You have written that your preferences in books began with Little Golden Books, Sesame Street books and Mr Men books, followed by Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, LM Montgomery, Johanna Spyri and later Sue Townsend, Robin Klein and Douglas Adams. What kinds of fiction do you most enjoy reading now?
I enjoy reading most kinds of fiction. I currently have three books on the go: Tim Gautreaux’s short story collection Waiting for the Evening News; Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger (young adult); and Robyn Mundy’s novel The Nature of Ice. I like to alternate adult fiction with young adult, as I enjoy both and would like to keep abreast of what’s coming out in YA.
For those not familiar with Shutterspeed and Wavelength, how would you describe your fiction?
I write realistic, contemporary fiction for older teenagers (15+). I don’t write issue novels – I write stories that are intriguing and believable, with characters that readers identify with and care about. I use male protagonists, but the novels are also enjoyed by teenaged girls and adults of all ages.
You have written, “I remember the day Shutterspeed occurred to me. I was at a photolab in London, waiting for my photos to be processed, and I noticed the teenage boy sitting at the processor. He was bored, and I sensed his frustration and apathy. I wondered then, ‘what if? … What if one of the photos became stuck in the machine, forcing him to look at it? And what if that photo was of something/someone he was drawn to?’ Do you have any strategies for developing an initial story idea, other than ‘what if?’, that you would like to share or does it all come back to ‘what if’?
My ideas come from my observations of everyday life. Often they’re from an observation of two people interacting, or one person in a moment (such as Shutterspeed). I’m also interested in how space or setting influences a person’s behaviour, such as in a hospital or the outback. I like to see what happens if I throw a ‘spanner in the works’, which leads to a change in thought or behaviour.
The basic premise of Wavelength has been described as: “Oliver’s world has shrunk. It’s all about Year 12 and the 80 he needs to get to uni, get a job and get cashed up. […] Nobody is on his wavelength and the 80 and he so badly wants is fast slipping out of his reach.” What is the key to getting people to care about your character and the problem they struggle with throughout a story?
Overwhelmingly, readers speak to me about Oliver as if he were a real person. They care about him. Parents find similarities between Oliver and their own teenagers. Teenagers empathise with the stress he’s going through. I think the key to achieving this is not just making him realistic (by drawing on my own experiences and those of students I’ve taught) but also to make him a nice guy. Even though he’s stressed and kind of self-absorbed, he means well and has a good heart, as seen not through his words, but his actions.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
Shutterspeed was a seven year process. The initial idea (of the photo getting jammed) led to me writing the first scene. I thought it might become a short story. Over the next few years, living in London, the story kept developing (mostly in my head) until I knew it was bigger than a short story. It wasn’t until I moved to Perth that I realised how useful the setting here would be. Motivated by this, and interactions I’d had with teenagers seeking new (realistic) novels, I set about enrolling in a subject at uni and really applying myself. It took a year to finish the draft, which I submitted to The Australian/Vogel award, 2005. This was longlisted, and on the advice of the judges, I sought publication with a publisher. It took another 2.5 years for the book to be released.
There are detailed teacher’s notes for Shutterspeed on your website and teacher’s notes for Wavelength coming soon. What do you think is the key to great teacher’s notes for a novel?
Teachers’ notes need a variety of questions, encompassing analysis and creative opportunities. They shouldn’t be too prescriptive or patronising, but draw the reader to consider language/ideas they hadn’t noticed.
If you could could go on your ideal 2-day fiction writing workshop next weekend, what would that involve?
It would be a mix of social interaction (with other authors), some natural environment to go exploring, and a lot of time to work on my own.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new writers?
To read widely and keep your sense of awe at the world.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’m hoping to write another YA novel, then perhaps try my hand at children’s picture books and adult novels. There are so many ideas to pursue!
More on AJ Betts and her fiction can be found at www.ajbetts.com.
The Australian Literature Review