Q&A for Readers, Teachers, Writers

#LoveOzYA Q&Awith Kathryn Barker

  • · 6 months ago
#LoveOzYA Q&Awith Kathryn Barker

Kathryn Barker was born in Canberra, started primary school in Tokyo and finished high school in the woods outside Olympia, Washington State.

In the years that followed she went to university, became a lawyer, completed her masters in film production and worked in television.

Kathryn's first novel, In the Skin of a Monster, was published to high acclaim and won the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel, was short-listed for two Davitt Awards and was a CBCA Notable Book.

Her second novel, WAKING ROMEO, is a March 2021 release!

Read Kathryn's interview with #LoveOzYA's Meg Kennedy below, or check out clips via our YouTube channel.

What is your elevator pitch for the book?

If I had to describe it quickly, its a futuristic Juliet Capulet meets Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, in a world that’s been destroyed by forwards-only time travel, and the mission is to try and salvage the future, but along the way they’re going to have to rethink what they both know about love.

Where did the first ideas spark for this story, and how did you built upon it?

I put the bit about time being non-linear in the book, mostly just to make myself feel better about how long this book has taken! There were a lot of ideas that came together for this book. The first is, when I was in high school, Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights were held up as the ultimate romantic ideals, and I bought into that. Then as I got older, I realised there was this disconnect between the romantic ideals and what was real.

I was really interested of that space between. What really struck me was the idea that actually, in retrospect, they weren’t really very healthy examples, particularly as far as the women went.

In the back of my mind I was always thinking ‘I bought into the romance of that, and I now feel a bit differently, wouldn’t it be cool if I could somehow write about that? And write about it for young women, because when I was teenager, I was getting a Wuthering Heights and Romeo and Juliet version of what romance might be like, and that hasn’t been my lived experience!

Separate to that, for years I just had this idea of forwards-only time travel, and once I got the idea of what if you could go forwards, I kept building off that in my imagination, and what would happen. I was convinced that eventually, everyone would up stumps, because they would want to go to a brighter tomorrow.

Then I started thinking about the idea of what that meant metaphorically, and the idea of not living in the now. Particularly in relation to our climate, the idea that you don’t invest in this moment to try and fix what’s wrong with our planet, and you just kick it down the line.

I had this theme I was interested in in terms of time, I had these classic works of literature, and then I had this idea of the dead-enders, which happened years before I read the book. What occured to me was this idea that if you were trying to fix the timeline, you’d have to be really careful with the help that you got. That the only people who could really be able to help you were dead-ends in terms of the timeline - people that had died and their body was never found, so you could whisk them out at the last moment without creating any ripple effects.

One day I was sitting there and thought, ‘I like all three of them, I don’t know which one to write - what if I combine them all? Then I went no, that’s really not going to work. And as soon as I thought to myself I can’t do it, I felt compelled to try.

Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights are both so upheld in literature. What is it about them that makes them classics, and what parts about them did you want to cross over into your novel?

One of the things I like most about them is that they feel like big stories. I wanted that in Waking Romeo. I wanted to write something that evoked this idea of epic love, and that’s what Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights do for me. They feel epic.

I’m both a realist and a hopeless romantic, so a lot of what I write is in the disconnect within myself: ‘I’m a hopeless romantic, but I know that’s not what life is really like!’

What I really liked about those books is that they gave me this really juicy counterplay - I had these wonderful, iconic female and male characters to work with, and then I could bounce back and forth in a more modern context.

I studied Wuthering Heights in high school and for me, part of the magic of that is the setting. It’s got this incredible backdrop of the moors, it’s eerie, it’s a bit sexy, and I was struck by how much of that book was flavoured by the character of location. In my writing, I wanted to emulate that and try and create a world that felt compelling unto itself.

With Romeo and Juliet, it’s just so deeply embedded in our psyche now. In both of those books, it’s the idea that it’s destined, a soulmate, and yet, circumstances mean that they can’t be together. It feels even more romantic if it can’t happen, in terms of the way we process books. That’s another thing I wanted to look at; the idea of the star-crossed lovers, and to explore that.

In your own story, Juliet has - to say the least - a lot more agency than she might of in the original text! Was it important to you to give her that agency as a character?

Absolutely. Part of the big motivation for me for writing this particular story was that I was reacting against myself. I bought it hook, line and sinker when I was a teenager, and as I got older I thought: ‘Hold on, what was I thinking?.

What I really wanted in her character was someone that reflected all of the bits of me and other young girls - just the idea that we can be modern, we can be strong, and we cannot always know how to fit romantic ideals into that yet. That it’s probably not the romantic fairytale, but it’s not gritty disaster either. It’s somewhere in between.

What I wanted for Juliet was for her to be going through this moment where she’s trying to separate the real from the fantasy. To ultimately end on a note of hope where the reality can be even more beautiful.

What is it about YA that compels you to write for that particular audience in mind?

I can only speak from my personal experience, and the years when I was 16, 17, they were the really defining, intense years. I found that everything was so big, raw and heartfelt - what I love about young adult is the immediacy. I love that it tackles big stuff, important stuff, and it tends to do it in a really dynamic way.

I love writing in it because I feel like I can go as big and as deep as I want to, without fear.

What’s your background with Australian YA? Is there a seminal book to you growing up, or one you’ve had later on?

So many! I didn’t start enjoying books until the break between primary school and high school. I was at my aunt and uncle’s caravan park, and I picked up a book and went ‘Oh my goodness, this is amazing! And the next day I finished it.’

The next day my dad drove me to my local bookstore and bought another book. I read some of the seminal works a little bit later - I was in high school by the time I read Playing Beadie Bow by Ruth Park. Looking For Alibrandi, I sobbed, I sobbed, I sobbed! It was the first book that ever made me cry, and I will never forget where I was when I first started crying.
Abhorsen by Garth Nix; me, my dad and my brother were fighting over who gets the book next!

There are too many books that have shaped me from young adult Australian literature. There are so many moments that I remember so vividly about being lost in a book.

What’s the best writing advice that you’ve received?

I remember someone explaining to me once - and I took this a bit to heart - that you have to stick with an idea. If you keep changing ideas, you’re never going to get past the first hurdle.

In writing my first book, I really held that one close to my heart. I gave myself a period of time, and the deal was I wasn’t changing my idea. What I worked out was that each time I came to a road block - where each idea seemed shiny and new - if I pushed through it, that’s where the best bits of the book were.

I really had to struggle and dig deep. In the end, as cheesy as it sounds, it was an opportunity. In relation to this next book, what I learnt was that the challenge of it fuelled me. The reality is, books can take quite a bit of time. Finding ways of challenging yourself through the process, in terms of keeping stamina, I found to be helpful.

During Waking Romeo, what I decided for myself is that writing something that really genuinely matters, really matters. There were so many times with just me and my laptop as companionship, I chose something that really mattered to me and cared deeply about, and the messages to me were really important, and I think that if I didn’t have that sense of that this story was what I wanted to tell, there would have been times where it was just too exhausting.

Our time is precious, and we have a finite number of books in us. So the advice that I’m going to keep reminding myself of is that as I embark upon the journey of writing books, one of the threshold tests is: does this really matter to me? Because if the end product is something I can look back on and say ‘You know what, if no-one in the world ever understands it, or it doesn’t get published, I know a piece of my soul is in there, and I know I put my heart on the page, then you can always be proud of what you’ve produced.

I also got the advice to back up your story regularly, so I’m pretty good at doing that one!

Waking Romeo by Kathryn Barker is out now via Allen and Unwin.