Felicity Castagna on YA fiction, writing and a book she wishes everyone would read
I first met Felicity Castagna a couple of weeks before the launch of her first book, Small Indiscretions. That book of short stories inspired by her travels was so unique and so impressive that I reviewed it for the Singapore Review of Books. I am proud to call Felicity a colleague of mine at the Writing & Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. I have also watched her read/perform her work with Sweatshop. Felicity has just released her latest book, The Incredible Here and Now.
I thought I would ask her a few questions about writing, travel and career advice:
1. Tell us about your new book, Felicity.
My new book was inspired by a lot of the YA fiction I read as a young person. I lived overseas and travelled a lot during my younger years and because of this I got exposed to a lot of YA fiction that was quite different than what’s on the market here. In particular, I read a lot of Mexican-American YA, where the vignette form is really popular and I always knew I wanted to write something in that tight poetic form one day.
Working and living in the western suburbs for the past ten years has made me realise what I wanted to apply that form to, and that’s this community. The vignette form is a wonderful vehicle for forming a picture of a whole community because it mimics the way we understand places in a series of voices and images that, when combined, form a whole picture. I wanted to write about those ordinary-extraordinary things that I watch young people here engage in every day. Things like; break dancing in the McDonald’s parking lot at night, drooling at the Coke factory or cruising down the main streets slowly with their stereos blasting. The 15 year old protagonist Michael gets up to all these things and more as he hangs out with his mates at the charcoal chicken shop and hooks up with girls at the local pool. It’s a story that is very purposely local but I also want it to be a story where the ‘West’ becomes larger than one location, it becomes a place where stories are told about ordinary places that gain a legendary status through story telling.
2. This is your second book– how did the process differ from your first? Was there more anxiety? Was it more difficult?
The process of writing this one was a lot easier because I never really set out to write a book, I was just playing with the vignette form and bringing my experiments to my writers’ group. I kind of just played with these little stories until I realised that these little self-contained pieces could form a larger cohesive narrative if I put them in the right order and filled in some of the gaps in the narrative.
I think I’m more anxious about the reception of this book though, not really on a national scale but on a local one. I’m writing about the community I live in and that community is seen in different ways by those who live here. The western suburbs of Sydney is extremely diverse, not just because we have the largest number of different migrant groups or languages spoken in the country but also because it is a place of great social and educational disadvantage and also the heartland of the McMansion and the aspirational classes. People have all different kinds of beliefs and ways of seeing themselves. I have a very deep love and respect for the communities this book is set in and for the people who live here and so I wanted to write a book that, particularly, the young people in this community could be proud of but I know that at the end of the day it’s just not possible to please everyone. I had this constant conflict, particularly in the revision process, between wanting to show how great this place is and also wanting to explore some of the more difficult social issues we have in the west.
3. Tell us about a book that you wish everyone would read.
Michael Cunningham’s Flesh and Blood. It’s just a book with so much humanity. Not a whole lot happens but it’s such a tight, intimate portrait of the lives and relationships of the members of this one family, it’s completely riveting just because it brings you so utterly and completely into the characters’ heads and forces you to contemplate what it means to be a human.
4. What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to take the leap and explore their own creativity?
Don’t think just do. Later, when you’ve had a bit of practice you can refine your creative skills.
5. What is your favourite place in the world to travel?
Indonesia. I love the way it is so many countries within one nation. It just has such an incredible diversity of languages, landscapes and cultural practices.
6. What was a great gift – a break or a piece of advice - someone gave you early on in your writing journey?
I think the best piece of advice I got early on in my career was ‘Don’t tell the reader what to think.’ When you’re young and your writing skills are just beginning to be honed, you want to write about all those issues that make you passionate and you want others to be just as passionate about them, you have this driving urge to make the reader see the world and all its injustices exactly the way that you do but no one wants to be told what to think and readers will always resist having a message stuffed down their throats. Much later, I read an article by Shaun Tan in which he argued that the writer’s job is to offer the reader a perfectly formed question. That’s the antidote to telling the reader what to think. If you can make your work ask the right questions then you can make the reader come up with the answers themselves.
Buy Felicity's book and other great Giramondo titles here: www.giramondo.com
Have a look at her personal website here: www.felicitycastagna.com
Access the free National Curriculum focussed teaching program and resources for The Incredible Here and Now here: www.incrediblestories.net
In October Felicity is teaching a course on Shaping the Short Story at the NSW Writers' Centre. More details and online enrolment here.