Your books tackle big topics for young adult readers, and it has been commented in reviews that you tackle issues that other authors would think twice about taking on. Can you share with us your motivation for doing this?
I never set out to write books about issues. It is more that I saw stories that weren’t being told. As an author, I am always looking for the absences and the silences in the world. Years ago, I was at an author talk, in which the author said that he felt it was his job to shine a light in all the dark places, and this idea really resonated with me. The notion that there are hidden places in the world that most people don’t see or aren’t aware of, and we can give people a glimpse into this world, and for just a short time, people can experience life in a way they haven’t before. It is the magic of story.
I think sometimes we underestimate what children and young adults are able to tackle. As adults, we tend to have an idealised notion of childhood, and it is so easy to forget what a difficult time it can be growing up. Especially that age when you are right on the cusp of becoming an adult, and you are trying to work out who you really are and the kind of world you are about to enter. There is such a thirst for knowledge at this age, of discovering the world and identity and of tackling huge ideas – and kids are able to tackle huge ideas because they have their whole futures ahead of them in which to set the world right. The future that young people imagine is very different from the future we as adults are able to imagine, so as an author, you can introduce big ideas and difficult topics because there is also that underlying notion of hope attached. It is like giving kids a problem and asking for a solution. They will have a solution, they always do.
Including your shortlisting in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, you have been shortlisted and won a number of awards for your books over the years, including the 2018 NSW Premiers Literary Award for Young People. What does this recognition mean to you?
A lot! Awards are a tricky beast, because they are so subjective. I don’t believe that a book that has won an award is better than a book that hasn’t – it is simply that it resonated with the right people at the right time. What awards can do, though, is help support books that perhaps aren’t bestsellers or particularly commercial, or haven’t had a huge amount of marketing and publicity surrounding them. Awards make people see these books where otherwise they may have become lost in the shelves, and they tell the author that what they are doing is important.
When I write, I am writing into a void – I have no idea if what I am writing is any good, if it will resonate with anyone, even it makes any sense to anyone outside my own head. I am constantly riddled with self-doubt surrounding my work and second guessing what I do. So to have a book shortlisted is a huge validation that I am doing something that works. I am connecting with people about ideas that matter in some way. And on the bad days, remembering this can be a huge boost.
On a practical level, awards that also come with financial assistance are hugely helpful. Unless you are one of the very few authors that managed to strike a big deal on publication of your book, chances are that the income made from writing is well below the minimum wage. I think the average amount authors make from their books is somewhere around $12,000 a year. Winning an award can be the difference between writing full time and finding a job that pays the bills.
On your website you provide lots of resources for young readers to continue discovering and researching the topics you cover in your works of fiction. Can you tell us how you approach your research for these books, when it’s important to get it right for young people just forming their views on the world?
When I am starting a book, the first thing I do is research. I research a lot. I print out hundreds of articles, pictures, photos, interviews, poems – anything I think might come in handy down the line. I immerse myself as much in the world I am trying to create as possible. I gather as much information as I can, and discover as much as I can. I ask questions. I look for characters and voices and situations. I might write a little bit during this time, but they are more sketches of ideas rather than actual paragraphs. I do this usually for a couple of months, and then I put all the research away and let the story take over. After the first couple of drafts, I then go back and mine all the research for small details that bring the book to life.
I think part of getting ‘it right’ for young people comes down to the selection of what material goes into the books. I have to remind myself to think through the eyes of the character, not through the eyes of an outsider looking in on the character and their situation. I question what ‘normal’ would be for the character and then don’t comment on those aspects unless I can do it sneakily through the context of something else. This can be hard because I need to bring the world to life enough for the reader to understand what is happening, while still keeping it true for the character. But I think this also helps discuss potentially difficult details in a safe way. It enables readers to come at a story from their own experience and understand things at their own level. Often adults find my books a lot harder to read than young people, because adult readers layer their own understanding of the world on to the story.
The other must for me is to leave the reader with an overriding sense of hope. Yes, life can be really, really hard and really, really unfair. Yes, bad things happen to good people. But life can also be wonderful. The world changes. People change. No matter what, there is always hope.
How do you stay connected with young readers?
I have always been around young people. My sister is ten years younger than I am, and we are very close, so as a teenager I spent a lot of time involved in imaginary games and magical adventures with her. The first full length book I wrote (never published) was written for her when I moved overseas when I was 19. When I returned to Australia, I got a job as an integration aide at a local primary school while getting my teaching degree by correspondence, so spent my days working with kids and being constantly amazed by their depth of thought and the creative way their minds clicked over. I also ask kids a lot of questions when I visit schools for author talks and workshops. I get as much out of them as they do out of me.
It helps also that I have three young people of my own to keep my grounded. I love listening to the chatter of kids, their ideas about the world, the way they express themselves, the way they see their own futures, and what is important to them. I watch kids’ shows and movies with my kids, and read a lot of children and young adult fiction as well.
I also have a website where kids can contact me with questions about books and writing, and it is so joyous to see kids connecting with a book strongly enough to track down the author and write to them.
You grew up as an avid reader, and have mentioned previously that you always had your head in a book. What were your favourite childhood reads?
When I was little, I read anything with magic in it. The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair was a firm favourite. I have also always loved folk and fairy tales and used to track down as many obscure versions as I could find. My most prized possession when I was about 10 years old was Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. I discovered it on the bookshelf of a friend of my aunt. We had gone to his house for dinner and, while the adults ate, I disappeared into a corner and started reading. At the end of the night I was gifted the book by our friend. I was delighted and astonished and touched and thrilled, and it made reading the tales even more special. I felt I had been welcomed in.
I also loved Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. This was my first taste of magical realism and showed how a book could really get inside a reader at an emotional level. I also loved the Homecoming series by Cynthia Voigt. When I was 14, I was given Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. For some reason this book connected with me on such a deep level, I ended up re-reading it at least 13 times. After the first few times, my dog took great joy at ripping it to pieces when I was reading down at the park one day (I think he was trying to tell me something…) and, when I bought myself another copy, I discovered that the version I had been reading was a misprint and almost the entire ending had been left out. It was amazing discovering that there was more to the story than I had thought, and left me with the eerie feeling that stories continued on even after a book has finished.
Read more about The Ones That Disappeared by Zana Fraillon
Zana Fraillon was born in Melbourne, but spent her early childhood in San Francisco. Her 2016 novel The Bone Sparrow won the ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children, the Readings Young Adult Book Prize and the Amnesty CILIP Honour. It was also shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, the Queensland Literary Awards, the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, the Gold Inky and the CILIP Carnegie Medal. She spent a year in China teaching English. When Zana isn’t reading or writing, she likes to explore the museums and hidden passageways scattered across Melbourne.
Winners of the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards will be announced on the 5th of December 2018. Keep an eye on our Facebook page and website for winner updates and author interviews.
You can also join the conversation by using the hashtag #PMLitAwards, and you can read the full list of shortlisted titles here.