Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler on their YA writing partnership

Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler are partners in life and writing. Tracks of the Missing (2022) is their second collaboration, after the highly-awarded Black Cockatoo (2018).

Carl is a Jaru and Kija man from Halls Creek. Carl works with young Indigenous boys through the Clontarf Academy focusing in improving engagement with education and providing a positive role model. Carl was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2016.

Hakea is an experienced English teacher who has taught around Australia including in remote Aboriginal communities. Hakea is committed to Indigenous education with a particular focus on story as learning and empowerment. Together, Carl and Hakea’s debut novella Black Cockatoo was published by Magabala Books in 2018 and was shortlisted for the Readings Children’s Book of the Year, shortlisted in the CBCA Young Reader category, shortlisted for an ABIA award, selected as a feature text for the 2018 Summer Reading Challenge.

Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler on their YA writing partnership


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Carl and Hakea.

Now I find writing partnerships fascinating. You have written two novels together in 2018, there was Black Cockatoo, which was shortlisted for a number of prizes. And now in 2022, we have Tracks of the Missing, which is a YA book. Congratulations. And most importantly, how did your writing partnership come about?

CARL: That's an interesting question. I'll let Hakea lead with that one.

HAKEA: Well, so we were waiting the birth of our daughter and we were both living up in Halls Creek in the Kimberleys of WA, where Carl is from. But to have a child, you can't have the baby in community up there. We decided to travel back to New South Wales to be closer to my family for the birth. And that gave us a lot of time waiting, because you have to leave way early. We also thought about the fact that we might spend half of our time with my family over east and half of our time over west. And we wanted our daughter to know her culture. And that's how our original writing began.

CARL: Yeah, pretty much in a nutshell. That's how it all started, and just passionate people about getting books that relate to kids and communities and in the wider world Australia.

HAKEA: And I think some of our stories cut. A lot of them actually are your stories, Carl. So, he's lived a lot of the stuff that you'll read in Black Cockatoo and in Tracks of the Missing. And I, coming from my background, growing up in Geelong and northern New South Wales, had never experienced anything like what he was telling. I have this fresh eyes and he's like, ‘What? That's just a normal everyday thing. Like why is that exciting to write in a book?’ And I'm like, ‘No, this is... That story is perfect for one of the books’.

ASTRID: So the idea of writing a book, Hakea, you are a teacher. What age children do you teach?

HAKEA: I can teach Kindy to year 12. I teach everyone. Most commonly I'm a year nine teacher.

ASTRID: That's a sweet spot. And that is very impressive. I still want to come back to that question of the writing partnership. I understand the impetus and the imperative to share stories and tell stories. And I believe they matter so much. That's why I do this podcast, but writing together, I have never met people who are in a writing partnership that say it's all smooth sailing. I guess when people sit down and create together, how does that process work? Do you take turns in character point of views? Is it chapters? How does it work?

CARL: Yeah. Well, in my answer to that, we take turn and who leads the story, and let it unravel and bounce off each other well, I’d say in a short snippet.

HAKEA: And I think like Carl mentioned before, we both have a shared passion. Carl growing up in the Kimberley, your passions for improving literacy, telling stories...

CARL: And where Hakea's living there, I've grown up in the Kimberleys, that's home to me, Halls Creek and the whole Kimberleys and that. And it's a great passion of mine, and Hakea's too, like I said before, to get the literacy up and being able to do the worksheets after whatever comes from it. And just something they can relate to and want to read, because people don't understand how powerful just being able to read is.

HAKEA: Because we've seen people who can't up in the Kimberleys and the impact it has. But as far as writing together, it'll be yarning on a long drive somewhere often between Halls Creek and Broome. And we're telling stories and I'll say like, ‘Tell me about what it was like growing up’. And that was where your latest book came, driving between Halls Creek and Broome, just chucking ideas around. And Carl created his latest one, but we always share and then go, "Hey, that'll be good in a book." And then as we write, it's a matter of, kind of like teasing it out and taking turns and disagreeing on the direction in some cases, and getting frustrated, and not talking about books for a long time. Because we don't know the direction that it's going to go, or he thinks one way and I think another, and then finding the time again to get into it when you're in the mindset to take it on again. It takes a while.

ASTRID: I have no doubt anything that's worth creating takes a while. I guess how long approximately did that creative time and then the writing time take for both books, Black Cockatoo, and now Tracks of the Missing?

HAKEA: Black Cockatoo, we were on maternity and paternity leave. So we had lots of time. It's a short book, but we spent a lot of time thinking how to intricately weave little secret snippets in. So if you're a reader from the Kimberley, you'll read it in these extra layers of depth. So while it was short and didn't actually...

CARL: You can really relate to it.

HAKEA: And as readers from other areas, you're like, ‘Oh, wow, I didn't know about that from Carl’s culture, or I hadn't heard about that’. But you really don't... You're not seeing the whole story unless you know from perspective. So that took us only a couple of months because we had the couple of months and we had a deadline of a baby, but Tracks of the Missing took a lot longer. I think we started writing in 2017 after reading stories to Deklan. And then there was lots that didn't work because neither of us had studied on how to write a YA suspense thriller. We'd never written a chapter book, so this one took us longer. And our editor Shel Sweeney from A Worded Life, she helped us chop. We had to kill lots of darlings, and it was lots of chopping and rewriting. And so it took a while.

ASTRID: You know, I am no YA expert, but as I was reading Tracks of the Missing, I'm like, ‘Oh, they did it again. Oh, they did it. That's the thing’. All of the moments that happen in a story that give that payoff for the reader and that kind of really hit for the age group. You get every single one. So you don't need a writing course to learn how to write, you're just very good creators and storytellers.

Because this is a new book, and I don't often interview writers about kids' books and YA books on The Garret, would you mind just introducing Tracks of the Missing, the storyline, quite briefly?

HAKEA: Deklan Archer is a 15-year-old boy in a remote Outback town, somewhere in the Top End. He is hooked into finding some missing students that are lost out on an excursion by his grandfather, who's an acclaimed tracker and respected elder. And as they track through the Outback, he has to overcome some of his challenges, including his own self-doubt and the fact that he had somewhere else to be. He had his big opportunity that day to become an AFL player, which means a lot when you're out in the Kimberley and these opportunities do not come very often. And as he tracks through the Bush, there is someone tracking him that weaves into the story at the end.

We tried... we were inspired by Goosebumps, reading Goosebumps to Carl or our son Deklan.

CARL: Yeah. To make it catchy and to keep the reader turning the pages, because a lot of my friends that I've given the book to, they can't stop reading it because it's too catchy. And you want to catch on. That's where the Goosebumps come from, right?

HAKEA: And the book also covers some pretty heavy stuff. So we ideally, probably think it's for readers that are 15 plus, but it does cover deaths in custody. It covers all those tough topics. Stolen generations, all those things. So hopefully some of The Garret readers might also be interested as older readers, because you'll get a snippet of culture. You'll get a snippet of what the landscape is like up in the Kimberley, the issues that face people who live up there every single day.

CARL: And one of the other key aspects of the books is, showing the strengths and the ordeals that the boys and kids overcome. And I say the books are very educational. On all levels.

ASTRID: I would agree. There was nothing like this on my library shelf when I was a kid at school, and I would've been a better teenager had there been.

CARL: Thank you.

ASTRID: I am very glad that Tracks of the Missing will now be on kids' bookshelves and in their libraries. And my nieces are getting it as soon as this interview is over. And I have a question about putting tough topics in literature. I am, I should say, I am very much in favour of this. I think that's a safe way for people to learn. It is a wonderful way of experiencing the world in relative safety. But some people do worry about what their kids read. When you sat with your publisher, Magabala Books, did you find something that you didn't want to put in?

CARL: Yeah, I did. Yes. Yes we did. I really can't talk too much about it, but it's a cultural aspect side of things that I wanted to put in, but I know from my culture and family, that it... I've spoken to elders and did all the appropriate stuff before we talked about Lightfoot and that, yeah. I don't really don't even want to say it here, but I'm not going to, but yes. I know that's a short sort of way of not covering it, but covering it, if you get what I mean. It was a lot of cultural stuff that I wanted to add, but I couldn't.

HAKEA: You see that in chapter 21 where it's mainly that visual. We wanted to give it space, the culture and the process deserved space. It deserved pages in the book, but it couldn't... nothing could be said. The showing respect by allowing space in the book was the way around it that we discussed with Sharona and Rachel at Magabala books, as well.

ASTRID: As an adult White reader, I found it really affecting for listeners of The Garret. There's just, you'd turn the page as a reader and it's mostly a blank double spread with just an illustrated picture of a feather. And it is not for the reader to know, but I would imagine for a teenager, for a kid, it is a space for them to understand there are things that are not for them, and that there are things that they might go and discover for themselves.

HAKEA: Yes. And that was... I think that's the key throughout the book. I think we kind of give these little jump-off moments where you are introduced to the concept of stolen generation or FIFO workers, FIFO teachers, FIFO doctors, FIFO police, all those little things, including this little snippet about culture, where it sparks your imagination and you go, ‘Now I want to know more’, or ‘Now I want to find out something’. I think that's the...

CARL: And that comes back to trying to develop educational books to educate people.

ASTRID: Let's talk about that because education, I think, can be used in multiple different ways in the sense that you're referring to. There's obviously the formal system. There's, school curricular and things. There is cultural learning and community learning. And then there is that just life experience and the learning that can come through reading a great fiction story. Let's break that apart. I am deeply wedded to the idea that fiction can help change the world.

HAKEA: As are we. Yes.

ASTRID: I have no doubt, but I'd like to explore that with you. You're an educator and writers. How did you kind of take that motive of enlightening and educating to the story?

HAKEA: So that's a big thing of what we do. We keep in mind our young people who were 15 in high school, year nine, and we're reading at a foundation kindergarten level. And we think about them. And we think about the types of books that they want to read and that if you're reading decodable readers, which are important as part of the process, or Cinderella or books about things that you don't live and experience, then you're not going to be as engaged in reading them.

CARL: Yeah. And that's exactly right. I'll go back to when I was in school in Halls Creek. It's something... The books that we write, I say very relatable to a lot of areas in Australia. They're relatable – kids, teenagers, adults will want to read them. And on the flip side of that is an educational book to open people's eyes where they might not have been there, or they don't know what it's about, but it's educational on the other flip side of it, of about the life experiences in those places.

HAKEA: And I think it's also about part of the story is considering right or wrong, good or bad, and who creates these narratives of good, bad, right and wrong. And so culturally Carl and I sometimes have differences where we have different beliefs about things. And so this book gets us thinking, well, who is the judge? Who is the person valued that we're reading it through? Whose lens are we reading this through? And if you can read it that way, it's so easy to stereotype people.

If you think remote Outback, Aboriginal community, the listeners might have preconceived ideas and preconceived stereotypes. But hopefully through reading our book, they'll begin to understand the lived experience, the background, the ways of thinking as well. So Deklan's a really complex character. He's naughty. He gets himself in trouble. He's a juvenile offender, but he is also a deep thinker and he's a really caring... he's got good family values, all these different layers of the onion that you can begin to unpeel, so beginning to think about right or wrong, good or bad, and whose perspective as well as putting yourself in someone else's shoes.

ASTRID: Now, am I correct in remembering a few moments ago, you referred to teaching materials and worksheets? Did you create them to go with the book as well?

HAKEA: We did, yes.

CARL: For both books.

HAKEA: And part of that was as teachers, we know how it is sometimes for teachers to, number one, find quick and easy resources that they can use. But we also know how hard it is sometimes to differentiate. And if we're aiming for our books to be read in low literacy classrooms, but also read in depth, we created the teaching material so that you can deep dive into all those issues so that students with low literacy can begin to explore them and break them down without necessarily having to tackle it in ways that teachers might come up with. We've made sure they're culturally relevant, that they're depth, that we lead people the way we think.

CARL: And it's not rocket science, I say. It's where kids in them sort of areas will relate to, want to read it, because it's about them. They see snippets of the story in their communities or where it might be. WA, Northern Territory, Queensland, wherever, and they can relate to the book, want to read it, bang, ‘Oh, we've got paperwork about it. We want to write, we want to do the work’. Because I was a kid at school who is, no offence to the pumpkin turning into a chariot. Well, I didn't want to listen to that. I was like, something to relate to. And then on the flip side, teachers or whoever can use it no matter where you are and use it as a cultural side of thing or a learning curve, and on the flip side... So yeah.

HAKEA: Make it as easy to access as possible.

CARL: Yeah.

ASTRID: They can also use it as an example of very well written YA. I would like to ask a little bit more about how you make a story appealing to young readers. Now, young readers sometimes don't want to read. Sometimes they only want to read about a certain thing they're focused on at that moment. Sometimes they don't want to read something that they're told to read. Sometimes it's as simple as they like the cover or the title, my nieces check the font size to see if it's appropriate for them. There's all sorts of individual things that go in as well as the actual story. I guess, how do you kind of position all of those things so a kid who might see it sitting on a library shelf wants to bother?

HAKEA: I think Kiara Honeychurch, who did our cover, aced it. We love it. I think that's a big step one. I think she targeted the audience well with that.

CARL: Yeah. Yeah. She did great.

HAKEA: And also being involved in schools, you start where the action is. So there's the murder or the potential murder of oh, Mr. Henry on the first page. So getting them hooked on something like that is part of it. And I think also in sharing this with you at The Garret and with other, online and on our social media and stuff, we're trying to raise awareness and let people know that it's great. But also if people like Goosebumps, if they like Tristan Banck’s The Fall, if they like other similar books, hopefully this is one that gets recommended by the bookshops or the librarians. And it's kind of like a little bit of a spiral read perhaps.

CARL: And I say telling stories, because quite a little bit of it is snippets of life growing up and it's real life stories and that's not too... And is catchy and gets people hooked.

HAKEA: And I think that's part of the book. People might be like, ‘Well, hang on. How can there be this potential murder, this missing busload of students, this other thing, this crash happening on the way?’ But they might not realise that the Outback is huge. It's like a crash happening in Geelong, and then another thing happening in Warrnambool, and something else happened further down or wherever you base this big geographical distance, so the likelihood of it, when you think about it that way, is possible. And if you think about all the risks that exist in the Outback, which is another reason that young readers might get hooked as well, they're like, ‘What? You can get lost. You can get bitten by a snake. You can get a car rollover’. All these things that are a bit exciting and interesting, but all them do happen and they have happened to Carl. He's been first on scene at crashes in the middle of nowhere where it's four hours between towns and you are the first person there waiting for this, anything.

CARL: Anything, yes, anything like that. But yeah.

HAKEA: So they're the kind of things that might hook... we hope we'll hook readers. And we invite The Garret listeners who don't usually read YA to dip their toes in and see if they can find something interesting in this new experience, this new landscape, these new things as well.

CARL: Yeah. They probably would because yeah, a lot of... quite a few older people have had a read of it. Yeah. Come back with great responses and stuff.

HAKEA: My Nan, ‘What? Oh, I never knew that. Oh, I thought this about Carl. But oh, it was only this culture thing’. ‘Yes, Nan, yeah. That's it’. ‘Oh, I didn't realise’. So, who knows?

ASTRID: In addition to your Nan, what responses are you getting from readers of any age?

HAKEA: We had a nice review the other day that made our heart sing. They compared us to Catching Teller Crow, which had me in tears for the last couple of chapters and was one of my favourites. I was like, ‘Oh, guess what? We just got compared to?’ And very excited. We had our first bad review the other day, which was interesting, and learning to take constructive criticism on board and being one of our first big, long chapter books, obviously there are faults and flaws in everything that you begin to do. But we hope that most readers are loving it. And most of our feedback has been good.

ASTRID: I am glad to hear that. And also every single book has flaws. It's not about the flaws. It's about the experience for the reader.

HAKEA: Yes. Yes. It's adventure.

ASTRID: When you put this story together, Tracks of the Missing, did you have a reader in mind? And am I correct in thinking that the protagonist name, Deklan, is also the name of your child?

CARL: Yeah, yeah. It's yeah. My 15-year-old boy that... He's not my biological, but he is my boy. I grew him up from... helped grow him up from one, two months of birth. Yeah. So he's there. And on the flip side of that, it's...

HAKEA: My nephew, Archer, was the other one. He was reading the early manuscripts as well and writing his own little YA stories. He wrote Beautiful Night, which was his little one. And so it was fun sharing them with them, both. But...

CARL: It doesn't tell what... It is the totally opposite of how they are say, because right through the book you got your... there's names. In every name is a relative or family in the book.

HAKEA: But they're not anything like it.

CARL: Yeah. They're not, they're totally opposite.

HAKEA: So yes, we did have people in mind. Carl worked with the Clontarf boys up at Halls Creek for a long time. So that age group, that high school age group, these Outback kids, these boys in particular were our...

CARL: Yeah, well, in my mind, I was like... I keep referring to is just making it relatable to the kids to help read, and then do the work. Right. And then I'll always get growling for it. But I didn't write books to become an author. I write books to help kids.

ASTRID: That is a beautiful statement and a really beautiful reason to write.

CARL: A lot of people don't like me saying that.

ASTRID: I don't know what their problem is. You've mentioned Goosebumps a few times. I don't remember how many, but there are a lot of Goosebumps. Will there be a sequel?

CARL: In which book? No.

HAKEA: Sure. So, there is definitely going to be a sequel of Black Cockatoo. We won the Daisy Utemorrah prize to do during next year. But as far as Tracks of the Missing goes, we often talk about some of the stories and the scary creatures up in the Kimberley that could inspire future Tracks, the Missing-style stories. So, we basically generally loosely base it on a real-life story. And then we fictionalise it so as not to tread on any toes. So there are quite a few that we have often played with the idea of. But...

CARL: Yeah, I'd say we'd like to put it that way.

ASTRID: That is wonderful to hear Carl and Hakea. Thank you so much for talking to me today and also congratulations on 2022's Tracks of the Missing. It's really very good.

HAKEA: Thank you so much for having us, Astrid. That's been lovely.

CARL: Can I ask you a question?

ASTRID: You can, no one ever does, but please do.

CARL: What was so powerful about the book to you? I know there's probably a lot in there, but what was the one moment that made you?

ASTRID: So not one moment, but the overall impression. The book is written from Deklan's point of view. He's a protagonist. And as you know, an adult reader, you're kind of going through his thoughts about how he knows he's being perceived. So how the fly-in, fly-out, likely white teachers are perceiving him, going or breaking into the school and having some fun. Like for him, it's fun and a way of letting off steam, but it's going to look very different from their point of view. And he's aware of that tension and he's aware of that difference, and the way he processes the two worlds he's in constantly was a learning for me. And I think that is what I'm going to remember from Tracks of the Missing.

CARL: That's good. Because I didn't mention it. That's one of the most powerful things about the book - switching and walking in two worlds, which a lot have to do, and I have to do myself. Thank you very much for that.