'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Wednesday 31 March 2010

Author Interview: Foz Meadows

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome talented young adult author Foz Meadows, who has kindly agreed to answer our many questions about her books and writing.Visit Foz's website for more information.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I moved to Melbourne four years ago from Sydney but grew up on the Central Coast of New South Wales. My dad first nicknamed me Foz, after Fozzie Bear in the Muppets, because I smiled a lot as a baby; my real name is Philippa, although outside of my ever-turning circle of dayjobs, there’s hardly anyone who uses it.

I’ve worked a few different gigs to pay the rent – waitress, advertising copywriter, legal secretary, general administrative dogsbody – but right now, I’m working at the Coroner’s Court, which is extremely interesting.

My husband is a philosopher. We have two cats, but no children – not yet, anyway! Give us a couple of years, and we’ll see how we go. Otherwise, I’m a geek. I like video games, webcomics, mythology and t-shirts with writing on them. I cannot be trusted in the presence of cheese, but mainly subsist on the four basic food groups: sushi, smoothies, Bolognese and pizza.

How long have you been writing? 
I decided to be an author when I was eleven or so, which is when I first tried my hand at novels. For years before that, I was always writing stories. I can’t remember the age at which I first picked up a pen, but primary school was definitely when I started writing for myself and not just during class. On that basis, I can reasonably claim to have been writing in one form or another for almost twenty years. Which, frankly, is terrifying.

What genre do you write in?
At the moment, urban fantasy. I love the idea of usurping reality with magic, so that they overlap at the edges. What makes it so fantastic, in both senses of the word, is the extent to which it plays on possibility and the natural limits of human knowledge. We like to tell ourselves that we understand how things work, and to a certain extent, our thoughts are correct. But there’s simply too many unexplored corners in even a small town or a suburban street, too many unknown people or neighbours half-glimpsed, to really claim to know everything about our daily surroundings. Fill in those gaps with magic, and something in us responds to the uncertainty of it, even where the given scenario is impossible.

Have you written in any other genres? 
I cut my teeth on epic fantasy, which also constitutes the majority of what I grew up reading. Whether or not I’m any good at it remains to be seen, but it still remains dear to my heart. Steampunk is a recent fascination, and at various other times – usually when I was younger – I’ve produced the odd piece of straight, quasi-humorous fiction. Spec fic is more the realm of my very occasional short stories; I’ve even tried a horror piece recently. But beyond all that, I’m also a poet – less so now than when I was at school, but constant enough that it qualifies as a defining characteristic.

Why does you write? 
Because no one ever told me not to, and now I couldn’t stop if I tried. On days when I’m stuck, I sit at the computer refreshing the same websites over and over, looking for an excuse not to get up and do something else, because I don’t like admitting that I’m stuck. If I go for too long without writing, I start to crawl up the walls. Trust me: when that happens, it’s not pretty. Writing is a sanity valve, a form of expression, and the one skill I couldn’t bear to lose. It’s what I love.

What made you decide to write young adult fiction? 
It was less a conscious decision than a by-product of the story I chose to write. Once I realised where the plot was going, who the characters were and so on, it just seemed more natural to make Solace & Grief a YA novel. That being said, I’m a big fan of young adult literature – particularly at the moment, I think there’s some brilliant stuff being written, and the idea of contributing to the genre was certainly attractive.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? 
Alas, no! Or at least, I have memories of several early stories, but I couldn’t say definitively which one came first. The main contender was about My Little Pony characters – I traced the illustrations from a colouring book, wrote a narrative to go with them, taped the pages into a booklet and gave it to my mother. I don’t know how old I was, but I enjoyed every minute of it!

Your brand new book, Solace & Grief, is really making an impression in the book world. What’s it all about? 
Solace & Grief is the first volume of the Rare, an urban fantasy trilogy. The main character is a teenage girl, Solace Morgan, who’s been raised in the foster system; she’s also a vampire. The day before her 17th birthday, she encounters a faceless man in the streets near her house, and is jolted into running away.

She soon finds herself in the company of other people like her, and together, they decide to learn about their abilities. But then Professor Lukin shows up, a man who apparently wants to study them, and a whole lot of weirdness starts to take over their lives. There’s hijinks, danger and occasional sarcasm. Also: vampires.

Is Solace modelled on anyone? 
Not deliberately! I’m very fond of her, as one would expect, but she isn’t a copy of anyone in particular. That being said, a couple of other characters have definitely inherited some of their characteristics from people in real life. Some of that was a conscious decision on my part, but at other times, I haven’t noticed the connection until later.

How long did you spend writing the book?
The original draft took me about six months – it was a little over 50,000 words, and quite skeletal. The word count crept up by about 10,000 during subsequent revisions, then rounded out by about another 15,000 once I started editing it with Ford Street. All told, I think the time spent comes out at somewhere around a year and a half, the vast bulk of which involved pulling the original version apart and putting it back together again. I’m currently in the midst of doing the same thing to The Key to Starveldt, which is the next volume in the series, but it’s taking a lot longer – partly because it’s going to be a longer novel, but mostly because the story is growing.
Why are speculative fiction and fantasy novels so popular amongst teens and YA readers right now? 
On the most basic level, I think the popularity is a reflection of the fact that the genre is interesting, varied and rich in creativity; it’s also booming in terms of the volume of books published, which makes it more readily accessible to a larger number of readers.

More specifically in the guise of urban fantasy, however, I believe that speculative fiction offers young adults an escape, not from reality, because such stories are still set on Earth, but from normality. The entire premise of speculative fiction is an usurpation of the normal and the known; it is an exercise in curiosity, a willing suspension of disbelief in order to see how things might be, if we only tweaked the strings of the world just so.

Dystopian futures, magic, new technology, doors to nowhere, fabulous creatures, different planes: we still play with human choice and emotion, but in settings and contexts that beg us to be curious, to pick the scab and lift the skin, and never mind a bit of blood or ichor. That’s always been the draw for me, and I suspect remains a draw for teenage and young adult readers in particular.

Have you read the Twilight series and did it inspire your story? 
I was more than halfway through Solace & Grief before Twilight really caught my attention, despite having been aware of the books for some time. After that, I decided to hold off reading the series until I’d finished my first draft, so that I could be sure in my own mind that I wouldn’t be influenced by such a big name. I’ve read the first book since then, and know what happens in the other three thanks to detailed internet reviews, plot summaries and commentary.

Why do you think the Twilight series did so well – beyond the vampires? 
I think the timing of the series was particularly significant, which is to pay no disrespect to Meyer’s writing. For me, a large part of the current boom in vampire literature is attributable to a sort of post-Buffy bubble: Joss Whedon cast such a long and definitive shadow that it took until a few years after Buffy and Angel had finished for people to realise not only that they wanted more, but that they could set about creating it themselves, or look for it in other places. Which makes Meyer herself something of an anomaly, in that she derived the idea for Twilight from a dream, and has remarked that the first time she ever looked up vampires on the internet was when she wanted to see what sites Bella, her protagonist, would find if she were to do likewise.

In that sense, it seems fair to say that a market existed for Twilight beyond what Meyer herself might have expected, and as she got there first, with a story that was clearly a fresh interpretation, it gave her an early monopoly.

There is also a strong emotional pull to the series, a passion that drew in readers from all age brackets and sustained their interest across four books, which is not something to be taken lightly. There’s been a lot of debate about the Twilight series, and while some of that is undoubtably attributable to its popularity – and therefore to discussions of whether that popularity is merited or not, and on what grounds – the fact that it rouses so diverse a spectrum of the populace to voice such a wide range of opinions cannot be ignored.

What do you hope Solace and Grief imparts to its readers? 
In no particular order: an affection for the characters, curiosity, a desire to look at the normal world in a different light, a sense of humour, the idea that being a teenager is not wholly defined by high school, and maybe a teensy longing to read the sequel.

What are the greatest blocks or obstacles she has experienced on her writing journey? 
The endless slog of self-motivation. Having to write because the story is itching at me, and then being exhausted at work the next day. Forcing myself to write when the words won’t come, because I can’t do anything with an incomplete manuscript except try and finish it. Ripping out pages or paragraphs that took hours of labour, because I realise that they’re pulling the story in the wrong direction.

Rewriting, editing and rereading the same manuscript over and over again, until the desire to give up and damn the whole thing for the sake of variety is near impossible to combat. Sending out the novel with the expectation that it will be rejected and the simultaneous hope of success, all while drafting the changes I’ll make next time in either case.

When you write, there’s nobody else who can get the job done if a scene is proving too hard, or if you’ve had a rough week, or if there’s a deadline coming up and you’re scrambling to do six other things in the same timeframe.

You write because the characters are trapped in your head, and each keystroke is like the bite of a pickaxe into their prison wall. Either help them out in the light, where they can breathe, or listen to them bang their fists and wail; or worse, fall silent.

What do you love most about producing books for young adults?
Writing the kind of stories that I enjoy reading, and hopefully that a wide range of other people can enjoy, too. When I think back to the person I was between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, there’s a little thrill of pleasure at the idea that she would have liked the book that I’ve written.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to write a book in the young adult genre?
Don’t talk down to your audience – a good YA book is one that can be read by adults without the need to justify any perceived glitches by the age group at which it was aimed. Do write what you know, rather than something you feel might be Hip To The Young People, but which you personally aren’t knowledgeable about or interested in, or at the very least prepared to research thoroughly. I also endorse humour.

If you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be?
A perpetual student, an archaeologist, an historian, a librarian, a warrior princess, a pathologist, unemployed, a daydreamer, a waitress, a time-traveller, an air hostess, a backpacker, and about twelve different kinds of broke.

What are your other interests?
Excluding writing and reading, which are obvious and therefore don’t count: history, film-watching, drinking with philosophers and other miscreants, random walking, and food.

What are your favourite YA books of all time?
In no particular order: The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling; J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which I’m going to pretend counts as a single book for the purposes of this question; ditto to the complete works Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld both; and double-ditto Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series. I know that’s cheating, but they’re all worth it.

What books did you read as a child?
The Redwall series by Brian Jacques and Geoffrey McSkimming’s Cario Jim/Jocelyn Osgood novels were among my absolute favourites, as were the Silver Brumby series by Elyne Mitchell and anything by Roald Dahl. I’ve read and reread all those books so many times, the cumulative hours spent between their pages probably tallies close to a solid year of my life.

What would be her perfect day?
I wake up at noon for no better reason than that I’ve slept for fourteen hours and feel moved to embrace consciousness as a worthwhile pursuit. I have an excellent shower, one where the water temperature is exactly right, while singing in fine voice at the top of my lungs. The clothes I put on afterwards are clean, crisp and remarkably flattering.

Because we have nothing better to do, my husband and I walk to the bookshop, enjoying a conversation about this and that, browse for as long as it takes us to each find a book we hadn’t realised we’d been yearning for until that exact moment, purchase them accordingly, and hie ourselves to some nearby establishment in the business of serving all-day breakfasts, notably of the type that involve eggs, ham and Hollandaise sauce.

We walk and talk some more, all while heading in the direction of the cinema, and when we arrive, we find that there is something on at just that moment that we want to see. Maybe it’s not a particularly well-received film, but we figure it will be fun anyway. Imagine our surprise when it turns out to be excellent, or at least so intriguingly mediocre as to provoke an amusing conversation afterwards.

Thus rejuvenated, we head into town for dinner and drinks with our closest friends; the food is Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese or Thai, depending on my mood, and it tastes delicious. We drink enough to talk expansively about absurd and wonderful things, but not so much as to be truly drunken or merit a hangover.

Afterwards, we walk through the backstreets and find a little shop that serves rosewater, pavlova, apple pie and hazelnut-flavoured gelato (among others), which we buy, and after devouring all in good order, we catch a late cab home. We have nothing to do tomorrow, so once we’ve climbed into bed, we watch an episode of something on the laptop. I fall asleep without any tossing or turning, and when I wake up the next day, I remember my dreams.

Which five words best describe you?
Geeky, tragedian, quote-prone fantasist.

What’s next for Foz Meadows?
I’m still working on The Key to Starveldt, and can’t wait to be done with the initial drafting; then I can move onto the third and final volume in the Rare, which is currently titled Falling Into Midnight. There’s a stack of short stories piling up that I want to write and/or need to edit, and a completed first draft of an adult mystery/fantasy/murder novel loitering in my files until such time as I have more than three seconds to spare it. In short: lots!

Don’t miss Foz’s weekly column, Speaking to Geeks, for Trespass Magazine. You can also check out her blog for more fabulous inspriation. A rogues’ gallery for the cast of Solace & Grief can be found here.