Can you tell us about yourself and what led you to become a storyteller?
I’ve always been a keen reader. My parents used to read to me when I was young, particularly when I was sick with asthma, and from there I developed an interest in writing. From primary school I’ve always written stories in my spare time in various forms.
Stories that have been published in a number of literary magazines now. And you won the black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship, which is the only project of its kind in Australia—what was it like to win, and what has it involved and meant for you and your practice?
Wining black&write! was a dream come true. I couldn’t believe it when I received the call informing me I’d won. It was a great experience being able to work with the editors of the black&write! team over 12 months, before moving on to the publisher. It meant the work has become so much better than its original form. I don’t think I’d be where I am today with my work and career if I hadn’t entered the fellowship.
We might not have your excellent debut—My Father’s Shadow. Our narrator of which, Kaya, is on the run from a drug cartel, and recovering from trauma. This means that cultural identity is explored quite subtlety—was this a conscious decision, or an unconscious effect, of writing My Father’s Shadow? Or, perhaps, a mix of both?
It was definitely a conscious decision. I didn’t want issues of culture to overtake the main plot, but I thought it was important that they were there. Like in many people’s lives, culture and identity isn’t always at the forefront, and I wanted young people to be able to relate to different manifestations of Australian identity, without it being an overwhelming drive or theme of the book. I think there’s already enough going on in there, plot-wise!
That’s true—the plot makes for a turn-paging debut! But we are having more and more conversations about representation in literature and our popular imagination more generally, and I’m certainly thrilled that we’re seeing more diversity in characters. How has this affected you, and what role did it play in constructing Kaya?
It’s definitely encouraging seeing more diversity in Australian storytelling, and our society is definitely in a place where people are more open to that. People of different backgrounds and adversity have to rely less on international narratives in order to feel some sense of reflection, and that’s great. There’s still a long way to go though, with mainstream still using a lot of tired clichés. I wanted to represent something that felt true to my experience of Australia, as well as my family and upbringing. It’s certainly not autobiographical, but my experience did help to shape Kaya as a character.
That’s likely why Kaya is such a strong and fully fleshed out character. Her relationship with her mother is quite complicated—especially in the midst of the narrative you’ve weaved, and because of other familial connections, like with Kaya’s grandmother. What difficulties did this entail during the writing process?
The relationship with her mother, Marnie, definitely changed over time. Marnie was a lot more of a menacing figure in the first iteration, she was someone who Kaya distrusted. A completely different character really. Over the edits, it became clear that her mother did need to be trustworthy, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense for Kaya to stay with her in the mountains. Her mother had to create that safe haven for her, to give her a feeling of home away from home. I think Marnie is a lot more relatable now, even though she still makes questionable decisions.
Those mountains—Mount Wilson—you write about them with, what seemed like, such ease. And an integral part of the narrative is the memory recovery that Kaya is undergoing through therapy. What sort of research did writing My Father’s Shadow involve?
I did a research trip to Mount Wilson to expand upon the Google Street Map viewing I had been doing at the time. There’s no substitute for physically experiencing a place compared to just looking at photos. I was able to visit locations that I wanted to write about, see the different colours, sounds and feel the atmosphere of the place. I went with my husband during winter when it was quiet and cold, and it really did reflect the ambiance I was trying to achieve. It’s a beautiful place to visit.
In terms of Kaya’s recovery, I used a mix of my own experience as a lawyer and with psychologists, together with research. The hardest part for me was to include her post traumatic stress disorder and its symptoms, because that’s not something that I have much experience with. I wanted to make sure I represented that in a way that read realistically, so the research aspect was important. To not include it, to act like she was a well-adjusted teenager after such a harrowing event experienced with her father, wouldn’t have been believable in my opinion.
It did read realistically—so research well done. What were some of the growing pains and joys of the publishing process? From writing, and submitting, to editing, publishing, and all the way through to sending your book out into the world?
Having completed a Masters in Creative Writing, I’d already gone through the wringer, so to speak, in terms of receiving feedback from teachers and fellow classmates in writing workshops. I’d also kept up a writing group for a number of years, so I already had a handle on what it’s like to have criticism, to have to change things so that meaning becomes clear. You have to throw your own vanity and ego out the door a little, I think, particularly as an early-career writer. So when it came to working with the publisher I really trusted that Magabala knew what they were doing, that they knew the market better than me. I would say that I ended up agreeing with the majority of their notes and I believe that the story is so much better having gone through that process. The only real growing pain I would say is that it took quite a while to get to publication, for various reasons. I’m hopeful my next work will come out a lot faster.
I’m sure many readers share that hope. Can you tell us what you’re reading now, and where your imagination and writing might take you in the future?
I’m working on a couple of manuscripts at the moment, one is a crime fiction story and the other fantasy realism. I don’t really see myself as a career YA author, I enjoy exploring different genres and styles of writing, and perhaps even different forms as well. I’ve been working in film and television for the past decade, so screenwriting is something I also have an interest in. I am definitely excited to continue building my career and hope that people will enjoy coming along for the ride.
You can purchase My Father’s Shadow from Magabala Books.