I owe a debt that can never be repaid to childrenâ€™s and YA authors everywhere â€“ as Iâ€™m sure do many of you â€“ for exciting my imagination and delivering me from the real life with which I often struggled. The characters in Fiona Woodâ€™s new YA novel Wildlife arenâ€™t exactly sailing through adolescence either â€“ and itâ€™s precisely why this book and its predecessor, Six Impossible Things, continue the fine literary tradition of making young people feel â€“ at least temporarily â€“ less alone as they probe and stumble through a period that can prove a wilderness indeed. Iâ€™m delighted to welcome Fiona to the Alumni Interview Suite as the subject of this monthâ€™s profile.
DJ: There is some character crossover from your YA debut Six Impossible Things and Wildlife, with Lou appearing in both; to what extent do you consider Wildlife a sequel? How did the idea for Wildlife come about?
FW: Wildlife isnâ€™t a sequel, though it can be seen as a companion novel. It started with the idea of Sibylla, a character whose sense of self is in a state of flux. And the setting came soon after that. Then the ideas of betrayal and jealousy, and good and bad friends.
DJ: I was struck by immediate references to a range of difficult teenage terrain, including sex; sexually transmitted disease; underage drinking; feminism; mental health and peer death. All these things are mentioned right at the beginning of the novel; how important is it to the story, the reader (or the reader's parents!) and you that some big issues are signposted right upfront?
FW: I see all those things as part of life for teenagers, rather than as â€˜issuesâ€™, and itâ€™s not so much that they are deliberately being signposted but that they are part of the fabric of the story. Lou, for example, is grieving for the death of her boyfriend. Sibylla is a feminist and that informs the way she views her relationship with Ben, and gives her equivocal feelings about her brief notoriety. Thereâ€™s a party on the eve of departure for camp, so â€“ thereâ€™s drinking at the party.
DJ: A classic ugly duckling set-up kicks off the narrative, when the first of two alternating narrators - studious Sibylla Quinn - lands a global ad campaign. I think it's an authentic fantasy/fairytale for any number of young ladies and certainly was for my friends and me at Sibylla's age, but given the magical transformation ultimately eludes most of us, what is the message - if indeed there is a message - embedded in Sibylla's rather enviable swan makeover and the instant popularity that follows?
FW: The inference to be taken from Sibyllaâ€™s brush with fame is that you are still yourself (with all doubts and insecurities firmly intact) post-limelight â€“ and that the notion of celebrity is specious, and not at all as attractive from the inside as it might appear from the outside. And thereâ€™s a note of caution: beware what you are admired for.
DJ: I remember finding the tenor of Six Impossible Things really engaging; you've done it again in Wildlife so your narrative voice is consistently accessible. How much do you think this is an innate quality of your writing and how much do you think you owe to your years writing for TV?
FW: The extent to which the narrative voice works is the result of living with characters and story and themes for long enough, lots of ruminating, and many, many, many drafts. I do think Iâ€™m very lucky to have written for TV for so many years when it comes to writing dialogue, because Iâ€™ve certainly got my training hours well up in that area of the craft.
DJ: I love the deadpan humour of whip-smart young adults and Wildlife's characters certainly deliver on sarcasm and sass; how consciously have you developed the comedic style that seems so in tune with that particular age group?
FW: The humour comes from character. Sibylla, Lou and Michael are, in their different ways, smart and funny. Even Lou in her state of grief is still Lou, someone who has a very dry take on the world and its inhabitants; she doesnâ€™t suffer fools. And Iâ€™ve lived with my children through their teenage years quite recently and so have had a refresher on just how smart and funny (and serious) they and their friends were at this age.
DJ: Dan and other Six Impossible Things characters are removed from the Wildlife action thanks to a Paris exchange program; it instantly made me think about the narrative possibilities of teenagers travelling, studying and living abroad. How and why did you decide to stomp into the wild with heartbroken Lou and the sexually awakening Sibylla instead of hopping on the plane to Paris with the hero of your first YA novel and his friends?
FW: I wasnâ€™t writing a sequel. It was a new character, Sibylla, and ideas around friendship and betrayal that were my points of departure for this novel. I was drawn to the idea of a term in the wilderness at an outdoor education campus because itâ€™s such a pressured environment. There are the physical challenges of the outdoor education program itself, as well as the emotional burden of being away from the usual support networks, and living at close quarters with people whom the characters donâ€™t necessarily like. And, too, the idea of wilderness provides a resonant background for those themes of emergent sexuality, love, and death/grieving. Romanticism with the primacy it gives to instinct and emotion and its interest in unspoiled wilderness, was another reference point for me. It seems an apposite analogue for the teen years. These were all helpful contexts for story.
DJ: I had a rather surreal conversation with my in-laws recently in which they expressed untold shock and doubt about my estimate that probably the majority of high school students in Australia will experiment with alcohol (and in many cases drugs). Their resistance is easy to understand - acknowledging kids do these things is unsettling - but I'd always imagined it was ever thus, at least to some degree (and it was certainly the case in the late 80s, early 90s...). I'm almost relieved, therefore, that Wildlife makes repeated, very believable references to underage drinking from the point of view of its young protagonists. There's also fumbling teenage sex. As you'd expect. So how important is it to keep shrill disapproval out of the YA narrative and how do you avoid it when there must be occasions in which you'd love - as a parent yourself - to simply overrule the characters?
FW: Iâ€™m not present as a parent in the writing process. In creating the two main characters I attempted to the best of my ability to inhabit them and write closely from their respective points of view. To me it would be a failure of integrity if I were to hop in and start judging them. Although of course in the constant back and forth of evaluation and editing I do as I write, Iâ€™m always stepping outside the characters to assess how they are working from a narrative point of view â€“ are they developing and intersecting in a way that is productive to the story? Are their actions and thoughts satisfactorily motivated? Is this way, or that way, the better way to articulate a moment of change? Are they holding theme in the way I need them to? â€“ that is to say: all the usual architectural questions that never end.
As far as sex goes, Sibylla has sex for the first time during this term, and thereâ€™s also a scene in which she masturbates, and Lou recalls her sexual relationship. For me itâ€™s really important to portray sex in a realistic way in YA fiction. Itâ€™s dispiritingly common these days for pornography to be the first image/information relating to sex that young people encounter. So fiction has an opportunity to provide a great antidote to this by portraying sex in a positive, warm, fallible, human way. Drugs and alcohol are part of the landscape for teenagers. They need to form a view about these things as they do about everything in their world.
DJ: How do you research your YA novels? How long did it take you to write Wildlife?
FW: In researching Wildlife I spoke to a number of people whoâ€™d been to this sort of outdoor education boarding campus in recent years. I was writing Wildlife for two years, and probably thinking about it for three or four years. With Six Impossible Things I wrote five drafts over about three years.
DJ: How structurally useful was it centralising the action of Wildlife in the Crowthorne Grammar remote campus? Is focusing on a primary site a TV technique or something that just made sense for this book?
FW: TV favours a variety of sets and locations, and Wildlife, like many novels, also has a variety of locales: the characters are inside their houses, at a party, traveling in buses, in their dorm houses, in classrooms, in the local town, in the wilderness, in the assembly hall, in the drying room, and so on. I created the setting of Wildlife in a way that was useful for structure and theme.
DJ: How much YA reading do you do yourself? Who are some of your favourite YA authors and why?
FW: I enjoy reading YA and always try to read titles recommended to me, but my go-to reading is still adult literary fiction. There is a balance to be struck between keeping abreast of the YA category, and keeping a little distance from the category â€“ because if you are writing it, you also have to maintain your head space. Itâ€™s important for me not to see what Iâ€™m writing as relative to what others might be writing â€“ by which I mean I donâ€™t want to be reacting to, or inhibited by, anything I read in the category. So you do need to know your area of work, but also try to maintain a little bubble of isolation.
Some of my favourite contemporary Australian YA writers are Melina Marchetta, Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Vikki Wakefield. In very different ways they are beautiful writers on the line, they achieve an emotional authenticity and their books are thought-provoking and full of ideas. I could name many, many other Australian YA authors whose work I also admire.
DJ: Why the YA genre? What is it about writing primarily for readers on the cusp of adulthood that compels you?
FW: YA is so often referred to as a genre, but itâ€™s more a readership age group that contains all genres. This is a great age for reading. YA didnâ€™t really exist when I was a teenager, but itâ€™s natural that just as children want to read about children, and adults want to read about adults, so teenagers want to read about teenagers. And I love writing the sort of books I would have enjoyed reading at that age, stories about love and friendship and identity and sex and death and family and all the things that preoccupied me in those years. So much of who you are is formed by your experiences, including your reading, during this time and itâ€™s a privilege to write for this age group.
DJ: Tell us a bit about your writing practice: the how, when, where, why and what of your writing life.
FW: Iâ€™ve been writing for about twenty years now, first doing freelance journalism, then scripts and now novels. These days I write full time and go to work Monday to Friday to an office outside my home, at Glenfern Writersâ€™ Studios where thereâ€™s no internet connection. Iâ€™m a big brooder and planner pre-writing. I write lots of drafts. And Iâ€™ve never hit â€˜sendâ€™ without strong feelings of doom and dread. The only drawback to being a writer (apart from financial)(and isolation and self-doubt) is that you never get a day off. It just whirrs away all the time. Iâ€™m published by Pan Macmillan in Australia, and will be published by Little, Brown in the US.
DJ: Have you identified any key changes to your work while writing your second YA title? How do you feel you've developed and what challenges have you overcome?
FW: No changes, sadly. No great efficiencies. Certainly no shortcuts. So I guess the big â€˜second novelâ€™ lesson is humility, because there you are at the foot of the mountain again.
DJ: Tell us about your connection to Varuna and how the Writers' House has assisted your development.
FW: I was fortunate indeed to be awarded the Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for Fiction for Six Impossible Things before I had a publisher or an agent. So I stayed twice at Varuna, and each time was amazing. Having no domestic responsibilities and doing nothing but writing is a wonderfully liberating experience. Itâ€™s a gift. I also read work aloud for the first time ever and had the most supportive and generous of fireside companions for that terrifying experience: Stephen Axelsen, Sandy Bigna, Kate Cole-Adams and Sally Rippin who, along with Varuna, have a special place in my heart.
DJ: What were some of the key differences between having a young male protagonist in Six Impossible Things and juggling two young female protagonists in Wildlife?
FW: Really, it ends up being the same challenge: knowing the characters inside out. Having created Lou in Six Impossible Things did mean that I knew her at the outset of Wildlife, so the process was a bit easier in her case. I need to start writing the characters together for them to become three-dimensional. You can do character maps and lists forever, and I do those things, but itâ€™s not until they are interacting that they start casting shadows.
DJ: How did you approach the potentially difficult task of making Sibylla and Lou's voices distinct?
FW: The main thing, again, is just knowing the characters very well. And I also did things like developing different punctuation schemes for Sibylla and Lou that reflect their personalities and states of mind and produce a visual distinction in the text. Sibyllaâ€™s thoughts drift and dash about â€“ lots of impulse, discursiveness and en dashes. Lou is so sad she can hardly breathe. Her sentences reflect that. They are short, truncated. There are no dashes for her. Itâ€™s a land of full stops, semicolons, parentheses and ellipses. I wanted the punctuation to work hard in supporting words and meaning to create the feeling of constriction and difficulty in expressing thoughts and reluctance to communicate. Sibyllaâ€™s chapters are in the present tense; Louâ€™s journal entries are in the past tense. The journal entries have no inverted commas where conversation is recounted. I wanted Louâ€™s pages to look flatter, and to have a sense of space and stillness to them compared to Sibyllaâ€™s pages.
DJ: How is YA faring as a fiction genre in Australia? How much do you consider market and technological forces as part of your creative strategy?
FW: As far as I know, YA is faring quite well, and Australian YA is also well regarded in other markets, such as the US. I donâ€™t think I have a particular creative strategy. I just sit down every day and try to write. And even though Iâ€™m consciously writing for a YA readership, I donâ€™t try to second-guess the market at all. The best you can do is to write the best book you can write.
As far as technological forces go, publishers do encourage writers to have some sort of online presence, so I tweet (a little bit - @f_i_o_n_a_w_) and I have a (neglected) blog, and Iâ€™m on Facebook, but those things are quite separate and different from the work itself.
DJ: How common is it to hear from your readers via social media or other means? Are school visits and readings part of the tour of duty for promoting Wildlife? Do enough teenagers attend writers' festivals and are their interests well represented? I'm wondering if engaging directly with readers is almost part of the YA brief and whether it happens predominantly online or in person. I'm also curious about the degree to which the average young adult reader independently explores the book-launch-and-writers'-festival circuit.
FW: I hear from occasional readers via the blog. And it is good to get out to schools to talk about a new book. Writersâ€™ festivals tend to have an education program, so the students are well catered for and come along in droves. Thatâ€™s probably the best way to meet readers, and itâ€™s lovely to see that students are confident and happy to come and say hello to writers at a festival. Iâ€™m not sure that YA authors are expected to engage any more with readers than other authors. I think all publishers like writers to get out and about as much as possible. The most common way that teen readers get to festivals is via a school booking, but keen readers also come along to festivals and library and bookshop events with a parent or alone or with friends, depending on the event.
DJ: Have you started thinking about book #3? Anything you can tell us?
FW: The third book is called Cloudwish, and two minor characters from Wildlife are the main characters for this one. The other book Iâ€™m working on is another YA title that Cath Crowley and Simmone Howell and I are writing together.
DJ: And finally, do you think you'll write novels for adults as well one day? Is this something you're already working towards or are you happy for your novels to remain forever young?
FW: Iâ€™m interested in writing for readers on both sides of the YA age group â€“ upper primary school readers and adults. But for now Iâ€™m busy and very happy with YA.
DJ: Fiona Wood, thank you for playing.
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