Vikki Wakefield needs no introduction. A master of the YA genre and Australian native, Ballad For A Mad Girl is her fourth book, and it does not disappoint. Just a hint of advice before diving into it, though – you might want to read it with the lights on. Better Reading Kids spoke to Vikki about young adult literature, madness, and grief.
Better Reading Kids: Congratulations on your new book, Ballad for a Mad Girl! Tell us about it.
Vikki Wakefield: Thank you! Ballad for a Mad Girl is a mash-up of crime/mystery/thriller/horror (and the supernatural), but at its core it’s still very much a contemporary YA novel about growing up. Grace Foley has always been the funny girl in her close group of friends, but the dynamics are changing. She lost her mother two years ago, and she’s finding it hard to keep up appearances; she’s struggling at school, and her friends are hooking up and moving on. One night a simple pipe dare goes wrong and Grace experiences something she can’t explain. She loses the challenge. Convinced she’s being haunted by a restless spirit, she’s also in danger of losing herselfーshe becomes obsessed with solving the 20-year-old mystery surrounding missing girl Hannah Holt, and William Dean, the boy who took his own secrets to the grave.
BRK: Where did the inspiration for this book come from? Why did you decide to write this?
VW: There’s never a single moment where I decide to write a storyーit’s more about having too many interests and ideas and finding a way to sort and stack them until they form a solid foundation for a novel. With Ballad, I combined my love of horror and suspense (in both literature and film) with my tendency to gather morbid facts. I became fascinated with a mysterious line from an old document listing the reasons why women were committed to asylums in the 1800s. It read: ‘a gathering in the head’. The line hints at possession (or possibly schizophrenia), but I reframed it in a contemporary sense: the buildup of loss, grief, alienation, sudden change, health issues, pressure to conform and succeed, etc. that, affects many teenagers. It’s difficult for young people today to find refuge in the quiet mindーGrace came from thinking about that.
BRK: Death and loss is a big theme of the book. How did you approach writing this?
VW: I used a younger version of myself. We all pass through grief differently: some retreat, others go looking for ways to fill the space left behind, and some go to extremes to find meaning in life after it has irrevocably changed. Grace is like that (so was I). It’s difficult for her family and friends to understand what she’s going through; they can’t accept that time doesn’t allow passage for everyone, or that she can’t just ‘snap out of it’. When it came to the death of William Dean, the town monster (and the prime suspect in the case of missing girl Hannah Holt), I tried to write him without judgement and always remember that he was once somebody’s child.
BRK: Ballad for a Mad Girl weaves both coming of age and supernatural themes. How did you go about balancing this?
VW: Everything hinges on Grace’s state of mindーshe swings between belief and disbelief, fight and submission, until she discovers a kind of peace for herself. She does this outside of everyone else’s expectations and diagnoses which, I think, is often what growing up is all about. I let her character be carried along by the idea that a young woman’s rage is capable of summoning a similarly unquiet spirit (or several). There is always a rational explanation for her experiences (because humans like to be able to label and ‘fix’ thingsーbut sometimes we cannot fix, only accept and learn to live with them). So the balance comes from letting my characters leadーthe supernatural occurrences are an extension of Grace as a character, not a sub-plot or a marker of genre.
BRK: Do you consider this book a “supernatural” book, or rather YA with supernatural themes?
VW: To me it’s contemporary YA and my ghosts are characters, but readers will make up their own minds depending on their beliefs. I can tell you what I intended when I wrote the story, but that will never align perfectly with readers’ experiences because they’re all unique. I love that a story can shoot off in an unexpected direction like that. I intended for Grace to be judgedーthat outcome was calculatedーbut part of the reason I can’t define the novel myself is because I know it will be a different book for every reader.
BKR: Grace is flawed – intelligent but manic and “mad”. How did you set about writing her?
VW: ‘Mad’ has several definitions but I used it mostly in context with Grace being angry. She has ‘hateful thoughts’ in her head (which ties in with the ‘gathering’) and suspicion is a typical reaction to the kinds of behaviours she, or anyone under the kinds of pressure she experiences, might exhibit. I don’t think of this as a novel about mental illness, madness, or any other diagnosis we give; it’s about a girl, struggling to make sense of the losing hand life has dealt her, who chooses to aim herself straight at the heart of everything she fears. Yes, she’s flawed and she makes questionable decisions, but she’s also brave and resourceful. She’s the kind of teen who will grow to become a formidable adult, even if she doesn’t conform to society’s beliefs.
BKR: Why write for young adults? Why is this important to you?
VW: Aside from not knowing how to do anything else (I’ve tried), I love that I can write a book that, like Grace, doesn’t fit into one box. The YA readership gives me and other writers the freedom to do thatーyoung adults are completely open to genre-bending, odd characters and breaks with convention, and they’re at the forefront of social change. Why do I write for teens? I guess I’m drawn to unresolved issues and my teen years were the time of my life when I had the biggest questions.
BKR: Who’s your favourite character from the book?
VW: Apart from Grace, her old friend Gummer is probably my favourite. He’s based on someone I know so he was almost effortless to write. (Spoiler: I hoped Grace and Gummer would get together but they were having none of that.)
BKR: What’s next for you?
VW: I’m working on a new YA novel with a male main character. This world will be familiar to my readers and one of my previous main characters makes an appearance. I can’t tell you more because I truly don’t know what this story is about yet (and I believe in jinxes).