#LoveOzYA Q&A with Frances Chapman
Frances Chapman is a novelist, playwright and screenwriter from Sydney whose debut #LoveOzYA novel, Stars Like Us, came out this year after winning the 2018 Ampersand Prize.
As we eagerly await the announcement of the 2020 winner, #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios asked Frances about her publishing journey, the things she’s learned, and what’s surprised her about the reader response to her debut book.
Read Alex’s chat with Frances below, or check out clips from the interview on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
With the new Ampersand Prize winner to be revealed on 9 November, what has the experience of winning the prize and seeing your book come out been like for you? And on top of that, what’s been an unexpected part of the process?
The Ampersand changed my life, and that’s not overstating it. As an emerging writer one of the big challenges you have is that you just don’t know if it’s any good, and you send it to people and you get a rejection — I had a million rejections — but you don’t really know why. They try to give you feedback, but it’s often quite hard to do anything with it.
The thing about the Ampersand that’s amazing is that your book will be published, but that you also have that mentorship and support. You have a publisher working with you to get it ready for publication, so if it’s not really ready — and mine wasn’t, it was nowhere near ready, even though I thought it was finished — you can have someone who will actually explain to you why it’s not ready, and what needs to change.
I rewrote the first third of my book, I changed the age of my characters, I pulled out all the drug use: I made a lot of changes as a result of those conversations.
They know what they want to publish, they know the industry, and they know what people are reading. All those things as a writer (that) you just can’t know, that was so valuable to me.
It’s such a great shortlist. I know which book I want to read, but I haven’t read any of the manuscripts, and I haven’t spoken to anyone, so I don’t know who is going to win. I hope they all get publishing contracts, because they all sound fantastic.
As far as what’s unexpected about having a book out, I don’t think I was prepared for feeling quite so exposed. You know, people read your book and then they feel like they’ve got this insight into your mind, and I think they do. You’ve got to put your heart and soul on the page. So it is quite public in a way that I should’ve expected by didn’t when I was writing it.
It’s sort of out in the world and it’s got it’s own life then, and there’s something thrilling, but also quite frightening, about that. That was unexpected, but also really good. I wouldn’t want to go back and not have a book out in the world.
That feeling of exposure: I imagine that’s something you can’t intellectually prepare for, just by imagining it, though?
Yeah, and you can’t be walked through it by someone, or warned about it. If a published author had said to me, ‘Oh, you think you want to get published, but you’ll find it quite confronting’, I would’ve been like, yeah I know, I really want to get published.
I imagine it gets easier with each book as well, because you start to understand that they’ve got their own life out there, and you probably stop reading reviews (laughs). It’s interesting to me what people focus on, that was never what I thought was really interesting about the book, and the things people pull out of it. Like I had one reviewer who was very positive, but she said, ‘Richie doesn’t do anything, he’s just there for the ride’ and I was like, yeah he’s a bass player, it’s a kind of joke. She didn’t get it (laughs). So it’s funny, but it is it’s own beast, and you’ve got to divorce yourself a bit from other people’s response to it.
I watched the Emerging Writers’ Festival panel where you talked about big structural edits you did, in terms of changing the characters’ ages and taking out the drug use. For others who may be about to tackle big, structural change feedback, do you have any wisdom to pass on?
The changes that I made, it made it a better book. It was a very clear direction. I’m not a plotter particularly: I try to have a vague structure in mind, but I mostly just try to write and see what comes, and I need to find the characters.
But there were other changes that they suggested that I pushed back on. There was one particular one that I pushed back on, and then later, at the final draft, my editor was like, ‘I think this needs to happen’, and I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, it does need to happen’.
In terms of finding the energy for it: I know when it’s finished and when I can’t give anymore to it. If I’d felt that I was in that place I would’ve said thanks but no thanks, I’ll just see if I can get it published somewhere else. But if you’re going to get your book published by a traditional publisher, there are going to be some revisions and some changes, and that is part of the process.
It also makes it collaborative. Writing is often so solitary and lonely, and I suddenly had someone in my corner who was excited about my book. Some editors might be very worried about commercial considerations — like, we can’t publish this because it won’t sell. But I never heard that from my editor at (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing). It was all about making it a better book, making it a clearer character journey, making the plot stand out more, making sure the pacing was right.
You must remember what it felt like to be on the shortlist. Do you have any advice for those writers, ahead of the announcement?
The hardest thing is not having control, I think. You know you’ve made it this far, and you feel like the control lies with someone else. And it’s all well and good for me to say this, in my position, but I really feel if you’re not the winner, then it wasn’t the right home for your book and you’ll find the right publisher somewhere else.
I had a phone call with (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing) when I was on the shortlist, and I got off the phone and said to my partner, ‘I really hope that I get this, not because I want to win the Ampersand, although I do, but because I feel like these are the right people to publish my book’.
So my advice is not to take it too personally, even though it is extremely personal.
Digging into Star Like Us itself, one of the things I thought was really interesting was how you captured what it’s like to get infatuated with — and with great respect to your characterisation — a ‘fuccboi’, I believe we call them now. And then, on top of that, there are a few times in the book where Liliana is on the receiving end of unhealthy behaviours, such as people violating her personal space, both in a romantic dynamic and not. Did you expressly set out to explore these more subtle infringements, and how we maybe don’t notice at the time how unhealthy certain behaviours are?
I wanted to write a book that was very feminist without it jumping up on a high horse and beating a drum, even though that’s also a great kind of book. I didn’t want it to be a book about male and female interactions, particularly. But I thought that the fame industry and the way we behave with celebrities was a prism through which to look at those things.
I was really taken by this photo of Kim Kardashian where she is walking down the street and in the photo, you could see all the paparazzi. But in this photo, there’s her, her kid, and then all these men with cameras, and there’s something quite phallic about it, with these big lenses. There’s no female paparazzi. It’s a very unequal relationship in both ways — she’s got a lot of power, and they’ve got a lot of power.
I wanted to explore some of these things. The major challenge for me is that I’m very analytical and my main character, Liliana, is not. So a lot of things happen without her analysing it or going over it, or thinking to herself that there’s anything wrong with it, so it’s up to the reader to come up with the analysis.
That was really hard for me, because as a writer, I wanted to signpost and say, ‘of course, this is really terrible’. But I was hoping to give the reader space to make those decisions themselves.
That’s really interesting that you say you held back, to give the reader more to do. Were you thinking of young readers and not wanting to patronise them, or even just giving them the answers neatly, when you were looking at how to frame some of those violations?
Definitely. I didn’t want to moralise. With Carter, the fuccboi in question (laughs) — I have a lot of time and sympathy for him, he’s a product of his environment as well — I wanted for the reader to understand why Liliana would be so drawn to him, even though, as you say, he has a lot of qualities that are less than ideal.
Carter was the first character I had, and came to me fully formed. I’m always amazed that people hate him so much, because I actually quite like him!
I think that may have more to do with the skill with which you’ve captured a certain type of romantic experience…
Well, and it’s almost a trope. The bad boy trope, I guess. These are real people that exist in the world who don’t seem to give any f***s whatsoever about anyone other than themselves, and sort of just chase the thing they want in the moment. Everything Carter says in the book is honest in the moment. He really believes it, in the moment. It’s just that it doesn’t hold when something else comes along and it’s shiny.