Vikki Wakefield is one of Australia’s best contemporary YA authors.
This is How We Change the Ending (Text Publishing) is her best book and my YA novel of the year. It may well be the perfect YA novel.
It is highly engaging yet gives a profound insight into the character of Nate and his tough life, a life he thinks is doomed, a life he is trying to survive by himself, except for the people who are trying to help him…
It is marketed for fans of Jasper Jones, Boy Swallows Universe and The Catcher in the Rye. I would add Graffiti Moon, This is Shyness, The Protected and One Would Think the Deep – some of my all-time favourite Oz YA.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Vikki.
I know this may be impossible to explain, but how did you achieve the feat of writing authentically from inside a teen boy’s head using his thoughts and words, but with such brilliant writing and searing understanding and empathy?
Thank you. It is difficult to explain. There are so many books that nail the teen boy voice better than I ever will (Brendan Lawley’s Bonesland for one). Obviously I’m more comfortable with the female viewpoint, but writing this novel was never going to be comfortable—I could not write it from my own perspective. I needed a male MC to tell this story from a particular angle, for that angle to be as acute as possible, and Nate McKee has been in my head for a long time. I don’t think we’re that different, really; his teen voice is very close to my own. Any authenticity comes from my familiarity with the people and the setting, and from the million moments I’ve experienced and the countless observations I’ve made over time. I have the advantage of memory and perspective now; I couldn’t have told this story twenty years ago (or five, for that matter). If there’s understanding and empathy, it’s because I can recall things that happened when I was a teenager in not-so-exquisite detail, but if you asked me what I ate for lunch yesterday I couldn’t tell you. I think I have a knack for painful recollection.
What is Nate’s “fatal flaw”?
His fatal flaw is apathy, the same thing he has been warned he’s up against. He’s waiting for Dec’s genes to kick in, waiting to turn 18, waiting for his time like it’s an inevitable destination, and he doesn’t believe he can change anything. He’s living from one moment to the next. Later he understands that those moments stack up, and that destruction of a system doesn’t always happen with a bang, but with hairline cracks caused by pressure from within.
What is the significance of a “barbaric yawp”?
It’s a line from Walt Whitman‘s ‘Song of Myself’, often quoted and discussed. ‘What is a barbaric yawp?’ is a common search term, and Nate also tries to look for a right answer (or at least a consensus). He’s determined not to draw attention to himself, and that means giving an expected answer. What is a barbaric yawp? When Nate is standing on the ledge beneath the underpass, he suddenly knows exactly what it means and why it’s relevant. And not in a universal context, but what it means in his world—a response is what matters, not whether an answer is ‘right’ or it aligns with the creator’s vision. After the violent incident at the youth centre, this is the moment his resistance begins to take form.
Which character surprised you the most?
I know my characters pretty well before I begin to write, so I’m not often surprised by anything they say or do. Connor Merrick did start out as a sidekick, and it was only when he and Nate parted ways that I realised I couldn’t leave him dangling like that. I expected him to enable Nate, not challenge him the way he does.
Nate’s Year 11 English teacher, Mr Reid, is a pivotal, conflicted character. What is his motivation to teach at such a difficult school?
Mr Reid is a deliberate stereotype: the inspiring teacher who tries to save the disadvantaged kid. He has left his position at a private school because he wants to ‘make a difference’, but when the story begins Mr Reid has just about given up. Ultimately he does make a difference, but not in the way he expects. Instead, Nate opens his eyes to the reality of kids like him, kids Mr Reid thinks he can save. Nate is justified in being wary of faux altruism, especially when it comes at the cost of dignity and self-respect.
Other adult characters are also three-dimensional: some almost-completely loathsome, others putting their lives on the line for young people. Could you tell us briefly about two contrasting adult characters?
Dec (Nate’s father) is definitely loathsome. The moments when he’s being charismatic or charming are his most sinister—it means he’s winning. He thinks he’s different because he hasn’t abandoned his children but, as Nate comes to realise, he does more damage by sticking around and he leaves them every day. Dec is a very real character. I haven’t changed him a bit, not even to suit the plot. This is Nate’s story, but the narrative revolves around Dec and his legacy, one Nate will either inherit or reject.
Macy’s (the youth worker) background is similar to Dec’s, but she has rejected that legacy. As a role model she’s imperfect: she’s an ex-drug addict with a foul mouth, authority issues, and a kind of rough wisdom. But she comes from Nate’s world. I’ve met great youth workers and not so great ones, and it seems to me the common factor in the ones who are able to reach kids is that they have lived experience. The exchange is immediately more honest and equal, unlike the exchange between Nate and Mr Reid.
At first look, the youth centre doesn’t seem to offer much. How is it a lifesaver?
Like the suburb of Bairstal, the youth centre is another microcosm, only it more closely represents middle/upper class society. Importance is placed on order, rules, respect, equality, justice, education and opportunity, and the kids must follow the rules or face being shut out. In many ways, it’s the opposite of their home lives. At its most fundamental, the youth centre is a place kids go to feel safe and to be normal; on a deeper level, it’s where change begins—being in that different world teaches them to raise their expectations and question what’s ‘normal’.
What should adults be doing for young people?
In terms of disadvantaged kids, we should be making sure they’re not herded through a system that spits them out without support, skills and opportunities. A child who hasn’t had an ordinary childhood cannot be expected to pass that milestone at the same time as everyone else. It’s important to reassure kids who do shitty things that it doesn’t make them a shitty person for life, that failing occasionally (or often) doesn’t make them a failure.
What should young people hope for?
Young people practise hope better than anyone I know, so we should ask them. In terms of what they should expect: to inherit a world that’s getting better, not worse. Failing that, we should be arming them with the hope that they can make it better.
Nate has such a tough family (and other) life. How does he protect himself? Where does his love spring from?
I didn’t intend for this novel to be bleak. Nate may have flaws and his future isn’t promising, but he’s healthy, intelligent, resourceful and adaptable; he isn’t homeless or drug-addicted, so he has a better shot than most. But Nate questions everything instead of accepting the way things are, and that puts him in the position of having to choose whether to belong or to resist. Belonging is crucial to survival. To protect himself, he tries to be invisible. He arms himself with scientific facts—they’re something real to hold onto in a place where there aren’t always answers to his big questions. He‘s been conditioned to believe that vulnerability is weakness and caring too much leads to disappointment, so he hides his emotions. I think his love springs from the same place we have in all of us, but it’s a guarded place.
Vikki Wakefield’s other YA books are All I Ever Wanted, Friday Brown, Inbetween Days and Ballad for a Mad Girl.
Vikki Wakefield’s website is http://vikkiwakefield.com/
This is How We Change the Ending is published September 2019.