Interview with Shivaun Plozza for Reading Matters 2017
Shivaun Plozza is the author of Frankie, a 2017 CBCA shortlist and – more importantly – 2017 Inky Awards longlist title. Shivaun will be appearing at the Reading Matters conference from 1-7 June, including two events at the Reading Matters public day on Sunday 4 June: ‘Publishing 101’ with Rachael Craw and Jennifer Niven, and a free youth writing workshop, ‘Finding Your Voice’. Click here to book your tickets now!
Inky: What do you love most about writing for young adults?
SP: I love their passion – there’s so little pretention or restraint in how they respond to the characters and worlds that they love. I think that’s one of the worst things about ‘growing up’ – people start looking down on that wonderfully raw and open emotional reaction and try to shame you into being more ‘adult’ about reading. Don’t ever let them shame you!
The other thing I love about writing for young people is how discerning they are as an audience – they’re articulate, passionate and fiercely political. They’re not afraid to pull you up when you get things wrong.
Inky: Which one of your characters would you most like to have a coffee with and why?
SP: All of them? Actually, it would be Pip, a character I’m writing at the moment for my next novel, Tin Heart. I can’t really say him though because obviously the book’s not out yet! He just has the biggest, craziest personality so I’d love to hang out with him. From Frankie I think it would be Cara. It’s hard to choose one but I think she’d be a lot of fun. We could throw Maltesers at ducks together.
Inky: What are some of your favourite Australian YA books?
SP: Oh wow – how much space do I have?! I’ll try to restrain myself … Obviously I have to start with On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta because holy moly is that book brilliant – heartbreaking, beautifully written and characters who stay with you for years and years after. Also, Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell, Sleeping Dogs by Sonya Hartnett, The Flywheel by Erin Gough, In the Skin of a Monster by Kathryn Barker, The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis and everything Jaclyn Moriarty has ever written (I bet even her grocery lists are magnificent).
Inky: What are you currently reading, loving and recommending?
SP: I’ve been telling everyone to read When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah immediately. Like, stop reading this interview right now and go out and read it. And I just read Emma Mills’ second book, This Adventure Ends and I can’t believe she’s not massive with people swooning over her like I’ve been. I’ve also just started reading Finding Nevo by Nevo Risin; I’m only a chapter in but I know I’ll be recommending it to everyone too. My US Publisher just sent me a copy of American Girls by Alison Umminger and I can’t wait to get stuck into that.
Inky: What are you currently working on and when can we expect it out in the world?
SP: I have a couple of projects I can’t really talk about yet (ooooh secret!) but one that I can talk about is my next YA novel, Tin Heart. It will be released early next year (March, I think). It was strangely easy to write in many ways because it’s about a topic close to my heart (no pun intended) and the main character Marlowe, is so very, very much like me: awkward, anxious and socially inept. But it was also super hard to write because I want it to be really, really, really good. I want to do justice to the topic but I also want people to enjoy it as much as they seem to have enjoyed Frankie. No pressure, right?
Inky: How has working as an editor and manuscript assessor influenced the way you write?
SP: I’m not sure if it’s influenced my writing but I think it makes the process a tiny bit easier. It’s given me a more objective approach to drafting. I’m able to take a step back and critique my writing with greater clarity and a better understanding of the craft. But I don’t think you need to work as an editor or a manuscript assessor to get that kind of critical distance – you can equip yourself with effective self-editing tools by reading widely, taking short courses, joining a writers’ group (giving feedback is more important than receiving feedback I find) or just by doing it over and over again until it sinks in.
Inky: Frankie is described by Melina Marchetta as ‘gutsy’. Why do you think it’s important for readers to see stories of girls who are bold? And who are some of your favourite fictional and real life gutsy women?
SP: First off, can we take a moment to squeal and flail about over the fact that Melina Marchetta said anything, let alone something complimentary, about my book? Life goal unlocked. But to answer your question, I think it’s incredibly important and was one of the reasons I set out to write the book. I see the words ‘likeable’ and ‘unlikeable’ thrown around a lot to describe characters and I see an unfair set of values placed on female characters, who need to do very little outside of expected behaviour to be branded ‘unlikeable’.
What was particularly exciting about writing a character like Frankie (and also her best friend Cara) was how free I felt to tear away at the limitations of traditional notions of femininity and make her as bold and as gross and as badly behaved as I wanted. She swears, she lies, she steals, she talks about using a wad of toilet paper instead of a pad when she’s been caught short – she really doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of her. In no way is she made from ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’. I remember as a young girl reading a picture book of that nursery rhyme and feeling jealous of the boy because he got to play in the mud and eat slugs and be a little grot. I think it’s so important for readers to see girls being gutsy and gross and badly behaved and whatever the hell else they want to be. Because real life girls come in all shapes and sizes and personalities. My favourite gutsy women in fiction would be Taylor Markham (On the Jellicoe Road), Madeleine Tully (Colours of Madeleine series), Birdie McAdam (City of Orphans series), Sophie Hatter (Howl’s Moving Castle) and Lizzie Bennet (Pride and Prejudice).
Inky: The sense of place in ‘Frankie’ is incredibly vivid. Why was this important for you and what did you enjoy the most about including Melbourne in your writing?
SP: Collingwood is a suburb bursting with character – not a sweet, girl-next-door kind of character but a scrappy underdog of a character, the kind who gets under your skin and forces you to look past the flaws to the raw, bold heart beneath.
Walking the streets you are confronted with poverty, splatters of vomit, über-cool coffee houses and a line out of N. Lee’s bakery that stretches half way down Smith Street (best bahn mi in Melbourne – try it and thank me later). You’ll see the construction of swanky new apartment blocks, faded Tibetan prayer flags, drug deals in parks, dogs in parks, hipsters in parks and more bespoke kebab shops than might seem reasonable. It’s vibrant and chaotic and dangerous and full of life.
There was no way my character could have grown up in this suburb without it defining her in some way. Frankie’s story didn’t – couldn’t – take place in any suburb, in any city, in any country in the world.
I chose Collingwood as my setting for a reason. My character comes from a low socio-economic family, a family that fights for everything it has. They’re old school Collingwood and damn proud of it. And in the YA world, where the chorus of middle-class white voices is deafening, it seemed important to show the reality of Frankie’s world, the full breadth of light and dark and joy and despair. That’s why the setting was so important to show on the page.
Inky: Frankie will be released in the US later this year. How does it feel to know that Frankie from inner city Melbourne will be in the hearts and minds of so many more teens?
SP: So strange! It still surprises me when anyone who isn’t a friend or relative reads Frankie so it freaks me out in a big way to think of strangers reading it – strangers overseas no less. I saw someone buying Frankie in a bookstore line once and freaked out. Literally.
I’m not sure how a story that is not only uniquely Australian but also is uniquely Collingwood will go in the US – I hope they love her as much as I do. The editing process was hilarious – trying to explain Australianism to my American editor was a joyful challenge. We kept asking if we really spoke the same language. My editor at Flatiron is amazing and was very keen not to detract from the unique voice and the story so a lot of things stayed in that I was expecting to have to remove.
Inky: What can readers expect from your second YA novel, Tin Heart, which is coming out in March 2018?
SP: I’m so bad at summing up a story in a few words. I’m not sure how much I can talk about it yet but it’s basically about a girl who’s gone through a major life upheaval and follows her struggles to piece together a new identity after the fact. That’s really vague isn’t it? Sorry.
But you can expect the same mix of humour and emotion, a flawed but hopefully endearing main character and of course the famous Pip. I’ll give you one specific detail though (because it’s my favourite part of the book): there’s a love story in there that’s a kind of Romeo and Juliet style thing but with a butcher and a vegan.
Inky: Thanks for chatting with us Shivaun! See you in June!
If you'd like to see Shivaun in June too, click here to book your tickets to Reading Matters – tickets for the public day program are FREE for under 20s!