Better Reading spoke with Eliza Henry Jones, the author of the moving new young adult novel P is for Pearl, about her teen years, first love and how writing P is for Pearl was a cathartic experience that helped her get through the worst years of her life.
This is your first young adult novel, has writing YA been something you’ve wanted to do for some time?
I am a huge fan of YA novels – particularly the stunning books that are published right here in Australia. I actually wrote P is for Pearl when I was sixteen, well before I’d had the idea for my debut adult fiction novel, In the Quiet. I think there is something quite luminous about being a teenager, but being an older teenager in particular. There is a sense of things shifting and ending and beginning and being in flux and I really love exploring it in my writing.
P is for Pearl is set in a small town in Tasmania, could you tell us a bit about why you chose this as your setting?
Tasmania is one of those magical places that I travelled to when I was young and was never quite able to shake. I went back there a few years ago and fell in love with it all over again. There is a wildness in parts of Tasmania that I find really haunting – and I think fits beautifully in with the sort of story I wanted P is for Pearl to be.
How was writing for a young adult readership different to writing for adults? Was it something you were conscious of during the writing process?
I was conscious of things like swearing, drinking and sex (which I include quite liberally in my adult fiction!). However, working on the story itself felt very similar to my adult titles, in terms of the complexity and the trauma, grief and family issues explored.
Do you have strong memories of your teenage years?
I have extremely strong memories of being a teenager. I went through the worst time of my life as a teenager – P is for Pearl was written as a sort of catharsis as I worked through these experiences – yet there was so much joy and love and fun during the times, too. For me, it was a time of extremes and big feelings. Huge love and crushing sadness and still being so much like a child and, simultaneously, so grown-up.
You’ve captured the teenage voice wonderfully in this book, how did you think you achieved this? Do you spend much time with teens?
I think I cheated a bit, having written it as a teen! I also worked with young people for a few years at a drug and alcohol centre, which really forced me to shift my perspective on all sorts of things and gave me a lot of insight.
The friendship between Gwen and Loretta is at the centre of this novel, even more so than the developing romance – was it a deliberate choice to have the love story be secondary?
It was absolutely deliberate and I’m so glad that came through in the reading. Initial drafts of Pearl from twelve years ago didn’t really have a romance, so I had to shift the character of Ben into Gwen’s crush when I started reworking it. For me as a teenager, friends were my world and romance was very much secondary and I think this was definitely reflected in the novel. I didn’t even have a proper boyfriend until I was twenty!
Mental health and grief are explored in different ways throughout P is for Pearl, how important do you think it is to not shy away from difficult and painful topics such as these in young adult fiction?
I think it’s vital. So much of our understanding of grief and trauma comes from vicarious experiences – whether these are real stories we hear from people or fiction we quietly read. There is immense value in all different sorts of representations of grief and trauma because it communicates to young people that it’s okay to respond to grief and trauma – no matter what form it takes – however they need to. That there is no “right way” to respond to these sorts of experiences. Having worked with a lot of people in crisis, I’ve realised that people often feel enormous pressure to adhere to social norms that don’t truly exist. Anything that helps break this down is valuable.
Gwen’s unwillingness to engage with her mother’s death, or speak in detail about her mother’s battle with mental illness are reflected in her inability to imagine a life outside of her small town. Was this use of setting as metaphor something you hoped to achieve, or did it happen naturally through the storytelling process?
It was a deliberate metaphor. For me, Gwen was feeling completely immobilised by the thought of transitioning into adulthood and making big life choices without knowing what her mother would’ve thought. The town is a way for Gwen to feel close to her mother without having to interrogate the details of her mother’s death or mental illness – the idea of confronting the world beyond the town while still being unable to process her mother’s story was utterly impossible for Gwen at the start of the novel.
The landscape and nature are almost a secondary character in P is for Pearl – is this something that is reflected in your life?
Landscape is a huge part of my life and definitely comes through in a lot of my written work. I live and work on a small farm that is mostly off-grid and the landscape feels like another member of the family – the wind and earth; the rain and plants. I’m consumed by the landscape of my home.
There has been much discussion over the past few years that fiction written for teenagers is too dark – what is your response to these criticisms?
I think that, across the board, there exists a tendency to underestimate teenagers – their resilience and their emotional capacity, particularly. Books that deal with dark issues are vital and don’t actually have to be entirely dark books. As a teenager – and still, as an adult – I am drawn to books that deal with dark, difficult issues in a way that still has joy and humour and warmth. I think that there can’t be enough of these sorts of books – across all genres and age ranges.
Were you much of a reader as a teenager? What books did you love to read?
I was a huge reader as a teenager! I loved Isobelle Carmody, Melina Marchetta, John Marsden, Eva Martyn, James Herriot and (of course!) J.K. Rowling. I also used to sneak-read my mother’s collection of Stephen King and Patricia Cornwell books.
What young adult fiction are you currently reading, or have recently read that you would recommend?
I recently read Everything is Changed by Nova Weetman and couldn’t put it down. It’s got such an unusual, powerful structure.
Eliza Henry Jones was born in Melbourne in 1990. She was a Young Writer-in-Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in 2012 and was a recipient of a Varuna residential fellowship for 2015. She has qualifications in English, psychology and grief, loss and trauma counselling. She is currently completing honours in creative writing – exploring bushfire trauma – and works in community services. She lives in the Dandenong Ranges with her husband and too many animals.