Gus and the Starlight by Victoria Carless
Published by HarperCollins Australia
Guest author: Victoria Carless
Victoria Carless writes about her wonderful middle-fiction novel, Gus and the Starlight for PaperbarkWords.
Christmas gift idea
Gus and the Starlight is a story about family, friendships and second chances. It’s set in a haunted drive-in movie theatre and features 11-year-old Gus Able, who is really good at not making any friends at all.
The idea for the story initially came from the setting, a drive-in movie theatre in a small town, which the locals say is haunted. I knew I wanted to write about The Starlight a year or so before I had the characters. Then an image of Gus and her family in a car came to me. I got the sense things were getting desperate, that they had to leave home, and fast. I realised the family had moved around a lot and I became completely invested in Gus’s story. I knew I had to find a way to help them find their special place in the world. They head north to escape their circumstances in the big city and stumble into the job of reviving the drive-in. Gus lands the job of projectionist. It’s a steep learning curve but over time she excels at the new (old) technology.
In fact, The Starlight becomes integral to her family’s safety and happiness, as do some of the locals, including the original projectionist Henry Cronk, as well as Nicole at her new school, who the other kids refer to as Kale Girl.
Readers have told me one of the most relatable things about the book is the films Gus chooses to show at The Starlight, one example being The Princess Bride. I am a child of the 1980s and my parents took my siblings and I to the local drive-in quite often, as we didn’t have a VCR player, so I had a lot of lived experience to draw on! Seeing a movie felt really special, like an occasion, as opposed to now when you can stream anything you like, any time. I wanted to evoke that feeling for readers; the sense of being transported by a story on the big screen.
The drive-in movie theatre in my book still screens 35mm films on reels, instead of files on a hard drive like cinemas today, so that meant that I had to choose films that were distributed in that format, generally anything pre 2000s. I also wanted the films Gus screens to parallel or echo Gus’s circumstances in real time, so I looked for films that worked in this way. Oh, and some were also my favourites growing up!
I did quite a bit of research into drive-in movie projection technology. Having never actually seen a drive-in projector up close, I wasn’t even sure how they worked, so I did a lot of online reading to understand the terminology and watched YouTube videos about how to load 35mm film. I also consulted with the owners of a drive in in North Queensland who kindly answered my many questions.
I also did some research into comets, as there is a (fictional) comet due to appear in the night sky not long after Gus and her family arrive in town. This is also what Gus and Nicole’s science project is based on. My memory of primary school astronomy had failed me and it was fun re-learning about comet behaviour and what they are made of – basically the leftovers of the solar system.
One of my favourite characters to write in this novel was Deirdre, the self-appointed Artistic Director and lead actress of the local Amateur Dramatic Society. She takes herself and her job very seriously. If only the rest of the community did too…
I was a playwright for ten years before moving into fiction, so have spent a bit of time in rehearsal rooms. Deidre is a heightened version of some interesting personalities I encountered. Perhaps there’s some of my own inner dramatic artiste in there as well. I really had the best time with her. I really strove to balance pathos and humour in this book.
I really feel so lucky to write for Middle Grade readers. They’re wonderfully discerning and know that a sprinkle of magical realism is the perfect antidote to our daily routines and the general hustle. I have been inspired by so many beautiful books written for Middle Grade. In particular, I love the way children’s author Karen Foxlee’s books are whimsical and heartbreaking at the same time. They always deal with complex human experiences in a captivating way.
My next story is also for Middle Grade readers and is set in an alternative lifestyle community called Passing Waters. The main character, Lani is a real STEM girl, so she challenged to the very core by her mother’s desire for a tree change. The curriculum at Lani’s new school features biodynamic gardening and something called eurythmy (interpretive dancing). I am also weaving in a thread of quantum physics. Or trying to, anyway! Lots of research happening at the moment, and it’s stretching my brain. I will keep you posted on my progress with that!
I am on both Twitter (@VCarless) and more recently on Instagram (@victoria.carless). The kid lit and Middle Grade communities on Instagram are just so welcoming and I’m enjoying meeting so many lovely writers online. You can also visit my website at: https://www.victoriacarless.com
I also highly recommend Victoria’s atmospheric, original YA novel The Dream Walker