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Friday, February 28, 2014

Forever Young at Perth Writers Festival 2014

Last weekend, I attended a talk at the Perth Writers Festival. Chaired by Perth author Julia Lawrinson, the 'Forever Young' panel featured Perth authors Amanda 'AJ' Betts and Joe Ducie, Queenslander Claire Zorn, and Will Kostakis from Sydney. Our lovely outdoor setting at the Tropical Grove, inside the grounds of the University of Western Australia, meant the talk started with the authors being pelted with berries, nuts and bird poo from above. Once the laughter and squeals of disgust died down, the authors were introduced and we were given a little run down of their most recent books and how the books came to be. You can click on the book to be taken to my review in a new window.

It occurred to me about half way through the hour that it would be quite useful to record what they had to say so I could share it with all of you. So the transcript below is after each has introduced themselves and their books and after they were asked why they write for young adults. I've tried to pretty much transcribe the talk word for word although it was quite difficult to hear due to the soundtrack of noisy birds made possible by our location at the Tropical Grove. 

L-R: Julia, Claire, Joe, Will and Amanda
Julia: Do you have an ideal teenager in mind when you are writing? Who is it you imagine you are writing for?

Joe: I picture myself when I was 15. You know, it doesn’t really feel any different *audience laughs*

Will: When I visit schools and I visit teenagers, they are so completely different and I like to think I am writing for myself but really I’m inspired by all the kids I meet and their experiences. When I was in high school, Facebook didn’t exist. There is this whole other world, such as internet on phones, a completely different childhood to the one I grew up in and while I do like to write for myself, I do need to be mindful that it is different to what it was in the mid-noughties.

Claire: Um, Will, when I went to school we didn’t have mobile phones so…. I write roughly for my 15 year old self and I try to scare her a lot. I never would have read something like this (The Sky So Heavy) when I was that age but that’s who I write for.

Amanda: I just write for myself. Every now and then I try to imagine it through teenage eyes and it freaks me out. It actually puts me off, it’s scary, so I just keep it for myself and later in the drafting/editing process I might think about them a little bit more. But when I’m creating I don’t like to have imaginary readers on my shoulders.

Julia: All of you are fairly new writers in that you have just published your first, second or third novel which means you have written an awful lot in the past. What is different about being published now? What’s it like going between your first and second novels? What’s that experience like because you are suddenly aware that you are doing it for people and that people are going to be reading it, reviewing it, and blogging about it?

Joe: It’s been great. It’s humbling. And it’s good to see your book in a bookshop. If anything, it puts a bit of pressure on you to keep it up. It’s still too new but it will be good to see how it goes in the long run. I’m still writing I guess so that’s good.

Claire: I feel the weight of expectation because my book has been embraced as dystopian and semi sci-fi, which well, it doesn’t have any robots so I don’t think it is sci-fi. But my second novel, which will be out in August, is very different and doesn’t have any of those elements in it. No robots. But it does have a joke about robots which is almost as good. But I don’t think I’ve had as much fun this time around which doesn’t sound very good but it is nice to write when there are no expectations. I just think, “I’ll write this down and if no one ever reads it…” You’ve got that freedom.

Julia: So you felt more pressure because you knew that you were going to be sending it to somebody?

Amanda: It doesn’t get easier, the actual physical process of writing a book. Every time I try to write something new I have to learn it all again. I’ve learnt nothing from the last process. I like to try something new. My next book is going to be set in the future in Tasmania because I want to swap very far away from what I have just written, so I have to learn the skills again. But in terms of writing, what it means and how I feel about myself as a writer and the process, it feels really good. It feels really good to say I have three. It feels really nice to see the results of my hard work but also… I forgot what I was going to say *laughs*

Will: Well the big difference for me in terms of attitude from approaching my first book and then my second is when I approached my first book, it was in the middle of all the Harry Potter frenzy. My book was going to be the first of seven that everyone would love and adore but then it came out the same day as Breaking Dawn so you know which one went on to be a really big seller! *laughs* But that wasn’t the only thing standing in my way of success. I like to think that it was *laughs* but… so for me I wasn’t particularly loved by my first publisher and I wasn’t that golden child and you know, you sit there and go, “right, do I pursue a job in an office,” a real job as my mum kept putting it, “or do I do this author thing and see how I go?” The big thing was I was pursuing that job in the office and it wasn’t until that moment when I had that group of girls talking about their grandparents (referring to an earlier story of how The First Third came to be) that I thought, “you know, I want another crack at this.” When I was writing my first book I thought that a career (in writing) was my birthright because I liked creative writing but my second book I realised, “no, it’s not my birthright stop being so arrogant. Sit there and ask yourself, if you had one book and one more story in you and one more story you had to tell someone, what would it be?” So it was more a complete perspective shift rather than a change in my process and that made me love it so much more and it made the bit that came after it so much more rewarding.

Amanda: I remembered what I was going to say! Confidence. It took me ages to write my first novel because I kept going, “I can’t write a novel who do I think I am, I’m going to stop and procrastinate.” But now I know I can do it, so that’s the thing that keeps me going. It’s still hard every time but it’s this trust in myself that this process can work and it’s worth it. So that really helps and that’s what you need as a first time novelist. Trust that there is something at the end of it.

Julia: Does having a legacy publisher (as opposed to self-publishing) make a difference?

Claire: I haven’t ever self-published because when I was starting out self-publishing still had that air of ‘that’s what you do if you can’t a publishing deal’. And that’s really shifted in the last five years perhaps. Now it’s no biggie, you just do it. But for me, I’m the kind of writer who gets to a certain point with my work where I can’t see it any more. You’ve worked on it so much that it no longer means anything and at that point I really need someone else to step in and read it and that’s when publishers are brilliant because you have two, sometimes three, people who will do that. They believe in you and they love your work and they want it to be the best it can be, as you do. And that’s brilliant. I like having a team.

Joe: I’ve done both. My last one I self-published entirely. I have four on the go at the moment, out and about. The first two were through an imprint, not quite self-publishing, not quite traditional publishing, something in-between. That imprint doesn’t exist any more so that tells you all you need to know about imprints. So yeah, the last one I did was entirely self-published. The distribution is a lot more online than through bookshops. At this point your book probably won’t be in a bookshop if you self-publish. But it’s not one or the other any more. You can choose, they call it a hybrid author, you’re in-between and if you do it properly, you can produce a book just as good, if not better, than what a traditional house can put out. It’s an entirely different market now, no one really knows where it's heading but it’s like with movies and music. There have been indies in that for as long as there have been movies and music and I think the self-publishing movement is getting that. It will be interesting to see where it goes in the next few years.

Julia: Joe, because your work is speculative fiction, or whatever label you want to put on it, does that mean there is probably more a ready-made online audience do you think?

Joe: Yeah, you have to find your niche. You have to find a market that you like to write in. Without sounding too arrogant, it’s selling really well, the self-published one. It’s targeted severely towards that particular urban fantasy market. If you pick a niche, something you want to write in, then self-publishing is a viable option.

Amanda: I don’t have the head for that kind of stuff. Sales, and oh my publicist will kill me, but I’m not interested in sales at all. I love writing and I love the process of working with an editor and a publishing house so I am so old school with this. I love sharing that and I wouldn’t trust myself. I don’t have those skills and those business skills to market myself. That’s not where my heart is so I would never consider it. I love being a part of the team, the publishing house team, so I am very lucky with that. But I understand that other people do have much better skills in those areas than I do so I’ll play it safe with the legacy. Is that what they are calling it now?

Julia: That’s what somebody called it the other night….

Claire: That’s what we are going to call it now. Hashtag, people, hashtag *laughs*

Will: I don’t think I am quite equipped to be the person who is out there selling my book to people because I have quite a naturally smug face. If you ever do a google image search of me there is always the eyebrow up that’s like, “hi, I’m an author, I think that makes me cool” *laughs from all* and so I can’t imagine being the person running around saying, “love this book, it’s great.” So the great thing about a publisher is, you know, not everyone inside that publishing house is going to like your book and that’s awesome. I love the people inside the publisher that hate the book and then you get some feedback and you grow from it. But there are those one or two really passionate people there that go out and really push you and they prop you up and at the same time, they go out to the stores and go to the audiences and say, “hey you should read this” and that way I can just be quietly smug in the background.

Amanda: It’s good to have other people barracking for you though. Well not for you, it’s all about the book. They say, “this book is amazing,” because if it was me, and I don’t know if other writers feel this way, but I’m full of self-doubt all the time. But these people are really behind me and I am so grateful for that so it’s nice to have someone out in front of me selling the book.

Claire: Yeah, my next one’s been in my draw for about six or seven years and if it was just up to me, it would never see the light of day. But there are people close to me, and my editors, that are just like, “no we love it.” If it was just up to me, it would stay in the draw.

The questions were then opened up to the audience.

Audience Question: With regards to the content of your books, Will said that he is sort of influenced by teenagers. But, with your imagination, do you realise that you influence those teenagers and how far does your imagination go when you think about these books? Is there a limit, like you can’t cross over that line because it’s a bit too risqué or something?

Will: The big thing with me was that I started writing Loathing Lola when I was in year seven and there was one scene that I actually saved and put in the final book that I wrote when I was in year seven. The thing is, I would never have published that scene that I wrote in year seven because I thought it was too vulgar and I actually changed a lot and I actually toned it down. But the funny thing was that it was actually written by a nerd in year seven. So, you are mindful of what you can and can’t say but really, this time around when I was editing, there are a few risqué parts in the new book but the thing was I had a publisher that sat down and said, “ok, this concerns us a little bit but tell me, justify why this is in the story.” And if I could justify why thematically that had to be there then there was no problem. Really, there is no line you can’t cross so long as it is there and thematically works. If it’s just risky for riskys sake then the publisher will go, “no be smarter”.

Audience Member: As parents, we worry about what might be in a book and I have two daughters who are prolific readers but are still quite young…

Will: The great thing is, talk to your booksellers. Booksellers are really great at knowing which books are great for different audiences. So for me, even though I do say there are risqué parts in this new book, you know I’d be more worried about someone who’s younger not actually liking it. So I think ask your bookseller and they’ll tell you, “no, wait a bit, they will enjoy this book when they are fifteen rather than thirteen” and if you tell them what kind of books your daughters like then they will be able to guide you if your daughters are advanced readers.

Claire: I think for me as well, I was kind of like that. I think I read Looking for Alibrandi when I was eleven and a lot of it was like “woosh” (mimes going over her head) and now I’m a parent as well so I do have this sense of being on both sides of the ‘page’. But the thing with teenagers, and from what I remember from being a teen myself, which I remember all too vividly, is that they have a really strong detector for when you are talking down to them. If you are at all patronising or if you are glossing over anything, they pick up on it straight away and you’ve lost them. That’s what I was like as a reader. If I felt like I was being talked down to or protected from something, I would shut off. But it is a fine line and it is tricky as an author. 

Will Kostakis
Audience Question: AJ, your book has been compared a lot to The Fault in Our Stars because they are both about teenagers with cancer and so I’m wondering what it is like? The Fault in Our Stars is obviously a really famous book at the moment and the movie’s going to come out soon so what is it like to be compared to a famous author? What are the pros and cons? Do you think the pros outweigh the cons?

Amanda: Oh it’s unfortunate for me, I think. I’d been working on Zac and Mia for many years and I was giving it to an author friend of mine to just read part one and get her opinion and she emailed me and said “do you realise there is this new book out called…” and I was like “THE WHAT?! THE WHAT?!” It freaked me out and it took me about a month or so to even get my hands on the book and read it, but within ten pages I realised it was fine because our books were different. And by the time I got to the end of his book, I went, “oh gosh, they’ve got nothing in common except unfortunately that tag for ‘teenagers with cancer’. It is often people who haven’t read my book who go, “oh, you’re writing the same” and yet I’m not writing the same. And people who have read both go, “yeah, they are actually completely different”. So I don’t think my style is compared to his because we’re not the same. I don’t know if it’s a bonus or a drawback that my book came out just after his. I’m upset about John Green and when I meet him I shall tell him so. *laughs* But the thing is, you never know. This book I am working on now, I had the idea nine years ago but by the time it comes out, who knows? Maybe six months before it comes out John Green will come out with a speculative fiction set in Tasmania. So I’ll be, “damn you, my nemesis!” It’s just how it happens. There is no original story except that you’re writing it in your own way and I’m hoping that people aren’t put off by the fact John Green wrote The Fault in Our Stars and they see my book as its own entity.

Claire: The thing that kind of erks me about that kind of thing is I’ve kind of copped the 'John Marsden' tag, which is not a bad tag to have let me say! So Much To Tell You is pretty much why I became a writer, but I haven’t read The Tomorrow Series. *laughs from audience* It’s funny, I don’t think if you’re talking about literary fiction and you’re writing about war, somebody doesn’t stick a hand up a say “oh we’ve already got a book about war”. There are lots of people, unfortunately I think it is one in three people, who have their lives affected by cancer. That’s a lot of stories to tell and as far as teenagers fighting a war, mine aren’t fighting, really, they’re just running, scared.

Will: The weird thing is, I have experience from the other side of the coin. So I’ve met the next Will Kostakis. Will Kostakis isn’t even a thing yet, why would you want to be me!? At the end of the day, it’s really a marketing shorthand and if you could judge a book by its blurb, which is really what’s going on there, or a particular style, it seems now days if you write realistic fiction you are the next John Green. Well no, I’m writing a realistic story. When did it become that he owns realistic stories? So you know, it is just a marketing shorthand but if it gets more people to discover more work then you know... If the next generation want to call themselves the next Will Kostakis, then go for it.

Amanda: The thing is, there were books about teenagers with cancer long before John Green but no one thinks about that. It’s just because John Green is John Green and I honestly thought when Meg told me that, that no publisher would ever want to touch this thing (Zac and Mia). But I went, “you know, stuff it” and entered it in the Text Prize and when they were judging it they went, “you know, we love this book but we’re conscious of what is already out there”. But they took that risk and thought it would be judged in its own right. And I am so glad that they did. It is going to happen again, I am sure of it.

Audience Question: When you write, do you think about what you want to say? Do you start out wanting to say something in particular?

Joe: Well I stole the idea for my last novel from a Nicholas Cage film, so no. *laughs* But to expand a bit, with The Rig, the general idea is kind of a blow to the privatisation of government services, in particular prisons and hospitals. Without making that the entire theme of the novel, it does make a good argument against that so I was thinking about that when I wrote it.

Claire: I wanted to engage in the asylum seeker debate but I also wanted to touch on the tension of not actually being able to help everybody, but at the same time, where does compassion come in and that kind of thing. That’s what I wanted to explore. I don’t think, I hope, I haven’t preached a message. I might have, but I don’t know.

Will: I just really wanted to catch what my life was like at that particular moment and from that obviously themes and messages rose out of it. But at the end of the day, I wanted to tell a story first and foremost and whatever else happened, happened, hopefully organically. There were some bits where I used some character arcs to show different things but at the end of the day it really is about the emotional story you want to tell because, you know, those are the stories that will last forever.

Amanda: I’m the same. Like Will, I never set out with an idea, with something I want to communicate. I wouldn’t finish it. I’m intrigued by an idea and I’m interested in story and it’s probably about two-thirds of the way through the book that I start getting this sense of the heart of it. And then throughout the editing I’ll come back and make sure its cohesive but yeah, it kind of emerges through my subconscious.

Audience Question: Are there any works of fiction that inspired your books or particular characters or settings?

Joe: Anything by Nicolas Cage. *laughs* No, Stephen King was my biggest influence. He always creeps into my work these days.

Will: My big influence is Terry Pratchett. Even though he writes fantasy, that man can do wonderful things with innuendoes. *laughs* If I’m half the writer he is by his age then I’ll consider myself very lucky.

Amanda: Probably not a writer for me but individual books, especially the ones I was reading as a teenager because I would read them over and over again. So Robin Klein or even back to Roald Dahl. And Douglas Adams. I love Douglas Adams. The crazy humour. Everything I read becomes a part of me, I don’t have a real hero.

Claire: I think for me Robin Klein was huge and I would read her books over and over again, particularly Came Back To Show You I Could Fly which is about a girl with a drug addiction which I had no idea that was what it was about because I was about ten . But she was huge and Marsden’s So Much to Tell You and Letters from the Inside. And Douglas Adams. There’s even robots in that *laughs*

Thank you to all the authors for speaking at the Perth Writers Festival. I look forward to seeing you and reading your books in the future.


  1. Lovely post/wrap-up! It was fun (bar the poop) being there to listen to these authors talk YA :)

  2. Thanks heaps for that. I rarely manage to get to a festival (always wishing) and probably never will get to one in Perth, so it was wonderful to "sit in" via your transcribe

  3. Some of those book covers look as if they've been taken from rock concert posters dug out of storage! Talk about retro!


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