Looking back, what would you say is the biggest thing you learnt from the Underdog process?
Michael: The value in searching out and submitting to competitions. The way the #LoveOzYA community embraced Underdog and the authors it showcased was a wonderful thing to be a part of.
Jes: Aside from a dearly needed boost of self-confidence, I gained a great trust in my own voice as a writer, and trust that there are people out there in Australia who want to hear these stories.
Kaneana: Even though I've written television scripts and been edited before, this was my first experience of the editing process re: fiction writing. It was useful having someone else look at my work with fresh eyes and give feedback, while still championing the story.
How did it feel seeing your name on the front cover of a book in stores and libraries and schools all over the country?
Michael: It’s uncanny. It’s also something that I deal with on an almost daily basis. Working in a book shop, I’ll have someone bring Underdog to the counter and my mind races! ‘Do I tell them that’s me?’ And even when I’m not selling it, it’s there, winking at me from the shelf. *Swoon*
Jes: For anyone who followed my Instagram (shameless plug @AGeekwithaHat) you would know I bolted around to all the bookshops in Melbourne and basically had the same fangirly, shocked and disbelieving experience of seeing my name right beside literary greats like Angie Thomas and Rick Riordan. I took a lot of photos and a lot of squeaky videos as I died inside.
Kaneana: It was honestly a dream come true. I had been working on becoming a published author for so long, and it’s still a thrill to know that 'Living Rose' is amongst a collection of great #LoveOzYA stories and is out in the world for others to enjoy.
What was the response to your short story? Any comments that stood out in particular?
Michael: I feel like 'Meet and Greet' got a lot of love. I mean, I wrote a queer book-nerd meet cute. There are plenty of cute book-nerds in the #LoveOzYA community! But to hear teens and adults alike say how much they enjoyed the story makes me feel like I got something right.
Jes: One of the best comments I received was from a young high-schooler who thanked me via Insta for writing a nonbinary character whose issues/conflict didn’t revolve around their gender. They were also really inquisitive about the issues I raise about drug use in 'Chemical Expression' and said how they wished they were being taught these sorts of nuances in school and by their parents.
Kaneana: One of the biggest thrills was reading lovely comments on Goodreads from people I don’t know, who read 'Living Rose' and connected with it. I think, as an author, that’s the biggest compliment in the world. Another moment that stood out, was receiving a text message from a friend who was dealing with her own traumas, who commended the way I captured grief and said she felt it was a powerful story. That really touched my heart.
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
Michael: I’m working on the first draft of a steampunk fantasy while my agent is shopping around my middle grade magic realism. And then I’ve got a short story I’m polishing for a competition too. Gotta keep putting yourself out there.
Jes: I’ve been writing a lot of shorter pieces for publications like The Victorian Writer, Junkee, Voiceworks and Kill Your Darlings Journal. It’s been really fun branching out into pop-culture journalism and non-fiction, two areas I’ve never really written in before.
Kaneana: My publisher currently has my second manuscript, The Lavender House (working title). It’s women’s fiction novel about three women who run a wellness centre together but are all tortured by their own pasts and griefs. Keep your fingers and toes crossed for me to secure another deal.
Kaneana, your debut novel The One was published this year, a few months after Underdog. How was the experience of working with a big commercial publisher?
I found the whole process really exhilarating. I was quickly assigned an editor and received notes on my structural edit before I’d even been able to announce to the world that I had a deal. From there it continued to go relatively quickly; line edit, proof reading, cover reveal, ARC copies, publicity interviews. The momentum continued for months and I kept pinching myself. I honestly couldn’t believe that it was happening to me. Even now when I see my book on the shelves in a shop, I still feel a bit shocked.
A lot of people say the real work begins when your book hits the shelves. Have you been busy since The One was published?
Absolutely, yes! The One came out in June and for a few months I was flat out. I started library talks and signings, travelling all the way down to Wagga and then back through Bathurst. After that, I had one two events a week, which had me travelling to Brisbane, Yamba and Tamworth just to name a few places. It was hectic due to having three kids to organise! I was also trying to finish writing The Lavender House during this time, which added to the stress. It was exhausting, but really lovely to be able to connect with readers and be able to hold my book up and say, ‘I wrote this!’
Michael, you edited and contributed to Kindred: 12 Queer #LoveOzYA Stories, which was incredibly well received by Aussie readers. What was that experience like? How did it differ to your experience with Underdog?
Oh wow! What a big question. How long have you got? The difference was huge, in that for Underdog, I had already written and polished a story when the competition was announced, so I submitted it! When I was selected as one of the 12 Underdog writers, it was a matter of working on my story with our editor, Tobias, to get it ready for print. Then, once the anthology was published, there was participating in interviews and events to promote it. I really feel like all the hard work was done by Tobias and the Underdog Team!
Kindred was my idea from the start, and I had to be the driving force behind it. That began with asking authors if they were interested in being involved in the project if it were to go ahead. Then I pitched it to publishers. Once I’d signed a deal, it was all downhill (HA! Jokes). The editorial process was quite something, especially with 12 authors involved, but working with Nicola Santilli on it was a dream and she kept me on task. Even once Kindred went to press I was busy organising the launch and festival appearances!
What would you love to see from LGBTQ+ writers in Australia (in terms of YA fiction/non-fiction) in the near future?
I’m super keen for queer fantasy. Like, good ol’ fashioned high fantasy, but with queers. Front and centre, heroes of their own stories, their own quests, in worlds where queerphobia doesn’t exist. Seriously. If we can invent magic and dragons and all that, where’s the world were people don’t hate each other because of who they love?
Jes, you’ve spoken at several writing festivals and events this year. How easy do you find it to talk about your writing?
Public speaking in general to anything that isn’t my cat or myself in the mirror is always a bit of a mental and emotional challenge for me, but I am lucky that the spaces I work in and the people I work with have been really lovely and understanding. Speaking about the craft of my work comes easy once I get going. Microphones are a little intimidating, but I am a lot better talking about my work than actually reading my work aloud. Although I am lucky this year to have been given a lot of opportunities to practise.
Did you learn anything particularly valuable in your travels or meet anyone who inspired you?
Yes of course, writers festivals are enriching soils. Some of my best work has spawned from thoughts that originated from writers festivals, inspired by others' words and fantastic events. I was very fortunate to be a part of Melbourne Writers festival this year, and got to chill in the green room with a lot of amazing people. Not only that but I was able to do a panel with some of my #LoveOzYA mates like Alison Evans and Will Kostakis! At the National Young Writers Festival I had five whole days of getting to meet incredible people, including long-time #LoveOzYA Twitter mates like Alexander Te Pohe. Creatively, I suppose I learnt just how much #LoveOzYA has touched everyone and how much we as writers can validate our identities through our work.
What were your favourite #LoveOzYA titles in 2019?
Michael: I was blown away by two books last year. How It Feels To Float by Helena Fox and This Is How We Change the Ending by Vikki Wakefield. Both are astoundingly good for different reasons, but both showed me the potential of words. They sit among the top of everything I’ve read in recent years.
Jes: It Sounded Better In My Head by Nina Kenwood, After the Lights Go Out by Lili Wilkinson, You Must be Layla by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling by Wai Chim. Honestly though there is so much #LoveOzYA to love!
Kaneana: With The One coming out last year, I spent most of the year reading women's fiction/romance, as I find it helps me stay in the right frame of mind when writing. There are plenty #LoveOzYA titles on my TBR pile, including Going Off Script by Jen Wilde, What I Like About Me by Jenna Guillaume and Making Friends with Alice Dyson by Poppy Nwosu.