Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Phillip.
You are very well known for your YA novel Deadly, Unna? Why do you think this struck such a chord?
It certainly has been a popular novel, 250,00 copies sold and still going strong. And now it is being translated into Mandarin. So next year some kid in Shanghai will be able to crack open their copy and read the Mandarin version of ‘If I arksed youse once I arksed youse a thousand times kick the bugger up the bloody guts!’
After living with it for over 20 years, and having heard a plethora of feedback in that time, I would say that’s still a really difficult question to answer!
But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe one of the reasons for its longevity is that even though it’s a serious book, about serious issues, it actually doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a book that likes a laugh! And because of that I don’t think young readers are intimidated by it.
Could you tell us briefly about one of your other books?
Last year I visited a school in country Victoria that had a significant population who were born overseas. Which got me thinking about refugee resettlement in rural Australia. Hardly the topic for a picture book, you’d think! But I worked and worked at it, redraft after redraft, both my wife Eliza and my agent Margaret supplying expert feedback, and the result, Small Town (with illustrations by Tony Flowers), will be published by Penguin RH next year. I’m so proud of it!
What is the significance of the title of your new book, The Lords of Melody?
My fictional family is the Lords and they live on Melody Street! I agree that does seem a bit convenient, given that my book is about bands and music, but I actually used to live on Melody Street. Google it, it’s in Coogee in Sydney.
(a very helpful coincidence! JL)
What is your favourite style of music and how has it become part of your book?
I am, and always have been, relentlessly curious as far as music goes. I can find something to like in pretty much all styles of music: rock, country, jazz, r&b, metal, electronic, even classical sometimes! I guess one of the things I was trying to do in this book was namedrop lots of different genres in the hope that it would make readers curious, send them off to explore music they wouldn’t normally listen to it.
Are you musical? If so, in what way?
Do I love music? Yes. Do I listen to music all the time? Yes. Even when I work. Am I able to make music myself? No, which means I am, and always have been, in awe of people who can.
What link is there between music and team sport?
It has been scientifically proven that listening to Eye of the Tiger before playing any sport is guaranteed to make a team perform at least 20% better. Seriously, though, I’ve never played in a band but surely there are similarities with team sport, where each player has a role to play.
At first, Suzi thinks she missed out on the musical gene. Do you think that musical ability is innate or can be developed to a high level without a genetic headstart?
The old Nature vs Nurture debate! It’s absolutely true that a lot of famous musicians had musical parents. But there’s also a lot of famous musicians who didn’t. However if you grow up in a house where people are making music (like my characters do) then surely that serves to demystify the process. I didn’t grow up in a musical family so it always seemed such an extraordinarily difficult thing to be able to do. But I didn’t grow up in a literary family, either, and I became a writer, so go figure!
All the characters in your family are interesting, as are their relationships with each other and family dynamics. Who was the most difficult to write and what aspect of their character are you now most happy with?
When I start writing a book I only have a vague idea who my characters are. Gradually, by putting them under more and more pressure, they reveal themselves to me, even surprise me at times! Janis was a challenge, because I wanted her to be (at times) monstrous, but I needed the reader to understand why she feels she needs to be like that.
I am intrigued by your character Boy-Band Hair. He plays keys and recognises that a keyboard player is playing minor chords when the rest of the band is playing major chords. How have you made him so fascinating yet elusive?
If a character is a main character (like my family members) then I believe it’s the writer’s responsibility to work out what makes him or her tick.
But Boy-Band Hair is a secondary character, and because of this I think you’re allowed to make him, as you put it, ‘elusive’. I think what can happen with less realised characters like this is that the reader gets to fill in the gaps, using his or her imagination.
How have you incorporated diverse characters?
We live in a diverse world and it seems to me it’s part of my responsibility as a writer to somehow mirror this world. And why wouldn’t you? There’s so much to be got story-wise if you attempt to do this.
Why have you included a supernatural element in the story?
I actually surprised myself with this, because it’s not something I’d done in any of my other books! But it just seemed to work, and every time I went to get rid of my ghost I’d miss him terribly and put him back in. He is a very modern ghost, however, only appearing in an iPad, an iGhost!
Humour is so difficult to write and yet you have crafted humorous incidents and comments throughout the story – a great feat. What is your favourite funny part?
There is no better way to get kids reading than to get them laughing. But I do think books have to be more than just funny, they need to pack some sort of punch. A good example of this is the scene in the YoBroFroYo (the frozen yoghurt shop) where Janis disowns her own sister, telling her schoolmates that she is a ‘sponsor buddy’. Hopefully the scene is funny, perhaps a bit shocking, but also has something to say about the pressures of conforming.
What are you writing next?
I have almost finished The Break, a YA novel that Penguin RH will publish in late 2020. It was inspired, if that is the right word, by the executions of Andrew Chan and Myu Sukumaran in Indonesia in 2015. My family and I were actually living in Bali at that time. It’s been a tricky book to write – no jokes! – but hopefully it will get teachers and students thinking about capital punishment.
What else have you been reading and enjoying recently?
I’m reading The Prettiest Horse in the Glue Factory – A Memoir by Corey White.
As somebody who had a pretty tough childhood, I’m a sucker for Overcoming Adversity stories. I remember seeing the Australia Story on Corey White and being shocked, amazed – and inspired – by his story. Now this story is a book, and a really good one – he can write!
Thanks very much for your enlightening responses, Phillip, and all the best with The Lords of Melody. I’m also now greatly looking forward to Small Town and The Break.