#LoveOzYA Q&A with Gary Lonesborough
Gary Lonesborough is a Yuin man who grew up on the far south coast of New South Wales, as part of an extensive and proud Aboriginal family. His highly anticipated debut, THE BOY FROM THE MISH (Allen&Unwin) is a queer Aboriginal YA story about a young man exploring his sexuality and falling in love for the first time.
Gary chatted to #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios about drawing from his own personal experiences to tell the story he would’ve wanted as a teenager, the importance of creating an Aboriginal teen protagonist for Aboriginal teen readers, how he feels about the book’s debut on 2 February, and more.
You can also check out clips from our interview with Gary on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
Can you tell me a bit about THE BOY FROM THE MISH, and what readers can expect?
Basically it’s about a seventeen-year-old Aboriginal boy named Jackson. The story is centred around a point in his life where he’s moving into adulthood and coming to terms with his sexuality and his cultural identity, and also falling in love for the first time.
It’s a story of first love. I think that’s the most central component of the story.
You describe this book as a “branch of hope” that you would have wanted at that age. What was it like writing a story that was so personal to you?
It is very personal. It’s a story that I wish I had when I was a teen. I struggled a lot with my sexuality through high school and even into early adulthood. I didn’t tell anyone that I wasn't straight until I was 20, 21. Growing up in a small country town, all there really was to look forward to was playing footy on the weekends and basically there were no gay people around or anything like that, and if there were, everyone knew who they were.
I was very closeted for a long time, and I think this book would have really helped, as a teen — to read a book about an Aboriginal teen who is also going through what I'm going through. Which is what I think is the whole point of YA: to give voices to teens and teen experiences.
I guess the main drive behind writing (the book) was that I hadn’t read any books about Aborignal teens, or Aborignal queer teens. I couldn’t find any when I did my research. So I’m hoping to give voice to those teens that are coming through now and might be struggling a little bit, or just need to read a story about someone who is like them, going through what they’re going through, which just didn’t exist when I was growing up. And I'm not even that old.
Reading the book, you can tell that it’s coming from an authentic place, and that’s why Jackson's story really resonates. But I imagine that is quite a vulnerable place to be in, when you're writing — and now, how do you feel about the book being released?
There was a period there, getting all this feedback, and people out there reading the story and knowing about it, where I was really scared. I felt really vulnerable, because it is a personal story.
But now that the editing is all done, and I’m just waiting for the book to come out, I'm feeling ready to talk about it. I’m feeling a lot better about talking about my own struggles and what have you, because I’m thinking of the reader now, and the Aboriginal kid that might be struggling who I think, reading this book, it might help them.
I’ve come through that fear.
That is definitely something that takes a lot of courage. And reading about Jackson, he shames himself in such a palpable way, I kind of wanted to reach through the page and give him a hug. But it also made me wonder: why do you think books, as opposed to other types of art, can be such powerful tools for teaching a young person the skill of self-compassion?
It’s a very private thing, to read a book. It’s just you sitting down, and you’re playing out the whole story in your head, and the characters become real people to you. There’s a lot of connection that you get to a character that’s written, rather than one that you’re seeing on screen. You’re hearing their inner monologue, and how they’re reacting to everything.
I think that’s the magic of writing. Reading, and feeling: it’s a very intimate thing. I think that’s what I hoped with this book. I wanted it to be pretty funny and fast-paced, but I wanted the reader to really connect with Jackson and understand why he’s feeling the way he is.
And I guess that goes to your point about having characters that are recognisable, and therefore accessible, to young readers — but like you said, you couldn’t really find anything about a queer Aboriginal teen protagonist and their experience. When you did start writing THE BOY FROM THE MISH, was that lack of existing work a challenge, or was it kind of freeing?
I’d read SIMON VS. THE HOMO SAPIENS AGENDA, so the whole drive (to write THE BOY FROM THE MISH) came from reading that and thinking it would be great if there was a book that had an Aboriginal character who is feeling all the same things and has that struggle and that journey. A book that would give the same feeling I had, reading that book.
So I just sort of went from my own feelings, and my own understanding of that whole part of my life where I was struggling and really scared of who I was.
I put that into the character, making it a story that really related to Aboriginal teens and kids and families, and making everything as authentic as possible. That was my main goal: to tell a story that would read true.
But if you read another teen YA book that’s centred around a queer protagonist, there will be similarities. It’s not that different from your ‘normal’ teen love story, it just happens to be that the character is Aboriginal and queer.
So that was how I approached it. I put my own feelings and thoughts and struggles into it, and just hoped for the best. But it was a bit of a struggle to begin with when I was trying to come up with the story, because there wasn’t anything to go off. But it was all just allowing myself to be vulnerable, allowing myself to write that shitty first draft, and getting it all out there and understanding myself as much as the character I was writing.
Well, and that makes me want to also ask about the love story, in particular. Everyone writes about love in their own way, in line with their own personal taste. For you, with THE BOY FROM THE MISH, how did you ‘find’ your love story?
I wanted it all to be about the feeling. At the same time, I wanted it to be a sex-positive book. I wanted it to be realistic, and not have such a sugary (quality); I wanted it to be very authentic, funny, and relatable.
I had a lot of fun writing those scenes. There’s a lot of stuff that goes wrong, which I really enjoyed writing, because that’s what happens in real life. I wanted to portray all that stuff, and just make it something that teens can relate to, without getting explicit or anything like that.
It’s all about how the characters are feeling at the time.
On the craft side, I really liked your blog about your experience at Varuna and how you make the point that writing isn’t literally typing — it’s something you do when you’re just being present in the world, and observing the things around you. Can I ask, when it comes to thinking about what writing is, how has that evolved for you since going through the editorial process with this book?
Yeah, the big takeaway I had at Varuna was that writing is more than just writing. While it is important that you’re sitting down and you’re writing the words — because that was definitely a big barrier for me — it’s also going for a walk, and hearing the birds, and seeing the water left over on the ground from the rain the night before. Taking note of all those little things.
You’re not a failure if you’re struggling to actually write the story. For me, anyway, the story came to a certain point where it was ready for me, and I could get all the words out. I’d written a little bit here and there for maybe a week, and it wasn’t really flowing, and then at a point it all came and it was ready, and I pushed out a draft in a month.
I think it is important for writers to be okay with the fact that they can’t write every moment of every day. Immerse yourself in movies and music; go for a walk.
Now, not to move on too quickly, but I did read on your blog that you’re working on another YA project. Can you tell me anything about that one?
I won the Varuna Fellowship with this manuscript I’m working on now. It’s basically another YA book with an Aboriginal teen protagonist inspired by my experience working with Aboriginal kids in the youth justice system. It’s centred around a character who has been in that system, who is struggling to get on the right path.
I really enjoy writing this one as well. I wanted to write something a little bit different. Whether or not it gets published, I don’t know. But just for myself, so I can know that I can write another type of story.
It’s something I’ve really excited about. I’m almost finished. I did make a lot of ground at Varuna, so hopefully it’s still good when I read it again.
It sounds great. And obviously THE BOY FROM THE MISH has that very personal component, and this other project bounces off your experience with youth justice. Did you find that your process has changed at all when you started child number two, so to speak?
Yeah, writing THE BOY FROM THE MISH was just me, writing by myself. I didn’t have any deadlines or anything like that. It was just me writing, assuming no one else is going to read it.
Whereas with this next one, I started it just after securing my publishing contract for THE BOY FROM THE MISH, so I was going off that momentum that I had, being really excited to get that contract. There was a drive in me to get started right away on the next thing while I was waiting on my edit letter.
At the same time, I have put a lot of other facets of myself into this next book. It’s personal in different ways than THE BOY FROM THE MISH.
Given the subjects you write about are so personal — and incredibly important — how do you ensure that you’re looking after yourself while you tackle them creatively?
Yeah, I guess before writing it I’d become very passionate about Aboriginal youth and involved in the justice system, and the systemic racism that is obvious in those government departments. When I’m writing a particular scene that speaks to the systemic issues or the racism, it does toil away a little bit at my energy, at my mental health.
I think being excited about the character and having that momentum that they have, that’s enough for me: knowing that I’m writing their story. That’s enough to keep me going.
But yeah, when I’m writing scenes where characters are being racist to one of my characters, when I’m writing those words, I’m reliving an experience that I’ve had or that a family member has had. So all those sort of scenes can be (hard) to relive.
But it’s all for the story. I’m happy to just write it, and push through, and ride the wave of that character’s story.