#LoveOzYA Q&A with Danielle Binks for THE MONSTER OF HER AGE
Danielle Binks is a Melbourne-based writer and literary agent with Jacinta di Mase Management. In 2017, she edited and contributed to Begin, End, Begin, an anthology of new Australian young adult writing inspired by the #LoveOzYA movement, which won the ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children (Ages 13+).
The Year the Maps Changed, Danielle’s debut middle-grade novel, was a 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Notable Book, and is 2022-forthcoming in North America with Quill Tree Books. Her first solo YA novel is THE MONSTER OF HER AGE.
Check out #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios chat with Danielle below, as well as clips on our YouTube channel!
What can readers expect from THE MONSTER OF HER AGE?
This is the story of Ellie Marsden. She’s the grandchild of acting legend, Lottie Lovinger. When (Ellie) was younger, she played the child monster opposite her grandmother in an indie horror movie. But when we meet her, she’s 17, and she’s still reconciling with a not very nice experience that she had on the set of that movie, that caused a big rift in the family, particularly between Ellie and her grandmother. But she comes home to Hobart from Melbourne, because Lottie is dying, and (Ellie) needs to finally settle things with her — maybe, potentially, you know, forgive her — or have it out with her one last time, if that’s possibility, but it’s actually not.
While she’s in Hobart, she meets a young woman called Riya, who is the founder of the feminist film club at the State Cinema in Hobart. The two of them meet, and everything changes for Ellie.
Wonderful. Can you explain a bit about where you first got the seed of an idea for this story?
First and foremost, there’s a reimagined Australian film history in the book: the Lovinger acting dynasty is kind of mirrored on the Barrymores. . . because I have a huge crush on Drew Barrymore, and I always have! So I’ve inserted a little bit of fake Australian film history in there. I’ve made us a lot grander than we really were during the Golden Age of Cinema and the Talkie era. I’ve given Lovinger acting family roots dating back to the Story of the Kelly Gang, the very first moving moving image picture ever in the world.
Part of the reason I did that was because I’m obsessed with film and television, and I love gossip sites about celebrities, and celebrity culture.
I’m also very much a big fan of classic Hollywood, as well as horror films. One of my favorite horror films is undoubtedly The Exorcist. And one of the reasons I love it is because Linda Blair had a really interesting journey, playing a child actor, the one who was possessed. Later on in life, she talked about how she had it a bit rough going back to school after The Exorcist came out, and how her classmates kind of demonised her.
And then it was I was at Books at MIFF, which is books at the Melbourne International Film Festival, and I sat opposite a producer of a pretty big Australian horror film. It just occurred to me to say to them, can I have the number of the child actor’s parent, who was in this film, because I’d like to interview them — I think knowing my obsession with The Exorcist and Linda Blair, in the back of my head. Amazingly, the producer said, ‘Yeah, I’ll set that up for you’. So I approached them and said, ‘Look, I have this idea to write a novel about what goes wrong if you play a child monster in a horror movie’. This parent was actually willing to talk me through the things that they had asked of the film production, the things they wanted to know, before allowing their child to sign on to being in this film. They were the perfect example of the parent that you do want in your corner. So then I was able to flip it all on its head to say, ‘What if you had someone that did not think about your safety, emotionally, physically, socially?’ Fantastic: I fully witness and validate your love of horror movies, but you’ll have to just tell me about them, because I’m a massive wuss.
I want to pick up on the theme of grandparents, because my #LoveOzYA colleague Dayna did an interview with Clayton Zane Comber for 1000 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze, which also features a prominent child-grandparent relationship.
What was interesting to you, particularly, about grandparents and grandkids?
That’s a really good question. I think I like the idea of legacy, and how it can help or hinder you. That’s explored in the novel — Riya does not have the same background as Ellie, and wants to pursue a career in the arts. But it’s a struggle for her: she’s got to make the right amount of money, get into this really competitive program, and the reality is, there’s not a lot of jobs going in the field that she hopefully wants to one day work in. Verus Ellie, who kind of has all these options at her feet.
But then we also see that Ellie feels quite hampered and hindered by her legacy of her family. She feels quite cornered by it, she feels quite let down by it. And I just thought that was a really interesting dynamic to explore.
It’s also interesting, because that’s the way that fame also works. It’s this kind of legacy that people put out there of themselves to the world, and then what people choose to take from that, they have no control over.
I come from a family of matriarchs, grandfathers have never really stuck around in my family. Both my mum and dad had came from three-children households raised by single mothers. So, you know, I’ve always just had matriarchs at the head of my family and very much spinning around my family and I wanted to kind of do a little dedication to that.
And Lottie, who is a John Barrymore-esque character, is gender flipped for one thing.
Definitely. And speaking of Riya, she’s so lovely, and the relationship she has with Ellie is so sweet. What did you want to explore through their romantic relationship?
I’m so glad that you think it was sweet. That was what I ultimately wanted: a sweet, kind of hot, kind of sexy relationship. It’s an LGBT relationship. Ellie identifies as bisexual, and Riya identifies as a lesbian. I didn’t want that to be the focus for them, though. This is not an outing story. It really is as simple as there’s an attraction there. What is the obstacle for them is, for Ellie, that the timing is all wrong. Her grandmother is dying, she’s trying to mend riffs with her family. It’s not the perfect time to be falling in love with someone, but she kind of does because Riya is who she needs in that moment.
Riya helps her see herself in a different light. Riya is so infectious. She’s so determined. She’s such a beautiful, lovely nerd. I absolutely have a huge crush on Riya. And I wanted to write the relationship that I wish I’d read when I was a teenager that reflected more of my life, my experience. So that was a very big thing for me as well.
Riya really is sunshine. Less sunny, though, is where you’ve set this book: my hometown of Hobart, which is wonderful to read. Why did you pick Hobart, and what kind of research did you do?
I’m hoping Hobart will adopt me! I’m hoping the Hobart City Council will say, ‘We’ve got this beautiful house for you that you can come and move into’.
So on one level, it was the alliteration: Hollywood to Hobart. I knew from the start, I wasn’t going to set this in America. This was not going to be an American tale. I was going to manipulate Australian history and insert Australian film history, made, because that’s what I wanted to do.
I’m a big supporter of Australian young adult fiction. There was no way I was going to transpose this story idea to Hollywood. So it was going to be Hobart regardless.
The other thing that Hobart had going for it was Errol Flynn. The fact that Errol Flynn has this mythology that began in Hobart, where he got his swashbuckling pirate persona, developed in Hobart, in his little coastal town. I’m not a huge fan of Errol Flynn, but I appreciate the mythology that he brought over to Hollywood because Hollywood didn’t really know anything about Hobart.
I also really liked that Hobart has a lot of history in the film and theatre district. So the State Cinema of Hobart is the oldest continually operating state cinema in Australia. The theater is also the oldest theatre in Australia as well.
So it’s got a real great thespian history. And considering I was building an imaginary acting dynasty, I thought, what better place in Hobart, that has this beautiful legend and history for Australian theatre and film.
Then it was just that it is a really beautiful little city. I wanted it to be a very walkable book, if that makes sense. I wanted these characters to meander around: Constitution Dock, you know, have some fish and chips.
I would like Hobart teens, Tasmanian teens to see a little bit of themselves because I know how exciting it is, when I read a book, say in Melbourne, or I know how exciting it was.
Obviously, you had your debut THE YEAR THE MAPS CHANGED came out last year, and you’re a well-known literary agent. Has the process of being a published author changed anything about your literary agent work?
THE YEAR THE MAPS CHANGED took me five years to write, and I pretty much started writing it the same year that I started being a literary agent, in 2016. It took me five years to write probably because I was just paralyzed by fear of not living up to people’s expectations. Especially once I became an agent, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s an even bigger target on my back. I really cannot send this out until it’s perfect.’
But when Hachette bought THE YEAR THE MAPS CHANGED from me, they also said what else do you want to work on? And I had this very vague idea for the YA novel, based on this interview I had done with this parent back in 2016.
Hachette knew that I was a big fan of YA. I’ve been a big supporter of LoveOzYA. But that one I had to write within 12 months. I didn’t have anything.
THE MONSTER OF HER AGE ended up having to be a very sped up process. I went to Hobart on a research trip to fill in the ideas I had for the plot in December 2019. So then I was writing a big chunk of it during the first national lockdown, and then I was editing most of it and rewriting a lot of it during Melbourne’s big lockdown. So it I ended up that I was going through a lot of stuff while I was writing this book that was about grief and trauma. It really was odd that it ended up helping the story, but also making it a lot harder to get the story out.
So I think if I’ve learned anything as an agent is to go easy on myself, generally. The fact that I got through the release of one book during a pandemic, and the writing of another during a global pandemic, as well, lets me know that I really can do anything.
If I was my own client, and I was my own agent, I would probably say to myself, go easy on yourself, you don’t have to go helter skelter, 24-7. You can stop and breathe. You can take some time off. I’m trying to say that to myself, now, as I dream up what my next book might be.
It’s funny, though, that I would happily say that to any of my authors as the agent, but saying that to myself is my own creative director? It’s a little bit harder.
I think that’s a powerful thing to say, because people may presume someone like you ‘has it in the bag’, or that you’d be the person who feels utterly confident. But it just goes to show that that’s not the case, and people aren’t robots.
When I was writing THE YEAR THE MAPS CHANGED, it was almost going to be a YA novel. It was almost going to have a 17 year old male protagonist. But the reason I didn’t pursue that partly was because in the end, the story needed that younger, more innocent voice.
I also think that a big part of it was I was scared to write a YA novel, out the gate. I really thought I’ve got a lot higher to fall from. I love the industry. I love YA so much.
(People will) expect a lot from my debut.
So once I said to myself, ‘What if you didn’t make this YA? What if you did your other passion, which is middle grade?’ And everything just kind of released, it was like a real pressure valve had just been taken off.