#LoveOzYA with Steven Herrick about HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE
Steven Herrick is an Australian poet and author. He’s written 24 novels for adults, teenagers, and children, many of them verse novels.
He caught up with #LoveOzYA’s Dayna Smith to discuss his latest prose novel, HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE, which was published on 28 September 2021.
What is HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE about?
I should start with a previous book of mine, The Simple Gift, which was a YA verse novel that was published 20 years ago by UQP. It has had a very long and relatively successful life in that it’s been used in many classrooms in Australia and overseas as well and I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to talk about that book many times over the past 20 years and a lot of students have asked about what’s been omitted from that book and it got me thinking that I’d like to explore the same territory as The Simple Gift and fill in those details.
So, in no way is HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE a re-write – it has new characters, new settings, but it does explore the same themes but perhaps from a different perspective.
I know that doesn’t help people who haven’t read The Simple Gift, but in short, HHOW TO REPAINT A LIFE, is about a 16-year-old boy, Isaac, who lives with a violent father. He leaves home after an altercation with his father. He moves to a new town where he sleeps in a grandstand, so he’s for all intents and purposes, homeless, and there he meets a girl called Sophie and both of them are looking for things in their life to change. The other main character in the book is Sophie’s dad, Gerry, who is a middle-aged man who doesn’t really want to be a hypocrite.
He sees parenthood as hypocrisy – you tell your children one thing, but you did another thing when you were a teenager. So, it also explores Gerry and his wife, Sophie’s Mum, whose name is Dana, their view of the world. And it’s told in prose, but from three different perspectives – Gerry, the dad, and Isaac and Sophie, the two main characters.
I read The Simple Gift and I could certainly see how the two books are connected, but how they’re quite different, particularly with Caitlin and Sophie being very different characters, but similar themes of youth homelessness and rising above circumstances that are less than ideal. What was it like to go back and revisit a work 20 years later compared to writing something entirely new?
Yeah, I would quickly add that it is new, but I know what you mean though, as I’ve already admitted it does explore very similar themes and it does have somewhat of a similar storyline too. But it was that The Simple Gift left out a lot of stuff. A verse novel can tread lightly and can avoid certain detail that a prose fiction novel can’t. For example, in The Simple Gift, Billy, the main character who is the equivalent of Isaac, is not even physically described in the book at all. Now, you can’t do that with prose fiction, you have to go into detail. The violent father is hardly touched upon in The Simple Gift; in this book, he is directly confronted by Isaac.
I really wanted to answer a lot of questions students had asked me about what was missing from The Simple Gift. That’s not to dismiss The Simple Gift as being missing in some way, but not every book can answer every question and every issue, and let’s face it, youth identity and homelessness are very big issues. Sexual awakening in young people is a very big issue. You could probably take 20 books to explore it properly, so HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE is just one aspect of exploring those issues. It was great fun, I’ve got to say, to write, because I almost felt like I already had a relationship with the characters. And as you’ve pointed out the character of Sophie is very different from the character of Caitlin in The Simple Gift. I wanted to give Sophie a lot more oomph, for want of a better word. I wanted to give her a lot more positivity and focus than I think The Simple Gift does to Caitlin. And I also wanted to focus on Gerry. I did want to write a Young Adult (YA) book where a middle-aged adult is equally a focus and that seemed really important to me. And I loved writing Gerry’s character, I’ve got to say.
He’s a great character. I thought that was in some ways unique. I think a lot of the times in YA, parents are not featured or they’re absent, or they’re not explored. But I really loved the way Sophie actually had a really great relationship with her parents and with Gerry, and then you’re getting to see Gerry’s perspective on things and his view on trying to parent authentically and even the discussions he has with Dana, his wife, around differences. And Sophie picks up on that too when she says Dad doesn’t ask questions, Mom always wants to know why.
Yeah, yeah, I think at one point in the book, Sophie says something like, “what happens when your parents are your best friends?” You know, is it supposed to be like that? And yet she can understand where her parents are coming from, and they can certainly understand where she’s coming from.
Sorry to be immodest, but I love the chapter where Gerry and Sophie and Dana find out that they both know Isaac and they both have something of a friendship with Isaac, and it’s played out through the images of Billy Bragg songs. Yeah, that was a lot of fun to write. Because I’ve got two, now adult, children, but I know when they were teenagers, they were interested in a lot of the same music that I was interested in, and my wife and I tried not to be hypocrites, as parents. We did talk about our previous lives as young people where we took drugs and had sex and, you know, got drunk and did things we perhaps shouldn’t have done, or at least, what parents are supposed to tell their children they shouldn’t do. But if you have an open and equal discussion, I think it’s valuable for both parties. And that’s what played out here.
That leads me to one of the other questions I had, which was about portraying sex in YA novels because you do that both in this one, I hope that’s not a spoiler, but you know, it’s a theme that’s in there, as well as in The Simple Gift. And to my mind, that’s quite rare in YA novels, that it’s often not talked about. And I think that’s quite a shame really, to not have that opportunity to explore that issue and talk about what sex is like, outside of movies and things like that. So why do you write it in? And is it hard to get that published? Do editors come back to you and say, Oh, maybe you should take that out?
Yeah. Well, firstly, I’d say that the making love scene in HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE is told, in retrospect, largely by Sophie. And it’s more about her impressions of it so much as the physical activity, although that’s discussed as well. So perhaps I wuss out a little bit! But I think it’s important, you know, it’s hypocritical in a way that we know that young people are engaging in a whole range of activities that need to be discussed and need to be discussed openly. And that’s what Gerry and Dana, Sophie’s parents, try to do with her as well. You know, they supply the condoms, for God’s sake, which is embarrassing on everyone’s part. But it is a legitimate subject matter, and it probably does need to be discussed more. And it was something that I felt that I had left out of The Simple Gift. It was in there, but it was off screen, if you like, whereas this time I did want to put it a little bit more centre stage. I felt it important, particularly from Sophie’s perspective. And also, I think, from Gerry and Dana’s perspective – how do we feel as parents when we know our teenage sons and daughters are making love? And how do we respond to it? How should we respond in a mature way? And I think Gerry and Dana do.
I think another theme that’s been one that comes through in a few of your books is about the youth experience of domestic violence. It’s in The Bogan Mondrian, it’s in The Simple Gift, and it’s in HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE. What is it about that theme that inspires you to keep revisiting it?
Ah, because before the pandemic, which has taken so many Australian lives, it seemed to me, criminal, almost, that we didn’t discuss domestic violence, and the number of women, in particular of course, who experience domestic violence, and how many lives are taken with domestic violence. And yet, it’s not something we talk about. It’s not something the media talks about, as well. There’s so little funding given to it, there’s so little support given to it. If there’s a terrorist act in Australia, that’s all the media talk about for the next few months. And yet, as we all know, a woman dies at the hands of a man in a domestic situation, perhaps something like once a week, forgive me, I don’t have the exact figures. So it’s a crucial issue to talk about. And I have explored it in great detail, particularly in The Bogan Mondrian, also in Lonesome Howl, 15 years ago, and again in this book. I think it’s really important to discuss. Also, I don’t claim to have solutions to it, but also to work through it in my books, and come up with some ways that my characters respond to it, hopefully in a positive way.
Absolutely. I think you can see Isaac’s really grappling with that – does he follow the same path as his father who he really doesn’t like? He is obviously processing a lot of what’s happened to him in the past now that he’s out of that situation, and actively making choices in the future as to whether he walks the same path as his father? Or does he make some different choices, even though perhaps, that doesn’t necessarily feel like the natural thing? Probably the natural thing would be to retaliate and strike back and to actually have to slow down and say, “Hang on, do I want to make that choice? And he grappled a lot with that.
Yeah, that’s right. And I don’t think I’m giving away too much, but the first scene in the book is Isaac confronting his father, he’s going to fight his father. And then at the last minute, he decides not to and to escape. I mean, there are two ways we address violence – we meet violence with violence, and we know that that ends in tragedy, or we escape violence. And that’s what Isaac does. And he is, throughout the book, trying to make sense of why his mother left him with his father as well, which is kind of a sub-plot of the book, about escaping violence, what we leave behind, and the repercussions of that.
So I also thought it was important to focus on, because Isaac being a teenage boy, his closest male relationship is with his father. And when that relationship is very sour, where do teenage boys go? Isaac develops a relationship in the book with a middle-aged woman who he works for in a cafe, Joan, and also with Gerry, Sophie’s dad, who’s a positive role model. And so that was fun to explore that, as middle-aged or old men, we need to think about how we act in front of teenagers, think about what we say in front of teenage boys. That’s the best remedy for a long term way of addressing domestic violence.
Yeah, and actually, that was one of the other questions that I had for you. To my mind, there’s not necessarily that many Australian male authors writing contemporary YA fiction with male protagonists that isn’t fantasy or action adventure. I can think of yourself, I can think of Michael Gerard Bauer, and Will Kostakis, although recently he’s switched into a bit more fantasy. But I wondered if you had any comments about writing male characters into situations that are a bit more domestic, a bit more about figuring out who you are, and your identity, about dealing with family, about exploring love, sex, relationships. What is it about that genre that you like to write?
I come from a very working-class family. I had an extremely working-class upbringing. And I had lots of brothers, and I cherished my teenage life. And I really do want to celebrate being a teenage boy, facing all these issues. I go into lots of schools, I have for the last 30 years. I seem to go to a lot of boys’ school – I guess they think of me as a big, boofy bloke who knows about football, and I read poetry, so they think that I’ll be a good role model. But I always have such a great rapport and response from young men. And so I like young men. And I want to write about them. I think that there’s been, in the last 10 years in particular in YA, there’s been so many great young women writers coming through, and to some degree, writing mainly about women characters, naturally. And so it’s important that I write about male characters.
My next YA book, which I’ve already finished, or the first draft anyway, is about three working-class boys, trying to make sense of climate change. How the hell do we do that?! And trying to save the world. It again touches on domestic violence, but it also touches on the sensitivity that is often hidden in young men, that then sometimes they have trouble expressing. And these boys managed to express that. It’s set in the time of the bushfires – before the pandemic, I thought every author was going to write a bushfire book. I have. I don’t know when it’ll be out, maybe we’re all too busy writing pandemic books. So sorry, that’s a long-winded answer to say that I think it’s really important that men such as myself, focus on what we perhaps know best, which is, teenage young men.
I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s really important to be able to reflect that whole spectrum of masculinity as well. And that teenagers have that chance to see themselves reflected or girls get to read about boys who think about their place in the world and relationships and things like that as well.
Yeah, much of HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE, in terms of Isaac’s character, is Isaac trying to process the stuff that’s happening to him, the fact that he’s had to escape violence, the fact that he’s in love with a young woman, the fact that he’s homeless, and that he has his whole life in front of him, but no, kind of, rock behind him to hold on to. And so there’s a lot of stuff there. And it’s often happening in Isaac’s head in the book. I needed to write not in a verse novel format, which I’ve done a lot, but in prose fiction to get that detail of Isaac processing that.
Yeah. Well, that was actually the last question I wanted to ask you about. You’ve written a lot of verse novels, you’ve written some prose novels as well. What is the difference, in terms of writing them, between the two genres?
Yeah. I think I’m narrowing the differences. When I started out writing verse novels, I loved them because you could write from multiple first-person perspectives. So, you know, The Simple Gift basically tells the story in three voices – Billy, Caitlin, and an old man called Old Bill, and I could jump lightly between those perspectives. Whereas prose fiction is often either single first-person narrator, or third-person narrator. But in How to Repaint a Life, it’s three first-person narrators – Sophie, Isaac, and Jerry, so I think I’m bridging the gap a little bit. But in essence, I think the difference is, when you’re writing a verse novel, you’ve got to look for the poetry in the language, more, perhaps, then, when you’re writing prose. I want my prose to be clean and crisp and simple, and to express character and emotion. Whereas a verse novel, perhaps there’s a bit more poetry in it.
I enjoyed the detail of HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE. I enjoyed simple things like Sophie going to get a haircut and being able to build a relationship with the woman who cuts her hair. And I couldn’t have done that in a verse novel format as well, I think. I love this, where Sophie and the hairdresser talk about things. And then Sophie comes back later on in the book to talk to the hairdresser again.
I think HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE sits together with The Bogan Mondrian as having some very similar themes.
Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. And I think my next one will be too – The Bogan Mondrian, HOW TO REPAINT A LIFE, and my next one will be almost like a trilogy of young men and violence, and young men and trying to how to re-respond to the world in a constructive way.
You said you’ve finished the first draft for that. Do you have an expected publishing date for us to look forward to?
No, look, I suspect it will be the next year, late next year or the year after. Probably the year after. I’ve had a few YA novels in a row now, so maybe two years. The problem with the pandemic, of course, is that every writer is stuck in their study, or the good thing about the pandemic is everyone is stuck in their study writing the next book!