On Books and Writing with #LoveOzYA Author Jason K Foster
Jason Foster is an author, poet, journalist and secondary school history teacher. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Diploma in Languages (Spanish). He has taught in Australia, the United Kingdom, Spain and Argentina. He has been published in American History magazines, Australian travel magazines and poetry anthologies in the United Kingdom. He has published a number of successful books in the true crime, history and children’s genres including Hadamar: The House of Shudders, Seven Bones and The Dark Man.
Jason, thank you for taking the time to tell us about your writing process and the books that inspire you!
What’s special about Australian stories?
There is something unique about being Australian. There is an honesty about how we view the world, a pragmatic approach. Overseas novels, while containing many universalities, can never speak to an Australian reader in the way an Australian novel will. Books set overseas or in futuristic settings will always contain themes and motifs that speak to younger readers but there are cultural and intellectual viewpoints that will come across in a foreign novel that do not speak to Australians the way other Australians can. As authors, we are the sum total of our social context and only an Australian can truly understand another Australian.
Why is it important that young adults read stories set in Australia?
The reason stories set in Australia are so important for young Australian adults is precisely the fact that they are young Australians. This is the society in which they are learning to become adults and there are certain challenges, moral questions, ideologies that are only found in Australia.
Familiarity is important. It creates a sense of connection. It allows young readers to place themselves in the circumstances of a book. Readers will identify more with places with which they are familiar and, thus, will identify more strongly with the story being told. In critiques of my books this is something that readers have consistently stated, knowing the place where events transpired brings more life and meaning to a book.
Was there any particularly cool, interesting or eye-opening research you undertook when writing your most recent book?
Hadamar and the Aktion T-4 Program to eliminate Nazi Germany of its disabled and different children has been a largely under acknowledged part of history. Despite that, as I undertook my research, I was surprised by how much information I was able to find and I was particularly surprised by the fact that YouTube can actually be quite an effective research tool as many movie recordings from the Second World War and Hadamar have been uploaded. This allowed me to get my story as authentic as it could be.
There are several scenes in my book, horrific as they may be, that even my editors questioned whether they were true. My response was, they are in the official American court documents as witness testimony, so, yes, they are.
Although this came after the writing of the book, I think the most interesting part was visiting Hadamar itself. It is still a working mental hospital. Initially, I thought I was in the wrong place. I was fortunate enough to go on a tour of the facility with a class of Year 9 German students and their teachers. I was very interested to see how they were remembering the past. Very respectful and very thought provoking for them.
How did you go about it and what did you learn?
I began by researching all I could on Google and Google Scholar. This is something I tell my students often, particularly my History Extension students, that proper research means going beyond the first page of Google. When you think a little bit outside the box and follow hyperlink after hyperlink as well as varying your search terms it is amazing what you can find.
Once I had found the most relevant sites, for example, the US Holocaust Museum, I scoured those sites for every piece of information. In doing so, I discovered film footage of Hadamar, radio recordings of soldiers who were there at the liberation of the camp and many other personal testimonies.
Readers are increasingly vocal about reading stories featuring diverse characters. What responsibility do authors have to meet this expectation?
Authors are totally responsible for meeting this expectation. It is we who construct the stories people read and, in doing so, we are responsible for and reflective of society’s beliefs and ideologies. In Hadamar, I deliberately chose and mixed race young female because she is the complete opposite of the majority white males who were responsible for the atrocities in Germany. I wanted to give a diverse character to highlight diversity from another race/ gender’s viewpoint.
It is authors’ stories who drive the dominant narratives within a society, therefore, authors who contribute to that society’s ideologies. If we simply roll out story after story about only one segment of society we drown out thousands of other voices that have equally important stories and viewpoints. It is only through reading and understanding the world from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints that we will allow the future generations to become tolerant and more empathetic to the world around them.
What inspired your love of reading?
My mother read to me and encouraged me to read for myself from a very early age. I still remember the classic Golden Books, the Hungry Caterpillar and the Mr Men series (I was hugely upset to discover my mother had given these away when I became an adult). I read them over and over. I loved the escapism of reading and this only intensified as a young man.
My second grade teacher, Mrs Brooks, was a brilliant story teller and I remember sitting down for story time and being entranced. She had such a poised delivery. I remember when she read Charlotte’s Web my heart broke and I still feel that moment to this day.
When I was in Year 9 my English teacher set us a creative writing assignment. Like most young men, I left it to the last minute and was stressing myself silly the night before trying to come up with an idea. My sister was listening to Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly – I slightly misinterpreted the lyrics and thought it was about Native Americans. I wrote my first attempt at YA there and then; composing a story about a young Native American boy who was considered incapable of passing his initiation into the tribe by hunting a buffalo on his own. The story traced his time out in the wilderness, his fear and trepidation at confronting an animal the size of a buffalo and his triumphant return to his village.
I handed it in the next day and thought no more of it, relieved I had my assignment out of the way. Unbeknownst to be, my teacher entered mine and other stories in to the Sydney Morning Herald Young Writer of the Year competition. I was awarded a Highly Commended certificate. I had never considered myself to be as good at English as the other people in my class so to stand next to them and receive my award was a moment of great pride.
This was the start of my writing journey.
What could librarians, booksellers, teachers, parents and publishers be doing to reach the next generation of teen readers?
Stop thinking that teenagers can’t ‘handle’ certain subjects and topics. Stop thinking that young adults are children and that they are only interested in ‘traditional’ YA books. Stop thinking that teenagers are only interested in books that interested us when we were teenagers. Yes, classic YA books will always have a place and timeless classics will always strike a chord with teenagers but being a teenager in the 21st Century is vastly different to what it was ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Universal themes are always valid but teens want to read stories that are told to them in a way that is relevant to them, in a way they understand about topics and ideas that mean something to them in a modern context.
In YA books, should there be a balance between educational and entertaining?
Absolutely. In a world filled with untold stimuli for young people this is what young people expect. If a book is not entertaining they will quickly dismiss it. However, they are savvy readers and if there is not substance to a text, something they can take from it, they will equally dismiss that just as quickly also. Therefore, young people need to have important themes and life messages in a text but it must also be done in such a fashion that they will enjoy reading the text. Kids want to learn but they also want to be entertained while doing so.
What inspired you to become a writer/what inspired your latest book?
Hadamar: The House of Shudders was inspired by my Year 9 Gifted and Talented class. While teaching them about the Holocaust, due to the fact they were highly intelligent and eager students, we raced through the required syllabus and I had to think of aspects of Nazi programs to extend them. At the same time, I was teaching History Extension, focusing on how we remember the past and particularly the role of women and feminism in History.
Given that I believed my Year 9s to be capable of it, I started introducing concepts from History Extension (a HSC Course) into their lessons. They were intrigued by Aktion T-4 Program as it included many children. My students felt a sense of empathy towards the children of Hadamar and other places like it which led to many discussions about why we hate, how we speak to one another in the modern world of social media and what bullying the extreme can led to. From memory, the students said, ‘You should write a book about this, sir.’
I contemplated whether I should. I had only undertaken preliminary research in order to be able to teach the topic sufficiently, but I knew writing a book would take that research to a whole other level. However, seeing how interested my students were I thought I would try.
I was originally a journalist but I did not feel my stories were making as much of a difference in the world as I would like. I became a school teacher to try and make more of a difference. My reason for writing has always been to get important messages out to the world and, whenever I see my students reading my work, I always get a thrill out of it. If I can set them on a lifelong path of reading or make them think differently about the world, then I like to think I have achieved something important.
What are your top 5 favourite OzYA books – how did you come to them and why do you love them?
Looking for Alibrandi – The fact that this book came out when I was in Year 10 is probably the reason it spoke to me so much. In my youth, I had a lot of interaction with people from different cultures and a lot of what my friends were going through were the same themes that were raised for Josephine.
The Book Thief – I have always had an interest in Holocaust related books, magnified by the fact that I have visited several of the camps. Knowing this, my friends and family highly recommended this book to me. I love the way it subtly shows the importance of books and the importance of reading.
Picnic at Hanging Rock – I read the book after watching the 1975 movie. It took me a long time to come around to reading it because I always believed the story to be true and, truth be told, it scared me a little. I think that is the magic of this book – that whether the story is true or fictional is as mysterious as the novel itself.
Taronga – like many readers it was a required class text when I was young. I mistakenly believed it would simply be a book about the zoo. Being interested in both animals and apocalyptic fiction at the time the book hooked me straight away. I think that it is set where I lived and grew up made it all the more real for me. It also raises question of morality and human interaction with nature.
The Power of One – it was on my mother’s book shelf. She is a big Bryce Courtney fan. Even from a young age the idea of Apartheid intrigued me as I couldn’t understand why this set of circumstances could come to exist. Wanting to extend the difficulty of my reading level – I loved the book because I could relate to Peekay but it enlightened me on a part of the world events I knew little about.
Who are your favourite OzYA characters and why?
Josephine Alibrandi – because she is representative of that generation of teenagers who struggled to come to terms with not only the normal adolescent issues but also the balancing act between satisfying both aspects of one’s existence, that being the old culture and being an ‘Australian’. Many of my friends growing up and students I have taught since struggled with this and I think Marchetta presents it in a wonderful way through a powerful female protagonist.
Death – despite Liesel being the protagonist in The Book Thief – using Death as the narrator really spoke to me. I had never looked on Death as compassionate, caring. I always thought of Death being cold and harsh. I liked the way that Death was personified and that, in being thus portrayed, forcing us to question what is important in this life and how we will deal with Death when it inevitably must come to us.
Miranda Reid – while her appearance in Picnic at Hanging Rock may only be brief – she was the most important character for mine. I think she represents that idea of other worldliness, the supernatural and escapism that I identified with as a teenager, when growing up and wondering what lays beyond the world we live in.
Raja the Tiger – because he represents the question of man’s relationship with nature. Raja represents the yearning for freedom and the right to live one’s life how one chooses. I like the character of Raja because he is like a mirror to humanity – forcing us to question and examine the good and bad of humanity itself.
Peekay – I have always seen it as important that one does what one can to make a difference in the world, however small. Peekay’s story and sense of morality and fairness is one that spoke to me as a young man. His character inspired me to want to do better and to make the world a fairer and just place. I think because I read it at a time I was trying to make sense of the broader world and the politics of it, the fact that Peekay does this along his journey spoke to me deeply.
What advice would you give to the next generation of young writers?
Your writing must mean something. You must have something important you want to say and that you want your readers to take away from your work. You must be very clear on what this is. I have read many a young person’s work that meanders its way from one point to another because they are not clear on what it is they want to say. However, this must be subtle. No one likes to be told, ‘you must think this way’, so subtlety is key.
Show don’t tell.
This is the key piece of advice I received that moved me from aspiring to published author. When I look back on drafts of work I did twenty years ago I can see why. I wanted to just get all I wanted to say out onto the page and make sure my reader knew EXACTLY what I wanted them to the point where I was almost hammering them over the head with it. In fact, I still do it and I have to be very self-critical about this when I am drafting. My work became substantially better when I realised that the story and characters are the way to get the message across.
Let the reader figure it out for themselves.