Posts tagged debut novels

Here and Now: Felicity Castagna and me – Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna + Irina Dunn, Varuna/Sydney Writers' Festival. Photo:
Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna + Irina Dunn, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival. Photo: Bette Mifsud.

When you go up on a stage to talk about your book, the harsh spotlight and the mics and the intense concentration and the nerves means the event can fly past you even as you’re experiencing it. Something like smoking too much pot.

I was going to dredge up my disconnected and whimsical memories but — thank God — I discovered Lisa Fleetwood’s Welcome to My Library blog, which covers it so much more eloquently than I could. She’s kindly agreed to do the work for me, and let me reproduce it here…

HERE AND NOW: DEBUT FICTION AT THE VARUNA/SYDNEY WRITERS’ FESTIVAL: FELICITY CASTAGNA AND KIRSTEN KRAUTH

BY LISA FLEETWOOD

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Wow, what a great start to the Sydney Writers’ Festival! I love the day up at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba — its such a great setting for a writers’ fest! For this blog post I will just concentrate on the first session as it featured two amazing Australian women writers. I took so many notes, it’s too much for even one blog post.

Two debut writers (but both are by no means new to the world of writing and editing) Kirsten Krauth and Felicity Castagna featured in conversation with Irina Dunn. Both authors have written fiction centred around the suburbs of Western Sydney [Felicity’s is YA; Kirsten’s was published as adult but crosses over into YA], and have explored the lives of teenage protagonists that are forced into maturity early. The discussion was informative and interesting (as a writer and a reader), and chaired brilliantly by Irina.

just_a_girlKirsten Krauth’s novel just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Layla is isolated and searching for a sense of connection, faith, friendship and healing. The author explores the teenage world of what it’s like to grow up negotiating the digital world of Facebook, webcams, internet porn, mobile phones and cyber-bullying — a world where the line between public and private is increasingly being eroded.

Felicity CastagnaFelicity Castagna’s novel (which has been short-listed for a NSW Premiers Literary Award & the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year: Older Readers) tells the story of Michael, whose older brother dies at the beginning of the summer he turns 15, but as its title suggests, The Incredible Here and Now is a tale of wonder, not of tragedy. It tells of Michael’s coming of age in a year which brings him grief and romance; and of the place he lives in Western Sydney and its mix of cultures. Through his perceptions, the reader becomes familiar with Michael’s community and its surroundings, the unsettled life of his family, the girl he meets at the local pool, the friends that gather in the McDonald’s parking lot at night, the white Pontiac Trans Am that lights up his life like a magical talisman.


 Irina began the discussion about the environment of the novels. How did the authors create the sense of place?

→For Felicity, Parramatta was a place she knew well, had walked and worked and lived in, and was fascinated by the mix of cultures and the small spaces where people gather — the Macca’s carpark, the Westfield food court, the local shops and the intricacies that make up a bustling city and how a teenager might inhabit that space.

→For Kirsten, her former commute from Springwood to Sydney was a plethora of research fodder for a self-proclaimed semi-stalker of people. She found that a train is a place somewhere in between public and private, a place where not all, but many people, reveal private information in a very public place, especially teenage girls. From the discussion today, I sense that the environment inside and outside the train (regular or irregular passengers, gigantic moths, the beautiful landscape passing by) will feature, but upon reading the book I am sure a further sense of Layla’s space, her inner thoughts and her online world will be revealed.

Both authors talked of wanting to elaborate more with the setting and place.

→Felicity is particularly interested in place-driven novels, but both commented on the need to strip back the description to write a character study rather than setting.

→Kirsten realised that her characters wouldn’t notice the environment as much as she would. Kirsten’s comment struck a chord with me — why hadn’t I thought about that before? I have sometimes used description in my novel as merely a need to get something across to the reader, but would a teenage boy (my protagonist) notice the lines of a building, what it was made of, or the sunlight sparkling on the cascade of a waterfall? Maybe not. Time for yet another edit maybe.

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Kirsten Krauth, Felicity Castagna and Irina Dunn, Here and Now session, The Carrington, Katoomba, Varuna/Sydney Writers’ Festival

The discussion moved on to how the authors captured the teenage voice. How did they do it so well?

→Felicity, as a former teacher in a boys’ high school, had seven years’ experience observing teenage boys and how they speak and react, but within that she wanted to create a poetic, lyrical voice with a teenage usage of similes and metaphors.

→Kirsten was fascinated with what she would sometimes hear on the train, the ease at which teenage girls would freely talk about their escapades (sometimes sexual) in a public space, but she was also interested in the private/public space of the internet and how much could be gleaned about people without their knowledge.

When researching her book (which actually began as a character study), Krauth found that talking to teenage girls didn’t reveal to her the information she was looking for, but all she had to do was sit back and listen — on the train, but also online. Her book also explored the digital medium of lonely people who can’t connect in everyday life but connect online privately on a public medium, or so they think. Krauth found that it didn’t take much to find out where someone lived, what they liked and who their friends were. She found it easy to get inside the minds of teenage girls, so how easy would it be for a sexual predator? Something to think about for me with a teenage daughter. We have had a ‘internet is turned off when Mum goes to bed’ rule for a long time. This rule won’t be changing anytime soon!

What were their influences for these novels?

→Felicity’s childhood YA reading (while living abroad) introduced her to a form of writing called ‘vignettes’ and she used this style to write her novel. A vignette is a short impressionistic scene that focuses on one moment or gives a trenchant impression about a character, idea, setting, or object, or in Felicity’s words — a series of ‘short short stories’. She then puts her stories into linear fashion and fills in the gaps.

→Kirsten’s quotes Room by Emma Donoghue, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer as influences for their clarity and fresh voice, as well as the naive voice (of a child) and a terrible sense of dread.

Plotter or Pantser?

Definition: Plotter –  Outlines novel before sitting down to write it. Pantser – Sits down at the computer each day, waiting to be surprised, writing your book literally by the seat of your pants.

→Kirsten — definitely a Pantser. She wrote the first draft without planning or plotting and without re-reads or editing. As soon as she mentioned doing her Masters with Sue Woolfe, I knew what she meant! (I will do a blog post about Sue Woolfe soon). I did a fascinating day course with her last year. Her view is that over-planning and plotting limits the imagination, reins it in. Where would our imaginative brains have taken us if we weren’t corralled by a firm plot? Kirsten talked of writing scenes in fragments and moving the scenes around to where they fit best. What voice appears in the story after first draft? What emerges as the heart of the story, the main theme?

→Felicity wasn’t quite as definite. I recall her nodding to the question of being a Pantser. Perhaps she may have been combination of the two, but her form of writing — the Vignettes — leans towards a Panster. These vignettes may have been her first ‘pantser’ draft, then upon second draft spent some time plotting and, as she said, ‘fills in the gaps’. If she reads this post, perhaps she can confirm! It was hard for both authors to answer all of the questions fully with the limited time of the session, or maybe I simply missed her response while scribbling notes.

In closing

There was further discussion regarding multiculturalism and how children perceive it, internet research and the dangers of connecting online, the world of self-marketing as an author, and comparisons between growing up in the 80s compared to teenagers in the digital age. A question from the audience touched on the perception of adults about teenagers, and the discussion led to the intelligence and sensitivity of children and teenagers, and how there is a big gap between their inner thoughts and feelings, and how they present themselves to the world, which could lead to an incorrect perception by adults.

Both authors read short excerpts from their books which gave me a real sense of the characters and the place setting. I am really looking forward to reading and reviewing them.

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To read more about Kirsten Krauth click here for her website and Wild Colonial Girl Blog.

To read more about Felicity Castgana click here for her personal website go tohttp://www.incrediblestories.net.au for a teaching guide for her book.

Book images and synopsis from Goodreads.

Read my related articles about Notable Australian Children’s Fiction and the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

Meet the locals: author Jon Bauer

Author Jon Bauer, Rocks in the Belly
Author Jon Bauer

I remember first encountering Jon Bauer in a session, with Fiona McGregor, at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on writing about mothers. As you know, this is a topic that continues to engage me (on many levels) and I was intrigued because it was unusual to have a male panellist (a refreshing change, actually), and he spoke eloquently about writing female characters.

After his debut novel, Rocks in the Belly, was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2012) and won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction (2011) it became one of the first books I downloaded onto my Kindle. A mistake, I now realise, because I want to share the damn thing with everyone!

It’s a stark and brooding novel with a mesmerising and seductive mix of young boy and adult male voices. Reading through responses on Goodreads, it’s one of those love/hate books, the kind I think I want to write. I mean, really, does anyone just want an indifferent response? If you’re willing to trust the author to take you on a dark journey, this one is beautifully structured and carefully constructed. As Jon intended, it embraces and then repels you.

Jon has written a couple of great articles for Newswrite magazine — on the author Ray Bradbury (who recently passed away); and on the art of researching the second novel — and shortly after moving here, I heard he was also heading to town, to a little village called Chewton just out of Castlemaine. I spoke to him about the move (he started off in the UK) and how he goes about writing such memorable fiction.

You’re originally from the UK and have recently moved to Chewton. What attracted you to the area?

I think living in rural England. Australia is home now (Melbourne for the last 11 years) but I was always going to need some nature and space around me. Castlemaine isn’t far from Melbourne, but far enough that it has its own vibrant community. A garden and veggies and animal life, and a full view of sky makes me happy in a way that lattes and hipsters don’t.
Do you find living here has helped your writing?
Nope. Yes. Sort of. I’m busier here, where I thought I’d be ensconced in privacy. But knowing I can retreat whenever I want gives me a lot of comfort. I’m writing a lot right now though because I’m coming to the end of my second novel and can’t keep my hands off it.
Jon Bauer, Rocks in the BellyHow did you come up with the idea for ‘Rocks in the Belly’? Was it shaped by your own family at all?
Rocks is based on a picture I saw on a mantelpiece years ago. The image was of a young foster child with an intellectual disability. She had died, and the family who took her in really missed her.
I kept that image in my mind for years and it bubbled up again one morning while I was lying in bed looking up at clouds. In terms of the shape of my own family, I suppose Rocks has an emotional authenticity, in that I was completely befuddled by the family I found myself in, and very aware that I was bottom of their list of priorities. Do you hear violins? But otherwise, it is that fictional weave of authenticity and invention.
There are many confronting moments in the book where the reader wants to look away, step back. How did it feel going to those dark places, entering into moments of violence, brutality, cruelty, misogyny (and pain)?
At times my hands were shaking as I typed. But I felt purged afterwards. I think, early on, I wanted to punish the reader. The book softened a great deal though as I redrafted it. People are so multi-faceted, and all too often characters are polarised in films and in literature. It’s important to me to write the essence into my characters that we are all capable of almost everything. How else would murder, war, rape and brutality transcend time, geography, and culture?
As for misogyny, that was something I watched extremely closely in the book. It is important for me to go to the places in society that are unacceptable. I am writing about child abuse now, among other themes. What mattered to me with Rocks, is that it was not a misogynistic novel. Which I steadfastly believe it is not. Chauvinist characters, evil characters, racist characters, they’re all okay in my book, and can sometimes do more to highlight injustice and bigotry than writing an idealised character. But there are writers who write chauvinistic books, and racist books, and don’t even realise they’re doing it.
You mentioned that when you were writing the novel, you did an acting course where you were encouraged to improvise. How did finding your voice and experimenting with it here affect the way you were developing characters?
That is a big part of why the protagonist is less likeable than he might be. That acting course (Meisner) was a permissive space where I could explore my darker side. There was a moment in the writing where the protagonist did something small, like drop a piece of litter. But feeling anxious of keeping the reader sweet, I sent him back to pick it up. Then I thought, bugger it, drop the litter. It sounds small, and the moment isn’t even in the book anymore, but it was a turning point.
I wrote Rocks to walk a tricky line between compelling and repelling the reader. It’s a heady mix, kind of like doing the splits. I won’t have got the balance right for all readers.
‘Rocks in the Belly’ mixes the voices of a young boy and his adult self beautifully. How did you conjure up these two versions? Who emerged first?
Rocks is based on a short story I wrote, so the adult came first, but at times in the story, you can hear his voice lapse into younger language as he recounts the past. When I was coming to write the novel, I knew I had to try the younger voice. I wasn’t confident I could do it, but once I started it poured out. Kids are easy to write, I think. Just bring out your most narcissistic and associative side.
The book is essentially about vulnerability masked as something else — all the characters (and all of us) share these traits to some degree. Do you find as a writer you are stripping off the mask in some way?
Fiction is a safe place, so there’s no unmasking. But I am shining a light on the fact we’re multi-faceted, as I said. And that ultimately, most violence and anger comes from pain and woundedness. Also that childhood is brutal, no matter how happy you think yours was.
People don’t like you to talk negatively about the halcyon world of childhood, but it’s important to normalise the ambiguity and complexity of all spaces: religion, parenting, family, marriage, love, childhood, sex … We like to simplify things, and usually for the better. But they aren’t simple. Ambiguity is a larger place, and allows a lot more freedom in life, and in story.
You’re currently immersed in your new novel. What’s the process? Do you research extensively? Or do you hit the ground running once you’ve found a character?
Both. This novel took a long time to find the story. I knew I wanted to write about a man. Then he became a man going blind. That led to a period of research, which was long and interesting, and confronting, but ultimately inspiring. Then just writing the words. Lots of them. It ended up being 160,000. I’m now stripping it back and shaping and grooming it. Down to 116,000, but I want it lower, if it’ll let me.
Are you a writer who likes to stick to a routine, who finds comfort there, or do you embrace spontaneity?
Routine shmootine.
We’ve talked in the past about the importance of play. Is this something you incorporate into your writing process?
Creativity IS play. Certainly initially. If you aren’t largely enjoying it, you’re doing something wrong.
You seem to be always drawn to the psychology of young boys? What is your interest in psychology and this particular age group?
The more I write the more I see themes. The key ones, I think, are that I write children (of both genders) as brutalised heroes. I tend to write the elderly as vulnerable, and the adults as flawed and negligent. That seems to be the over-simplified gist. And children make great narrators, and compelling protagonists. Who can’t cheer on a child character?!
In a ‘Newswrite’ article (‘Writer on Writer’) you wrote of how you were inspired by Ray Bradbury. What other writers do you go to for inspiration?
Susan Sontag described writing best when she said that, ‘It feels like leading and following at the same time.’ I try to live life like that too. Otherwise, I’m a buffet reader — dipping in and out of many writers. Mostly, I read non-fiction: psychology and ontology. I think I’ll be a therapist one day, and am hellbent on gathering more and more information on that unassailable thing — life. Fiction is a good place to do that, both writing it and reading, but I devour books on how to live betterer.
HAVE YOU READ ROCKS IN THE BELLY? OR ANY OTHER FICTION THAT IS BOTH REPELLING AND COMPELLING? WOULD LOVE TO HEAR YOUR THOUGHTS.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like to meet another local writer: Adam Ford. As Castlemaine has such a vibrant artistic community I’ll be doing more of these interviews in the coming year.