Melbourne bookseller Leanne Hall won last year’s Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing for her beguiling debut novel, This is Shyness. KYD associate editor Jo Case spoke to her on the eve of the book’s publication – about the book, the tenuous boundary between adult and young adult writing, the business of being a teenager, and her writing process.
J: Leanne, your writing in both your short stories and books is often realist in style but also has those fantasy elements which veer into the eerie. I wonder what it is about that kind of writing style that attracts you?
L: I don’t think it attracts me – I think it’s just the way I write. If I try to write straight stories, those other elements just creep in and I almost don’t identify them as being unusual or magical or slightly odd elements. To me they’re just in there, and it’s only when people read it that I realise that there are other strange things in there – and I’m like, but that’s not strange at all. It’s just there.
Honestly, when I do write my stories, I feel like I’m writing something really real. I feel like it’s just reality that I’m representing – which of course it isn’t. I don’t know what that says about my brain or what my everyday life is like.
J: Yeah, in everyday life you just walk into another suburb and it’s all dark.
L: It says a lot about me, doesn’t it? Like, that’s just normal, that’s how I experience the world.
J: No, I think it says something about your storytelling style. You’ve obviously written both adult and YA stories. Do you have a preference? And when you sit down and write, do you know which it’s going to be? Or does it just come out that way?
L: I think it comes out that way. I guess all my short stories have been adult in nature, but that just says a lot about the venues for short story publication in Australia. There’s very few anthologies or magazines or journals that will take stories that have a children’s or YA audience, so your only outlet are things for adults, so that’s what I write. But really it’s a matter of what you call it or how your present it. I mean, some teenagers could read some of my short stories, and that could seem like a story for them, but it’s just in a publication that adults are reading.
J: With This Is Shyness as well, if you put a different cover on it and marketed it a different way, then I think adult readers could be looking at it.
L: Yeah. I see it all the time in the bookshop, in my forays into the adult shelves – there are so many books that have teenage protagonists. It’s a really artificial distinction as to what’s YA and what’s adult, and it is just a marketing decision that’s made at some point.
J: Yeah, absolutely. And with this book, when you sat down, were you aware that you were writing a YA book or were you setting out to do that?
L: I was always aware that it was a YA book. Not only because of the age of the characters, but because I’m describing a wild and unforgettable night. Those nights only really happen for the first time when you’re in your teens. I wanted to write about one of those really, really crazy magical nights – and how you never forget that kind of situation.
J: And was that kind of the impetus for the book, writing about that kind of night?
L: The impetus was the characters’ names – I came across the characters’ names and I decided that they were really intriguing. And then I had to think about what kind of place those characters with those names would inhabit, and I came up with the Suburb of Darkness idea. I mean, really, that lends itself to a crazy night, doesn’t it?
L: And also that nice, really distilled experience – really explosive – let’s just throw them in together and only give them 12 hours for all this stuff to happen and just make it be a crazy kind of explosion.
J: In many ways I thought this was a very innocent book, with all the adventure elements, and riding bikes, and being mugged for sweets, and finding the secret underground tunnels and all of that – it’s like a kind of an escape back into childhood.
L: I thought it was pretty funny to set a couple of maybe quite urban streetwise teenagers on a quest – on a quite old-fashioned quest for an object. To me that was the biggest joke, was to send these really quite cool teenagers on a quest for an object, which is such a dorky childhood thing.
J: And that object, it was a lighter – so it wasn’t about the object at all.
L: Yeah. And I also think they’re both obviously seeking an escape. The reason why they both have such an amazing night is, they just really want something different for themselves for a couple of hours. They kind of step out of their ordinary life, and meet somebody who doesn’t know who they are, be a different person for one night.
I did think a lot about the ideas of childhood and teenage years and adulthood, and innocence and the boundaries between them. Because the kids are so feral and they’re both living like children living a little like adults on their own.
J: It’s also kind of interesting that Wolfboy and Wildgirl seem to find a release in that reversion to acting like children, and that by the end, they’ve both decided or realised that they have to move on from their problems. It’s almost like by reverting to their childhood selves they’re able to move forward into their adult selves.
L: I guess I did think like that. In particular with the bike-riding. If you don’t ride your bike past a certain age, then you finally get on bikes again, and you’re a little bit bad at it … It feels weird to be an older teenager on a bike, when you’re supposed to be cool. But then it is so much fun, they can’t resist it. That bit was overt.
And I do remember that age when you’re supposed to stop playing with dolls, you’re supposed to stop play-acting. As a girl, maybe if you’ve been a tomboy or a rough-and-tumble girl you’re not supposed to play footy with the boys anymore on the oval at lunchtime. You know, like, you’re doing great things but in Year Seven all of a sudden you’re not allowed to play footy with the boys because it’s kind of not what girls do.
J: Is that you?
L: Yeah, I reckon. I went to an all girls’ high school, so it wasn’t that obvious. Though I do remember being devastated when I could sense that it wasn’t really that cool to have dolls or soft toys and to talk to them and dance with them. It’s like, Wow, I really have to give this up, I’m in high school now.
J: I remember that too! It’s awful. Where in Year Eight or something you’re still playing Barbies.
L: Yeah, I still wanted to right up until Year Eight or Year Nine if I’d had my way. I would still have been playing with dolls, but unfortunately it wasn’t that cool.
J: Maybe it’s the storytelling thing.
L: Yeah, yeah, you know it probably is, I think that is. That was definitely it because it was all about making up narratives involving these characters that just happened to be your toys.
J: Were you conscious of fitting in, when you were at school?
L: Oh yeah, yeah. I think everyone …
J: Everyone is, to some extent.
L: Yeah. I think teenage girls especially want to. Looks-wise, and clothes-wise, and taste-wise. They just really desperately want to fit in, to be the same as everyone else. It flips at uni – you want to be different from everyone else, an individual.
J: But in the same way as everyone else –
L: In the same way, yeah. But in high school you just desperately want to fit in.
J: One thing I also thought was really interesting is the juxtaposition of Wolfboy’s circumstances – which are quite heavy, serious experiences – and Wildgirl’s, which is that specific horror of that incident at school which seems really small, but for a teenage girl, is the end of the world.
L: Oh, it is the end of the world. I will never go back to school ever again. Everyone’s had that incident at high school – I can’t remember what mine is, but there’s always something where everyone turns against you some day, or you have your dress tucked into your undies and you have to go up on stage at assembly and receive a prize or something – some incident. And you really have that feeling of – That’s it for me, I’m not going back. I can’t face those people ever, I just don’t want to exist, and I’m going to move to a different city and have a different name and no one will know who I am.
L: Which you know is of course a complete overreaction.
J: But it will be so real, too – and this is a dramatisation, of that moment, isn’t it?
L: But that stuff does happen in high schools. I’ve got a friend who’s a school counsellor and she’s had that exact situation – you know of the mobile phone picture getting out of hand and being passed around. Teenage girls are mean – they are mean cows. And we were mean cows, if I think back to some of the things that we did at high school. They will wage psychological warfare, and they will do it very creatively and effectively.
J: The innocence that I was talking about with the childhood – it’s kind of old-fashioned in the way that there’s that great chemistry between the characters, but it’s very chaste. Is that something you thought about?
L: It isn’t that I was trying to write chaste, I just felt there was so much tension between them, and they were so mistrustful of each other, and they desperately wanted to connect but at the same time couldn’t let go of their mistrust and insecurity, so they were kind of coming together and pulling apart. So I thought that it had to be delayed. I like the fact that they lust from a distance – I think that’s a great thing for characters to do, to want it but not get it.
I think it’s important for people to know that even if that hot boy at school is not jumping on you, they’re still thinking about it, even as you’re thinking about it. It’s good for you to think about it. Everyone’s thinking about it.
J: How do you think your work as a bookseller has fed into your writing, or how you think about your book?
L: I think it’s about exposure to lots and lots of books – I almost exclusively read YA, two or three books per week. I read absolutely ravenously and it’s part of my job. And I think reading so much is really great grounding as a writer. But none of that stuff creeps in too much, because you tell the story you have to tell. You really don’t want to think too much about anything business-related or market-related, that would be stupid. It would lead to a soulless kind of book and experience.
J: It’s more on that subconscious level, knowing or being in touch with what’s out there.
L: Yeah. You grow to know what’s good and bad writing, through wide reading, and you get exposed to a wide amount of writing. You know what’s possible and what’s not. I think part of being a writer for me is kind of knowing what’s possible. You can tell a story in so many different ways. I’m only just starting to learn about all the different ways that you can tell a story, and there are billions, and it’s so interesting to read other peoples’ ways of telling stories, and feel like you can play around with it a little bit yourself, and I’m still so just learning, like I have no idea of what I’m doing.
This is an edited version of an interview originally conducted for Readings. Leanne Hall’s short story, ‘A Terror Story’, is published in Issue Two of Kill Your Darlings. This is Shyness will be launched in Melbourne on Thursday 12 August at Readings Carlton.