AWM recently sat down with Australian YA author Karen Foxlee to discuss writing with children, getting into the YA mindset, and winning the QPLAs.
What made you want to write YA novels? Was it your daughter, Alice? And if so, how has she influenced your writing? Does she understand how important writing is to you and how prominent you have become as an Australian YA author?
I fell in love with writing stories when I was in grade two. My whole life I’ve written or tried to write, tried to understand how to tell a story, or struggled to get stories I had inside me out. I never set out to write YA novels or novels for children. They were just the stories that seemed to be inside me. Alice was born just as I started to write my second novel The Midnight Dress. How has she influenced my writing? I guess she has influenced my stories through the fact that she has profoundly changed my life and who I am. She has grown up beside me through four books; The Midnight Dress, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, and A Most Magical Girl and a manuscript that I’ve nearly completed. I write in bed in the mornings and I can remember her at all stages of her life lying beside me in the early hours. Often she’ll sleep or play quietly but I can recall her, as a three year old, shouting with joy, “Mum you typed an A. Oh, look you’ve typed another A!” I taught her from early on that writing time was extremely important to me and to us. Sometimes she climbs in beside me now and starts to write her own stories.
Issues like bullying, depression, and self-esteem are not commonly approached in children’s books, though a few YA novels do cover them, yet they are serious issues that children deal with. How important do you think it is for children and young adults to read books that cover serious issues such as these?
I think it is really important that children and young adults can connect and see themselves, and the issues they are dealing with, in the stories they read. It’s a really powerful experience to identify with a character and their experiences at any age of your reading life. I never approach a book in terms of the themes I want to deal with though. My starting point is always an idea for a character and then trying to bring that character to life. The themes always seem to bubble up somehow during the course of the writing.
What advice could you give to writers wanting to writer children’s and YA novels, but don’t have any experience or interactions with children? Is it important to get into their mindset before writing a YA novel?
I’m not sure you need kids or lots of interactions with them to write for them. Everyone was a child once. Everyone was a teenager once. In The Anatomy of Wings, the narrator is ten-year old Jennifer Day who is obsessed with bird facts. I didn’t go and hang out with ten year olds. I just tried to remember what it felt like to be ten; the things I worried about (did underpants go over stockings or under stockings?), the things I aspired to (first child in outer space), the things I loved (Star Wars, our Merit Student Encyclopedia set, riding my bike with no hands down Gallipoli Park). In The Midnight Dress I drew heavily on my own experiences in writing the character Rose: notions of beauty and ugliness, the constant worry over such things, how I felt about my body, how I felt about words and writing as a teenager. My advice to novice writers would be spend heaps of time writing freely, thinking, and remembering. Don’t worry about your audience at all, at least not in the beginning, write for yourself.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy and The Anatomy of Wings both deal with the subject of grief. How were you able to approach and write this subject in a way that children and young adults could access it and understand it?
With The Anatomy of Wings it took me a long while to work out how to tell that story (and even know what the story was!) It ended up dealing with some really big issues like teenage sexuality, mental health, isolation, substance abuse, as well as grief. The answer to how to tell that story in a way that was accessible (for anyone!) was when I found the voice of Jenny, a brave, smart ten-year old. Telling that story with her voice and through the lens of her character brought joy and innocence and wonder to that story I believe. In Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, the tale of Ophelia’s mother’s death is the framework in which all the other parts of the story sit. That certainly wasn’t the way it started out but only became apparent as I wrote and rewrote. When I realised I was writing about grief again I really wanted to focus on the power of love, of friendship, of feeling terrible but never giving up, of putting one step in front of another. I think it is through the lovely way that story is structured (stories within stories) and the use of metaphor (of the boy’s journey, the snow queen etc.) that the subject matter of grief is made accessible to children. Or at least I hope so.
Your manuscript, The Anatomy of Wings, won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for an Emerging Queensland Author in 2006. Was that the first place you had sent that particular manuscript? Have you ever had a series of rejections when sending out your work that you’ve just thought, ‘maybe writing just isn’t for me’? If so, what advice can you give to emerging writers who get a lot of rejections and have a lot of setbacks?
The QPLAs was the first place I sent the manuscript. I heard about the awards through my mentor at university, Steven Lang (a wonderful Queensland writer). I wondered if it would be a good place to start and figured someone would at least read the first chapter! I can’t say I had a plan B. I was astonished that I won! I have had one pretty big rejection for The Midnight Dress when was in early draft stage. I’d been writing it for nearly the first year of Alice’s life and I can remember how devastated I was when I took the call that it was no good. I remember I went to the supermarket and had a panic attack in the queue. I thought, “Oh, god, I can’t breathe, I’m a failure and I’ve spent so much time worrying about this story when I should have just been being a mother.” But everything that was said to me in that phone call was absolutely true. After a couple weeks of despair I took what was said and instead of giving up decided I was going to fix it. I knew there was something really wonderful at the heart of that novel and I was going to find it. It took another two and half years, but I did. I’m stubborn like that. So my advice: it isn’t really about loving writing or what you think being a writer is about or giving up on writing – it is about loving and believing in a story. If you love a story don’t give up on it.
You can read more about Karen Foxlee here.
TJ Wilkshire is a twenty-something Brisbane based artist and writer. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and English Literature and is currently studying the WEP Masters at the University of Queensland. Her work focuses on birds and she hopes to one-day turn into one. Wilkshire’s poetry has been published in Peril and Uneven Floor, and won the NotJack Competition.