#LoveOzYA Q&A with Leanne Hall
Leanne Hall is an award-winning Australian author for young adults and children.
Her debut novel, This Is Shyness, was the winner of the Text Prize for Children’s and Young Adult Writing, and was followed by a sequel Queen of the Night. Her novel for younger readers, Iris and the Tiger, won The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
Her latest release, THE GAPS, explores the impact a female high school student’s abduction has on her classmates.
Leanne chatted to #LoveOzYA’s Alex Patrikios about the compelling, unflinching tale, which took her seven years to complete.
You can check out the full interview below, and watch clips on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel.
You’ve said of THE GAPS, that this was a book you “needed” to write. Why was that the case?
The beginning of me writing this book was that there was a really horrible crime, very close to where I was living, around about seven years ago. It was one of those crimes where the whole city becomes very upset, and very invested in finding out where this young woman has gone, and really worrying for her safety.
I found at that time I felt very, very fearful — in fact, I didn’t really leave my house for about three days. I happened to run into an old friend at the park, and she said she was having a similar reaction, and she said, ‘Do you think it’s got something to do with what happened when we were teenagers?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s so obvious, but I didn’t really think about it’.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that a similar crime to the one that happens in THE GAPs happened at my high school. That, in combination, with the fact that I started to write this book and every couple of months, there would be something terrible happening to a young woman on the streets of Melbourne — I really felt constantly that I had to write this book. It’s obviously really difficult subject matter, and involves studying up on crimes, which are a really difficult thing to read, those kinds of facts and details about some of the terrible things that can happen in our world.
But I felt very much like I couldn’t ignore it. I really wanted to explore it. I thought it was something that lots of young women, and young people, live with — that fear of something happening to them on the streets. I just felt like I couldn’t look away.
I think, actually, I did and still do feel a lot of anger about the fact that violence against women is a ‘fact of life’. It seems to be something we accept as collateral damage for living in society, and I just think, how horrible is that? That we accept that it’s something that’s inevitable.
There’s so much to unpack in that. To start with: I think you really captured a kind of detached hypervigilance that young women have when they’re in public spaces. There’s a scene where one of your main characters notices a guy running in a park, and kind of checks him out, and then immediately muses on whether or not she knows of anyone getting attacked in that park. It’s so seamless, that transition from a youthful, almost romantic thought process into something really grim, and it felt really accurate to my experience of being a young woman.
So, how did you go about writing about the constant ‘radar’ women have, when they’re in a public space?
That scene that you talk about, it’s really something that comes from my own experience, because I was a runner at high school. So all throughout my high school years, and even when I was at primary school, I was a very keen athlete. I fought very young to be able to run on my own. When I was 10 to 12, my mum would ride behind me on my bike, and then from about 12 or 13, I was quite stubborn and really fought to be able to run on my own: to run on main roads, run along creeks, run through parks. They were places that I had heard of, that attacks had happened, but I felt that I should be able to do that, and not feel scared. But of course I did feel scared, and I was hypervigilant.
So all of the stuff that happens in that scene is from personal experience. It’s something that I felt, and things that I thought about every day, when I ran. And they’re things that I still feel now, when I’m walking home from the tram, or when I stay out late at a friend’s house, or when I’m walking back to a car late at night. We’re so used to thinking it, we barely even take notice. It just seems like second nature.
I did publish an extract of that scene on my blog a few years back, and I had a lot of women write to me and say, ‘Exactly right. I do all of those things. I hold my keys in my hand like that, and I think all those things when I’m out.’
So unfortunately, it came very naturally.
It’s clear you’ve spent time thinking about the true crime inspiration behind this story, and taking care with it. How did you wrestle with the ethical considerations of that?
I thought about it a lot. The book took me seven years to write, and I stopped writing it many, many times. It was a difficult book to write, and I think a lot of writers kind of ‘method write’, and really submerge themselves in the emotional world of their characters. In this book, it meant submerging myself in a lot of grief and fear, and that’s not always the best thing for your mental health.
I was grappling with the ethics of it. I was asking myself (questions about that) and I decided to just put it all in the book. I think my ambiguous feelings about what are the ethics when you are writing about crime, whether it’s fiction or whether it’s true crime, it naturally came out in the story.
I know that it is something that really sits in a grey area a lot of the time. Not just in relation to me writing this book, but I also enjoy reading a lot of crime fiction, and watching a lot of crime TV, I do listen to true crime podcasts. In some ways these are fascinating — enjoyable sounds like the wrong word when talking about crime — but this is something that fascinates a lot of people. We consume a lot of stories, fictional or true, about crime. It seems very human to be drawn to that.
I put a lot of things in THE GAPs where I was really grappling with that fascination, the ethics, being drawn to it, and repelled by it. I would say that, actually, I don’t have really clear cut feelings about it. I just tried to put all that ambiguity in the actual story, and put it in the mind of the characters.
One of my protagonists, Chloe makes a piece of art in response to what she’s feeling about the crime at her school. And not everyone agrees with that: some people think you should push it down and push it away, not think about it, and other people find a great deal of comfort in trying to process it through expressing it in some creative way. And I think that both standpoints are legitimate.
The school itself in THE GAPS is a bit of a microcosm, with the racial discrimination and the privilege elements you explore. Why did you want to dig into those themes? And how did you go about striking the tone that you wanted to, in terms of interrogating them?
When you write a book, especially if it it stems from some kind of real life inspiration, people are just like, is that you? Is that your personal experience? Sometimes it is, sometimes isn’t, and it’s sometimes borrowed from people around you.
But all of that stuff really was my experience at high school. Chloe is a biracial character and I also have a mixed family background. I was also a scholarship student at an exclusive girls high school, with a feeling of being way out of my ‘class’, and culturally, having no idea where I belonged. That is very much all from personal experience, and I gave a lot of those experiences to Chloe in a book.
The thing that I most wanted to express about my high school years is that feeling of: What does it do to a person when they’re placed in an environment, which is supposedly this great opportunity? But what does it do to them? What are the difficulties around that?
When I left high school, I had a very sunshine and lollipops view of what the experience was for me. But now thinking back to it, it was a really difficult thing for me to be thrust into this environment where I felt I had to pedal really, really hard to even understand what was going on. I constantly felt out of my depth. As a teenager, you’re always looking for ways to belong, but it was very, very hard for me to all of a sudden figure out how to belong in an environment that was really alien to me.
Definitely. Speaking of teenagers, and maybe in a happier vein — can you tell me a bit about the Teen Advisory Board, through your work with Readings?
So the kids would meet once a month, they would usually have an industry professional presence. So it might be an author and editor, a publisher, an agent, and other bookseller, would come and talk to them about their role in the industry, they would often get, they often get review copies to read, and they’ll like write little reviews that will then publish on the ratings blog, we will often ask them about marketing campaigns that are targeted towards their age group, and they will let us know that all the fonts that we’ve chosen are absolutely terrible, and they’re ugly.
They’re there to be a voice for young people.
You’ve said THE GAPS took seven years to write. To be honest, I love hearing that — but I appreciate you maybe didn’t love living it! But I do think it’s testament to the fact good work can take time, and it does take patience for a story to emerge in the right way.
Can you step me through how the project evolved over that period?
I do wish it did take like a slightly shorter amount of time! (Laughs) I think a lot of writers compare themselves to other authors, and how many books other authors managed to write in X amount of years. I certainly am guilty of comparing myself to other authors and wondering why other writers can write so fast, and I’m so slow.
But basically what happened is I wrote IRIS AND THE TIGER and THE GAPS, kind of in tandem, almost like a little relay race. I’m not sure (it) was a great idea. But it was how I could cope with writing THE GAPS, to go to something for a much younger age group that was full of magic and quirkiness and whimsy.
With writing — I’m going to give this advice and I’m probably terrible at following my own advice — but you can’t control the process. You’ve just got to go along for the ride, and it’s probably not going to happen the way you expect it.
I started THE GAPS unexpectedly. I sort of had the idea, and then I went on an Asia link residency to Beijing for three months. I had a project proposal and a very certain plan: I will do 50% research, and 50% writing in my time in Beijing on this project. Instead I got to Beijing, and I sat down, and the first 30,000 words of THE GAPS just fell out of me.
When you do have that anxious feeling about your ‘pace’, compared to other authors — is there anything you tell yourself, to help keep it at bay?
I love reading about writers who’ve had really long careers. I also love stories about people that didn’t have their first book published until they were in their 50s or 60s.
A career is a long thing. It’s not make or break on one book, and if you’re going to be writing for a really long time, you’re going to have some really rough patches. You’re probably going to have some books that never see the light of day.
I quite like taking that big picture look at it, and seeing it as a long long life journey. It takes the pressure off the immediate moment.