#LoveOzYA Q&A with Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler
Carl Merrison is a Jaru and Kija man from Halls Creek. Carl works with young Indigenous boys through the Clontarf Academy focusing in improving engagement with education and providing a positive role model. Carl was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2016.
Hakea Hustler is an experienced English teacher who has taught around Australia including in remote Aboriginal communities. Hakea is committed to Indigenous education with a particular focus on story as learning and empowerment.
Their suspenseful story TRACKS OF THE MISSING was shortlisted for the 2018 Daisy Utemorrah Award and is out now through Magabala Books!
Carl and Hakea spoke to #LoveOzYA’s Alexandra Patrikios about their writing inspiration, process, and what readers can expected from TRACKS OF THE MISSING.
What is TRACKS OF THE MISSING about?
TRACKS OF THE MISSING is about Deklan Archer, a First Nations teenager, from a remote outback town who gets pulled into the mystery of a missing busload of Year 12s. When the Year 12s do not return from excursion on time, Deklan is recruited by his grandfather to help in the search. Set in the deep outback, this book gives an insight into the life of First Nations people from remote communities.
Where did the story idea come from?
We would read Goosebumps and other books to our son before bed. He wasn’t an avid reader but was always hooked by the suspense genre.
We started thinking about ways we could engage disengaged remote outback readers. What types of books could we use to improve literacy outcomes for our students and our nieces and nephews. An Australian outback YA suspense thriller just made sense.
Hakea hadn’t even been to the outback until university- there are so many people who don’t know what life is like out here. So we wrote a book that shows people about the geographical isolation, the risks that exist out there. But also the strengths of the people, families and communities that live in the outback too.
Carl lived in the ‘heart of the Kimberley’ for 40 years- so outback stories are in his blood. He doesn’t always realise that his ‘ordinary’ stories are ‘extraordinary’ for city readers.
Where did you derive creative inspiration from – perhaps other books, songs, stories, music, film?
We usually just yarn about story ideas. Carl recalls his memories of growing up in Halls Creek in the Kimberley and we kind of weave them together. It’s often a single first line that sparks a whole story and we pull in real life snippets with lots of fiction. We think about the stories we’d like to read and the stories that we know outback kids would love. Hakea brings her knowledge as an English teacher to polish up the stories we share.
Carl is a Level 3 AFL coach, sports coordinator and huge sport fan- so sports play a big part in our book too.
Reading to our children helped inspire us as well- so Tristan Bancks, Ahn Do, Aaron Blabley and all those type books were on repeat at bedtime in our house.
We are inspired by First Nations writers like Anita Heiss, Jared Thomas, Dub Leffler and all the other amazing authors under Magabala Books too.
TRACKS OF THE MISSING is a tense page-turner. What ingredients or techniques do you think dial up tension in a story?
We started with a problem, and leave every chapter on a cliff hanger. We vary sentence types- simple, compound, complex. We build tension through short, sharp sentences in a row. And we also trap the reader in Deklan’s head- it is a first person point of view- so they only get to see, hear and feel what he does.
What was the hardest part of the book to get right?
All of it. It was our first longer book- and it was a huge learning curve. Not to share too much information to keep the reader hooked- but share enough that the story makes sense. Trying not to ‘front load’ with all the background of the story- but the need to put the story into context.
What do you hope young readers will take from this story?
We hope young readers develop an understanding of remote outback life. Through understanding comes empathy and through empathy comes reconciliation.
We hope disengaged First Nations readers are encouraged to read- seeing their faces, their stories and their landscape represented in the text.
We hope that people understand that there is ‘good and bad’ in everyone. And what is seen as ‘good or bad’ is subjective. That our characters can be shades of everything- just like we all are.
What other Australian young adult stories (short or novel-length) have you enjoyed recently?
Catching Teller Crow was amazing. We loved the Yinti Series. Take the Shot by Susan White was sports related so a good read. Hakea is a fantasy reader. Carl is a crime and sport autobiography reader. We both struggle to balance family, work, writing and reading… so reading unfortunately often misses out. Our ‘to read list’ is long… and growing!
What is it like to write together?
Writing together takes a LONG time! Finding time, inspiration, and then pulling the story together can be a little challenging. Carl works full time as an Aboriginal Education Officer and is a AFLW Division 1 coach that takes up 3 nights a week. Hakea is a busy teacher. They both run a side business delivering teacher PD. And raise their little family. Finding the author life balance can be challenging!
Why do you write?
Carl: I’ve seen what happens when people can’t read. The everyday challenges like having to trust others to read your bills or tell you where to sign on a contract. I want to improve literacy in the outback through writing books that us mob want to read.
Hakea: As an English teacher I have worked with low literacy students. I’ve seen how they disengage from some books that they can’t relate to. We write books that outback students can relate to… and mainstream students can learn from.
We develop teaching resources to help teachers deliver our books in classrooms all over the country too. We want accessing our books and the ideas locked in them to be as easy as possible.