#LoveOzYA Q&A with Rhiannon Wilde
HENRY HAMLET’S HEART is Rhiannon Wilde’s debut novel, and won the State Library of Queensland Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2019.
Below, Rhiannon chats with #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about HENRY HAMLET’S HEART, male friendship, and her unusual writing process. You can also watch clips on the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!
For those people who haven’t read HENRY HAMLET’S HEART yet, what’s it all about?
I always say HENRY HAMLET’S HEART is a queer YA love story about best friends at an all-boys school. That’s my elevator pitch.
That was one of the things that I wanted to ask you about, because it is set in this private boys school, which often have the reputation of being quite traditional and conservative. I was certainly really excited to read a gay romance set in that context. Why did you decide to set it there?
I think there’s a few reasons. A couple of them are probably unconscious. I’m currently a not-teaching teacher, and I’ve always taught in the girls school system and we’ve done events and things with boys schools, so I’ve just always been in that single-sex world. So when Henry appeared to me as a character, and he was a boy, my head kind of straight away put him in that context and I started to think about the tension that that would create.
I also think I did want to push against that conservativism and toxic masculinity that does exist in those spaces, and that a lot of boys schools now, within their own communities, are trying to push against as well. I think there’s a real movement to get rid of that stereotype that boys schools are kind of like Gordonstoun where Prince Charles went, and if you watch The Crown and he’s like, against a fence crying because they’re making him run laps around the oval. I think there is a stereotype that that’s what boys schools are like and should be, and I wanted to push against that.
Sometimes in YA, we have characters that are going through their struggles and they’re loners, whereas Henry is the school captain. He sees himself as not fitting in, but he does sit within this group of friends with Ged and Vince and Len all around him. How did you work on developing authentic dialogue between all the characters?
I think again, it’s a mix of really deliberate stuff, and just things that flowed and worked. I always had a lot of male friends when I was a teenager. I still do. And my partner is male, and I’m really close with all of his friends and I watch their dynamic. I think a lot of it comes from that. Watching them when we were younger, and kind of the way they riff on each other, the closeness of male friendships is something I was really interested in and how it differs from the closeness of female friendships. There’s a lot that’s unsaid, but it is a very close bond. If something goes wrong, those boys are there and they want to fix it and they want to help. I think it is a very complex close bond that I wanted to explore.
I wanted to give Henry a group of friends that kept things interesting and that he could play off. Because I get bored if I’m writing something and the character is on their own a lot. I like there to be intrigue. I don’t know how Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight and there’s all those blocks where Bella’s just reading. I loved reading them, but I wouldn’t be able to write that because I’m impatient!
So I think the boys were a nice way to keep things moving. But also, they were really fun to get to know in their own right. Especially Ged. Ged was a total accident, he just rocked up when I was writing the first day of school and I was like, I love you, yes!
Yes, I love Ged too! He’s just magic. I love the way he pushes Henry out of his comfort zone in a really good way, you know, dragging him to parties, and like, “you gotta be my wingman” and that sort of stuff, which just felt really authentic too.
I think the other thing that really struck me is the characters are more than one thing. So, you’ve got Henry and he’s our flawed narrator and, sees himself as probably not as good as he is, which I guess, is most of us. He’s school captain, but he still feels like he’s just sort of struggling to keep up.
And then you’ve got Len who’s on the football team, he’s a debater and an artist. And then he’s also incredibly charming and manages to charm all the teachers. So he’s quite fleshed out. But one of the things I wondered was why you decided to put us in Henry’s mind instead of Len’s. Because to me, they’re both quite as well developed as each other and Len’s quite a mysterious character in lots of ways.
I think that’s probably part of the reason. I think, chiefly, the way that the idea for the book came was that I had rattling in the back of my mind that I’d love a queer YA about best friends because I hadn’t read that, and I’d love to read that. And then the character of Henry appeared in my life and started talking to me. So, I was kind of like, okay, these are the two things that go together.
Len was quite hard to crack. So I knew vaguely that Henry had this best friend character. And then Len started filtering through, but he took a good month or so before I felt like I knew who he was, I could just see him. And then he didn’t give me anything else, because that’s just what he’s like. I started by writing the last few scenes . I’m not a linear writer, I’m revealing myself, my editor always says yes, you put a lot into backwards planning, make sure you say that because you do plan after!
And so, I wrote the last scenes first because I wanted to see what Len was like when Henry gets in close. And I think he was so mysterious that his POV didn’t come straight away. But it’s interesting that you’d ask that because I’ve got cheeky little bits of a sequel floating around, and they’re all from Len’s point of view. I sent one to my editor for Christmas.
That’s so exciting!
But Len’s point of view is very different. And I don’t know that I’d be able to get as much information in because Henry fixates on details and is very, like you say, neurotic, which I think is good in a narrator because you can cover a lot of ground. Whereas Len, I think, would move quicker and be shorter in his prose.
There are so many questions that I have in my mind about Len. Because I almost felt like he thinks maybe more in in pictures because he’s an artist or he doesn’t necessarily verbalise what he’s going through, he just feels it.
Yeah, that’s so true. There’s a scene that I had to cut, where he says that he doesn’t always understand his feelings until he goes back over them. And I think that’s true of a lot of boys. And people. But yeah, I wanted them to contrast each other. And I think they do in that respect.
So more about this writing process. You work backwards? And how long did it take to work on the novel? And what number draft is this one that is coming out?
In terms of a full draft, it’s number three. And, yeah, I don’t recommend the way that I did it either! So it won the unpublished manuscript award at the Queensland Literary Awards and that was the first draft. And I think it showed, when I went to do the structural edit! But in terms of how long it took me, it was about three or four months, I think, to write the very first draft, because I took a bit of time off from teaching, and I just focused on doing it every day and writing different scenes.
But in terms of working backwards . . . So the first thing that I ever wrote was the last scene in the book. And then I wrote most of the middle big beats, like the relationship-y parts after that, and then I went back and wrote the beginning. I think it’s a little bit intimidating to sit down and try and write a beginning, when you’re not sure, well, for me, when I’m not sure what the rest is going to look like.
I don’t know what I need to put in the beginning yet, if you know what I mean. I didn’t know who Henry’s family was. And then I could go back and write that first scene where they’re in the cafe together and really understand who they all are. And yeah, so I think my brain just kind of skips around when I’m writing a first draft, which I really like. Like I’ll just be out somewhere and a scene will pop into my head that belongs in the last third of the book. And I’ll write it and then kind of stick it all together when I’m finishing the first draft, and then the second draft, the structural edit, where you have to clean all that up.
That sounds really fascinating because I do get the sense that sometimes when people are writing, they think you’ve got to start at the beginning and work your way through, and they can get bogged down in not knowing how it’s going to resolve itself. But you knew where it was going because you’d already written the end.
Yeah, I saw them at the end. I knew where they ended up. I’m working on another book now and I’m the same. I was hoping that I would magically turn into a linear writer and it was just a Henry thing! But I am better at sitting and doing some sections linear, now. But I still see them as they are at the end. And then I work backwards.
I think one of the other things that, for me, was really strong in this book was definitely the feelings it evoked, like, I’d read certain scenes, and I’d be like, ooo, you know, all shivery.
How did you do that?
Oh, God, I don’t know! I don’t know how I do it. Like, sometimes people will say, ‘Oh, this part made me cry’, and I can’t believe that something that I’ve written can do that. I think I write to make myself feel things, to a certain extent.
I read pretty widely, and I read pretty much all the things. And so, I always have, in my mind, what makes me as a reader feel a certain way? And what do I like to see? And what do I not like to see, and things like that. So, I think, to a certain extent, it’s like wish fulfillment of what I like as a reader.
Then I really like language, like at a sentence level. Making sure that each sentence has a loveliness to it. And you’re not just writing like, “I put down my phone” or something like that. I think if you focus on your language in a really small, hyper-focused way, often that gives you a better result than if you’re doing this really dramatic scene of actions. I think sentence level is really important. It’s something I always taught when I was teaching English and they were doing short stories, I’d put a picture up on the board and they had to describe every aspect as beautifully as they could, just to practice thinking in that way.
Yeah, I think concentrating at a sentence level, and then wish fulfillment of what I like to read.
Now you mentioned that it won an award, the State Library of Queensland Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2019. What did winning that award mean for you as a writer?
It meant everything. It’s why I’m here, that’s why it’s coming out. I had thought that I would go down the traditional path of finding an agent and then submitting to publishers and the waiting that a lot of my writing peers talk about. And then I saw the entries open for the Queensland Literary Awards’ Unpublished Manuscript Category on a whim one day, and I thought, okay, I’ll submit to that as well, I’m submitting to all these other places. And then a couple of months later, I got a call saying I’d been shortlisted. And I was like, cool, but there’s no way mine is going to win, look at all the others, look at how highbrow and literary they are. And then another month later, I got an email saying that it had won its category and a publishing contract, which was crazy. And I went to the Queensland Literary Awards and nearly fainted having to do my speech. I remember Melissa Lucashenko shook my hand, and it was like, so sweaty, and I was like, please don’t shake it!
I always say, I feel like I got really lucky because then my publishing contract with UQP that came as part of that prize, brought me to my brilliant editor Felicity, who I just love. And my publisher, Claire Hume, who is incredible as well. So, I think, all in all, I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be, but in a pretty roundabout, magical kind of way. And I always encourage people to submit to prizes like that now, because you just never know. Like, if your book is meant to go to those people, then it will.
Yeah, it will go where it’s meant to find its home.