“Sounds to me like a young girl who was hurting and feeling let down by her friends. I think you should try to reach out to her and see if you can make amends. Show some grace. Some kindness.” (The Book of Chance)
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Sue.
Thanks for having me, Joy!
You are in quite a unique position in Australian children’s literature because you write across genres and for all age groups. Your work is strong in all these areas.
Wow. Thank you.
When you are presenting live to groups how do you stimulate and maintain interest in both young and older audiences?
My background as a Primary School Teacher certainly helps with this. I have developed different presentations that cater to the knowledge and skill base, interests and attention spans for the various age groups I speak to. For the younger groups, in particular, I make sure there is lots of variety and interaction to keep their attention. I am also partial to dress-ups and have numerous puppets, which helps. With older groups, I try to incorporate much audience participation and creative and imaginative thinking, demonstrating the writing process through storytelling. Actually, with all age groups, storytelling is central to my presentations. Who doesn’t like to hear a good story?
When you have a story or non-fiction idea, how do you decide which age group to write it for?
The idea usually dictates this. It is mostly a gut feeling, informed by working in the field and with children for many decades. Sometimes though I am not sure who the target readership is. With Missing for example, I knew that the character’s age suggested middle grade, but the content was quite confronting and required a certain level of emotional maturity. So I really wasn’t sure who my reader would be – I just trusted in the story and crossed my fingers! Luckily it found a very enthusiastic readership in 10 – 14 year olds.
Your new middle fiction novel, The Book of Chance (Walker Books Australia) is aimed at upper primary and junior secondary readers. Why is it important to write for this age group? Are there any disadvantages, particularly at literary awards time?
I believe, in recent years, there has been a gap in the market – a hole that needed plugging. There have been plenty of brilliant books and oodles of series for younger readers, and plenty of hard-hitting, sophisticated novels for older teens, but the younger teens and “tweens” seemed to have been forgotten somewhat. Their reading needs have not really been catered for well enough. They need something more challenging than what much of the junior fiction offers them, but not as gritty, angst-filled and older-teen-issue driven as what is common in YA literature. This is being addressed now, I feel, and there are many fine books being published with this readership in mind.
Regardless, I actually love writing for this age group. It has taken many years, but I think this is where my voice and ideas are best suited. It is also a really intriguing time in one’s life – a time of great change, a time of being on the cusp of things to come – and I love poking around in that space. (I think my inner child is about thirteen.) So it is a great joy for me to write stories that reflect pre/early teen lives: their pre/early teen experiences, joys and challenges.
And, yes, there are disadvantages in terms of awards. Books for 10-14 year olds do seem to sit between the younger reader’s/children’s categories and the young adult category, and I think some excellent books have been overlooked because of this. But truly the rewards for writing for this age group far outweigh this disadvantage. There are many enthusiastic and voracious readers aged 10-14!
The Book of Chance begins ‘now’ – at the end of the story. Why did you make the decision to begin at the end and how difficult did it make your writing process?
When I first started note-booking for this novel, the very first thing I wrote was what eventually became the opening chapter. It spilled out of me: Chance confessing her troubled thoughts and confusion about her new reality. So, when I started thinking structurally about the novel, and how I was going to tell Chance’s story, I felt certain that this was the place to start. And by starting at the “end”, the chapters that followed – of Chance recounting how her life got to this point – are read through this lens, through the knowledge that this wasn’t going to end well. So, in terms of building tension and suspense, this structural decision was imperative. And it actually made the telling of the story easier, because every step of the way, I knew where Chance was heading.
What is the other ‘Book of Chance’?
The other ‘Book of Chance’ is the journal Chance’s mama, Nadia, writes about Chance’s life. It is integral to the novel and excerpts are scattered throughout. These excerpts allowed me to show snippets of Chance’s life up to this pivotal point, this moment of great change. They also allowed me to play with the slippery nature of the written word. Everything written in Nadia’s Book of Chance is true, but is it the whole truth?
Why is Chance’s Mama so deserving of help – even by having a secret TV home makeover?
Mama is a very deserving recipient of a makeover. She is a tireless volunteer for the refugee entrant community in Wollongong and supports many families with English tuition, navigating the bureaucracy, and general guidance and companionship. She is a much loved and respected community member. A very deserving woman, but also a woman with a dark secret.
Who is Missa-D and what role does she play in the narrative?
I love Missa-D; I think we all need a Missa-D in our lives! Missa-D is Esther Deng, a former refugee from South Sudan, who lives next door to Chance. The Dengs operate as Chance’s extended family, with Missa-D like another mother, or cherished aunt. She is a strong and wise woman, but also warm and full of love and, for Chance, she is someone she can depend on. Missa-D is also Nadia’s (Mama’s) closest friend. In my mind, the two women had much in common. They both fled from tragedy, both were displaced, both in need of a new home and a fresh start.
Missa-D’s daughter Alek and Chance are great friends. How did you distinguish between them as characters?
The friendship between Alek and Chance is very special. They have grown up together and are like sisters. I spent a lot of time note-booking in both Chance’s and Alek’s voice, so I could learn more about them, and in many ways they are opposites. Chance likes stripes; Alek likes circles. And it was this simple distinction that helped me to develop their characters. Chance is opinionated, sometimes outspoken and often frank. She knows what is important to her, and has a very well developed sense of right and wrong. Alek is a little softer than Chance and can see both sides of a situation. She is intelligent, observant and insightful. She likes to fly under the radar, and prefers to keep her opinions to herself, but is always there to support Chance, no matter what.
How is the world inside and outside the ‘Gong’ (Wollongong) important to your story?
Chance has grown up in the Gong and its very much part of her identity. The familiar rhythms of her life within the city are, in many ways, a stabilising force for her. She depends on them; they give her continuity and confidence, and when faced with the possibility that this could change, she finds it hard to face some hard truths; she doesn’t speak openly, as would be her norm, or ask the questions that need to be asked. This is perplexing for the straight-talking Chance. In the world outside of the Gong, Chance is much more unsure of herself – she flounders, thus highlighting the stabilising effect of the Gong and her life there.
Lying and being fake is a recurring theme in the novel – and the lies can lead to much suffering. Characters seem to feel they are necessary, even on social media, and they are integral to your plot but how can they be avoided in real life?
Can they be avoided? This is the question I am exploring throughout the novel. How do we ever know what is true and what is not? This is especially so in today’s world of Internet trickery, “fake news” and social media channels that allow people to present manufactured lives, fictions really, and be flooded with images that are often doctored or filtered. So, in answer to your question, I don’t know if we can avoid lies or know what is true, and the novel aims to have readers think about truth and lies and perceptions, and perhaps to question how truthful they are themselves.
Chance’s Mama suggests she reach out to her friend with grace and kindness. Her teacher also promotes being kind. How could these and other positive attributes counteract hurt and lies in life?
Human kindness is fundamental to our lives as human beings. In difficult times, like the one the world is experiencing right now, kindness and grace is what will get us through. It is the perfect antidote to hurt and pain and confusion, the first step towards building bridges and healing.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
I am taking a break from reading children’s and YA books at the moment and have been catching up on some adult novels. I have just finished There was Still Love by Favel Parrett, which was gentle and poignant and beautifully written. And I have recently enjoyed the crime fiction novels of Dervla McTiernan for their page-turning plots and intriguing characters.
How can your readers contact you?
Facebook: Sue Whiting, author
Twitter and Instagram: @suewhiting4
Once again, you’ve created a superb gripping tale that readers will devour and that will also make them think and grapple with relevant and intriguing dilemmas, Sue. All the very best with The Book of Chance. Thank you, Joy.
The Book of Chance April 1, 2020