My Father’s Shadow (Magabala Books) is a riveting, unputdownable YA thriller. I rarely say this, but I simply couldn’t stop reading it. High praise, particularly since this is Jannali’s debut novel.
Thank you for speaking to Paperbark blog, Jannali.
Thanks, Joy. I’m so glad that you enjoyed the book.
What is your background and where are you based?
I am Gunai (Victorian Aboriginal) on my dad’s side and Australian with English and German ancestry on my mum’s side. I was born in Adelaide but have lived in Sydney since I was 12.
What have you written before My Father’s Shadow and what award/s have you won?
I’ve had short stories and poetry published in literary magazines, but this is my first novel-length work. My Father’s Shadow won the 2015 Black&Write! Indigenous Writing award. I’ve also received a Magabala Australian Indigenous Creator Scholarship for my next book-in-progress, which was also shortlisted for the 2019 Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.
How have your own experiences, including those as a Krowathunkoolong woman of the Gunai nation, influenced My Father’s Shadow?
I’ve definitely drawn from my own experience in terms of the setting. When I was a child we lived in a small community up in the Adelaide Hills. We weren’t quite as isolated as the book’s setting, Mount Wilson, is though.
As an Aboriginal person it’s easy to become disconnected from culture because we are constantly surrounded by non-Indigenous culture, particularly those of us who live in the cities. Most of Australia’s Indigenous population live on the east coast, with the largest density being in Western Sydney, so I think Kaya’s family situation is not unusual. She’s been disconnected from a lot of her culture due to a rift in the family. I experienced something similar in my upbringing.
Why have you used the YA novel form to share your ideas?
I like writing young people as my main characters. Maybe its because as a young person you have more limitations than an adult does, and that presents challenges and obstacles. If a workplace is making you miserable as an adult you can usually just find a new job. As a teen in high school, if you start having a horrible time you can’t always change schools. You’d have to convince your parents and then they’d have a say in where you went as an alternative. Kaya doesn’t always love living in the mountains, but she has no choice but to stay. I think if Kaya was an adult she would have just left and moved overseas. It would have been a very different story.
I also think YA fiction can more easily access a greater range of possibilities and imaginative concepts relative to what is achievable in adult fiction. At least, that’s how I feel about my writing style.
What is the significance of the title?
Kaya’s mum says, ‘we’re still living in your father’s shadow’. I think that sums it up pretty well. Despite the fact that Kaya’s father Dennis is gone, she and her mum are still dealing with the choices he made in his life, both in a practical and psychological sense. In a practical sense, they’re living in hiding because of his decision to become a whistleblower. Psychologically Kaya suffers from PTSD which stems from that as well.
Could you introduce your protagonist Kaya to us? Who (if anyone) have you modelled her on?
Kaya is a seventeen-year-old girl living with her mum in the Blue Mountains near Sydney. She’s pretty reserved but she’s not stupid. All she really wants is to finish her schooling so she can finally be independent.
I haven’t consciously modelled Kaya on anyone in particular, although a lot of her experiences at school are borrowed from my own life.
Kaya’s Nan has been known as the community matriarch. How important is her influence?
Nan is Kaya’s primary connection back to culture. I think many Aboriginal people would recognise her as being like somebody they know – one of those loveable aunts or uncles who is a go-to in the community, who seems to know everybody’s business. Kaya treasures memories of her Nan, and you can tell that she misses her in the way she is fiercely protective of Nan’s paintings when her mum wants to throw them out. She is someone who Kaya looked up to and feels that cultural loss now that Nan isn’t around.
It was important for Kaya to have people outside her immediate family that she looked up to and supported her. That’s why Nan, Jemma and to some degree Ebony were included in the story – so she doesn’t give up all hope when everything goes wrong.
Why have you crafted Kaya’s mother, Marnie, as an author?
During early plotting and character development it made sense for Marnie to have a job that she could take with her to the mountains. Since they’re in hiding she couldn’t have continued on with a day job in Sydney and they can’t go on Centrelink or they would be traceable. As an author she can just work from home and meet with her agent as needed. She’s also a bit of a dreamer, so it made sense to have her write Mills and Boon style books, which are escapist yet light. That seemed to suit her personality. She’s good at weaving stories, that’s for sure.
Your character, Eric, is also fascinating. Could you please tell us a little about him?
Eric is Korean-Australian, so he’s another person who’s caught between two cultures and I thought Kaya could relate to that. I’ve been exposed to quite a bit of Korean culture over the years. My bosses at my first job (Baskin Robbins) were Korean, my best friend in high school was Korean. I also love learning about Korean language, food and culture. Kaya has lost a lot of trust in others because of her PTSD, her father’s death and the situation they’re in. I would describe Eric as persistent but sensitive, and I think that’s what Kaya can respond to at this point in her life. She’s definitely not going through a ‘bad boy’ phase.
I would love to know more about Kaya’s very different friends, Jemma and Ebony. Will we meet them again in your future work?
Ebony was inspired by one of my real life cousins who was more than a bit of a trouble maker. When I was about six she took me and my sister along for the ride when committing trespass and minor crimes. She was such a bad influence but on the other hand she was a really nice person I looked up to. Despite my age at the time I remember knowing that what we were doing was wrong, but because older people were there, I went along with it.
Jemma is someone who I would have loved to have as a friend in high school. Unlike Ebony she’s not directly inspired by anyone but more like a composite of a few different friends of mine. She is quite confident in herself and is able to coax Kaya out of her shell.
In terms of future appearances, I do like those two characters – the way we know a lot about them despite not appearing in much of the book – but I’d need to figure out what that future work might look like first.
I really enjoyed reading your descriptions of the NSW Blue Mountains setting. How have you crafted these?
I wanted the mountains to be like another character in the book. The mountains shape and reflect the narrative throughout. It was important for me to establish an atmosphere and ensure the setting was always present. I’ve visited the Blue Mountains many times and went on a research trip to Mount Wilson specifically for this book. Being able to experience the area in real life, to know how bumpy the road is, the colours of the plants and shape of the rocks at the lookout, I think really added to the authenticity and sense of place in the book.
I think it is very difficult to write a thriller. How did you create the sinister atmosphere and keep us scared and guessing?
I agree, it is challenging. The hardest part for me is having all the answers and knowing how it’s going to end, but trying to get the right balance between drip feeding information and big revelations. During editing I try to do a ‘fresh’ read from beginning to end, noting down key plot points as if I’m a new reader, to help control the pace. I think it helps that Kaya is guessing as well, trying to figure things out with Eric and the audience is along for the ride.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
Recently I’ve been switching between thrillers and speculative fiction. I’m slowly working my way through a top 100-speculative fiction list and it’s been a great experience reading a bunch of classics I’ve heard a lot about but never read. I highly recommend doing some kind of challenge like this, whether it’s a genre list, or top 10 bestsellers in a year. I think it’s easy to just follow a handful of favourite authors but I’ve really found value in reading more broadly as well, and those kinds of lists challenge you to do that.
Thank you for answering these questions, Jannali, and all the very best with your chilling, intriguing novel.
Jannali Jones’ website is https://jannalijones.com/