Tony Wilson: Welcome to another author profile on our State Library of Victoria and Triple R FM series looking at literary development from birth to adulthood. My co-host for all these profiles has been author and illustrator, Sally Rippon. You know her from Hey Jack, you know her from Billy B Brown. My littlest baby son reads her stand up baby books. Sally, thanks for coming in again.
Sally Rippin: It’s always a pleasure, thanks Tony.
Tony: And our guest today, to ramp up the teen angst, is no other than the winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Young Adult Fiction. She once studied audio production for radio but then threw it away to travel and write great travel journals that ended up being musicals. Thank you so much for coming in, Cath Crowley.
Cath Crowley: Hi, it’s a pleasure.
Tony: Now Cath, Graffiti moon, the smash hit which won you the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award. Can you give us an idea of what that book’s about?
Cath: Well it’s about two graffiti artists, Ed and Leo, and they go through the night painting these beautiful things, like boys with grass growing from their hearts and girls with buzzing lawn mowers. And there’s a girl called Lucy who fancies herself in love with Ed, who is also shadow, she has never met him. But she just thinks that he would be great to meet, she’s seen his art work. And so the night is about her searching for Ed and essentially all of the characters searching for themselves over the course of a night.
Tony: And you used to tag up on the lines yourself, is that how you used to view the world, Cath?
Cath: [Laughs] No!
Sally: It’s very Shakespearian in quality in that they just miss each other and they kind of have to leave little messages. It’s very Romeo and Juliet in the sense that they don’t quite ever meet until the end, without giving too much away. And it’s also very poetic in that way too, and that’s what I responded to – the writing is so beautiful and it really is that beautiful mix of very visual writing where we’re literally seeing what’s being painted on the walls, and that very poetic writing that you are writing yourself.
Cath: Ah, thanks Sally. I love that idea that two people might not actually know who they are even though they’re together, because I think that makes it so much easier to show a little bit of yourself when you can have a little bit of cover.
Cath: And I had seen, I had been looking at the painting by Magritte of the lovers where they’re kissing through the cloth and I just thought that would be a better way to kiss first up, you wouldn’t have to swap anything of yourself and so that’s when Ed and Lucy kind of started to appear on the page. This idea that they would be together, but that they would have a blind between them and then they could let their vulnerability slowly come out.
Sally: So I guess it’s a bit like falling in love over email isn’t it? You get to expose the best part of yourself before they see everything else about you.
Cath: Absolutely, and look I’m still really interested in it because The howling boy, although it might be called Dear bird man, but the next book that’s coming out I’m still playing around with that idea of how you can have enough courage to show who you are slowly with someone.
Sally: So what are some of the books that you really love reading? Do you read a lot of young adult books or are you kind of reading in all fields? And which are the books which have influenced you as a writer?
Cath: Okay well I mean I go in and out of reading young adult fiction, I think you need a mix of books when you’re writing. Look I’ve just finished reading The perks of being a wallflower, I’m a little bit behind on reading that but I thought it was a spectacular book.
Sally: Who’s that by?
Cath: I can never pronounce his name but it’s Stephen Chbosky.
Cath: And it was beautiful. It was set in America, I think kind of in the 1970s I think, and it really explored this idea of, you know, standing back and wondering what are the gains of getting involved and what are the risks of getting involved in the world.
Cath: And I thought that was the great. I love John Green, I love Fiona Wood’s stuff, you know.
Cath: Six impossible things.
Sally: It’s one of my favourites too.
Cath: Oh, it’s such a great book and Dan, the main character, is such a great boy because he’s sensitive.
Sally: He is!
Cath: But I think lots of boys are.
Sally: Of course they are, I have three sons. They’re all sensitive. Once you get past that – I mean that’s the thing about teenage boys, that I think writers who write young adult understand is – once you get them out of that gang mob, when you get them one-on-one they’re often very sensitive and they’re often very articulate and they have ideas, but put them in a gang and they don’t want to stand out, so they’re going to grunt and they’re all going to wear those sloppy outfits. They’re delightful once you get to know them.
Cath: They are delightful. I know, I gave a talk the other day and one boy came up to me afterwards and he’d written a story about graffiti and it was such a great story and he kind of just came up and shyly said, ‘You can have this story’, which is such a beautiful thing to give someone. He came up apart from the crowd. I think there are lots of boys out there like that.
Sally: Your male characters in Graffiti moon are very, very sensitive in the sense that they’re creators, they’re artists but then in public they do have this kind of quite tough bravado as well and I guess that’s the nice thing about reading but also writing is that allows you to explore that more sensitive – perhaps that side of yourself that you need to protect more.
Cath: Yeah, and I think that’s the most interesting part of any person – that part that they’re protecting or the secret that they’re keeping.
Cath: But I met a lot of boys like that when I was teaching because I had the great honour of being able to scribe for kids. So they were either dyslexic or they had auditory processing problems so they couldn’t write down what they thought, but they would tell me what they thought about a piece of artwork and I wrote it for them, and they had such interesting ideas.
Cath: It was like being inside their head. So I don’t think … some people have commented that perhaps, you know, Ed’s thoughts about art aren’t all that realistic.
Tony: What about realism and dialogue and getting an ear for teenage voice? We were talking to Jane Godwin and she said that’s something that sort of makes her again avoid writing YA because of the ‘getting it right’. And the way that we spoke – and I’m speaking as a 40 years old – the way we spoke isn’t how they speak now. Do you spend time just looking at an internet chat forum or something like that, in order to get the kind of slang and the idioms that are typical now of this group of young people?
Cath: No, I would never do that. I listen a lot on the trains to the rhythm of their speech but I think rhythm is important just in dialogue generally. So I would never try and capture what they’re saying.
Tony: Because it will date within five years.
Cath: It will date and anyway the rules of dialogue are the same anyway, you know, you’re aiming for conflict, you’re aiming for character so I want to capture my character’s character on the page and I want to capture the conflict between the characters. So it’s not necessarily going to help me to listen to other peoples’ slang, because that’s not how my character will speak. So no, and it just wouldn’t work for me either. That would scare me.
Sally: It’s got to feel authentic, doesn’t it? I think all characters are a part of yourself so it has to be the way you would see the world and then project that onto your character.
Cath: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s the hard bit isn’t it, because you’ve got your dialogue and you know what you want to happen, but it’s got to actually happen in a situation, in a scene that –
Tony: Is interesting …
Cath: – is interesting, and also has lots of subtext and reflects the things that you’re trying to get across in that scene.
Sally: I’d like to know: what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a writer?
Cath: Finish it, just finish the book. You know, I think one of my writing teachers said it to me and Fiona Wood said it to me many times, get it across the finish line. Because for me, you know, you don’t have raw materials as a writer. For a long time I would just stare at the blank page but actually you have to get that whole thing down, you know, and then you mould it afterwards. So do the first draft really quick and you know, get it done.
Sally: And don’t be too precious about it. I know in screenwriting they talk about that as ‘draft zero’. Don’t even think of that as a draft, that’s just your lump of clay.
Sally: And then go and work.