up Ampersand, a few years ago now, there was a glut of paranormal romance and gritty dystopian fiction. This went beyond mere trends, as far as we were concerned — there was simply very little new fiction available for readers who were into different things. We wanted to create some energy around different kinds of stories, so in the first year we focused on contemporary real-world fiction — and we were thrilled with the response from writers.

At what stage was your manuscript when you heard about Ampersand? Did it inspire you in any way?

Melissa Keil: The manuscript was complete, and I had been workshopping and editing it for about eight months before I seriously started thinking about submitting it to Ampersand. I was at the stage where I had done the bulk of the structural work that I could do on my own, and was just fiddling and making very minor changes — but I still think I would have sat on it for many months more if I wasn’t given a shove by my writing group. I guess Ampersand inspired me to be brave and put the book out there!

From the piles of manuscripts on your desk, how do you know when one is a goer for publication?

Marisa Pintado: A manuscript shines because it combines a multitude of appealing elements — a beguiling voice, intriguing concepts, skilful writing, well-developed characters, an authentic teen-feel, and an understanding of classic story design. It’s rare to find these elements all in the one manuscript, but when you do, it feels like the heavens are opening.

What we really love to see is evidence of hard work in the writing; we can tell when writers are sending in their first draft, and when they’ve laboured over a story for months or even years, painstakingly threading through subplots, re-writing chapters and refining character trajectories.

How did your manuscript originally come about? Did you come up with the voice? Or various plotlines?

Author Melissa Keil

Author Melissa Keil

Melissa Keil: Definitely the voice, and the character of my protagonist, Sam, came first. It was one of those weird, writerly light-bulb moments, when I had decided to set aside the novel I had been working on and begin something new. I had no idea what the new ‘thing’ was going to be, but I was sitting with my laptop in a café when I saw a poster for the Melbourne Horror Film Society, and Sam’s voice, literally, just popped into my head. I wrote the first chapter that afternoon, and though it’s gone through quite a few rounds of edits, and I refined and redrafted it as I got to know him better, the outline I wrote that afternoon is pretty much the first chapter in the published book. The plotlines evolved as the various characters took shape.

What was it about Life in Outer Space that singled it out to be the first Ampersand novel?

Marisa Pintado: Life in Outer Space really took us by surprise. When we launched the Ampersand Project, we’d expected to go for gritty, boundary-pushing fiction — essentially sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, with some cutting on the side. And then Melissa’s manuscript landed on my desk, and it was like having a warm bath in the sunshine. She’d written this gorgeously geeky romantic comedy that shredded a stack of awful YA clichés and pop-culture tropes, and it was just an incredible achievement.

At first we wanted to wait until we’d finished reading all the Ampersand submissions before signing Melissa up. This decision lasted about two days, and then we caved and signed her up so that we could launch into the editorial process. We knew we didn’t want to let her go, and we were prepared to have more than one Ampersand author in a year, if it came to that. She’s an amazing talent, and we could tell that she’d been working really hard for a very long time. She was absolutely ready to enter the YA scene as a fully fledged author.

I’m so looking forward to introducing her to readers in March 2013. I’ve read Life in Outer Space about a million times during the production process, and it has made me cry with happiness. Every. Single. Time. I just love Melissa’s writing.

I notice you are part of a writing group. How did this help you shape the narrative?

Melissa Keil: I can’t overestimate how valuable working with my writing group has been; not only for their advice and feedback as the manuscript developed, but also because of the emotional support that only other writers can really provide. They were the first people to flag issues and to suggest solutions for problems, but also, the first people to offer genuine encouragement and praise when things were working. It’s quite an exposing thing to put your work-in-progress writing out into the world, and my writing group has really been the perfect combination of critique group and cheer squad.

There are many 80s references in the book but it’s a contemporary world. Why did you decide to step back in time for influence?

Melissa Keil: I knew that pop culture of all kinds was important for both of my main characters, but I also knew that saturating their story solely with contemporary references was going to confine it to a singular time and place; I guess I really wanted the story to have a ‘timeless’ feel, if such a thing is possible in YA contemporary! Also, Sam and Camilla are both quite ‘old souls’; the things that they love and that influence them come from all over the place, and lots of different time periods — having said that, yes, there are quite a few 80s references! There is something in the tone of the 80s teen movies I love that I wanted to invoke.

How do you see the current state of YA publishing in Australia?

Marisa Pintado: Australian YA publishing has gone through tremendous change since the glory years of the 90s, where writers like John Marsden, Melina Marchetta, Maureen McCarthy, Robin Klein and Gillian Rubenstein turned out books of the most incredible calibre and enjoyed strong sales. I think as the market has become more enchanted with the blockbuster-sales model (usually books by international authors), and review space is increasingly limited, Australian novels can find it hard to elbow their own space on the shelves.

But I remain optimistic, because you look at the quality of writers who have established themselves over the last few years — Leanne Hall, Fiona Wood, Cath Crowley, Meredith Badger (also writing as Em Bailey), Chrissie Keighery, Myke Bartlett, Penni Russon — and you think, it’s OK! We still have amazing writers coming out of this country, and they’re writing brilliant books that do sell, and do well overseas. The Ampersand Project is all about finding more of these talented people, and giving them as much support as we can to establish their profiles and kick-start their writing careers.

How important are projects like Ampersand in helping emerging writers?

Melissa Keil: The current publishing climate being what it is, it’s becoming more and more difficult for publishers to take a risk on an unknown. Knowing that publishers are still actively looking for — and are excited by finding — new authors to support is amazing. And I think it’s so critical for new writers to have a great editorial team behind them. A project like Ampersand, with editors willing to work with a new author to help shape their manuscript into the best it can be, is crucial for any writer looking to build a career.

In 2013, what kinds of manuscripts/writing are you looking for?

Marisa Pintado: We’re opening up to all genres across YA, so I’m really keeping an open mind. My reading tastes are pretty broad, so I want to be surprised! At the moment I’m particularly keen on horror, thrillers, accessible sci-fi, high-concept drama and contemporary romance, but overall I’m hoping to find raw talent in writers who are hungry for development, and stories that I have to stay up late to finish because I’m so desperate to see how it all turns out.

WHO ARE YOUR FAVOURITE YA AUTHORS? ARE YOU A YA WRITER LOOKING TO BE PUBLISHED? LOOK FORWARD TO YOUR COMMENTS…

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