Exit Through the Gift Shop by Maryam Master

Exit Through the Gift Shop by Maryam Master, illustrated by Astred Hicks

Exit Through the Gift Shop is a stand-out middle-fiction novel for mature children in upper primary and for readers in junior secondary school.

The combined title and cover are eye-catching. The voice of 12-year-old Ana is striking, memorable and, surprisingly, even funny as she tells us “THE story. Of the last year of my life on Earth”.

It is published by Pan Macmillan Australia.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Maryam.

Thanks for having me Joy!

What is your background and where are you based now?

I was born in Iran and my family escaped persecution shortly after the revolution. I came to Australia as a refugee at the age of 9. I’m now based in Sydney, on Gadigal land. 

What is your background in writing?

I made a short film while I was at university and it ended up doing the festival rounds and winning a bunch of awards. That’s when I started to seriously consider a career in writing. My first job was on Home & Away. I transitioned from soap to children’s TV then made the leap to children’s theatre. Writing for a live audience was thrilling. I’ll never tire of sitting in a theatre full of kids and watching them laugh and gasp at the spectacle unfolding before them. It’s such a buzz. Exit Through the Gift Shop is my first novel.

With Exit Through the Gift Shop your debut novel, why have you shifted from other forms of writing to becoming a novelist?

I haven’t actually shifted. I move in between different forms. You could call it ‘shape shifting’. I love writing for young people, whether it be TV, theatre or books. Books obviously have that magical lasting quality that TV & theatre don’t. Theatre especially is ephemeral. Like magic fairy dust. Beautiful as it sprinkles down then poof! It’s gone. I love books because the magic lasts forever, at least as long as the pages are intact!

Your title Exit Through the Gift Shop is such a great title. How did you think of it and what does it refer to?

You know when you go to a museum or the zoo, and the only way out is through a gift shop? Ana, my protagonist, loves metaphors and I thought it would be fitting and poetic if she saw her journey towards the end of life in the same way. When you’re on your way out, you’re forced to look at all the ‘gifts’ you would ordinarily bypass. She is deliberate in her intention to focus on the sublime and beautiful as she’s exiting this plane of existence. I wanted it to be a celebration of life, of receiving gifts, rather than just a story about death.

What are some of the major themes and ideas in your story?

Love, grief, joy, loss, life & death and the big question – why are we even here? And how do we make our lives matter?

Friendship, bullying and acceptance are also major themes. The importance of being kind and how to navigate this crazy life (and impending death) with grace and humour.  

Please introduce us to your protagonist Ana.

Ana is 12.5. She’s smart, funny and full of beans. She has an unflinchingly sunny outlook on life … even though hers is about to end. Her biggest challenge at the moment is her nemesis, Alyssa ‘Queen Mean’ Anderson who continues to make her life hell. Ana’s faced with a conundrum. Will she spend her remaining days plotting sweet, sweet revenge on Butt Breath Anderson or will she come full circle to forgiveness and reconciliation?

I know a few Iranian people and they also refer to themselves as Persian like Ana’s family does. Could you tell us something about why they might do this?

Iran seems to conjure up images of crazy ayatollahs and weapons of mass destruction. The oppressive Iranian regime has understandably given Iran an image problem in the west. Persian sounds softer. Friendlier. As Ana says ‘life’s hard enough without trying to prove to people that I don’t have a grenade in my back pocket’. 

I love that Ana’s Dad reads her Persepolis. I have owned this graphic novel since it was published. Why have you incorporated it here?

I love that novel. On a deep, personal level. It’s not just an interesting story. It mirrors my life in a way that no other novel does. I had to find a way to weave it into Ana’s story because it’s so special to me.

Ana’s voice is inimitable. How would you describe it/how did you craft it?

She’s unapologetically direct. She knows no other way.

I must confess that Ana’s voice wasn’t crafted at all. It was there on the page from the very first word. It was an interesting writing process, because I didn’t have to find Ana. Or craft her. She was a force. My job was to be her scribe.

In many ways, she wrote herself, I just had to get out of the way and let her tell her story.

It is interesting how Al – Alexander Aaron Afu’s name has some similarities with Alyssa Anderson’s name. Is this deliberate? How are Al and Alyssa Anderson opposites? What are their roles in Ana’s life and in your story?

That’s an amazing coincidence that I’m going to pretend was entirely deliberate! Yes, they’re both Al for short. Flip sides of the friendship coin. A little secret I’ll share with you is that Alyssa isn’t entirely fictional. I endured relentless, cruel bullying at the hands of someone at school also. I didn’t have Ana’s courage and so I never confronted her but all these years later, I found a way to work through that pain in this story. Al is entirely fictional however. He’s the best friend I wish I had growing up. The best friend EVERYONE wishes they had. A solid, true mate who has your back and is there to laugh with you until the very end. A gift.

Maryam Master (Pan Macmillan)

Al makes Ana play his favourite hypothetical game, Would you rather? Maryam, it’s now your turn to play … “Would you rather sing everything you say or rap everything you say?” “Would you rather wear your swimmers in public every single day or do just one lap of an Olympic-sized pool filled with spew?”

Nooo! I hate this game!

Sing or rap? Definitely going to go with singing because the thought of me rapping is just too embarrassing. My kids would die!

Spew or swimmers? I’m afraid I’d have to go with swimmers because the very thought of spew makes me gag. Even typing the word makes me dry retch. I’d never recover. So, togs it is.

I love how Ana’s mother suggests that she occasionally have days off school to do fun things like visit a bookstore. What would you do on a precious day off from work?

Bookstore for me too! Plus nature walks with my pup and good coffee. I’m also a big believer in naps. Don’t judge me.

How did your collaboration with illustrator Astred Hicks work? Did you complete the written text and then she later added the pictures and different fonts or was there discussion during this process?

I had a full manuscript with very specific instructions about what kind of illustrations there should be and exactly where each one should go. My ideas were not dissimilar to the Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake style of illustration.

My wonderful publisher, Claire, suggested that we remove the instructions and see what Astred came up with. Give her the creative freedom to come up with her own ideas.

The concept of doing the book as a zine was entirely Astred’s. I’d never even heard of zine but when I saw Astred’s first few sample illustrations I was blown away. Thrilled. Excited. I immediately fell in love with the idea. It was sophisticated, fresh and cheeky – just like Ana.

Astred did the illustrations in three big chunks. She’d do one third of the book, then I’d look at it, give notes/suggestions, and then she’d do the next batch and so on. It was very collaborative, even though we didn’t meet face to face until it was all over. It’s been one of the most satisfying and exciting collaborations I’ve had. She really got Ana and that’s obvious from the front cover. I find it transcendent, joyous, other-worldly – it captures Ana’s spirit perfectly.

You have created a remarkable feat – a book about grief that is also uplifting and full of life and joy. How were you able to achieve such a dichotomy and write such a realistic yet hopeful story about a young girl who is dying?

There was no other way to approach it, in my view. Nobody wants to wallow in misery. Or read a story that is all doom and gloom. Joy and laughter is an absolutely necessary part of processing hardships. Finding the good in the bad is a skill we all need in life, even if we have to fake it ‘til we make it. I wanted to make it light without making light of the situation. A tricky balance.

Why have you written it and/or what awareness do you hope your story generates in your readers?

I wrote this story as a response to my son’s never-ending questions about death, life and the meaning of it all. Not that I have all the answers (who does?) but I wanted to create a story that dealt with the deeper questions that we all have. Kids are incredibly smart and intuitive. They’re curious and open-hearted. I wanted to generate conversations about the big-picture stuff.

I want my readers to know that no matter how dark things seem and what challenges we face in life, there’s always room for hope and laughter.

What are you writing now or next?

Another middle-grade novel and a new play adaptation for the post-Covid world when the theatre gods smile down upon us again.

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

I’m currently reading R.A Spratt’s Shockingly Good Stories and laughing out loud. My grown-up read is Room by Emma Donoghue, disturbing and dark but I can’t put it down.

How would you prefer your readers contact you?

My social media pages as I don’t have a website. Maybe I should get one?

Thank you for your honest, direct and funny responses, Maryam.

Ana is an authentic, courageous girl who all who meet her will care for and admire. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a perfectly calibrated fusion of grief, hope and love.

Exit Through the Gift Shop at Pan Macmillan Australia

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