Reading Is Bliss
Abigail Tarttelin is one of those fierce young up-and-coming authors who make anyone *coughcough* who has ever aspired to make a living as a writer of fiction fall into a pit of despondency so deep and so dark that not even Dr Seuss can pull you out. British-born Tarttelin is only 25, and is already being hailed for her writing, especially with her latest novel, Golden Boy.
While I won't give too much away, suffice it to say that Golden Boy is about the keeping of secrets, and that her prose is mature, her writing style nuanced and her characters like layers of an onion - as befits a book that turns gender itself into a question mark. She kindly answered a few questions about the book and writing in general.
I did make the comparison between Golden Boy, which has an intersex character, and Jeffrey Euginides' brilliant book, Middlesex, and she replied in a way which suggests a seasoned and humble interviewee.
Are you a fan of Jeffrey Euginides' Middlesex? If so, how much do you think this has influenced and/or informed your writing of the character of Max in Golden Boy?
I absolutely adored Middlesex. I think it's a beautifully written book and such an intriguing story. I did, however, read it a year after I started Golden Boy, and shortly after the final big edit of the manuscript with my editors Arzu Tahsin and Sarah Branham. This was intentional, so that the reading did not inform the writing of Golden Boy, but I do think the books are different and the stories complement each other. Middlesex is an almost myth-like story about the many strange coincidences and accidents that lead to the creation of an extraordinary outsider; Golden Boy is perhaps a quieter story, set in an "average" community, where a seemingly ordinary high school student must hide a secret to remain an insider in their quaint little town.
Probably the most obvious question of all - but what inspired you to write about an intersex person?
I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on its womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could indeed highlight the realisation many women have upon reaching adolescence - that their gender does make a huge difference in how they live, particularly in terms of their physical vulnerability.
Are there such things as "guy books" and "girl books"?
My oldest sister has two kids - a boy and a girl, the perfect pigeon pair, and being the nosy bookworm auntie that I am, I regularly browse through their bookshelves to supervise their reading material.
I find it disheartening because, inevitably, I'll get kinda pissed off that my niece reads pink fairy books full of fluffy tales about girls who are helpful and sweet and kind-hearted, whereas my nephew gets to read about dinosaurs and dragons and brave boys who slay them.
What's more, this sort of pink-and-blue divide when it comes to reading doesn't stop when we leave the land of recess and school uniforms. No, it carries over into adulthood, like some kind of neverending hangover.
Young-adult author Maureen Johnson, writing for The Huffington Post, rants in her column about how "female fiction" is perceived 95 per cent of the time as being "trashy", labelled with pejorative terms like "light", "fluffy", "breezy" and "beach read". She goes on to say that she spent most of her college career taking entire papers that revolved around male writers, and makes the strong case that "for much of history, women read the works of men".
GUEST BLOG BY ROHANI ALEXANDER
Guest blog: It's everywhere. The advice. The pressure. "What do you mean your three-year-old can't read yet?" As a parent, I have several major fears - choking, drowning, driveways, poisoning and anti-reading. Not just my offspring being unable to read - but not enjoying reading. As much as you try not to, and you know it's terrible, sometimes you just can't help mental comparisons.
We have a nephew, three months younger than his boisterous cousin. While she's happy to recite her favourite books as we turn the pages, he is able to sit alone with any book and read each letter aloud. He can identify, read and sign the alphabet. Comparison alert! His parents are of the flash card type - although not too intensely - but they sort of have to be. They're deaf, and the boys are hearing, so written language acquisition is crucial.
I spend a small but tragic amount of time calculating my kids' genetic chances of loving books. Mummy was reading at four, demanding "chapter books" at five and can't even eat breakfast without something to read. Daddy is a competent reader but would probably rather have a dental procedure than retire with the written word. In his defence, I think he would prefer his girls to be more like Mummy in the reading department, which surely stacks the odds a little more in favour of bookwormery.
Celebrated Australian children's author Mem Fox says in her book Reading Magic to just read three stories aloud for 10 minutes a day to your child from infancy. Even if it's the same books every day, she says they'll learn to read before school. I like this approach. Minimum angst, zero phonics, promised results.
Our daily reading routine is thus - after bath, before bed, our two-year-old chooses two books from her collection. Daddy (yay Daddy!) reads them with her, then she takes them to "read" on her own, before putting them away and heading to bed. I realised recently the baby, already eight months old and so far without regular book time of her own, is missing out on this and I felt awash with fear and guilt. Madness.
There is a moment in The Crane Wife when you will cringe and think "oh no, don't say that".
Actually, there are several moments like that, but it's not in the way you think. The Crane Wife is a novel about falling in love. But again, it's not what you would expect. In fact, if I could compare Patrick Ness' novel to anything, it would be the beautiful artistic tiles that his character George, a quiet print store owner gently heading along the shores of middle age, ultimately creates from slicing and splicing old books, and that make him rich.
The novel is a bit of a puzzle as well, in that there are parts that are emotionally engaging and easy to read, and yet others that don't appear to be as well told. Though I can see that, ultimately, the narrative unfolds like origami, you have to find your way to a seam and figure out how it all comes together when it unfolds.
Ness is best known for his popular YA Chaos Walking series, which starts with The Knife of Never Letting Go, so I am curious as to what drove him to write adult fiction. He was quite happy to answer a few questions by email. If anyone wants to see him in person, he'll be appearing at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival next week.
Did you find it difficult transitioning from writing YA fiction to adult fiction for The Crane Wife? [This is his second adult novel.]
No, there's nothing different at all in the writing process. The commitment, the emotional investment, the time spent, all the same. The story tells me what it needs to be, and I just shrug my shoulders and say, "OK".
I don't think I'd be the first reader to confess that my romantic expectations have been spoilt by literature. It's not a state secret. Yes, I am rather fond of my literary heroes and (even if it's only on a subconscious level), that probably has had a big influence on my romantic choices.
Last year, a friend asked if I knew why my previous long-term relationships had never worked out. "No," I replied from the floor where I had prostrated myself after the end of a relationship that had taken most of my 20s, "enlighten me." "Because you want a man like Rhett Butler."
"And what's wrong with that?" I asked. As far as book heroes go (spoilers ahead), Gone with the Wind's Rhett Butler was intelligent, charismatic, wealthy and handy with the pistols at dawn. He was also educated, sensitive and loyal to the people he really cared about. When Atlanta burned, he was the one who stole a horse and rescued Scarlett, and he married her despite knowing that she was infatuated with another man.
I wept tears of blood when his beloved daughter, Bonnie Blue Butler, broke her neck and died after being tossed from her favourite pony and Rhett sat up all night with her cold little corpse because she had once been scared of the dark.
"Yes, but," said my friend, who I was beginning to wish would keep her opinions to herself, "he was also an emotionally withholding alcoholic who slept with prostitutes to avoid real intimacy and never told Scarlett how he really felt until it was too late.
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