Q&A for Readers, Teachers, Writers

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Jodi McAlister

  • · 7 months ago
#LoveOzYA Q&A with Jodi McAlister

Let’s go back to the beginning…have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?

Writing a book was the first thing I ever knew I wanted to do. As soon as I learned to read, I knew I wanted to write.

I attempted my first book when I was six. I read a lot of Enid Blyton, and it was a complete knock-off of her mysteries – it involved me, my younger siblings Hayley and Sam, and our neighbours Lynda and Peter teaming to be detectives and solve mysteries around our neighbourhood. I intended it to be an epic series in the manner of the Famous Five, but tragically I never got beyond that first instalment: The Mystery of the Advent Calendar, where a naughty magpie was responsible for stealing a new piece of the calendar each day.

The next serious attempt at writing a book came when I was eleven. Someone gave me a beautiful journal, and I wrote in it by hand religiously every day. I was really into Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series at that point, so instead of imitating Enid Blyton, I imitated her.

This pattern of mimicry persisted right through my teenage years, when I tried to write… god, who knows how many books. I got really into Jane Austen, and I’m really glad that old computer document with my 10,000 word Pride and Prejudice knock-off is lost to the world, because it was super pompous and really embarrassing. I fell in love with high fantasy, and had several abortive attempts at writing stories set in secondary worlds which always failed because I kept making the world bigger and bigger and adding more and more characters and forgetting about the, you know, narrative. Then came my Arthurian fantasy phase, and that’s probably the piece of my juvenilia I’m most glad is lost to the world, because teenage Jodi attempting to do her own Morte d’Arthur was… um, interesting.

I’m really glad I did all of this, though, even though I would be mortified if any of it turned out to be not quite as lost as I think it is. Spending so much time mimicking other writers gave me a strong handle on authorial voice, which is something that is hard to explain and harder to teach. It was a strange sort of fan fiction, except instead of using an author’s world and characters, I would try and write in their voice. It was an accidentally excellent exercise, because it really helped me work out what my own voice sounded like, and the ways in which I wanted to write. And that’s the thing I love most about writing as an adult: when you crack a character’s voice, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world.

Tell us about your new book.

Ironheart is the sequel to Valentine, my debut novel, which came out last year. It continues the story of Pearl Linford, her not-exactly-not-yet-we’re-something-but-we’re-not-quite-dating Finn Blacklin, her best friend Phil Kostakidis, and the town of Haylesford. Seventeen years ago in this town, four kids were all born on the same Valentine’s Day. In Valentine, as strange and terrible things begin to happen to these kids, you find out that one of them is a fairy changeling – and now the fairies are coming back for them.

Ironheart picks up a little while after the end of Valentine, and if you want more fairy shenanigans, more supernatural drama, and more of Pearl and Finn’s love/hate romance, then this is the book for you, because there is a lot of all of those things in this book. In Valentine, the characters know very little about the world of the fairies: it’s all shadowy and mysterious and they don’t understand it at all. In Ironheart, that world begins to get fleshed out some more, and we start to work out why it is the fairies are doing the things they’re doing.

Valentine, as well as being about changelings and fairies, is also a book about complicated teenage desire, as Pearl and Finn begin to work out and articulate the way they feel about each other. There’s more of that in Ironheart, but it’s also a book about rage: in particular, teen girl rage. This is an emotion that girls are often socialised out of expressing – think of how many times girls are told to shut up, be nice, don’t make people uncomfortable, smooth everything over, make everyone happy, prioritise everyone else’s emotions over your own. In this book, both Pearl and her best friend Phil are furious (including being furious with each other), and it’s something I wanted to spend time with and explore, because I think representing this – giving girl characters the space to be angry on the page – is really important, because it’s so often occluded from cultural narratives of girlhood.

(Another emotion girls are often discouraged from feeling and embodying? Ambition. So guess what the third book in the Valentine series is going to be about…)

Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?

Yes. Big time. Like, big, big, big, big time.

When I was nine years old, I picked up Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn, and that book changed my life, I swear. She’s one of the few authors I never tried to imitate when I was growing up, because I couldn’t even begin to comprehend ever being able to come close to her work. I devoured The Farseekers straight afterwards, just in time for Ashling to be released, and when I finished that, I was bereft, because how could there be no more?!

Ever since, I’ve devoured every Obernewtyn book the second it was released (and, let’s be real, pretty much every other Isobelle Carmody book as well). I’ve been reading them for most of my life. I was nine when I had that first transformative experience, and I was thirty when The Red Queen was released. I have numerous friendships based on love for this series. I’ve written semi-auto-ethnographic academic articles about it and what it was like reading it over such a long period of time.

I can say with complete certainty that my life would not be the same without Obernewtyn. Not even close.

Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?

I had a couple of English teachers who really went out of their way for me, especially when it came to encouraging me to write. Shout-out to my Year Five teacher Mr Dempsey and Mrs Reynolds, who was one of my high school English teachers: I hope you know how formative your lessons were for me.

What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?

I think setting is a big one. I think a lot of Australian YA is firmly grounded in place and space, and they really give you a fantastic sense of the very particular world of the book. Two great examples from last year are Steph Bowe’s Nightswimming and Kate O’Donnell’s Untidy Towns: the places and the communities they’re set in are so rich and so real. The level of detail and the way those towns spring to life in your mind are just astonishing, honestly.

But Australian YA is more than stories: it’s become, in recent years, a community. The fact that we have a community – a movement, even – like LoveOzYA is remarkable and, as far as I’m aware, unique.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?

My favourite bookshop of all time is, alas, no longer with us. When I was an undergraduate at university in Canberra, I worked for several years in a little independent bookshop called Electric Shadows (a name it shared with the arthouse cinema it was attached to, as any Canberrans reading might know). I loved that shop ferociously, and the amount of my wages that went straight back into it was… financially irresponsible to say the least.

It closed down a couple of years ago, and I went back to Canberra for the first time in years for the big closing party with all the other former staff. It felt like time-travelling in my own life to set foot in that shop again – but also like I’d time-travelled to the darkest timeline of my own life, because to see those shelves empty was heartbreaking.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?

I’ve been reading a lot for my day job at the moment (I’m an English lecturer). For obvious reasons, I’m working on a research project this year about royal romance, and so I’ve been tracking down as many novels with princes or princesses falling in love with commoners as I can. The real highlight has been reading The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan (AKA the Fug Girls), which is a thinly veiled and pitch-perfect fictionalisation of Wills and Kate’s relationship. I’m hanging out now for them to publish a similar book based on Harry and Meghan – before my research deadline, ideally!

Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?

It seems like a bit of an odd answer, because it’s not something we typically think of as a creative pastime, but my academic work satisfies a lot of the same things for me. When an argument snaps into place, it’s the same feeling you get when you work through an issue with your plot, and you suddenly know where the story is going. And a good sentence will always be satisfying, whether you’re writing fiction and non-fiction.

Plus, my academic research focuses largely on twenty-first century popular fiction, so I feel like I get to approach the same things from two sides a lot of the time. I get two different views of the same phenomena, which is just fantastically interesting.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

“Writers write” is the best piece of advice I’ve ever had – which is kind of weird, because I think it was actually meant discouragingly. I was about eight or nine, and I was rambling on about how I wanted to write a book someday, and this older man sternly interrupted me and said “young lady, writers write”.

The clear implication was “and you don’t” – he obviously didn’t know about The Mystery of the Advent Calendar – and the obvious addendum was “so go and write and stop talking, you annoying girl”, but it’s stuck with me. “To write” is an active verb. It’s a thing that you do, not something that just happens to you. If you want to write a book, you have to write a book – not think about it, or dream about, or talk about it, but do it. Even though this was definitely not the intended effect of “young lady, writers write,” I found it very motivating, and I’ve never forgotten it.

This is connected to the worst advice on writing I’ve ever heard, which is every piece of advice which somehow outsources things to “inspiration” or “the muse”, and distances writers from their own work. I get so irritated by writing advice which imagines the author as a conduit for some otherworldly being, or for the characters, or for some other power entirely outside the author. No. The verb “write” is only one half of the sentence “writers write”. The other is the noun: the person doing the verb. When you write, you’re a writer, not a scribe for some ethereal being.

When you think of it this way, it makes you value your work and your time more (at least, it does for me). Writing can be fun, but it’s hard work. It’s labour. It’s something that takes energy and brainpower and willpower. And all that stuff is yours. That labour is yours. It’s your writing, not your muse’s.

What do you love about OzYA?

There is a whole lot I could say here, but I haven’t exactly been succinct in my other answers, so I’ll try to be brief here.

Australia produces some fantastic authors and some wonderful stories, but what I find most remarkable is the fact that LoveOzYA is a legitimate community. It’s not just a disparate group of people loosely tied together because they write or read or are otherwise involved with the same books. It’s a movement: and a movement that is constantly pushing us to create excellent things.