You have written the following about the title character in your latest children’s novel Henry Hoey Hobson: “Henry interested me. He had never been anywhere long enough to put down roots, so he needed a secret weapon against the loneliness and upheaval of his life. I gave him a passion for swimming to smooth the rough edges of his life and provide a much-needed constant in an otherwise uncertain existence.” What makes a character interesting, or what do you find interesting about some of your favourite fictional characters?
What I found interesting in Henry was his mix of vulnerability, resilience and humour as he struggled to meet life’s challenges.
I think you need complexity in a main character, particularly in a first-person narrative, in order to sustain the readers’ interest. Novel writing, even when it is fast-paced for kids, is still a slow reveal with character and plot intertwined, so Henry had to have hidden depths that continued to surprise and delight, right up to the last page.
I think that personal struggle makes for interesting characters, in fiction, as in life. We sympathise with underdogs, and admire them for their tenacity in the face of challenges and setbacks. We want them to achieve their goals, we agonise for them when the obstacles seem insurmountable, and we stand with our hearts in our throats when they fail, or fall, just short of their goal. When they somehow find the strength to reach deep within themselves, and rise, despite the pain, despite the cost, our chests tighten and swell, because we want to believe that we too could find such strength when the chips are down. And when finally, they pluck that sweet rose of victory, we stand and we cheer because, damn it, they deserved it.
I use humour to connect with my characters and engage the reader. It is such a powerful tool and makes reading, and writing, a pleasure. One of the most gorgeous characters I’ve come across lately is Jeffrey Lu from Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones. Funny, complex and heroic in his struggles against racism in an outback mining town during the Vietnam War. As Jeffrey points out, the town of Corrigan would render most superheroes ineffective; even Spiderman would be ‘just a weird-looking guy with snot shooting out of his wrists.’ Not Jeffrey Lu, however. In this most inhospitable of environments, a short, mouthy Vietnamese sidekick becomes a true hero.
You have written, “I wanted Henry Hoey Hobson to capture some of that magic, that determination, and that sense of empowerment that comes from applied effort, from learning to believe in yourself and from having people around you who believe in you too.” Would you say that all your fiction is about helping people develop skills and attitudes to lead a fulfilled life?
I’ve honestly never thought of my writing in that way. I can’t stand self-help books, so would never presume to tell anyone how to live their lives. However when I write realistic fiction about children, for children, I’m conscious of resolving their fictional dilemmas in ethical ways. I care about my characters, so that when bad things happen, they can work their way through by facing their fears and persevering. We are all defined by our choices; my characters make mistakes and have flaws, but they find their way through by being true to themselves and those close to them. Family, friendship, working hard, being true to yourself, accepting of difference – these are themes that I return to, again and again, in my writing, so yes, they are things that I believe are important in leading a fulfilled life.
According to your website, “after a couple of misguided attempts at a psychology degree” you got into journalism, documentaries and media consultancy, before writing novels for young adults. With your second novel out recently, do you find writing fiction to be somewhere between psychology and journalism, in that you are describing both what your fictional characters do and how/why they do it?
I think that a desire to understand human nature is a prerequisite for writing fiction. Because the act of writing novels takes time, it gives pause for thought and provides the opportunity to think deeply about what people do and why. Journalism, with its daily, and often hourly, deadlines, rarely afforded that luxury. It did however teach me a lot about the human condition, and the nuts and bolts of writing. ‘Keep it tight, get it right’, and listening for the sound bite, the quotable quote, helped develop my ear for dialogue. My editors tell me I deliver clean manuscripts (all that copy thrown back in my face must have taught me something), but I’m not precious about my writing; if it misses the beat, I want to know.
What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading and do you have some favourites?
I’m an eclectic reader and tend to dip in and out of most genres. I have a soft spot for fantasy, loved Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking series and am looking forward to Karen Brook’s Votive coming out early next year. Crime has always been a favourite, though I am over the ghastly and often misogynistic hyper-violence at the extreme end of the genre. Give me the psychological elegance of Kate Atkinson and the elliptical brilliance of Peter Temple any day. My three favourite reads last year were Peter Temple’s Truth, Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall, and Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones. Other favourites are Karen Foxlee’s Anatomy of Wings, Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son and Finnikin of the Rock, and of course, Markus Zusak. I love all his books and found it hard to let go of his hand when he was sweet enough to introduce himself at Somerset Writers Festival (sorry, fan moment there).
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing Dust or Henry Hoey Hobson?
Books are like kids – so different, it’s hard to believe they share the same blood. My first novel Dust was all sweat and tears, an elephantine labour, dogged by every conceivable complication. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing when I started it, and if I had, I probably could have saved myself three years work. Ignorance is bliss though; if I’d known what I was doing, I probably would have realised it was supposed to be my ‘practice’ novel, and given up on it and moved on. So glad I didn’t. So glad I persevered and got that lovely blue sticker from the CBCA…
Henry Hoey Hobson on the other hand, was the easy one, my little surprise. I think of this book as my gift from a good-hearted muse. I was working on an adult crime novel (still am) when he popped into my head. I didn’t really want to write his story, but he was most persistent, invading my waking hours and my dreams. I had most of his story worked out in my head, before I even put pen to paper. I really did know where I was going with this one, which made the biggest difference. And of course, it ended up surprising me too.
Writing books is a bit like driving in the country. You can have a destination in mind, and a map, but it’s the discoveries along the way that make the journey unforgettable.
If you could go on your ideal 2-day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?
Me, Peter Temple, Kate Atkinson, and my adult crime work-in-progress (what do you think – would they go for it?)
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers?
Commit to it. You need ten years or ten thousand hours practice to become expert in anything – playing the cello, performing colonoscopy, writing a novel. That means deliberate practice, challenging yourself to write every day, honing your craft by exposing yourself to great writers, and giving yourself permission to fail. Don’t try to get it right, just get it down; you can fix anything down the track except an empty page.
Writing can be a lonely business riven by insecurity, so new writers should make sure they tap into the support networks provided by organisations such as the Queensland Writers Centre. I swear by QWC’s Year-of-the-Novel and Year-of-the-Edit courses. I did both (with Veny Armanno and Kim Wilkins, two terrific creative writing teachers), and if I’d had the sense to do them before writing Dust, I probably could have knocked my manuscript into shape in half the time.
You are also working on an adult crime novel called The Lonely Dead (excerpt available here). What can you tell us about that?
The Lonely Dead came to me as a character in a situation – a beautiful loner discovers a friend has been attempting to expose the secret she has spent her whole life protecting. Her murder brings the past on a collision course with the present, because as we all know, there can be no secrets in a murder investigation…
This is the most complicated story I’ve embarked upon – a multiple perspective, third person narrative with a helluva backstory – so I’m happy to give it the time that it needs. I’ve written about two-thirds of the first draft and will return to it as soon as I’ve delivered my next YA manuscript Intruder to my publisher. I have a strong faith in the characters and story, and am conscious of the fact that it will be my first foray into the adult fiction market. Right now it’s simmering away in the background, but I plan to move it to the front burner in the new year.
More on Christine Bongers and her writing can be found at http://christinebongers.wordpress.com.
The Australian Literature Review