Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.
For An Unstill Life, I actually started with a title – The Boyfriend Plague. This is really unusual for me because I usually struggle with titles. But once I had the title, I started thinking about how friendships change and sometimes get destroyed when boyfriends come on the scene. And then I read an article in the newspaper about a school that was refusing to let same-sex couples attend the leavers’ ball or prom and I started thinking about what might happen to those friendships when one of the group decided they’d rather have a girlfriend.
With Stumped, it was a much faster process. I ran a movie theater and we hosted the New Zealand premiere of a documentary called Scarlet Road one night. There was a panel discussion afterward and the subject of the film, an amazing woman called Rachel Wotton, was there. She’s an Australian sex worker who works with severely disabled clients and hearing her speak was inspirational. Rachel told a story about a mother who hired her to work with a son who had Down Syndrome and Stumped came to me the same night I heard her speak.
Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?
Again, it was quite a different process for each book. With An Unstill Life, I really struggled to make the story work until I introduced the sister with cancer. Once I had that element, everything else fell into place. Livvie really needed her friends at this difficult time, and they were pre-occupied with boys and couldn’t offer Livvie the support she needed. That opened the door for Bianca to come into Livvie’s life in a way that feels quite natural and organic. Or at least I hope it does!
I wrote Stumped very quickly because I was asked to participate in a challenge by another writer who had missed out on doing NaNo and wanted to gather a group of writers together to write a book in 8 weeks. As soon as I started writing, Ozzy’s voice was so distinctive he basically drove everything. And because he makes some spectacularly bad choices, where the plot ended up going was quite a surprise to me! There were some scenes I wrote giggling with embarrassment, and others where I was practically crying.
Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?
To be honest, I never have a plot firmly in place when I start a book. I don’t outline or plan that much at all. I just know my characters and want to see what will happen to them when I put them into a situation that might challenge them. Like taking away Livvie’s support network at the time she needs them most and throwing a mysterious girl into her path at key moments. Or by putting Ozzy into a wheelchair…
And everything always changes in revision too. The part of the story that actually sparked Stumped has been revised out of the finished book. I also brought a character back to life who died toward the middle of the book in draft one.
There was a whole big family dynamic in An Unstill Life I dumped in revision. A lot of the things Livvie does in the finished book actually happened to her older brother in the first few drafts. But I wrote him out eventually, along with Livve and Jules’ dad.
Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?
Ideas come to me all the time. Most of them don’t come to anything much, but every now and then, two things rub up against one another and ignite a spark that won’t go out. I’m a huge fan of documentary films and I often find myself thinking about them afterward. Some of my best ideas have come from documentary films.
How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?
There’s always one that won’t stop nagging at my brain. That’s the one I have to write, even if there are others floating around in there. Especially if I already have a scene or two in mind. And once I start writing, things tend to escalate.
I have 8 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?
Eight cats? That’s a lot! I have two and they are as different as you could possibly imagine two cats to be. Lola is super friendly and loves being around people. You will often find her on a chair next to me or curled up at my feet while I’m writing. Frankie is almost pathologically shy and runs away if anyone comes within a few feet of her. She’s enormously fun to watch out the window when she doesn’t know I’m watching so I take little breaks while I’m working to watch her play. Take a look at the pair of them!