A Walk in the Dark by Jane Godwin
A Walk in the Dark by Jane Godwin (Lothian Children’s Books) is my favourite of Jane’s excellent novels. It is genuinely exciting and high stakes, in a realistic way. It is also layered and meaningful as the group of Year Nine students tackle the ‘dropping’, a prepared for but unsupervised adventure hike through the night. The conditions become much more difficult than expected – caused by natural elements as well as the others in their group.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Jane.
Always a pleasure!
What do you hope your title A Walk in the Dark evokes?
First and foremost, I hope it’s an exciting and memorable experience for the readers. I hope it evokes the spirit of the natural world, and that it lingers in the memory of readers as they think through the motivations, actions, and personal history of each character.
Why is the book in memory of Ivan Southall?
He was a writer I loved as a child. When all my friends were reading Enid Blyton, I preferred the contemporary realism of Ivan Southall. His books were about kids who didn’t necessarily fit in, about outcasts, and often it was these kids pitted against the elements, the wildness of the natural world. And his books were particularly Australian, in an era when most books for young people were English or American imports. I saw myself in his characters, and I still remember that feeling of reading a story set in a place I recognised. Southall described the landscape, gum trees, wattle; some of his books were set in the Dandenong ranges, not that far from where I lived. It was hot in January, there was no snow. He showed me, and a generation of young readers, that Australians have stories too, and our places were worthy of exploration, were valid and interesting, stories didn’t have to be set in English villages or New York districts – which I also loved to read about, by the way.
I think Southall is the reason I write realistic fiction, and possibly the reason I write. So I dedicated this book to his memory.
He remains the only Australian to ever win the prestigious Carnegie medal. His books now feel dated, and sexist, and old fashioned, and white, but at some level they are still terrific stories.
On re-reading Southall’s books as an adult, I can see that along with the dated aspects, many of them are about the loneliness of childhood, and set in that liminal space where one is going through some ordeal that is a catalyst for leaving childhood behind, and allowing them to navigate this doorway into the adult world. Sometimes it’s a physical confrontation with power of the natural world, sometimes it’s a complicated relationship, sometimes it’s trauma, and I can see his influence in all the novels I’ve written for this age group. The catalyst for growth and maturity is physical trauma in As Happy as Here, it’s an event, Grace going missing, in Falling from Grace, and in When Rain Turns to Snow it’s the arrival of a stranger and revelation of a family secret that sets this action in place, and then the brutal shallowness of social media that forces the young people to confront aspects of human nature that they didn’t understand before. In A Walk in the Dark it’s the natural world itself that seems to conspire against the young people moving through it.
I always try to set myself a challenge with each new book I write, be it a technical aspect that I haven’t tackled before, or an approach to structure, or something that relates to the voice. With A Walk in the Dark, I quite consciously wanted to write something evoking the style of Ivan Southall. Looking back, I think I did this to some extent with my novel Falling From Grace. Southall’s stories were very immediate; they were often set over a period of just hours – that is also the structure for both Falling from Grace and A Walk in the Dark.
Why is one of your epigraphs from Sleeping Beauty?
I’m fascinated by fairy tales, and the role that forests play in them. When I was writing A Walk in the Dark, I read a book called Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland. She writes: ‘Fairy stories, like forests, are training grounds for resilience. Terrible dangers threaten children in these stories – cruel parents, giants, wolves and witches. Application of good sense, children return home wiser, richer and happier.’
An outstanding feature across your novels is your portrayal of relationships between young people. How are you able to tap into and craft this authentically in A Walk in the Dark?
Thank you, Joy. I do try very hard to immerse myself in each of my character’s worlds. I believe that plot springs from character and it’s very important to me to meld plot and character together so that the story has a lot of action, drama and narrative tension, but that it never feels that the plot is forced on any character. If you know your characters well, they will create the plot points. While I’m drafting a novel, I write little essays on each of my characters that explore their history and their personality, also what they look like etc – and most of this doesn’t even end up in the book, but it helps me to see each character as a real person and therefore hopefully they come across as authentic and three dimensional and real in the story. But part of it is more mysterious and unconscious than that – I have to try to fully immerse myself in a character’s personality, so sometimes it’s just daydreaming about them and trying to inhabit them that way.
I suppose every writer is an observer, and I do observe closely the young people in my life.
Why have you set the story in the Otways?
My family has a house on the edge of the Otways, so I have spent a lot of time there over the past 30 years. I have always loved walking in the forests and discovering new tracks and trails, and I know the area quite well just from being down there so often. It’s a beautiful part of the world with a rich history, and the forests there are quite varied, from coastal heath to exposed, scrubby areas to rainforest, ferns and huge mountain ash trees. And then there’s the ocean. For this book in particular, I made myself walk in the forests alone at night. It was so scary! Sometimes I dragged a family member out with me, and they were usually terrified as well. I also needed to know how bright the night could be when there was a supermoon, so I timed some of my walks around the phases of the moon. It was quite surprising how bright a supermoon is, and how well you can see at night when the moon is full. And then how pitch black it is on nights with no moon. I also went to see glow worms on night walks at different times of the year. I had to travel to the Otways between lockdowns and then when lockdowns were over.
Could you please reveal one of the causes of suspense or danger?
One of the causes of danger is that there is a storm. I won’t reveal any more than that!
I love how your character Fred sees the world as colours of Derwent pencils. Why are they important to him now?
Fred is a sensitive person who has become angry with the world around him. He is very aware of colour and beauty, despite trying to deny it. At some level Fred still knows that art and creativity will help him heal, but he’s too angry and hurt to recognise it at this point of the story.
Ash tries hard to understand and accept people and put them at ease. He asks questions, which Elle likes because “So often, girls had to ask all the questions and guys just talked about themselves.” What gender differences (or threats) do you highlight in the novel?
I think the main one is the physical vulnerability of females on their own. I love to walk in the forest on my own, and to be on my own in the natural world. But just like Elle thinks, it’s tinged with a tiny feeling of fear that I’m vulnerable. I know that males are also vulnerable in some situations, and Ash feels this, but he doesn’t really understand that females, by their physical nature, are probably more vulnerable – in most situations, anyway.
Without spoilers, which of your characters changed significantly or unexpectedly, and how or why?
I think that each of them changes in quite significant ways. Each of the characters is more complicated than they first seem – just like real people, in my experience. They all have contradictions, and they all have inner lives that they don’t always share with others, but that the reader eventually picks up on. Elle is initially pretty impatient with Chrystal, but she grows to understand her better. Ash doubts his own instincts, but with Laila he learns to trust them a bit more. Laila opens up with Ash about her conflicted feelings about her famous father. Chrystal tries to be as honest as she can with Elle. And Fred faces some demons of his own. I like to think that at the time a character’s action or motivation or reaction might feel unexpected, but when the reader reflects on it when they have finished the story, the characters’ motivations and actions feel inevitable and make sense.
What is the purpose of the parallel narrative about little Tessa in a story mainly about teens?
Sometimes when I’m writing, a character will just appear. Kip appeared out of nowhere in Falling from Grace – he wasn’t really in my initial thinking about that story, and he ended up being the main character. Tessa appears on the bus, I’m not sure where she came from, but she found her way into the narrative. You’d have to ask my unconscious where she came from, but then she did provide tension and also a way we could see deeper aspects of both Ash and Fred’s characters. Also, I like to write books where the young people don’t appear to be in a vacuum with only other people their age. Adults, little kids, they are still all part of the fabric of a teenager’s life. They live in a world with other people, not just other teenagers.
Sometimes a character comes out of your subconscious and you’re not sure why they’re there, but then they serve a vital purpose in the story. Such is the mystery of the writing process!
You have skilfully woven serious issues into the narrative. Could you please tell us about one of these?
I don’t like to deliberately put issues in a book – my aim is to explore the characters’ lives and then I suppose issues naturally arise because they are the issues the characters are facing. Ash is confused about masculinity and consent, Elle is frustrated that she can’t get along with someone who is very different from her, Laila is coming to terms with her complicated relationship with her father, Fred is dealing with the aftermath of his parents’ divorce and re-partnering.
And I suppose there’s the broader issue of letting young people explore the world, roam freely, and not always having organised activities, and be saved by the adults around them.
I think there’s a real contradiction happening in that young people are exposed through the internet to the most alarming things that are almost impossible to process, and at the same time they are not encouraged to roam freely in the physical world. So the message becomes, ‘The world is a terrible and frightening place, and we don’t believe you can cope with it.’ We want our young people to feel competent in the world, but we don’t always give them the opportunity to acheive this.
This is a generalisation of course, but the Dutch parenting style encourages their children to be resilient, they are taught not to depend too much on adults. And adults are encouraged to allow children to solve their own problems. Hence the tradition of the dropping, which is something that happens in the book.
I wanted to tell a story that said yes the world is scary and difficult and challenging and despite what people say, you are actually on your own. But with intelligence and courage you can survive, you can come home safely.
And I suppose for me the ultimate issue is this – people are complicated. We all have complicated lives in different and particular ways, and each of us is trying to navigate the challenges of living in the world we live in – in all its beauty and its darkness, too. Maybe young people today face more challenges than other generations did, or perhaps those challenges are just different. I do think two areas that are particularly challenging for young people today are social media and climate change. Both are huge and overwhelming, have massive implications and both are extremely dangerous and an existential threat to the way we live and to everything we value.
Why have you mentioned the picture books Where the Wild Things Are and The Very Hungry Caterpillar and also some famous painters or their painting?
They just came out of thinking about the characters and fleshing them out. Small details also give a story its density and bring it to life.
What are you working on now or next?
I’m working on some junior fiction, some picture books and a new novel for the same age group as A Walk in the Dark.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
I’m actually reading a book about writing, called The Writer Laid Bare, by Lee Kofman.
Readers can contact Jane on Instagram – @janiegodwin, or through her website – janegodwin.com.au
A Walk in the Dark is a compulsive read with seamless depths to explore. It is an excellent companion to Jane Godwin’s other novels for young secondary and mature upper primary readers, When Rain Turns to Snow, As Happy as Here and Falling from Grace.
Thank you, Jane, for your generous, enlightening responses and for this superb novel that is sure to be both popular and critically acclaimed.
A Walk in the Dark at Hachette Australia
Jane’s other books at PaperbarkWords blog:
When Rain Turns to Snow interview with Jane Godwin
Arno and his Horse interview with Jane Godwin & Felicita Sala
Little One by Jane Godwin & Gabriel Evans