#LoveOzYA Q&A with Anna Morgan
Anna Morgan was born in Sydney, but spent most of her childhood surrounded by mountains in Nepal and Tibet while her parents were part of an international community of health professionals. Navigating this cross-cultural life made her a curious observer of people, although most of her time was spent reading Enid Blyton and dreaming of going to boarding school. This did not cushion the shock of shifting from home-school in Tibet to an all-girls high school in Melbourne when her family returned to Australia. Anna completed a MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University in 2015, and now lives in Melbourne with her husband. She works as a bookseller.
Anna’s latest book, Before The Beginning (Hachette Australia), is out now!
You can read our chat with Anna below, or check out clips from the interview on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
What’s your elevator pitch for Before The Beginning?
Before The Beginning is dark mystery set on Schoolies week and follows four teenagers who, on the first night, decide to abandon their traditional Schoolies plan and follow this mysterious stranger, Sierra, to camp on an uninhabited island instead.
Through the rest of the week you hear from all their different perspectives. They’ve each got different reasons, like they might want to stay in the space in between school and the rest of their lives.
Schoolies is an aspect of OzYA that, surprisingly, hasn’t been touched upon too often. What drew you to set Before The Beginning during that time?
I think it’s interesting that there aren’t more Schoolies novels because it’s such a perfect YA setting and time. My personal Schoolies was very boring – there were a lot of board games! But a few years after, I volunteered with an organisation called Red Frogs that was there to support Schoolies, so I actually went to a few more.
I was really struck by the fact there were all the kind of classic teen issues going on: drinking, risky situations, that kind of stuff.
There was also a lot of emotional stuff going on for heaps of teenagers, and I think it totally makes sense. It’s this week where you’re with your peers, you’re not with your parents, you’ve had all this huge build-up to the end of school and you’re waiting for your results and to see what happens next.
It’s this simmering collection of things that could go off, and so lots of friendships were breaking down, or teens were really struggling with their future and thinking about what they were going to do.
The whole aspect of being a teenager is this feeling of being on the brink of your adult life; like you’re almost there, but not quite. Schoolies is such a perfect microcosm of that.
With your first book, All That Impossible Space, you touch on the Somerton Man mystery. What drew you to write about crime and mystery within the setting of a coming-of-age story?
It’s so interesting that people talk about my books as crime and mystery, because I never intended that when I was writing them!
I totally see it, especially with the Somerton Man story, I just found it so completely fascinating. Suddenly I found myself being invited to all these crime novels, and I’m like ‘Oh, did I write a crime book? I guess so!’.
I think in some ways my books aren’t classic crime novels because they might not tie up everything in the way you would expect from the traditional detective novel. If you’re expecting everything to fit together perfectly, my endings might not do exactly that, but I think they’re a really good way to explore some of the themes I’m interested in.
With the Somerton Man I was drawn to the fact that he had no identity. Everyone was trying to figure out who he was and why he was there; for me that really mirrored what my character was going through, where she was trying to kind of discover herself and trying to find herself a part from her family or her friends.
With Before The Beginning, (there’s) kind of similarly the darkness in the setting. With this stranger you’re not quite sure what her motives are and why they’re all together on this island.
This mirrored a lot of what was going on for the individual characters and their own personal dark things they were dealing with, or things they tried to push down that were bubbling up in this week.
For me, it’s all part of the internal journey that is kind of mirrored in those external, darker moments.
Both your novels came out within quite a short amount of time. Did you have a different approach coming into Before The Beginning after your debut?
Oh my gosh, yes, it was such a different writing experience! With my debut, I had notes in a notebook from 2009 and it was published in 2019. I wasn’t writing for all that time, but it probably took me at least three years of pretty serious writing to get to publication.
With Before The Beginning, I think the first notes and ideas were in 2016. The first draft was over about six months, so a totally different writing experience. I also had the benefit of having a publisher and editors to support me, who made the book so much better from that first draft through to the final draft.
I also had the confidence of knowing that I could do it. Because All That Impossible Space was the first novel I ever attempted, at each stage of writing it, I was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this’, ‘I’ve never done this before’.
With Before The Beginning I knew I could do it, and I kind of knew ‘Oh, I’m at this bit where it’s the middle of the book and everything feels really hard, but that’s normal, that’s what I felt last time’, so I could see a way through to the end.
I’m really proud of it; I think I grew as a writer between books as well. So, I’m really excited.
What’s your background with Australian YA? Are there any books that stick out as influential or impactful?
I have always loved Australian YA. In terms of books that really stand out from my own teen years, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta was my absolute favourite book. I’ve re-read it so many times and those characters really felt like my friends at certain points over 17 years!
Another one I’d pick out is Jaclyn Moriarty, I just absolutely adore her writing. The way she writes humour is so unique, the first time I read those books I felt like finally someone gets me! More recently, Cath Crowley and Fiona Wood.
I just finished Ellie Marney’s None Shall Sleep, I couldn’t put it down. That just shows how far the YA writing can stretch in Australia!
I did my master’s degree in the UK, and obviously read a lot of American YA because it’s inescapable, but I think Australian YA is the best. There’s something really unique and experimental about the writing that goes on in Australia, so I love it. I’m really honoured to be part of it.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I feel like my next idea is too unformed to even be able to give any hints at all, but I am definitely working on something else. I think it will be set in Australia and follow a teenager in Australia.
I’ve been really drawn to writing about Australian settings. A place that’s very close to my heart is where my grandparents live on the south coast of New South Wales, which is where I visit every year. Before The Beginning is sort of set in a fictional, imagined setting of where they live.
I’m kind of drawn to write perhaps somewhere set rural or by the beach, but we’ll see where it goes!
Is there any advice – whether writing or just general life advice – you’d give to your teen self?
I would give my younger self the advice to pay attention to what I love a little bit more.
It took me such a long time to allow myself to consider writing as a career. When I look back at my younger self, it seems to obvious; I always loved reading, writing was always my favourite subject at school, and whenever we got to do creative writing that was especially exciting.
But I spent a really long time thinking that I needed to do something ‘important’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘prestigious’ in some way. And I do think that writing is important, so I don’t even know what external measurements I was going off.
It sounds totally cheesy, but really figuring out what you love, people that you love, things that excite you, and just following where that thread work takes you. I think that is the best advice that I’d give.