“Yes. I can almost hear the thoughts of every single girl in my year level. We’re all scared, of almost everything.” (The Gaps)
Leanne Hall is such a star writer. If her debut YA novel, This is Shyness, was her only book, she would still go into the annals of Australian YA literature.
But Leanne has written other wonderful books as well, including Iris and the Tiger – which won the Patricia Wrightson Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
And now she has the incredible The Gaps (Text Publishing), a thought-provoking story about Yin who is abducted and the subsequent impact of this on the girls at her prestigious private school.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Leanne.
The Gaps is a superb title. Could you please give us a hint of its significance?
I chose The Gaps as a title because it’s slippery and capable of holding lots of different meanings. I took my initial inspiration from the alternate ending to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and the way my character Natalia holds onto this idea of there being fissures in the world that lost girls can slip through. But I also think about the gaps between people, the way space can open up between previously close friends, or the widening gaps between you and your parents as you grow into teenage-hood. The gaps in our society where some people aren’t as valued as others.
What genre/s is The Gaps?
Oh gosh, I wish I knew! I’ve been marching around telling people: I’m writing a realist novel – there’s absolutely no magic in it at all. I would say it’s a contemporary realist YA novel about a crime, rather than being a crime novel, if that makes sense.
What was the impetus for writing this novel?
Around seven years ago a young woman went missing very close to where I was living at the time. I, along with the whole community, became very invested in her safety. And I also felt irrationally scared to leave the house. It made me reflect on why I was experiencing that level of fear – I couldn’t help but think of my teenage years, when a crime similar to the one in The Gaps happened at my school. And unfortunately, my impetus hasn’t waned, because there have been a series of awful crimes against women in Melbourne over the years that have received a lot of publicity. I think a lot of people are haunted by this fact, that you can be a woman going about your daily business, moving through the world freely, working, socialising, exercising, and have something terrible happen to you.
The novel has taken you a while to write. Is this because you are reading so many wonderful books in your role as a children’s and YA specialist at a bookshop or for other reasons?
I’m quite a slow writer, I think! But I also chose to write Iris and the Tiger and The Gaps at the same time, alternating back and forth between projects. Emotionally The Gaps was a difficult book to write, so it helped me when I could dip into the magical innocence of Iris’s world for a while, before returning to The Gaps. I also think it’s worth saying, that real life just often gets in the way. Trying to maintain a stable financial position, stable relationships, good health, everything! But I DO spend a lot of time reading books for my day job at a bookshop. It’s such a pleasure, I feel very lucky I get to read lots of other people’s stories, and I’m sure it helps me become a better writer anyway.
Why have you used two narrative voices? Could you please introduce your protagonists?
I think I’m quite addicted to presenting different perspectives and narratives. My narrators are Chloe, a scholarship student who is new to Balmoral Ladies College, and who is having trouble finding her people there, and Natalia, who is a much more comfortable and established student. The crime ripples out in the school community and affects everyone. I wanted to show how one crime can affect many girls in a myriad of ways. I originally had three narrators – Petra featured as well – but I took it down to two so I could really delve deep into Chloe and Natalia’s inner worlds. They are very different girls, but still somehow they form a strong connection.
Could you briefly describe the school setting of the novel and explain why you’ve set much of the novel here?
When I think of my teenage years, school was such a dominating force. I mean, it takes up so much time in your life! And your school friends are everything at that age, they’re your world. The school setting did let me explore a lot of things I felt keenly as a teen: academic pressure, fitting in, being squished into a box by adults, trying to find a direction in life, trying to find my voice and individuality.
You include a vignette of Year Seven student Posy which I found fascinating. What is so disturbing about her?
Posy is on the verge of losing her innocence and becoming something more problematic. I guess the implication is she’s about to catapult from sweetness into something closer to where Natalia is at. A lot of changes go on in the high school years, and I often think adults and maybe society like it when girls are cute, soft, helpless, earnest, compliant, and less so when they become loud, big, emotional and opinionated.
Chloe described her mum at a school meeting: “the rich blondes huddled on one side of the room and the rich Asians on the other side, and she hadn’t fit into either group.”
How important are Chloe and Yin’s racial backgrounds to the story?
I think they’re pretty important, especially to me, as I didn’t get to read about people with families similar to mine when I was a teenager. Actually, I still don’t get to consume many stories that deal with biracial characters in a deep and meaningful way! I guess, tangentially, because of how Chloe and Natalia experience being in the world as individuals, and how their friendship develops, issues of power, race and privilege bubble to the surface quite regularly. I tried to make it true to how young people experience the world. It’s a shock when you realise that who you are means you are operating under restrictions, assumptions and prejudices, just as it’s a shock when you realise your friends are being held back as well, often for different reasons from your own.
You have created a strong atmosphere of suspense. How have you crafted this?
I read a lot about crimes against women, even though it was difficult to read the details. I studied the facts of many cases of disappearances, kidnappings, assault and homicide, over time. I wanted to know as much as possible about all the different ways that events can unfold when someone goes missing. And then I drafted and re-drafted. I changed the course of events so many times, moved around the timeline and perspectives over and over again until it felt like the pace was right. It’s a hard thing to do on your own, so I was lucky to have some thoughtful early readers and a very switched-on editor to help me build the suspense.
Art is a feature of your novels. Why does art flow through your books? Could you outline some of the art styles you incorporate, particularly in The Gaps?
I am not skilled or talented at all when it comes to art, but I have been a long-term appreciator of the visual arts. I often rely on visual tools to feel inspired, to spark a certain mood or atmosphere. The photographers or artists that Chloe comes across are ones that I also admire, especially Bill Henson. Basically I was trying to capture the mood of a Bill Henson photograph in book form. Another photographer that was really important to me was Atong Atem. When I describe Adut’s work in The Gaps, I am thinking of Atem. Chloe’s journey in exploring art and photography stood in for some of my own experiences trying to write creatively.
Why have you alluded to Picnic at Hanging Rock and Grimm’s fairytales?
They both contain darkness and lost girls. Places you shouldn’t go. Repressed feelings. I read a lot of fairytales as a child and I think they sank deep into my subconscious, so that they inform all my storytelling. And Picnic is such an iconic Australian book, it’s still on high school reading lists to this day, and I find it such an intriguing story, but not an unproblematic one.
The cover of The Gaps reflects its contents and mood perfectly. What do you particularly appreciate about the cover?
I love the cover! I had a colour palette in mind when writing The Gaps, and it was very bruised and purply and shadowy, so it’s amazing that Imogen Stubbs designed a cover exactly like that.
What advice would you give girls and young women to keep them safe?
I don’t really have any advice about this – the lives of girls and young women are so broad and varied, it’s so hard to generalise. I wanted to make sure in The Gaps that at least Chloe was aware that it wasn’t always about being female, that in fact danger lies in being anyone that isn’t a cis, het, white, economically advantaged man. Lots of different sorts of people feel unsafe on the streets and in their homes.
What are you writing now or next?
I’m writing a YA and a middle grade at the same time again! Or at least, alternating between them. The YA is a historical fiction set in Melbourne’s Chinese-Australian community during WWII (called The Celestials), and the middle grade is a fantasy novel called Little Heart, which spun out of a short story I wrote over a decade ago.
What have you read recently that you would like to recommend?
I have just finished reading The Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough, which has everything I love in a YA book – it’s a coming of age tale with such sweetness and honesty – and Girl of the Southern Sea by Michelle Kadarusman, a middle grade story set in Indonesia, with just the best protagonist, a young girl with grit and imagination.
How would you prefer your readers contact you?
I’m probably easiest to contact on Twitter! I’m not terribly good or prolific on any other forms of social media.
Thank you for your enlightening and generous responses, Leanne. As well as receiving critical acclaim, The Gaps will no doubt become a favourite of many young readers.