“We live on a blue planet that circles around a ball of fire next to a moon that moves the sea, and you don’t believe in miracles?” (The End of the World is Bigger than Love)
The End of the World is Bigger than Love by Davina Bell (Text Publishing) may well be my Australian young adult novel of the year. It reflects something of our difficult times with an innocence and lightness that belie underlying loss and grief. It could only be written by someone with a glowing, shining heart.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Davina.
Such a pleasure! Thanks so much for the opportunity.
You are known for your popular picture books. How did something as different as The End of the World is Bigger than Love happen? How has it been brewing?
I actually started writing The End of the World before I’d ever had a picture book published. I began my writing career with the Alice books in the Our Australian Girl series, which are short middle-grade novels that cover a year in the life of a ballerina during World War One. Those books required a stack of research and had a very specific series tone and structure. They were a joy to make, but when I got to the end of writing them, I was desperate to do something wilder and less constrained. I think that’s why The End of the World is SO strange and unconventional and untamed. That’s also probably why I attempted the ludicrous challenge of balancing two unreliable narrators with jumps forward and back in time.
I began writing the manuscript in 2012, and in between then and now, I’ve written picture books, junior fiction and another middle-grade series, but I’ve always had this story in the back of my mind. I could never give up on it.
This may not be possible to answer but how were you able to write this? It is so prescient, so different, so intuitive, so nostalgic, so moving, so hard-hitting and powerful…
These are such lovely words! Your generous take on the book, combined with the memory of how incredible difficult it was to write, has brought tears to my eyes. It took eight years, and so much heartbreak. I had feedback from people who hated it and didn’t understand it. I struggled to plait it all together in a way that was coherent for the reader. There were many points when I lost my way and gave up, trying to remember why I’d even started.
But it was also the most enriching experience. I wrote most of the first draft while I was living alone in country WA. It was a really searching time – a deep and magical and challenging time – when I was trying to figure out the things in life that made it worth living, and what it was that I could give to the world. During those two years, I fell in love and had my heart broken, my mother died, and I spent a lot of time walking alone on long, empty beaches and crunching up gravel paths in the starlight. I discovered Mary Oliver’s poetry and winter ocean swimming, and I sort of fell back in love with the world. Perhaps that accounts for the nostalgia and all the big feelings. And the space I had to dream uninterrupted – perhaps that explains the originality.
What genre is it?
What genre isn’t it?! It has elements of magical realism, speculative fiction, dystopia and a coming-of-age vibe with a side of romance. Truly, it’s the weirdest mash-up. I have no idea where it would sit in a library organised by genre.
When and where is the novel set?
The novel is set in the near-future in a world that’s probably about 80% recognisable as our own. There are references to Obama and Taylor Swift, but the world has also stopped using the internet. The story takes place on an island at the top of the world, which I imagine is somewhere near Greenland but is more temperate on account of global warming. The plot also flashes around the globe – Tokyo, Turkey, Egypt, India, Burkina Faso.
How does it reflect our times (or not)?
As I was writing it, so much of the story started to come true to the point that it’s become quite uncomfortable! I wrote about live beheadings on the internet a month before the first ISIS killing was broadcast in 2014. I wrote about a global pandemic that occurs in a world torn apart by internet hatred, and it’s been published into a time of COVID-19 and race riots. I wrote about the role of the internet in that pandemic, and of holograms replacing fans in sports stadium because people are prevented from gathering. So I’d say that it started off as an exercise in imagining the most fantastical things that could happen in a completely surreal world, and it ended up being a pretty accurate reflection of our times.
What is The Greying?
The Greying is a global pandemic that has ravaged the world. It’s the by-product of something that has been bred deliberately and it’s spread through the world’s water supply. It leaves a beautiful web of bruises on the back of everyone who catches it. Then they die! Dark times.
Please tell us something about Summer and Winter – your twin characters.
Summer and Winter are identical twins stuck on an island at the end of the world with only each other (and a box of their mother’s classic books) for company. We meet them when they’re fifteen, hopeful, damaged, despairing, yearning and full of big feelings. Summer is brash and mouthy and chatty to the point of maybe even being a little annoying, but also practical and protective and insecure. Winter is her inverse. She’s quiet and constrained, uncertain and gentle. But at her centre, she is the one who has the steel, fire and courage. They’ve survived to this point by living suspended in a beautiful web of lies that Summer has constructed. But the arrival on the island of a stranger called Edward rips that reality apart.
There are many questions I could ask about your twins but one I will ask is, why does Winter deflect compliments?
As I’m pondering your question, I realise that this aspect of Winter’s character is inspired by a quote from Nelson Mandela that my mum had on a fridge magnet when I was growing up. It said: Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Winter is a person who is uncomfortable acknowledging her own light – she doesn’t feel worthy of love and belonging. Part of this is to do with her own guilt about the mistakes in her past, and part is also due to how she sees herself in comparison to Summer, who is the dominant twin. And part of it is the self-loathing that is just a part of some people’s journey here on earth. I think that, in a way, the book is about how Winter learns to once again acknowledge her own light.
Animals feature as characters. How have you crafted this and could you tell us about one in particular?
This aspect borrows deeply and unapologetically from The Life of Pi. I still remember reading that book as a young adult, deep into the night and through to the dawn, and how the ambiguity of those animal/human characters thrilled me. The character of Edward is seen by Winter as a boy and by Summer as a bear, and I wanted the reader to be constantly guessing which version was the truth. As a boy, he is resourceful and cheeky (and handsome!). As a bear, he starts off as a cute and pudgy cub and ends up taller than an NBA player, rippling with brutish muscle. He represents equal parts hope and threat, change and danger.
How have you used fairy lights as symbols?
I didn’t do this consciously, but I believe they symbolise hope – the hope of a better life and a better self and the healing power of time.
What is the implication of your title?
The title takes on different meanings at different points in the story. It’s a premise that forms part of a question the characters face over and over throughout the book: in a planet that’s torn apart, that literally stops turning, is there still a place for love and connection? And the answer – if I’ve done my job right – is an unequivocal yes. For most of us, the end of the world isn’t bigger than love. Love is bigger than everything.
Which of your characters embodies truth and why?
The only character that really speaks the truth is Mikie, the talking blue whale, who Summer meets on a beach where he’s stranded and dying. He has the perspective that comes from reckoning with the entirety of your life at its end, and the wisdom that comes from knowing that none of it really matters – and all of it does.
What hope does your tale give?
I believe there is hope in the idea that if we truly love one another, we will be motivated to change – that we will fight to save one another, and in doing so, save the world. And that there is hope, too, in the peace of self-forgiveness. And in accepting your unique sadness and trauma into the story of your life in a way that allows you to keep on living with your heart turned to the beautiful parts of being alive – nature, kindness, art and love.
You have incorporated classic books into the story. Why have you done this and could you mention some of particular significance?
I have been told I was the youngest ever card-carrying member of my local library, and I don’t remember a time when books didn’t bring me comfort, wonder and joy. From the moment I saw the 1980s telemovie of Anne of Green Gables, I longed to be a writer. Books have given me so much in my life. They have been the source of friendship, inspiration, solace, escape and purpose. So The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love is my chance to say a deep and heartfelt ‘THANK YOU!’ to the books and writers that formed me, and the time and care they spent in giving their stories to the world.
The Secret Garden, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank all influence the plot in small but powerful ways. To Kill a Mockingbird is a source of joyous familiarity for Summer and Winter, and you could argue that The Outsiders is the key to the whole thing. It’s my greatest hope that younger readers will be inspired to go and explore these books if they’ve never come across them – though I must call out the extreme lack of writers of colour in the list I reference. It was a shock to me to pull these out of my bookshelf and see that the authors were 100 per cent white, and to realise that I hardly seem to have read any own voices stories until I was in my twenties. Thank goodness for the progress the world has made in this regard through the #ownvoices movement.
I was reminded of some other outstanding books while reading The End of the World is Bigger than Love – Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, Lucy Christopher’s Storm-Wake and Elizabeth Knox’s Mortal Fire. Were you influenced by any of these authors? If not, by any other works?
I haven’t read Lucy or Elizabeth’s books (but I just ordered them – thanks for the tip!). However, How I Live Now was a huge influence in so many ways. It’s the book that showed me the power of committing unequivocally to a conversational first-person voice – the intimacy and pathos it can stir in the reader. I think How I Live Now is the most incredible masterclass in forming a character with a tough exterior hiding a vulnerability they can’t quite look in the face. Upon finishing it, I was – as Summer would say – Forever Changed.
Could you tell us about some of your other books?
My most well-known book is All the Ways To Be Smart, which is a picture book based on Howard Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It’s illustrated by the amazingly talented Allison Colpoys, and it’s our third book together. (The previous ones were The Underwater Fancy-dress Parade and Under the Love Umbrella.) With this text, I wanted to say to each and every kid, ‘You might not always feel like it, and school might make you feel dumb and less-than sometimes, but you have your own unique and precious talents! You won’t always be the best, but you’re enough just as you are.’
My junior fiction series (Lemonade Jones) is about a naughty Year One, and was inspired by my love of Beverly Cleary’s stories about Ramona Quimby. And the books I am probably most proud of are the Corner Park Clubhouse novels for 8-12-year-olds, which are an homage to The Baby-sitters Club and the TV show Parks and Recreation, but also explore the grief and joy of growing up.
I can’t imagine what you might write after this. What are you thinking about writing?
I’ve had a few years of non-stop deadlines, and the publication of this book marks the end of a long string of commitments. Now I am free and I am also tired, and inspiration is eluding me. But a lot of people have been asking me this question, and I find myself saying that I’m going to write a rom com for adults – something light and uplifting and moreish. So let’s go with that.
How can your readers contact you?
I have a website with a contact form and my email address, and I have an Instagram account: @davina.bell.
It is very difficult to sustain this style of writing but Davina Bell has balanced it brilliantly. Although her world is dangerous, she has crafted a wondrous experience lit by the sun, moon and light to beckon us into love.