If you were to give me a list of a hundred topics to write about, I wouldn’t choose cancer. I wouldn't choose it because it’s too big, too confronting, and potentially fraught with cliche and drama. And I’m a fan of neither cliche nor drama.
When I began work on Zac & Mia in February of 2009, I hadn’t chosen to write about cancer. At the time, I was toying with two separate ideas: love and isolation. Love because some female teenagers had asked me to include more romance in my novels, and isolation because I was working in a hospital and felt empathy for the patients spending weeks trapped in a room.
Somehow, love and isolation came together with a single image: a wall with a hand on either side. One knocks, the other taps. I liked the sound of it and the silences in between. I liked the way two people who were not able to meet could still find a way to connect. As I began writing the first scene, I wondered if it’s possible to fall in love with someone you can’t physically meet.
As the novel progressed, it wasn’t cancer that interested me. I became intrigued by these two hands communicating, and what they represented. I had to explore what it was like for Zac to be stuck in isolation, listening to the new girl next door. I knew his knock on the wall would change their lives, but I didn’t know how.
I knew that Mia would be opposite to Zac in many ways but, surprisingly, they’d come to complement each other. As the story developed, I became obsessed with three questions: What is courage? What is beauty? What is love? These questions kept the novel (and me) on track. What does it mean, at seventeen, to be brave? What does beauty look like? And what is love, really?
Cancer, therefore, was the catalyst to bring these two people together. When Zac and Mia are discharged from hospital, cancer remains as a murmur in the background, influencing their choices in the real world. To write this, I drew on my experience of teaching in a children’s hospital. For the past eight years, I’ve met many amazing teenagers, particularly on the adolescent oncology ward. I continue to work there part-time, and every day I am inspired, amused, surprised and humbled.
Cancer doesn’t interest me, but the courage of these teenagers does, as they face their challenges in hospital then adjust to the real world with the kind of perspective that illness brings. Without their school routine and friendship groups, what is it that really matters? Who are they, without their hair or perfect complexion? What’s left that defines who they are?
As a teenager, I was obsessed with self-expression, appearance and identity. But I was also intensely curious about bigger ideas: death, afterlife, religion, inequality, conservation, fate. I’d flirt outrageously with boys at school, but at home I’d write about the meaning of life. I still keep notebooks with adolescent poetry about love and loss, hope and despair. Today, teenagers continue to think deeply and acutely about the ideas that adults often forget to. Zac and Mia certainly do, and their intensity is magnified by the situation they find themselves in.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on cancer, or on teenagers and romance, for that matter. All I know are my two characters and their stories. Even though the novel begins in a hospital room, it moves into a world where there’s courage, beauty and hope. To see life through the eyes of Zac and Mia - and through the eyes of real teenagers like them - is a privilege. I hope I’ve done it justice.
You can find out more about A J Betts and her work by visiting her website and following the Zac & Mia blog tour at the websites below.
As part of the blog tour, we have one copy of Zac & Mia to give away. For your chance to win, just leave a comment on this guest post during the blog tour. We'll announce the winner in the comments on this post and on our Kids' Book Review Facebook page on the 2nd August. Entries are open to residents of Australia and New Zealand only.
24 July 2013: Q&A with Danielle at ALPHAReader
25 July 2013: Review by Bec at First Impressions
26 July 2013: Guest Post and Review at Kids’ Book Review (that's us!)
27 July 2013: Review by Jess at The Tales Compendium
28 July 2013: Review by Dianne at Writing for Children
29 July 2013: Review by Melanie at YA Midnight Reads
30 July 2013: Review by Amanda at VeganYANerds
31 July 2013: Review by Susan at Obsession with Books
1 August 2013: Review by Naomi at inkcrush
Competition runs from Friday 26 July 2013, 6am to Thursday 1 August 2013, midnight AEST, and the competition is open to residents of Australia and New Zealand, over the age of 18 (Mum and Dad can enter on behalf of kids). The judges' decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. The winner will be announced in the comments of this post and the Kids' Book Review Facebook page. The winning entrant must contact Kids' Book Review with their postal details within 48 hours of the announcement or another entry will be selected.