Felicity McLean is a writer and a journalist. Her writing has appeared in The Good Weekend, the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun, the Big Issue and more. She has written fiction and non-fiction books and has been published by HarperCollins Publishers, Allen & Unwin and Black Inc. Her latest non-fiction book, Body Lengths, was co-written with Olympian Leisel Jones. It won the 2016 Australian Book Industry Awards ‘Reader’s Choice’ for Small Publisher Adult Book of the Year, and it was Apple iBook’s ‘Best Biography of 2015′. As a ghostwriter she has collaborated with celebrities, sports stars, business leaders and others. Felicity’s new fiction book, The Van Apfel Girls are Gone, is being described as Picnic at Hanging Rock for a new generation, a haunting coming-of-age story with a shimmering, unexplained mystery at its heart.
Can you give us your elevator pitch for The Van Apfel Girls are Gone?
The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone is a blackly comic, coming-of-age story that occurs during a single, sweltering summer – the summer the three Van Apfel sisters disappear.
Set in 1990s suburbia, in an eerie river valley with an unexplained stench, the story is narrated by friend and neighbour, Tikka Malloy. But Tikka is only eleven and one-sixth, and far too close to the missing girls for her narration to be considered completely reliable.
Tikka explains that Hannah, Cordelia and Ruth Van Apfel vanished during the school’s outdoor ‘Showstopper’ concert. As the Van Apfel girls’ oppressive religious home-life is revealed, and as suspicions are raised about Cordie’s relationship with a local teacher, it fast becomes apparent that something more sinister may have happened on the night the Van Apfel girls disappeared.
When Tikka returns to the valley twenty years later she is no less obsessed with the disappearance of her friends. The incident has haunted Tikka for her whole life, and the mystery remains unsolved forever.
It’s just that now, after two decades, Tikka is trying to find a way to make peace with that.
What was the inspiration for the novel’s narrator, eleven year-old Tikka?
I wanted to tell the story through the eyes of an eleven year-old girl because eleven is that murky territory – that blurry in-between land – caught between being a child and adulthood. Balanced between knowing and not knowing.
At the time of the Van Apfel girls’ disappearance, Tikka is precisely eleven and one-sixth and is a slightly precocious, but ultimately unreliable narrator. For a start, Tikka’s too close to the three Van Apfel sisters to be able to view their disappearance objectively. They’re her friends, she’s grown up with them as her neighbours, and this colours her perception of what takes place.
Moreover, Tikka’s version of events hinges on second-hand information and neighbourhood gossip that she tries to piece together. So often she’s deemed too young to know and details about the disappearance are withheld from her. And yet Tikka knows things that the adults around her don’t know. She keeps secrets about her friends’ disappearance.
As a result, for the next twenty years Tikka remains trapped in a purgatory of only partial understanding. She never fully learns what happened to her friends. Nor can she let the mystery of their disappearance go.
Ultimately, Tikka represents the idea of seeing versus not seeing. Who’s to say that what we don’t see has any less impact on us than those things we actually witness?
Why Australian Gothic?
My novel was very much born of the idea of writing an Australian Gothic novel. The concept of Gothic literature (think: gargoyles and garrets) seems so at odds with our sparkling sunshine, our blisteringly blue skies in Australia. And yet perhaps all this sunlight serves to heighten the shadows? Isn’t the nightmare worse if it unfolds during the day?
Barbara Baynton, Elizabeth Jolley, Patrick White and Helen Garner are among a host of Australian authors who have explored the idea of Goth-gone-antipodean. Their writing often splices the everyday with the terrifying, causing us to question those things that are most familiar to us.
What do you want readers to feel when they’ve finished your book?
A little bit heartbroken. At the same time, I’d like my readers to have laughed inappropriately many times along the way.
Who are your literary influences and heroes?
I’m in awe of Ann Patchett for the humanity (and the humour) in her novels. Colum McCann’s lyrical language makes me swoon. And Helen Garner because, well, Helen Garner.