Interview with Pip Harry, author of Because of You

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

I know I never stop talking about the sheer wonderfulness of Australian contemporary YA, but I am genuinely astounded at the number of truly gorgeous novels written in this country for teenagers. Because of You by Pip Harry is one of them. It's a novel that focuses on the difficult and important topic of homelessness, and characters in terrible circumstances, but it's written in an incredibly thoughtful and uplifting and accessible way - I would highly recommend it to literally anyone aged twelve and over, and think it would be a terrific novel to study in schools. It's both really important and beautifully heartwarming, and puts friendship to the forefront, which I think we need more of in YA. If you would like to read some reviews that are far more articulate than I could ever be, you should check out the glowing reviews on Books+Publishing and the Readings website!

It was wonderful to have a chance to chat with Pip about her real-life inspiration and research that led to writing Because of You, her writing process, favourite novels and upcoming projects!

Steph: Because of You explores homelessness in a very thoughtful and humanising way, and focuses both on characters who are homeless and characters who work with homeless people. What motivated you to write a novel focusing on homelessness, and what sort of research did you undertake? 

Pip: I was motivated to write a novel about homelessness as I spent three years as a volunteer with a creative writing program in a homeless shelter in Darlinghurst, Sydney. I would go each week to the shelter and meet all kinds of people in the homeless community – both people who were homeless or in government housing, or those volunteering or working with them to rebuild their lives. When the time came to write a novel that fictionalised my experiences, I knew I didn’t want to preach or be heavy handed in my depiction of what it’s like to be homeless, so I’m very happy to hear you found my exploration of the subject thoughtful! As further research, I also spent time at the Rough Edges drop in cafĂ© in Darlinghurst. I met so many funny, interesting and intelligent homeless people during my volunteering and research, so I wanted to do them justice on the page.

Steph: I loved both of your previous novels (I’ll Tell You Mine and Head of the River) but Because of You is definitely my new favourite – one of those books you have to sit with for a few minutes after having finished it, because you’re still half in that world with those characters. I went through the emotional wringer reading it – was writing it an emotional process? (I found Tiny talking about her baby so heart-wrenching and tender and beautiful.) 

Pip: Thank you! It was a very emotional process to write Because of You. I found myself in tears while writing many scenes, having to go to places that were so bleak and tough for my characters. As I suffered from post-natal depression myself after the birth of my daughter, I could really relate to Tiny’s feelings of isolation and despair around new motherhood. To be honest, writing this book was so difficult that at the halfway point, I nearly abandoned the manuscript because I wasn’t sure I had what it took to finish the story. I’m so glad I didn’t!

Steph: I interviewed you after Head of the River was released, and asked you about how the experience of writing a second novel differed from the first, so naturally now I have to ask what your experience was like writing Because of You! Was Book Three easier? How has your writing process changed and evolved? Do you feel like you’ve hit your stride? 

Pip: No! I wish Book Three was easier, but it was the same hard slog, with feelings of uncertainty and imposter syndrome throughout. Of my three books, Head of the River was the easiest to write, and Because of You was the hardest. Having said that, I think my writing process is now more experimental. I’m less afraid to try new things (like poetry, who knew?!) and stretch myself as a writer. I also found the structural editing easier and I could slash, chop and kill my darlings with much more certainty and confidence.

Steph: The novel is told from the first-person perspective of two characters, Tiny (who is living on the streets in the city, far away from her family) and Nola (who is volunteering so she can pass Year 12 at her private school). How did you establish distinct character voices? Do you have any advice for writers writing from multiple points-of-view? 

Pip: Although in some ways I wanted Tiny and Nola to sound similar (they are both 18-year-old girls after all) I also wanted there to be a distinction between their voices. Tiny speaks in a simpler language, with more slang. “Nah” instead of “No” for example and “get a feed” instead of “go out for dinner”. Nola is more formal and sophisticated. Writing from multiple POV’s it’s important to really know your characters inside out and to establish early on their individual speech patterns, slang, vocab and dialogues. This helps he reader switch between voices more easily.

Steph: Something wonderful about Because of You is that it explores relevant real-world issues and contains beautiful messages about empathy without being didactic or talking down to teenage readers. Were you conscious of avoiding writing a moralistic or educational novel? Do you have any particular reader or audience in mind as you write? 

Pip: I was absolutely conscious of not talking down to my young adult readers. The issues contained in the book are complicated, confronting and multi-layered, but they’re more than capable of absorbing and exploring them. I try not to moralise or “educate” my readers. Instead, I present difficult issues from different angles, and allow the reader to make up their own minds as to how they feel as a result. I do think about my audience being aged from around 12 years, and keep that in mind in terms of language and content, but I also know adults find my work, too.

Steph: I love the back cover quote: ‘Books can save anyone. If they’re the right ones.’ Meredith, who speaks the line in the novel, runs a street library for the benefit of people like her son, who has passed away. Despite only appearing in a couple of scenes, she, like many other minor characters in the novel, is deftly and realistically drawn. How did you approach creating these characters, many of whom are affected by trauma and grief, and fleshing them out so authentically? 

Pip: I love that line too and I believe it with all my heart! Books are life-changing. Along with Meredith the book lady, there are lots of minor characters who make a big difference in Because of You, so each one had to be real and make an impression on readers. Fleshing out the smaller characters took time – to begin with they didn’t have backstories or depth, but in later drafting, I dug deeper to find out why they were important to the story.

Steph: The transformative power of books is a major theme in the novel, and one that I (obviously!) very sincerely believe in. What were the books that were the most significant to you, as a teenager? And what do you read – and love – now? 

Pip: I read tons of Judy Blume, who influenced my honesty in my writing (she wasn’t afraid to really go there!) I also loved Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, Homecoming by Cynthia Voight, Bridge to Terabithia by Catherine Paterson. Now, I voraciously read contemporary Australian YA, including your own funny and heartwarming Night Swimming and Cath Crowley’s gorgeous bookstore love story Words in Deep Blue. I’ve also fallen madly in love with verse novels, especially The Weight of Water and One by Sarah Crossan and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai.

Steph: Having now read Because of You, I am looking forward to the next Pip Harry novel (no pressure!) – are you working on anything new at the moment? You’re currently based in Singapore – is that influencing your writing? 

Pip: Lately I’ve been thinking about a story set in the steamy city of Singapore, but that’s just in my head! On the page, I have completed a verse novel for middle grade readers with the working title The Little Wave. I’m still negotiating a deal, but hope to have more news on its release soon!

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To find out more about Pip Harry, Because of You and her previous novels, visit Pip's website.

If you live in Melbourne, you should attend the book launch for Because of You! It's on September 2, as part of Melbourne Writers Festival. Find all the details here.

We might be young, but we're not stupid

Monday, August 7, 2017

Originally published on Birdee Mag in July 2013.

Recently I had an article published in the Sun-Herald called ‘Parenting advice from a teenager’.

Now, hear me out: I don’t think teenagers are universally great or parents universally terrible – I think most people are just doing their best. And I don’t think that I am an expert of any kind.

I wrote my article on that topic because my new novel is largely based on a tricky mother/daughter relationship. I received many nice comments, but also a few rather incensed ones – largely based on the premise that it’s wildly presumptuous for me, as a teenager, to have an opinion.

The writings and opinions of young people are so often criticised – not based on their merit, but based on the age and perceived arrogance of the teenager expressing these opinions.

I don’t think that the opinions of young people lack validity by virtue of the fact that they are young. It’s actually incredibly important that they are able to express their ideas and work through concepts, even if their opinions may change with time, experience and age.

Are we supposed to emerge as adults with fully–formed beliefs without ever having the opportunity to critically examine and express our ideas? Are we supposed to just accept what we are told by older people to be the truth?

Putting your opinion out there is a fairly risky thing to do – people will eat you alive on the internet, and being told that your opinion is irrelevant can be pretty crushing. It can dissuade you from sharing your thoughts in the future, too. (Fortunately I’ve never faced anything especially bad myself.)

dont-judgeSo I’m not entirely sure why everyone feels the need to discourage critical thinking in young people.

There’s a tendency for people to assume my work as a novelist is invalid based on my age (I’m nineteen), and decide against reading my books as a result. Or, if they read my novel and don’t like it, they assume that it’s because of my youth. I don’t want to be treated any differently just because I was born in the 90s.

I’m not the kind of person who wants people to be kinder to me just because I’m young – and I didn’t want that when I was fifteen either – I would much prefer honesty. Preferably not ‘this is a good novel… for a teenager’ or ‘this novel is unreadable because the author is a teenager’. Really, I’d much rather just be seen as a ‘writer’ rather than a ‘teenage writer’, and avoid all the unfortunate assumptions.

I think it’s important that teenagers have access to safe forums and are surrounded by people who are supportive of their ideas. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have to accept criticism sometimes, but I do believe that the writings and opinions of teenagers should be judged based on their merit, not on the age of the writer.

It’s unfair to assume that what teenagers have to say is meaningless. Everyone deserves to be heard, and to be treated with respect. We’ve all behaved as if we know everything at some point, but we realise just how much we don’t know when we have the opportunity to hear someone else’s perspective. Really, we’re all just making it up as we go along, and nobody knows everything.

Though on the internet, we’re prone to acting like we do.

Stop buying stuff, you crazy kid!

Monday, July 31, 2017

You can buy the exact right combination of things – the perfect pair of jeans, a brand new phone, that very specific eyelash plumping mascara that costs $72 because it’s got that name in nice font on the side – and you will be complete. You will be sure of yourself. You will be beautiful. You will fit in.

You have been very effectively programmed. Thank you, advertising. Sometimes, you’re more effective than religion.

I don’t have these thoughts consciously anymore. I did when I was twelve, though. I genuinely believed black skinny jeans and high-tops would make me into some sort of tough, cool, emo teenager. They did not. Even once you’re aware that buying things will not change you, there’s still this sort of urge – this sense that you need to buy things – for the status! To be better-looking! To keep up with your peers! That weird pull; the feeling that you are just one purchase away from perfection. (But we all know the truth is that no matter how much clothing you have, it never seems like enough, and it can’t really instil any confidence in the cripplingly awkward.)

More is not better. There’s a certain point at which some specific thing you longed to buy stops being desirable, and it’s very shortly after you buy it. The sheen wears off. A new possession does not change you in any way, apart from making you a little bit poorer. And this specific thing is lumped in with all your other clothes in the corner of your room, or tucked away in the bathroom cupboard alongside all the other things you wanted so very badly, or shoved to the back of the closet to gather dust.

And it becomes stuff. Stuff is different to things. You don’t buy stuff. Stuff hangs around and gets in the way. It gets cobwebby, or becomes musty, or just goes out-of-date. Stuff eventually gets given away, or thrown out. Eventually it ends up on a rubbish tip somewhere. By this stage you’re focused on the next thing that will complete you, and you don’t think about that old stuff and where it ends up anymore.

I am not suggesting that you immediately cease purchasing things altogether and convert to freeganism (won’t someone think of the economy?!) but I think we can all benefit from thinking a bit more critically about what motivates our purchases. Mindlessly buying into consumer culture is probably not the greatest idea – the immediate gratification is an addictive thrill, but the joy of a new purchase is not a lasting one.

The more you get caught up in this cycle, the more your life is dedicated to the acquisition of money to spend on all of these things, and if that’s the sort of life you’d like, that’s fine! I’d much rather try to tackle these things head on – think critically about how advertising influences me, cut back on the things I buy to things I truly need – and have more freedom, and time. Be less distracted from the things that actually matter, like, for instance, other humans I like? Following my dreams? Which, you know, generally don’t involve the purchase of skinny jeans.

Whenever you want to buy something, think realistically about how much you’ll use it (maybe work out cost per wear, if you’re keen on maths), whether something else you own can serve its role, where it’ll eventually end up. Don’t default to shopping when you feel sad or bored. Remind yourself that acquiring things doesn’t change you, only you can do that – and you’re pretty alright at the moment anyway. Think about what experiences that money could pay for instead.

Challenge yourself not to buy anything new for a week. Luxuriate in your radicalness! You’re practically destablising capitalism, you crazy kid.

Originally published on Birdee Mag.

Are you too afraid to fly?

Monday, July 24, 2017

I’ve got this theory that everyone is at their peak when they’re a baby, brand new (I have no evidence to back this theory up. It really can’t be proved).

You’re full of magic! There is so much genius lurking in your synapses, ready to fire. You figure everything out so quickly – proprioception! Whole languages! How to manipulate your parents! You are entirely fearless during this brief, glittering period of your life, and everything is possible.

Unfortunately you have to grow up. The trouble with growing up is that you stop being this pure angelic thing entirely unto yourself, yet to be impacted by the neuroses of those around you, and start becoming a creature of our world. Our world is confusing and weird and scary at times, and you’ve got all these messages being lumped at you from all sides, and lots of these messages come from fear – the world is dangerous! Money is exceptionally difficult to acquire! Everyone is out to get you!

And then you become entirely mad just like every other living human. It’s okay; it’s a process we all go through. Unavoidable.

Curiosity and fearlessness are two highly undervalued traits that we seem to part with entirely. You arrive at your later years of high school and start being ‘realistic’ about your career prospects. You panic that your dreams are too big, downright impossible. You start having to worry about stuff… It’s awful. Fear can be a really powerful force in your life, convincing you that failure is inevitable, that you’ll disappoint your parents, that it’s not worth even having a go.

I have a photo of myself at the age of three at the beach. I’m wearing a triple j t-shirt and an exceptionally sun-smart hat – the kind with the flap at the back. I appear to be dancing. Maybe I was; I don’t remember the picture being taken. I will never be cooler than I was in that moment. I was an awesome child, which makes up for me being a decidedly mediocre adult.

Whenever I am freaking out about anything – which is more often than not – whether it’s the impossibility of a long-term writing career or a talk I have to do or how rubbish my work-in-progress novel is, I ask myself, ‘What would Young Steph do?’

Young Steph would not freak out. Young Steph would marvel at the awesomeness of Older Steph’s life. Failure would not even occur to Young Steph because Young Steph would be too busy having fun with it. Because books, and writing, and talking about books and writing? Those are the things I love (and the things Young Steph will very shortly love, when she learns to write – at age three she’s too busy being rock ‘n’ roll).

When I was fifteen and an aspiring author, I was keenly aware of the possibility of failure. I couldn’t really shut it out. But authordom was something I had been dreaming of for years, and I knew that all authors had tonnes of rejections. I figured if I started submitting to publishers then, I might be published by the time I was thirty. I could cope with that.

I didn’t get my expected result; instead I ended up with a book deal. If I’d allowed myself to be crippled by the fear of failure and rejection, nothing would’ve happened. My manuscript would’ve languished and I would’ve continued to envy ‘real’ writers and wonder ‘what if?‘.

So, when it comes to pursuing your dreams, you have options (Hint: giving up isn’t one of them! I won’t allow it!). Either get back to the core of what you want to achieve and stop thinking about the possibility of failure – instead think about how you as a kid would view your dreams: entirely possible, and pretty magic. It’s not about deluding yourself; it’s just about shifting the focus away from the negative.

Or, incorporate failure into the plan. It’s part of the journey, and the eventual successes certainly make it worthwhile. The main thing is that you don’t fear failure. The fear of it is worse than failure itself, I assure you! You will have many fabulous adventures, I can tell.

Originally published on Birdee Mag.

Everybody's Faking It

Monday, July 17, 2017

There are many things I like about reality. Like Icy Poles on hot days, the smell of rain on dirt, and when the public transportation system runs on time.

There are other things that I don’t like about reality, like the flu, and poverty, and paper cuts. One of the things I like least about being a real person in reality (which I’m fairly sure I am, though it is entirely possible we are all just in the Matrix right now) is that you are always stuck in your own head. Unless, that is, you are a ghost who has the ability to possess others. Unfortunately, I’m not (to the best of my knowledge), though that would be super awesome (and slightly immoral).

This is one of the reasons why I love stories – the ability to escape your own head for a little while and examine the world from someone else’s point of view. I’m fascinated by what the internal realities of other people’s lives are like, and am always trying to work them out. In this way, I think, stories teach us empathy. Writing allows us ways to explore other worlds and new experiences that we wouldn’t otherwise have. Stories make our world limitless.

But the trouble with always being in your own head is that you have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head. You probably guess at it all the time, but unless you’re Edward Cullen (I really hope you’re not), you’re likely just basing all of your guesses on external signs.

So it’s easy to see other people succeeding in life and assume that everything is wonderful for them; that they have boundless confidence and travel through the world with ease. And then freak out, because you find life pretty challenging, and they’re obviously totally fearless, and you’ll never be that excellent.

Of course this is all rubbish. We live in a society where everyone is faking it, all the time. Displaying vulnerability and letting people know that you struggle and maybe saying ‘hey, I could use some help’ is generally frowned upon. You’ve got to keep up appearances. And that’s unfortunate. Because everyone is struggling. Life is a tricky and confusing thing to navigate.

Just because your logical mind is aware that everyone is at least a little bit insecure and neurotic – that the way people present to the world is not necessarily representative of how they’re feeling – doesn’t really stop your irrational mind from continuing to freak out. It’s something you need to remind yourself of over and over again.

When I was younger I believed for a very long time that grown-ups were somehow inherently whole – that I would hit 18 and metamorphose into an Adult who Knew About Stuff and possess incredible self-assurance. I got a little bit older and realised that no-one is ever absolutely sure of themselves – that I’ll probably still be trying to work it all out for the rest of my life. And that’s okay, although disappointing to figure out after a childhood of believing in the infallibility of adults.

Unless you are a super Level 10 extrovert (in which case, good on you! Be nice to us introverted weirdo types), parties are probably a prime time for being neurotic, and assuming that you are the only person there feeling awkward and out of place because other people are smiling and obviously having a great time. I guarantee you that 9 out of 10 people in the room are entertaining a similar thought process.

Remind yourself that everyone’s too caught up feeling awkward to notice your perceived awkwardness. People are like icebergs, or socially awkward penguins. I don’t know; I’m bad at similes.

I’m great at projecting the appearance of having my act together when I’m freaking out, though, and I think it’s reassuring to be reminded: hey, even people who appear successful struggle. You’re not an outlier. Everybody’s faking it.

Originally published on Birdee Mag.

The Worst Generation Ever

Monday, July 10, 2017

Every couple of months a story runs on an evening current affairs program about how the current generation of teenagers is out of control.

They get a bit of footage of 18 year-olds stumbling about on a night out and a social commentator shakes her head and makes inane and insulting comments – like she’s never worn impractical shoes herself.

News stories about teenagers stealing and fighting and forming gangs are continually broadcast, with a special horror reserved for girls. In ads they’re given solemn voiceovers: ‘Are you really safe?’

If we’re not being demonised as randomly violent in the news – causing elderly people to side-eye us at the bus stop like we might nick off with their bag at any moment – we’re criticised for being lazy and unambitious narcissists who rely on our parents.

What’s missing from all these stories about teenagers are the voices of actual teenagers. 

What’s missing is balance, reason, and logic. All people get to hear is a select few negative and sensationalised opinions. After all, stories about teenagers doing well just wouldn’t get people watching, would they?

Fear and sensationalism sells papers and drives ad clicks. All those dumb opinion pieces are written to be deliberately controversial – the writers and publishers know they’ll get a whole lot more attention if they get people riled up.

On coffee table breakfast shows they fret over how out of control the teenagers of today are, yet if they genuinely cared about teenagers there’d be a whole lot less ‘It wasn’t like this in our day!’ and a whole lot more ‘Here’s how we can actually tackle drinking culture / sexualisation of young people / mental illness.’

I believe the media engineers negative stories about teenagers to increase fear and ad revenue, which is a great disservice to both young people and older people – surely we’re bright enough not to accept at face value the line that is fed to us. Surely we’re bright enough not to believe grandiose statements about entire sections of our population. Surely adults can remember being teenagers themselves: making mistakes, and being treated as less-than, simply because of their youth.

Comparatively, Generations Y and Z have a lot more of a voice than Generation X or the Baby Boomers did, which is great, but that voice is still massively under-represented in our media.

I would love to see a bit more truth and a bit more objectivity in the media – less hyperbole, and some actual statistics every now and then. Maybe some statistics that show us how things are improving? For example, how there are now more young people achieving higher education qualifications than ever, or that this generation has lower rates of teenage pregnancy.

I want to hear more about the great things young people are doing. I know so many teenagers who are passionate about equal marriage, and equal pay, and equal rights. We’re heading towards a much more egalitarian Australia, and that’s a wonderful thing.

I like to think that in forty years I won’t be ranting about the unsavoury youths and their blasted devil music, or believing everything I see on TV (or whatever hologram or brain implant we get information through in the future).

I like to think I’ll remember that hating on teenagers is timeless (if parents in the sixties had issues with how much young people loved The Beatles, I hate to think what their opinion of today’s music might be), and that even if technology changes, the experience of being a teenager is inherently the same.

It’s confusing and tricky. You feel distinctly at-sea and do some idiotic things, but there’s no other way to work it all out. Everyone goes through it and does their best, and I think this generation is doing a much better job than the media gives them credit for.

Originally published on Birdee Mag.

The upside of video gaming

Monday, July 3, 2017

Growing up, I obsessively played the video game The Sims.

And by ‘growing up’ I mean I played it a great deal from the age of about 8 all the way through until yesterday, when I played it for four hours before I became really, really frustrated with the lag (it’s all those damn expansion packs) and annoyed by my own lack of productivity. ‘You should be accomplishing something, Steph! You have so little time on this earth! Whatever happened to carpe diem?’ is on constant replay in my head (my internal guilt trip narrator would never use the word ‘yolo’, even ironically).

People idealise childhood as this magical time in their lives, when they didn’t have a care in the world. I think the further you move away from being a kid, the easier being a kid seems. I feel like I am still just young enough to remember things as they were. Sure, you don’t have to worry about finding a career and earning money and eating properly when you’re a kid – you’ve got your parents to look out for you. And there are lots of fun times (before you get all weird and self-conscious and emo).

But, gosh, being a kid can be downright terrifying. You’re pretty much powerless. You’re at the mercy of parents and teachers and older siblings. As you get a little older you gradually realise there’s so much terrible stuff in the world – people starving and wars going on – that you can do nothing about. It’s depressing.

Personally, I found being a kid really frustrating, largely because people treated me like a kid, and I was aware of lots of stuff I could do nothing about. Which was why I loved video games so much. I’ve never really understood action games, or those first person shooters – why on earth would I want to run over someone? Or shoot anybody? (To this day I am baffled by Grand Theft Auto.)

But the world-building ones, and the family-creating ones? I loved them. I created narratives for my characters. I lost hours and hours and hours to The Sims. It seems like a huge timewaster now, but back then, it helped me. It gave me a sense of control over a reality, even a tiny little pixel-driven one. The satisfaction of achieving something, that sense of success, was what kept me playing; it’s very hard to stop once you’re involved. There is always something else to achieve.

People claim kids being to addicted to video games is a sign of the coming apocalypse. Well, maybe they don’t use terms as dramatic as that. But still, violence has always been a problem. Apathy has always been a problem. Poor health has always been a problem – only the causes and distractions differ from decade to decade.

Video games aren’t the root of all evil, like television isn’t, like rock and roll isn’t.

I don’t think devoting years of your life to video games is a good idea, but I don’t think losing years to reading is a good idea either – I think having balance in your life and not reaching the point of addiction is important. Trying to escape into other worlds shouldn’t be what motivates you on a daily basis (perhaps that’s a bit hypocritical, as someone who, as a novelist, is pretty much a full-time escapist).

Despite all this, my video game obsession has helped me as a writer. Even though I was channelling all this imagination and creativity into a very unproductive virtual world, I was still using that imagination and creativity. I was still thinking in narratives and making up stories in my head. Eventually the limitations of video games started to frustrate me, and more of my attention was put into writing stories down. The obsession was transferred to something slightly more productive.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Mario Kart tournament play. Very important stuff.

Originally published on Birdee Mag.
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