#LoveOzYA Q&A with Clayton Zane Comber about 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze
Clayton Zane Comber is a writer from the South Coast of NSW who has held many varied roles, including a lawyer, optical dispenser, club DJ, creative writing tutor and saxophonist in a Chinese restaurant. He received his MA from Sydney University, before studying in the UK and graduating from Oxford University with distinction for his Master's in Creative Writing. In 2017, Clayton's varied roles eventuated in him opening Bouquiniste Bookstore Cafe Wine Bar. His debut novel, Shooting Stars, was published by Odyssey Books in 2011.
Clay chatted with #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about his new book, 100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze, which is being published by Harper Collins in June (2021).
You can read their conversation below, our check out clips on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!
So Clay, for people who haven't read it, what's it all about?
Xander Maze is about a 15-year-old boy who sort of struggles socially. He's a list maker. That's what he does. And when his grandmother is diagnosed with stage four cancer, she tells him that writing a list of 100 remarkable feats, and trying to achieve them, will cure her. Xander believes her because Nana is number one on the list of people that he trusts the most. And so, he goes away and begins to try and do this list. But the problem gets bigger when this list gets shared online, so everybody at school and in the community, they know what Xander is up to. And so, off he goes on this adventure.
The first question I had was, why did you write the book? What was it that inspired you to write it?
So, I mean, I've been writing for a long time, and I was thinking of the new book that I was wanting to tell. [My] grandmother has a huge part in my life. She was the one who really raised us, when my parents were working full time and everything. She lived at home with us, she picked us up from school, she cooked us our meals and everything. And so, I'm very close with my Nana even still, now she's 96 years old. For her 90th birthday, my partner, Hannah and I, we decided to take her to Europe for the first time ever. It was our first time in Europe as well. We just thought, you know what, let's just go and have an adventure and just kind of see what happens. And at the time, even my parents and stuff, were kind of like, “are you sure?” But we just thought, "Yeah, let's just go and see what happens". And so, we took her overseas for the first time. When we arrived in London after this really long transit, we said to Nan, "okay, we're going to take you now to Buckingham Palace". I remember Nan looking at us and saying, "not the real Buckingham Palace, after all this time?"
And so, we literally spent maybe five or six weeks just traveling around Europe, sometimes we didn't even know where we were going. Like we didn't even book anything, we just, kind of, woke up one morning and thought, alright, let's just see what we do today, and just see where we go. And, you know, we went all around Italy and France. And yeah, it was just this incredible journey. I remember at the time thinking that I really want to write a book about the special connection between children and their grandparents, that was always the first point of call. I also knew that it was about a teenager who was a vulnerable teenager, and he was struggling. And so, they were the first two things that I knew were going to happen.
Then I came across this list in a newspaper a long time ago, and it was, 100 remarkable things to do in the city, or something like that. I remember reading through this list, and it was just little things like, you know, go to see the stars at the observatory, or watch a sunset. And I remember thinking, "that's a really beautiful list". I'm someone who's always listing, I list everything. And my partner said to me, “why? Why do you have to list everything you like?” The top five bands of the 90s or the top five movies from the 2000s. And so that idea kind of started and I just started putting those things together, that he was a list maker, and he was doing this for his grandmother and a few other things sort of happened.
But it just all came together in one go and then I just started writing and away we went.
Wow. So how many lists do you think you have?
I don't know. Like, I think there's too many to list. That's the thing. They're not on paper or anything like that, they're just in my head. You know, we'll be out with our friends, we'll sit there and we'll say, I don't know, name the top five songs by the Chili Peppers or the top five books by Fitzgerald.
So, if someone said to you, your number one favourite book in the whole world, you could answer that?
Oh, The Great Gatsby, without question. Always. It has been ever since I first read it. Yeah, I buy it in every cover I've ever seen.
That's incredible. Given that you do own a bookshop.
Yeah, I even have some lines tattooed on me.
Really? Wow, because, people have asked me what my favourite book is, and I just always assume it's a question that someone asks when they don't read much, because I'm like, "Well, how do you choose? Like, your favourite book when you're sad? Your favourite book when you're happy?"
That's true. Those are all other lists, as well, you see, Dayna. You have lots of lists going on. My partner's the same, she wonders why I have the lists.
So, The Great Gatsby, is this something you read every year?
I'd say every couple of years, yeah, I reckon maybe every two or three years, I'd come back and read The Great Gatsby, and I always take away something new from it.
Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. Because sometimes, yeah, I think you read a book. And maybe you like it when you're younger. And you're like, I don't know if I can read it again because it may not live up to the meaning it held for me, at a particular point in your life, and you're like, this is the greatest book ever. But, it [The Great Gatsby] still does. That's incredible.
I think you can put those books into the top five, after you've done that, after you've come back to it after some time and re-read it and go, "No, I still love this book".
That's really fascinating. That was what I was going to ask you about, writing the lists and doing the research for this book because Xander knows a lot of really interesting facts. I learned a lot from him.
Yeah, I had to look a lot of that up, I have to say, I didn't know all that stuff off the top of my head.
OK, so doing a lot of research then, not just naturally collecting facts like Xander does, that's how you two diverge?
Oh, sort of. I mean, I did do a lot of research into teenage bucket lists and things like. I went through so many lists when I was writing Xander and obviously, it changed along the way, continuously as well. But there were two other things that happened as well. I used to have this book that had lists in it, little facts and a lot of those facts are the ones that ended up in Xander. Like it was, you know, the meaning behind similes and metaphors, and so forth. It was just done in this really unique way, like it wasn't an information dump or anything like that. They were just interspersed throughout the text. And so, I always really liked that.
I tried to remember some of those when I was writing. There was also a university short story that I'd written at one stage, about a man who was obsessed with etymology. He was obsessed with words. And the dictionary was kind of his antagonist at the time, because he was constantly in this battle of trying to learn everything he could. So yeah, I think those two things stuck with me when I was writing Xander.
So, writing the book, I'm always interested to know just a little bit more about the process and how you did that. And I know you've studied creative writing, as well. How long did it take to write? Can you tell us anything about your writing practice?
Yeah, Xander was a tough one. I'm somebody who thinks about a story for a very long time before I actually put any words on paper or anything. At least in my head, I have to know maybe 60% or something, of the story, even before I start trying to draft it out. And I think with Xander, as I said, like, all those other elements that I had for it, when I was thinking about it, and the story, and it kind of came to me when we were on holidays in the States. And we were literally sitting by a pool in the States and it was just like this lightning moment where I thought, "You know what, I've got it!".
And I got out my laptop and I just started writing. The rest of that trip was kind of this blur between going out and doing things and then just wanting to get back and just try and get this story out. And I wrote the first draft of the story, in probably it was about a two-week period, this burst of creative writing that I did. And I really thought, even in the beginning, that I had gotten it right. I thought in this two-week period, that I'd gotten it right. And I even made the cardinal sin where I sent out an early draft. I heard back some positive things for it. So, I thought, "Oh, yeah, I'll just tinker with it and it'll be done". But obviously, that wasn't the case, apparently. I heard back some not so positive feedback.
So, I had gone away from it and came back to it. The whole story is like a puzzle, when you read it, I mean, the 100 remarkable feats have to all fall into place and it has to feel like it's doing it organically. So, it's really one big thread with a bunch of subplots that run through it. It ended up, like, every time you changed one thing, it was like a house of cards that fell down. And so, it actually ended up taking me another five years of working on the book, not writing on it all the time, but sort of, going away and coming back and so forth.
So it ended up taking me another five years before the moment came where I thought, "This is everything that I can give to it, this is everything I can do for it" and yeah, and so that's how it came about.
And so, were there any feats that you put on the list that then you were like, "Oh man, why did I do that? Cross that off, it's too hard to get Xander into that situation"?
There were feats that dropped away, but there were none that I thought, "Oh, why did I do that? I sent him off on this journey that didn't really eventuate". The main things, even from the start, all the main elements and the main characters, they were all the same from the get-go. The bones of the story never actually changed. So, there were never really ones I dropped or I thought "I don't want to do that" or "am I writing this for this reason?" and sometimes I put feats in as well, because it just fit in that part of the story. But yeah, it was a tricky one.
And I guess, for me, the thing I think about it, is how I feel now, having just read the book and it's just, it's great, it's a marvellous book. How did you want people to feel when they read it? What were you hoping they would feel?
I mean, that reaction is great. I like that reaction!
I wanted people to walk away from it feeling like they'd been on this journey with Xander. And also, you know, maybe to go away and to even think, maybe I could do some remarkable feats myself.
If you read it in the book, some of those feats, they probably mean nothing, you know, it's, like, watch a sunrise or watch a sunset. Some of them are just taking notice of things we sometimes take for granted or just accept are there. And so, I think that if anyone looks at something a little bit differently, from the book, then that's everything, I would love for someone to take away from it.
I definitely feel like that's possible. I really think that this is a book that does cause you to just look at things slightly differently. And you know, even the scene where they go stargazing. I thought, "Oh, how's he going to do this world record thing?" And then, yeah, it's just something so brilliant, but so simple. And, yeah, one night does have the potential to change someone. You know, we have many nights that won't be life changing at all. But I guess that night for Xander is really important for his development.
That was one I actually didn't know. So when I wrote the feat that he wanted to break a world record, I didn't know what the world breaking record was going to be. That actually came from when I was reading about world records and I came across that that had happened. I think it might be ANU or something who organised to break the world record for stargazing.
I remember reading it and thinking, "That is so beautiful". I never heard about it at the time, I read about in retrospect, but I remember thinking, "God, I would love to have been there".
I mean, it's so simple, it was literally just a matter of going somewhere and looking up, and it's so powerful.