Saturday, September 11, 2010

Interview with Van Badham

Van Badham is the award-winning writer of more than 30 internationally produced plays for stage, music theatre and radio. Her theatre plays have had seasons at the Sydney Opera House, the Wharf studio, the Seymour Centre, the Victorian Arts Centre, Perth's Blue Room and the Adelaide Festival. She has had plays and musical theatre staged at seven Edinburgh Festivals, in London and on the UK touring circuit, in America, in Iceland, Switzerland, Slovenia, Austria and in Germany. MIT Press in the US published her 2003 Edinburgh hit Camarilla. Her scripts for radio have been broadcast by the BBC World Service, Radio 3 and Radio 4. In 2007, Van's play The Gabriels became the first Australian play selected for New York's Summer Play Festival.

SCR: Since this is a Spotlight on Australian Authors can you tell us about where you grew up?
Geographically, I grew up all around Sydney, in Canberra and finally in Wollongong, where I went to uni. Spiritually, because my dad ran dog tracks and betting shops and RSL clubs and sports bars, I grew up around adults and race-calls and loud carpet, metal ashtrays and soft-drinks served in schooner glasses. That is what my childhood looks and smells like when I think about it - not one specific place, but this continuum of bistro meals and poker machine jackpot tunes. I'm an only child and I was usually *the* only child around all these adults - a lot of writers seem to have formative experiences as observer/outsiders and that's definitely how I remember my childhood. 

SCR: What would be the fondest memory from your childhood? 
From my early childhood, about 3 or so, I remember very clearly a day in our house in Canberra when I suddenly found myself completely alone and while it's not my "fondest memory", it's probably one that defines me a lot more than merrier recollections. I think my parents had gone next door to see the neighbours, and I was supposed to be napping or watching television, but I remember getting up and walking through the house and finding it silent, and empty. I went outside - we lived in a very quiet part of a very quiet suburb and there was just no sound or movement anywhere - no cars passing, nothing. The front garden had a border of these plasticky, conical conifer trees, and in that awful silence they seemed to stand like dark, sinister guards over some kind of magical edge to the world - and I had a sense that were I to cross the border past them, I would be lost forever. Then, this completely white butterfly appeared from amongst the conifers, and landed on my hand, the only moving thing in the world. I walked back into the house and the effort of keeping my hand still enough for the butterfly to keep sitting on it all the way into the kitchen made me calm enough to run through some kind of 3-year-old's contingency plan for what to do if I was the only human being left in the world - how to stand on things to open the fridge door, whether I'd sleep in my parents' room if they weren't coming back... The whole episode maybe only lasted five minutes, and then my parents came back into the house and the instant I saw them the butterfly flew away. All these years later, though, I remember the whole scene so clearly - and that experience of moving from a familiar world to a strange, magical or corrupted world is still very tangible to me. This is probably why one of my favourite writers is John Wyndham - his best books are all about the corruption of familiarity and it's obviously something that echoes for me. 

SCR: Did your family have a favourite holiday spot? 
Yes, we used to go away to a caravan on the Hawkesbury River at Lower Portland and my childhood summers were swallowed by adventures on riverbanks and in spinifex, cycling through orange groves, taking packed lunches on wallaby trails and climbing trees. On rainy days and humid nights, I'd curl up in the caravan and read and read and read. It probably only amounted to a few weeks of my life in total, but it taught me the aesthetic value of mud and brought me into close contact with all manner of curious frogs and small mammals. These are vital experiences for growing children.  

SCR: You're a debut Young Adult author, how does it feel?
It feels like coming home. It feels like every book I've ever read, every story I've ever liked, every plant and animal and rock I've ever looked at twice, every brilliant and stupid experience I associate with my normal/insane teenage years was for a purpose. I love writing and I've written a lot of things I'm very proud to have done but writing Young Adult fiction is like taking yourself on a spirit-walk to your own past and recovering all the objects that you'd lost and old friends you thought you'd never see again. It's an amazing discovery to do something that is - I will be honest - absolutely sleep-destroyingly hard work and trance-like and magical at the same time. There is, of course, a great benefit in writing paranormal fiction, where you get to indulge the darkest and most fantastic parts of your imagination. You feel incredibly free.  
SCR: Can you tell us a little about 'Burnt Snow'? How many books do you have planned for this series?
'Burnt Snow' is about a perpetual "new girl" and social outsider, Sophie Morgan, who decides, when she starts another new school at the end of Year 11, that she wants to take control of her own identity. She's a nerd, but the popular girls at the new school don't realise this, and when they invite her to hang out with them, she sees it as an opportunity to remake herself. At the same time, she meets this boy, Brody Meine, who's an even more extreme outsider than she is, who she is monstrously attracted to, and while she's trying to reconcile being in the popular group with liking this very damaged boy, and trying to wrest herself out from her mother's domineering shadow, and work out where she's going with her life, the world around her grows dark and threatening. Whenever she and Brody are together, bizarre things happen - there's a huge storm, then the goth girl in their Modern History class has this violent seizure, the windows of a room spontaneously shatter, things catch fire... and then she becomes convinced birds are stalking her, and statues are talking to her... and the membrane between the familiar world and a parallel dark world of magic and curses and witchcraft, starts to dissolve. Sophie doesn't know who to trust, or who's a threat to her - she's falling in love with this boy and wants him so desperately but he seems to be the source of all the danger, and other people start getting hurt. So the story is about a girl who's not just in an extraordinary situation but a really complex one, where the choices aren't easy and the dangers are unpredictable 

'Burnt Snow' is the first in an initial saga of three. I'm writing the second volume now and it's torrid - stories develop a life of their own and I am racing to catch up with what's happening to Sophie Morgan as her world gets more and more dangerous. After the three, I'm going to work on another set of stories that I had the idea for when I was recently travelling through Japan - I became fascinated with Japanese history and pop culture and want to bring manga aesthetics into my next project. After that, depending on who's left standing at the end of The Book of the Witch trilogy, I may revisit some of those characters again... I'm curious as to how the characters may change as they get older and their lives get more complicated... 

SCR: What first inspired you to start writing?
My earliest memories are of sitting on my Nanna's lap with her arms around me, and her reading to me from a book in her hands. I was fascinated and entranced by words and by stories from a very, very young age and when the adults around me realised this, they did everything possible to encourage my interest in books and reading. My first book is dedicated to my Nanna because she taught me to read, and my parents also encouraged me to write down the stories I would make up so I wouldn't forget them. My mother cleaned up an old typewriter and patiently taught me to type when I was five, so having basic ability as well as the technical means to write, I pounded things out every crazy thought or dream or observation that I had on that keyboard every day until eventually it was replaced by the first in a long succession of computers. My typing speed these days is abnormally fast - I can actually type faster than I can think, which helps the writing process no end. I write a lot, and a lot of different things, and when people ask me how I do it, the honest answer is that it's because I don't have to remember where "P", "Z" or "H" are. It makes an enormous difference. 
SCR: How is writing a novel different to writing a play?
They're incredibly different. They use completely different registers of expression. The narrative of a play is actually contained in the process of how the human voices and bodies on stage react to the emotions your script suggests for them and how they simultaneously communicate that to an audience, whereas writing books is about furnishing a world created entirely of printed text. People assume you have more "control" in a book because you are not only writing dialogue but conditioning the way people speak with adverbs (this is a massive no-no in the theatre, where one lets actors work out their own rhythms of speech), and using descriptive language to define characters, objects and settings (see previous point, but with designers and designs), not to mention being able to comment on the action with authorial voice or play around with points of view and tensing means the story becomes subjective to whoever is telling/retelling it. The reality, though, is that theatre is a LOT more structured an experience than a book - yes, every show may be played differently by the actors, and every production may be different (unless you see 'The Lion King', but that's a topic for another time!), but once the play starts, 50, 100, 300, whatever people who are sitting in that room experience the exact same thing in the exact same place at the exact same time in, usually, the exact same way until the curtain comes down. That's not a bad thing - there are wonderful advantages to the collective experience of being part of an audience - but it is sooooo different to books, where what the reader experiences is a unique, completely personalised experience of conjuring an imagined sensual world, and they can do anywhere on earth, at whatever time they like if there's enough light to read by. To create these two different experiences means writing in two completely different ways. It took an adjustment period for me - I had to be reminded by my editors several times that it was up to me to get the information in the text clear from the outset, because there wasn't going to be a designer along to decide on everyone's hair-length or hat angle before the characters made their first appearance. 

SCR: Do you prefer writing plays to writing your novel? Which is harder of the two to write?
I like both. I think I am particularly enjoying writing the novels at the moment because the stories of the books are not stories you can really tell in the theatre. Also, just the process is such a change - it's so lovely to be using words in a different way, and pushing all my technical skills in a direction I haven't explored before. It's like mapping a new country. They are not harder than the other to write - like anything, it's as easy to write a crap book or crap play as it's super-freakin'-difficult to write an amazing one. 

SCR: Was writing a novel the natural progression from writing plays?
Not at all. It came completely out of nowhere. I'd had vague ideas about writing various other novels - over the years I'd started a "literary fiction" novel, a political thriller and a long adventure story for younger readers, but with 'Burnt Snow' an idea hit and it just all poured out. The only preparation writing plays had given me for it was fast typing speed, an ear for dialogue and the discipline to sit at my desk and thump it out.  

SCR: What was your motivation behind the idea for 'Burnt Snow'?
It's still surprising to me that this book happened, because I'd spent so many years just writing for the theatre and I thought that's all I'd ever do... but I'd found myself back in Sydney after years of living in London, and I ran into some people from high school totally randomly, and was thinking about school a lot as a result. I had the sense of being back somewhere that I thought I knew and finding it really different, and it was actually shocking seeing people who in my memory would be 17 forever carrying around babies and buying glasses for their husbands at the mall. At the same time, I'd been thinking a lot about the "magic world" - one of my family members seems to have developed some kind of latent psychic gift, and everyone I'd talked to about it revealed that they similarly had friends or relatives with "insights". So I was thinking about my past, and high school, and magic and how someone revealing they think they have some kind of paranormal power just totally changes your relationship with them... and then - bang - one day it just started writing itself across the screen when i was supposed to be doing something else.  And the more I wrote, the more everything in my life just adjusted - like magic - to me writing the story... my job had ended and I had the time to sit alone and write, I got a little grant to go back to the UK and start my life over again... and then (at the time convinced, totally, that I was going to grow old, mean and withered and die single and alone in a house full of cats), I met my boyfriend ON MY BALCONY when I went outside to have a cup of tea and this gorgeous, brilliant, hilarious man turned out to be my new next-door neighbour. It was an intensely emotional and incredible time and an ongoing progression of inspirations to finish the book.  

SCR: Brody is your lead male who is very mysterious. He appears to have the 'bad boy' vibe. What is it about the 'bad boys' that we find so appealing?
Hmm. It depends on your definition of "bad". All animals are curious and human beings have a particular inclination to explore unknown places, ask unanswerable questions and obsess over puzzles until they work them out (at which point they're usually discarded and forgotten). Certainly, in my experience, a large part of excitement and thrill is based on unpredictability; a large part of Sophie's attraction to Brody does come from her curiosity about him being such a loner, and the secrets he won't share, and that without a lot of information provided to her, she can't possibly predict his behaviour or what will happen when they're together. Which is exciting - when you're 16 and going to school where everything is timetabled and pre-planned for you and you know exactly what you'll be doing every Tuesday at 1.15pm for the next year, unpredictabilities are, by their rarity, something to be cherished. Also, the wondrous, insane-making part of the falling-in-love process is the mystery and tension of not being entirely sure what will happen next - do they like you? will they call? will he kiss you? what's happening? - and I think everyone whose ever begun a relationship has spent the early part of the courtship secretly cursing the other party as a "bad boy" (or an evil witch!) when phone calls are being waited for. So, the appeal of the "bad boy" vibe is the attraction to the mysterious.
I think also that the way men, like women, are pressured to conform to very strict social norms, particularly at high school where all that ridiculous masculinity crap is at its most brutal, means that those with the courage to be different and keep their own counsel tend to earn the "bad boy" moniker, because their acts of resistance to the group mentality mark them as both tough and a little bit wicked. Strength, of any kind, is always attractive, as is the confidence you gain when you appreciate your own victories, and I think these qualities are radiated by those with the authentic "bad boy" vibe. 
Sometimes, of course, the signifiers of strength and confidence are confused with those for brutality or egomania, and for people who make the identification mistake (and it happens), disaster results. These fakers are not "bad boys" so much as Bad Boys and to be avoided at all costs. Boys who hit people to feel strong  are just weaklings with fists and men who pork anything with a heartbeat aren't confident so much as sexually exploitative slimebags. There really should be a warning label stuck to these turdburgers at birth, but there you go. 

SCR: Burnt Snow is written from Sophie's point of view. Was writing from a seventeen year olds perspective difficult?
It was and it wasn't. Obviously, I have the advantage of having *once* been 17 so I didn't come to the job with no experience. I also remember so much of being that age because when I was a teenager I kept vast, VAST notes and diaries of everything that happened to me, and so many photos, so my memories of that time were reinscribed for my brain directly as things were then happening, and now it means that I have all the notes to look back upon. I'm super lucky that I am still best friends with my best friends from high school and it doesn't take long for our personalities to revert to their 17 year old state when we're retelling the stories or even just hanging out with one another. A lot of writing Sophie was just finding ways of reaccessing a state of being that I'd tucked away in some corner of my brain. I read lots of teen magazines to remind myself of my old preoccupations, and I made scrapbooks out of the magazines to understand what Sophie and all the girls would be wearing, what TV shows they'd be watching, what their immediate environments would look like. To be fair, I am not Sophie and Sophie's not me - all I could do was remember the details of her world, she had to find her own way in it.

There's all that, and I'm incredibly immature. It's true.  

SCR: Why do you think we have such an obsession with all things paranormal at the moment? 
"Paranormal" is just the new name for a slice of a bigger and very, very old genre that can be called fantasy or speculative fiction, the Gothic, dark fiction, wizard lit, magic realism, folklore, mythology, fairy stories, national epics, horror, imaginative fiction or one of a million other names all of which essentially equal "stories about people and magic". I don't think it's a contemporary phenomenon - I think it's the oldest form of storytelling and stories of the fantastic and magical have been around to entertain people since... well, since people! It's easy to enjoy these genres and forms simply because:
a.) Doing the laundry is boring. Flying through the air on the back of a dragon is interesting.
b.) Boys who kiss you at a party and then say they will call you and then don't are boring. Boys who kiss you at a party and then sprout horns and confess they discovered on their 18th birthday they were the scion of a king and a she-devil and are on a quest to... are interesting. 
... and these stories are ALWAYS popular because we need them to cope with the laundry and stupid boys that don't call but at various times we take our entertainment to trend - hence all those fab Hammer Horror movies in the late 1960s, but late 1800s Britain and America going mad for ghost story anthologies, and Buffy and Angel on TV in the late 1990s, but those brilliant "Fantastic Stories" printed in story magazines in the 1940s/50s. "Paranormal" is just a word for the same thing in book form but which happened at the end of the 00s.  

SCR: Since you're a debut YA author, are there any new authors that have grabbed your interest? If so, who are they?
Actually, since taking on this project I've been really careful to AVOID new authors grabbing my interest. I currently have a big pile of books I am waiting to throw myself into when the third Book of the Witch is finished - I know what I'm like and if start reading I won't stop. Additionally, I am trying to keep my imaginative world sealed off from what other contemporary authors in the genre are doing - I think there's a very real danger for some writers to read things in their genre and then start second-guesing ways they can be different or "novel" (ho ho) from what they are reading, which makes their writing insincere, cynical or nervous or awkwardly structured as a result.  
SCR: If you were able to go back to being seventeen is there anything you would change if you could? 
I would never drink alcohol. The most precious thing I've got today is the strength of my judgment and the idea I ever sold it out to the Bacardi Breezer corporation in return for unrecoverable nights of staggering around, feeling sick and passing out fills me with a genuine horror. 

Thanks very much to Van for stopping by. If you haven't read Burnt Snow, you have no idea what you're missing. 
You can get an extra three entries for my Almost 100 Follower Giveaway if you comment on this post. Please be sure to let me know you've already commented on my follower post.

1 comment:

  1. This is another new author for me, I love how this blog has so many authors that I haven't read before. My wish list is getting big! Loved the blog post, very nice interview.