November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

#LoveOzYA, Romance, and Hijinks: Fiona Wood on “Six Impossible Things”

Photo by Giulia McGauran.

Photo by Giulia McGauran.

Australian screenwriter Fiona Wood’s debut is finally appearing stateside. After publishing the acclaimed YA Wildlife (Little, Brown, 2014), the SummerTeen Romance panelist’s first novel written for teens, Six Impossible Things (first published in Australia in 2010) will be released on August 11 in the U.S. In it, Dan Cereill’s father just came out to his family as gay and has revealed that not only is he divorcing Dan’s mom, but that his business decisions have left the household bankrupt. Dan has to cope with the monumental changes in his family and its new income, switching schools, balancing new and old friendships, and completing the six impossible things on his to-do list (including kissing the hot girl next door), all while trying to decide if he wants to forgive his father.

What is in the water in Australia? Because you, Melina Marchetta, Simmone Howell, and Cath Crowley, among others, get the drama, angst, and humor of adolescence just right.

It’s an honor to be mentioned alongside three of my favorite writers. I’m really proud of Oz YA; we have so many talented writers here. Is there something that characterizes the Australian YA voice? Are there distinctly Australian qualities to the writing? I don’t know. But it’s possible. I think we benefit from being “outsiders” — we’re relaxed about being different. You could probably make some reasonable generalizations about an Australian sense of humor—it’s self-deprecating; it’s dry; we like “taking the piss”—mocking or teasing; we are quick to prick pretensions. We also tend to be very comfortable with skepticism and disobedience; we are happy not to toe the line, suspicious of authority, and contrary— it could be that these are germane dispositions when it comes to writing teen fiction.

#LoveOzYA Read-alikes poster

#LoveOzYA Read-alikes poster created by Aussie YA debut author Trinity Doyle.

What do you think is the biggest difference between the YA market in the U.S. and “Down Under”?

Sheer volume. We are less than a tenth of the size of the U.S. market. That has a cultural impact. A recent (small sample) survey of borrowing in Australian public libraries reported that eight out of the top 10 YA titles were American. So a group of us—writers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers—have started a grassroots campaign (#LoveOzYA) with the objective of lifting the profile of books by Australian writers within Australia. It’s hard competing with those popular U.S. book-to-film marketing spends, and I know that most American writers are facing exactly the same challenge. One of the first things #LoveOzYA [spearheaded by Danielle Binks] has done is to create a “read-alike” poster of the top 10 [Australian] borrowed titles that can be used by librarians, teachers, and booksellers.

The dialogue in Six Impossible Things and even Dan’s interior monologues are pitch-perfect. How did you get the teen voice just right?

I am fortunate to have spent so many years writing scripts— it’s a very transposable craft area, along with plotting. And I was lucky to have my kids going through their teenage years around the time I was writing Six Impossible Things, so it was a bit of a refresher course in things like teenage humor and taste in music, and a reminder of how smart and how passionate people are at this age. Getting voice right has a lot to do with knowing exactly how things feel to a character; when you can remember those feelings, you’re able to write with engagement and respect, and from that comes authenticity. I know I’m not alone being a writer for this age group who can clearly remember how it all felt; teen-me is very easy to access. Dan is trying to understand exactly who he is now that everything around him has changed, and we continue to ask ourselves those questions of identity throughout our lives. They were interesting to me as a teenager, and they’re still relevant to me as an adult.

sit-coverThese protagonists are fresh and realistic with quirks and failings but yet are lovable. Are these characters based on real-life people or did they come to you fully formed?

Not one of the characters is based on a single person in real life, but all have various traits and quirks that are an amalgam of real life and the tangled sewing basket of my imagination. And inevitably there is something of me in each of them, too, from the philosophical and resigned Howard (the dog) to mean-girl Holly; and from well intentioned Dan to head-over-heels, confused Sibylla; from grief-stricken Lou to frazzled Julie (Dan’s mother). Of all the characters, Dan was the one who seemed most completely formed when he appeared. I am not a writer who experiences characters taking over; I’m in charge of them, but Dan certainly just turned up, without being invited.

Which character do you most identify with?

It’s whichever point-of-view character I’m writing. So, across my three books, I’ve been absorbed by, and have completely identified with, Sibylla and Lou in Wildlife, Dan in Six Impossible Things, and Van Uoc in Cloudwish, the book I’ve just finished.

While the romances and hijinks in Six Impossible Things reminded me of classic 80s movies, there’s also a very fresh, modern sensibility to the novel. Why do you think realistic fiction and “love” stories continue to be a staple in YA and teen stories?

The popularity of realism is, I think, simply that readers enjoy seeing their own world represented and reflected upon, and, conversely, enjoy being immersed in contemporary stories and settings that are not their own, thereby gaining insights into other lives.

As far as love stories go, the teen years are generally the years of emerging sexual desire, understanding of your own and others’ sexuality and gender identity, first love, first broken heart—given and received, first sex, first unassuaged yearning, first diplomatic “you like me but I don’t like you back,” social impossibilities around “no one’s invited me/I’m too shy to invite anyone/I’ve been left out/I have no friends/I don’t like my friends/I want those friends over there/I’ll never have a boyfriend/girlfriend/lover/best friend/who are my people?/where are my people?/will I ever meet my people?”— all with the icing of: “I’m too…/I’m not enough…” fill in from the vast array of body-image/appearance complaints to self. [And there’s] possible overlap between some or all of the above. No wonder readers are interested in seeing crushes and obsessions and love and like and lust and relationships of all sorts played out on the page. It’s fascinating. It relates very much to what teenage readers and their friends are going through. It’s not the whole of their existence, but it is central to their existence, and to their identity. And, to me, there is endless variety in the terrain of the human heart; it is rich, compelling story material.

Having said that, I know that a frequent peeve of teen readers is gratuitous romance in a story, and I agree: if it’s not coming from the characters’ deepest motivations and from their beating hearts, forget it.

There are a few recurring characters in Six Impossible Things and Wildlife. Do you plan to continue to write works based in that same world?

Yes. I’ve done that again with Cloudwish. So just as Lou was a minor character in Six Impossible Things, and one of the two narrative voices of Wildlife, so Van Uoc, a minor character in Wildlife, is the protagonist of Cloudwish. Her maybe-boyfriend, Billy Gardiner, is also a minor character in Wildlife.

What are you working on next?

I’ll be finishing the editing for the U.S. edition of Cloudwish, out in 2016, and getting back to a neglected manuscript, working title Friends Anonymous, that Simmone Howell and Cath Crowley and I are writing. We’ve all been busy with our other books.

What’s on your list of six impossible things?

  1. Getting unread emails down below 1000.
  1. Establishing a regular exercise program. (But maybe I should turn that frown upside down and say that I excel in avoiding the gym.)
  1. Making my hands obey my brain when I’m in the chips aisle at the supermarket. (Although, I keep reading: eat more plant food, and what is a potato chip, if not plant food?)
  1. Getting my library books back on time.
  1. Finding stuff in my wardrobe. Just about everything is black. (It’s a Melbourne thing.) So I just pull out garment after garment after garment after garment….
  1. I’m loath to say it’s impossible, but it feels close to impossible to go for very long without checking my phone.
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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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