#LoveOzYA Q&A with 2022 Ampersand Prize Winner Elisa Chenoweth
The Ampersand Prize is an annual competition run by Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing that seeks to celebrate an unpublished writer of middle-grade and young adult fiction, as well as graphic novels.
#LoveOzYA’s Bianca Breen recently chatted to this year’s winner, Elisa Chenoweth, all about her prize-worthy manuscript.
Hi, Elisa. Thanks so much for chatting with LoveOzYA, and congratulations on winning the Ampersand! To start us off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your winning manuscript?
Thank-you so much! I’m a high school teacher from Adelaide, and I live with my wife Kylie and our many loud, but adorable, terriers. We are both very much into video games, politics, and queer stories! I’m from an Italian-Australian/Aussie farmer/very religious background, and I like writing about my cultural upbringing(s) in a way that pokes fun, but also celebrates them.
Maria Petranelli is Prepared for Anything (Except This) is a screwball romantic comedy with an adventure storyline. Main character Maria’s overbearing Italian-Australian family has hardwired her to expect danger and rejection at every turn. So when everything goes wrong on her exchange to Italy, she isn’t surprised – she is already prepared. What she’s not prepared for, is her feelings for a tall, awkward American girl named Kennedy.
Tell us more about Maria! In the “grumpy-sunshine” rom-com, which one is she?
Definitely the grumpy one! Maria has a lot of trouble showing her emotions, and it makes her come off as fierce and sometimes cold. She’s so determined to prove “she can handle it” that her walls are pretty high. It takes a long time for Kennedy, the “sunshine” in the “grumpy-sunshine” pairing, to even get a smile out of her! But Maria’s journey to working out it is okay to express emotion, is part of the fun.
Where did the inspiration for the story came from?
Look, you write what you know, don’t you! When I was a young adult I was socially awkward, emotionally stunted, and had never had a romantic relationship. I also had no idea I was gay. I wrote Maria because I wanted to turn the same characteristics that were difficult for me as an introverted young person, into something strong and funny.
The ‘road movie’ adventure that Maria and Kennedy find themselves on, came from when my cousins and younger brother visited Italy on our own for the first time. We did pretty well – we didn’t get in too much trouble, only got lost a few times, and there was only one incident getting scammed by a con artist. I really love that feeling of being on the road, and it gave me a fun backdrop for Maria to explore her identity.
Can you tell us about your writing journey, and the process that went behind entering the Ampersand?
I first wrote Maria many years ago, in my early twenties. My little brother had just moved in with me, and I’d read chapters to him to see if he thought they were funny. When he laughed, it encouraged me to keep going!
Because of how long it took me to realise I was gay, the first iteration of Maria was a straight one. Friends would read the manuscript and say they liked it, but found the romance quite stilted. But I didn’t know what to do about that! I submitted it to a publisher, got lovely feedback but it didn’t go anywhere, so I put the manuscript in the bottom drawer.
Years later, I finally realised my sexuality and thought – I’m going to give Maria another go. This time writing the romantic side was a lot easier! It still went through a lot of versions, beta reading, many submissions, lots of silence, and a few very kind rejection letters. I was about to give up when I saw the Ampersand Prize. So I thought, this will be my last attempt, and then if it doesn’t go anywhere, I’ll move on.
What was your reaction when you found out?
I was on the “Are you sure? Are you REALLY sure?” treadmill for quite a while (I might still be on there actually). But it’s slowly starting to feel real. I’m learning a lot – there’s so much behind the scenes in publishing I was completely unaware of. The folks I’ve met from Hardie Grant have been so supportive and encouraging, and now I have finally braved Instagram, I’m seeing encouragement from Aus YA writers in all stages of the writing journey. It’s gone from having this project I’ve been working on quietly in my own little world, to meeting a large and supportive community I never knew existed. I feel very grateful.
I read that you’re a teacher, do you find that your work with young people influences your writing for them?
Hmm. Good question. I think those experiences of navigating personal identity, learning to celebrate your culture and family, trying to find your place in the world, stay with us no matter how old we get (which is why I know so many adults who love reading YA!) What I’m really excited about is being able to understand more about the writing and publishing world, and passing that knowledge on. The young people I work with are from hugely diverse backgrounds, and many have been through more struggles than most. Their voices are so important, and if I can encourage them with their writing so they can tell their own stories, I will be so happy!
Hardie Grant Children’s publishing director Marisa Pintado said that your writing has “the heart and relatability of Looking for Alibrandi”, which is high praise, but also has me wondering which, if any, other Australian YA books have influenced your writing?
That is extremely generous praise! Looking for Alibrandi was so important to me. I remember when it first came out, and a friend of mine hunted me down to tell me: “You have to read this! She’s Italian!!!” I was like, Say No More! I loved that book so much (and the movie! And the soundtrack!)
Alibrandi was definitely an inspiration for the wrestling with family/culture aspect, but I was also very influenced by Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia, Finding Cassie Crazy, I Have a Bed of Buttermilk Pancakes. I loved Moriarty’s humour, her way of telling stories through notes and letters and emails, but most importantly the painfully relatable experience of being an introvert, which I connect with a lot.
I have to confess I feel very behind the times with recent YA. For a solid number of years I was mainly reading nonfiction or fanfiction…I was just so desperate for queer stories, and there were so few being published. I’ve only just stuck my head up again to find out the landscape has completely changed. It’s wonderful! I just finished Jeremy Lachlan’s Jane Doe and the Cradle of All Worlds (fantasty/adventure) and am in the middle of H S Valley’s Tim Te Maro and the Subterranean Heartsick Blues (NZ – magic highschool romcom). There’s so much more LGBTIQA+ representation now – I want to read it all!
Also, another one I’ve recently found – Alice Pung’s Laurinda. It’s not queer, but it’s so truthful and sharp it made me gasp aloud. It gave me Alibrandi vibes as well, but from the angle of the scholarship student in the wealthy private school. There is so much great work out there.