For Educators, For Readers 6 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Carolyn Denman

Carolyn Denman is the author of the Sentinels of Eden fantasy series. Book #1, Songlines, was published in 2016, with book #2, Sanguine, following in 2017. Book #3, Sympath, is out now. 

Let’s go back to the beginning…have you been telling stories since you were a kid or was writing something you fell in love with as an adult?

I’ve certainly been an avid reader my whole life, but writing was never something I considered getting into. That all changed when I began ‘vetting’ all the latest release YA novels for my teenage daughters. Screening the books soon became a really good excuse to buy more of them. Those books really helped me to connect with my girls, and helped us to add a ‘friendship’ dimension to our relationship. Then came the day when my eldest daughter mentioned that she was thinking of writing a story, but didn’t think she was good enough to write an entire novel. As if I’d let her get away with that attitude! I told her we’d write one together. She got bored when I became addicted and took over. Sorry, Honey.

Tell us about your new book.

Sympath is the third book in the Sentinels of Eden series. The series follows the story of Lainie and the other Cherubim who have been ordained to protect the secret location of the Garden of Eden. Where better to hide the entrance to paradise than rural Australia? You know as well as I do that anything could be hidden out there.

Of course, pristine bushland is not as remote and inaccessible as it once was. The land is no longer held exclusively in the nurturing hands of its traditional custodians. Modern day life is a real threat to the hidden population of innocents that live in the Garden, and it’s up to a very special family of sheep farmers to keep Eden a secret. Sympath delves deeper into Lainie’s history, and holds some important clues for her future.

Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?

The first ones that come to mind are possibly not considered YA, but I picked them up at about age ten and kept reading them all through high school. Besides, we usually define an age bracket by the age of the protagonist, but how do you do that when the protagonist is a horse? Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby series may have been pitched at a younger horse-mad audience, but the depth of imagery far outstretched what I would consider middle-grade fiction. And yes, I was still horse-crazy as a teenager (and beyond) and I’m not ashamed of that. And the way the author captured the feel of Australian landscapes…wow. Those books made me fall in love with the country of my birth more than anything else ever has.

Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?

My dad, mostly. Not only did my life start with the regular routine of bedtime stories told in his immaculate English accent, but he was the one who put up with all those library visits where I’d come home with nothing but horse-related books. It was his book collection that was conveniently accessible, so he is totally to blame for shifting me on to science-fiction and high fantasy. We still share all our books. He’s even covered his copy of Songlines (book one) with contact paper, because he’s read it so often. You can’t get much more supportive than that.

What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?

The same thing that sets Australian movies and shows apart, I guess. We like our protagonists to be pretty laid back and authentic. We like our settings to be as spectacular and as harsh and also as exquisitely mundane as our country can be. We like our dramas and romances to be gritty and intimate and deeply personal. YA is especially good at all of those things, no matter the genre. Australian YA takes it all even further.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?

There are so many beautiful boutique bookshops around, all of which I could happily hide in for the rest of my life. I also adore those second hand book stores in country towns – you know the ones – they’re usually set up in old church buildings and are packed to the rafters with books old and new. They stock old VHS copies of The Castle as well as the entire Game of Thrones book set for twenty bucks. There’s one in Wonthaggi with a vestry that’s ironically now full of books on New Age and Spiritualism that the church elders would never have approved of. I really love that place.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?

I recently read Jodi McAlister’s Ironheart. I love that series. There really needs to be more urban fantasy set in rural Australia, haha. The fact that I’m hanging out for the next instalment is one of the reasons I’m excited to finish editing the final Sentinels book. I hate having to wait too long for the next book, and I don’t want my readers to have to be too patient either. On the other hand, it must be perfect, I tell you. PERFECT!

Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?

Hmm. Most of my favourite activities aren’t that creative. Most of them have to do with maintaining my hobby farm. I love being outdoors.

I don’t suppose sleeping counts? I really enjoy that, and I have some pretty creative dreams.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?

The worst piece of advice was to avoid including Indigenous characters in my story unless I expanded more on their background and history, lest I be accused of tokenism. That may not have been strictly bad advice because I can see what the person was trying to say, but talk about confusing! On the one hand, it was just after Songlines was released that the #Own Voices movement really took hold (terrible timing, I know. And yes, I would certainly have written it differently had I been across it earlier). The advice came when I was editing Sanguine and trying to avoid stepping across that line. Trying to avoid talking about matters that weren’t mine to talk about. The reason I’m now calling it ‘bad’ advice is because I don’t believe writers should be discouraged from including diverse characters while we’re still trying to establish the best way to do it. I’d rather be accused of tokenism than leave them out altogether. If nothing else, my books might generate discussions about where I’ve done it well or done it badly. If that helps others get it right in the future, go for it.

(Note from the Chair: The views expressed in this interview are Carolyn’s and do not necessarily align with LoveOzYA’s overall view. LoveOzYA strongly recommends the use of sensitivity readers when writing ‘diverse’ characters that are not Own Voices to the writer. While we fully support including characters that are ‘diverse’ from the author, we believe the harm from ‘tokenism’ or otherwise harmful/unrealistic depictions of characters has a significant impact on readers who identify in the same way as those characters. It is of high importance that we as a whole community avoid harmful character representations as much as possible, without erasing any identities from our YA literature. For further information or resource, please contact us.)

The best advice I’ve been given was to worry less about ‘wasting’ something I’ve written. I’m not a huge fan of plotting everything out to the finest detail before starting to write. That doesn’t work for me because I get bored if I know exactly where the story is going. I like to leave myself some surprises. Obviously though, the less I plan the more I need to delete or re-write whole chunks when I go back and tighten everything up. I don’t see that as ‘wasted time’ any more than when a musician spends time practising scales. Besides, it might not be economical, but it is much more fun.

What do you love about OzYA?

That’s an easy one. The OzYA community is incredibly supportive and encouraging. As an author published by small press, it can be difficult to make enough noise to be noticed by readers or reviewers. I love that OzYA followers make the noise for me. I just spent the weekend at Melbourne Supanova, and the number of readers that came into the Artist Alley specifically because they are passionate about supporting local authors was really heartening.

And it isn’t just the readers. Everyone involved in the industry, from publishers and agents, all the Australian authors, bloggers, bookstagrammers, freelance editors (the list goes on), all of us seem genuinely committed to working together to bring more Aussie stories into the world. When I started writing, I never expected to be swept into this Great Southern Bookish Hug. I’m very grateful to be here!

Sympath (Sentinels Of Eden #3) is published by Odyssey Books.

Visit Carolyn Denman’s website here.



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