“Life hasn’t stopped just because something difficult has happened. Something strange and unexpected. Life keeps trucking on …” (How to Grow a Family Tree)
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Eliza.
Where are you based and how are you involved in the world of Australian literature?
I’m based on a small farm in the Yarra Valley, east of Melbourne. Outside of writing, I’m involved in all sorts of ways – I teach and am a PhD candidate in creative writing. I also offer mentoring and manuscript assessments through Writers Victoria. I think the biggest and most important way I’m involved in the world of Australian literature is as a reader.
You write for both adults and young adults. Why did How to Grow a Family Tree become a YA story?
I was actually working on another YA manuscript and really struggling with it. I decided to give myself two weeks away from it and then re-read and decide if I wanted to proceed with it. As soon as I stepped away from that original manuscript, I started writing How to Grow a Family Tree (HarperCollins Australia) and had a rough first draft finished two weeks later. I didn’t really think about what sort of story it was – I just wrote it and it was very apparent that it was a YA!
Could you introduce us to your protagonist Stella? Which of her traits most appeal to you?
Stella is 17 years old and has some pretty complex things to deal with – her birth mother has just got in touch with her after seventeen years of silence and her father’s gambling has cost her family their house. My favourite thing about Stella is her obsession with helping people. She feels responsible for fixing everyone around her and thinks that the answers to all life’s problems can be found in the most dreadful kind of self-help books.
Stella has a unique relationship with her sister Taylor. What is something fascinating and endearing about it?
What’s most fascinating and endearing to me about Taylor and Stella’s relationship is how much remains unsaid between them. There is a whole language of love and understanding that exists, even when they’re arguing, kicking each other, running away or sulking.
You have also created a lovely friendship group for Stella. Could you tell us briefly about Clem, Lara and Zina?
Stella has wonderful friends! While she’s close with all of them, Clem is her best friend. Like the relationship she has with Taylor, there is such deep love and understanding there. Clem’s loud, messy and has attention deficit issues. He struggles with his parents’ expectations. Lara is solid and no-nonsense while Zin is theatrical, passionate and feels everything out in the open.
Stella and her family move to Fairyland Caravan Park. It sounds wonderful but what is the reality?
I wanted to explore the positives of places like Fairyland Caravan Park, which often have a lot of stigma and negativity attached. I’ve touched fairly subtly on some darker issues that often coincide with this sort of community, such as older women being at high risk of homelessness, poverty, addiction, criminality and domestic violence. Fundamentally, I wanted the focus to be on the people rather than the place.
What are some of the issues you have included in the narrative?
I touch on a lot of issues in the novel! I think the ones that are most important to me were around highlighting the fact that older women are at high risk of homelessness. I wanted to explore trauma never being articulated and I wanted to portray addiction in a way that was complex with no neat solution at the end.
How can animals help in times of stress?
Animals are hugely therapeutic. I’ve got dogs, cats, horses, ducks and chickens and find spending time with them very soothing. In the story, I wanted Jube, the resident dog, to offer a way for the community at Fairyland to come together and connect with each other.
What do flowers and plants symbolise in your writing?
I adore growing things! We grow a lot of our own food as well as food and flowers for markets. For me, there’s something so grounding about growing a garden and sharing what you harvest and I wanted to incorporate that into the story.
What is the significance of your title How to Grow a Family Tree?
The title is all about how the idea of family is not static – family is something that grows and rattles and sways. Family isn’t just about blood, it’s also about the people you choose to share your life with.
How has your writing in How to Grow a Family Tree developed since your debut YA novel P is for Pearl?
I was actually pregnant with my first child while I wrote How to Grow a Family Tree and edited it during his first year. Having a child (and all the resultant frustrations, sleep deprivation, adoration and wonder) has changed so much about how I view the world. In particular, watching all of my closest friends develop relationships with my son has been really magical – and really highlighted the idea that family is something that shifts and grows – that it’s not necessarily bound by blood.
How can your readers contact you?
Readers of Australian YA will relish How to Grow a Family Tree. Thank you for your thoughtful, generous responses and all the very best with this and your other books, Eliza.