Mika & Max (Walker Books) is distinctive because of Laura Bloom’s superb writing, excellent characterisation and evocation of place.
It is likely to be nominated for awards.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Laura.
It’s a pleasure, Joy. Thanks so much for having me.
Could you begin by telling us about some of your previous books?
I write books for adults as well as young people. When I look for a common theme across all my work, the one which stands out is that my main characters are always searching for authentic self expression – whether that’s through cooking, like in Augustine’s Lunch, my first young adult novel, or friendship, like in Mika and Max.
Where are you based and how do you spend your time?
I live in the small town of Mullumbimby, in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, Australia. Byron Bay, our most famous town, is just twenty minutes away, but we don’t seem to get visited by any of their movie stars. Although, on second thoughts, it’s quite possible they come here all the time, and I’m not spotting them, because I tend to walk around in a dream, thinking about my next book, or what I’m going to make for dinner.
When we moved up to this region from Sydney, my plan was to spend a lot of time surfing, making music, communing with my horses, and throwing super warm and friendly parties, because they’re all things I love. What I actually do most days, though, is see my son off to school, keep house, and write. Even after all these years of being a writer, I’m still surprised by how much of my life it seems to take up. Not just the hard work of the actual writing, but also the mental and emotional space required, which means most of what I do the rest of the time – apart from being with my family – is about replenishing those stores exercising, walking with my dogs by the river, and staring into space.
Where is Mika & Max set and how does this environment help establish the atmosphere?
Mika and Max is set in Mullumbimby, on the weekend of our music festival, which happens in November, in late spring. It’s been called Australia’s ‘cutest and most unique festival’ and the town explodes with creativity and colour, just as our lush natural environment is exploding into bloom. The atmosphere is humid and exciting, but can also be uncomfortable at times, particularly for people like Mika, who isn’t feeling comfortable in herself.
Your protagonist Mika is experiencing an awkward, unsettling time. What is the cause of this?
The answer to this question and the next are connected, and so I’ve answered them both at the same time.
Why is her relationship with her younger siblings disintegrating?
Mika’s going through puberty, which is such a huge time of change in a young person’s life, when everything begins to look and feel different, including, but not restricted to, her feelings about her body, her mum and dad, boys, friends, and the future. Her younger brother Arlo and sister Franny obviously haven’t gone through that yet, and so it’s as though she’s standing on one side of a wide river, just learning about this whole new world of being a teenager which she’s unwillingly found herself in, and they’re still in the old world, of childhood, on the other side. She misses them, and at the same time she feels as though they just can’t understand anything about her anymore – she can barely understand herself! – and so she’s snappy, and self conscious, and especially sensitive to their teasing.
They’re aware of it this shift, also, although probably not consciously. Arlo, in particular, who is the older of the two, feels curious about what Mika is going through, but also resentful that she’s ‘left’ them, and this makes his teasing even more rough and tumble, and sometimes nastier than he intended.
Why does she establish a special rapport with Max?
Mika isn’t intending to establish a special rapport with Max – having been forced to go to this music festival with her family, she’s pretty much planning to fester for the whole weekend! – and at the start it’s Max who establishes a special rapport with her. Maybe he senses how miserable she feels and wants to help her feel better, or maybe he just thinks she could be a useful person to do things like push him on the swing and to have around!
Once that happens, though, Mika begins to feel a curiosity about Max. He feels different from everyone else too, she realises, but he’s handling it so much better than Mika. What’s more, she starts to realise as they begin to spend more time together, he’s open, and funny, and has a way of making connections with people and expressing himself that help her begin to make connections and be more self expressive, too.
How would you suggest people relate to those who are going through a difficult time or who have autism?
So often I think we’re all walking around trying to look cool, and as though we have all the answers, when the truth is we all have gifts and we all have challenges, and so it makes no sense to label anyone as being especially different, or especially vulnerable, and there’s no good reason why anyone should feel alone.
I find that when you can get comfortable with the fact that there’s nothing unusual about finding some things hard and other things easy, or to be different in some ways, or to stand out sometimes, then – it’s like magic! – you start feeling a lot more comfortable in yourself, and other people start feeling a lot more comfortable around you, too.
In the particular case of relating to a person with autism, though, I would say it’s also important to understand that there’s still a lot of prejudice and fear being projected onto people with disabilities – the way there still is, in some places, onto gay people, or people from different ethnic backgrounds or with different coloured skin. If you want that to change, then you need to take real action – in real life, in the here and now, not just online – and change it. If you see something wrong happening, like someone being left out, or ignored, or not being given a chance to join in or express themselves, then it’s up to you to take a risk and to do what it takes to fix it. Even if that means you need to speak up, and stand out, and not fit in. Not only will the whole world thank you for it one day, but you’ll become a more attractive, wonderful, expressive and real person in the process.
Could you describe the pivotal place of music in Mika’s life?
Music is what speaks to Mika’s soul. It gives her the most happiness, and the most grief. She longs to do it more, and at the same time, she’s terrified.
When is it time to take a risk?
When something about the situation sets off a little spark of joy and beckons to you, even though what you mainly feel is fear. When you suspect, if you don’t do it, you’ll be disappointed.
What else are you writing or planning?
Right now I’m writing Kai, Book 3 in the Dream Riders series, to be published by Walker Books in early 2021, about a young man and a pair of brumbies who he brings in from the wild to his home in the city, where he attempts to tame them.
I’m also working on my next novel for adults, The Women and The Girls, which will be published in mid 2020 by Allen and Unwin.
What have you been reading and enjoying recently?
I’ve been reading ‘The Silver Brumby,’ the iconic children’s series by Elyne Mitchell, which somehow I missed reading during my own childhood. It’s set in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, which is one of my favourite places to be, and the world she creates is compelling and beautiful.
Contact Laura Bloom at www.laurabloom.com.au, or through Walker Books Australia.