I was first aware of Ian Trevaskis’s writing through his picture book Edge of the World (illustrated by Wayne Harris). This is a superb work.
Ian’s new novel for young people, Of Boys and Boats (Ford St) is a very special book based on the author’s own early years in Geelong. Set in 1956 during the Olympic Games, it combines an engaging boys’ rite of passage with flashbacks to war on the Western Front.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Ian.
Thank you Joy for the invitation and for your kind words about my most recent picture book, ‘Edge of the World’.
What is your background and involvement in the children’s/YA literary or education community?
I was a primary school teacher for 40 years until my retirement in 2008. While teaching in the library at my local primary school in Tallangatta, I ran a ‘Writers Alive’ week with visiting authors and illustrators from Melbourne who conducted talks and workshops at the small rural schools in the district. During the week I picked the brains of the authors on how to go about getting published. Shortly after I wrote a story based on my six year old son’s fear of dogs. After fourteen rejections, Scholastic Australia contacted me to say they liked the story and would like to publish! In 199o ‘Quincy’ was published and went on to be awarded a CBCA ‘Notable’ and was reprinted thrice (an olden day word for ‘three times’). This was an affirmation that I could be a fair dinkum writer and set me on my writing journey.
‘Quincy’ was followed by another picture book – ‘The Postman’s Race’ (Random House) – which also earned a ‘Notable and I was off and running. Since then I’ve been fortunate to have another 15 books published and in 2009 my first novel, ‘Hopscotch: Medusa Stone’ was published by Walker Books, Australia, followed by ‘Hopscotch: Golden Scarab’ in 2010.
Why have you written Of Boys and Boats?
Some years ago I began to keep daily ‘Memory Cards’ – a brief memory from the past, written on an index card. One of those memories prompted me to write a longer piece about how as kids in 1956 we used to run around the neighbourhood each night with our own ‘Olympic Torch’. From this single memory grew a story based on my childhood experiences and some of my boyhood friends. ‘Mad’ Mick, like all the characters in the book, is purely fictional, but based on people I remember from that era. I’m not sure where the idea of the discovery of the unfinished boat came from, but it gave me a motif to build on and to develop Mick’s character and his sad past. Like many of my stories, this one grew and evolved over time until I was awarded a May Gibbs Creative Time Fellowship in 2014 and further developed and wrote the complete story.
What is the significance of your book title?
The working title of the book began as ‘Going for Gold’, then became ‘My Olympic Year’. When I finally finished it, I thought the essence of the story was about boys and boats and the title, ‘Of Boys and Boats’ sounded just perfect and echoed the title of one of my all-time favourite novels – ‘Of Mice and Men’. As Water Rat says to Mole in ‘Wind in the Willows’: There is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
Could you introduce your protagonist, Jack?
Jack Spiller is a shy 14 year old with a poor self-image due to his lack of physical stature and who is that age where he is beginning to figure out his place in the world. He worries constantly about his father, whose heavy drinking has made family life a misery and this worry is ramped up when his father contracts tuberculosis and is hospitalised. Jack has one close friend in Percy, a feisty kid who has been stricken by polio. Jack secretly admires Percy’s guts and gumption in standing up to the local bully ‘Bruiser’ Bailey. Jack finds solace in his other best mate, his dog ‘Skip’, to whom he confides his secrets. (Much as I did at that age with my dog, ‘Peggy’!) As the story develops, so too does Jack’s perception of himself until he finds the strength and determination to stand on his own two feet and face his demons head on.
And also his mates?
Percy Jackson gets around with the aid of steel callipers strapped to his polio affected legs. Percy and Jack have been best mates since primary school and spend their weekends riding their bikes, fishing and collecting bird’s eggs. Despite Percy’s affliction he isn’t prepared to be pushed around and his plucky spirit and daring are something Jack wishes he had.
Initially, Jack sees Heinrich Stein, the ‘New Australian’ kid, as an interloper and a bit of a ‘know-it-all’, but as he gets to know him better and to understand his family’s background of fleeing the Nazis during the war, Jack’s opinion changes and by the end of the story he has become another of Jack’s best friends.
Jack harbours a secret crush on Anna De Fazio, another ‘New Australian’ of Italian parents who have migrated to Australia following the Second World War. Jack finds it hard to not feel shy and embarrassed in her presence and often becomes tongue-tied when she speaks to him. As her friendship with Jack and the others grows, Jack realises there’s no point in trying to impress her and begins to becomes more at ease in her presence. Her background and personality is similar to that of Heinrich’s. She is a spirited, strong-willed and no-nonsense young girl. Near the end of the novel, when Jack presents her with a special diorama he has made as a Christmas gift, “She placed the diorama on the small table in the corner of the porch and turned to face me, a coy smile on her face and an impish gleam in her eyes. She reached out and pulled me close. Before I knew what was happening, her lips were pressed against mine.’ When this happened I just wanted to cheer like mad for Jack!
How have you included disability and the migrant experience?
These came naturally when plotting and planning ‘Of Boys and Boats’. There was a boy in my grade at Belmont Primary School who had been afflicted with polio and who displayed similar character traits as Percy, in that he wasn’t prepared to let his crippled legs be an excuse to not join in as much as possible with the rest of us.
In the same vein, in the 1950s a number of newly-arrived migrant kids came into our school. I recall their strange mode of dress – the leather shorts and colourful dresses, their lack of English and their stinky lunches! Heinrich is modelled on one of those kids who was in my grade.
Why have you included traditional Australian bush poetry?
The idea of using traditional Aussie bush poetry was based on my own experience at school. One of the ‘New Australian’ kids in our class memorised ‘Banjo’ Paterson poems and our teacher had him recite them to us on Friday afternoons.
Why have you told the story using two narrators – Jack and Mick?
Because I introduced the character of ‘Mad’ Mick Metcalf I needed to construct his ‘life history’ to explain why he has become a recluse and why he never finished building the boat for his fiancé Edith. I found it a useful device to tell his story of growing up in the Mallee, of sailing on Corio Bay with Edith and of the horrors and heartbreak he suffered during the First World War. All too often, old people are seen as fairly dull, decrepit people existing in our midst, but once we dig deeper and get to know these characters better, we come to realise, just as Jack and Anna do, that they have lived through some pretty unbelievable experiences. I wanted to show this to the readers through Mick’s eyes.
How have you explored intergenerational friendship?
At the start of the story Mick is viewed as some old bloke who lives alone and never leaves his house – a genuine recluse who is considered to be a bit mad. This ‘madness’ is further highlighted by his scarred face and slurred speech due to the injuries he received while on the Western Front. As the relationship between Jack and Mick grows, Jack and the reader begin to see that this ‘mad’ old man is really just a sad and lonely soul. Jack is quick to realise this and begins to pity Mick and empathise with all that he has suffered. Mick, too changes over the course of the story, from a grumpy, ill-tempered figure (in Jack’s eyes) to someone who begins to welcome and accept Jack’s and his mate’s friendship and affection.
Your story is action-packed and also an insightful character study. How do you think you’ve been able to make this blend work so well?
In my first drafts I was more intent on focussing on the fun and adventure aspects of the story without delving too deeply into how the characters felt and what their aspirations were. Thankfully, I had two lovely editors, Abbi and Robyn, who kept at me to show what the characters were feeling. By including much more internal dialogue I think I have managed to reveal each character’s personality in greater depth.
Could you share a situation or incident in the novel that actually happened to you?
First up, I need to declare quite categorically that I have never, ever, pissed on a girl’s leg! The scene where Jack and Percy crash Jack’s bike into Miss Henderson’s fence and caused it to collapse actually occurred when my older brother was dinking me home from school one day. We were very lucky not to be seriously injured. And, of course, the opening scene with the running of the torch relay around the block was something we did prior to the start of the 956 Olympic Games.
What would you like your readers to understand about war?
By telling Mick’s story I hope I have revealed something of the horrors, futility and suffering of war upon individuals. Mick’s bother, Clive joins up to go on what he and many others thought would be some ‘grand adventure’, unaware that what they were about to endure would be totally horrendous. Hopefully, this comes across in the story.
Could you tell us more about your picture books?
‘Edge of the World’ is my most recent picture book, beautifully illustrated by Wayne Harris. The story was prompted by the overheard remark of “Let’s go and paint the town red”. Like many writers, I asked “Why?” Why would someone want to paint the town red? From there I decided to set the story in a remote fishing village where everyone appears sad and dispirited. “And nobody smiled in the village near the edge of the world” until Toby, a local fisherman finds some magic paint pots in his nets and sets about painting the village during the night. As the village slowly fills with colour, the villagers shake off their sadness until they are filled with vibrancy and happiness and the reason for their sadness is finally revealed.
Another of my picture books – ‘Delilah’s Dream’ – is all about a chook who dreams of escaping the farmyard and going on wild and wonderful adventures. Despite the other farmyard animals scoffing and ridiculing her for such nonsense, in the end she realises her dream, “ And every night, the animals gather to listen as Delilah tells them once again how dreams can come true, and how she once soared like an eagle and touched the clouds!”
What are you writing next?
I’m currently working on two adult fiction pieces, one is an historical novel set in Beechworth in 1857 during the gold rush, and the other is a contemporary novel set in a small rural town under threat from raging bushfires. I have also begun some research and made some notes for a possible follow-up story to ‘Of Boys and Boats’. I figure if Jack and his mates have built the boat and learned how to sail her, they now need to go on an adventure!
How can your readers contact you?
Thanks very much for your answers, Ian, and all the best with Of Boys and Boats – which I enjoyed greatly – and your other books.