You wrote the 3rd story in The Life and Times of Chester Lewis, set in 1947 when Chester is 15 years old. Without giving plot spoilers, what can readers look forward to in your story?
It’s a rare teenager who doesn’t develop an infatuation with someone, or indulge in pursuits their parents would be horrified at. In 1947, Chester does both.
How would you describe the personality of Chester Lewis at 15 years old?
Wary, due to the circumstances of his early childhood, but clever. A little bit serious, a little bit lost, but there’s a strong character lurking in there, with a mild tendency towards obsession. I’m curious to see if this is a trait that was developed as his story went along!
How would you describe your Chester Lewis story in juxtaposition to your novel The Fortunes of Ruby White?
Less apples and oranges than prunes and dragonfruit; they have pretty much nothing in common except their author. My Chester Lewis chapter was the first time I had attempted a short story (come to think of it, The Fortunes of Ruby White was the first time I had attempted a novel; there you go – two things in common), and it was also fascinating to work with a character that someone else had invented. Writing a story set in a place I’ve never been (Perth) in a time I’m unfamiliar with (the 1940s) based around a person who I can’t really relate to (a teenage boy) was a challenge, but I’m really pleased with how he turned out. I also tried to write it relatively “straight”, so to speak; most of my fiction is comedic, but I loved being able to try a different tone of voice for this.
The Life and Times of Chester Lewis has a fan fiction competition, for stories 2000 – 4000 words, with a $2000 1st prize. What advice do you have for entrants?
That’s a tricky one, as fan fiction is new to me! I think it would be the same advice I have for any writer—try to find your authentic voice and let it permeate your work, even though in this case you’re working with an established character. Don’t write to be clever or to impress; write what comes truthfully to you. (That, and strip out all unnecessary words. Do you really need to say someone has ‘silky, flowing tresses’? No. You are not re-writing the Sweet Valley High series.)
In a previous interview, following the publication of your debut novel, you wrote about how you would approach the task of writing a novel differently in the future: “As far as things I would definitely do differently, I would highly recommend creating two spreadsheets: a timeline to keep track of the story’s days/weeks/months, and a character arc broken into scenes so you can check your protagonist’s progression at a glance.” For you, is that the key to getting everything to work together as a satisfying story – or do you have a different piece of advice for fiction writers looking to improve their writing?
I think the note about writing what works for you, as mentioned in the previous tip, is probably the best general advice I can give. However! For novel writing, yup, I stick by the timeline and scene notes—they’re not essential, but they can save you so much time and angst, particularly during re-writes. Anything that saves time and angst is gold, I think.
What is one of your favourite novels you have read in the past year, and why?
Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly. Oh, it destroyed me—so beautifully written. It was an eye-opener in terms of how Hartnett uses language, the way she manipulates it to paint pictures. If anyone is thinking of exploring this side of their writing, I highly recommend it. Plus I got flashbacks to my own very awkward 80s adolescence. (Eek!)
If you could bring one fiction author back from the dead for one day for the sole purpose of discussing writing fiction, who would you choose, and why?
Jane Austen, because I think she was a lot funnier than people give her credit for. I love how she uses tiny signifiers to completely capture someone’s character, so I’d be dying to discuss the art of restraint in fiction, particularly how it works with satirical material.
What is next for your fiction writing?