Q&A with Emily Conolan.
Emily Conolan was born and raised in Launceston, and now lives in Hobart. She is known for her teaching and humanitarian work and has recently published the engaging ‘choose your own adventure’ style Freedom Fighters series. Check out her wonderful Q&A below:
I love it how you’ve written these books in second person. It’s a form you don’t often see in children’s writing. Was it difficult to edit?
Thanks! It certainly presented some editing challenges, but that was less to do with it being in second person, and more to do with the interactive structure. When my publisher did the structural edit on the first book, she wasn’t sure how to go about making sure each possible story path made sense by itself: so she asked me to separate out each possible path and cut and paste it into a new document so she could read each one as a stand-alone story. Then I worked out that there were over 200 possible ways to read the story, so I got back to her and said, ‘Um… I don’t think I can do that!’ Then later, my editor got really focused on timeline continuity: so if two paths separated and then met up again, the same amount of time must have elapsed in each path before they arrive again at the same point: and obviously, you can’t mention any characters or events who were in one timeline and not the other, as not every reader will have come that way! It gets a bit ‘timey-wimey’, to borrow a Doctor Who expression! But the part of my brain that loves logic puzzles and brainteasers really gets a kick out of it.
It’s such a fabulous idea to have the reader choose their own path and figure things out for themselves to certain degree. What an immersive way of reading! How much work was involved in getting the book to publication standard using this technique? Do you think it was more difficult process, or simply different than a regular form children’s novel?
It’s hard to say, because I don’t have much to compare it to: the only other children’s novel I wrote before this one was this sprawling, un-publishable epic about a magical circus tent: it was very imaginative but completely untamed and I just didn’t know where to start fixing it! I think it helped me to have a writing project that was very carefully plotted before I even began writing, and each scene had to reach its moment of conflict and present a decision very quickly within just a few pages, so it introduced me to discipline!
What are some of the most stand out memories from your childhood in Tasmania?
My grandparents lived on a farm near Carrick, and we used to go on long walks all around the property. There was a willow tree that was my pirate ship, a gum tree with a deep scooped bough perfect for riding on, an old wrecked car all covered in lichen, and rock islands in the Liffey River that were unexplored lands. I was also a bookworm and have fond memories of staying in bed all morning re-reading The BFG until it literally fell apart in my hands.
It’s so helpful to have the fact file at the end of each book, so the kids can make informed decisions about the paths they take, or if they prefer, just go with their intuition, catering for different personalities. Did you always intend to include this more detailed information or did the idea come about during your wring process?
The decision to include fact-files came pretty early on. They’re handy as a teaching resource and, as you say, some readers will read every one because they want to get a handle on the context of the decisions they’re making, and others will just wing their way through it! But my publishers and I were very concerned right from the get-go that these sensitive subjects of asylum seekers, colonization, terrorism, etc, would be handled with authenticity and integrity and in a way which genuinely invited thoughtful reflection: empathy equipped with the facts. It was hard for me to write fact-files for the asylum seeker book that were neutral in tone: I wanted them to spark empathy, but not come across as too ‘ranty’ or political. It’s not helpful to be on a soapbox here: we actually want to say to kids: ‘Right, here’s the history of this issue so far, here are some of the different points of view about it, now over to you.’
Speaking of writing processes, can you tell me about yours?
I plot the whole book out in a flow-chart – I may make little tweaks to the plot as I go along, but not too many, or it will create big problems for me later on! Then I write scene-by-scene according to the plot. The key for the plot is that old truism that ‘each character needs to have an inner and outer journey’: they’re trying to reach safety of course, but they also have to have a passion or something that motivates them. Unfortunately, the plot doesn’t always work first try – sometimes I have to back up and re-plot, although I hate doing that because it means throwing out lots of scenes that may have taken me weeks to write.
Each scene has to end on the horns of a dilemma that should be excruciating for the reader to make – I read one other Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style historical book, set in America, and the first choice was something like, ‘You’re a maid, do you want to sweep the floor or fetch the water?’ Where’s the fun in that? So the need to have two equally urgent priorities that tear at your heart give each scene its thrust: and before I start writing each scene, that choice is my target.
How difficult were these books to organise structurally, with all the different sections?
Yeah… pretty confusing! I use my flow-chart as my map, and now that I’m onto my third book, I’m even doing all these awesome nerdy little things like timelines that show the season, the character’s age, what major historical events took place at that time, and the events in the book. This next one is going to get really gnarly because it’s a pair of twins who get separated at the start of the book, which is in 1943 in Italy towards the end of WW2. It’s a split book, so you can read from the front cover through to the middle and follow the sister’s story, or you can flip the book and read from the back cover through to the middle and follow the brother’s story – then they meet in the middle! So my editor is very, very, pleased to hear about how meticulous I’m being with my timelines and flow-charts, because otherwise I might have made her brain explode.
Can you talk me through the editing process?
I edit it to the best of my own abilities, then when I’ve got a decent first draft, my publisher, Erica Wagner, looks at it for a structural edit: she’s checking broad things like story arc, character, etc. (Thankfully she’s never asked me again to separate each possible story path!) Then Elise Jones, my editor, does the copy-edit, which is the fine-toothed-comb stuff. Elise and I usually go back-and-forth a few times before we’re both satisfied: I usually agree with most of her changes, as she’s an excellent editor. They’re both amazing to work with: such strong advocates for the work, but extremely understanding and accommodating. I feel like they’ve got my back, and they love this series and want it to succeed as much as I do.
How did you approach Allen and Unwin?
I have a friend who was publishing his first book with A&U, and they happened to mention they were looking for books on asylum seekers. A&U publish a really wide range of books, but they have a strong moral compass and are really interested in own-voice literature and books that delve into global issues in an accessible way. My friend told them about me, they said, ‘Tell her to send us what she’s got!’ and I put together the first quarter of what I’d been working on, plus a pitch document, in which my very enthusiastic friend convinced me that I should tell them I wanted to write a whole series – at this point, it was only the asylum seeker book. So I proposed a four-book series, thinking I was being waaaaay too big for my boots, then at the first meeting, Erica my soon-to-be-publisher said, ‘I think a seven-book series has a nice ring to it…’ and I nearly fell of my chair! So, there will definitely be four books – I have a contract for that – and there may even be three more. This is the kind of opportunity that unpublished authors are very rarely gifted, as you would know – so I still can’t believe my luck.
Can you tell me about your plans for the next book in this series?
The next one is the twin book I mentioned above, Split The Skies, that’s set in Italy and Australia from 1943 onwards. Italy had just changed sides in the war, so it’s a fascinating time in history, and the brother’s story is that he ends up working for Snowy Hydro as many migrants did in the early 50’s. I’m lucky to have been given a grant from Snowy Hydro to travel up to Cooma and meet many of the old migrant workers and see the environment around there.
Was it difficult finding the courage to tell part of Touch the Sun from an Aboriginal persons perspective? Did any people oppose this book or try to stop you?
Break Your Chains has an Aboriginal character in it, although the whole thing is told (in second-person) from the point of view of the Irish convict girl who interacts with him, so in that sense I wasn’t adopting an Aboriginal perspective. It did take courage to delve into that side of my family’s history (as invaders of Van Diemen’s Land), but I feel the book has an emotional resonance and truth because of that. The Tassie Aboriginal community has been wonderful in their support of this book: particularly Theresa Sainty, who was my main advisor and who named the Aboriginal character Waylitja, which is the one palawa kani word that appears in the book. Theresa has been constructive, generous and thoughtful: nobody from the community ever said ‘don’t do it,’ but a lot of people said ‘make sure you get this right,’ and I took my time and made those connections, and I do feel that we’ve got it right.
Touch The Sun is from an asylum seeker’s point of view, and each subsequent book is from a different cultural perspective to my own, so it’s absolutely critical that I work really closely with people from each community, and don’t be dismissive about issues of cultural appropriation. A&U and I have taken a lot of measures to ensure the books represent an asylum seeker’s journey with authenticity, such as including a list of own-voice literature in the back of each book; including poems, photos, and interviews with asylum seekers throughout; employing multiple sensitivity readers and cultural fact-checkers, and making our acknowledgement and consultation process above-board and fair.
The most awesome bit of feedback I got was when Hani, an amazing Somali poet who was my main consultant for Touch The Sun read it for the first time. ‘So far I can picture every scene, and my body is shaking with every choice I make,’ she messaged me. I think that fiction writers can write of countries, cultures, and times outside of their own experience (the world of fiction would be a lot narrower if they couldn’t), but their research and consultation needs to be very thorough in order to do it authentically.
Congratulations being awarded Tasmanian of the Year! How did you go about setting up the Tasmanian Asylum Seeker Support Network?
Thanks! That was another ‘right place, right time’ sort of moment. I remember seeing the headline that Pontville Detention Centre would be opening. I’d lived in Melbourne and had great admiration for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre that operates there, and thought Tassie needed a modest version of that. I wanted to be able to visit people in detention, and I knew a few friends who were interested in doing that too, so I started a facebook page and a website and it just went gangbusters! We were planning to hold our first meeting upstairs at a local café, then we had to rent out a hall and a PA system at the last minute because 200 people wanted to come, and so did news crews and journos! It was exciting, demanding, heartbreaking, frustrating, and satisfying. It took more courage, effort, and confidence to pull off than writing this series has! And I probably wrote the equivalent word-count in emails, newsletters, and speeches at that time, too. After running it for a few years, I got pregnant with my second child, so working from home as a writer works well for me at this stage of life. It was an incredible experience, though, and I think a small community like Tassie has a lot to offer people who see a niche and want to make the most of it: whether that be as a writer, activist, entrepreneur, or anything else. I feel that mostly, it’s a fertile place and a supportive community.