The Jammer

The Jammer by Nova Weetman

Published by University of Queensland Press

“I run my fingers along the ridges, feeling the warmth of the rock. I wish I could pluck it free and take it with me in my box of special things as proof that even when something is gone, an image of it can live on for a really, really long time.” (The Jammer

There is much to love, cherish and agonise over in Nova Weetman’s new novel for middle-grade. The Jammer wraps the pain and anguish of grief into a gripping story that fuses the intensity of roller derby with the hurt and healing of personal introspection, as well as the words and actions of family, friends and others.

Review and author interview

Review of The Jammer by Joy Lawn in Magpies November 2022 (reproduced with permission)

Nova Weetman has created a strong body of work over several years and is now rightly regarded as one of Australia’s best authors for middle-grade and young adults.

The Jammer is memorable for two main reasons: the visceral world set around roller derby and the aching portrayal of grief in a family.

Twelve-year-old Fred’s mother has only recently died from cancer. Mother and daughter’s shared love of roller derby is highlighted and deftly integrated throughout the novel. Fred has inherited her mother’s fearlessness, speed and skill in derby. She is a jammer, a player who looks for gaps in the blockers’ defence to break through and then score. Her mother was one of the best blockers in the country and taught Fred to skate when she was three. Grief stricken, Fred throws her skates and derby kit into the Brisbane River before she and her father head off on a road trip to Melbourne with her mother’s ashes. While their car is repaired, they move in with Fred’s gentle step-uncle Graham who works in an animal shelter and creates special illustrated maps for Fred. Fred faces puberty alone and avoids talking about her grief. As she navigates this traumatic time she is helped by meeting derby people who knew her mother and by making new friends.

Grief is explored with authentic insight. The author has recently experienced the tragic death of her partner. In the novel she describes the awkward conversations and the numbness of loss, the searing sorrow of seeing a loved one disappear into just bones in clothes, how people grieve differently and the comfort of keeping the loved one alive through memories and stories.

Derby is rough, sweaty and adrenaline fuelled. It is inclusive, drawing players of all body types and those who’ve wandered in looking for something different to the usual sports everyone else plays. The players create their own community and the protective circle they form around an injured teammate during a game is a powerful metaphor for the love and care of family and friends of those who are suffering.

******

Nova Weetman

Author Interview

Thank you for speaking about The Jammer with PaperbarkWords, Nova.

What meanings do your title The Jammer suggest?

There are three roles in a roller derby team – the blocker, the pivot and the jammer. The jammer is the skater who scores points in a game by passing the other team’s blockers. The blockers are the skaters who try and stop the other team’s jammer from passing and assist their own jammer in getting past. And the pivot is the skater who can change from being a blocker to a jammer at any time. Confused? Me too! I also like the idea that the mean of jamming something is to stop it, and I think the book is about trying to stop grief but being unable to.

You’ve included some great derby names for the players. What are some of your favourites either in the book or elsewhere?

My favourite derby name of all time belongs to a kid I met recently at a derby tournament. I signed a copy of the book for them, and they told me their name was Savage Patch Kid. I thought that was brilliant. I’ve also met Maniac Bookworm who combines their love of roller derby with a love of reading.

How do the bruising injuries and sweat of roller derby echo grief?

It was only when I was writing the book that I realised how much I needed to be physical when I was grieving. For me it was swimming, but I think anything that grounds your body and makes you temporarily forget your thoughts is therapeutic. Grief inhabits every pore and I think strenuous exercise is the same. The bruises caused by a rough derby game are like the bruises caused by longing for someone who is no longer here, and I think grief is like a bruise that changes shape and colour slowly over time.

The roughness of derby somehow contrasts yet correlates with the acceptance and kindness of its players. How does this seeming anomaly work or make sense?

Yes, I never realised how incredibly inclusive and respectful the sport was until my son started playing. I’d always imagined rugby on wheels, with all the aggression that comes with a full contact sport. When played at full contact, derby is incredibly physical and fast and furious, and yet if someone is injured then the skaters stop and create a screen so they can be helped off the track, and the skaters watching thump their skates on the ground out of respect. I think perhaps because it is a community sport, and it is largely women and non-binary skaters, it doesn’t come with the macho trappings of sports like AFL. People know each other and it’s multi-generational, and they genuinely respect each other. At tournaments at junior level, while there is scoring, and a winner, it doesn’t have the same competitiveness that weekly sports like netball, basketball and football have. It has risen out of a desire for a sub-culture sport that is small and inclusive so that changes the ethos somewhat.

Having lived in Brisbane for a number of years, I love your descriptions of the city. What about Brisbane most resonates with you? Why?

I’ve never lived in Brisbane, but I love Queensland. As a child, my parents would flee the Melbourne cold every year and drive to Queensland for a long spring holiday. And I’ve continued the tradition with my own children. Queensland is dripping with memories for me, and I love the light, and the trees and the smell of frangipani. My publisher is in Brisbane, so I spend some time there, and it is a city I have watched change and it reminds me of Melbourne before Melbourne grew too large. I like walking along the river in Brisbane which is why I started the book with that scene.

Why have you moved the tale from Brisbane to Melbourne? Why specifically these two places?

I was very aware that I always base my books in the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne because they are the places that I know the most. I wanted Fred to have a different experience of Australia than my other characters. I wanted her to be nomadic, but I wanted her base to always be Queensland so that when she road trips to Melbourne with her dad, she is disoriented. Roller derby is big in Queensland so that was another reason I started the book there. I also think there is something about a road trip that is both comforting and unsettling.

Why have you written your protagonist, Fred, as a girl experiencing puberty?

When my partner Aidan was very sick, and our son was nearly 12, we talked a lot about the idea of him hitting puberty without a dad. Aidan bought him a shaving kit and deodorant as a sort of playful present and they joked a lot about how to shave. After Aidan died, my daughter talked about how hard she’d find it if I hadn’t been around during the years when she hit puberty. I think grieving without a parent who would guide you through the puberty years is hard, but I also wanted to show that Fred and her dad have the sort of relationship that can withstand that. Fred’s dad is beautifully present, and even though he doesn’t always get it right, he does try. Having Fred get her period meant that she must turn to her mum’s old derby friend for advice and that was important in the structure of the book.

I love how you have written Fred’s old and new friends. Her Brisbane friend Jazzie treats her the same as always after the death of her mother, her new friend Sam talks about skating and mice, and her step-uncle Graham treats her with gentle understanding. How important are these behaviours in friendships like this? What has helped you or your family?

After my children lost their dad in 2020, they talked about how they were treated differently or the same by people they knew. Some friends mentioned it and others didn’t. They wanted people to be the same with them, but they also wanted people to acknowledge that their dad had died. I guess I was honouring them in the way I constructed the cast of extras in this book. We felt very surrounded by friends and family after Aidan died, and I really wanted to explore the concept of found family – the people who become your family when you don’t have blood relatives. My kids have adults in their lives who have the role of Graham – someone who gets it and is just always there. Those people are critical after losing a parent, and I wanted it to be a man because I thought felt less expected.

I have just shared some of your book with someone who is grieving the death this week of a friend. We talked about the awkward conversations, how people grieve differently, the “strange in-between place” of grieving while also living, and the comfort of keeping the loved one alive through memories and stories. Your thoughts resonated with them and they responded with the idea of also trying to emulate or keep alive some of the loved one’s positive characteristics in themselves. These included attributes of kindness and curiosity about the world. What characteristics of a loved one do you hope to see immortalised in the world?

My partner who died was a playwright. He wrote beautifully about the world and the characters he created. He also loved music and lighting and never bought anything new. We are definitely trying to honour his way of living. My daughter has discovered a mad love of philosophy and that is something her dad also loved so it’s been special to watch our children develop interests that are inherited from him. I think his sense of humour is something we try and keep alive too. We often talk about the jokes he made or the way he approached storytelling. We talk about Aidan most days, in small ways or big. It’s important that he’s still a part of our house.

Uncle Graham draws and illustrates wonderful maps of the local area so that Fred can find her way around. Have you experienced something like this personally or, otherwise, where did the idea come from or what is the purpose of the illustrated maps beyond giving directions?

I thought that the maps were a great way of giving Fred information about her mum without it being spoken about. It meant that Graham could include little details about her childhood and teenage years without making a big deal out of it. I drew maps of the streets that I imagined Fred walking on, and I liked thinking about what she’d see and what she’d notice, and that the streets were ones her mum had walked many years before. Maps help give us a sense of history to a place and that was why I included them. Also Fred doesn’t have a mobile phone, so it was Graham’s way of helping her get around and be independent. Because Fred doesn’t know Melbourne, she needs maps for practical reasons, but she also uses them for emotional ones – they link her to her mum.

You successfully use an interesting writing technique where chapters often end reflectively. An example is the end of Chapter 14 where Fred says, “… derby is the place that makes me remember what I had. Derby is the place that makes the pain worse.”  These are almost thoughtful antitheses of cliff-hanger chapter endings. What is your rationale behind them?

I’m dreadful at chapter endings! I rely heavily on my editor so these may have been her wonderful way of shifting gear. I think because so much of this book is Fred trying not to think about, or admit, her grief, that we wanted to shift between active endings with a sense of cliff hanger about them, and more reflective endings as Fred is coming to terms with her loss. I also love reading books that end on a flattened note at the end of a chapter, so that you can draw breath as a reader before plunging into the next action scene.

What are you writing now or next?

I’m currently finishing off the next historical time slip book with co-writer, Emily Gale. Like our first, Elsewhere Girls, it uses a real historical figure and a fictional contemporary character. But unlike Elsewhere Girls, these two are not switching bodies. There are a lot of horse-riding scenes for us to channel our respective childhoods into! After that is finished, I’ll start work on a new middle grade for UQP.

Thank you for your considered and moving words, Nova. You show many sides of grief – with pain, with acceptance and with a hope of how to live in the present and future.

The Jammer at UQP

Nova Weetman’s website

Nova Weetman at PaperbarkWords blog:

The Edge of Thirteen

Elsewhere Girls (with Emily Gale)

My reviews of Nova Weetman’s books in The Australian:

(NB I’ve reproduced my reviews of Nova’s books that appeared as part of omnibus – multiple book – reviews below because they are now generally inaccessible and may be of interest.)

Frankie and Joely (2015)

Secret relationships cause tension in Melbourne-based Nova Weetman’s second YA novel, Frankie and Joely (UQP, 257pp, $19.95). Unlikely best friends, Frankie and Joely leave Melbourne for a sweltering summer holiday on Joely’s relatives’ rural property. At first the farm looks “full of promise and hope” but later it just seems to be dead grass and trees, and hungry cows.

What can 15-year-old girls do in the country? There are the routines and traditions of the farm such as the cooking and cups of tea, the pool, the dam, the cinema and the shops. The op shop is a gateway to a more exotic life for Frankie. The perfect leather coat she finds there makes her feel glamorous and sophisticated.

Frankie had previously come across the book, Picnic at Hanging Rock, in another op shop. She likes to linger in Miranda and Irma’s literary world and wonders “if she would have followed them through the crack in the rock or stayed behind screaming like Edith with her great, trembling fear”. When Joely disappears after New Year’s Eve, Frankie remembers that Miranda was never found at the rock.

Frankie is beautiful and people love her. They don’t see her insecurity or vulnerable home-life. Joely is freckled, thinks she’s the smart one of the two, and can be perceptive and affirming. Their friendship seesaws during their holiday. The author smatters their relationship with small moments where actions or words cause intense, but often fleeting, reactions. Thoughtless vagaries such as Frankie’s shrugging and Joely changing the place in Frankie’s book characterise their friendship but each girl is better and stronger because of the other.

The Secrets We Keep (2016)

A kind new friend and missing mothers appear in Melbourne-based Nova Weetman’s The Secrets We Keep (UQP, 232pp, $16.95) for younger YA readers. Clem has to move to a flat in a new suburb and begin another school mid-term because her old white weatherboard home has burned down. There are battles with the insurance company so money is short. Clem’s clothes are sagging and different from the girls at her new school and she has to wear sticky-taped-together Converse sneakers for the running she excels in. She is grieving the loss of her mother and feels displaced and angry.

Clem and best friend Bridge from her old school were too lost in their conversations and sport to consider how new students felt. Fortunately for Clem, Ellie is friendly, particularly once she hears that Clem’s mother has died. Ellie’s mother has breast cancer and the two girls become closer, although Clem is burning with a secret.

Clem’s mother did special things with her such as swimming in the winter sea and having chocolate cake for breakfast. She was easy-going and the envy of Clem’s friends until “she went black… Slept a lot. And was really sad. And then she burnt down our house…”

Everything is Changed (2017)

Nova Weetman has audaciously structured her story about two 15-year-olds who have killed a man in Everything is Changed (UQP, 272pp, $19.95) by telling it backwards. Clues unfurl about what happened in this tightly written psychological drama, culminating in the night everything changed.

We first meet the boys when Jake confesses at a Melbourne police station. Until the “incident” the year before, he and Alex were the “good kids” who handed their assignments in on time and were involved in extra-curricular activities. They had been at school together with Ellie, Alex’s girlfriend, and the local park with its concrete tunnel and metal roundabout was the setting of their youth and marker of their rites of passage.

Alex doesn’t belong there since transferring to a private school in Year Ten. Now nicknamed Zander, he throws himself into debating and rowing to both fit in and forget but he is “vanishing” despite the fancy uniform and the new mansion about which Jake wonders, “where [has] my friend … gone. He’s nowhere to be found in this place.”  Alex is pulled between the old and the new, feels that he’s lying to everyone and “the more I … let people think one thing when the truth is something different, the closer I am to being a person I don’t like much”.

The author explores the premise that trauma causes change. Both Alex and Jake are haunted and changed by the death: both react differently. Jake comes from a working class background. His father is in prison and Jake’s exceptional ability in science was to have been his escape. He starts wagging school and loses his place in the summer science program, surviving by punishing himself, believing “I can cope with the idea that it happened, as long as it damages me a little bit every day.”

As well as revealing their own thoughts and feelings, the boys tell us about each other. When Alex feels threatened, Jake can “smell his rage”. Much of the writing is sensory. Alex longs for Ellie to bring him “a Sunnyboy and a sticky, sweet orange kiss”. The characterisation shown through the dual narrative is written sparely, yet with depth, revealing more on multiple reads. Oppositions of private and public schools, mansion and “doghouse”, dead dog and dead man and the symbol of the spinning, creaking roundabout are framed by the law of cause and effect and the stealthy wildcard of chance.

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