4 years ago

#LoveOzYA Q&A with Rebecca Higgie

Rebecca Higgie is a writer from Perth. Her whole life has been spent in the company of books, with careers in libraries and universities. Formerly an academic at Curtin University and Brunel University London, she has published research on satire and politics. She has worked in the stacks of the State Library of Western Australia and fostered childhood literacy as the Library Officer at Guildford Primary, WA’s oldest public school. Her creative work combines whimsy and play with extensive research and critical insights. Her stories and poems have appeared in publications such as Westerly, Stories of Perth and Visible Ink. Her novel The History of Mischief won the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript.

Rebecca’s latest book, The History of Mischief (Fremantle Press) 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 always had stories running around in my head, and started making books from scrap paper and stickers when I was five years old. When I was nine, we rented a computer for the first time (a big deal back in the 90s!), and I started typing out my stories. I hand-wrote them first. I was that kid sitting by the pool on family holidays, scribbling away in my notebooks. I churned out about seven novels/novellas by the time I was 16. One of them was 404 hand-written pages long, and it only took me 10 weeks to write! Year 12 put a stop to all my writing, as did the inner critic. I fell back in love with writing as an adult when I finally managed to put the inner critic aside.

Tell us about your new book.

The History of Mischief is a novel full of magic, mischief, madness and mystery.

Set in the town of Guildford, Western Australia, it follows Jessie and Kay as they delve into a mysterious book called The History of Mischief. Found hidden in the floorboards of their grandmother’s abandoned home, the book spans over two thousand years, chronicling a mysterious magical power called mischief. It follows ‘mischiefs’ from Ancient Greece, Egypt, China, Poland, France, Ethiopia, Britain and Australia.

The mystery of the book, and where it came from, lingers with Jessie as she tries to navigate life after the death of her parents. Inspired by the book, she starts to conduct her own mischief, surprising her new school friend and an eccentric elderly neighbour who vacuums her driveway at night.

Ultimately, The History of Mischief is about grief and the many things we try to do to escape it. It is about the stories we tell in order to protect ourselves and those we love.

The book took me 12 years to write and won the 2019 Fogarty Literary Award. It’s a literary historical fiction suitable for YA and adult audiences.

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

When I was growing up, I enjoyed the silliness of Paul Jennings and the magic of Emily Rodda. My favourite OzYA book, The Book Thief  by Markus Zusak, came to me when I was much older. I love books about books, and the startling end of  The Book Thief  still sits with me today. I’d recommend it to anyone, young or old.

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

My mother. She read everything I wrote and was so specific with her praise, telling me the characters she liked and the scenes she found exciting or moving. I have a vivid memory of showing my older cousin one of my stories when I was 10. I still remember the awkward look on his face, how clearly he thought it was rubbish. But I never got that with Mum. As a kid, it felt so good to impress her as much as I was impressed by the authors I loved.

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

I think it makes a big difference to see yourself and your places in books. It’s really exciting to see Australian places, or to hear characters use Australian phrases and idioms. I know it might seem obvious, but Australian YA stories offer Aussie readers a chance to see themselves, and I think it’s important and validating to see people like you in print.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?

Yes, many! I love browsing in my local bookshops, particularly Crow Books in East Victoria Park and Dymocks Garden City. I visit my local public library in South Perth multiple time a week, attending RhymeTime with my baby boy and getting bags of books to take home. My novel is inspired by libraries, and features many real-life libraries, including the Guildford Primary School Library and the State Library of WA, both where I used to work.

My favourite library of all time is probably the WA State Library. I love the areas that are hidden, the stacks and archives where rare old books, hundred-year-old maps, and boxes of crumbling newspapers live. Libraries are repositories of cultural memories, memories that are centuries old. It’s exciting to walk among the memories of yesteryear.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?

The last book I read and enjoyed was  My Name is Why  by the poet Lemn Sissay. It’s a memoir about his experience of going through the British care system as a child. It includes Lemn’s story alongside case notes from social workers, showing how the system stole him from his mother and then continually failed him until he left the care system at 18. It’s a very powerful book, with moments of lightness and humour, and is written with a poetic lyrical feel. It’s the perfect audiobook.

I am currently reading an OzYA book called  Father of the Lost Boys  by Yuot A. Alaak. It’s a memoir about Yuot’s experience as a child soldier in South Sudan, and the inspirational story of his father who led so many lost boys to freedom. So far, I’m really enjoying this well-written book. OzYA memoir is just as brilliant as OzYA fiction.

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

I sing picture books to my son. I read to my one-year-old boy every day, and almost every book we read gets turned into a song. I can now start singing the song from a favourite book, and he will go and pick that book off the shelf! I don’t have a lot of time to write at the moment, but it’s so nice to be creative, even in how I read a story out loud.

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

The worst piece of advice: Figure out your genre and audience first. Hear me out! I know this is conventional advice and is really helpful for some writers, but I personally get stuck when I try to think of how my stories or ideas fit into a box. If you’re someone who finds this helpful though, run with it! If you’re like me, and you find thinking about genre and audience limiting, put it aside for a moment. It can be quite freeing!

This leads into the best piece of advice: write the story you need to tell, not what you think others want to hear. I would encourage any aspiring writers to forget your readers and forget publication, at least for the first draft. Write a story you want to read. Even if your story never sees the light of day, at least you wrote something true to you.

Oh, another great tip: write in Calibri or some other draft-looking font. Don’t format or add a nice font until you’re done! I love this because it reminds me that everything is just a draft and doesn’t need to be perfect.

What do you love about OzYA?

I love that OzYA is always changing. We’re getting more books from diverse Australian voices, which explore Indigenous, immigrant and LGBTI experiences. These Aussie books offer young adults a window into the world of fellow Australians who are often ignored, and does so in a way that encourages empathy. I love how OzYA can be exhilarating, moving, irreverent and fantastical, all while sharing the voices and experiences of neighbours we may otherwise never speak to.

To find out more about Rebecca and her writing, visit her website and follow her Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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