I’m pretty sure Danny woke me, but he’s teasing that I woke him when I traipsed clumsily down the hallway. Mum’s out of bed now too and we’re all eyeing up the Christmas tree in the semi-dark.
Danny says he was just getting a drink of water.
‘Well I can’t sleep,’ I whine
‘It is technically Christmas day,’ he says pointing at the glowing digits on the microwave that shine out a time so unfamiliar it takes me a while to figure out.
‘It’s past three in the morning!’ Mum wraps her dressing gown tighter around her, frowns, and folds her arms.
‘Yes, technically Christmas day.’ Danny knows how to disarm Mum, with his cheeky smile that comes out so rarely these days. ‘And we are all up,’ he says.
Mum rolls her eyes, but it’s already decided and there’s no going back once she’s flicked the switch on the kettle. My brother gives me a wink.
We agree the first thing we should open is the gift basket from one of Mum’s colleagues, since it’s covered in cellophane and we can mostly see what’s in it already. The rustle of unwrapping wakes the butterflies in my tummy. Mum pulls out some boring looking crackers, a small bag of candied nuts, a solid brick of real coffee that smells horrible and some nougat. Pretty disappointing.
‘Where’s the chocolate?’ I ask, rummaging through the discarded cellophane.
‘Ooh this looks good though – blackcurrant honey,’ Mum reads from the label. ‘Yum!’ She leaps up suddenly with the jar in her hands and heads back to the kitchen, which is now full of steam from the franticly boiling kettle. She pops some bread in the toaster.
‘I’m having blackcurrant honey on toast!’ She calls out.
We laugh at her excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mum at three in the morning before.
‘Okay, well, me too!’ I call back.
‘Okay.’ She whispers loudly and peers around the kitchen door. ‘But, let’s not wake…’ she points to the ceiling which represents the couple upstairs. Our landlords.
‘Okay.’ I whisper back
‘Okay, okay.’ We whisper at each other and laugh.
I choose the next present to open and hand it to Danny. I’m grinning with excitement as he takes it and feigns complete shock at receiving something. I can’t sit still. He unwraps it carefully, knowing how long I spent in my room wrapping and compiling the items from my trip to the mall last week. He probably knows how long I’d been saving my pocket money for too, since he’s had to do the same. His reaction when he opens it is better than I could have hoped for.
By the time the sun comes up the three of us are a pile of shiny new things and ripped wrapping paper, sticky with blackcurrant honey. Mum’s beaming smile at every silly little gift she opened from us was completely priceless. She’s had a million cups of tea and no one’s even mentioned the gap under the tree where presents from Dad should’ve been.
Here’s a little snippety-bit of a scene I wrote this morning, from a larger work-in-progress called Dear Billy… This scene is set in 1996.
Harriet’s dancing self-consciously in the kitchen, still with bottle in hand and white dress looking only slightly worse for wear. Mark catches me watching him watch her and smiles, but only with his mouth. He pushes himself up from his doorway lean and moves over to me.
‘How are you still so compos mentis while your friends are completely wasted?’
‘Who said I was compos mentis?’ I’m not entirely sure what it means, but it doesn’t sound like how I’m feeling right now. The room is spinning gently and I’ve been standing at the kitchen bench gorging on corn chips like an animal.
‘You look very together. You can hold your booze.’ I can’t tell if it’s admiration or accusation as he looks me up and down.
‘I haven’t had that much to drink,’ I lie.
Mark leans across the bench towards me, which forces me to lean in too, his warm whispery breath is on my cheek and I close my eyes. The room spins more predictably now. Like I’ve tuned into the rhythm of it and it kind of makes sense. His voice is soft and low.
‘Most of the people here are morons, Sam Knox. Killing off their brain cells and flailing around.’
I smile, but keep my eyes closed, keep still. His breath smells boozey and smokey. He uses words no one else does.
‘I’m not saying I’m any better than any of them, Sam, but you probably are. You look like someone with better things to do.’
I open my eyes and shake my head, ‘No, no I’m having fun. It’s a good party.’
Mark grins at my protest, ‘you don’t have to be polite. Parties can be stupid. Wanna go for a walk?’
Outside I think about the cuddly jersey lying on the floor of my room. At least I have stockings on, but my skirt is short and jacket open.
‘Love the Soundgarden t-shirt, by the way.’ Mark says this without looking at me but puts his arm out just in time for me to grab as my shoe fails beneath me.
Ant gave me the t-shirt for our four month anniversary, but something stops me from adding that piece of information. I mean it would be the perfect opportunity to mention my boyfriend. I let go of his arm.
‘Maybe walking wasn’t the best idea.’ He looks at me now. There’s that slightly creepy edge again and I wonder if it’s actually just how he smiles. ‘Those are very high shoes.’
It’s true, but his noticing makes me feel silly and girly. Who am I tonight anyway?
At the end of the street is a small park. There’s something invigorating about the cold air and starless night. Mark holds the end of a see-saw down for me and I get on, hitching my skirt high without even thinking about it. He gets on the other end and slowly bends his knees to lift and lower me. My feet don’t quite touch the ground when I’m in the air and that moment of lost control makes my stomach flip a bit.
‘So what’s your life like, Sam Knox?’ Up.
‘My life?’ Down.
‘Yeah, your life. Is it good, bad, has life been kind so far?’
I give it a moment’s thought as my legs dangle. How can I even be the judge of that?
‘I guess life’s been kind. I mean my dad’s a jerk, but he hasn’t come round in a while. My mum’s cool and my brother’s super smart.’
‘Ah family eh. What about you though? Who are you?’
‘Ha I’m Sam Knox!’ It comes out louder than I mean it to and I quickly cover my mouth with my hand, losing balance on my end for a moment.
‘Woah! Are you okay?’ Mark asks but simultaneously jolts the see-saw. I squeal and grab on tight. He jolts again and my heart starts to pound.
‘Wait stop!’ He doesn’t. ‘Stop! I said stop!’
‘Okay sorry, sorry.’ He straightens his legs so he’s at the top and I’m on the ground catching my breath. ‘You’re okay?’
I quickly clamber to my feet before he can move us again. My end of the see-saw rises and Mark ends up on the ground.
‘I’m okay.’ I look beyond him to the dark tree shapes, their leafy tops flailing gently.
‘Sam Knox.’ He says. ‘You’re Sam Knox.’ When I look at him he’s smiling, eyes and all. I almost smile back.
Despite the different themes and agendas, these two new YA novels from Pan Macmillan do have things in common, including both being told in alternating chapters from each character’s point of view.
When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah is set in Sydney amid the refugee debate, the alternating narrative between the two main characters reiterating the idea that there are two sides to every story – even if one side is clearly influenced by ill-informed, Islamophobic parents and easily swayed – and ultimately showing a more compassionate way to live.
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowleyis set in a whimsical second bookshop where people hide letters to loved ones in significant copies of texts and secretly grieve for those they’ve lost.
The first novel is politically charged, topical and raises serious concerns about social justice and the dangerous views held by those who don’t welcome refugees and migrants to Australia’s shores. The second references some of my favourite books and poems – Great Expectations, Cloud Atlas, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock – and shows how these shape our understanding of love, death, knowing and how they can draw us closer to each other.
Both novels show the developing relationship between two teenagers. There’s Michael, proudly standing by his family and their ‘Aussie Values’ but attracted to Mina who arrives at his school from Afghanistan, via Auburn. Mina’s initial dislike of Michael is completely understandable given his views on immigration, but she stands her ground and is determined to show him another perspective. The other novel has Henry and Rachel, best friends for years, briefly estranged and inevitably destined to be together. There’s the complication of Amy – demanding, beautiful, unobtainable – and the lost letter Rachel wrote declaring her love, but ultimately this is a charming journey of friendship and love.
Rachel and Mina are both grieving for lost siblings. It’s difficult to talk about for both of them and their losses makes them more complex than others can comprehend. Rachel helps us understand more about the dead and develops her own ideas about souls and memory in relation to what she reads. I love that David Mitchell’s transmigration of souls comes into this book in a way that changes a character’s understanding of the world.
I feel like every time I finish reading a book my understanding of life is altered just a little more and through this understanding, living becomes just a little bit easier. I think Rachel and Henry would like that idea. Words in Deep Blue gently helps readers navigate the unexpected changes and losses of life without ever feeling preachy or forced. There are more specific understandings that we gain from books too and When Michael Met Mina shows us what it’s like to have to move to a new country out of fear and embark on a dangerous and horrifying journey, hoping for safety. Michael learns about this through getting to know Mina and it’s an important lesson for all of us.
When Michael Met Mina has a strong purpose and a point of view that shifts in the way the author hopes others will also shift their perspectives. The high school dynamics are believable and real difficulties of Mina’s family are held up as a way to examine current society.
Words in Deep Blue is a more timeless story and although the cast of characters are still distinct people the messages are much more subtle. They are patient with each other, kind when they’re called on and most appealingly they all read, talk about what they read and look at the world differently depending on what they read.
Both hold important messages; both books highly recommended.
I’ve been insisting on the non-autobiographical nature of my novel for ages, but now I think I might actually be turning into my character. It’s okay though, she’s pretty cool. Yesterday I bought a second-hand Epiphone Les Paul Standard in sparkly blue and cream and although Paige in Lonesome When You Go is actually a bass player, there are substantial rumours circulating that there’s a sequel in the works in which she makes the switch to lead.
I’ve even found myself being ever-so-slightly more assertive, refusing to put up with histrionics in the staff room and flicking the hair from my eyes pointedly to signal the end of a conversation.
Perhaps this is proof that my fiction writing is just one step ahead of my real life desires, or perhaps life really is imitating art. It does happen. People look to literature – as readers and writers – for a better understanding of the world and themselves. I’ve always learnt something about myself through my own writing and, in lieu of safe, trustworthy and compassionate adults to talk to, people – especially young people – often look for emotional support by reading fiction.
I don’t think this means authors bear the burden of providing therapy or a safe and perfect world in their novels to which people can escape. Nor need they ensure their characters are ideal and consistently positive role models, but we do have a responsibility to keep in mind if we truly believe in what we do as writers. Otherwise what’s the point?
When I’m not writing or buying sweet axes, I’m a teacher. I have been for years. It’s given me a broad view of the world and an understanding that not everyone has the benefit of feeling safe all the time.
Sometimes I get to teach analysis of great literature, introduce students to writers and concepts that will hopefully stay with them as they take on the adult world. Often I get the pleasure of encouraging a young person to write something they never knew they were able to write. Other times I just read them books that help put feelings into words, their own emotional vocabularies so limited.
Always I stress the importance of language to our sense of self and well-being, and one day, maybe, I’ll even tell them about my secret life as a teenage rock star; how life is just an imitation of art imitating life.
I’m teaching again. Students smile at me and say hi as we pass in the corridor. Sometimes they ask how I am. When we’re practising writing they might ask me the name of that feeling like butterflies in your stomach, but not excitement. It’s anxiety I tell them. Oh, anxiousness, they say.
On Monday and Wednesday lunchtimes I’m on yard duty. I have to shoo all the students out of the corridors and I have a walky-talky that I assume works, but have never used, except to pretend to call for back-up when someone’s trying to ask too many questions of me. I hold it near my mouth and make a fake static noise. Kkkkkk. They get the idea and move on.
Today a bird was trapped inside. There was a warm breeze and the sun was out, but that bird was obsessed with the unopenable window at the top of the stairs; wouldn’t move from the windowsill. It fluttered its wings like the butterflies in our stomachs, oblivious to the door we’d opened at the end of the empty corridor.
SYLVIE THE SECOND is a daring new YA novel from Wellington publishers Makaro Press (Submarine imprint). Like Sylvie, it’s finding its way to being more visible and has even been spotted on the shelves at Whitcoulls next to teen favourites Johns Green and Boyne!
The book deals with some difficult but important issues that also need to be made much more visible in our society. I hope it will start some good discussions with young people and their families about what they experience and how they cope with the pressures and expectations of growing up.
I talked to author Kaeli Baker about teenagers, writing in airports and her own hopes for Sylvie:
SK: This novel tackles tough but very real teenage issues. What kind of reader did you have in mind for this book?
KB: I guess I was aiming for teens, particularly girls, who are struggling a little with finding their way, their voice, their values… So, basically teenage girls in general! Being a teenager is hard enough and then when you add extra stress to the mix (and everybody has extra stress in one way or another), it can become even more difficult.
SK: But there are some positive moments in this book too and the ending was particularly heartening. What do you hope readers will take away from it?
KB: Most of all I hope that readers will put the book down after the last chapter with a renewed sense of hope and faith in friendships, a clearer sense of how they are willing to be treated by their peers and where their limits are, and a little more confidence in seeking support if they need it.
SK: There must have been some difficulties in writing this – trying to give a sense of hope and ‘normalcy’ to Sylvie’s life, but not underplaying the very damaging and traumatic events she is experiencing. How did you handle this balance?
KB: I think Belle and Adam were significant for keeping the balance of normalcy and hope in Sylvie’s life. I felt like it was important to confront Sylvie’s hardships and trauma, but also give a nod to her resilience. Even when things are going wrong she gets up every day and has a goal in mind – to get through it. It’s just that some of the ways she learns to cope aren’t healthy. I think that if she didn’t have such a loyal friend in Belle, especially, things could’ve been much worse.
The brief interactions with strangers was another way in which I tried to weave some hopefulness into the equation. The woman on the bus, the little girl and the guy on Christmas day… Even Alannah, the doctor. Often we influence other people without even realising it. Our interactions can be so valuable and we give away pieces of wisdom all the time without realising that anyone’s heard it. I wanted to convey that, and also provide some faith in humanity – there are a lot of nasty people in Sylvie’s life, for whatever reasons, and I felt like it was important to remind the reader that most people are good, and not out to hurt them. As a teenager, as a woman, and in fact just as a human being, it can be hard to trust that sometimes.
SK: What other difficulties did you come across?
KB: The self-harm was something I thought a lot about. I didn’t want to glamourise it, or offer it as an effective strategy for Sylvie to cope with her distress, but I did want to address it head on since it’s a real method that some people use. I guess I wanted to write about it fearlessly but sensitively at the same time. Sylvie’s regret is clear throughout – she knows it’s not a solution for her. In saying that, I was cautious not to come off as preachy. I found it one of the most difficult things to balance.
SK: Belle is a lovely character and, as you say, a strong support for Sylvie. Is there a “Belle” out there for all of us when times are tough?
KB: I definitely think there is, in some form or other. She might be found in the shape of a friend, a family member, a counsellor, a voice at the end of a helpline or someone’s personal faith. It’s really important to remember that even when we feel like we have no one, there are still people who will help us, and things to hold on to.
SK: One thing that worried me about Sylvie was how easily she was able to get close to someone after what happened at Chris’ party. I wondered if this was her dealing with or failing to deal with things?
KB: Such a good question! It’s absolutely a sensitive situation, and everyone who has been through an experience similar to Sylvie’s will process it in different ways. So I think the answer to this question is really up to the reader’s interpretation.
Adam is an important person in Sylvie’s story in that he represents the good guy. It’s so easy to believe after you’ve been hurt that everyone is bad, and I wanted to put forward the idea that that’s not the case. Whether Sylvie letting him get close to her is a mark of dealing or not dealing is up for debate.
SK: What do you think the main differences are for this generation of teenagers compared to previous generations? Do these worry you or give you hope?
KB: I think one of the biggest differences is social media, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand it’s great at keeping people connected and it’s such a good platform for change. On the other hand it can be difficult not to compare yourself to other people’s seemingly perfect lives, and there are more social pressures, covert but constant bullying, sexting … I think it can lull people into thinking they’re in control, but social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat keep all of your photos – and so can the person you sent them to. It really worries me.
Having said that, I celebrate the fact that society is now better at having difficult conversations around mental health, domestic violence, sexual assault, and other topics that are real and relevant but have historically been brushed under the carpet. There are so many amazing organisations working to help people experiencing these problems and encouraging society to keep the conversations going. Young people’s voices are being heard more now. That gives me a lot of hope.
SK: Your current work with teenagers has no doubt informed the themes of this novel, but have you always been a writer too?
KB: I didn’t set out to be a writer, but it’s always been something I enjoyed and did a lot of. I wasn’t great at a lot of subjects at school, but right from my primary school days I have memories of teachers raving about the stories I wrote. I also have journals full of poems that I’ve written throughout the years. 85% of them are absolutely terrible! It’s quite funny and also extremely cringe-worthy reading them now.
SK: And how did this novel come into being?
KB: The idea came to me one day and I immediately sat down and began writing furiously. It was like Sylvie had been waiting to tell her story for ages. It took me about a year to write the whole thing, usually after work in the middle of the night with many cups of tea.
Once I learned it had been accepted for publication the editing process was pretty full on. There were huge chunks taken out that were slowing the whole thing down and more dialogue added. It took a long time.
A lot of it was actually edited while I was overseas. I remember sitting in an airport in Birmingham editing it as a bunch of extremely heavily armed police traipsed past. That was an unnerving moment… I also did a lot of the editing in Wales, in this little stone cottage near Hay on Wye. It was quite a well travelled manuscript!
SK: Are you working on other writing projects you can tell us about at the moment?
KB: I’ve just finished up a collection of short stories and have started writing something new – a bit of historical fiction. I also have another story that I’m always adding to when the inspiration hits. I’m really never not writing. Except when I’m sleeping. And eating.
SK: What are your hopes for Sylvie – the book and the character – now?
KB: I hope that the book reaches someone who needs it. That’s all I can really ask for.
For Sylvie herself, I hope that she continues navigating bridges and finding her way. And I hope that she and Belle are old ladies sitting together on the front porch one day. With lots of cats.
Sylvie is on a blog tour! Check out these other blogs and dates for more reviews and interviews: