#LoveOzYA Q&A with Robyn Dennison about BLIND SPOT
Robyn Dennison is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she teaches creative writing. Her fiction has appeared in Australian literary journals and her debut novel, Blind Spot, was shortlisted for the Text Prize in 2021.
#LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith recently chatted with her about how the novel developed, whether YA is actually a genre, and what being shortlisted for the Text Prize meant to her.
Trigger warning: Sexual assault, eating disorders, alcohol and drug use, and sex. It’s listed on the Text Publishing website for 14+.
What’s Blind Spot about?
Blind Spot is about a young man named Dale who witnesses but doesn’t intervene in the sexual assault of a girl from his school. The novel follows the fall-out from that as he grapples with why he didn’t do anything and tries to find a way forward, as he develops a close relationship with his cousin who has come to live with him.
It’s a really great exploration of some very interesting topics. One of the things that I love most about this book is the central question of how do we live with ourselves when we’ve done something that fundamentally goes against our own values. I think this is a topic that we don’t talk about enough. What made you want to write about it?
I started writing the novel a while ago when I was working on a thesis about the representation of sexual violence in young adult fiction so I was already researching that stuff, but I didn’t necessarily consciously choose to explore it in the creative component of that thesis through this bystander aspect. That came along to me as an idea as a compelling dilemma for a character to find themselves in. I think something that inspires a lot of my writing is a specific situation that is conflicted or regretful or shameful.
I thought it was a really interesting way of looking at it. We tend to think of sexual assault and think of the victim and the perpetrator, but to look at it from a bystander’s perspective; you start to see the ripple effect of that act of violence throughout the community, whether they’re aware of it or not and then as they start to become aware of it. So that came out of your research as your source of inspiration?
Again, I’m not really sure. It’s so hard to try to articulate what happens with creative processes. And like I said, it was quite a while ago now, it was 10 years ago. And the conversations we were having, the discourse was quite different.
That’s fascinating to think about reading it now, that it started 10 years ago. I was thinking as I read it, about cancel culture and that you can’t cancel yourself so you have to learn how to live with yourself.
That is an interesting way of thinking about it. I guess when I’ve made jokes about cancel culture, it’s been in the context of people might not love the way that it focuses on this male character even though it’s about the sexual assault of a woman! But I’m sure Dale would prefer to be able to be cancelled as his atonement and have it be easy, like you’ve done something wrong, here’s how to fix it, and nothing exists like that in reality or in the book, and we have to just live with the bad things we do or the regrets we have.
I guess that’s one of the hard things about growing up, is that there isn’t a nice rule book telling us how to do things. And all the characters are dealing with their own things. There’s Max who becomes a big support for Dale, but is struggling herself. She’s a great character – a sort of flawed mentor for Dale. What made you decide to put in Max’s storyline?
Yeah, in some ways. Even though she herself is very resistant to that reading, which I think is fair enough. She was always there from the beginning, from the seed of the idea. I think because I don’t think anyone would want to read, and I certainly wouldn’t want to write, a story that was purely about the male experience of the ripple effects of sexual violence against women. So partly that, and there are parallels between Dale’s role as a bystander in what happens to Chloe, and Dale’s role that recurs, in a way, with Max. I think part of Max’s character being there was that I’m quite interested in the way eating disorders are depicted in fiction. I don’t feel they come up that often, given how prevalent they are. I think they come up much more in non-fiction, in memoir and essays. I think there’s space in fiction for this to be explored more.
I liked her because she was such a complex character and it really made me think about how we’re all complicated, but she could still be there, to some extent, for Dale, even though there was so much going on for her with her struggles with her eating disorder. I was grateful he had that.
I could really imagine this being discussed in a classroom because I do think it’s an interesting angle to look at it. When we think about sexual violence, we think about the impact on women, and this explores the impact on the wider community and on teenage boys and men as well. Do you hope it will get picked up and discussed in schools?
I don’t think that I ever thought that was likely. I’m aware there is a lot of content in the novel that is a little, for some people… Depending on how you think about YA and what your perspective is on the function of literature. I’ve never really thought about it.
Ah, that interests me because I read that you teach creative writing and you’re doing a PhD in the area of YA fiction and you’ve just published your first YA novel. I guess I just assumed that when you teach writing, that when you’re writing it, you’re imagining how it could be analysed and critiqued in a classroom setting.
I don’t think I could write anything if I thought at all about a real person reading it! I really do try to think “that’s none of my business”. That’s my approach. Yeah, I think these conversations are a bit different when you’re talking about YA vs not YA, and I teach undergraduates.
You are doing your PhD in this area, and you’ve written a YA book. What is it about YA that you find interesting?
There are so many debates in the academic context about YA and so much of it is about ideology and this idea, implicit or otherwise, that texts are fundamentally educative tools, which I don’t necessarily agree with. I think my interest in YA is an interest in the life stage of adolescence. And as much as people like to say that YA is not a genre, I kind of think it is. I don’t think you see adolescent characters who stay adolescent throughout the period of narration anywhere except in YA, rather than an adult recounting their adolescence in a coming-of-age novel. Except maybe in some genre fiction. I’m interested in adolescent characters and I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves about adolescence, but I’m less focused academically and personally and in my writing, on the readership of adolescents as real young people, if that makes sense.
I’m fascinated at the idea that YA is not a genre and that’s such a prevalent topic in academia!
Some people have really strong feelings that it shouldn’t be discussed as a genre because it has genres within it. I think in realist YA there’s a set of narrative conventions and style conventions and that’s how you define genre, so I think it’s a genre, personally.
When you said that it’s taken 10 years to write this book, how did the book evolve since you started it 10 years ago? You must be a different person than you were when you started it.
I’m definitely a different person than I was when I started it! I didn’t work on it for 10 years – I’m not nearly disciplined for that. I finished a full draft within 2 years and then I put it in a drawer. I think the main question for me was whether it was publishable and I did have second thoughts about whether it was a story worth telling, regarding the point of view. I put it in a drawer, I worked on other things, I started my PhD, which despite being about YA is completely unrelated to this novel. I didn’t come back to it until the lockdowns. There was still something there for me. I think I always felt very connected to the characters so then I re-wrote it and I think the main things that changed were the handling of the way Dale is situated in relation to other people and the signal event of the novel.
That’s interesting to hear that you had second thoughts and put it away, because of course, it got shortlisted for the Text Prize. What impact did that have on you?
I got to the point that I thought it was as good as I could make this story. I always knew that if I was going to pursue publication, I would want to pursue the Text Prize. That gave me a deadline to work towards with the re-write. And yeah, that’s how it got published. It was Text – they were like, you haven’t won, but we like it.
Congratulations! It’s a phenomenal thing to be published and to be shortlisted. I really loved Blind Spot and would recommend people go out and pick up a copy. It’s incredibly thought-provoking. Ireally want to shove it in people’s hands because I want to have conversations about it!