“God please help me. The questions keep coming, and the chaos won’t stop. I can’t keep track of my words. My mind is flooded with colour and noise. They are drowning me. I’m going to die here.” (Mindcull)
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, K H Canobi.
Thanks for having me on your blog, Joy.
Mindcull is a great title for this tale, your debut YA novel. Congratulations on this riveting futuristic cyber read.
Thanks very much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it!
It is very difficult to achieve publication through a mainstream publisher. You have achieved this through publication with Ford St. What was your process to publication?
Mindcull was the first novel I completed, and I was very committed to it. I really, really wanted to share this story with readers. So, when I got knockbacks, I kept revising my manuscript and pitch.I sent the first few versions too early, thinking that I had taken Mindcull as far as I could, but when I got rejections back, I found ways to improve it. That cycle went on for about a year, which was quite discouraging.
The turning point was when I attended the CYA conference in Brisbane and verbally pitched Mindcull to Meredith Costain who was representing Ford Street Publishing. She liked my pitch and I had a book deal three months later! I am really grateful that we have small presses in Australia with people who are willing to take chances on debut authors in the way that Paul Collins of Ford Street took a chance on me.
Could you please outline the plot of Mindcull?
Mindcull is set in the not-too-distant future when people rely on virtual reality (VR) headsets in the same way that we rely on smartphones. The story is told from the point of view of Eila, a 16-year-old who posts VR clips of herself on a future version of social media. Her clips get shortlisted for an international competition run by a global tech giant. This involves her travelling to a mansion in England to meet the other short-listees and trying out a cutting-edge new VR skin suit.
But law enforcement officers coerce her into spying for them, underground activists reveal a murderous plot and Eila realises that her own mind is at risk. Surrounded by secrets and lies, she races to uncover the truth. And in the process, she must work out who to trust, and how far she is prepared to go to protect innocent lives.
Could you introduce us to your major character, Eila (and the significance of her name, if any)?
I wanted Eila to be a strong but flawed protagonist. The Hebrew name means Oak Tree which is a symbol of strength and resilience. Despite her social awkwardness and many insecurities, Eila is a brave, independent, and determined person.
Eila is 16 and like most teenagers she struggling to work out who she really is and make authentic connections with others. She’s also had some pretty bad things happen in her past that make it hard for her to trust people.
Eila has a complicated relationship with VR technology. On the one hand, she uses it so successfully that she gets shortlisted to star in the marketing campaign of a tech giant. On the other hand she is very vulnerable to its effects and gets drawn into conflict with people who are using it in destructive ways.
Eila posts popular public VR clips which are a bit like interactive, 3D YouTube videos. Eila’s clips make her into a celebrity. She plans them out carefully, but they come across as light-hearted and spontaneous. But in person, she is socially anxious – not really like the girl in the clips. So when people love her clips, it feels affirming on one level, but doesn’t really meet her need for closeness because she feels like it’s not the real Eila that they are responding to.
Without giving away spoilers, who are some of Eila’s allies and what differentiates them?
When the story starts, Eila has two people she relies on. The first is her best friend from school. Mei is a clever, funny, passionate, idealistic teenager who has connections with an illegal activist group. The second is her uncle Malcom who is her legal guardian and the parental figure in her life. But there are things in her past that make it hard for Eila to open up and trust anyone and she also feels guilty about everything Malcolm has given up for her sake, so their relationship is often a bit strained.
As the story progresses, Eila meets new people who offer to help her, some in person and others in the virtual world. An example is Hugo, a good-looking and charming short-listee who she feels drawn to but also wary of. In the course of the book, Eila gets tangled up in a sinister conspiracy and a big part of uncovering the truth is working out which of the people she has met are lying to her and which ones are true allies. As you have hinted in your question, I throw in a few twists and turns and do my best to keep the reader guessing about them too.
Could you describe some of the technology in the book? Which are you particularly pleased with?
I have always been fascinated by the way people think and learn and spent many years studying and researching developmental psychology. My background as a cognitive scientist gave me a head start in thinking about how scientists of the future might use computer modelling and biological and behavioural measures to try to work out what’s going on inside a person’s head. I had a lot of fun thinking about the kind of data that a VR skinsuit of the future might generate about its wearer and the ways that the data might be used. I really enjoyed writing the scene where Eila first encounters a Pearl skinsuit and speculates on how it works. And this might sound a bit sinister, but I also enjoyed thinking about how people’s thinking and attention in the future might be manipulated and enhanced by AI (cue evil laughter!)
Where is the story set?
I am a Melbournian, but I kept the place where Eila lives deliberately vague so that it could be any big city that my readers might identify with (although there are a couple of clues that Eila is from somewhere in the region of Australia/New Zealand.)
In the second part of Mindcull, Eila travels to a mansion in Hertfordshire in the UK which is a place I lived for three years (but in a tiny one-bedroom flat and not a mansion!) I loved my time in England and had fun revisiting it in my writing.
Damon appears well into the story. Could you introduce him and explain how his story is integrated into the book?
This is a tricky one to answer. It’s a great question because Damon is really important to the plot, but I don’t want to give too much away about him. Let me just say that certain future technological advances provide a way for Eila to find out some very disturbing information about this particular character.
How have you combined the natural and virtual worlds in your story?
Another great question. The short answer is – through the experiences of Eila. One of the main themes of Mindcull is how scarily blurry the line between the natural and virtual worlds can become. There are people in the story who have become dysfunctional because they have lost sight of that boundary altogether.
For Eila, entering the virtual world is a part of everyday life, a bit like participating in the online world for us. She uses VR and AR (augmented reality) to communicate, enhance her surroundings, get information, express her creativity, and remember the past. In the near future in which Mindcull is set, AR and VR are used all the time in healthcare, education, entertainment, as well as for law enforcement and surveillance.
Eila has to work out who her real friends are in a context in which everyone is communicating inside the virtual world and they’re all using that world for their own purposes. Most of them are lying or at least concealing things. Eila is also painfully aware that there are things in her background that make her particularly vulnerable to being manipulated through VR.
What is the role of prayer in the story?
When Eila finds herself in a dangerous, threatening situation, she says, ‘God please help me,’ which indicates how desperate and alone she feels. At one point, Malcom, Eila’s uncle, says he will pray for her and her response is to make a joke. But she thinks about it later and wonders what it means. That wondering is part of her trying to work out who she really is, what is real, and what matters.
What are you doing and working on now?
I have been working on a magical realism story meant for slightly younger readers than Mindcull and told from the point of view of Aleena, a contemporary Australian girl. It opens with a bushfire that destroys a famous old tree and evolves into a conflict between a group of friends in Year 6 and a shadow creature from another realm.
When I was a child, my favourite books involved ordinary kids in fantastical situations. I remember believing that the pine trees just past the park at the end of my street were the start of an enchanted wood and I loved walking along that line between the real world and the fantastic in writing my latest book. I also really enjoyed exploring the theme of how we treat difference in this story, and the idea that having problems fitting in can be a clue to something extraordinary.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
At the moment, I am reading Deep Water by Sarah Epstein because I really loved her debut, Small Spaces. It’s a great example of the powerful, engaging OzYA books that are being published right now.
How can your readers contact you?
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mindcull and hope that it continues to reach YA readers. All the very best with it and your future books, K H.
Thank you very much for your interesting and insightful questions. I really enjoyed answering them.