Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Zana Fraillon is a middle grade author, best known for The Bone Sparrow, and has a new book – The Lost Soul Atlas coming out in July. Like many authors, she has had events and launches cancelled due to the pandemic. Where other authors have had releases pushed to later in the year, or next year, Zana has not had this happen (at the time of writing this post). She has used her platform as an author for activism, and has explored themes in her books that might not always be spoken about, or seen in ways that are more complex, and more human than we see on the news. Zana appears below to discuss her books and writing with me.
Hi Zana, and welcome to The Book Muse
- Where did your love for reading and writing come from?
I have always been an avid reader. I would – and still do – retreat into a book at any and every chance I got. I have very poor eyesight, and can’t focus on anything more than five centimetres away, however no one realised until I was seven. I suspect that one of the reasons I turned to books so readily was that they were the only part of my world that I could see! When you read a lot, it feels natural to write a lot as well. I had all those voices from all those books and stories in my head, and I guess they just had to come out. I also came from a family that loves and values books. My favourite place in my childhood home was an entire room filled with books and comfy chairs. Bookshelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling, and there was a kind of silent awe that would come over you when you entered that room – as if all the books on the shelves were just waiting for you to pick them and enter their world.
- Prior to being a writer – you studied history, and primary school teaching – what made you take the leap into writing?
I never thought of myself as becoming a writer – I’m not sure why – my mother had written a book and my uncle is quite a prolific author. But it wasn’t until I was at home with my first born that I even thought about writing as a professional possibility. I would quite often write picture books with and for my son, and a friend of mine saw one of these and suggested that I send it in to a publisher. At that moment the world seemed to stop spinning for a moment – I remember the realisation dawning on me that I could possibly become an author and spend my days writing, and it was like everything was suddenly clear. I was very lucky that the picture book was picked up from the slush pile and published.
- Do these previous careers inform how you write and research?
Definitely. I suspect teaching is where my love of writing for young people comes from. I have such respect for young people and enthusiasm for the way they think about the world – when I am creating my own worlds, the world of a young person, the mind of a young person, is where I want to be spending time. I also really enjoy doing research, and my background in history is hugely helpful. I am quite at home trawling through databases and texts and analysing what small seemingly insignificant pieces of information might be able to tell us. The hardest part is actually in putting the facts aside to let the story take over.
- What books have you released, and what are they about?
I have released ten books so far, and my eleventh is coming out in July. They vary greatly from pre-school books about the secret lives of animals, to young adult fiction about modern day child slavery. Perhaps the best known of them all is The Bone Sparrow which is about a young boy born inside an immigration detention centre. Lots of schools have picked this up now, which is thrilling for me, because it means that more people are engaging with the issue of asylum seekers and talking about our role in the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated. Similarly, my picture book Wisp, which is also about refugees, is being used in a lot of primary schools, especially in the UK.
- The Lost Soul Atlas is coming out in July – have you had to cancel any events or launches around this book?
I’ve had to cancel everything! Of course, we are all very adaptable and are moving to online events, but it is always hard not to be with people to celebrate and discuss in person. There was a beautiful proof copy that had been planned and that I was going to hand deliver to as many bookshops as I could; there were launches and panels; and I had a book tour to the UK all locked in and ready to go.
- Are there any other literary events that were cancelled or postponed that you were excited about – either as a guest or an author?
The wonderful Danielle Binks and I had planned an author Q&A session to discuss our new books and I was really looking forward to this. I also had a number of school visits and workshops lined up – but hopefully these will move online as well.
I love going to all things literary – Clunes Book festival is one of my favourites – as well as all the other festivals and author events that happen throughout the year. Thankfully, some of these have moved online so we can still get our bookish fix!
- Have any of your events moved online since they were cancelled?
Most of them have. I am currently working with my publishers to work out just what we can do online, and how we can best live event things while in lockdown.
- Each book is a stand-alone novel – was this a conscious choice, and do you think you’d ever write a series?
My first novels for middle grade were part of a series called Monstrum House. There were four books in the series and it was great fun to write. I don’t really think about the choice of series or stand alone when I start writing a book – I tend to let the story set the audience, length, genre etc and go from there.
- Your books are primarily for upper middle grade to young adult readers – what made you choose this readership?
I love the way kids’ minds work. They see the world so differently from adults. I especially like writing for this readership because they are at that moment in their lives – which I remember so clearly – of trying to work out the kind of person they want to become, and the kind of world they want to live in. They question everything. They wonder about everything. The world is so full of possibility. They are standing right on the cusp. It’s an exciting time of life.
- When writing, what kind of research do you undertake, and how do you begin this research?
I do a lot of research before I start writing. Partly this helps me get inside the world of my characters, and partly because I am trying to work out exactly what my story is about and where it will take me. I write to find things out and explore, and research is all part of that. The majority of research is done online, but libraries are a gold mine of information and I often go to libraries to see what I can find. Also, if there is any hands on activity I can do that will help with some aspect of the story, then I will do that too. I am also very moved by other forms of creative expression, and quite often ideas are sparked by looking at a painting, or a sculpture, or – as was the case in The Lost Soul Atlas – street art. Almost all of the Afterlife scenes were inspired by street art.
- Can you explain a bit more about the themes in your books, and do you find that they appear in all books, or does each book explore different themes?
I guess the overriding theme in all of my books is the empowerment of young people. I want readers to go away and feel as though they can make a difference, whether this is to their own lives or other people’s. Young people have to be so courageous just to survive this world, and we too often forget that. I want young people to feel seen and heard and valued, no matter who they are, or what their circumstances.
- What authors made you feel like you could be an author when you were younger?
All of them. Anyone who ever set a story down on paper showed me what was possible. When I was a teenager, my favourite author was Isabelle Allende. I loved how she used magical realism to address serious political ideas and commentary. I also loved Cynthia Voigt and her Homecoming series. Her characters were so true and honest and really resonated with me.
- When you began writing, did you think it would take you on the adventures you’ve been on?
Absolutely! I knew the adventures that reading provided, and I equally knew that these same adventures could be taken by writing. The bonus is, that with writing, you have slightly more control over the adventure. Not a lot more, but a bit more…
- When you begin writing, how do you choose which character’s perspective to tell the story from?
I don’t really. I wait for the voice to come to me. All of my stories start with a character, so when that character emerges, I know it is their story I am telling. Very occasionally I have to make a deliberate change because the story isn’t working, but that has only happened once so far.
- Do you have a favourite writing or reading spot in your house?
I am fortunate enough to have a partner who knows how to build, and so I have a wonderful studio up the back of the garden where I go to write. It is perfectly set up to get me into the writing headspace. There are bits and pieces of collected inspiration and luck, there are cork boards and white boards and books to reference, and paper to doodle on, there is room for the dogs, and a wonderful outlook over our garden. Stepping through the door is like stepping inside my bookmind.
- When not writing, or reading, what do you enjoy doing when you have the time?
Spending time with my family – playing games, taking the dogs for long, long walks, going to museums. I have also become quite obsessed with making maps…
- Do you have a favourite writing companion?
I don’t just have one companion, I have a coven! The wonderful Penni Russon, Penny Harrison and Kate Mildenhall are wonderful friends and fantastic writing companions. We meet weekly and work our magic for each other. Writing is such a solitary experience, it is so helpful to have people in the industry who you trust to nut out ideas with, experiment with, discuss things and to support each other through all the ups and downs.
- Working in the arts is hard – how do you manage it, and for those who might not think the arts need support, what would you say to them?
I think people only work in the arts because they need to – it’s part of who they are. No one does it for the money, mostly because the money isn’t there. The average income for an Australian author is $12,500 a year. You can’t live on that. There are very few authors who are able to support themselves through writing alone. We find other ways to try and make money – school visits, author talks, other forms of writing – but it only takes a quick look at the ASA rates of pay to see how unsustainable that is. Without funding, people can’t create. And we will be a far poorer society because of it.
- Do you have a favourite local bookseller that you frequent?
I have many favourite booksellers! The ones I tend to go to most though are Readings and Readings Kids, Eltham Bookshop, The Little Bookroom and Fairfield Books.
- Finally, what is in the works at the moment?
I am working on a couple of things at the moment. I have another picture book and a middle-grade verse novel I am trying to find a home for, I’m playing around with a junior fiction novel, and I am currently co-writing a middle-grade book with the amazing Bren MacDibble. On top of that, I have also just started a PhD in Creative Writing at LaTrobe University.
Anything I may have missed?