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Interview: Shirley Marr on being the David Bowie of YA


 Interview: Shirley Marr on being the David Bowie of YA


'I'm sure that Ive caused the marketing department at Walker some grey hairs and sleepless nights,' says young adult author Shirley Marr of her ongoing literary reinvention.

'Still, I don't mind being the David Bowie of YA.'

Indeed, her second novel, Preloved, a zany thing of ghosts and 80s pop culture, marks a wild departure from her chilling debut Fury, and Marr suggests that her next project will be different again.

'My method has always been to write what takes my fancy, what my heart feels. Which means what I come up with might vary a lot from novel to novel.'

Marr acknowledges that her approach is a risky one that requires a good deal of trust from her readers.

'Contemporary young adult fiction is where I've decided to stake my claim,' she says, 'but I havent chosen the path of writing a series, something that would have guaranteed me a readership and allowed me to grow in a set direction.'

While her stories may vary in style and subject matter, Marr believes there's a common thread throughout her work that will tie together even the most disparate seeming pieces.

'I hope that I always write smart, flawed, strange little girls,' she says. 'I hope my humour and my self-labelled 'emo prose' becomes identifiable. And I hope thats what makes the same people want to read my work.'

So who is this group of people to whom she refers? Audience, Marr admits, can be a nebulous concept.

'When I wrote Preloved I didnt have a certain group of people or a physical age in mind,' she says. ' Im not a teacher and dont have any formal qualifications, so I dont have a strong grasp of what is suitable for certain age or the rules I should adhere to.'

Instead, she wrote with an 'emotional age' in mind, slanting the book towards 'a particular 'someone' who is slightly melancholic, feels they dont fit in and longs for a different time and placealthough they may not know exactly when or where that is.'

Because of this, she believes that Preloved is suitable for both teens and nostalgic adults, and if the responses we've seen to the novel so far have been a reasonable indication, the adults are enjoying it just as much as the teens, although the latter might find it a handy primer for all things 80s-themed.

'It was intended as a slightly skewed historical novel as well so Ive hope Ive put enough in there to be educational for the younger audience!

However, not only will Marr's readers learn plenty about mullets, Jason Donovan and acid wash jeans, but they'll also find plenty about Chinese superstitionsparticularly ghosts.

Fortunately, rather than opting for the terrifying spooks we so often see, Marr's ghost in Preloved is decidedly more the friendly type.

'Im totally terrified of ghosts. Ive seen too many Chinese ghost movies in my time: In fact I think my fear level is actually phobic,' she says. 'So yes! I purposely wrote a friendly ghost as a contrast.'

She quotes the Chinese saw of 'if you believe, then they exist'.

'I wanted to put something positive into that psychic space,' she said. 'I mean, Ive seen guides advising people to cover the TV in their hotel room so a ghost doesnt crawl out. Im pretty sure that that never existed until the movie The Ring!'

If she can put a positive story out there to help balance the scary, she says, then she's provided a much-needed cultural community service.

The inclusion of Chinese culture isn't the only thing that differentiates Preloved from Fury. Preloved is also much more firmly grounded in terms of setting. But as it turns out, the setting in her books has as much to do with editorial direction as it does with Marr's muse.

'Fury was way less ambiguous to begin with. In fact it started out being set in Perth and this was implicitly stated,' she says.

'In the subsequents re-drafts, it was suggested that since the story itself was very implausible and suspended in a strange 'unreal' space, we might as well go the whole hog.'

As a result, Fury ended up being 'suspended in a strange sense of purgatory'.

In contrast, Preloved arose from two elements close to Marr's heart: her cultural background and her favourite erathe Epic 80s of her childhood.

These elements were meshed with two concepts with which Marr wanted to challenge herself: 'the abnormal rather than the paranormal and a bad romance rather than a historical romance.

She describes the result as a 'Masterchef Invention Test that probably shouldnt have been attempted and shouldnt have worked.

Part of the reason for the book's success is Marr's deep understanding of her main character, with whom she shares a similar cultural background.

I wonder whether, given the dearth of Asian characters in literature, something possibly related to the largely anglocentric bent of the publishing industry, Marr feels any sense of responsibility or requirement to be a voice for this group.

'The lack of Asian characters in literature doesnt upset me,' she says.

She concurs that the under-represenation of Asian characters is both with the demographics of the industry, as well as the tastes of the marketplace and the resulting status quo.

'For me the best writing comes from the authors personal innate experiences and if that makes it a novel driven by 'white characters' then thats what it is,' she says.

If theres something she does loathe, it's when a character list reads like a minority group roll call or where a 'token Asian' character is included.

'Id rather a character be Asian or a different race because they have to be,' she says.

'Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones is a great example. The titular character is part Aboriginal, with a strong supporting character in Jeffrey Lu, a boy of Vietnamese background. It's relevant because the novel is an examination of the White Australian Policy and race relations in small Australian communities.'

Marr applies the same to her own writing.

'Id rather authors write within their world and produce a solid story than to feel any sort of social obligation,' she says.

'I wrote my Asian characters into Preloved because I wanted to, for a change, put a normal YA into the market where the Asian characters weren't 'repressed little Chinese Girls'. Unless I have another need to in the future, I actually prefer not to highlight race or make it a factor at all.'

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  1. Lovely piece on a lovely writer by another lovely writer!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Belle! Glad you enjoyed it. :)

  2. I loved Shirley Marrs Fury and I cannot wait to read Preloved.
    I agree with Belle. This article is lovely.
    Loved it to bits!

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Bee! I adored Preloved, and hope you do as well! :)

  3. Fantastic, interview thanks for sharing this with us