#LoveOzYA Q&A with Zana Fraillon

Zana Fraillon was born in Melbourne, but spent her early childhood in San Francisco. Her 2016 novel The Bone Sparrow won the ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children, the Readings Young Adult Book Prize and the Amnesty CILIP Honour. It was also shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Gold Inky and the CILIP Carnegie Medal.

She spent a year in China teaching English and now lives in Melbourne with her three children, husband and two dogs. When Zana isn’t reading or writing, she likes to explore the museums and hidden passageways scattered across Melbourne. They provide the same excitement as that moment before opening a new book – preparing to step into the unknown where a whole world of possibilities awaits.

Zana’s latest book is The Lost Soul Atlas, out now from Hachette.

Welcome to the LoveOzYA blog, we’re so happy to have you here!

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 live in stories! I always have. Stories have always been my escape – both reading them and writing them. I have terrible vision – so poor that when I was 8 the optometrist told me I had ten more years before I would be blind (untrue, and also, so very unhelpful) – but despite me not being able to see further than my own nose, no one realised I couldn’t see until I was seven. I suspect that I turned to books from a young age because they were the only thing in my world that I could actually see clearly! And for a kid that can’t see much and that reads a lot, writing was just a natural progression. It was an outlet for all the voices and characters in books and stories that were mingling around my head and cluttering up my thoughts. I quickly discovered that writing allows you to go on the same adventures, and the same exploration of ideas, that reading does. It’s one of the reasons I can never really follow the ‘write what you know’ advice, because for me, if I know it, there is no thrill in writing about it. I can’t discover anything new, or learn something I didn’t know before, or tread where I have never been – which for me, is what excites me about writing and what drags me back day after day.

Tell us about your new book.
The Lost Soul Atlas is the story of a young boy, Twig, who wakes up in the Afterlife, and he has to choose between an everlasting blissful existence where he remembers nothing of who he was when he was alive, or a dangerous journey to gather his memories and be reunited at the edges of the afterlife with his father – against the wishes of the Gods. It is a dual narrative between Twig’s journey through the afterlife, and his memories of his life and how he ended up dead. At its heart, it is a book about the undying friendship and loyalty that only seems possible when you are 12 or 13, and the lengths you will go for each other.

Did you have a favourite OzYA book when you were growing up?
When I was growing up, YA was hard to find! I was reading adult books mostly, and devouring ‘teen’ authors like Cynthia Voigt. But OzYA certainly wasn’t a thing in bookstores and libraries. I loved Sonia Hartnett – and still do, but most of my YA reading was made up of American authors. My family lived in America until I was 7, so these were books using language and culture that felt comfortable to me and a natural progression from what I had been reading when I was younger, but I remember when I read my first Markus Zuzak novel – ‘The Underdog’ – I was completely blown away. Here was an author who had jumped inside my head and was talking about MY streets! The characters felt SO real and true, I was completely hooked. Growing up within that reading culture, it is so exciting to see OzYA championed the way it is now. And as an author, having the incredibly supportive community of OzYA folk around me is such a joyful space to be part of. Everyone is so supportive and encouraging and willing to go out of their way to give someone a hand up. It is true community.

Did you have anyone that encouraged your love of books, reading and writing when you were younger?
My family always had a deep love and respect for books. Our house was full of them, so I was always surrounded by story and the understanding that books are important. When I was a teenager, I went to a school where there was the most magnificent library and librarian who fed me books by the day. My English teacher (every author has a favourite English teacher, right?) and History teacher both loved reading and would also recommend and lend me books, then discuss them excitedly with me afterwards. So really, my whole life was full of people reinforcing that love, and encouraging me to write. I remember when I first moved to the school, I was in year 9, and was pretty shy. We had to write a story for English, and my teacher came up to me after class and asked if she could read my story to the class, but would keep it anonymous. So I sat and listened to my story being read out loud, and then afterwards the class erupted into excited chatter and everyone was desperate to know who had written it. We never told, but seeing how something I could write could affect people like that was an incredible moment for me.

What do you think sets Australian YA stories apart from those set internationally?
I read YA from everywhere. The UK, the US – I actually wish there were more YA translations because I would love to hear the different stories and cultural voices and the different rhythms of language come through. But there is something so special about seeing your own culture in the spotlight – I think a lot of countries take that for granted. Imagine living in London! Every second book is set in London! There is a thrill to being able to walk the steps taken by a character, or just to be able to read language which resembles the little voice inside your head.
The other thing is that in Australia, we struggle with different issues than other countries. Part of reading is working through struggles with characters, working through issues and grappling with politics. So it is vitally important, that readers who are on the cusp of becoming adults, who are looking at the world around them and working out their place within it, and exploring how they want their world to be – that they are able to read books that reflect their circumstance and that reflect the world they live in. There is a distinct voice to OzYA that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it is unflinching and straight talking. It feels honest. And even if that is just the result of reading within one’s own culture, you need to feel that books are being honest, or they don’t connect. This is why we need an industry that supports all the voices from within all of the diverse cultures that make up Australia – everyone needs to hear their own truths in the books they read. This of course raises a whole bunch of questions about gatekeepers and the publishing industry itself – if the voices that resonate with those in charge are the ones from their own cultural subset, then how do voices from outside that subset ever get heard? I feel we are slowly getting there, but it is taking a long time.

Do you have a favourite bookshop or library?
I have many favourite bookshops! The Little Bookroom, Readings Kids, Readings, Fairfield Books and Eltham Bookshop are all part of my regular shopping experience. Between them all, I can almost always get the book I am looking for, and their advice and personal recommendations have never let me down. These are the places that shout community.
My favourite library would have to be Eltham Library. It is a beautiful building set in an amazing landscape. If I had to describe a sanctuary, it would be Eltham Library.

What was the last book you read and enjoyed?
Sonia Hartnett’s Thursday’s Child. It is a gorgeous book that left me weeping when I finished it – in a good way! I then sat awake all night wondering how I could ever write characters like the ones in that book and deciding that I couldn’t. She is a master of storytelling.

Aside from writing, what else do you like to do to explore your creativity?
I am pretty hopeless at visual arts, but I really enjoy creating. I have recently become obsessed with maps (I figured if my book had ‘atlas’ in the title, I had better know how to draw a map) and very quickly fell down the rabbit hole of all the wonderful things mapmaking provides. I also love using clay, and actually must get back to throwing on the pottery wheel because it made me feel so good when I was doing it. Like a meditation session. Other than that, photography is a keen interest for me, so I love taking the camera out and capturing brief moments on film. And although it isn’t strictly ‘creativity’, I love wandering. Walking and wandering is where I get all my thinking done, and where I discover so much. I read somewhere about deliberately losing oneself in their environment, and this for me, is a complete joy.

What are the best and worst pieces of writing advice you’ve received?
Write with your shoes off. That’s the best – I can not write a word with my shoes on anymore. There is something that taking your shoes off does – it sends a signal to your brain that you are here for the long haul. Things are getting serious.
The worst piece of advice would be to plot out everything before you begin. I know there are writers who love to plot, but I am not one of them. If I know exactly where a story is going, then the magic is gone. I write to explore what could be possible, and knowing exactly what that is before I start writing kills it for me. That’s not to say I don’t plot, I do, but it is very vague sort of semi directional plotting, full of sightseeing side adventures and a ‘possibly you’ll end up somewhere around here’ sort of vibe. Like the good old days of GPS when it never really worked and you would end up in the middle of the field with the NavMan saying ‘Your destination is nearby’…
What do you love about OzYA?
Everything! I love how exciting it can be. I love the honesty and truth. I love the exploration of issues which are personally important to me and my family, and through that, the knowing that we are supported as people. I love the diversity of voices that are coming through and the familiarity within that diversity. And more than anything, I love the YA community of readers, writers, booksellers and publishers who are all so committed to supporting and creating worlds and possibilities for our young people. It is with great sadness that I learned of CYL closing, and now what appears to be the termination of the INKYs program – which in my opinion was one of the best programs for young people there has ever been. To lose this is a real blow to YA literature in our country, and I only hope that something is able to step in and fill the void that it is leaving behind.

To find out more about Zana and her books, visit her website.

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