There are those who are popular. There are those who are outcasts. And there are those who must choose between the two.
Megan Tuw has always been popular. As a leader of her high school’s most cliquish group, she’s among the anointed girls who think nothing of ridiculing those who don’t fit in. That includes Perdita Wiguiggan—a classmate Megan and her friends openly refer to as the Freak. But Megan doesn’t know the first thing about Perdita, since she would never dream of talking to her. Only when the two girls are thrown together in detention does Megan begin to see Perdita as more than someone with an odd last name, as more than the school outcast. And slowly, Megan finds herself drawn into an almost-friendship.
Q. How did these characters and this story evolve in your mind? What drew you to the subject of popularity?
A. One of the things about school is that you are thrown together in a year level with about a hundred people who are the same age as you, and who live in roughly the same area, but these are really the only two things you have in common. This doesn’t happen at any other stage in your life.
I decided to see what would happen when I put two young people in the same room who were ideologically opposed. It was important that I removed Megan from her friends, because within that circle she is invincible. They needed to meet as closely as possible to equals, and Perdita was already at a disadvantage, so I made her more capable academically to make up for the mismatch in social skills. Once I put them in that space the story pretty much wrote itself.
Q. Did you draw from any of your own specific experiences or observations in high school? Did you ever have a rough time of it? Do you identify at all with Megan or Perdita?
A. In everything that I write there are things that did happen, and things that didn’t happen, and things that happened but in a different way.
I once caught an airport transfer bus from Melbourne airport to a writers’ festival in Bendigo, which is about two hours’ drive. The other people on the bus were very tired, and a bit smelly, and it was clearly the final leg of a long overseas trip for them. The whole trip was silent, and after about an hour and a half I had a sudden urge to sing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” I didn’t.
Real life tends just to be a sequence of events, but when you depict them in fiction then the events have to have meaning and a purpose. If I were to put that scene in a novel then I would make it a normal public bus rather than an airport transfer bus, because the dynamic is more flexible. I would have a character for irritation—say a baby that won’t stop crying—and for comic relief—someone listening to a personal CD player and singing loudly and off-key, but not being aware of it. I would include a long description of a character on the bus whom we have not met yet, but who will be important to the story later on. I would not make the destination Bendigo, because I am not familiar enough with the city to portray it in a story. And my main character would definitely sing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.”
When you get to the end of the story it is true that there are parts within it that have happened to me, but I bend, expand, and contract to give it meaning and purpose, so that even those things that are real are impossible to extract from those that are fiction. I am neither Megan nor Perdita—I am both. I am also Megan’s father and mother, and Gordon Gordon Library Warden, Ashley Anderson, and Simon Goose, because they all liveinside my brain constructed from a mishmash of memories and fabrications to suit the needs of story.
Q. Why did you want to include poetry in the book, and how did you select the particular poems?
A. I included the poems for three reasons:
1. When I was at school and we studied poetry it was all about Grecian urns and conscientious objection, and very dead people. It had nothing to do with my life, and I was not moved by a single poem. It was not until a long time after I left school that I discovered poetry, and it started with W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and then others later. I started reading voraciously and began to see what I had read everywhere—in movies, on TV, in books, in other poems (writers sending cryptic messages to each other and paying their respects). I learned the secret delight in allusions. I wanted my readers to discover that pleasure earlier than I did, so I tried to find a range of poetry from different centuries in different styles that reflected what was happening in the girls’ lives. I spent a long time searching for exactly the right poems, and it was exhilarating when I found them. I had not read the work of Andrew Taylor and Pattiann Rogers until I began researching material for this book, so they are two new favorites.
2. When I began to write dialogue for Perdita she was very circumlocutory, and I had a great deal of trouble getting her to spill, and Megan wasn’t going to ask, but I knew the reader needed to know, so I had to find a vehicle whereby she could tell us what was happening for her. The poetry was an apt device for her character.
3. I thought English teachers would dig it and buy class sets, and I could give up my day job. They did and I have.
Q. Have you ever tried your hand at writing poetry? How do you think the process compares to writing a novel?
A. I like to try lots of different writing styles—poems, plays, short stories, horror, sci-fi, you name it. I think experimenting with other forms and styles and learning how they work will help develop both my core strength and my range. I don’t know that the process is so different. I write everything quickly and from my gut, and then I whittle away at it afterward.
Q. Life is very difficult for Perdita, yet we never directly see what’s going through her head. Did you ever consider writing the book from her perspective?
A. Frankly, I wasn’t very interested in Perdita’s perspective. Given her background and her character, her behavior is easy to justify. Megan, on the other hand, has wealth, stability, beauty, intelligence, strong interpersonal skills, and high self-esteem—in other words, no excuse whatsoever to be so brutal. The challenge was to not only justify her actions so that the reader believes them, but to bring the readership around to a point where they actually cry for Megan.
I wrote it from Megan’s perspective, and it is through her eyes that we see, but the dialogue and actions of all the other characters have to be real. So, for example, Megan describes how her mother sits, stands, speaks, and what she says, but I have to think about what her mother’s true response to the situation would be, given her background and attributes, in order to make Megan’s description accurate to the reader. So when I am writing a character—any character—I have to write that bit from their perspective, even though we may hear it from someone else.
Q. Megan talks a lot about being frank and honest. What are some of the more honest, tell-it-like-it-is books or authors that you have read that inspired you?
A. Australia produces a lot of great YA books. Some Aussie authors that stand out for me are Sonya Hartnett, Phillip Gwynne, Ian Bone, and also Bernard Beckett (he’s from New Zealand). From the States I liked Robert Cormier and Paul Zindel when I was growing up, but I’m not familiar with any of your current YA authors.
Q. Do you like writing for young adults? Do you write for adults and younger children as well?
A. I tried writing a picture book once, and I thought it was good but my publisher said it sucked, so I went back to the YA stuff. Not all of the time, but most of the time when I sit down in front of a blank screen, the voice that begins to speak is somewhere in the range between twelve and nineteen. I don’t know why that is.
When you write about an adult, then you need to give them an occupation, because it takes up a large proportion of their time. In order to make that vocation sound credible you need to do research. Even with secondary adult characters, such as Megan’s parents in this book, it was necessary for me to do a little bit of research about their jobs. I prefer to spend my time exploring the relationships between characters, rather than dedicating slabs of time researching things that are external to the characters. It would be tempting, when writing an adult, to use one of my own previous jobs, because I could write about it with authenticity without researching, but if I were to do that then everyone would assume that the character is me, no matter how strenuously I refuted it. Teenagers are easier to write about in that way because everyone has been to school and people of all ages, and in most cultures, recognize that environment. I can focus my attention on the dynamic and conflict between the characters, which is where the joy in writing is for me.
Q. Do you think about your characters after you finish writing the book? Do you ever imagine what they would be up to now?
A. No. I am writing a series at the moment and so I need to insert possibilities in the early books that will leave space for my protagonist to grow in later books, but that is a technical device, rather than any emotional attachment to her. I normally work on a number of projects at once; so while one draft is with my editor I write the next draft of the next project. When they are finished and out there on the shelves I don’t really think about them at all. I am much more haunted by characters who have not yet had their stories told!