#LoveOzYA Q&A with Tobias Madden about Anything But Fine

Tobias Madden talked with #LoveOzYA’s A.B Endacott about his debut, ANYTHING BUT FINE.

You can read their chat below, or check out clips via the #LoveOzYA YouTube channel!

Thank you so much for speaking with LoveOzYA today, Tobias, about ANYTHING BUT FINE, your debut. I shall get my, you know, I’ll get my notes so that they’re facing me in a way that’s professional. So I’m really, really interested – and, forgive me for the phrasing of this question because I’ve been thinking a lot about, you know, when people have texts that draw on their personal history or their past, I’ve been thinking a lot because Holden Shepard said, please just be sensitive, my trauma isn’t to be performed for you. So yeah, forgive potentially the awkward wording of the question. What I’m really curious about because obviously, you grew up in Ballarat, obviously, you’re a dancer, and obviously, you’re a member of the LGBT+ community. How much of yourself is this book an homage to?

Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of me in the story and in the characters, but possibly not in the most obvious ways. I think, as writers, we often, you know, put ourselves into the stories in whether it’s just like a tiny character trait that we have that we might give one of the supporting characters and that sort of stuff. And so there’s a lot of that in there. There’s a lot of my personality, I think, in all of the characters, which maybe is super egotistical, or maybe it just makes it authentic, I don’t know. But yeah, obviously, I grew up in Ballarat, so I know that place very well. And I wanted the story to be kind of rooted in that realism for me as a teenager. And the town has changed a fair bit since I lived there. It’s come a long way, as the whole country has, in terms of attitudes to the queer community, and that sort of stuff. But it is still a country town. So it has those elements of, of small mindedness and stuff like that, where it’s often just people aren’t exposed to everything, so they don’t understand it, and it’s, you know, a bit scary and whatever. So, a lot of that kind of stuff, like the elements of homophobia and stuff in the book are definitely, they definitely draw my own personal experiences from growing up in a country town. But yeah, it’s largely fictional. To me, there was this funny thing that happened, where I wrote this whole book about this boy, dealing with his kind of loss of identity when he had to stop dancing, because of an injury. And, and his kind of process of grieving that, and all of those things that come with losing that part of himself. And when I was writing it, I had no idea that it was in relation to myself. But afterwards, at some point in the very late stages of editing, or even, possibly, when I was pitching to publishers, I kind of had this moment of being like, aha, I actually wrote this in a way to help me process that same experience in my own life, which is very different for me. And it was more just about me, transitioning from my career as a dancer into my career in publishing and writing. But with this big gap in the middle of a couple of years, where I sort of just had no concept of where I was going, or what I was doing, and I really didn’t feel like myself. And that was when I started writing the book. And it just strangely, never occurred to me that I was kind of processing those feelings through Luca, even though our situations were very different. So in a very long winded answer, I guess you could say that quite a lot of the book is yes, based on my experiences, but in a very kind of fragmented and, and different way.

Just drawing on my own sort of experience as a writer, I think every book that you write is actually far more personal than you think it is. And that’s what I love about it. What I love is that you take something that’s personal, and that’s potentially something you’re struggling with, or you’re trying to conceptualise, or reconcile or work through, and you put it into the world in a way that helps people who are potentially going through the same thing. I think that’s actually the magic of story and books. And it’s just that’s really special that hopefully, it helped you, but also, I think there are a lot of people who go through a similar experience where they lose something that is central to their identity, and they have to deal with it. So that’s really special and lovely.

Yeah, and I think it’s a really weird thing and probably a fine line. I think if you set out with the intention of writing a book to help yourself or help others, it comes across in a very kind of weighty and possibly heavy handed way. So I think it’s that kind of magic when you’re subconscious is doing the work, and you’re just like I’m writing this cute book about this dancer. But the back of your head your subconscious is like, haha, I’m helping you with this, which I think makes it really interesting. And I guess it does add that kind of layer of authenticity without it seeming like you’re necessarily pushing that agenda too strongly, because then it feels like it’s, I guess, didactic, and it’s a very different vibe.

Yeah, absolutely. And I’m thinking just because obviously, you are now a published author. But before that, I think your mark in the LoveOzYA scene was editing Underdog. So I’m really interested to know, like the relationship between those two projects, sort of your path to Underdog and then to ANYTHING BUT FINE.

Yeah, I mean, it’s a kind of winding journey. And looking back on some of that stuff. I do think, why did I think that I was the person to be doing this? But my kind of writing journey in general, started out very strongly as a child, and I spent a lot of time reading and writing. And I found all the books at home that I wrote when I was very young that mum has kept forever, obviously. But then once I started dancing, I completely put all of that aside. So from the age of about 14, to 27, I didn’t write anything at all, I barely even read, to be honest. I remember in that time reading Twilight, and maybe trying to read a lot of things, but I was just so focused on performing. And all of my reading time was spent reading scripts and stuff like that. So it was just a very different kind of world that I was living in. But once I got into writing, I, I kind of never do anything by half, I committed fully to that kind of goal. And I was living in Melbourne at the time, and I went to every single YA event and panel and conference that there was just because I really just wanted to be immersed in that world. And it was then that I sort of had this idea for Underdog, mainly because every time I went to an event, the host, or the panelists would ask the audience if they were writers, as well, and every time this sea of hands would go up in the audience. And I kind of would just look around being like, oh my God, there are so many stories, most of these may never get told. And as an unpublished author myself, and an aspiring author, I really wanted to just kind of do something to build that community and give, you know, some opportunity to other writers like me, who were unpublished and kind of struggling to find a way. So then I set up this this project, which ended up becoming the Underdog Anthology, which is, you know, something really cool that kind of ended up being a little bigger than I anticipated it to be. But it’s been so wonderful, and such a great part of that journey, and I made so many interesting connections, and had all these great opportunities to meet other people in the industry. So it really, really helped along the way. And I think it was really nice to just be able to put those stories out into the world. And my story in that anthology is also about a dancer. And it was when I was writing that that I kind of thought, oh, this was actually really fun. It was actually the first contemporary thing I’d ever written. I’d only written fantasy before. And for the anthology, I just wanted to do something that was a little less involved in terms of world building and stuff, because it’s a short story, that kind of effort seemed to outweigh the reward in that sense. So yeah, I tried this, this contemporary vibe, which, when I was writing it, I just thought like, oh, this is so fun. I love being in this world. I love ballet. I started ballet very late myself. So that ship had kind of sailed in terms of becoming a professional ballet dancer, even though I was a professional dancer they’re two very different things still. And so writing these kind of stories, I’m just living out my ballet dreams on the page that I never got to realise in real life, which is kind of fun.

That’s really cool. I love that philosophy so much. I think the most beautiful piece of advice I’ve ever received. And it was with specific relation to writing but I think for any career, it’s, rather than asking for something, create something or offer something, and so Underdog, I actually didn’t realise how much of a driving force you were behind it, but you what you did is you created something you offered something to the community in a way that actually taps into the Australian ethos in a lot of ways. And a lot of those authors in Underdog have themselves gone on to actually move into publishing. So you’ve actually given so many people a wonderful leg up while also creating something like bigger than just your writing. It’s so cool.

Yeah, it’s really cool looking back on it. And just funny because I had no experience whatsoever. I haven’t studied publishing, or editing or writing, you know, my only qualifications are in singing and dancing. So it was possibly a big leap for me to sort of decide to do it. But I think that’s the only thing you can do, you just have to decide to do it. And you can learn so much along the way. Google is everyone’s best friend. Now, you can learn literally anything you need online. And aside from that, there’s also so many people willing to help. The idea was mine, and I kind of was driving the project, but there were so many people along the way that the whole thing would have fallen apart if it weren’t for them as well. [They] provided a contact or this or that to really sort of help that anthology find its place. And I think that’s one thing that is really cool about the Australian publishing industry, and probably everywhere: everyone is just so nice, and they just really love books, and they love stories. And if they can help in any way, they generally will; it’s not that hard to provide an email address, or that sort of thing, or provide feedback on a short story, and everyone is just so willing to help and so lovely and so supportive, which is been really, really cool.

Yeah, for sure. I think the Australian industry is special. I think it’s because we’re a small population. And so everyone does kind of know everybody else in some way or another and has sort of heard of, if not you, then someone that you know, or something that you’ve been attached to. So you’ve kind of cut to my final question, which was, what do you think is special about LoveOzYA?

I mean, so many things. It’s a really hard thing to pinpoint. But the Australian YA books really do have something quite special. They have just a slightly different tone to all of the American stuff. And whether it’s, I don’t know, whether it’s a slightly more serious edge behind the humour and the frivolity and stuff, or whether it’s just our sense of humour, which for us reads so differently on the page than an American book. And obviously, we’re so familiar with American culture and how they talk. And so that’s still a read for us. But when you see places you know, and hear phrases that only we would say, it is really special. And I remember hearing from a lot of kids, I’ve done a couple of school visits for Underdog, where they’ve been studying some of the stories and the feedback from the kids is generally just like, I can’t believe I’m reading this, you know, this story by Michael Earp that is set in Melbourne. Like I know what Fed Square is I know where this cafe is, that sort of place, and setting the books in those recognisable locations, I think, can be so powerful for teenagers because then it draws them in in a completely different way to being like, we’re in Wisconsin, and everyone’s like, cool, I don’t know, that sounds cold or whatever. But when they’re like, Oh, it’s Fed Square, they’re like, I go there all the time, and they can put themselves in the story, and so for Australian readers, I think that’s super, super important.

I think also the message about dealing with grief or dealing with trauma or moving through a certain part of your life, you can connect with it a lot more quickly when you feel that there are even more similarities between you and the character. Like, I have gone to that cafe, or I know what Ballarat looks like. I think if you’re in Victoria or in Melbourne, at some point in your schooling life, you will have gone to Sovereign Hill, which is not Ballarat, but at the very same time like you have an immediate connection, ‘oh Ballarat – Sovereign Hill’. So you at least know that it’s a geographical location that you have been in proximity to – which I’m very disappointed didn’t get a look in, by the way.

I mean, I don’t know if it’s in the book anymore. There was originally a mention of Sovereign Hill, but I think I took it out in one of my edits. And I was going to write an entire scene that took place at Sovereign Hill in my second book, but I also didn’t end up doing that. So Sovereign Hill, will get its day, I promise. I actually worked at Sovereign Hill when I was a kid. So I know it very, very well. So there will have to be at least a Sovereign Hill short story coming at some point.

Oh, my goodness. I have seen people who are interstate as well who’ve been to it, but I think all Victorian school children who have visited, they will lose it, I can promise you, they will. I have other stuff to ask you. But I’m picking up on something that you said, which is your second book, which was going to have something to do with Sovereign Hill in it. Is there anything else that you can tell us?

Probably not a lot right now. It’s in, not like not the early drafting stages, but it’s in the stage where I’m kind of getting feedback from my agent and figuring out how to make it really shine. But I’m super excited about it. It’s set in Ballarat again. So I kind of, in my head, want to have like a couple of books that are in the same world but not connected in any way. So they’re all standalone. And I guess it kind of combines my two greatest teenage loves, which were computer games and community theatre. So make of that what you will. But it’s been very, very fun to write. And I’m so excited for everyone to hopefully get to read it. It’s very different to ANYTHING BUT FINE, but also, I think, has a few thematic similarities. And there’s a lot of a lot of musical theatre references in there, which is obviously my favourite thing. So hopefully it will be fun.

I’m really excited. I’m also intrigued, what video games have you referenced?

The main video game that I’ve talked about is a mash up of some of my other favourite computer games. So I played PC games a lot when I was a kid. There’s a bunch of games that get mentioned, a lot of the kind of newer MMO kind of big games, and then some smaller RPG games, which is much more my vibe with wizards warriors and stories and all the fun quests.

I am so excited to see what you’ve done. I don’t think video games get enough recongition. I don’t think we do it enough like anything, to be completely honest. I saw this brilliant analysis on Cracked, of all places, and the person was like, we are not analysing videogames correctly, they’re effectively a new media. So if you use this combination of like narrative and filmic interpretive frameworks to look at it, then suddenly, the way that you understand them – because like most people who discuss videogames are either gamers themselves, so you already know the language, or are people who know nothing about video games. And so they’re like, oh, you know, violence, and it’s like, well, sort of, but there’s more than that.

Exactly. And the ones that I love are the ones that are really story driven, you know, it’s like reading a book slash watching a movie slash being in a movie slash, you know, it’s all of those amazing things. It’s so immersive in a way that I think films aren’t, and books aren’t, it’s different because you really put yourself in the narrative, which I think is really good. For kids, especially those who don’t like reading, they’re still consuming story. It’s just in a very different way.

And actively consuming as well. Whereas when you’re watching like TV or movies, it’s far more passive. And I mean, it’s important sometimes just to sit and have that distance that a book can give you. I’m really interested in what you found the differences between writing novels, editing, and writing for cabaret theatre were.

Gosh, I don’t know, the like the theatre stuff I’m working on, I wrote a cabaret a couple years ago for my husband and his sister. And that was probably a unique experience, because it was based on their actual lives. And I know them both incredibly well. So it was really fun for me to kind of sift through all of their stories, and pick the bits that are actually relatable to everyone, and not just pure nostalgia for them, and then sort of translate that into its own kind of narrative arc, and be able to do that in their voices, which I think was really fun, because obviously, I know how they talk. So I was able to write those characters, you know, as they actually appear. But I think the similarity to writing a novel is finding that arc, and making sure the characters’ journeys make sense and are believable and hit the right note, and at the right time. The editing process for ANYTHING BUT FINE had a lot of those elements. When I did some really big structural edits for my agent, it was just about lining up the character arcs so that all the climaxes were at the same time, not one happening, and then the other, and then the next it was, trying to get it to all line up so that the whole book led to that climax, rather than just the protagonist’s climax. And, yeah, so the editing process, I think, was really just a lot about kind of smoothing things out. And a bit of chopping and changing, but the writing process itself was just kind of pure fun, to be honest. ANYTHING BUT FINE was my second manuscript, the one before that was a Young Adult fantasy. And that was a hard slog, because, you know, as you know from writing fantasy, it’s all the stuff that is not on the page just take so long, and it’s so fun to do all of that. I guess, you know, it was the first long form thing I’d ever written, I’ve only ever written up to maybe 3000, or 5000 words before I wrote that. So then aiming for like, 90,000 was huge. And I learned a lot along the way, but it felt it felt difficult and clunky at times. But ANYTHING BUT FINE, it honestly, kind of just, I don’t want to say poured out of me, because it’s so annoying, but it kind of did. Like it just, it was just a joy to write. And I just really loved the characters and I loved spending time with them. And their voices came so naturally that I just had a lot of fun and, and smashed it out as quickly as I could, which wasn’t that fast, because there was a lot going on that year when I wrote it. So it’s kind of that difference between it being really fun to do that drafting, and then the editing being a bit more kind of complex and problem solving. Yeah, and then the cabaret was like a whole other thing. And that one as well was really, really different. Because every time in a cabaret or in that theatre scene, anytime you get to an emotional peak, that’s where a song happens. So as the writer writing the book for that, you never get to write the climaxes. The most satisfying part of the writing experience, I think, for me is writing, you know, the big confrontation or the big, you know, the climax of the romance or whatever those scenes are the best part. But writing for theatre, you get up to that point where something really good about to happen, and then they’re like, cool, that’s where you stop, and now it’s the song. And I’m like, Oh, I want to do that. So yeah, that was a very big difference in that then.

Just listening to what you’re saying, at each project, even in editing, you’re finding the core of the story, you’re saying, okay, this is what it’s about. It’s not about all these different things and stories and elements. It’s about this one narrative.

So yeah, and again, I think, I think you don’t necessarily need to know that when you’re writing the first draft. And I think sometimes if you do, you might kind of do a bit of square peg in a round hole, squeezing things in to make it fit that. But once you’ve got the whole first draft out, that’s when you really see the similarities or differences between the characters’ journeys, and you can pick that apart and then structure it around that. But I think if you do it in advance, it might seem a little inauthentic. I’m not sure; everyone works so differently. But I think for me, I didn’t sort of necessarily know what the main themes were in a high school English sense, until I was looking at it with a bit of distance. And that time after you’ve spent away from writing the first draft, and you’re like, Ah, this character is dealing with this, that this character also is dealing with it, but they’re doing it in these different ways, and then how do I, you know, I think it can be good to do that afterwards.

Yeah, for sure. And I think like, it’s an interesting one, in terms of how the bunheads, were dealing with the loss of Luca as well and then, he’s dealing with the loss of them. And I like I really like the intersection of, in the sense of as you grow up things that are really important to you, you leave behind, and you realise that not every friendship is necessarily going to make it from high school into the real world. I really enjoyed how that was a natural part of the accident, but it’s also about more than that. And so that was I think, I really, really enjoyed that. I think that was done with such nuance, because, like, at no point, were you like, ‘Oh, well, they’re horrible, actually,’ or ‘I don’t have anything in common with them’. You know, it was so, so delicately done. It was just a real, like, from, from an office perspective, I was like, yeah, that’s the nuance, That’s how you do it without doing it!

If I’m honest, I don’t even know how I did that. I do love those journeys, for the bunheads, and for Luca in comparison, just in that, you know, it’s so easy to look at things as black and white and good and bad. And it’s very easy to say, Tahlia kind of bullied or is the leader of the bunheads and is the bad one. But it’s like, you know, Luca does things that aren’t necessarily great in terms of being a good friend, either. But everyone’s just trying to do what’s best for them and best for everyone else. And relationships are always just so complicated, whether you’re a teenager, or whether you’re an adult, but I think as a teen, you’re probably dealing with those things for the first time. And that reality that they’re not going to be your best friend, forever, probably hasn’t set in, necessarily. And so that’s why the stakes are so high when they’re arguing over things about group chats, and all of these things that seem really trivial. But in reality, they’re not trivial at all. They’re super high stakes, because it’s things that whether or not anyone else thinks they do, they define your friendship, and they have meaning beyond what they actually are and I think all of those complexities are so messy and beautiful. And I love writing about stuff like that. And sitting in those moments being like, no one is right here. Everyone is wrong. How do you process that? Because that’s generally what people are like, no one’s right all the time. And I, I just love those kind of cringy awkward moments where you’re like, Oh, do I agree with her or him? I don’t know, whose side am I on? And I just, I like those moments.

I think when you’re a teenager, everyone is wrong. Everyone is horrible. But I think what you did really well in addition to that was that you captured not just a teenage voice, but the immediacy of, when you are a teenager, the world is about to end. If you lose a friend or if your friends no longer want to be your friend, the world is going to end. You don’t have any framework to contextualise that, you don’t have any framework to know, well actually get over it or actually think, now that I think about it, they’re a dick, and that’s ok. Partly, I think, school is such a closed social system, that that’s all you have. But then there’s there’s such an immediacy to being a teenager when, ‘no mum, I need it now, like I need to know now you don’t understand they haven’t gotten back to me for two hours. That means they must hate me.’

Yeah, I message my friend, and they reply, like three weeks later being like, oh, sorry, I was busy. But no, you’re right. It’s that all of that stuff for teenagers. And again, it comes back to the thing of birth, it’s like, if it’s the first big fight that you’ve ever had with your friends, you don’t have any reference for that, for ever coming out of that, like you haven’t been through it before. So you don’t know that everything’s gonna turn out okay. As adults, we have so much frame of reference, and it’s like, you know, your first breakup, you literally think you’re gonna die, because you’ve never felt that before. And you can’t see a life without that person. And so, it’s the same for everything that a teenager goes through at every step along the way. It’s the first time they’ve felt that, or a feeling that intense or that big or that consuming. And so it’s just, I think that’s one of the joys of writing YA as well is just that you get to sit in those feelings and remember what it was like, and everything is just so high stakes. Yeah, fun for us. Maybe not when you’re a teenager.

I actually and I really liked the respect with which you treated TJ as well, like, when he at one point says, like, this is new for me as well. It’s not that I’m being a dick. It’s not that I’m being unpleasant. I don’t know what I’m doing. And I think like, – I work with teenagers, so I should be I should be less certain there, less uncertain, rather. Some teenagers do have the maturity to actually be like, you know, take a beat, I actually don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying really hard, you need to give me some slack, some don’t. But even if we say some don’t, the magic of literature is sometimes we need to bend reality of how people act. But I really liked that you included that. And there are a couple of points where people are like, I actually don’t know, because I’ve literally never done this before. This is very new ground for me. And I think that’s something new in teenage literature and young adult literature that I really like. And that’s really exciting for me to see. Because given that this is read, theoretically, by young people, hopefully, – I saw a report that said 70% of readers of YA are over the age of 18. But even then, right, it’s an important life lesson to say that sometimes someone seemingly acting in a malfeasant way is them just bumbling along. And if you’re that person, the most powerful thing you can do is articulate and say I actually don’t know what I’m doing. Please give me a moment. So I really liked that you did that.

Oh, thank you. I think in those moments if you do have the kind of clarity to say that and the self awareness, then either people will just give you this space to figure it out, or someone will help and either of those things are great. And one thing I really wanted to make pretty clear in the book was that no one has it all together, literally no one does. And we as kids, we think our parents do, but our parents also don’t have it together. No one is just on top of everything and completely fine all the time. And I think it’s okay for things to be messy and complicated. And you don’t have to have a clear direction. You just have to keep going and things will work out. But yeah, that’s one thing I wanted to sort of definitely include in there is just that it’s fine if you don’t really know you know, it’s fine. Nobody does or any if anyone seems like they do have it all together and they probably have that together less than everyone in this game.

All right, I will wrap up with one final questions. What was your favourite part of writing ANYTHING BUT FINE? And what is your favourite part of ANYTHING BUT FINE?

Um, my favourite thing to write, no matter what I’m writing is always dialogue. And whether or not that’s because I spent most of my life as an actor and just reading scripts, which are purely dialogue, I’m not sure. But the dialogue is always my favourite. There were some pretty big passages in Anything But Fine that I wrote without any descriptions whatsoever. And had to insert them in afterwards when I realised i’d just written a play. Yeah, so the dialogue definitely, especially when it’s any kind of confrontation. I love writing arguments. And it’s probably because I avoid that at all costs. So I do get to live through my characters when they have really great, sort of gritty things to say to each other, because I’m like, I would never say that, but this person is gonna say that so I love I love all of that so much. And especially when it’s, like I said before, something a bit kind of awkward, or in that grey area where no one in this argument is right that everyone’s arguing anyway, and I just I love that so much. And so that’s my favourite sort of stuff to write. My favourite part of ANYTHING BUT FINE. Gosh, I don’t know there are there are lots to be honest. I really like when Luca meets Jordan at the occupational therapist. And that came from, you know, a very teenage Tobias place of, just, those interactions with other guys when when you know that you’re attracted to them and they are not or probably not, and you’re trying, as a kid just like trying to be cool and trying to seem this and seem that. Yeah, I love that scene where they meet. I think it’s really just awkward and adorable and is very much the 16 year old me. And I really really like the whole kind of last passage which I won’t spoil but I just I really enjoyed writing the wrapping up of all the different arcs and all of that sort of stuff.

Awesome. Well thank you so much for your time.



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