Date Archives April 2013

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 …

Do you remember the first time? Part 2: readings + The Voice

You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.
You can pre-order my book, just_a_girl. Just click on the pic.

I’m one of those people who would rather die than get up and say a few words. I think this is in part genetic (my grandmother on my mum’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side were both content to sit in corners and observe at social situations, and confessed their fears to me of standing up to speak) but also influenced by my experiences in primary school.

I don’t remember being self-conscious until about Grade 4. I feel like I can pinpoint the moment it began. When — as my character Layla takes up the narrative in my book — I had a teacher who decided to conduct a class experiment. Mr S told me to go outside and pick up rubbish. A strange request but I was a dutiful student (pretty much). When I returned I went to my desk as usual. Later in the day he smashed his ruler down in front of me and got me to stand up in front of the class while he accused me of hitting and hurting a small boy. This was so against my nature that I threw it off for a while, but then he got a student to go and get the little boy in question, and he lied convincingly. I felt stranded and confused. Did I actually do it? Without realising? When I sat down, my teacher revealed it was an experiment. To see how boldly I stuck to the truth. To see if I changed my story. The class all had to write about me (and the scenario). I felt completely exposed.

And recently I realised: when I stand up in front of an audience now, I feel like I’ve done something wrong — even though I haven’t. It’s a hard thing to shake off. Of course, a therapist may say I’d feel this sense of dread anyway (many writers do). So, when I finished the book, I realised I had to confront it. The public/private persona. The exposure to strangers. Writers are expected to speak and be comfortable speaking (even when this is a completely different skill to writing). I heard a saying recently, ‘hiding in plain sight’, and I relate to this well. Every day I confront it. The need to compose myself.

Harrison Craig on The Voice
Harrison Craig on The Voice

I’ve been hooked on The Voice lately. This show is my guilty pleasure. I watch all the auditions. I watch them again on the net. It’s the only TV show I get really addicted to. I love singing, and distinctive voices. But when I’m watching it’s as if I’m searching for something. For clues. And I realise I’m fascinated by that moment of connection. When the singer touches the audience (or judges). It’s about letting yourself be vulnerable. Being unique. Allowing emotion to move through your body. It is a mystery to me.

Now, singing and dancing are different from speaking. I could get up on a stage and sing and dance in musicals at school. The Wizard of Oz. Godspell. Musicals meant you could hang out with older boys (I went to a girls’ school) who played guitar. There was a freedom there. But I never auditioned for a play. I guess, people who stutter would understand this. It seems a different part of the brain handles song, as opposed to speech. When I get nervous, I go mute. Not just my voice, but my brain! I can’t access what I need when asked a question in front of people. Many times at school and university I had to leave the room. For fear of not being able to find the right words.

But recently it all came to a head. I was asked to do my first reading of the book (a preview) at the Castlemaine Word Mine with Simmone Howell and Ellie Marney. I knew that this was make or break time. That from this point on, leading up to and beyond the launch, it was only going to get harder. Or easier. Depending on how the night went. And you know what? I drove home pumping my fist at the moon and screaming ‘Fuck, yeah!’ because I got to the other side. Where it actually felt good. And here’s what I learnt.

Join a writers’ group 

Even though I’ve written my first novel, I’ve never had any group feedback. I chose a research masters to avoid classes (of course). One on one feedback I can handle. But in Castlemaine I stumbled upon the most wonderful group. All experienced writers. All willing to be both gentle and pernickety. I started to tentatively read aloud. I couldn’t look up from my page. But I started to hear my own voice.

Say yes first and panic later

Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine
Q&A with Kirsten Krauth, Ellie Marney, Simmone Howell, Castlemaine Word Mine

Make a commitment to doing the talk. All writers deep down really want to share their work. While I didn’t write my book for an audience, it has ideas I want to share. Find out as much detail as you can about the event. How long will you read? Are you on with a panel? Who’s on first? Is there a Q+A? Can you get an idea of the questions?

Practise for a week

Choose an excerpt from your book that you really love, and that has strong narrative drive. As a fellow writer told me, don’t go for beautiful words. They may look good on paper (and the reader will appreciate this) but they inspire daydreaming. Take your audience on a trip; include them in the journey. Read your excerpt out loud, once a day, for a week leading up. Learn the words that you stumble on and change or eliminate them. Write down where to pause. Write down where to smile. Reminders are great. Most importantly, write yourself an intro, even if you have to write ‘Hello! I’m Kirsten Krauth’! For me, the stumble is that initial opening. Once my voice actually comes out, I’m getting there…

Good old NLP + love your toes

Neuro-linguistic programming seems odd. Replacing words and concepts with others. Too good to be true? But every time you say ‘nervous’ to yourself or friends and family, replace it with ‘excited’. I did this and it worked. Couldn’t believe it. By the time I got to the reading I was pretty fucking excited. But actually, something weird happened and the nerves seemed to evaporate as the (very long) day wore on.

Moments before I stood up to read, I concentrated on my feet. They were dug into the ground. I scrunched my toes up (another tip from a friend) and thought only of them. When the time came my feet were happy to move me from A to B.

The art of performance: become your character

When I hit the stage, my only goals for the night (other than turning up) were to slow down and look up from the page once. But as I started to read the practice paid off. The words and timing seemed effortless and as I was reading in first-person, I started to play with the voice of 14-year-old Layla. I started to embody her, and she started to embody me. It turned into a performance rather than a reading. As we moved together, I actually started to enjoy it. Character acting. That’s what it was about.

Invite your friends and family

I’ve had lots of conversations about this one. Most writers agree that it’s easier to speak to a room full of strangers; and to read from a script. But as my eyes furtively darted from the page, I began to see people I know. People I like. People who had given up precious time to turn up on a cold night and listen. I saw they were smiling. They were keen. They were encouraging me to keep going. And this was an amazing help.

I wasn’t in a classroom being humiliated or attacked. Things had moved on.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? ARE YOU A NERVOUS (READ EXCITED) OR COURAGEOUS PUBLIC SPEAKER? ANY TIPS OR ADVICE? HAVE YOU EVER BEEN BLOWN AWAY BY SEEING A WRITER SPEAK? HAVE YOU EVER WISHED YOU COULD SINK INTO THE FLOOR?


PS And … the exciting news is that you can now pre-order  just_a_girl online (it comes out 1 June). I’m really excited about the cover. Although I originally didn’t want a girl on the cover, I was talked around. It’s dark and techie and murky — not girlie — and represents the book well, I think. If you can’t afford to buy a copy, and let’s face it, many people can’t, it would be great if you could request it at your local library. That way, they can order it in:-) Or, if you want to get a review copy for your journal or blog, let me know! It’s also available as an ebook.