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Leanne Hall and Adele Walsh on Australian young adult literature

 Leanne Hall and Adele Walsh on Australian young adult literature

Last night Express Media and Inside a Dog presented Leanne Hall in conversation with Adele Walsh, The State Library of Victoria's Program Coordinator at the Centre for Youth Literature. The discussion was an informal one that touched on Halls writing journey, thoughts on genre and audience, and also on the current YA publishing landscape in Australia.

I decided to test my handwriting skills by taking copious amounts of notes. Below is my summary of the event. Enjoy!

Leanne Hall on the road to becoming a published author

Hall opened by noting that she had been writing for a long time before having her debut novel, Text prize winner'This is Shyness, accepted and published. Although having been interested in writing as a child, she was in denial about it being something that could be a feasible career, thinking it akin to becoming a Hollywood actor or an AFL footballerie, out of reach for the everyday person. Instead she decided to pursue a sensible career, and enrolled in a combined law degree at uni.

While at uni, she continued to write, but not in an especially focused way. She wrote across genres and forms, attempting everything from screenplays to poetry to reviewingalthough she admits that the last wasnt something she was particularly good at. Interestingly, although Hall is now known as a YA author, it took some time for her to discover her preferred audience: she says that it wasnt until she began in educational publishing that she decided that she wanted to write for young adults.

In part this was because she had been told that Arts Council funding recipients usually had to be widely published in short form. Because of the adult-oriented nature of the short fiction market, her short fiction efforts ended up largely being for adults.

After two years of rejections, her first short story was published in the first edition of the now well-regarded Sleepers Almanac and was then picked up in the Years Best Australian Short Stories; another story was published in Growing Up Asian in Australia. This success sustained her throughout her continued search for publication.

Hall says that despite her story in Growing up Asian in Australia and her Asian-Australian identity, shes never felt boxed in to a multicultural niche, though others have embraced this to a larger degree.

On genre and audience

When asked, Hall described her work as reality made strange, and said that she doesnt think in terms of genre. She does worry about the strangeness and weirdness of her work, but believes that people should write what comes to them rather than emphasising marketability. She spoke of her own efforts to find her voice, and how this awful process took some time. Her early efforts were coloured by her reading and her obsessions with particular authors, but eventually her natural writing style came through. She highlighted how important it is not to be impatient, but to let it happen, and to work through 'the process rather than forcing it.

Walsh broke in to ask whether Halls distinctive voice was a disadvantage in YA, where boxes are the norm, and wondered whether having a recognisable, unusual voice helped her stand out amongst the other Text prize contenders.

Hall responded that the Text prize was curious in that the books that have subsequently been published as a result of it arent necessarily all YA. Some have been published as adult books, while the inaugural winner was more of a middle grade title. She also added that although her book might have a distinctive voice, she felt it was a mess when she submitted it. Although it appeared tidy and neat at first appearances, she felt that narratively it was a bit of a dogs breakfast. It contained plenty of good ideas, but it was a little sludgy and fuzzy. The submitted manuscript was similar to the finished one in many ways in that it occurred over one night and featured alternating POV chapters, but also featured points of view chapters from other, more peripheral characters; these were cut during editing.

Editing, she said, is immensely author-specific, and will depend on a given authors strengths and weaknesses. Knowing what these are is invaluable to an author.'Walsh chimed in to exhort the importance of trimming the fat and ensuring that the voice rings true when writing for teens. She noted that teens are incredibly incisive when it comes to detecting bull, and said that its hugely important for authors to be authentic and writing a manuscript that rings true rather than one thats written to a curriculum or that is written with a particular issue or theme in mind, as the latter isnt something that you want to be remembered for.

She also noted that authors shouldnt worry about corrupting kids: anything thats likely to be an issue will be flagged in editorial. Hall added that although she dislikes messagey books, its impossible to avoid having ones personal philosophies come through in the text to some degreeshe feels that sometimes shes almost writing to herself as a teen.

The conversation then turned to the difference between good writing and good storytelling, and how hard it is to marry the two. Both agreed that often authors are better at one than the other, although everyone should aspire to achieve both.

The YA publishing landscape in Australia

Hall pointed out that there seems to be a common perception of publishing in Australia being a closed, inner circle, but this hasnt been her experience. She feels that theres enough room in YA for everyone, and Walsh agreed, noting that the market has opened up substantially in recent years. A number of houses are now open to direct submissions from authors, and are actively seeking Australian writers. When a member of the audience asked whether this was to get the jump on the next Stephenie Meyer, she said no: Australian publishers are not just looking to find potential big names, but rather memorable authors that fit into our strong literary tradition and strong YA reputation overseas.

Hall agreed, saying that the people shes come into contact with through her writing and her work at Readings have generally been intensely idealistic about YA. Theyre looking for new and untapped talent and are aware that there are many authors out there with voices that should be heard. Walsh added that the YA literary scene in Australia is strong because we cant afford to produce crap. A fresh voice will find a place.

The two then discussed whether Australian authors should strive to write distinctly Australian stories, or whether they should aim for a more place-ambiguous global approach. Walsh said that the dream is to first publish here in Australia and then be picked up in the US, but thats not as easy as it seems. Although Australians find the American culture palatable, having been so widely exposed to it through our media, the same isnt necessarily true in reverse. She pointed out that an Australian voice will always come through regardless. For example, though Hall strives for a sense of betweenness, theres still a local flavour to her work.

Gaps in the youth market'

The subject of gaps in the market then came up, with Hall saying that theres a dearth of realist fiction for boys aged between 10-15, and that so much fiction for boys is limited to action booksbooks with silver or blue covers. Walsh added that although girls will read anything, boys will often only read what theyre told theyre allowed to or expected to read, and that this can be extremely limiting. Upper young adult is done better for this section of the market than others, although some houses are working to bridge the gap for younger readers. These usually take the form of series books, which Hall said are far more acceptable than they used to be: such books are not as naff, and are of much higher quality, and often have respected authors writing for them.

Hall added that she hated to even have such a discussion: she hates that she has to differentiate between genders, and that publishers marketing and packaging of books has such a huge influence on whether kids will feel a book is or isnt for them. She says she tries not to target a particular gender in her work, but is conscious of ensuring that both genders are represented. We should all want to read about people who are different from us, she said, as doing so broadens our world view.

Walsh agreed, pointing to the legacy of Melina Marchetts Looking for Alibrandi as a book that showed an other experience while still resonating so soundly with readers. It was a book that changed the landscape of childrens fiction in Australia, blowing it wide open with a different voice. Authors should want to encourage readers to be able to find themselves in books, and to create a sense of empathy.

Other gaps in the market include the under-representation of LGBT characters, who are actually more commonly found in books by US authors. Walsh said that this is partly because schools are still very large and influential buyers of YA in Australia, and often the institutions that have the purchasing power may have certain ideologies they wish to preserve. Hall said that in her work at Readings she always strives to ensure that queer literature is represented, as she hated growing up as an Asian-Australian and not feeling that she was represented.

Both agreed that although representations of queer characters are far too few, we are seeing more. Walsh would like to see queer characters come to the fore, while Hall added that she prefers to see queer characters represented in a way that isnt issues-based or that isnt tokenistic.

Diversity in general is an issue in YA, added Walsh, saying that it tends to be very whitebread in terms of ethnicity, sexuality, religion and so on. She added that theres a good deal of nuance and complexity in our cultural experiences that tends to be overlooked; middle-class voices are also over-represented.

They then touched on overdone trends in YA (funnily enough, I have articles forthcoming on both of these issues)the ubiquitous YA love triangle and happily ever after endings in YA. Hall said that it can be refreshing when theres no romance in a book, both agreed that they would like to see romance realistically portrayed. Sibling relationships are also under-done, as are the complexities of friendships; concerns about career paths and becoming an adult are also not touched on very often.

Writing tips and reading recommendations

Walsh said that although authors tend to go straight to publishers with their books, there are other alternatives such as fellowships, mentorships, and workshops such as Varuna. Writing groups and likeminded peers can also be immensely valuable, although its important that these individuals arent all at the same level of experience or all have the same perspective. Reading a lot and knowing your genre and current trends is also important. Each offered a series of recommendations for excellent Australian authors to try. These included:

Leanne Hall:

The Three Loves of Persimmon'by Cassandra Golds (see my review)
The Red Shoes by Ursula Dubosarsky
Raw Blue'by Kristy Eager
All I Ever Wanted'by Vikki Wakefield

Adele Walsh:

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley (see my review)
A Brief History of Montmaray by Michelle Cooper (see my review)
On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Town by James Roy
Tooronga by Victor Kelleher


  1. Thanks for writing up this summary. What an interesting interaction. They touched on a lot of issues in the YA genre. It was also cool to read about Halls experience in getting published.

    • Stephanie /

      Pleasure, Jami! I found it fascinating, too. The comments about the childrens literature scene here really opening up recently were very interesting. When I started looking to pitch my current MG, virtually all of the houses were closed, and no agents were taking on childrens fiction. I had to look to NY instead!

  2. What a fascinating in-conversation it must have been! I wish Id been there. Your hand mustve been worn out afterwards :)

    • Stephanie /

      It was a wonderful chat, Kate (and I loved their book recommendations, too!) And yes, since the only time I write by hand these days is to sign my name, I had a bit of a cramp happening by the end!

  3. This is fantastic. Thank you so much writing this up. I think some of the most creative, original, and best written YA comes out of Australia. Thank God Australian publishers arent seeking to find a Stephenie Meyer. I love hearing the Australian voice. The first Aussie series I read, John Marsdens Tomorrow series, had a dictionary in the front to explain what doona and chooks were. I loved learning new words and Aussie slang. Thanks to Cath Crowley and Melina Marchetta, I still use singlet as opposed to the American wifebeater.

    I loved Leannes Shyness books. Reality made strange is the perfect description. Even though her books are available through the Kindle store, I really hope they get published in paper form in the States because theres such an audience for them.

    Great recap! :)

    • Stephanie /

      My pleasure, Maggie! Im glad you took something from it.

      I agree with your sentiments about publishers looking for voices that will resonate rather than merely chasing sales. We have some wonderful authors here, and its great to see that theyre making an impact with readers all over the world. (Funny that you should mention chooksit was the one word that my NY-based agent couldnt figure out in my own MS!)

  4. I admire your note-taking skills Stephanie, you captured plenty of info! Im all for the Australian voice and setting in any genre. Its just a shame that its not as marketable to the international market and thus place-ambiguous settings sometimes come into play.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks, Jayne! Next time Im going to take my laptop, though. :)

      Ive definitely come across a few locally written and published books that do have that ambiguity going on, and I think that the particular books in question suffered for it. I do hope that the opening up of global borders increasingly allows for a two-directional transfer of cultures, rather than the imposition of one superordinate culture on to a smaller one.

  5. Wow Stephanie great write-up! Thanks on behalf of Express Media for so succintly covering it.

  6. Loved this! Thanks for writing up two very perceptive and important Aussie YA voices.

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