Jessica Townsend's first book, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (2017) was the biggest-selling Australian children's debut since records began. The sequel, Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow was published in 2018.
Nevermoor won the 2018 ABIA for Book of the Year, Book of the Year for Younger Readers and Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year; the 2018 Indie Book Awards Book of the Year and Children's Category; the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Children's Fiction; and was named a CBCA notable book.
Nevermoor has been compared to Harry Potter, and is the first of a planned nine-book series for middle-grade readers.
Astrid: Jessica Townsend, welcome to The Garret.
Jessica: Thank you for having me.
Astrid: You have made quite the impression in the world of children's literature. Your first book, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, was the biggest selling debut Australian children's book on record. Congratulations.
Jessica: Thank you very much.
Astrid: Nevermoor also received many awards, including and by no means limited to the 2018 Book of the Year in the Australian Book Industry Awards, the 2018 Indie Book of the Year, and the 2017 Aurealis Awards for Best Children's Fiction. And of course, now we have the second instalment, Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow.
Jessica: Yes [Laughter]
Astrid: You're writing has been described as cinematic and your word building superior. How do you use your words to create a world that is so real?
Jessica: Oh, gosh, that's already a tough question. That seems like it should be a really straightforward question. How do I use my words to create a world that I saw? I think for me, the thing that makes Nevermoor feel real to me is the... Not the fancy bells and whistles and the dragons and the magic, but it's those things that kind of ground it in our world. It's the characters really, it's the way that... Especially Morrigan, everything has to be grounded throw Morrigan and through the way that she feels. So, she has a curse. She's cursed to die. And she goes to a magical land and all these wonderful things happen to her, and she lives in a magical hotel. But at the heart, she is worried, she is anxious about things, she is very pragmatic. She is compassionate and kind and she comes out the world – particularly in the first book – just as kind of everything is a bonus for her, because she was never expecting to have this second chance. And so, for me it's as much as the language, it's about grounding it through the characters and making them relatable to people in 2018. And it's not a high fantasy. It's kind of our world with fancy stuff.
Astrid: It isn't high fantasy, but at the same time, this is a different world. It does feel real. This is the type of world that I wish had existed when I was a 10-year-old girl looking for that place that I could escape into. So, I think children these days are pretty lucky, actually.
Jessica: Thank you. That's fine. [Laughter]
Astrid: I have a maybe a difficult question for you. Nevermoor has been compared to both Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, high praise. Does that worry you? Does that put pressure on you know?
Jessica.: No, it doesn't. Listen to how great I am at answering this question! It's something that I think about a lot. I think about it a lot, but I've been asked about it a lot. So, I feel, I should have kind of a more articulate answer for it. I am a Harry Potter fan. I'm a big J.K. Rowling fan.
Astrid: Aren't we all.
Jessica: Right, exactly. We couldn't be in our generation and not... For me, I think that the reason that people say that is kind of two things. One, it's optimism, [laughter] because we've all sort of waited a long time for something that would make us feel the way that Harry Potter made us feel when we first read these books when we were younger. So, it is this really sweet optimistic thing of like, we're always looking for it. And every new children's book that comes out, everyone hopes is this going to be the new Harry Potter. And I don't think that people mean, ‘this is the new wizard story or this is the new boarding school story’. I think they mean this is going to give me that cosy magic feeling where it was scary and whimsical and wonderful. And I think that's a really nice thing to hope for. And I think it's incredibly flattering thing for people to say about the book. I take it completely as a compliment. But also then as a Harry Potter fan, I'm outraged by it. Because that fan inside me is, ‘How dare you, that will never be another Harry Potter’. And really in publishing terms they won't be.
I think it's a real cultural touchstone for so many people, because obviously people who love books have read Harry Potter, but they've also read very widely in other children's books. Whereas for a lot of people, Harry Potter might be the only children's book they’ve ever read. And it's so much part of the culture that it is the thing that people reference when they hear about a children's book, and that's completely understandable.
Astrid: What strikes me and why I asked you about the Harry Potter comparison is because one of the things that always stood out for me in Harry Potter was the depth of not, just the children's characters, it's not just Harry and Rin and Hermione, but the adults, the adults who are living in this world as well, and it is believable to them. And Jupiter North. I love Jupiter.
Jessica: Well, kind of like Jupiter too. [Laughter] I have a soft spot for Jove, yes.
Astrid: I definitely have a soft spot for him. And that is something that I don't always find when I read literature for children. The story might be beautiful, the word building might be beautiful, the main character, the protagonist, is obviously like driving all of the great stories. But sometimes the adult characters are only they in relation to that young character, whereas here, they are fully formed... I can imagine what we'd like to have coffee with Jupiter. Which I would like to do for the record.
Jessica: [Laughter] Imagine. Well, I mean, that's really important to me is that all of these characters, even if they are a two page character, I want them to feel like this is a person that could have his or her own story, because that's life. Everyone that you meet, has their own story and has their own kind of world unto themselves. And also in children's books, I totally understand what you mean because a lot of children's books they really do just focus on the child. And that's cool. There are a lot of great books that have been like that. But for me, being a kid, I remember... I mean I'm the youngest of five, my eldest brother and sister were adults when I was kid. So, I feel like I've been surrounded by adults a lot in my younger life, and those people are important. And you're kind of, you very much at everyone else's mercy when you're a kid. And that is really large in this book, because Morrigan is at the mercy of you know, she is quite a reactive character in some ways in this first book. But she has sort of thrust into this world, where she doesn't know what's going on. And there are people who despise her because of who she is and how she got there. And she really in the way that every kid does, she really has to rely on those adults in that found family that she has. So, it's important to me that they were 3D, fully realised characters.
Astrid: She starts to react in the second book, she starts reacting in Wundersmith, she finds the Wunder. And tell me about her character development in Wundersmith.
Jessica: Well, I think that she goes into Wundersmith quite optimistic and quite hopeful, which is a thing that I think she was sort of missing a little bit from Book Two. Because she's quite a cynical kid, with good reason, obviously. But she goes into this thinking this is a fresh start. She has so much optimism and she's found her family, her eight brothers and sisters in Unit 919.
And then, you know, as we have to torture our characters, it doesn't end up the way that she thinks it's going to. And so, she kind of has these hurdles that she then... it's like, ‘Am I slipping backwards? Am I going into this previous cursed child life that I thought I'd left behind?’
But she does in this book, she decides to take control and she has that little bit of, ‘Well, I'm not going to care what people think of me and I'm not going to care that people are afraid of me or angry at me or might hate me’. Because this is a thing... When she eventually does without totally spoiling it. But when she does learn to use her powers…
Astrid: We will release this with spoiler alert, it's okay.
Jessica: Great. Perfect. Perfect, free range. So, she when she learns to call Wunder she... This is finally something that she feels, ‘This is my thing and I own it and I can do this thing and finally I have something that makes me a person in the world’. And I don't know. I really love that about her in this book.
Astrid: Morrigan is amazing. From a plotting perspective and a structural perspective, there were so many things happening in Wundersmith. It's a gorgeous book. It is long for a children's book, plus 450 pages in the copy that I have. Was that a publishing consideration, was just the way the story went?
Jessica: [Laughter] Oh, I mean, I'm sure it's some kind of consideration for my lovely publishers, bless them. I wasn't planning... I think, and it ended up being around 100,000 words and book one was about 90,000. I mean, that's so long for a middle grade book. But for me, I don't feel like... If it was really long and it was dragging. That would be one thing. But there is a lot that happens in here. I've plotted these books out as a nine-book series, and I know what has to happen in each one to get me to that next point. So, there were a lot of subplots in here, and there were a lot of things that have to happen. So, I hope that I've managed to, you know, although it's quite a big book, I've managed to keep a good pace.
I think I'm sure it's a worry for my German publishers because the first book, oh, I think it was originally 100,000 words and we managed to get under 90,000. But that was going to be a real worry for them, because in German, everything's going to be so much longer and I mean, I don't know if they know it's 100,000, as yet.
Astrid: They'll find out soon enough.
Jessica: They'll be fine. They'll be fine. I love them. [Laughter]
Astrid: There are so many plots in Wundersmith and the one that really stood out for me, one of the many plot drivers in this book is the letters, that the nine get. And they're being blackmailed, essentially and they choose to support each other, they choose loyalty – and at the end and again they will be spoilers – we find out that it was the society itself, it was a test. And think about your readers, you middle grade readers. What are you communicating to them about adults? And I think they're going to love it, because the adults that kind of not necessarily on their side. But still that supportive society. It fascinated me from…
Jessica: Well for me that is what I always wanted the Wunder Society to be. I think it's really important in these books that Morrigan does have that safe place, which is the Hotel Deucalion and her family in the Hotel Deucalion. But the Wunder Society you know, it's kind of built up as, it's this very prestigious place. And these people are important and they're famous and they're privileged and its elite, which you know, I don't think that's a great thing, I'm not presenting this is how society should be run! I think that that is rife with danger. These adults, they aren't perfect. From the beginning, one of the things that I really wanted to keep in there was a bit, in the beginning where Morrigan is sort of talking about where her other classmates are, and one of the little boys who is a pickpocket, and he's also a violinist. He's having his hand broken, and the burns reset, so that he can be more dexterous. And to me I was like, ‘That's horrific’. Obviously that's a dreadful thing to put in a children's book. But I'm laying my cards out on the table from the beginning, these people are great in a lot of ways. But also like humans, they're fallible and they are not necessarily trustworthy.
Astrid: They are not at all.
Astrid: And that brings me to another question. How dark do you think this could get and do you think you publisher will pull it back on your end?
Jessica: [Laughter] The ending of book two is so dark.
Astrid: It is dark. I was not a happy camper.
Jessica.: Listen, they've been conversations. No, I don't feel like we step over the line. I think that there is a really fine line in anything that's made for children books and TV and movies. For me, that is the stuff that I love. And it's the stuff that I loved as a kid. Growing up in the 1990s and the tail end of the 1980s, so much of the content that we absorbed was so dark. I mean some of my favourites, there's Willow. Willow was really frightening. Did you ever see Return to Oz?
Jessica: Oh, my God. I am so scared. But I love it. I love it so much. And also even just Doctor Who. Doctor Who back then and Doctor Who now, there's a very fine line between silly and sinister, and that is right in my wheelhouse, like that is genuinely my aesthetic. There is a lot of darkness in here, but there's a lot of light in here as well. And I think that for me, the key thing, you know, not just in entertaining and scaring kids and having them behind the couch when they're watching Doctor Who, it's also about having bad things happen in a safe context and watching people respond to them, and responding to them with courage and compassion and kindness. And I feel like that's what Morrigan does. And I have to give her the opportunity to be that person and to become the character that I want her to be by the end of this series. And unfortunately that means throwing in quite a bit of darkness.
Astrid: You are surrounding her in darkness, but also you are surrounding her with hope and optimism. You're giving her lots of choices. In Wundersmith she often has a choice to go dark if I can put an X-Men phrase on it. [Laughter] And she doesn't.
Jessica T: She does not go for Magneto.
Astrid: No, definitely, she does not go Dark Phoenix. But how do you express that appropriately for a younger reader. While still giving them the full emotional impact of what Morrigan is doing and how she's growing?
Jessica: Oh, that's a really good question. I think that the way that this is written from Morrigan’s perspective is really important. Everything is inside her head. So, we get her talking through her decisions, and she doesn't always necessarily make the right decision. And the way that she perceives things and processes information isn't always necessarily the right way or what we would consider the right way. But I think that's also really important. I think it's really useful – was always useful for me as a kid – to read about characters who were flawed. And to see them not, always making the best choices and struggling with it, and then coming out of the other side and changing their minds having... The good thing is, is that she has Jupiter who also is not perfect. I mean, he fills that role of the wise mentor and the eccentric mentor or whatever. But he's not always wise and he's not always perfect and he's not this sort of perfect nurturing parent. He's quite neglectful in a lot of ways, and he does sort of treat her almost like an adult sometimes, but he is her moral compass in some ways and he is this force for good even if his methods aren't always the best. So, I think having those adult characters who can model that, and then also having this character where we see her process and we see how she can go through decision making. I don't know if that answered your question particularly well.
Astrid: It does. I also want to talk about the children and the friends that she finds, her cohort, I guess. And then also jack outside of that, but still in the Hotel Deucalion. How you modelling... Are you consciously modelling friendship options?
Jessica: I don't know. It's not something I've... Well I guess in some ways, because you do... they are quite distinct. I think that's a writing device more than anything is that you really want to have these distinct characters. But I mean, you've got the very pure friendship with Morrigan and Hawthorne, which is one of my favourites. It's that friendship that I think hopefully a lot of kids know, and a lot of adults can remember from childhood where it is literally just, ‘I like you. You seem like a good person. We get on’.
Astrid: We are friends until…
Jessica: ‘We are friends and I'll be loyal forever’. I remember I have those friendships now, from childhood. So, I think there's something quite pure about that. And then you have this frenemy situation with Cadence. And yet that's still a really strong friendship. And it's importantly, for me, it's a strong female friendship and it comes with it slightly barbed. They kind of rub up against each other in strange ways, and there's a little bit of mistrust. But also that ends up being, you know, Cadence has her opportunity to have her loyalty and to share her loyalty and it's a good payoff. I quite enjoyed writing that bit where it was finally like, ‘Oh, these girls are friends’.
Astrid: They are friends. Your word building is beautiful, your characters are so well drawn. When you think of you reader, both adults and children, how do you draw them in? It feels like Nevermoor is this fully realised world. It's only been around for what 18 months, less, 12 months, and yet we can all go with there. Most authors can't do that, particularly with the debut novel.
Jessica: I guess, world building for me is about the small everyday things as much as it is about the big bells and whistles. So, this is a world that is ridiculous and it really shouldn't make sense. And I wanted it this way, you can't really pinpoint Nevermoor as... It's not steampunk. It's not high fantasy. You couldn't pinpoint it is one particular time or place. It's a second world fantasy, it’s a wholly new creative place. For me, the big important things or actually the little tiny things. So, the public transport systems and the way that people respond to certain situations.
It's not a thing that I come to very late clinically or methodically. It is honestly just a playground.
I think about the things in the details that I love from the worlds that I love. So, in Harry Potter and in Narnia and all these places, it's the food that they eat. And it's the place that they sleep. And it's how they get from one place to another. Those are the things that when you go to a new city, when you travel. When I first went to London, all of those things Londoners tend to take things for granted, like the Underground and the chief system and all that. And for me going into that fresh It was like, ‘This is amazing. This is amazing that there are 7 million people transported on hundreds of kilometres of train tracks under the ground every day’. That's insane.
And yet it's such sort of everyday thing. So, I think it's that combination of having things that are overblown and ridiculous, but gliding on past them and just being like this is just part of the world. It's fine to have a brief mention of something and move quickly on.
Astrid: I guess I'm really interested in the detail of your world buildings. So obviously you concentrate on the detail, that everyday that makes things real. But from the writing perspective, from the drafting perspective, how do you keep your notes? How do you keep the word building consistent? What does your file system look like?
Jessica: Oh, terrible, embarrassing. I have on my laptop – and I've carried this over from laptop to laptop for the past decade and a half – I have what I think of as kind of a graveyard from about 2007 when I really seriously sat down and started writing the book I started keeping folders. There's a folder 2007 and then there's a folder for every month, and I feel like at some point I should go and rework these so that they are grouped thematically. This is all about location. This is all about characters. But what I end up doing is, I think, ‘When did I have this random idea about what's going to happen in book six in this particular place? I'll just go through and search for keywords and it'll be November 2010 or something ridiculous’. So, it's not in any way methodical. Again, like I just kind of think of my laptop as a bit of a playground as well in that, sometimes I just go back through and looking in a certain month, and I remind myself of, ‘Oh, this was this ridiculous idea that I had back then. Maybe I'll put it in the next chapter’.
Astrid: So how do you deal with consistency in the world? Or is that the editors job?
Jessica: Well, yes, definitely, editors coming in and they're very helpful in that way. Sometimes there's the... And I think that that will become more of a problem as it goes on, because when you're shortening the timeframe of writing the books, obviously. When I wrote book one over ten years, I had read. I had read that back so many times, I knew it inside and out. I still know Nevermoor inside and out.
In Wundersmith there were things in the editing process where I was like, ‘I didn't remember writing that sentence, because I probably read it twice and then we're done’. So that gets trickier in terms of like the logic of the world and the consistency. But it all kind of lives in my head and I seem to have a much better memory for things that exist in the world that I made up than for things that actually happen in real life. [Laughter]
Astrid: That's make you a very good writer.
Jessica: That's good news to me then, great. Not a very good friend.
Astrid: So, the timing of your books intrigues me. You're going to write nine I believe.
Jessica: I hope so.
Astrid: You hope so. That's the plan. There are off the top of my head… I can't think of that many middle grade books that are this detailed and this involved, that are such a lengthy series. I can think of plenty of high fantasy, I know series many of which I love. Are you going to be the first?
Jessica: I don’t know.
Astrid: I feel like you're breaking new ground.
Astrid: With the length and the detail the first two Harry Potter's weren't this long.
Jessica: Right. Yeah. Possibly. Possibly. And maybe it'll fail. Who knows? And maybe it won't work.
Astrid: No, no that's not what I'm asking. Tell me about how you plot nine books.
Jessica: Well, I have a very good arc for what's going to happen. There are a lot of subplots, obviously there is a lot in book one and two that have been... Even things that you wouldn't notice. You probably will at some point in book seven, that will be something that has linked back to book one and two, and I've really just glossed over it very quickly. But there's so much in book one and two that is foreshadowing things that are important later. To the point where often with my editors, they are like, ‘We can skip this’. And I'm like, ‘No, no, we definitely cannot skip this’, because I'll be writing myself into a corner later on.
I guess with difficulty, because there are a lot of different subplots that need to pay off. But I know every... I say I know everything about this world obviously. There is a lot that occurs in the writing of it, because I think if I had literally every tiny little thing plotted out, then there's no room for me to surprise myself and then if you can't surprise yourself as a writer, then how do you surprise your reader? So, I think that's really important is keeping that a little bit of flexibility. But for me with the kind of series that I am writing, it's very important to have a good plan.
Astrid: So, when you're plotting and when you're drafting. Is there anything that you consciously try to avoid? I don't mean like playing, I don't mean that the fantastical, I don't mean loving your characters. But I mean you are a reader, you are lover of literature, what do you know doesn't work? What do you try to avoid?
Jessica: For me so much of writing is instinctive that I don't feel like I have those thoughts from the outset of like, ‘Well, I can't do this, because this is something that hasn't worked in a previous series’. It's all very instinctive for me, and I just go with what I think works when I'm writing it.
I think that there are... I hate the word tropes, but there are tropes that have been sort of done to death. Having said that, I am not a person who thinks that tropes are terrible and evil. And I don't think that the use of tropes makes for a bad book, because the books that I have loved have been full of tropes. And I think that it's all in the way that you execute them, in the way that you handle them, and I think that they can be a really useful literary tool, in especially in children's books. And that's not to kind of denigrate child readers at all, it's just you want to give someone an easy in, you want to give something that is familiar, especially when you're writing something that is going to be quite long and complex.
I want to give people a way into the story. So that can be like, ‘Ah, the downtrodden child, I know that. I know this song’. And then you can subvert those expectations and then switch things around a little bit. And Morrigan is not a Chosen One character, if anything, she's the opposite. But in a way, what I'm using is the trope of the chosen one and the trope of the downtrodden child, to kind of ease people into this story. And then say, pull the rug out a little bit and so on. This is not that.
Astrid : One of my favourite relationships in Wundersmith – and this is going to sound odd –is Morrigan and Ezra.
Jessica: Right. Oh, great. I'm glad to hear that.
Astrid: Please explain.
Jessica: It's one of my favourites too. It's one of my favourite relationships to write. And one of the chapters that came out easiest in Wundersmith was the scene set in the Museum of Stolen Moments. That was one of almost one of the first things that I wrote. And it just spilled out. I really love him as a character, because I guess because I know a lot more about him, obviously, than the reader does. You would hope. It is a strange relationship. It is this sort of almost a mentorship, especially in book two. But there is not going to be a point where suddenly, ‘Oh, wow. He was actually an angel’. No, he's a bad guy. He's a bad dude.
Astrid: Honestly, you made me think of Palpatine tempting Darth Vader.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah, Ezra and Morrigan it is a strange, complex kind of relationship, and it will get more complicated. Because in a way, he is her enemy and yet she relies on him. He has something that he can give her that no one else is willing to give her and no one else can give her, because he is the last Wundersmith. That's kind of the only terrible role model that she has in the world. And it's really hard to even talk about him, because I know obviously everything about his story. I know where he's going, I know where this is going. But yeah, it's hard for me to not give spoilers.
Astrid: Well, I have questions and feel free not to answer them. So, I read Wundersmith and I know that this is going to go on for seven more books, and I feel that you've started a little bit of foreshadowing what might happen to Ezra, what might happen to Morrigan at the very kind of basic level. You've potentially introduced the idea of a bigger badder concept. If Ezra Squall is scared of something, what could that possibly be? From a writing and plotting point of view, can you explain to our listeners how much you decided to reveal at this point?
Jessica: That's the tricky thing. So, because I know so much about where things are going. The trickiest thing is always, how much do I reveal right now? What can I give away? And with that initial or I should say that part of the story. That there's literally just a paragraph in the last couple of chapters that hinder that.
Astrid: Which I read like 10 times.
Jessica: [Laughter] Great. It's a very brief touch on ‘there is something more at play here and there is something bigger and darker, and there is something that even Ezra school is afraid of’. That wasn't in there I originally. I think one of my editors was like, ‘Maybe we should hint there being what is to come in the next few books’. And I'm really glad that they did that, because for me, it's quite difficult to have that attachment and have that objective… ‘the reader really should know this thing by now’. And I feel like I have a handle on that most of the time. But then there's these tiny little things that sort of need creeping in slightly earlier.
There's not much I can say about that, except that this... Particularly in book three and four, it is a story that is going to get much bigger, so we started at this level where in Nevermoor you feel like this is a... It's not a portal fantasy, but it's almost like a portal fantasy, and she's going through and discovering the city and there's a magic competition and blah, blah, blah. And almost by book three, four, five. It's just going to grow outward.
Astrid: Yeah, that foreshadowing took it from at least for me -an adult reader –vtook it from a sate, a country I guess, to ‘Oh, a world’.
Astrid: There's something bigger.
Jessica: Good. This is how I want people to start thinking in the next few books, because it's like you start with a city and then you realise oh this city is part of the biggest state, and we're thinking about other places, other countries, other people, other governments. So, will get quite ... I hesitate to use the word political because I don't want people to think that this is any kind of allegorical anything, it's not. It's just there are politics in this world that are at play. And I’m just going stop talking in case I say something to spoiler.
Astrid: I love it. I have a more simple question for you. Names often have a great deal symbolism in Nevermoor. Tell me about Ezra Squall’s name? Or is that foreshadowing too?
Jessica: Well, it's a little yeah. And it's been such a long time since I've named Ezra Squall, but I think initially Ezra I'm sure means ‘help’... How about I google that. But I'm sure it means help, which in a way…
Astrid: He is.
Jessica: Helping Morrigan in some ways. I mean, Ezra Squall, it just sounds a little bit dastardly, which is one thing that I like about it. I would hesitate to give readers the impression that every name is foreshadowing something, although I do love that. I love that idea. And I loved that. You know, Remus Lupin.
Astrid: Yes, yes.
Jessica: Where people call him wolf. How did people not know he was a werewolf? His name is Wolfy Mcwolfface. Right? But obviously as a kid reading that I had no idea. Remus Lupin. I love that there is that opportunity. And that kind of also J.K. Rowling and other authors have really paved the way for having that symbolism in names. It's a thing that I take real joy in choosing the right name for a character. But I'm not going to tell you what Ezra Squall is.
Astrid: No, no. I thought I would just…
Jessica: You were thinking on and I liked it.
Astrid: So, from your point of view, what makes great children's literature, not just Nevermoor, but as a concept.
Jessica: I think what makes great children's literature is just great stories. Stories and worlds that children can get lost in. And I know that when we think about great children's literature or great literature in general, we tend to think it's... We want to think thematically and we want to think about morals in stories and the messages that we're giving. But I honestly think that the best and the most enduring children's literature for me have been the things that are just a cracking story. Because that's what we all want. Nobody really wants to be preached to. Nobody wants to .. When those things come afterwards, themes tend to emerge and they tend to sort of sit with us for a while. And later on, we realise, ‘Oh, that's what my favourite story was telling me. That was that beautiful message that it was giving me’. But that's not necessarily what makes it great. What makes it great is that and what makes it last is just the fact that it's a wonderful story and it's something that you can escape to and get lost in.
Astrid: Who are your influences?
Jessica: I mean, definitely, of course, J.K. Rowling is an influence, because I'm Harry Potter generation. Right? I queued up in bookstores. Clearly no one reading this book could think I wasn't influenced by J.K. Rowling I love her.
But also, one of my biggest influences I think was John Marsden. I love him so much. [Laughter] We were at Melbourne Writers Festival and I crept into the back of his... He was handing out the John Marsden Prize and one of the chaps from Hachette – my publisher – he was there with John because Hachette sponsors the John Marsden Prize. And he's like, ‘Oh I'll hang around come and meet John Marsden and have a chat with him’. And I was like, ‘No. I cannot do that’.
Astrid: Too much pressure.
Jessica: I would like things so awkward, because I just love him so much, he's so great. And what I feel I've taken my writing, when I feel like I've taken from John’s books – if I can call him John – is just he writes with such humour and such heart and yet he also... particularly the Tomorrow Series: When the War Began, that's such a serious frightening topic and such a frightening world he's built and yet those books are so funny. And they also deal with normal teenage things of having a crushing and having sex for the first time, all of these things that we all have gone through and these kids are going through it in a war zone. And not only that, but there's something that's very... He writes so universally and yet there's something so Australian about the way that he writes.
And Nevermoor is not Australia, Nevermoor is a complete, it's a second world fantasy, it's completely its own thing. But to me I suppose as an Australian and for a lot of Australian readers that I have spoken to me about it, it feels Australia, there is something quite Australian about it, and yet American or British reader wouldn't necessarily even pick up on it at all. And I feel like that's something that I've sort of taken away from his writing as well. Is that he has this sort of quite Australian soul about it. And the way that he writes about the natural world and about landscapes and I could go on forever about John Marsden.
Astrid: John Marsden is amazing. Jessica, I still have my original copy of Tomorrow When the War Began.
Jessica: Yeah, me too.
Astrid: And I have my little 13-year-old underlining of what struck me is really important.
Jessica: Yes, I love it.
Astrid: John Marsden is... I don't know. An icon.
Jessica: I still have... sorry to keep going on about John Marsden.
Astrid: You can gush.
Jessica: But I still have my... When I was 13 Burning for Revenge had just come out in hardback. And I went to see him at a... It was the only literature festival I ever went to as a kid and I went to see him speak. And I feel like that was instrumental in me becoming an author. He was so engaging, so compelling, he made it feel like, this is a real thing, this is a real human person and I could do this, because he's done this and he's just a normal guy. And the way that he talks about words and language with such affection and he writes, take risks when he signs books. And I thought of that a lot when I was writing these books. And the catch cry for Nevermoor is ‘Step boldly’, and that's come direct. I just nicked up from John Marsden. I just reworded it.
Astrid: I love that so much. Have you read Alice Pung, who's of an age with us. Alice Pung on John Marsden?
Jessica: No. I never heard of this.
Astrid: Yes, it's an actual book and she reflects on how he influenced her writing and writing in Australia and…
Jessica: Oh, I have to read this. Okay. Thank you. I'm going to find that immediately.
Astrid: It's good.
Jessica: That's amazing.
Astrid: It's very good. Now, Jessica, you have had a wild ride in the last 12 months. I think it's fair to say that most debut authors don't end up where you are, with the publicity and the focus and the expectation from readers. What did that do to your actual writing? You had ten years through the first one, not so much with Wundersmith.
Jessica: [Laughter] Yeah, it's been interesting. And I guess I do try to speak pretty honestly about the writing of a book two. Because anyone who knows me, knows that it's been a tough year. It's so strange, because it has been the best year of my life, and the most stressful year of my life. It's brought so many good things into my world and so many good people. And that is genuinely, that's the thing that I'm most grateful for, because people talk about finding your tribe and I'm such an introvert. In my life I've always been the token nerd. I'm from the Sunshine Coast, everyone's tanned and beachy and athletic, and I am not those things. I was a kid who always used to sit in the library at lunchtime. So, it's kind of taken well into adulthood for me to really, 'find my tribe’. And it's really been the publication of this book and meeting the people who work at Hachette and my other publishers and my agent and other authors that has been that for me. And that's been the best thing that has come out of that, and it also has really smoothed out the worst thing. Because it has been hard and it has been stressful and it's...
People always say, ‘You have a lifetime to write your first book and then you've got six months to write the second one’. Well, I had a little longer than six months, but it was a difficult thing. It was something I'd never attempted before, writing a full book in such a short period of time. And it was huge challenge, and it messed with my head quite a lot. But I'm so lucky with my publishers. They are just the best people there and I go on about this all the time, and I must really bore people with it, but they are so kind and they are genuinely... People who work in publishing, they are there because they love books. It's not like any other industry where – no one's in publishing for the money – these are people who were there for the love of books and for the love of writing and language. And it also means that they get it, they get how difficult this job is. And that probably sounds kind of bratty and a little bit childish to say, ‘Life is so hard I'm an author’. I know what a privileged position I'm in. And I know how lucky and how blessed I am, to have had the journey unfold – journey, that is such a terrible word – but have things unfold as they have. But obviously, that comes with pressure and the people that I'm surrounded with my agent, my editors, every single one of them is brilliant and supportive. And I just couldn't ask for a better situation.
Astrid: I'm glad to hear that, because my next question is, do you know when you have to deliver the next manuscript?
Jessica: Wow. Funny you should ask. [Laughter] This maybe a conversation that's happening at the moment. Look it's a tricky thing with middle grade, because if I was a YA author, no big deal, right? We just push it out six months or we'll push it out another year. But with middle grade particularly, I think for the first three books you really do not want your audience to age out. And my aim has always been for these first three books to get them out every 12 months. I'm not promising that with book three.
Astrid: It's a great aim.
Jessica: [Laughter] I hope. But I think that knowing what has to happen in book three and knowing... I think for me at the moment, it's a question of, do I push myself to get out in 12 months and literally not speak to any of my friends for the next 12 months? Completely isolate myself, probably not really do any PR in that time. It would really be a question of like, I have to shut out everything in my life and not travel for work and not do the things that I've been doing this year. And that's a possibility.
I just want to make the decision based on what's going to get the book that I want to write? What's going to bring that out? Because I think having people wait a few months for the book to be as good as it can be and for it to be what I want it to be. It's probably going to be worthwhile.
Astrid: I think so. That's how we get to book nine.
Jessica: Right. Exactly.
Astrid: Having a great book three. A final question for you, Jessica. Obviously, your life has changed, but what advice could you give for writers who are where you were 18 months ago?
Jessica: I think that for anyone who is... I just spent the last decade. If you are that person who is working away at your book and you are hoping for a book deal, what I would say is, ‘Take your time, let it incubate’. The best thing that I ever did for book one was procrastinate. Genuinely.
I spent 10 years kind of being mad at myself. Being, ‘Why can’t I finish this?’ Because when I was 22 I was like, ‘I'm going to write this in six months, sweet summer child’. But if I had done that, it would have been dreadful, or not even necessarily dreadful, but maybe just mediocre, or maybe just not the book that it was supposed to be.
The best thing I ever did was take way too long to finish my first book, because it meant that incubated and it deepened, and it became much more sprawling and complex than it ever should have, because instead of getting into the doldrums of the book, where you think, ‘Oh I'm so sick of this, I don't know how to finish it. I'm going to go on to the next shiny new idea’. Every shiny new idea that I had, luckily seemed to fit in this world, through them all in. And it really did. It made it a completely different... Much more exciting, much more fun, much more complex book. So, I think that my advice would be, be patient which is so hard because 22-year-old me would not have listened to that advice.
Be patient don't get too caught up in putting a deadline on yourself, because this is the time where you should be making your book, the first book that you've ever written, the first book that you'll hopefully publish. Make it exactly what you want it to be. Make it as perfect as you can be, before you start bringing other people into the mix, because that's kind of where you make it your own, as Paula Abdul would say on American Idol. [Laughter]
Astrid: That is…
Jessica: That didn't go in the direction you thought it was going.
Astrid: It did. But that is…
Jessica: It ended up on Paula Abdul.
Astrid: That is perfect advice. Thank you very much, Jessica for coming on The Garret.
Jessica: Thank you so much for having me, it was fun.