If Not Us by Mark Smith

Social licence ... It’s what enables a company to operate with the acceptance of the community. A local campaign can undermine the social licence if the town starts to question whether it really wants … any … company – here.” (If Not Us)

It is a pleasure to speak to Mark Smith on the blog. We first met when I was moderating a session for three debut YA novelists at the Brisbane Writers Festival several years ago. Mark spoke about his popular, gripping The Road to Winter and he is the only one of the three authors who has gone on to write and publish other books. This is a testament to his drive and talent, as well as the chord he has struck with YA readers.

I have spoken about Mark’s first two books The Road to Winter and Wilder Country (this was before Land of Fences was published)at international presentations about refugees in Australian books.

In my review of Wilder Country for the Weekend Australian I wrote, “Wilder Country is a page-turner told in an unaffected, Australian voice”. Mark’s books are all page-turners and distinctly Australian, while dealing with the concerns of our time.

Mark’s new stand-alone YA novel is If Not Us (Text Publishing).

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Mark.

Thank you for having me on your blog!

How do you divide your time between writing, speaking to young adults and promoting your books? Which do you most enjoy or find satisfying, and why?

I try to do all my writing first thing each morning. If I can have a thousand words “in the bank” by 9am, I’ve got the rest of the day to deal with the other demands of being an author (and to get outside for a surf or a ride, or to walk the dog.)

I generally have a couple of teaching days per week (all online at the moment) running workshops or doing presentations. A lot of this work revolves around The Road to Winter as it is taught in schools around the country. Promoting your books, especially new releases, has become very problematic during the pandemic. I use social media quite regularly, especially in the window pre and post release, and my hard-working publicist does a lot of the foot slogging, contacting bloggers and mainstream media. I also get out to visit as many bookshops as I can to make contact with the booksellers and sign copies.

I enjoy all these aspects of being a writer, but perhaps the most satisfying is engaging with students who have read my books and want to talk about the characters and the story.

Where are you based and how does this give authenticity to your writing?

I am based on the west coast of Victoria, which features in the settings for my books. Authenticity is essential to good writing and I think if you are familiar with being in a space – the forest, the ocean, a small town – you will portray that space in a much more authentic way than if you were entirely making it up. I want my readers to feel they are there in that space with my characters. I also begin with setting – I believe if I can find the setting, I’ll find the character.

(Yes, your settings are a strong feature of your novels, Mark.)

Your surfing scenes are a highlight of the book. Which aspects of these are you particularly pleased with?

Writing surfing scenes is problematic because you need to incorporate a certain amount of the terminology of surfing for authenticity, but you also have to make those scenes accessible to readers who may never have surfed. It is a very fine balance. I particularly like the last chapter of If Not Us that deals with the protagonist, Hesse, facing his fears in huge surf. I like it because it works not just as an action piece but also as a metaphor for the fears he has had to overcome to stand up for what he believes in.

Your books show deep love and care for our environment. Could you give an example from If Not Us?

I think the key to engaging readers in and with the environment is through showing the way your characters interact with it. There is a scene in chapter four of If Not Us where Hesse takes Fenna to the beach for a surf lesson. When she comes down through the dunes and out onto the open beach, she throws her arms wide and gasps. To Hesse this an everyday event, but to Fenna, whose only experience of the coast is the North Sea in the Netherlands, it is instantly beautiful and wonderous. I like portraying the Australian environment through new eyes.

What are some of the other issues that you raise in this novel?

A big focus of the novel is young people’s understanding of climate change. Hesse is initially reluctant to get involved in the campaign to close the coalmine and power station in his town, but Fenna brings a European sensibility to the issue, encouraging him to take a stand when a protest meeting is called.

The delicate issue of teenage mental health is also a focus, through the character of Fenna. She suffers from anxiety, which leads to panic attacks when she feels threatened or becomes the centre of attention. I was so pleased when a colleague who suffers from anxiety said the novel was important because it normalised the behaviour. It is a novel that includes a character with anxiety, rather than being a novel about a character with anxiety.

Could you introduce your protagonist Hesse? How have you made him vulnerable?

Hesse is seventeen years old, a fanatical surfer being raised by his single mum, Imogen, after his father was killed in the surf seven years ago. He struggles with his own insecurities but is forced to confront them when he agrees to speak at a protest meeting. Like a lot of teens, Hesse doubts himself and thinks he won’t be listened to if he does speak up. He has a special relationship with Imogen and is immediately drawn to Fenna when she arrives in town.

Why did you decide to make your character, Fenna, Dutch?

I wanted a character who could bring a European sensibility to Shelbourne – particularly around the issue of climate – but also around relationships and sex.

And I have very close friends in the Netherlands, whose daughters, Anna and Marieke, spent their gap years in Australia. There are aspects of both girls in Fenna. They helped me add depth to Fenna’s character through her language and what they call “Dutch directness!”

How do you make your characters come to life? Please give an example.

I rely heavily on dialogue when I introduce a character to my readers. The first scene where we meet Imogen is intentionally dialogue-heavy because it’s important we hear her voice. In establishing her character I also want to begin to build the reader’s understanding of Imogen’s relationship with her teenage son.

I also like writing male characters because there is a very different sort of dialogue that takes place between them. It relies as much on what’s not being said as what is. The early scenes with Theo and Hesse in the surf shop are good examples of this dynamic.

What have you learned from writing your Winter trilogy that you have incorporated into this novel?

So much – mostly about the discipline of writing and how a novel is a marathon not a sprint. Also, because my new novel is not a physical journey story in the way the trilogy was, I have had to be very aware of pacing to keep my readers engaged. Writing the trilogy taught me how essential pacing is to any story.

How have you crafted the issues that are integral to this book without sacrificing story?

For me, the story always takes precedence over the issues. If Not Us is essentially a coming-of-age story that explores deeper issues through the actions of characters that are believable and recognisable to my readers. Writing a book with “issues” is difficult because the moment a reader feels they are being preached to, they will put the book down. But if I can get them to feel empathy towards the characters who then explore those issues, readers are far more likely to engage with the issues themselves. My understanding of this balancing act comes from a lifetime in education – if you ever want kids to really understand an issue, personalise it for them.

Mark Smith (credit R. Hosking)

What response from one or more young Australian readers of your books has left an impact on you?

Because I was a very reluctant reader when I was a teenager, I love hearing from teens who have been turned onto reading by the Winter Trilogy. The book that started my reading journey was Storm Boy (when I was fifteen) and on school visits I have heard from any number of students who have started their journey with The Road To Winter.

I also have a beautiful, hand-written letter from a grandmother in rural Victoria, who wrote to tell me she had been trying to get her grandson to read without success, until she heard about the Winter Trilogy and bought the books for him. He loved them so much she wanted me to recommend similar books he could read.

Which Australian writers do you particularly admire, and why?

I have wide tastes in reading – everything from YA to crime to literary fiction. I love Tim Winton’s books, as much for the way he develops character as for his vivid descriptions of the coast and surfing. I adore Favel Parrett – when I first started writing I wanted to write a book as beautiful and moving as Past The Shallows. I love Emma Viskic’s crime novels – and every Peter Temple novel is a masterclass in dialogue. Jock Serong has amazing range in what he writes and we are blessed with incredible First Nations writers like Tony Birch, Nadi Simpson and Claire G Coleman.

In the YA world, I am a huge fan of AJ Betts, Scot Gardner, Kate O’Donnell, Rob Newton, Zana Fraillon and Fiona Wood.

Who else writes great surfing scenes?

Obviously, Tim Winton but also Sophie Hardcastle, Madelaine Dickie, Emily Brugman and Claire Zorn.

What are you writing now or next?

I’m 50,000 words into a new story that I am keeping very close to my chest! The only thing I will say is that it’s not YA – and it draws heavily on my time as an outdoor educator.

How can your readers contact you?

Twitter: @marksmith0257

Instagram: @marksmithauthor

Facebook: @marksmithwriter

Thank you for your responses, Mark, and most particularly for highlighting important issues with such pace and appeal in your novels and for connecting with and nurturing YA readers.

If Not Us at Text Publishing

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