Catch Me If I Fall by Barry Jonsberg

“We’re like one of those fairy stories Mum used to read us at bedtime, Ashleigh. A princess and her prince brother in our beautiful tower… But we know nothing about the world out there … The real world.” (Catch Me If I Fall)  

Some of Barry Jonsberg’s early YA novels, The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull and It’s Not All About YOU, Calma! made me laugh uncontrollably. I greatly admired his gritty Dreamrider, and have a particular affection for Game Theory, which I described in the Weekend Australian as being humorous but also an exciting thriller where Jamie uses his mathematical knowledge of game theory to predict how a kidnapper might think and react. Jonsberg is also well known for his multi-awarded My Life as an Alphabet, which has become the movie H is for Happiness.

Catch Me If I Fall is Barry Jonsberg’s new middle fiction novel, also published by Allen & Unwin.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Barry.

It’s an absolute pleasure.

Barry Jonsberg (Facebook)

Where are you based and how are you involved in the Australian literary community?

I live and write in Darwin, up here in the Top End. What with Covid [you may have heard of it] I’m only involved in the Australian literary community through online stuff. I’m really looking forward to being able to travel freely to festivals and schools Australia-wide and hopefully this is in the not-too-distant future. This year I was due to be at a number of events but they were all cancelled, though I will be at the Literature Centre’s Reading National Conference in October 2021, run by the amazing Lesley Reece in Freo, WA. It will be fantastic to catch up with some fellow writers …

What genre is Catch Me If I Fall?

I suppose it’s got sci-fi elements and a bit of dystopia thrown in for good measure, but I still think it’s realistic fiction. It’s relationships, particularly family relationships, that fascinate me the most.

When and where is it set and what impact has climate change had?

The date is not exactly specified – it could be forty or four hundred years into the future, but it’s definitely set in Australia [somewhere around Sydney]. Climate change has clearly caused havoc to the environment and to society, to the extent that life on Earth has been severely compromised. Indeed, it’s all that humanity can do to survive – many plants and animals haven’t.

Could you please introduce your twelve-year-old identical twin characters?

Meet Ashleigh and Aiden Delatour – identical twins with a close bond. Ashleigh [at the beginning of the novel at least] is slightly obnoxious. Her entitled and sheltered upbringing has given her a sense of entitlement. Aiden, on the other hand, is completely devoted to his sister and in fact it appears that his sole reason for living is to look after her. He takes very seriously his mother’s lesson that siblings should always be there for each other – to catch them should they fall. But events in the book mean they are both forced to examine everything they took for granted, especially their relationship with their parents.

Their new teacher Mr Meredith seems almost too good to be true. What is his role as teacher?

Mr Meredith is in a precarious position. He is a teacher at a time when teaching jobs are scarce and he takes seriously his role as protector and educator. But it would be easy to give offence to parents if he offered lessons that were … more to do with social issues of injustice and inequality, rather than the basic school curriculum. But Ashleigh is in danger of not understanding certain important truths and Mr Meredith feels it’s his duty to educate her. It’s a fine line he has to draw.

I love stories where the characters go to school camp. What sets this camp apart?

This is a camp for the most privileged kids in society. Most children [within the world of this story] will not get any kind of formal education at all [this isn’t specified in the book, but given it’s told from Ash’s point of view, it’s a fair assumption] but these children have the opportunity to explore some of the Australian landscape and see things that the less fortunate never have the chance to experience. But what also sets this camp apart is an accident that will forever change the world views of both Ashleigh and Aiden. Nothing, for them, will ever be the same again.

Could you briefly describe Ashleigh’s new friendship with Charlotte?

Most of the kids in the class that Ash and Aiden join are from very wealthy backgrounds. Their parents have paid very large fees to get them this exclusive education. But Charlotte is rather different. Her parents are not wealthy – at least, not like Ash and Aiden’s parents. Charlotte is driven to improve herself – she sees education as a way to secure her position in society and, conversely, if she doesn’t work hard enough it could be her downfall and condemn her to a grim future. Ash and Aiden aren’t even aware of this, because they are so privileged and take everything they have for granted. Charlotte, in a slightly different way to Mr Meredith, is another key factor in Ashleigh’s education.

What mystery can you reveal as a hook without being a spoiler?

Hmmm. Tricky.

How about – if someone seems too perfect to be true, maybe they aren’t.

(Oh, very clever …)

How does Ashleigh grow and change?

Ash, as I said earlier, starts off as a spoiled brat. But that’s not her fault – she’s been brought up to believe that she can have whatever she wants and that her family is pretty much perfect. The trouble with that view is that if something happens to challenge it, the whole structure can collapse. And that’s what happens to Ashleigh. She learns that she isn’t the centre of the universe and that there are lives out there as important, maybe more important, than hers. That’s when she learns the lessons that are really worth learning.

Aidan reads a science fiction novel while Ashleigh chooses a Shaun Tan. Why a Shaun Tan? Did you have a particular one of his books in mind for this scene? If so, which one?

I love Shaun Tan! I didn’t have a particular book in mind, though. I felt choosing a Tan as an ‘old’ book would give a clue to the reader that we are not in contemporary times. But now I think about it, maybe The Arrival would be the most appropriate title. It’s a book about the migrant experience and Catch Me If I Fall also talks about survival in a hostile environment.

What symbol have you enjoyed using in this story?

I’m not normally fond of using symbols. They can often appear artificial and ‘forced’. But I do like the Golden Orb Weaving spider as a symbol. Aiden talks about it as representing his mother – a huge presence in the middle of a massive construct. That seemed to work for me [though I didn’t start off thinking I would use it – the symbolism only came after I wrote the scene where Mr Meredith points it out to Ashleigh. Mind you, he was talking in symbols too …].

What awareness do you hope your story generates in young readers?

I don’t know about awareness as such. I hope kids enjoy the story. If it makes them think about the world and where we are going, then that’s great. I suspect, however, that the younger generation doesn’t need reminding that the world is in a fragile state and that the reason for that lies in the way my generation has neglected it in pursuit of wealth.

What response from a reader to one of your previous novels has particularly resonated?

No one particular response. I loved your book always does it for me. It’s the reason I write, after all.

What are you writing now or next?

I’m writing another Candice Phee story [the main character in My Life As An Alphabet or H is for Happiness as it’s now called]. This time it’s mainly about Jen Marshall, the ‘bully’ in the first book. Jen has always intrigued me. I think now is the time for her story to be told.

(What a great idea – I look forward to reading it.)

What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?

Scot Gardner’s collection of short stories. It’s called Off The Page and it’s got all of Scot’s humour, love of the Australian landscape and his hard-hitting writing style. It’s out in January 2021.

How would you prefer your readers contact you?

Probably through my Facebook page [I know kids generally avoid FB – but I’m old, so never mind]. My page is:

Thank you for your very interesting responses Barry. No doubt Catch Me If I Fall will become a very popular, as well as thought-provoking, favourite of young readers.

I hope so and thanks for inviting me!

Catch Me If I Fall by Barry Jonsberg at Allen & Unwin

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