#LoveOzYA Q&A with Zach Jones for GROWING UP IN FLAMES
Zach Jones has been an acrobat, a psychologist, and taught Shakespeare in prison. He completed his doctorate in Creative Writing at USC. Growing Up in Flames is his debut novel and will be released on 1 March 2022 by Text Publishing.
Zach chatted to #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith about trauma and writing morally ambiguous characters. This book would be perfect for classroom discussion, so don’t miss the teachers notes!
Tell us about the book in your own words.
Conceptually, the book explores the idea of adolescent identity responding to trauma. There are four main characters, who have experienced trauma in some way and the book explores the different ways that they respond to it – the ones that are looking to heal, the ones that have no idea the damage they’re passing on to others, and the ones that are looking for escape. It does that largely through the story of Kenna, the main character. She’s moved to the small town her mum grew up in after her mum dies in a bushfire, and then is retriggered by fire around her. There are the cane fires of the region, and she witnesses an act of arson. The whole book spirals from there as she tries to learn about and connect with the ghost of her mum.
What inspired you to write it?
That’s a good question. It grew a lot; it didn’t start the way it is now.
It was always going to deal with trauma. I work as a psychologist, so I deal with trauma a lot and I was grappling with the work that I was doing with people on similar issues.
Geographically, Kenna’s journey mirrors mine. I grew up in the Blue Mountains, where it’s alluded that Kenna grew up and where her mum died, and then moved to the Northern Rivers region, like Kenna. The whole fire thing came out of that journey. I grew up with bushfires. They were, more or less, a yearly occurrence. Sometimes they were bad, sometimes they were distant and it was just smoky for a few days. And then I moved to the Northern Rivers region of NSW and it’s one of the last regions that does cane fires as part of the sugarcane harvesting process. It’s pretty common during a certain time of year to just drive by entire fields on fire next to the road, which was really different to my previous experience and really normalising of fire.
Reflecting on that, I thought about the similar ways that fire and trauma work, in that there’s often a predisposition, whether it’s an area of bush that is particularly dry or there’s a lot of deadfall. And then there’s some point of ignition, and from there, a whole lot of damage. And afterwards, that leaves a fairly barren kind of Wasteland, which, in terms of trauma, emotionally, that’s often where people end up feeling that they are. They find it difficult to connect with other people, and they feel powerless and that much of their life and their joy has been taken from them. But I always remember growing up in the mountains, a couple of months after a bushfire had been through and you’d see all the regrowth on the trees. It was always really strange – the trees look fuzzy because it regrows from everywhere all at once. I thought that was a really powerful symbol for exploring trauma and the idea that regrowth and redemption and building a new life is possible. Kenna’s story is the one that really moves towards that.
There’s four points of view (POVs) in this story, with one written as diary entries. How did you manage the mechanics of writing four voices. Did you write them separately or switch between characters?
It depends on the draft! When I first wrote it, it was all from Kenna’s POV and it was all first-person present tense. I went back and did a massive rewrite and really tried to diversify the voices. When I did that, I wrote the diary entries as a block and then took excerpts of that diary. I switched between the other voices as I went. Kenna’s I already had, but it was a matter of cutting and editing that, and then picking where I wanted to move to Noah or James. One of the things I wanted to accomplish in doing that was a bit of polyphony – having multiple voices talking about the same issue to indicate that it’s not something that’s just affecting one particular character, to universalize it. That’s where the multiple voices came from.
Mechanically, one of the things that I did early on was give them different catchphrases and different bits of symbolism. So, James has a persistent fear of saying something he doesn’t mean to say. His narration often talks about pressing his mouth shut and biting his lips. Noah has intrusive memories that occur as little snapshots, looking back to a trauma in his life. Kenna has lots of different things, but there are symbols and lines that are echoed throughout her story that helped to make her narration different and separate from the others.
All of the characters are morally ambiguous. They’re all dealing with their trauma, they’re all making some morally questionable decisions at times, and you get into their head and see why they’re doing that, but on paper, they’re not necessarily the kindest decisions. Could you tell us about writing morally ambiguous characters?
Part of that, came from working with people with trauma. They’re not always the easiest people, but knowing some of their backstory really changes your perspective on their actions. I’ve worked with people who have committed crimes, who have then connected back with their trauma. It becomes difficult to tell how much of that is them and their flaws as a person (we’re all flawed), and how much is a result of their experiences and trauma. What I’ve found is that the more you know about someone, the harder it is to judge them. That’s something I really wanted to work into the book.
One of the things I didn’t want to do in a book dealing with trauma is make it simplistic. I didn’t want a simple process of healing where everything’s okay at the end. This book started as a doctorate in creative writing and as we know, and my research shows, trauma is often intergenerational. It’s passed on, not necessarily in the same way, but there are effects of it down the generations. I wanted to include some of the complexity of that and to include morally ambiguous characters who did the wrong thing.
There are moments in there, for all the characters, that should make readers uncomfortable. You’re not supposed to fully support any of the characters. But they also all have moments where, at least as an author, I felt sympathetic towards them.
I felt that was a richer way of representing the complexity of trauma. Characters are always an abstraction, they’re never as complex as people, but I really wanted to make sure that some of those moments they had were uncomfortable, that they then had regrets, or didn’t have regrets, about them. But that’s the starting point for conversation for readers – to like characters but disagree with them, to explore morality, and to question how we judge people who go through experiences like these characters do.
That makes sense. For me, James was the most difficult character to read and I had lots of moments of feeling uncomfortable with his decisions, but I could certainly see that that was the point.
He was the one I was most intentional about having other people read. James is, in many ways, the villain of the story, but he still has moments of sympathy. He experiences bad stuff; his life isn’t simple or good. But he also does bad stuff and has negative effects on other people’s lives. So I gave those chapters to other people to read and asked if I was pushing it too far. But I’ve appreciated in good YA fiction when the villains are complex, and you get to see things from their perspective; I think it makes for a richer narrative.
I definitely agree. I think if you hadn’t included James’ POV, he would have been a caricature of a villain and this way, we get to see behind the mask and what drove him to act the way he did.
He thinks a lot about control. My starting point for that, was that his life as a child, which we only see snapshots of, was very much out of his control. He felt very little independence and ability to make decisions for himself. As a result, he thinks a lot about controlling himself, but also about controlling others. And that’s really echoed in his big extended metaphor, which is the birds that he catches and trains and hypnotises. I wanted something that was not just evil and creepy but came from a need in him that was understandable, even if his actions are horrible.
When I put the teaching notes together with Text Publishing, there are questions for readers about what they think about what James did. I wanted to start conversations and for readers to look at things that we often judge simply as wrong. There are situations where people end up doing something that they think is wrong, but for a reason that they think is morally justifiable. I wanted readers to get into that frame of mind and start to think, “What set of experiences would it take for me to start to think that this might be okay?”
What do you hope readers take away from the book?
I want readers to want Kenna or Noah’s stories for their lives more than they want James’s. In my mind, the difference between those characters was that they acknowledged that they had experienced trauma and they wanted to make active choices about who they wanted to be. James never gets to the point where he reflects that his perspective might be warped. He’s not very intentional in choosing the person that he wants to be, he always feels like he’s reacting. Whereas both Noah and Kenna are trying to find things out, make choices about who they want to be and why. They don’t always get it right, but that’s ok. I want people to reflect upon what led them to be who they are and whether they feel like their decisions were ones that they made or decisions that were made for them.
Yeah, I think that’s the feeling that I got from it too. It’s that ability to hold two conflicting perspectives on something. Noah was able to do that, to be able to say, I know this is bad but I’m going to do it for these reasons. He’s a character that you can learn from as well as appreciate. Does that mean that the psychologist character in the book is you?
No. Noooo. There are times when he’s not a very good psychologist. He makes some morally questionable decisions too and there are so many ethical issues with some of the information he withholds from them.
But I wanted a voice that could give some guidance and I didn’t think it would have been authentic coming from the characters themselves. I also don’t think it gives readers a realistic impression of trauma to say that teenagers can work it out themselves. I wanted to represent the idea that Noah and Kenna are seeking help or being told to get help and are engaging with that process.
I really appreciate what he adds to the book in talking to them about their decision-making, but also empowering them with agency by saying, “This is your life. These your decisions. I can’t make them for you, and I can’t stop you making the decisions that you’re going to make. But I want you to consider this, and have you thought about that”. From the research, one of the things that’s significant is that people who’ve experienced trauma do not respond well to having their choice taken away. Most of the time, that traumatic experience is something that made them feel powerless and to tell them they don’t have a say in how to work through it can cause a level of re-traumatization and isn’t helpful for healing and helping them to feel confident and empowered in the world.
So no, he’s definitely not me and my sessions are much drier than his. He’s got a certain brand of pithy wisdom that only comes from multiple edits! But I did want to add in the perspective of someone as a guiding voice. I also wanted to represent and normalise the idea that seeking help and engaging with counselling or psychology is a normal thing to do when you’ve experienced tough stuff.
Tell us about your writing process. With this finished book, what draft is it? How did you manage to fit it in with the other things in your life?
I think I’m still figuring out my writing process – I’ve got three unfinished manuscripts that attest to that!
By the time the book went to publishers it was in its sixth draft and at one stage, draft 3, it was about 50,000 words longer than the actual book ended up being. I started it as my major work for a Doctorate of Creative Writing at the University of the Sunshine Coast, where I had two amazing supervisors – a guy called Ross Watkins and Gary Crew, who is a fairly well-known Australian children’s author.
I went into the Doctorate with two goals: 1) to come out with Doctor in front of my name and 2) to learn how to write a book. I’ve written books before, but nothing I thought was publishable. I knew I liked writing and I wanted to learn how to do it well. I spent 3 years learning from people who really knew what they were doing and by the end of the process, the book was in its sixth draft. After that, I sent it to publishers and was lucky enough that Text Publishing picked it up and my fabulous editor Mandy Brett then edited it further. In the sixth version it was broken up into five acts, which were all named after stages of a fire cycle with an illustrated title page. In the end, they weren’t included in the final version, which was a tough conversation to have with my illustrator!
In terms of writing process, I’ve been asked that a few times. I don’t know that I’m an expert in writing process, given I’ve written one book, and I don’t know that it’s an indication that I could do it again! But the best thing I learned during the doctorate was that the only way to write, is to write. Gary Crew taught me to treat it like a job. He said, “If you wait for inspiration to strike, sitting on a deck chair, looking at a million-dollar view with a glass of whiskey in your hands, then it’s going to take you an awfully long time to write a book. So, if it’s a writing day, your job is to sit, for however long you’ve given yourself, and write for that time. And if you write 1000 words, or 10,000 words, then that’s what you’ve got. And you come back to it the next time and you keep writing. And at some point, you have a finished book, and then you go back and you tear it apart and you make it better or you put it in a drawer and you come back to an a year and you’re then ready to make it better”.
I think I would love to sit in a deck chair and look at a million-dollar view and write that way. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that waiting for that moment of perfect inspiration doesn’t really happen. My wife has been amazing. She suggested she would take all the kids out, to netball, soccer and the park, so that I can write. Given she’s putting in the work to help me, I thought I’d better use that time well.
So, I guess that’s my process – I find whatever time that I have to write, and I sit and do it. When I get into the zone, I get lost in it and forget to eat. I do like to have a plan, though my plan is often unfinished when I start writing. I write what I know and where I’m headed and then I stop and think and maybe jump around and try and join the bits in between. I’m definitely not one of those stream-of-consciousness authors that just write what comes to mind and don’t edit it. I edit it as I go along. But yeah, it’s a matter of using the time that I have and trying to hold myself accountable and treating it as a job and it doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect, it can be fixed in the re-write.