‘You write fantasy, don’t you? You should meet the new girl, she’s written a fantasy novel.’
That was my introduction to Foz Meadows. As it turned out, the temp working with the sales department at my publishing day job was one of Australia’s most promising (and likeable) up-and-coming YA authors, who had just published her first novel, Solace and Grief, the first in a trilogy about a young girl born as a vampire and now trying to find other teenagers with similar gifts/curses. You can’t go past a premise like that; it’s like a cross between Requiem and X-Men.
Over time we bonded through a mutual interest in reading, writing, alcohol and webcomics. And she never seemed to bear a grudge for that time I nearly cut off her thumbs while we were fixing the photocopier.
Recently Foz moved to Scotland for an indeterminate period with her husband, while back in Australia The Key to Starveldt, the second book in her trilogy The Rare, has recently been published. With the third book on the horizon, posts-a-plenty on her thought-provoking blog Shattersnipe and other projects in the offing, I thought it a good time to ask Foz a few questions about writing, blogging, YA fiction and what it all means to her.
I always like to start with the big one. Why writing? Why do this rather than some other creative outlet, or indeed some kind of office/publishing job that pays better?
Words got their claws in me early. As much as I loved to draw and sing as a kid, neither art nor music ever moved me like writing did. From the time I could read, I loved stories; because I loved stories, I read; because I loved reading, I wrote – and the more I wrote, the easier it became, so that by the time I was in my early teens, not-writing was unthinkable.
Which isn’t to say I never daydreamed about being a palaeontologist or an actor or a foreign correspondent, but even when I started choosing school subjects around a planned career in archaeology, it never once occurred to me to stop writing stories. I might as well have anticipated cutting off a hand.
And so, authorness. Which – alas! – does not preclude the necessary holding of various office jobs that most certainly do pay better. It just means I tend to write worldbuilding notes by the photocopier as well.
You write YA fiction and read/review a lot of it too. But a lot of people (and I am kinda thinking of me here, I admit it) tend to consider YA fiction a poor cousin of ‘proper fiction’. How do you react to that perception?
The fallacy about YA novels is that they constitute a sort of writing-down, as though teenagers are necessarily presented with inferior prose, plotting, characterisation, worldbuilding and/or themes until they grow up and thereby prove themselves worthy of Adult Literature. Further offhand disparagement frequently centres on structure: that YA stories are simpler and shorter than their adult counterparts, with all-over happier endings and more predictable catharsises.
To which I say: bullshit.
As a genre – or, more relevantly, as a marketing concept – YA is new. No sane person would ever accuse C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne, Rudyard Kipling or Astrid Lindgren of having dumbed down their writing, but only because we think of their works as Classics. This is a very tricksy label and one it pays to keep tabs on, because by seemingly automatic and unspoken covenant, all non-literature novels raised to Classic status instantly loose their genre. This way, the very best YA, SFF, crime, horror and romance novels are spared the burden of representing the pinnacle of achievement in their respective genres, and are instead lumped together in a sort of margarine-category, the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Literary Fiction! of the writing world.
Which means, to get back on track, that only new YA authors are ever accused of dumbed-down prose and simplistic plotting, as though commercial success and popularity must always be anathema to substance, damn kids with their rap music and skateshoes and colourful hardbacks, GET OFF MY LAWN.
What is it about YA fiction that attracts you, as a reader and as a writer?
I find it hard to say sincerely what attracts me to YA fiction, because as much as I’ve just been calling it a genre, it also sort of isn’t. No other genre has its conventions gauged by the status of its (supposed) intended readership, because such a factor has nothing to do with narrative structure and everything to do with backward inference. Saying ‘geek fiction’ instead of SFF, for instance, conveys information about who, in my subjective estimation, such books are written for, but nothing about what they actually say.
And while that might be helpful if the object of the exercise is simply to match stories to demographics, we end up leading the witness when we ask why people choose to write or read it, because we’re implicitly making a judgement about what sort of person they are. I’ve never seen myself as writing for an age-group: I write the sorts of stories that I enjoy reading, and whether those are deemed externally to be more appropriate for teenagers or adults, the most relevant consideration to me is that I write fantasy. I love asking ‘what if’ questions about how the world works; I love the idea of hidden layers of reality, of magic doors to different places that can unpick all our notions of normality; I love mythology; and I really love making things up.
Do you have any plans to eventually write adult books, despite the fact that that label sounds kinda dirty?
I am working on at least one project right now that would be unequivocally termed ‘adult’, if only because of the sex scenes. So while I love the idea of teenagers reading my books, they’re by no means an exclusive audience.
You’ve written a lot of blog posts this year about the social issues surrounding YA fiction, such as the depiction of race and gender and the privilege and assumptions many readers bring to the work. What is it that drives you to write about these topics? Is this an area where YA fiction has a lot of problems, and if so, why is that?
If I’ve tended to talk about these problems largely in relation to YA, it’s because I’ve often been responding to existing discussions about specific YA novels, or which have been driven by YA authors. Issues of race, gender and privilege are by no means exclusive to YA, nor does it have a worse problem than any other genre (although whether the presence of a mostly teenage audience makes those concerns more pressing in YA is a different question).
What drives me most about these concerns is the extent to which so many people seem unaware of how deep-seated and toxic some of our unconscious biases are. Over and over, I find myself repeating that people are shaped by culture. Stories are part of culture: they both shape and are shaped by it. The same is true of their authors. When negative patterns emerge in types of stories in aggregate, a natural response is to try to address them at a personal level, attempting a culture-shift by subverting them in our own works. But how can you criticise the tropes in an individual work when the problem isn’t that any one book should feature them, but rather that they’ve become the default setting?
Take, for example, the ongoing discussion about the overwhelming number of pretty dead girls on YA covers. Taken singly, each of these cover images could be considered beautiful and relevant to the story it represents. Taken en masse, we’re forced to ask questions about why photos of passive, pretty, lifeless women are universally being used to sell books to teenage girls, and what that says about the culture of story-selling (if not story-telling) we find ourselves in.
This particular example has the benefit of being visual. But try the same trick with the overabundance of stories about straight, white protagonists, and suddenly the issue becomes murkier. Detractors ask: Why does it matter? Are we suggesting authors should have a diversity quota? Does the absence of queer or POC characters make a book less morally worthy than it otherwise might be? Shouldn’t it just be about the story? These might seem like ridiculous questions, but that doesn’t stop people from asking them when confronted with the prospect of criticising their favourite tales.
Unlike the example of dead girls on covers, the contents of stories can’t be blamed on the whims of marketing departments: instead, we must confront the prospect that authors are using popular tropes without necessarily stopping to think about what they mean. And if we love an author, series or story, then criticising them along those lines is a difficult thing to do. As I’ve recently said elsewhere , loving something should mean we hold it to higher standards, not lower; ask more questions of it, not fewer. And yet we flinch from doing so for fear of what it might mean. That’s the reason I end up blogging so often: love your stories by all means, but think about them, too!
I often see you blogging or tweeting about new ideas for stories and novels, and things you work on for fun that wind up becoming more serious. What’s your process like as a writer?
When I’m in a writing groove, whatever story I’m working on quite literally obsesses me. If I have a dayjob when the frenzy strikes, every free second will be spent doing sneaky edits and worldbuilding; my lunch break will become writing time, and instead of reading on my commute home, I’ll think about my characters. If I don’t have a dayjob or it’s the weekend, I’ll frequently start writing at around 10am and work nonstop until 5pm – given the opportunity, I tend to forget about such niceties as pants, bathing and lunch. I’ll usually break for dinner, but I’m also a night-owl, and if I haven’t written myself into a corner by then and provided there are no social outings to distract me, I’ll go straight back to the keyboard and work until circa 1am.
My minimum daily output tends to hover somewhere around 2000 words, with the uppermost limits being around 10 000. I can keep up the pace for as long as inspiration holds out, which might be anywhere from a week to a month, but (so far) never any longer. I do sometimes take up ambush-projects, little side-stories and worldbuilding and whathaveyou. The same rules don’t apply in those cases, but even if I’m fixated only for an hour or an afternoon, I’m still pretty much fixated.
When I’m not writing, I read, play video games, watch DVDs, go to the movies and generally sloth, though I tend to think of this less as leisure than brainfuelling. Part of my subconscious is always concerned with storytelling, and the more I engage with narrative, the more assertive it becomes. Writing binges take a lot of energy: reading in particular replenishes me, and once the gauge is full, I can’t help from tearing off again. It’s a rhythm of sorts, but not very ordered or restrained.
Is there an aim for you in your writing – something you want to achieve through your work, over and above creating good stories that people want to read?
Very much, I’d like to subvert expectations. I want my books to make people ask questions – and for the writing of them to turn me quizzical, too.
What are you currently working on?
I’m splitting my time between two very different and unrelated projects. One, as mentioned above, is noticeably more adult; the other is proving impossible to characterise. Both are most properly described as epic fantasy (though each with a respective caveat), and both are reworkings of very old ideas, but other than that, their structure, pace and themes are quite disparate. I’m madly in love with the pair of them, and can’t wait to see where they end up!
You can find more of Foz at Shatterspike, where you can also find more information about Solace and Grief and The Key to Starveldt. Both books are available in major Australian bookstores, while the ebook version of Solace and Grief can be found in the Kindle Store.
Plus she’s on Twitter as @fozmeadows. Which is fairly easy to remember.