“I am going to the Olympics. Not just as a spectator because anyone can do that. I will be a competitor.
I haven’t found out which sport I’m good at yet.” (As Fast as I Can)
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Penny.
I have read all your books since being on the CBCA judging panel in 2010 that shortlisted your debut YA novel Loving Richard Feynman, which is about a teenage girl’s infatuation with the Nobel prize-winning physicist. How did this book and its awards impact on your career?
It was a very nice surprise when Loving Richard Feynman was short-listed for the CBCA award. It was very encouraging that my first book was well-received, and it certainly made it easier for me to keep writing and be published again.
Your four novels have been published by University of Queensland Press. How has it been helpful to stay with the one publisher and how has your relationship with UQP changed and developed over time?
I was lucky to work with the same publisher, Kristina Schulz, for most of my time at UQP. She showed a lot of patience and explained how publishing works when I was new. We’ve also had some hard conversations when things haven’t been working with my writing, and I’ve valued that too.
It was very sad when Kristina left UQP and it felt like the end of an era. For As fast as I can, I worked with Cathy Vallance and Clair Hume for the first time, which has been fantastic. I’ve always valued the support, trust and kindness that UQP shows to its authors and I’m happy to say that has stayed the same.
Your new novel, As Fast as I Can is aimed at upper primary readers. You have created another memorable and funny character in 10-year-old Vivian. Which of her characteristics appeal to you – and to which do you think young readers will particularly relate?
I like Vivian’s optimism and confidence. When I was in primary school I planned to simultaneously be an actor and Olympian, while also driving a mobile library. Hopefully, the kids of today will relate to having big plans for the future.
Vivian’s best friend is Olivia. What is her family background and how do the dynamics of their friendship work?
Olivia’s family are from Indonesia and both her parents are teachers. They are very supportive of Olivia’s activities. She is a talented sporting all-rounder and an excellent student. Olivia and Vivian share a strong competitive urge. They both want to support each other but this is tested when disappointments occur.
Why are the Olympic Games so important to these girls?
Vivian and Olivia watched the 2016 Rio Olympics and were inspired by the athletes. The storytelling and ceremony surrounding the Olympic Games are very compelling and the girls want to be part of it.
After finally discovering a sport she excels in, Vivian faces a devastating issue. What effect does this have on her?
Vivian experiences a lot of denial and anger. She has a lot of difficulty reconciling her changed circumstances with her strongly held belief that you can achieve anything if you work hard enough. The book covers the very early stages of Vivian’s journey to accept the changes in her life.
Your adult characters are positive, often funny, and try their best to help children. Could you tell us briefly about one or two of these?
The character of Dad Ben from Stay Well Soon came about after a friend read an early draft and said the main character Stevie’s circumstances were too grindingly depressing. I added Dad Ben to give Stevie some support and lightness in her life.
Adults aren’t always positives in kids’ lives, but I want to show positive examples of how they can be. Growing up, I had older cousins and family friends who I looked up to and had fun with. I try to capture relationships like that in my books.
You have combined funny, relatable characters with some serious issues. How have you maintained humour through this?
Well, I don’t really like to describe anything, so I have to get the word count up with something.
I joke. It comes very naturally to me to try to be funny, whether I’m successful is another issue. I think it would be more difficult for me to write completely without humour even if the topic is serious.
You have had a diverse and interesting career. How well prepared were you before stand-up comedy sessions you did at university, or were they spontaneous? You have also worked as a researcher for The Chase and Hard Quiz. Any behind-the-scenes insights into Hard Quiz?
I was always very well prepared when I performed stand-up. I had a script and I rarely diverted from it. I also didn’t do any audience interaction. It’s probably not surprising that I dropped it and became an author.
My insight from quiz question verifying is: nothing is true. Even the most straight-forward seeming questions can be dodgy or have more than one answer when you look closely. Also, Tom Gleeson is actually very nice to the contestants.
What are you doing and working on now?
I’m studying for an Information Management masters and would like to work in a public library. I still verify quiz questions part-time. When I get a moment, I work on writing an adult manuscript for fun. It’s about a woman who starts investigating a murder while on maternity leave.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
My book club is for adults, but we only read middle grade books. We just read Republic of Birds by Jessica Miller and I really enjoyed it. I also just read Allayne Webster’s book Sensitive, which was great.
How can your readers contact you?
Via my website: http://www.pennytangey.com.au/contact
You have a gift for creating engaging characters accessibly and with humour while they explore deeper issues, Penny.
All the best with As Fast as I Can.
Thank you so much! These were very thoughtful questions.