Based in Perth, AJ Betts is the author of three young adult fiction novels: ShutterSpeed (2008), Wavelength (2010), and Zac and Mia (2013). Betts is also a teacher, public speaker, and avid cyclist. She’s currently working on her next novel set in the future in Tasmania.
Which books have made a deep impression on you?
[As a kid], I read everything I could get my hands on, from Mr. Men books to the back of cereal boxes. The most influential [books]would be Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, and anything by Robin Klein and Roald Dahl.
What was the very first story you wrote?
When I was 11, I wrote about two survivors of a shipwreck in an inflatable raft who were being chased by a shark. It was a comedy! In my teenage years, I either wrote silly comedies (about haunted houses and exploding cane toads) or dark thrillers.
Tell us about the origins of Zac and Mia.
I’ve been working as a teacher on an adolescent cancer ward in Perth for seven years, but I never imagined I’d write about [this topic]. It was always too close and too real. But in early 2009, I was intrigued with the idea of being stuck in a room in isolation … with your mum! At the same time, one of my students asked me to write a love story, so I wondered if I could put the two ideas together. That’s where the first chapter came from, and from there my characters Zac and Mia were born.
What’s your favorite scene from the book? Was it also your favorite one to write?
The first “knock, tap” scene at the end of Chapter One; it feels quite magical, as if a simple interaction can hold such promise. My favorite scenes to write are in the middle section, especially the scene with Mia in the bath (this makes me cry every time I read it) and the scene with Mia and Bec in the house. I can’t say any more!
You’ve spoken before about the process of inhabiting characters as you put them down on paper, like cranking up “angry” tunes or sitting quietly in tears while writing Mia’s scenes from Zac and Mia. Do you tend to do this with your characters or was Mia special?
I do feel I have to experience the feelings of each of my characters before I can write from them. I need to imagine myself in their scenes the way an actor does onstage, which means I’m often using hand gestures and facial expressions as I write (I get some strange looks when I’m writing in cafes). I also read everything aloud, working through each line until it sounds or feels authentic. In Zac and Mia, Zac was a very easy character for me to inhabit. Mia was more challenging, as her behavior is more extreme and unpredictable.
My next book involves a girl on a journey through the wilderness, so I recently spent three weeks hiking in Tasmanian forests. After a while, I could imagine the things she might find amusing or frightening and the things she would say.
There have been inevitable comparisons between Zac and Mia to The Fault in Our Stars, two YA novels that came out around the same time and feature teenage protagonists with cancer. Have you read The Fault in Our Stars or spoken to readers who’ve read both?
I’d actually finished writing Zac and Mia when The Fault in Our Stars came out, and I was so devastated! I couldn’t believe it possible that someone else had written about teenage cancer at the same time as me.
But in January of 2012, I forced myself to read John Green’s novel, and it was actually a relief. The stories are so different from each other in style, character, settings, themes, and plot. While his is more focused on the romance, mine looks at ideas of beauty, truth, friendship and risk. Mine is also very raw, emotionally, with distinctly Australian characters and settings. I get wonderful feedback from readers who’ve loved both novels for different reasons.
As a teacher, you have more access than most to real, live teens. How has this experience informed their portrayal?
I’m not only drawing on my own (dated) memories of adolescence, but also the current realities of young people. I can see how wonderful, surprising, funny and optimistic teenagers can be; I probably appreciate teenagers more now than when I was one myself!
What surprised you the most about teaching?
Probably the biggest surprise as a teacher on a cancer ward is how brave and wise students can be as they deal with the physical difficulties and the uncertainty of their future.
What’s your best piece of no-nonsense advice for young, aspiring writers – particularly when they’re told writing won’t pay the bills?
It’s true – writing doesn’t pay the bills. Write if that’s what you love doing, but not because you think it will make you rich, or famous, or a better person. Get a job that pays the bills so that writing can remain a creative outlet and not a source of financial stress. I’ve worked as a full-time teacher for many years, and gradually I’ve been able to reduce my working days, though I’d never want to give teaching up completely.
Give us an update on your next book, which is set in the future on the southern coast of Australia.
I’m a slow writer, unfortunately. I’m about 45,000 words into my current draft, and I hope to have a good [one]finished by the end of April, though publication will be another two years after that. Surprisingly, the story has expanded, so what I imagined would be one novel will probably be two or three.
What else is next for you?
I would like to one day write an adult novel about cycling, but that will have to wait in line!
Damon Young is an Australian philosopher, author, columnist, poet, public speaker, and teacher. His non-fiction books include Philosophy in the Garden and Distraction. He released his first children’s book, My Nanna Is a Ninja, last year. Young has two kids: 9-year-old Nikos and 6-year-old Sophia.
How do people react when they find out you’re a philosopher?
Bafflement, often. They’re not quite sure what it means or if they do, they can’t figure out why I’m around now instead of 2,000 years ago. To be fair, this is changing; I now meet more readers who not only know what philosophy is, but are also intrigued by it.
How did My Nanna Is a Ninja come about?
David Hume once said: Be a philosopher, but also be a man. This man is a father! I was listening to my son’s kindergarten teacher read a story about a nanna, and thought: “This doesn’t sound like the exciting grandmothers I know. Where’s the playfulness?” So I wrote my own.
What were your own nannas like?
Neither of my grandparents were stealthy sword-wielders, though my mother-in-law does do tai chi. But what I most remember is the fun – the idea that grandparents were unusual, playful, and sometimes ignored the rules (or made up new ones).
Tell us about the next book in the series, My Pop Is a Pirate, which came out in Australia last month.
My Pop Is a Pirate has all the fun and wordplay of My Nanna Is a Ninja, but the hero has a golden leg and parrot instead of a black suit and ninja cat. In the English version there’s also more alliteration.
In one interview, you mentioned discussing philosophy with your kids at the dinner table, like asking them about how Darth Vader became evil. Why is it important to talk to children about these ideas?
Philosophy is vital because it prompts us to question taken-for-granted ideas. As children, we’re thrown into a world of obviousness; this is the way things are done. It can take decades to realize we got things wrong or didn’t realize why they were right. By inviting our children to answer (and ask) questions, we’re giving them the chance to take more responsibility for their own lives and to work out what they’re not responsible for. The best way to begin this is to ask questions, use stories and characters they’re familiar with, and be honest. Once you cannot be trusted, you cease to be someone worth speaking with.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a non-fiction book tentatively titled The Art of Reading on the virtues of reading well. I’ve also written a novella for 10- to 12-year-olds. And there are two more children’s picture books coming after My Pop Is a Pirate!
Both Damon Young and AJ Betts travel to China courtesy of the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Kate Anderson is an Australian visual artist. She collaborated with author Arthur Charles on The Adventures of Poucher and Big Guy series starring a kangaroo and his human friend. Anderson has traveled to China extensively, having photographed street art in 798 Art District and attended book launches Beijing, Chengdu, and Hong Kong.
Tell us about your path as an artist.
I was a voracious reader as a child and very attuned to the illustrations in books. In the pre-television, pre-digital world, paintings, prints and posters also played an important role. I attended art schools in both Sydney and Paris and began a print studio in Sydney producing contemporary artists’ work. I was asked several years ago to illustrate the children’s books The Adventures of Poucher and Big Guy that my close friend Arthur Charles wrote. We’ve completed four chapter books and three fold-out books called The Little Book of Big Ideas based on proverbs. [The latter] has been translated into Mandarin and pinyin.
Which artist or illustrated work had the biggest influence on you as a child?
I enjoyed the animal drawings of Beatrix Potter and many Australian authors whose books were illustrated with native flora and fauna. The luminescence of pure pigment as in watercolor has always appealed to me and this is the medium I use in my illustrations. I also admired Matisse from an early age, with his use of strong color and direct painting.
What’s the best piece of advice anyone you’ve received about forging a career in art?
“Don’t do it!” which made me even more determined. Having said that, I did take time off to raise two children. During those years, I was a children’s guide at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
What’s your favorite medium to work in?
I enjoy it all, including pastels, oils, watercolor, and acrylic. Recently I have been combining my computer skills with painting and producing digital collages, some of which I use in the book illustrations.
Take us through your creative process.
It begins with an understanding of the text, then forming a visual image of the characters and scenarios as the plot unfolds. I begin with pencil drawings and then paint with watercolor and gouache. I sometimes scan the work and overlay it with computer-generated images.
What advice do you have for young artists?
Learn all the old techniques, devote time to drawing, and embrace digital technology. The combination of the creative brain and the scientific one is a powerful partnership.
What’s next for you?
At the end of 2015, I am exhibiting a body of work based on street art images I have taken in major cities all over the world. This includes seven years of photographs from 798 Art District, which evolved during the years I spent as a participant in the Red Gate Gallery Residency Program.
The Bookworm Literary Festival runs from March 13-29. For event details, visit www.bookwormfestival.com
This article originally appeared on page 38-41 of the March 2015 Issue of beijingkids. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact email@example.com
Photos: The Bookworm Literary Festival