Monday, 14 November 2011

DIVERSITY MATTERS: Joanne Horniman on the teen dads who inspired, Mahalia, and the intensity of first love in, About A Girl.

* Hi Joanne and welcome to tall tales & short stories.
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi Tracy. Thanks for inviting me.

About myself: a few random things … I live in northern NSW on about 5 acres, in a house my partner and I built ourselves a bit over 20 years ago. I've worked as an editor, and a teacher (of children's literature to trainee teachers, and adult literacy, mainly). I have 2 sons (33 and 26), and I don't work at anything else but writing now. I grow vegetables, bake bread, keep hens (almost said 'chooks', a particularly Australian term, I think).

I like people with a mad sense of humour. I'm quite irreverent myself. And badly dressed (though I try to dress respectfully when I go to book 'do's'). I'm left wing (very), and politically minded. I hate injustice, cruelty to animals, Australia's treatment of asylum seekers ... Just a regular person, I suppose.

* What inspired you to write About A Girl?

I was in Brisbane to see a band called The Last Town Chorus, and the support act was a local Brisbane girl - both of my sons play music and one is a professional musician (with a day job still) and I'm interested in people who make music. I saw 'the support act' running down the street before the gig with a boy in tow (just as Anna sees Flynn) and fell in love with the idea of her in the way novelists do.

And then in my previous novel, 'My Candlelight Novel', the girl in that falls in love with another girl at the end, but that wasn't what the novel was really about. I wanted to write a love story that didn't work out, and it just sort of came together.

Often I'm inspired more by the shape of a novel and a way of writing than more pedagogical issues, and in this case I wanted to write a short and honest novel about relationships - thinking of Murakami's 'Norwegian Wood' and the work of Banana Yoshimoto - also the early novels of Margaret Drabble, the ones she wrote in her 20s, such as 'The Millstone' - I like her intelligent girl narrators.

And then a part of me wanted to write something out of the ordinary - why should we assume that people are heterosexual? As well as being part of the Women's Liberation movement in the early 70s, many of my friends were in Gay Lib. I lived with 2 gay men, uni students like myself, and we had the gay liberation phone at our house, as they had no regular headquarters. But as George Orwell said in his essay 'Why I write', all writing is political, even that which doesn't think it is, so yes, my subject matter has a political purpose, even though it really grows out of who I am.


'I remember when we lay together for the first time and I closed my eyes and felt the crackle of her dark hair between my fingers. She was all warmth and sparking light.
When I was with her, my skin sighed that the centre of the world was precisely here.'

Anna is afraid she must be unlovable - until she meets Flynn. Together, the girls swim, eat banana cake, laugh and love. Some days Flynn is unreachable; other days she's at Anna's door - but when Anna discovers Flynn's secret, she wonders if she knows her at all.

You can read a tall tales & short stories review of About A Girl here


* What inspired you to write Mahalia?

Mahalia was an amazing experience for me. I woke up one night after a nightmare and lay there thinking, as I was in a house alone and was too scared to get up and go to the loo (nightmares can have that effect). And the idea of a young man looking after a child by himself came to me. This was in 1999, June 14 (I remember the date).

I knew a couple of young men who had had children at a young age - 16 or 17, and wondered if they'd be able to look after the baby on their own if they had to, and thought that they would. The idea that came to me was so simple. My previous books had been quite convoluted, and it was a revelation that a story could be so straightforward, as the core of it was the love he felt for the child and the struggles he had looking after her. I put aside another novel I was working on and started 'Mahalia' two weeks later. I did it in 5 months - fast for me. It was a lovely book to write.

Part of my impetus was anger, because the government at the time (John Howard's Liberals) were very down on young people, especially those whom they perceived as outside the social pale. In my world view, there are many ways of being a good and useful citizen, and Matt, Mahalia's father, is a young man of determination and integrity, even though he doesn't yet know what he wants to do with his life. He looks after his baby daughter. He's good at doing that. And then later he discovers that music might be another avenue.

The book's set in the region where I live, which from the early 1970s has been an area of 'alternate' hippy culture. I know many young people who grew up in this environment. Some go on to higher education and mainstream work (many of their parents are highly educated, after all, and often work as teachers, social workers, and so on); others become tradespeople, such as carpenters- one of my sons is a welder.

The book also shows the problem of unemployment in a rural area - most of our kids have to go away to get work. There's a piece of graffiti in the book, which was a real piece of graffiti on a wall in Lismore (where the book is set) at the time I wrote it. SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM, it says. That's what I wanted to do.


Matt had loved Emmy, with her freckled, luminous, magical body; he had loved the way she hadn't given a damn for anything, the way she had climbed onto the roof of the church tower and kissed and kissed him. The way she'd fallen into the river just to know what it felt like. 
He had loved the way she had said to her parents, 'We'll just love it, okay?' 
He remembered how they had believed that loving Mahalia would be enough.


* Do you do much research for your stories?

For Mahalia, since it was 14 years since I'd had a baby, I went to a library and looked up books on child development. In the novel, Mahalia grows from about six months of age to thirteen months, and I wanted to show her development, to make her a real character. The research helped me to remember how the milestones passed in my own children's lives, so things like the way Mahalia takes her first steps (pushing a washing basket along the floor, and then letting go and walking on her own), is the way my youngest child took his first steps.

Mostly I just notice people, what they say and how they act. Real things that are said go into my books - many minor characters, especially, are based on real people. I'm a great keeper of notebooks. Sometimes the 'notebooks' are whatever comes to hand, such an address book I used to keep in my bag, full of notes for a couple of novels. I see people and write things down, just as they are, and use them in an imaginative way later. Much of my life has been preserved in this way (and perhaps the 'urge to preserve is the basis of all art', which I think the Australian writer Helen Garner said.)

If I thought what a 'teenage reader' wants to read I'd completely freeze. I don't think of readers in the abstract or in generic terms. I like to think that a book is like something natural - a flower, say, that doesn't care who likes it. It just is, as true and real and honest as I can make it. I trust that there are readers who'll appreciate it.

When 'Mahalia' came out, a reviewer said that 'teenagers would find it as interesting as a pile of wet nappies', which is very insulting to 'teenagers', to stereotype them in this way. And that reviewer, I'm pleased to say, has been proved so wrong, as people all over the world have connected with that book - young and old.

I thought 'About A Girl' was a book just for girls, and girls of a certain age (older) at that. But a 15 year old boy contacted me on my blog and told me how much he loved it - he really connected with the parts about songwriting, as he wanted to be a songwriter/writer and found Flynn inspiring.

You never know which people are going to read your books, or what they will take from it. People have told me that a particular book of mine has changed their lives or made them think of things in new ways - and that's what books are for. I always put a book out there and see it as travelling, travelling … looking for the people who will love it.

* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

I don't use anyone as sounding boards; I'm a very private writer, and follow my own muse. That's the only way I can work. Writing is a very internal thing for me. It's the only way it works.

* What made you think ‘I want to write for teens’? Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I think I fell into writing for teens. I started out writing books for younger readers. When I left university in the early 1970s I got a job as editorial assistant on a literary magazine for primary school children put out by the NSW Department of School Education. Working there were two distinguished children's writers. Patricia Wrightson was editor and Lilith Norman was Assistant Editor. I learnt a lot about writing from them, and read hundreds of children's books a year as part of the job. That was my grounding. But I love the audience I write for - they're very open and unaffected. People can get so grim and po-faced as they get older. And teenagers give you hugs!

I read some YA, of course, but don't think I'm all that influenced by it. I like books like 'Bilgewater' by Jane Gardam, which is marketed as an adult book, but about a teenage girl. I read a huge amount- I love Japanese novels, old and new. Tanazaki's 'The Makioka Sisters', Mishima, Natsume Soseki, and modern ones like Murakami and Yoshimoto. I've just been re-reading George Orwell's non-fiction. I love the Brontes, Katherine Mansfield, Woolf, Gertrude Stein. But Jack Kerouac must be my favourite. … basically, I read a lot of old books.

* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? 

Patricia Wrightson: 'The Rocks of Honey'. She was THE writer for me when I was a child. I read lots of Enid Blyton, when very young (early 1950s), as that's what was around. As a teenager, I discovered HG Wells in the school library, and Aldous Huxley. Shakespeare - I knew some of that by heart. And writers like Edna O'Brien ('Girl with Green Eyes' and 'The Country Girls') and Penelope Mortimer. I had an older sister who introduced me to these. Later, early on in uni, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing, and Margaret Drabble.

* What’s next for Joanne Horniman? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I'm slowing down a bit. In the last decade I've published 6 books, and I'm 60 this year. I find writing quite strenuous. There's an idea I'm playing around with at the moment, but I'm superstitious about saying too much about works in progress. It's quite different from my previous books, though.

* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Read as much as you can, and write. Keep notebooks. Be open to everything in the world. Don't give up. Tenacity is the most valuable asset for a writer.

Joanne Horniman blogs at-




Among Amid While said...

I love Joanne's work; everything she writes is true in the wonderful, terrible, messy way that real life is true. I forbid you to slow down, Joanne! *looks fierce*

jongleuse said...

I stumbled across Joanne's writing while researching for my MA in Children's Literature and absolutely fell in love with her graceful, evanescent writing. Secret Scribbled Notebooks should be on every teenage girl's reading list. I was so absorbed in it that I missed my tube stop and my teenage years are a distant memory...

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