Review: ‘Coming of Age’ at Melbourne Writers Festival

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It was great to be back at Melbourne Writers Festival this year, particularly given there was a series of panels devoted to YA. The panels were grouped under the umbrella of ‘Eye on YA’. I attended ‘YA Superstars’, ‘Coming of Age’ and ‘Fantasy Fiction’. The standout event for me was ‘Coming of Age’.

inbetweendays.jpg‘Coming of Age’, chaired by the champion of Australian YA (and interim chair of the LoveOzYA movement), Danielle Binks, featured Australian authors Claire Zorn and Vikki Wakefield. Danielle began by asking the authors what they were like at 17. Vikki said she failed school, and found she was living an adult life in her teens. It wasn’t until Vikki was in her 20’s that she started to live out her teen years. Claire read an excerpt from a journal she wrote when she was 17. It was both laugh out loud funny and all-too relatable, as her 17 year old self lamented “I just wish someone would love me besides my bloody family”.

Vikki became hyper conscious of her audience when writing her second book, Friday Brown. When she approached her third book, Inbetween Days, she focused hard on what the story was about, rather than the audience. During audience question time, I asked Vikki how she overcame her paralysis while writing Friday Brown. Vikki said she knew if she finished a draft she would have something to work with. Vikki also mentioned during the session that while she had a massive pit of paralysis for a long time, the floodgates are now open and she is working on a horror novel. I was surprised to hear Claire say she wrote The Protected before The Sky So Heavy. At the author signing, I asked her about it and she said she started writing The Protected, but took a break during rewrites to work on The Sky So Heavy. It took Claire 9 years to write The Protected, and 2 years to write The Sky So Heavy.

OneWouldThink.jpgDanielle highlighted that both protagonists in Inbetween Days and One Would Think the Deep feature underdogs, and asked the authors what intrigued them about underdogs. Claire revealed she had a hard time in high school, and felt like a freak show. Vikki said she felt like a chameleon for the longest time, and had no sense of her own identity. She writes about underdogs because she needs to find something in common with her characters. Vikki later said she wasn’t allowed to like the guys who she was attracted to in high school, as her friends determined who she chose. There was one guy in high school who she never told she liked, because her friends wouldn’t allow it.

Danielle asked Claire why she set One Would Think the Deep in 1997. All of Claire’s books are inspired by songs. Claire said she wanted to write about what it was like to lose your idol. She didn’t cope well at school, and felt no one understood her except for Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Claire didn’t want to write about the death of Kurt Cobain, because he is still such a prominent figure. She was drawn to Jeff Buckley, as his vulnerable, effeminate persona sat at odds with the hyper-masculine grunge era.

Danielle asked the authors what books they wished they had read as teens. Vikki listed Judy Blume and Robyn Klein. Vikki added that she read The Outsiders by S.E. Hilton as a teen, which was the book she needed. Claire said she wished she read Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.

Given Vikki didn’t have journal entry to share like Claire, she instead read to the audience a letter she wrote to her 17 year old self. This letter was immensely moving. It included beautiful and empowering words of encouragement, including “every mistake you’ve made will be nose-rubbing material, but you’re used to the smell” and “finally you’ll say things you could never say out loud”. I hope she publishes this letter somewhere.

I thoroughly enjoyed attending the 2016 Melbourne Writers Festival. I was disappointed when I saw that the ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ and ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels were on at the same time. I was even more frustrated once I realised both panels ran for an hour, and overlapped with ‘Fantasy Fiction’ (the latter I had booked a ticket for). I didn’t want to be disruptive/disrespectful and leave halfway through ‘Writing Diverse Characters’ or ‘David Levithan: Queer YA’ panels, so I missed out. Still, the sessions I attended to were inspiring, not just because of the authors and the way Danielle structured the sessions, but for the passion conveyed by the audience through their questions (I am also immensely relieved that there weren’t any up-and-coming authors in the audience who used question time as an opportunity to promote their work. I’ve seen this happen during question time at so many literature events, and every time I get a whiff of self-promotion guised as a question I slink down into my chair and will myself to dissolve). Danielle Binks opened the YA Superstars panel by declaring ‘we are all living in the second golden age of YA’. The number of panels devoted to YA at this year’s MWF attests to the popularity and importance of YA. I hope there continues to be an increase of YA panels at future Melbourne Writers Festivals in years to come. Or, perhaps, a whole festival for YA.