How to Spell Catastrophe by Fiona Wood

How to Spell Catastrophe by Fiona Wood

“Our word of the week is participation. More like ‘exclusion’ for me, not that anyone seems to care.” (How to Spell Catastrophe)

Fiona Wood is one of Australia’s best contemporary writers of YA literature, evinced by the many awards her books have won. In fact, her three most recent YA novels all won CBCA Book of the Year: Older Readers.

Now, like some of her contemporaries, she has moved into middle-fiction with How to Spell Catastrophe. Her protagonist Nell is facing a tough time in her life and is also agonising about climate catastrophe.

Thank you for speaking to ‘Joy in Books’ at PaperbarkWords blog, Fiona.

It’s such a pleasure, Joy; thank you for having me!

Firstly, some questions about How to Spell Catastrophe:

As someone so well-established as a YA author, why have you written How to Spell Catastrophe as middle-fiction? Will you be returning to YA?

I love writing YA, but I’ve also always wanted to write novels for readers on either sides of the YA readership. The on-the-cusp, childhood-to-adolescence balance of middle-fiction is intriguing and not easy to capture. I remember being such a passionate reader at that age. Writing this book I also revisited the acutely anxious child I was.

Why is Nell finding Year 6 and puberty so difficult?

Year 6 is tough for a few reasons. On the puberty front, Nell has neither breasts nor period. Because she is a high-achieving girl, she doesn’t enjoy running behind on any activity, including puberty.

As well, she is starting to feel end-of-primary-school-restless. It has something to do with the allure of cool new girl, Plum, and something to do with what is happening on the home front. Nell is horrified when her mum announces that they will be moving in with her boyfriend, Ted, and his seven-year-old daughter Amelia. As far as Nell is concerned, she and her mum are just fine; they do not need any add-ons.

When Nell quits spelling bee and starts to spend time with Plum it causes friction with her old friends. Quitting spelling bee also means that Nell needs a new extra-curricular activity. This prompts her engagement in climate action. So, as Nell deals with friendship friction and family blend friction, she also dives into campaigning for grade six to attend School Strike 4 Climate.

She has a lot on her plate.  

How is she making her year worse and, if you can say without spoilers, why does she catastrophise?

Nell struggles with the unfairness, as she sees it, of having so little power. 

I crank up the trouble for Nell by having her dig her heels in and bend some rules as she asserts her independence. This puts her in conflict with her mother, and in one case leads to someone being put in potentially serious danger.

Nell’s background in catastrophising comes from the moment when, at seven, she realised that if her dad died when she was a baby, anyone could die at any time. For a while she became obsessively worried about death and dying. That was the genesis of Nell becoming a catastrophe expert. If you know what to do in any emergency situation, it gives you some protection from outcomes. To that end, Nell has for years kept a catastrophe notebook. It contains all her catastrophe information – practical tips, trivia, random thoughts. Nell knows what to do in any dire circumstance.

With so many children currently experiencing anxiety, what is some helpful advice that Grace, Nell’s therapist, could share with them?

The first thing Grace might suggest is that they talk about their worries with someone – a parent or trusted adult, or a friend, or a psychologist if appropriate. Worries often shrink when they are shared; they hate being scrutinised and illuminated. If Grace were counselling someone, she would listen to them carefully and guide some discussion to help them identify and understand the sources of their anxiety, and then offer strategies to deal with it, as she has given Nell breathing exercises for when her heart is beating too fast and she can’t go to sleep, and practices to put intrusive thoughts into perspective.

For readers who have climate anxiety, there is plenty of information via Nell about things they can do, small and large, to have a positive impact on climate change.  

What is the plot narrative, or other purpose, of the spelling bee?

The spelling bee has four main functions. The first is to stand as the activity that represents ‘past’ Nell, and her old friends and interests, in contrast to ‘present’ Nell and her nascent friendship with Plum.

The second purpose is to further illustrate Nell’s anxiety: she is very nervous about spending time away from her mother and, if successful, the spelling bee team would compete in finals to be held in Tasmania. Nell hates that idea, though she doesn’t want to admit it, because she thinks that by grade six she should be more relaxed about being away from her mum for a night or two.

The third reason for spelling bee is that it’s an expression of restlessness/rebellion/independence for Nell to quit, and then once having quit she is required to find a replacement extra-curricular activity, so it propels Nell into researching climate change, and proposing that grade six should attend School Strike 4 Climate.

The final and most important function of spelling bee is that it gave me a platform for some wordplay and extended vocabulary for readers, which I love including in my novels, but which need an ostensible reason for being; spelling bee and its associated vocabulary focus, along with Nell’s interest in words provides that reason. So for example she can annoy her mum by suggesting that Ted is noisome/malodorous, and have fun with neologisms such as ‘breastinity’ and ‘socktastic’ and those things should feel well integrated to character.

How have you incorporated humour into the story?

The humour is generated from character – human nature and human fallibility. So some humour simply comes from Nell’s-eye-view of the world, for example, the disappointing gap between spying in (narrative) real life, versus the spying she’s read about in fiction, or the realisation that her mum’s boyfriend is looking better and better on paper despite Nell’s attempts to throw shade on him: ‘My mother is dating Jesus. And I hate him.’

Some comes from Nell’s tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios. As she says, someone has to be prepared for unlikely disasters, because they do happen sometimes. Nell is forensic about the nitty gritty of various catastrophes. For example, she has a page in her catastrophe notebook devoted to strange ways to die; the fashion catastrophes she documents are literal, not aesthetic; and she recalls sharing with her class the first hand account of someone stung by an irukandji jellyfish whose pain was such that she begged to die. This resulted in a class member being too upset to swim in the sea again, and her mum complaining to Nell’s mum. To me these things are funny, but they can be played straight, because it is absolutely just who Nell is.

I’m also compassionate about Nell’s worries and show her understanding and coping with her disposition. Because I too am a catastrophist – frequently going to worst cases and reeling myself back in – this material was very accessible to write.

Why have you incorporated Philip Pullman’s book Northern Lights?

Nell and her grandmother, Map, who lives in Glasgow enjoy reading books together over Skype. They choose books that Nell’s father, long dead, read when he was Nell’s age. It’s a way for Nell to feel some connection with him. Nell is cautious by nature and well-supervised by her mum, but she admires the risk-taking, bravery and freedom of Lyra, the protagonist of Northern Lights.

There’s a passage in Northern Lights that is resonant for the climate action story strand. It’s the one in which Lyra looks unflinchingly at a dear friend in a deadly battle. She won’t look away, no matter how difficult it is to remain present. Nell links this to Greta Thunberg’s courageous insistence that governments acknowledge and act on the climate crisis. Both shape Nell’s perspective on climate change as she moves during the course of the narrative from fear/avoidance to direct engagement.

The link I could make between Nell’s and her father’s imagined daemons was another reason I chose Northern Lights as a the book that Nell and Map would be reading.

Nell writes weekly Friday notes from under the doona where she assesses her week. It is your turn now Fiona. Could you please complete the following form to describe your week?

Word: election

We are in the middle of a federal election campaign.

Problem: my top ranking issue, climate, is not getting the prominence it warrants – what’s up, mainstream media, didn’t you see the latest ICCP report???

Plan: remove twitter from phone, do some volunteering

Fruit ranking: a mushy pear

Gratitude: ‘Voices of’ independent candidates, putting climate, federal ICAC and gender equity at the top of the agenda. If three more independents with strong climate policies make it to Canberra, we should see some real action

Now some general questions that you could answer from any of your books:

One of the strongest and most distinctive elements of your writing is ‘voice’. Is there an overarching way you could describe your protagonists’ voices, or one of their voices? Could you share any tips on how to write voice well?

I love thinking about character and voice. And it’s such a contradictory area, because on one hand, I just have to wait until I ‘hear’ the voice of a character, and on the other hand there are some craft elements that I have enjoyed using to give depth or a feeling of authenticity to voice.

Overall, it’s time living with the idea of a character that is the most important thing for me. Sadly, not very efficient. I’ve tried speeding it up, unsuccessfully, still I have to wait for that moment of recognition: oh, there you are.

In Six Impossible Things, a big click for me with Dan’s voice was the first line of the prologue, which I didn’t write until the third draft, ‘There’s this girl I know.’ Now, that is a very simple line, but it clarified for me the casual, confiding tone I wanted for the character, and in the next draft I really tried to get that tone right throughout.

With Nell, in How to Spell Catastrophe, it was strangely not until I found a photo of myself at her age looking quite miserable, that I could really locate and settle into the right level of anxiety for her, and again that was after I had finished the first draft.

And some examples of more craft-based voice work – in Cloudwish, I show Van Uoc’s most private, honest venting to which she applies the select all/delete function in the ‘reality’ of the narrative, though of course the pages are there for the reader. Cath and Simmone and I did something similar in constructing the Wellness journal task for our characters in Take Three Girls.

In Wildlife the character Lou is in a state of grief, and in constructing language to reflect that I wrote very short sentences and sentence fragments, and tried to keep the lines visually very flat, for example no inverted commas for dialogue. In her mind, she is often talking to Fred, her dead boyfriend, so readers have access to the contrast between her very detached interactions with other people and her open-heartedness with Fred. Her pages look different from Sibylla’s pages and reflect the constriction of her grief.

Another feature I love in your work is that, although set in contemporary society, there is usually a sense of beauty, a slight surrealistic edge and an imperceptible magic. How do you plan this or is it a core part of you that naturally emerges in your writing? Could you please give an example from one of your novels?

Thanks, Joy. It emerges naturally; it seems to be my default filter.

An example from How to Spell Catastrophe is the link between Nell and her father, prompted by Northern Lights, as to how they imagine their respective daemons, were they to have one. Nell has drawn a daemon under the table/desk in her room, and Map sends Nell a drawing her father did at the same age, in the back of his copy of the book. The link between them seems uncanny, almost magical; Nell wonders if her father has visited her dreams somehow. And yet equally it could just be a coincidence.

Six Impossible Things is a retelling of Cinderella with assorted fairy tale parallel moments and characters.

In Cloudwish the super-rational Van Uoc worries that she might have idly wished Billy Gardiner’s affection into being.   

Even though I include some strong political content in my books, my realism also contains the possibility of everyday magic, a hug, a pinch of optimism, and a promise to the reader that they’re not alone.

Your three linked YA novels (two reviewed below) are Six Impossible Things, Wildlife and Cloudwish. Could you please tell us something about how you decided what links between the books to make (and possibly also how you did this)?

Thank you for your thoughtful reading and lovely reviews.

I’ve always enjoyed reading characters that migrate from one book to another, for example in the work of Melina Marchetta, Jaclyn Moriarty, Alison Lurie and J.D. Salinger. When I was writing the toxic friendship between Sibylla and Holly in Wildlife, I thought, Sibylla could really do with a clear-eyed friend like Lou, a character from Six Impossible Things. Then I realised I could do that; I could put Lou in the story. Thinking about what would motivate a change of school for Lou led me to the sad decision to kill Fred, her boyfriend. I was horrified when that landed in my lap as the thing that would not only cause Lou to move schools, but would also put her in the perfect state of mind to be a detached observer of Sibylla’s relationships with Holly, with Ben and with Michael, and that seeing what was going on would finally prompt Lou to intervene and re-engage with life.

She became the second main character in Wildlife, and having her there was what made the narrative click into place for me. It also gave me a neat technical solution to the problem of representing a character who doesn’t always know her own mind, Sibylla. Showing Sibylla alone might have suggested an inconsistently drawn character, but by having Lou observing and understanding her behaviour, Sibylla’s complexity emerges.

Having made the link between Six Impossible Things and Wildlife, I then deliberately created another between Wildlife and Cloudwish. The character Van Uoc is a minor character in Wildlife and I decided to give this quiet girl centre stage in Cloudwish. I wanted to reveal the inner-life of a quiet character – Van Uoc is a clever, strong-willed artist, quiet, yes, but certainly no pushover. Linking her with Jane Eyre was irresistible. As well, I did not think that in three interlinked novels that all the protagonists should be white; it didn’t feel realistic. And there was already an abundance of white protagonists. I did everything I could to do create the character respectfully. I wrote in the third person, researched carefully, wrote from community engagement, and had cultural experts read the manuscript. In the evolving, important conversation about Own Voices, I would not give myself the liberty of creating Van Uoc as protagonist if I were making the decision in 2022, but I love her as a character and I’m proud of Cloudwish’s contribution to the discussion of class and racism and refugee policy in Australian YA literature.  

With Cath and Simmone’s approval, I also made the little link between Cloudwish and Take Three Girls: the jumper Van Uoc finds at an opportune moment following a sudden cool change has been created and left by Ady, the character I wrote in Take Three Girls.  

Final questions:

What are you writing or working on now or next?

Beetle Boy and the Dog Tree, a middle grade novel.

What have you been reading and enjoying recently?

Some favourite recent middle fiction books include Elsewhere Girls, by Emily Gale and Nova Weetman, Bindi by Kirli Saunders, As Fast As I Can, by Penny Tangey, The Secret Library of Hummingbird House, by Julianne Negri, Tiger Daughter, by Rebecca Lim, The January Stars, by Kate Constable, The Edge of Thirteen, by Nova Weetman and The Year the Maps Changed, by Danielle Binks. To that amazing group I have recently added Dragon Skin, by Karen Foxlee and My Brother Ben, by Peter Carnavas, both of which I loved. In adult fiction I’ve been rereading The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead and it’s packing as big a wallop as it did when I first read it at twenty. With my grandbabies I’m poring over books of things to point to and name, including Alison Lester’s ABC, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s First 100 Words, so palatable to its young readers that every flap has been chewed off.

Fiona Wood (publisher website)

How would you like readers to contact you?

I’m on Instagram and twitter @f_i_o_n_a_w_ and readers can also contact me through my website,

Thank you so much for your important contribution to our literature for young readers, and also for answering these questions, Fiona. All the best with How to Spell Catastrophe.

Thanks, Joy

How to Spell Catastrophe at Pan Macmillan

Fiona Wood’s website

Some of my reviews of Fiona Wood’s YA novels that are now unavailable.

What I wrote about Fiona’s novel Wildlife in the Weekend Australian in 2014:

Melbourne scriptwriter Fiona Wood has followed her popular 2010 debut Six Impossible Things with a work for older teens, Wildlife (Pan Macmillan, 384pp, $19.99). The two novels are loosely linked by the character of Lou, who is grieving following her boyfriend’s death. At her new school’s wilderness camp, Lou meets Sibylla, one of the best-drawn characters in recent YA fiction. In Sibylla, Wood recasts the mould of teen protagonist. It takes a thoughtful literary talent to create an introverted and awkwardly beautiful yet easygoing character with such clarity and affection. Wood introduces Sibylla with a head-turning billboard guaranteed to grab reader attention and then steadily builds a fascinating, genuine character, one whose personality is partly shown by her frustrating lack of awareness at times.

Popular Ben takes Sibylla as his trophy girlfriend. As a girl who isn’t interested in the camp “sociograph’’ and doesn’t fully understand who she really is or what she wants, Sibylla is pulled into a physical relationship her body desires but her brain warns her against. She is also a caring friend to intelligent, good-looking “loner not loser’’ Michael and, despite her naivety in some ways, appears more appealing in her self-containment and generous trust than most of the other shallow, self-centred campers. The group dynamics ring cringingly true.

Like the work of Simmone Howell, Leanne Hall and Cath Crowley, Wood’s writing is contemporary cool. References to Triple J and retro bands the Smiths and the Go-Betweens add verisimilitude. Music is also used as a shortcut to snapshot Lou when she sings Blackbird at the camp talent night. The others then instantly recognise her as “indie singer geek girl’’ and can code her into their social hierarchy. Allusion to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Othello also hint at plot, character and motivations. The writing style has the lucidity and economy of a verse novel, but one set in prose. The dual narrations of Sibylla and Lou reveal different insights into each other as well as into the other characters.

What I wrote about Fiona’s novel Cloudwish in the Weekend Australian in 2016:

Melbourne-based scriptwriter Fiona Wood crafts achingly real characters: vulnerable, reserved, loud. Her three novels for young adults, Six Impossible Things, Wildlife and Cloudwish (Pan Macmillan, 288pp, $19.99) emulate reality through the unfolding personalities and rhythms of the characters’ lives.

Sibylla and Lou, major characters in Wood’s earlier work, reappear in Cloudwish as concerned potential friends of Vietnamese-Australian scholarship girl Van Uoc Phan. Van Uoc tries to keep a low profile but she daydreams about “hot dickhead” Billy Gardiner who only goes out with “foreground, high-resolution girls”. When she makes a wish on an elusive glass vial that Billy would find her “fascinating”, her fantasy seems to come true.

The style is contemporary realism, but it is realism with a slice of surrealism and imperceptible magic. When Van Uoc’s clothes aren’t warm enough she finds a cardigan with rainbow-coloured wing-petals, as if from a fairytale, in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. Narrative tension stems from Van Uoc’s doubts about the cause of Billy’s interest. “She felt the tangle of sex and longing and fairytales with handsome boys and happy endings. She was peering into the well, ready to tumble in, and what then? These stories with enchantments and wishes weren’t her stories. She was smarter than that. She was nobody’s Cinderella.”

“Cloudwish” is also the ethereal meaning of Van Uoc’s name. Although a successful student and photographer, she prefers to be invisible at school and “the shape of not fitting in was almost comfortably familiar”. However her inner resolve and love of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre give her enough confidence to challenge injustice and constantly ask herself, “What would Jane do?”

Van Uoc feels set apart from the non-Asian scholarship kids and vents her anger against disempowerment of women and racist views on boatpeople, asylum-seekers and minority groups in free writing she then usually deletes.

My review of Take Three Girls in the Weekend Australian, January 2018.

Take Three Girls (Pan Macmillan, 439pp, $18.99) is written by three of Australia’s best YA authors: Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell and Fiona Wood. They have each integ­rated a character into this story, which is for mature readers.

Their characters are brought together by the teacher of the new wellness program set up for Year 10 students at a prestigious private school to help them deal with misogynistic online bullying. Clem, Kate and Ady are randomly put into the same group because they have the longest thumbs.

An elite swimmer, Clem naturally has large hands but she is avoiding training and feels “the future is just like a white blur of skywriting that time has made unreadable”. She’s losing her identity and putting on weight. She is yearning for a physical encounter with older Stu but also feels unsure.

Kate is a talented cellist, passionate but not competitive, who experiments with recording sounds and looping and layering tracks. She’s been “slotted into the box of quiet, studious, geek” who’s good with computers. She works hard to win a scholarship for the sake of her parents­’ farm but is pulled between schoolwork and music.

Unlike the other girls, tall, popular Ady isn’t a boarder. She lives at home but her father’s addictio­ns are rattling the family. Ady’s affinity with fabrics, clothes and beauty is rendered in sensory language. She’s unsure why she’s not interested in handsome Rupert and surprises herself by becoming protective of her new friends.

One of the skills of this collaboration is that each character offers insight into the others. Ady, for example, recognises Clem’s confidence to “explore who she might be” and sees Kate as a “quiet musician [who] breaks the rules to walk on the wild side”. The three writers develop and enrich each other’s creations. Take Three Girls deserves a second read to fully appreciate the fine writing and the seeded threads which lead to the denouement.

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