Fiona Wood is the author of young adult novels, Six Impossible Things and Wildlife. Her third book, Cloudwish, will be published in the US in October. Before writing YA fiction, Fiona worked as a television scriptwriter for twelve years, writing everything from soap, and one-hour adult drama, to children’s drama. Prior to this she dropped out of law and completed an arts degree, both at Melbourne University, worked in marketing and in arts management, did some freelance journalism, and studied screenwriting at RMIT. She has served as a judge for the AWGIE Awards (Australian Writers’ Guild) and is an ambassador for The Stella Prize Schools Program. She has two YA children, and lives in Melbourne with her husband.
- I recently read and loved Cloudwish by you and what struck me most about the novel was the authenticity of the protagonist’s voice. Could you tell us what research you did or what life experiences you have had that helped you express Vân Uoc’s voice so exactly?
Thank you, Nafiza!
A few things combined to help me create the character of Van Uoc Phan. The first was my involvement in Friday Night School, a tutor program, where I’ve been a volunteer for eight years.
Friday Night School provides an hour each week of homework help to students whose parents have English as a second language. There are lots of students from the Vietnamese Australian community in the program, and some mothers from the community help run the program, so I have been lucky enough to get to know this group of lovely people over many years.
I had one student, Diem – now at university, and a tutor in the program – as my FNS student for six years. Though the character Van Uoc is not based on Diem or her family, I would never have written the book had it not been for Diem.
I’ve always been conscious of representing diversity – i.e. reality, i.e. honesty – in my writing, and my first book, Six Impossible Things, has a Vietnamese Australian minor character, Uyen Nguyen. At the time that book was published in Australia, Diem was thirteen. She read the book and told me that Uyen didn’t get to do enough. That comment was the spark of inspiration for me to develop a Vietnamese Australian protagonist.
I looked at the library shelves and saw that there was not a single YA book with a Vietnamese Australian protagonist, so I created Van Uoc Phan as a minor character in my second book, Wildlife, and she is the main character in Cloudwish.
So, I lived with this character for a long time. Nothing substitutes for that. And, of all my characters, she is the one who most closely resembles teenaged me. I was also the quiet, shy artist, trying to discover and understand a secret within my family.
The thing about teenagers whose lives straddle two cultures is that they are first and foremost regular teenagers, so the big thing about me knowing Van Uoc as a character is knowing her as a teenager. I stand outside her culture; I write her character in the third person, but I have written her with a clear understanding of commonalities, and an empathic heart.
For her family backstory, I did the usual desk research, reading accounts of people who’d made the journey from Vietnam to Australia following the fall of Saigon. And I interviewed people from the Vietnamese Australian community who generously talked to me about their experiences.
I had five people of different ages from the community who were kind enough to read the manuscript. In America, the term ‘sensitivity readers’ is used; I think of them as cultural experts.
To take a step backwards and look at the broader picture – the reason I started volunteering at FNS was that it was a practical way – beyond attending rallies, and signing petitions – of saying, I welcome refugees, when the Australian government was putting asylum seekers attempting to arrive here by boat in offshore detention centres, a practice that continues to this day. Doing something constructive with my feelings of anger and protest meant that I got to know members of the Vietnamese Australian community; as well as refugees from Sudan and Somalia, whom I now tutor.
Without that experience, and without the comment from my former student that a minor character didn’t get to do enough, I would not have written Cloudwish, so it’s definitely an instance of art emerging from life, and from political beliefs. It is absolutely my purpose to embed serious political critiques within what is essentially a lighthearted story. I echo that structure in Van Uoc’s quest to juggle in her life the daily, jostling hierarchy of serious and frivolous problems. All those things feed into the construction of Van Uoc’s world and her voice.
- The Book Wars recently posted a conversation about diversity in Australian YA between two YA novelists, Rebecca Lim and Ambelin Kwaymullina. Do you have any thoughts to add to theirs?
I was glad to read the conversation when it was first published – it’s such an important one. I respect, listen to, and learn from the views and lived experiences of Bec and Ambelin.
Bec and I are part of the very friendly, supportive YA community here in Melbourne. I’ve talked with her about diversity, and, along with many other writers, have offered to be a mentor in a diversity program she is devising in consultation with a group of publishers. She is a generous presence in the writing community, and a strong advocate of emerging writers of colour, and in her they have a wonderful champion.
I agree that diversity needs to be on everyone’s radar. In publishing, the objective of equity in participation for writers from marginalised groups is vitally important, whatever country you’re talking about, but the demographic situation varies from country to country.
In Australia, we have a ninety per cent white population. In this demographic context, even when every minority group is properly represented within the ranks of publishing, we will still need more writers to take up the diversity challenge if we ever hope to offer readers a critical mass of YA titles featuring diverse characters.
When you consider the minuscule fraction of one per cent of the population who will write and publish a YA title in any given year, it seems clear that readers will benefit from an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to writing diversity in Australia.
That is not to say that representing a character from a minority culture should be undertaken in an arbitrary or cavalier way. Far from it. But when it can be done with integrity and respect, it has the potential to benefit readers from the culture represented, and also from the white majority. We need so many more mirrors of, and windows into, diverse characters on our library shelves here. This applies not just to the area of culture, but also to sexuality, disability, and gender ID.
- Have you developed any habits as a writer that might seem strange to a non-writer?
The main thing that working as a writer has allowed me to develop is a fuller expression of my personality type: a shy introvert. I couldn’t spend so much time entirely alone with my thoughts in any other job. I suppose one thing that might seem strange to a non-writer is that a writer is working all the time. Whatever you’re doing, there is part of you observing, wondering, speculating, processing, linking – every single thing you experience ends up in the paint box one way or another. Writers are often present but not available, which can be annoying for the non-writers we live with.
- As an Australian writer, do you think there are quantifiable differences between YA novels released primarily for North American readers compared to books released first for Australian readers?
Many Australian writers are happy and irreverent rule breakers, and that might give our books a certain freshness, flavour, or point of difference, but I’m not sure the extent to which that holds as a theory, because there are plenty of American, UK, NZ and Canadian writers of whom that can equally be said.
Perhaps we give ourselves greater freedom, and follow fewer rules, but I write frankly about sex and politics in my books, and I haven’t experienced any difference in the responses from my Australian and American publishers on those counts.
- Correct me if I am wrong but you write mostly realistic YA. Do you see yourself ever switching to fantasy or any other genre? Also, are you working on anything new that we should be looking forward to?
You are right. Two of the writers I most admire, Jaclyn Moriarty and Melina Marchetta write realistic and fantasy fiction. I don’t imagine that I will ever try to write fantasy fiction; I’m not a fantasy reader. But I would love to write for different readerships, both younger and older than YA.
I’m co-writing a book with another two writers I love, Cath Crowley (Words in Deep Blue) and Simmone Howell (Girl Defective). Our working title is Friends Anonymous. We’ve had so much fun writing together.
Thanks for the interview, Fiona! You can read my review of Cloudwish here; it’s definitely a book to add to your TBR piles if you haven’t already done so.