A. J. BettsInterviewTeaching materialsThe Garret At HomeWriterYA

A. J. Betts on ‘Zac and Mia’

A. J. Betts' novel Zac and Mia won the 2012 Text Prize and the 2014 Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adults at the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards. Not only is the novel published in 14 countries, it was adapted for American television and will soon be available globally.

Her other novels include Hive, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Indie Book Awards and 2019 ABIA Book of the Year for Older Children, and its sequel Rogue. And believe it or not, she has a PhD on the topic of wonder in life and in reading.

Amanda Betts_The Garret

TRANSCRIPT

ASTRID: Amanda Betts, who writes under the pen name, A. J. Betts, is a brilliant YA writer. Her novel Zac and Mia received the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People's Literature in the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards, as well as a number of other prizes. It is sold around the world and was adapted for TV, including attracting Emmy Awards in the United States. Amanda has written other novels, including the two book series, Hive and Rogue, both of which also attracted their own awards and short listings. In this interview we are going to do a close reading of Zac and Mia – and there will be spoilers.

Amanda, welcome to The Garret.

AMANDA: Thanks for having me.

ASTRID: Now our interview today is going to be turned into teaching materials for Reading Australia in the hopes that teachers are encouraged to take Zac and Mia – which is an exceptional novel about illness and grief and friendship and family – into the classroom.

So, let's start at the beginning. Can you introduce us to your novel, Zac and Mia?

AMANDA: Yes, I will do my best. Zac and Mia is my third novel. I began it in 2009 and it took me four, five years. It is a novel that is set in a hospital. It begins in a hospital, and it begins with 17-year-old Zac who is having a bone marrow transplant. He is spending five weeks in isolation with his mum as he undergoes this treatment, and everything is about to change on page one when a new girl arrives next door. She's another 17-year-old patient and her name is Mia, and even though they can't meet because Zac's in isolation they get to know each other through the wall and then later in real life.

ASTRID: So, before we get into the story of Zac and the story of Mia, I'd like to understand your motivation. So obviously you've got an immediate point of tension in there, they can't see each other because Zac is in isolation. What was your motivation for writing a novel that is so clearly centred around and not able to escape illness, physical illness, and set in a cancer ward?

AMANDA: Honestly, it came because of my work. I have worked in a children's hospital for 16 years here in Perth, Perth Children's Hospital (previously Princess Margaret Hospital). And I've worked with sick teenagers for most of this time. I'm a high school English teacher, and for most of this time I was working full time. I've taught on the various wards, and in 2009 when I was thinking about starting a new project, I didn't know what I was going to do, I was actually working on the oncology ward. So, I was surrounded with young people like Zac and like Mia and hundreds – not all at once, but over the years – hundreds of other young people.

So, having said I did not think, ‘Ah, I know what I'm going to write about, I'm surrounded by drama’. That's completely the wrong idea. I write fiction, and my previous two novels had been inspired by completely small random things.

So, Zac and Mia began, the idea began with the notion of isolation. It wasn't cancer, I'm not interested in cancer per se. I'm interested in how do you deal with being stuck in a room for five weeks with your mum if you're a 17-year-old boy? Because some of my students had to. And as a young person these are formative years, and so much depends on which group you are sitting with at school and what music you are listening to and what hat you wear and all the gossip. And if you're isolated from it, you're taken away from that and you can't play sport and you don't look the same, then who are you?

So, I started in February 2009, just like a stream of consciousness from a character called Zac only because I have a nephew called Zac. So, I like to put my relative's names in things. A 17-year-old boy called Zac who is just bemoaning the fact that he's locked in with his mum. And I didn't know where it was going to go. I didn't know it would become a novel or whatnot because I don't start with a grand project or themes or anything like that. I'm just curious, what is it like?

At the same time, I was teaching other students on the ward that weren't locked in. One of them was a 15-year-old girl newly diagnosed. She had bone cancer of the knee and she had requested something to read because she was really bored and she asked to read my books. So, my first book and then a work in progress, which was my second book. And to be honest even though... Look, she liked them, but she had a complaint and it was this. There was no romance. And even though I'm fine with not writing romance she wasn't, and she demanded a romance for my next novel. And I couldn't say... How can you say no? So, I said look I'll think about it.

And while I was scribbling away with this idea of a boy stuck in isolation, I kept being nagged by this promise I had made to her to write a romance. I imagined initially there would be two things, but then for me story writing is problem solving and suddenly I thought of it as a puzzle. Can I put the two pieces together? And then Zac and Mia became an experiment. Can I write a romance in which a boy is isolated and they can't meet? And that was part of the fun of it. How do you form a relationship with someone through a wall? Can you even fall in love with somebody? And, so for the next three, four, five years I just wanted to explore that. What is love really? And it's not a romance typically, but that was the impetus for the setup in the story. So, cancer obviously influences their lives and it brings them together as a catalyst, but it is certainly not the overarching theme I guess. I think there are other things at play.

ASTRID: There are certainly other things at play. I mean the novel is called Zac and Mia and this is the story of Zac and Mia and their experiences and their choices as they are teenagers becoming adults. But I would like to start at the beginning of the novel and the first line of the novel, the first words we hear from Zac are Zac referring to ‘newbies’. And he's in the ward, he's in isolation and he means new people who have come to the ward for their own treatment. In the context of being ill, being seriously ill and having that life experience being in isolation for medical reasons, what does the idea of a newbie mean and how does that set a young person apart from everybody else in their life?

AMANDA: So, Mia as a newbie is having a very different experience to Zac. So, Zac knows all the sounds and the smells and the routines of hospital, he's calculated his odds and he's kind of settled into it and for Mia she's still in denial really, and she's angry actually. As a teenager, at any age really you're making plans, you're thinking you know what you're going to do this week and through the year, for this 17-year-old girl she's choosing her prom dress, her formal dress and she's making these plans and then to suddenly have them stop with such a jolt and such a life changing diagnosis. She's in denial. She's angry. She is really scared. And so she's coming at this from a very different perspective than Zac. And I guess I wanted to explore the contrast between them, how he is using humour to deal with problems and he is using the people around him whereas she is just drawing into her own shell. So, I guess, that's what it means for her. And she's got to find a way – as we all do with these kind of big life changing moments – it's a mind shift, isn't it? It's just you've got to pivot and go, okay I'm not this person anymore. How do I become this person? How do I become okay with that? So, she's got a lot to go through. And you can't just deal with that on page one. It takes a while for her to come to terms with who she is and her life changes dramatically through the story, as you know.

ASTRID: So, I should say that we will have spoilers. You're allowed to say what happens. We make no apologies for that.

I'd like to talk about age and illness. So often when we read stories about teenage protagonists, they are becoming who they are. They are making decisions that will shape their emotions and shape their lives and shape who they become, but it's a different experience reading a novel about coming of age when Zac and Mia are actually experiencing a life changing event as you just said. They are quite ill and that changes everything. They are not going to their formal as they would have liked. So, what I want to know is how did you approach that narrative of coming of age when your character is ill?

AMANDA: I think having spent years on the cancer ward, what I've witnessed is a speeding up of maturity, a speeding up of adolescence. So, the learning and the character development that might take five, six, ten years for some of us to come to some truths of our own – and that's what I like exploring in young adult fiction is how do we find our truths? But what I've witnessed on the cancer ward is that it is just so condensed. So, put five, six years of adolescence and early 20s-somethings into a six-month period, you learn pretty quickly. These people are changing, their opinions on things, when your future is so uncertain and the things that you took for granted… You're not willing to take for granted anymore. It just shakes everything up. And what happens to these young people is they start to see what matters.

I've had a number of young people who I have seen years after their treatment who have come back and said hello and this is what they've said. ‘It was the worst time of my life, but if I could change it I wouldn't, because cancer made me a better person’. I see their relationships strengthen with their friends and their family and they start to ditch the things that we as adults know don't matter. We look back and go why do I care about that stupid guy? Why do I keep trying to impress him? Or why do I care about these pimples? Or why did I spend so much time worrying about the size of my thighs? Or whatever, with these young people they realise these things and bigger, better more important things because of this kind of pressure cooker experience. They realise what matters.

So, I guess what illness has allowed me to do in a young adult novel is just to really create this pressure cooker and speed up this process because they change so much. I meet a young person who is newly diagnosed at 16 and then six months later they are such different people and I'm so proud of them. I'm not saying they weren't good people before, but the emotional maturity they have gained is just really admirable. So, I wanted to give some space to show not just strong, strong or tough, but how kind and courageous these young people can be.

ASTRID: Now, Mia and Zac have incredibly different emotional reactions as you've alluded to. And while they meet when they are both ill, they do have different illnesses, they do have different prognoses, they have, of course, different genders, but they do find themselves dealing with similar things including the physical change to their appearance that comes from their illness and their therapies. And they both have to face the emotional toll of being ill, being in isolation and how their friends and family and the world around them reacts to their status as being ill and being significantly ill.

I'd like to talk first about Mia. Mia is incredibly worried about how she looks. She thinks that she won't be sexually attractive anymore. She thinks that her friends, she can't confide in her friends or her friends won't care or her friends won't understand. She is not happy with her mother by any means at any point really for most of the novel. I guess, I don't want to make this about gender, but almost is it about gender? Do females... Does a girl have a different response to the physical changes that an illness imposes on her body than maybe an adolescent boy?

AMANDA: Sure. I'm going to speak generally about the young people I've known over the years, but that's definitely… That's mainly the case. With guys when they lose their hair, they kind of have the experience that Zac does. Like oh, I didn't know my head was shaped like that. Oh, cool, and kind of make fun of it. Wear a hat, start rocking out the beanies or whatever, because they're not defined by their hair.

Whereas I've been a teenage girl and they are terrified. These young, these teenage girls come in and they place so much identity and value on how they present themselves and how they are seen. And there's a line in the book where Mia says, ‘I've never been the smart one. I've never been the funny one or the talented one. I've only ever been the pretty one’. And it's a moment of painful insight realising that this is how I give myself worth and that's been stripped away. So, what am I? I am nothing. Which sounds so dramatic, I know, but this is, again, I am going back to my experience on the ward. Most of the young girls really struggle with losing their hair. I mean after a while they started rocking it too, getting the wigs out and having fun with that, but that takes time, that's not one day or one week. It's a whole process of acceptance and change. And what they start to do and I guess this goes back to the last question is they start to see, oh I am more than my hair and my looks and my physical self. They start to develop these qualities that other people value. Anyway, so the girls on the ward definitely struggle with that.

And I am going to go into the other physical impact of Mia's cancer. I've had a number of girls who have lost limbs in real life and it happens. And a number of boys. And in my experience of witnessing this in the outsider, boys present as if they're managing better. So, for instance, I knew a boy who a week after his surgery he lost an arm. He was making jokes in class you know, ‘Hey Miss, can you give me a hand?’ And I'm like, ‘What, no!’ And he's like, ‘Come on, come on, you've got to laugh’. And I'm like, ‘Why?’ And the guys were laughing about... Not laughing, but they were like I'm going to become an Olympic runner now with a prosthetic and not for girls. There have been girls who have said, ‘I would rather die than lose a limb’. And this is part of what I was saying before with the emotional maturity in the process that they go through. It's, ‘I'm more than a leg or an arm. I am not going to just be a fraction anymore, if I lose something I'm still whole’.

So, yes, I think there is a gender component here. And I wanted absolutely to explore that, because when Zac goes back to the real world, hangs out with his buddies they just treat him as normal. And Mia feels that she can't, that she will be judged even though the lack of hair and the lack of leg is in no way her fault, she feels that she will be deemed less by her girlfriends. So, she hides it because she doesn't want to feel less.

ASTRID: I am also interested in how both Zac and Mia approached social media differently. So, for example, Zac is very public. He lets everybody know that he is having treatment. He lets people see photos of him showing the aftereffects of steroids or the loss of hair. Whereas Mia keeps it a secret, pretends that she sprained her ankle and is away from school for a while and it's all by choice and there is no illness here.

Now they both change their approach to social media over time, but I'm interested in exploring how they chose to perform their illness as such, or share their illness online, particularly when they were in hospital but also when they get out. We learn from Zac's internal monologue that he's never been so popular since he got sick, everybody wants to be friends with a sick person. Whereas Mia can't even acknowledge that she has cancer.

AMANDA: They both have an uneasy relationship with it. They are both lying in a way, and because we have first person perspectives, we get to see how they are lying and now they are using it to their advantage. So yeah, absolutely. Zac uses it as an extension of his humour and his relaxed attitude to it, but he does get angry at getting the pity points. He uses the cancer card, and actually in real life the kids talk jokingly about the cancer card. How they can get free stuff and get treated differently. But Zac doesn't like it because his goal – and both of them, both of their goals are just to be treated as normal. So, yeah. Zac doesn't enjoy it. Mia who once enjoyed social media is just lying. And the way that she's lying to her friends and, again, that's just an extension of her fear and her self-loathing really that she has to construct this other image. And isn't that we all do, Instagram and what not?

ASTRID: On, social media absolutely.

AMANDA: Yeah. So, you're right. They use it differently through the novel and sometimes they retreat as I do, if I'm not feeling great in myself, or if I'm busy doing other things I don't have the energy to be on social media. I don't have the energy to present a certain image so I just take myself off that. So, I guess, they both really move away from it through the novel as they move into their real world, I guess, and move more into their own relationship.

ASTRID: I'd like to talk about their experiences in the real world as you call it, but before we leave the ward, there's just one further thing I'd like to explore with you. It is in relation to Cam, the gentleman in his early 30s who is by no means as young as Zac and Mia, but also is decades younger than a lot of other people who are in their 60s or older on the ward. And he's a surfer, and at one point when Cam is interacting with and maybe even hanging out with Zac's mum, you write and this is a quote, ‘on the ward the usual rules don't seem to matter much’. And this is Zac thinking about this 30s-something surfer guy hanging out with his mom who he thinks is incredibly boring, but on the ward the usual rules don't apply that much. Can you talk about how the ward has different rules?

AMANDA: Yeah, absolutely. It's you walk around and you find people from all walks of life, all ethnicities, all backgrounds, and the parents develop really strong relationships. People who wouldn't normally have anything in common or wouldn't really overlap – and same with Zac and Mia, that's part of the benefit of using this cancer ward. Zac and Mia in real life would move in different circles, but they are thrust together, yet with a wall between them. And so that extends to their families as well. And you are right, I've set it in a general hospital I have to say even though I teach in a children's hospital, I wanted to have that contrast between the young and the older and you are right, Cam falls in the younger category, because I wanted to explore the idea of luck, really because there's a lot of talk of luck on a cancer ward to be honest. ‘Oh, you've got the good one, you've got to good Hodgkin's, lucky you, you've got 95 per cent chance of surviving this’. And, ‘Well, if you get cancer when you are younger it's considered a good thing, comparatively’. So, I wanted to look and try to find this silver lining in this experience, and Zac always manages to.

And Cam is looking for it as well. Now I love Cam, I try where I can to put a lovely man in there. It's kind of like an ideal guy for me sometimes. That was what I was doing at the time like I'd like to meet a Cam, he's a nice guy, but also, I guess he needed a mentor in a way. Zac needed someone who wasn't his mum and who wasn't the newbie. Zac's acting like he's got it altogether all the time when he hasn't. So, I wanted to give him someone he can confide in, and also, I wanted to explore the other end of the luck equation. Sometimes people come in and they don't have good prognoses and Cam is one of them, and I needed to give Zac and Mia an experience of dealing with death in a way that would be helpful for them. I mean it's brutal, and don't get me wrong working on a cancer ward – even though it's mostly really good because most of the time they get better – but sometimes it is brutal. I'm not there anymore, but I'm still in the hospital, but now I'm on different wards because after six years on a cancer ward I needed a break.

I've learned so much from the kids who didn't make it, to watch their grace and kindness. And I needed Cam to, I guess, show this in a character too.

ASTRID: As a reader I think I needed Cam too.

Let's talk about the mothers. So, Zac and Mia leave the hospital at different times and they go back to their lives and their families. Zac goes back to what appears to be this boisterous family farm. He has siblings, he has an older sister who is pregnant, his mum and dad are there, they are his family and he's a teenager and he loves them and wants a bit of distance, but it's pretty highly functioning, everyone is there and supportive and lovely. Mia is in a very different mental state than Zac when she leaves hospital. Her mum is a relatively young single mu, and she's viciously angry at her mum and perhaps at herself and the world and what happened when she was having surgery and they had to unexpectedly amputate her lower leg. And she does not have a good relationship with her mum and, in fact, she runs away to the detriment of her own health. So, as a reader, I read two very different experiences of motherhood and two very different teenagers responding to the mothers in their lives. Is that what you've seen? Is that how people react?

AMANDA: To be honest I've seen more of Zac's mum and dad in the real world. Absolutely. If anything, being far too involved in their teenage son's physical state and asking too many questions about their poo and how they feel and their emotions. How are you feeling? I mean that's not a normal relationship for a mum and her teenage boy to be so physically together, because what happens sometimes is even though the teenager has to stay isolated for five weeks, the mum will say, ‘I'll come stay with you’. Sometimes the dad might alternate, but often it's the mum in there, And that lack of privacy… but being really invested, really engaged is what I see more than the other, more than Mia's. But again, I needed that contrast and, again, I needed to isolate Mia emotionally. I needed her to feel that without her friends she's really lonely.

I'm sorry, I make bad things happen to good people. So, I make things really tough on Mia and to do that I deliberately made her mum quite absent.

With Zac's family I wanted just like you say, a lot of noise, and I wanted it to be surrounded by animals and on a farm. So, I set it down in Denmark down the south of West Australia near Albany, and I used a real-life petting zoo as a location because I wanted so much green and space to contrast when he's in isolation so, he really feels that. But I also wanted the animals to show that he's got an experience of the life and death cycle, he knows what's coming or might come eventually. And he's got more of a philosophical approach to life and death, whereas Mia is in a suburban area and doesn't have too much space.

Yeah, her mum is emotionally distant, her mum and her. I know relationships like this as well, and her mum's doing her best. And at the start when I was writing Mia's perspective, I didn't really know her mum at all. All I knew was her mum was absent. And it was during the writing the third, the third third, the Mia part, that I had to grapple with, ‘Why is this woman so removed and is it her fault or is Mia pushing her away?’ I really enjoyed exploring the back story and looking at their situation. I'm hoping that I was able to flesh her mother out a little bit more, especially in their trip. Neither of the mothers is perfect, but they are just doing their best.

I guess that is one of the underlying messages I think in many of my stories.

We are all doing our best. We are all trying to be happy. We are all trying to get through. We make mistakes, but we're all okay. We're all good people and I think the mum's a good person. She's learning too. She hasn't stopped learning.

ASTRID: She hasn't, and also I would say that both Zac and Mia make mistakes at various points as well. Before we get to those mistakes I wanted to ask you about the structure of the book. It is written in three thirds, as you just alluded to, and I am one of those people who I don't read the ending, but I do flip through and look at the structure of a book. When I opened it up and realised there was Part 1: Zac, I'm like, ‘Oh, how many parts am I going to get?, I flicked through and I found out that I was going to get three parts. Zac in Part 1 and Part 2, Mia in Part 3, and then when I got to end and I realised I was getting the viewpoints of both Zac and Mia in that middle section suddenly I was horrified and terrified as a reader because I assumed that you were letting me know that Mia was going to live and Zac was going to die. And this just reflects on me as a reader, but I want to ask you how do you use your plot? You are driving this narrative. You are in control of this story. How do you use the plot and the structure to take your reader on this tale, on this journey?

AMANDA: I don't know. When I start I don't know what I'm doing, like I said I was just writing a stream of consciousness from Zac's perspective stuck in a room with his mum. I wrote where he knocked on the wall and she tapped back and then I wrote chapter two and by chapter eight I think roughly… I thought it was all going to be Zac's perspective, all first person. But then I thought hang on, I don't know Mia at all, and I realised this isn't actually Zac's story, this is going to be Mia's story. In terms of character arc she's going to be the one who really changes. And I didn't think I could pull it off from first person perspective without getting enough into her head. So, I tried again. I tried again from the start, third person omniscient, and that didn't work, and I tried alternating from the start, but I like the sense of mystery. I really just muddled along. And this is how I work out anything, and I thought it would be alternating as it is, but originally... I don't know, I got there eventually. I just liked the first person and I liked alternating. And as I said Mia's arc is the important one and I needed to give her that time in the third, final third and like I said to flesh out the relationship with the mum, to have her ease into her new life and work things out.

That was hard actually when you get to that point, how do I slow down so much? So yeah, it wasn't a deliberate ploy at the start, but once I realised… I have never read a book that does that, but it just felt that's what the story needed. And then I called the book Zac and Mia because of that, and then I had the job of trying to make all the thirds roughly the same length. Look it just happened, and it just felt right at the time.

ASTRID: Well it works very well.

AMANDA: Thank you.

ASTRID: So, as you said, this is Mia's character arc. She goes from being incredibly angry – and deservedly so – but incredibly angry and not particularly nice to the people around her to having found a measure of acceptance and found and tested, being surprised by her inner strength and what she can do and what she can be and all the opportunities that are still available to her in life despite having had cancer. Zac has a very different illness, with different stats as he likes to remind the reader almost on every page. He kind of is the strong one, if I can be so blunt, and loses his way when his cancer returns. And that, of course, gives me the opportunity or maybe even the mission I think to step in and be a young person who can vaguely come close to understanding what he might be thinking or feeling when other people, friends, family, other healthy people around him can't do. That's a beautiful narrative device and structure, but it does let us get to know Mia and it lets us explore... I'm not sure if I'm going to phrase this particularly articulately, but what it means to be ill and to have had that experience and that language or insight that can then only really be shared by people who have had a similar experience. I found it really quite profound, Amanda.

AMANDA: Thank you, that's very kind of you to say.

ASTRID: We, of course, don't know what will happen to Zac at the end, but Zac and Mia have a resolution and quite a beautiful friendship, I think, and a decision on how they will choose to approach daily life at the end. And I guess I wanted to ask you what have been in the years since publication the reactions of readers and is it different if the reader has experienced illness or is it different according to the reader's age?

AMANDA: Thank you. So much to think about with that. But before I do when you were speaking about the reversal, because it did become Mia's job to step up and to become a good friend and it did become her mission. I was thinking about what friendship means and what courage means. And I know that these students have to write essays on themes, but I don't think about themes early on. It's only later, later, later, multiple edit through that I realise what's coming through, and the themes for me were, what is beauty? What is friendship? And what is courage? And courage felt like, I guess, she thinks it. In a later chapter she says, courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway, and that's something that I wanted to express.

I don't write young adult fiction to lecture. I'm a teacher, I teach to teach, but I write because story matters. This is something I believe in. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. I am afraid every day. When I write I'm afraid. When I publish I'm terrified. But what I've learned is to just do it anyway and to be courageous you don't have to be tough or strong or hide your feelings or whatever. It's not to block out the fear, it's to act regardless. And so I'm so proud of Mia even though she's not real. I'm so damn proud of her.

So, the response I get from young people is... It's funny you ask me this, just last week, I had... I get letters all the... Okay, by letters, we know that means messages on Instagram and emails. So, I get emails all the time and just the other day I had one from Argentina, one from Brazil, a girl in Sweden as well. Even though Zac and Mia came out in Australia in 2013, it came out in different countries in the two years following it, but it's one of those books that just keeps going, it feels like, because I keep getting responses. And they are beautiful responses. And sometimes it's from young people who have had cancer and they say, thank you for saying it properly. Not a Hollywood version, not a cliché… I don't write about cancer because it's some kind of dramatic sponge I can wring from, it's real. I wanted to write honestly. So, they say thank you for writing honestly. I've had messages from people whose friends have had cancer and they say thank you for letting me know what it's like. I've had messages from parents saying, I didn't know that, that's what my children were thinking.

But to be honest on the most part it's just young people saying thank you for... They say other things, but often they say thank you for reminding me of what matters because touch wood young people shouldn't have to have cancer. It sucks and unfair, but like I say to the young people I know who have had it, they have learned so much and shared so much with myself and with other people so that's what I'm using my characters to do in a way. So yeah, just beautiful messages. And they get really emotional about it. You made me cry. That's not my goal either, but I'm really touched. I don't get messages about like in that kind of way in that emotional way about my other novels. So, it's really nice to know that it's being appreciated.

Young people read it as well. I've had 11-year-old's read it and I check in with them are they okay. I mean there's swearing and there are rude things, but also it's big concepts and it's not a Disney movie, but young people they know how to self-censor. So, they will put things down if it's not for them. Yeah, I just get lovely messages from people of all ages actually.

ASTRID: Do you think that you would ever return to the world of Zac and Mia, two years later, five years later?

AMANDA: I've had a lot of requests for a sequel, but I don't think that's the story. When I begin a novel – I shouldn't even say novel, when I begin writing something – I know the moment it begins. I don't know character, I don't know much else, but I know the situation in that initial moment, and that for me is the knock on the wall, and early on I know the final moment that it ends. It's often a cycle, in some way they are related, and it's not something I am kind of reaching for, it just occurs to me the final moment. I don't know anything of what happens in between in these 60,000 words or whatever, but that's for me the excitement and the challenge of working it out.

So, I always knew the moment Zac and Mia would end, and how it would end and for me that is how the story should end. Yes, I believe that I would like to imagine them after – and I love it when I get messages from readers saying, ‘I think this is what's going to happen after, is that what's going to happen?’ I say if that's what you want sure that's fine. They say, ‘Will Zac live?’, and I've said ‘What do you think?’ They say, ‘I think Zac lives’, and I'm like, ‘Okay, then that's what's going to happen’. And I like that, I like that they are projecting into the future. But that's not the story, that's not my story. The story is in the book and I like to think that they existed before and they exist after, but I don't think I can go back. I'm not interested in that. Does that make sense?

ASTRID: It does make sense and very well said. Amanda, I am an adult reader who has a long-term chronic illness and I have spent my fair share of time in hospital and I really enjoyed Zac and Mia. I thought you did a beautiful job of depicting what it's like to be in a hospital and all the kind of crappy things that might happen there and what it's like to leave. So, thank you.

AMANDA: Thank you so much.

ASTRID: And thank you very much for coming on The Garret today. Thanks, Amanda.

AMANDA: Thanks for having me.