Wednesday, 11 May 2016

On YA reading and writing - my speech at the 2016 Text Prize event

Good evening Melbourne. It’s nice to see you all here to celebrate this year’s winner. While I’m waiting for The Book of Whispers to be released in October, I thought I’d talk about what it’s been like to watch my story—about a crusading knight who is haunted my demons—being made into a book. It’s been a lot of work and I’m thankful to my editor for her suggestions and wisdom. My manuscript has been so much improved by the work we’ve done this year.

Last year at this time I spoke about the importance of Young Adult fiction. As a teacher as well as a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get teenagers reading. I’ve recently heard that today’s teenagers actually read more words than ever before. But many read these words in Facebook posts and SMS messages and skimmed Wikipedia articles. They read pieces of stories. 

So in preparation for tonight I asked some of my students in Year 8 at Viewbank College what they like about books they read, and what keeps them involved in stories. 

All said they like suspense. I asked, Do you mean, heart pounding adventure? and they rolled their eyes.

These kids are clever. They’ve been online since they were toddlers. They don’t want clich├ęs. They’re clever and they’ve got good teachers and they want stories that are interesting and vivid and original. And they want suspense.
They also want romance. I love how honest they are. A couple of boys admitted they like reading about romance as long as it isn’t the entire cover. What if it’s a knight and a girl he rescues? I asked. My female students had something to say about that. They said, As long as she rescues him back.

They also said they want something scary in the first chapter. So I started talking to them about The Book of Whispers. I said, I’ve got a romance, but it’s a subplot. I said, my story starts with a young knight fighting a demon. I asked if that sounds interesting.

One boy said, Wow, I can’t wait to read that. Just when I was starting to feel confident another made me keep it real.  He said, I like Speckie McGee. Cause it’s about football.

This is actually an encouraging response. I’m so glad there are books for kids who want to read about football.  This award recognises a new winner whose book is likely to be as different from mine as mine is from previous winners. But we’re all here with the same goal, to get kids reading.

Where my story came from was my interest in travel and fascination with how historical events connect to modern life.  My idea to tell a story about young people caught up in historical events came to me while I  was travelling through Turkey. The year was 2011 and I watched the Arab Spring on the news while I travelled. It’s already difficult to remember how hopeful that Arab Spring looked, when we consider how wrong things have gone.   

Towards the end of the writing process, I travelled again. Late last year, when I realised I could only write about Jerusalem authentically if I went there as well, I went into my local travel agent and mentioned that I also wanted to go to Syria. I don’t know if travel agents have been asked to look out for potential terrorists, but I think I’ve been reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
I’ve studied medieval literature. My medieval characters travel through Turkey and Syria of a thousand years ago on the pilgrimage that we now call the First Crusade. My characters believe they have a valid reason for their invasion and although my story is historical fantasy, there are truths in it and one of these truths is there were horrifying consequences.

So my story has history, action, the suspense that my young readers were asking for. And it has demons. There are demons that are my real bad guys. There are demons that torment people and live on human suffering and pain. These demons might thrive as well in contemporary Syria as they did in the Syria of the Crusades. My point is that it is through books that we learn about other people, that we step into other skins. And I’m sure I’m not along among story-tellers in believing that this capacity for empathy that we try to build in our stories is essential. We write because we want to play around in the skin of other people for a while, to find out what it’s like to be someone else, and we want to get it published so we can share what we’ve learned.
I’m still waiting to watch The Book of Whispers take my readers into another place, into other lives. I’m hoping my story will be able to achieve what my favourite books do, that it will expand what my readers can imagine and therefore expand their worlds.

Fiction gives teenagers a sense of empowerment that storytellers hope they keep once the covers are closed. In fiction, there are demons and we can defeat them. The readers of fiction have a unique faith that people with lives different from ours are worth trying to understand. In fiction, when people are in trouble, we can help them, we can imagine their lives getting better, and imagining something is the first step to making it happen. I imagined the crusades that I hope will seem real to my readers. In fiction, we can see the eleventh century, we can defeat demons. In fiction we can still go to Syria.  

Congratulations to all the authors who’ve been shortlisted this year and good luck to this year’s winner.